I’m too old for this.

That is exactly what I was thinking last Sunday morning while picking my way carefully up a steep and rocky streambed. Footing was difficult. My path took a sinuous route weaving back and forth across the little creek, every step among loose and slippery rocks requiring conscious placement. Downed logs frequently blocked the way, and I sometimes had to climb out of the creek bottom and around the log to get past it. In other spots, I was able to crawl beneath or straddle the log and sort of roll across it. My beat-up knees complained loudly to me with each step.

My route would take me roughly two miles along the stream to a faint hint of an ascending finger ridge. There I would leave the stream and hunt my way up another thousand feet through some great elk country before topping out and perhaps running into one of my hunting companions.

At least, that was my plan.

There was just the little matter of the weather that I had not factored in to my personal equation for the day.

It’s not that I didn’t have fair warning. “Snow, arctic outbreak in forecast,” blared the Missoulan headline on Saturday morning. The mild autumn days we had been enjoying were expected to give way to rain, wind, snow, and bitter cold, and not necessarily in that order.

Even so, my niece Jenny and her son Will, elk camp first-timer Elrod, and I had all been excited and enthusiastic about the hunt when we gathered at camp Saturday evening. Saturday, you may recall, was a beautiful, blue-sky day. Just the kind of day that makes you excited to see what the next one will bring.

Elrod, by the way, was duly impressed with the setup at elk camp, which I am sometimes tempted to rename Sparky World. That’s because most of the niceties related to camp are the results of Sparky’s ingenuity. The very nicely-appointed shower just a few steps from the door of the tent may be his crowning masterpiece, but there are also the combat-grade tarpaulin that protects the entire canvas wall tent, the state-of-the-art wood stove that replaced the leaky, folding pack stove we used to depend on for warmth, the wood rick that doubles as platform to hold a five-gallon water jug, and, oh, yes, the prayer flags that flutter on the guy line above the front flap, visible from the road a quarter mile away. Sparky and Walleye, my partners in the camp, had home duties last weekend, thus making camp available for our little group.

“Do you really use that shower?” Elrod asked in disbelief.

“Some of us do. Sparky and me, anyway. Walleye hasn’t used it yet, “ I replied.

During dinner, we sketched out a plan for Sunday’s hunt.  We planned one of our standard assaults on the elk country above camp with hunters converging on a spot where elk are known to cross from one little drainage to another. The hope, of course, was that if one of us moved some elk around, the elk might just head straight for the other hunters. Simple enough.

When Elrod stepped out of the tent on Sunday morning to assess the weather, he came back in quickly.

“Man, those clouds are really moving up there this morning. Something’s coming our way pretty quick,” he warned.

The weather came a couple of hours later when we were all toiling along on our separate paths toward the place where those paths might converge.

I heard the approaching wind before I felt it. The noise rumbled off the rockslides and slopes above the little creek where I was moving along ever upward. It reminded me of the sound of one of those bombers that used to come over us while pheasant hunting east of the mountains, except that the sound did not come and go in an instant. Instead, the rumble kept building until it became a fierce, relentless wind.

Trees along the creek and up the steep slopes began to wave wildly. The wind was now punctuated with the cracks and pops of stressed fiber, branches, and twigs breaking away as the trees were rocked violently.

It didn’t take long to realize that I was not in a good location for such a wind. The number of great trees, uprooted and spanning the little canyon, was a testament to that concern. So, with each step I not only watched where I put my feet, I also looked up to size up which tree might potentially come crashing down on me and where I might run to escape it. Of course, I also realized that the notion of running was a bit wishful. “Scramble out of the way” would be a more appropriate way to think of it.

I became much more concerned about the present danger than about keeping my eye out for movement or elk shapes. Soon, it dawned on me that it might be safer on the slope above than down in the creek bottom. The diameter of the trees would be smaller, and there was room to move on the elk trails that crisscross the slope for nearly a thousand feet to the ridge top. I left the streambed and began to climb.

And it started to rain.

The din of the forest shuddering in the wind continued as I climbed, but when I looked up to the over story to assess the danger of falling trees, I was relieved to see that trees were spaced well enough that I would be able to scramble out of the way if one fell.

That’s when I saw the elk, and all other concerns fell away. Two cows stared down the slope at me from perhaps seventy yards. They certainly couldn’t hear me or catch my scent with the wind heading away from them. But they did see me, and they watched curiously for the moment. I could see flashes of the tawny sides and creamy rumps of several other elk in the brush.

I raised my rifle to my shoulder to examine the elk through the scope and tried to determine whether there was a bull in the bunch. I had no cow tag, so I needed antlers with brow tines. I couldn’t see any antlers in my scope. But the proximity of elk had me on high alert. My heart was beating so loudly that I thought someone standing next to me might hear it.

Then the elk, apparently satisfied that I was not something they wanted to be associated with, hurried off up the slope and away from me. I, in turn, began to climb more quickly, hoping to get ahead of them and cut them off as they crossed the ridge high above.

Rain continued. Wind continued. And my way finally leveled out. I walked through patches of snow with a week’s worth of old elk tracks, but no sign of the elk I had seen.  I tiptoed back and forth from one side of the long, relatively flat ridge to the other. On either side, I could look down through the tangled forest where elk could be, just out of view.   I am not a fan of hunting in cold, sleety rain, but I figured I needed to keep going in case our strategy actually worked.

Time flies when you are elk hunting, even on those cold, wet, windy, and generally miserable days when you wonder if you are getting too old for the whole deal. But as morning slipped into early afternoon, those thoughts had blown away with the wind.

Even so, I was tickled to see a couple of hunter orange stocking caps bobbing my way through the forest. I knew it was Jenny and Will.  There were three big grins when we got close enough to see each other’s faces. We swapped stories, and later,  when Elrod joined us, we told them all again.

Too old for this? Not a chance.

1 Comment

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