Thanksgiving Gift


When I’m hunting elk or deer, it usually takes me a little while to get into the “silent running” mode.  That would be the part where I creep along at a snail’s pace, sweeping my eyes over the woods around me for a tawny patch of rump, the wiggle of a fuzzy ear or the glint of an antler in the sunlight. Each step is carefully planned and placed so that not a twig will be snapped if it is humanly possible to avoid it.  What generally happens is that I go into the serious hunter mode after I have stumbled into the only elk I will be seeing on a particular day. Most often, I happen upon those elk at about the same moment that I have determined that, for one reason or another, I will not be seeing any game at all.

That’s what happened on Sunday, when, ten minutes after I had stepped out of the truck into an absolutely spectacular late-fall morning, I happened to catch a glimpse of a bunch of elk, moving quickly away from my loud and stumbling form. In the thick brush, I had to crouch down to see a collection of legs and rumps hurrying off down the slope into a snarl of dark timber. I got the make, but I couldn’t get the model on any of them, and wouldn’t have had a clear shot if I did. After I saw those elk, I became a quiet, stealthy hunter real quick.

I hadn’t expected to see anything at all.  Friend Mike and I got a late start and didn’t even get to the place we intended to hunt until mid-morning. But there wasn’t another soul in the area when we got there, which can be a good, or a bad sign, depending on your point of view. We chose to take it as a good one. It’s always nice to have the place to yourself, whether there is game in the offing or not.

Two or three hours was all we had so we hurriedly made up a little scheme where we would hunt in circles in opposite directions, with the ultimate goal of swinging back toward each other, and just maybe chasing an animal or two in each other’s direction. I don’t know about you, but those plans never work for me. Somebody always ends up going off in an unplanned direction for some reason. This time it was me, following what may, or may not, have been the tracks of the elk I had seen.

The snow was long gone in the place we were hunting, so when I saw those elk, I began to try to make sense of where they had gone by finding places where they had kicked up the dry, pine needle duff as they hurried away. When you are working in an area that has had more than a few elk pass through, tracking them under those conditions is not a particularly exact science, at least for me.  I could have gone off in almost any direction and followed sets of elk divots. But I chose to believe that the divots I was intent upon were the freshest.

Once I am locked in on something like that, everything else, every care, every worry, every thought that does not relate directly to the place and the elk, is suspended. The minutes fly by, and the hours are gone so quickly that it is hard to believe when I glance at my watch and note that my day is almost done, when I thought I had only been at it for a little while.

For that short time, I take temporary ownership of the little patch of the world that I am searching for game. Uphill and down, weaving through deadfall, around rock slides, slowly, cautiously, I make my way over the land drinking in the feel of it under my feet, and the smell of it. The lingering musky scent of elk stops me every once in a while, but in the light, shifting breeze, the smell just teases me, then disappears.

Twice during the few hours of hunting, I hear coyotes join in a frantic yipping chorus. At least I think they are coyotes until I hear deeper, longer notes that are unfamiliar. I don’t know the first thing about wolves, including how they sound in real time, in the real world, but I find myself wondering if I am hearing wolves celebrating a fresh kill. My imagination runs with that one, and I begin to think about what a wondrous thing it would be to actually see a wolf in that place.

Both times I heard the howling, a whiff of elk brought me back to the business at hand.  The second time, the whiff of elk was accompanied by a movement caught in the corner of my eye. Slowly, I turned my head to see what it was. A pileated woodpecker swooped silently to the base of a great old ponderosa snag, and began sizing up spots to dig away for bugs. In a moment, the “tap-tap-tapping” began in earnest.

That gaudy red woodpecker is such a stark contrast to the muted browns and yellows of the day that it takes a moment to register as a real bird. It also causes me to look at my watch and note that it is time to get back to the truck.

On the way home Mike and I talked about the coyotes we had heard, and speculated about the possibility of wolves. We talked about elk and deer and the country that were driving through, and we talked about how lucky we are to live where we do.

There are lots of good reasons to be thankful for the blessings of this life. There are family, friends, and moments of peace and happiness when they come. And there is, right up there among the good things, the chance to have a piece of wild country to yourself for a few hours on beautiful November day.

Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Pingback: Welcome To My New Blog | Montana: An Embarrassment of Riches

  2. Greg, I’ll miss your mug in the paper, but am glad you’ll continue doing what you do so well. Turns out there’s life after being a newspaper columnist and I look forward to reading all about yours. May your lutefisk be translucent and your lefse be buttery. Thanks for all your good work in print and life.

  3. Greg- While I was busy reading it looks like our good Mayor was busy writing. Obviously Engen and you have a bunch in common, starting with, “I was born a Norski!” I will echo John’s words–he is more eloquent than I–but will add my own sentiment that I am glad your renderings have graced our community these past years and thrilled about your literary equivalent of venturing into a new drainage. Good hunting!

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