IN SOUTHWEST MONTANA – This was our fourth day at almost 9,000 feet and we had been into elk since sunup. We were bow hunting and every day we had seen elk, some at a distance. This morning for perhaps an hour we had called to three bulls, maybe four. The animals were a few hundred yards away in dark timber and had bugled back aggressively. Also a harem of cows of unknown number responded when we mimicked their calls. Hours earlier, long before daylight, we had crawled from our tents, lighting a Jetboil for hot water, from which we made coffee, and the coffee along with an energy bar apiece was our breakfast. The temperature was in the mid-20s.
We were about 6 miles into the mountains traveling by foot and backpack and we wanted to minimize the weight we carried. So for breakfast and lunch we had energy bars and for supper we poured hot water over dehydrated rice, noodles, beef and chicken; meals in foil pouches.
My son Trevor, 23, was along and also his friend, Alec Underwood, also 23. Both live in Missoula, Mont., although Alec grew up in upstate New York.
After finishing breakfast each morning, we extinguished our headlamps and also switched off a three-strand portable electric fence that surrounded our tents. I had rented the fence from an outfit in Alaska. This was elk country, which in this part of Montana made it grizzly country, and we hoped the fence would repel nighttime marauders while also allowing us some sound sleep.
Additionally we each carried bear spray, and we had a handgun, a 454 Casull.
“Let’s push down toward those elk,’’ Alec said.
“I agree,’’ Trevor said.
Perched about an hour west of Yellowstone Park atop a rocky precipice, almost a cliff, we had been pressing binoculars to our faces searching for elk in distant meadows, seeing none.
This was in the half-light of very early morning.
Below us somewhat and in the direction of the rising sun first one bull had bugled, then another and another. The elk weren’t far away. Using a call the size of a cheerleader’s megaphone Trevor bugled back. Quickly one bull responded and now we were moving in its direction, cross-slope down the cliff, our boots clawing loose rocks for traction, our heads low.
Two hundred yards distant, we stopped and called again. Also Alec broke off a tree branch about the length and circumference of a man’s arm and portraying himself as an angry bull itching to fight he swung the branch against a thick, tall tree and also raked it up and down the tree’s trunk.
Meanwhile I nocked an arrow and stepped ahead 50 yards, while Trevor bugled evermore loudly and gutturally, a roar followed by a scream and, finally, a series of grunts.
We wanted a bull to come to Trevor and Alec’s calling and en route clear itself in the thick timber so I could stick it with an arrow.
Whether that happened or not, this would be a one-bull hunt, we knew that, because if we killed a bull we would have to pack it downslope on our backs the 6 miles from our camp in a single trip along with our tents, sleeping bags and other gear.
The meat from a deboned 700-pound bull weighs about 200 pounds. Toss in 20 pounds worth of antlers and if we killed a bull we would have work to do.
“I think Alec and I can carry the meat and our personal gear if you can carry the tents and food and camp gear and your personal gear,’’ Trevor had said.
“We’ll see,’’ I said.
This was in mid-September during the height of the elk breeding and bugling season, and we were traveling entirely on public land far from anyone and by our own efforts alone we would kill a bull or not.
This was important to us. Hunting with a guide is OK. But sometimes while riding in the mountains on a horse behind a guide you feel less like a hunter than a tourist.
Anyway, our belief is that public land should be utilized, and should remain just that, public, notwithstanding the backroom deal-making in Washington that at times threatens otherwise.
“Use it or lose it,’’ Trevor says.
To stay cool we dressed as lightly as possible while hiking the vertiginous ascents and descents of the mountainous countryside.
Then in evening as the sun set we pulled on heavier clothes and ate our foil-pouch dinners while sitting cross-legged alongside our tents, talking quietly behind the bear fence.
Nearby, a mountain spring trickled, flowed and pooled endlessly, providing water.
Wanting to maintain a low profile we lit no campfires, and just before nightfall, following a flashlight’s beam, we toted our food pack a few hundred yards from our camp and swung it in a tree.
The pack held all of our food and we couldn’t afford to lose it to a bear.
By 8:30 we were in our tents, sometimes asleep but other times lying awake listening to the mountain wind or coyotes near and far, yipping.
. . .
Killing an elk with a bow isn’t easy and our generalized belief is that chance favors those who travel light and who are aggressive, meaning those who take the hunt to the elk.
That said, the bull I had hoped to kill while positioning myself 50 yards ahead of Trevor and Alec showed himself only briefly and distantly in the timber before disappearing.
Reconnoitering, then, and studying our handheld GPS, we believed the bulls that had bugled to us along with a harem of cows were holed up in a basin not far away, just beyond a nearby ridge.
While considering our options we stood for long minutes unmoving and listening intently amid the timber and surrounding mountains and beneath an endless blue sky.
Immersed in this beauty we were consumed by concentrated thought and physical challenge not otherwise easily achieved, and we couldn’t have been happier.
Again Trevor bugled and again Alec smashed trees and branches.
This time two bulls bugled back, maybe three. Elk stink, and these animals were so close we could smell them.
Trevor said, “Let’s climb into the basin.’’
Alec nodded and pointed to an upslope route to our left. Trevor preferred a path to the right.
Both have killed elk with their bows and both revel in opportunities to figure out these beasts, whose North American population was about 10 million before white settlement.
Now elk number about 1 million in the U.S., mostly in the mountain West, a population that is stable and even increasing, thanks to hunters’ conservation efforts.
“Let’s go left,’’ I said, pointing upslope.
The higher country was perhaps 100 yards above, and we ascended more or less in single file, with short footsteps separating us.
As we climbed, a bull revealed himself at the ridge top, startling us and bugling mightily, as if seeking a fight to the death. Brandishing tall, widespread antlers, the massive animal sidled businesslike downslope, toward us, on a track parallel to ours.
Trevor drew back his bowstring. Whether this movement froze the bull behind a clump of brush and trees was unclear. But the animal locked up about 20 yards upslope from me and to my left, and the same distance directly left of Trevor.
Obscured from our view, the elk didn’t move.
A minute passed, and more.
Struggling to hold his bowstring at full draw, Trevor braced his bow’s lower cam on his knee to relieve pressure on his arms.
If the elk turned to its right or back upslope, neither Trevor nor I could shoot. If however the bull continued downslope I could shoot, and if he turned to his left, Trevor could shoot.
The bull chose Door No. 4, and in the split second the animal passed in front of Trevor he aligned his bow and loosed an arrow, its broadhead piercing the elk behind the shoulder at 300 feet per second.
As if into the ether, the animal disappeared.
Meanwhile, two other bulls bugled nearby, wanting also to fight.
We could have called one of them in and arrowed him, too. Or so we thought.
But enough work lay ahead.
Piled up against the base of a lodgepole pine, Trevor’s elk was quartered, skinned and deboned in two hours. A grizzly or other scavengers would tear at the carcass soon enough.
For lunch we munched on energy bars. Then we closed the distance between the kill site and our camp, some 2 miles, one step at a time, with Alec and Trevor bending to their heavy loads.
. . .
In camp we boiled water and ate an early supper while hurriedly packing up. This was in midafternoon and already the sun angled toward the western horizon.
Alec and Trevor’s packs weighed more than 120 pounds when loaded with their personal gear and also the meat, and in their first attempts to stand up, they needed help.
“OK?’’ I said.
Alec was game, as was Trevor.
My pack was lighter by more than a third, but I also needed help getting up.
We planned to hike a couple of miles, set up camp and finish the trip to lower ground the next day.
Afternoon temperatures were in the 40s, and the meat needed to be in cold storage as quickly as possible.
Descending through dark timber, open meadows and across a small stream while balancing our steps with walking sticks, we intermittently collapsed to rest.
“What do you think, Dad?’’ Trevor asked as we lay splayed in the cool mountain air, taking a break.
“I see a cowboy with a string of empty pack horses riding toward us, looking for work,’’ I said. “Maybe also the Red Cross.’’
“You keep those thoughts,’’ Trevor said.
Amid evening’s lengthening shadows we dropped the packs a last time atop a broad open plain of short grasses. Alec and Trevor toted the meat bags about 800 yards further along the trail and hung them in a tree while I set up camp.
When they returned, as we strung the bear fence around our tents, a full moon rose between distant peaks, bathing the open plain in golden hues and also midnight blue.
Immersed in such beauty, and consumed by physical challenge and concentrated thought, we couldn’t have been happier.