Archery hunting, like life, is a game of intimate proximity. What you sacrifice without weapons of afar, you gain with sheer intensity. It’s easy to look at things at long distances. But when you come face to face with wild creatures, you see things that stick with you. You see yourself. And you see what may become.
This is especially true with elk hunting. You are attempting to kill an 800-pound animal with 500 grains of stick and blade. Some find this archaic. That’s because it is. But is it wrong to bridge the gap to our sustenance ancestors, hunting and living as they did? Or did they have a connection to this world that we are losing? Can we find it again, accompanied by our modern conveniences? Or is the mountain too far over the molehill? Can we no longer breathe alpine air without tasting the hint of coal-fired units? Beyond all of that, can reconnecting with an old friend bring light to eyes that have dimmed with the realities of human existence? And is hunting, perhaps, the best way to solidify this type of bond? I’m not sure I set out to answer any of these questions when I joined a high school buddy in the mountains of central Idaho, but some of them came to mind as the days went by.
I pick him up from the airport, and the gear is loaded. Soon, we’re on our way north, the chatter of elk hunting and the stuttering catch-up of our lives accompanying the siren sounds of my trucks tires as they jockey all other forms of mankind atop steel frames zooming faster than any animal can dream. Instantly, I know again why I called him friend, and we find our cadence with old stories and new ones to come. We’re both longer in the tooth. The topics have changed considerably. Instead of PlayStation versus Sega, it’s credit card versus debit card. Instead of Mr. Burger and Dr. Pepper, it’s steak recipes and good red wine. Girls have turned into women. Colleges have turned into careers. Adventures no longer loom as distant moons. They have been pursued, lived and landed upon. There have been consequences. Money has been lost. And gained. People have been hurt. We both have scars, and we gingerly discuss the wounds that caused them. We learn from one another. And as the tires sing, elk hunting remains our chorus. It draws us back from tangents. It strengthens us; keeps us on track. Onward. To a shared destination.
The first few days are tough. We don’t see a single elk or hear a single bugle. We scour mountainsides with our binoculars and spotting scopes. We hike ridgetops and call vividly into the timber canyons of unimaginable ravines, unwalkable vistas. And although he keeps his spirits high, commenting on the appreciation to merely see and be in elk country, I begin to feel a daunting fear for the lack of action. After all, I’m a guide. I’m supposed to know how to do this. And so, I feel a determination more severe than I would for any client.
I know this man. We shared answers in 10th-grade computer class. We caught bluegill off the spillway of our hometown lake dam, our pockets filled not with the kind of plastic that shoulders a magnetic strip, but the kind that wears the ink stain of Twinkies or Snickers. I made out with a longtime crush on his living room couch. He remembers my ACT score. These roots produce a tree that shadows us across every gully, supports our backs as we sit and glass and look for game.
When we finally find elk, we apparently find every other license holder in the unit. A stalk is ruined by a whitewashed mustachio in Realtree, bobbing and weaving through the trees like a goddamned 300-pound bumblebee. We dodge ATV’s, horse trailers and old blue Chevy’s. We pass tents pitched over our own boot tracks in the night. We summit peaks, hear bugles while we nap, are winded and beaten by wapiti, plummeted by rain, and humiliated by our own sore pinky toes and pitchy cow calling – (the last two owned solely by yours truly.)
With time running out, we violate a known hunting commandment. We leave elk. We choose solitude and low odds over competition. We talk about this. We find the same reverence in each other for the way things are hunted and killed. This endears us. And so, we hunt on.
In between morning and evening jaunts, we spend a lot of time driving and looking for new ground. “Juicy” becomes the moniker for perspective haunts. “Check out that north slope of timber. That looks juicy.” Or “Look over at those side hills with the open faces. Mmmm. That could be juicy.” And on and on. The hunt is filled not only with existential longing but also sleep deprived hilarity. One of us is prone to nosebleeds. The other, incessant snacking and blasphemy. All require paper towels and forgiveness. 90’s pop culture references fly like yellow jackets. There’s a story about flatulence during sex. A few more involving a ‘67 Mustang and the miracle of surviving our youth. We laugh until our bellies ache. We haven’t done so in years. We remember the way it was on the playground. We make a new one in the sagebrush and mahogany.
On the second to last evening, we find elk again, too high to chase until the next day. A plan is made and beer tops open prematurely. Among this group is a stud bull – the kind men dream about when daily responsibilities allow for that kind of dreaming. My friend is giddy, and so am I. The night is short.
Early morning of the last day of the hunt finds us panting up the steep pitch, straining for the sound of bugling as we pause our steps, the sucking sounds of our shallow lungs squeezed with all our effort to allow our ears full disclosure. Finally, we hear him. He’s heading right where we want him to.
We catch them in the timber. We tuck behind pine trees, watch cows feed at 40 yards. The wind stays true. The herd bull screams for his harem. We call back, and he walks in. 30 yards behind a tree and no closer. My friend draws his bow and strains, his arms quivering with sweet anticipation. We can hear the elk’s primal breathing. He can sense an otherness to his world. He walks away. I bugle. He bugles back and takes his cows deeper into cover.
We catch up with them again. Pieces of tan cape eke along fallen limbs and side cuts. He calls to us and we call back, some strange transfer taking place between the back walls of our aching throats, no distinction between two legs or four. While we sneak forward, we fail to adhere to another elk commandment: Beware the silent bull. A 6-point satellite nabs us red-handed, our boots in full stride, our backs crouched. My friend draws, but again no shot presents itself. The lessor bull walks away. But the dominant elk bugles beyond. The hunt continues.
We find him bedded with his cows. We spy his slouched belly against the damp earth, suffixed by his retracted legs. My friend stomach crawls onward. I call to the best of my ability. The herd bull bugles in his bed. I watch steam shoot out of his flaring nostrils, watch his women perk their ears to my sounds. He stands up. I rake a large branch against a dead tree, trying to sound like a worthy contender to his breeding rights. It works. He comes closer. He moves like a god ghost through spaces I cannot see with my mortal eyes. Suddenly, he’s in front of my friend. 20 yards. He searches for the beast he cannot see. My friend comes to full draw, raising from his knees with the stealth of younger legs than both of us own anymore. The bull peers savagely through the limbs of another pine. There is no shot. And the bull walks away.
We keep after them. The wind stays true. The herd bull moves his cows along but they are not spooked. I continue to bugle and he bugles back, mocking me with his superior form and grace. We make a loop, sprinting uphill, and catch them again in an open meadow running along the edge of a deep ravine. Cows filter in front of us at 50 yards. The king screams below them out of sight, his pitch coarse and high, like a sandpaper flute. I bugle again, this time with all the bellow of my most primal growl. He answers and comes in again. My friend goes to full draw for the third time. I’m ahead of him, kneeling, and I cock my head to the side of the broadhead, allowing him a clear lane. We watch intently. Antler tips soon stab the canopy of lightness and darkness. The herd bull creeps to the edge, only his head and neck peaking over the crease of the slanted timber and rolling meadow. His rack towers like some massive snake solidified in rivers of gold and bark. He’s one of the biggest bulls I’ve seen on public land. He summons a guttural appreciation. He has lived a thousand lives, survived a thousand enemies. The things he does and the actions he takes are not random body movements of chance. They are skills honed with the genes of his ancestors, the survival of his species. He makes my knees shake, my earlobes tingle. My friend convulses visibly, his broadhead drawing miniature circles beside my scalp. The bull is safe behind branches, and he knows it. He stares our way but sees no elk to match the calls, and so he cuts quickly to his left and herds his cows, his neck twisting in a hormonal begging, all heartbeats within range submitting to his dominance. Off they go again. Not spooked. But far from placid.
We almost quit. My friend lets down his bow. We smile to each other with unbelievable grins of wonder. Again, the wind stays true, like a gift from mother nature’s mouth. And so, we dog the elk further. They do not run. They only walk along the edge of tree and grass. I bugle as I hike, my breath short and pinched, my legs on fire. They are merely strolling. We are striding like mad goats. The cows sense us; know we are there. They accept us as a single, honest male, and maybe with the two of our virtues combined, we are. They walk freely and feed. We wait for mouths to stop chewing grass before stalking on. The herd bull bellows for us to follow him deeper. And so, we do.
We catch them once more in the swale of a thick patch of Aspens with a clear forest floor. We finally spook half of the cows, and they peel to the west like dignified soldiers allowing free quarter. The herd bull stops. This is where the final stand will take place.
I scream like a wounded knight covered in mud and want. He screams back and turns his body toward us. The image of his shoulders oscillating downhill as his tunneled brown mouth opens to unfurl his challenge talk is etched into my mind like a petroglyph in motion. My friend prepares himself to shoot. But soon, the bull hangs up, as they do. Again, he can see no body to match the calls, so he turns toward his cows to go away. 72 yards.
Quickly, I tell my friend to sprint ahead 40 yards. As he does, I backtrack a few feet and start raking another tree with a large stick. I keep my body out of sight, but make no effort to hide the moving stick, crashing against the tree, somewhat light in color, hopefully mistaken for an antler. The herd bull is pushed to his evolutionary limit. He turns his body 180 degrees. He heads downhill directly at me, bugling like a bastard demon intent to pass his genes into the next millennia, death or injury or famine be damned.
The arrow flies. A childhood friend from Texas stands behind the bow, watching his hopes sail like Columbus against an ocean made of western adventure instead of blue frontier. He came to Idaho to find the wild. He dreamt of it as a boy. He’s a hunter. I know this by the look in his eye when we talk of sunsets over fire-grilled meat taken by our own hands.
Halfway to the animal’s vitals, the arrow veers. I watch it miss the elk. Something goes wrong. Something unnatural happens.
We find the arrow buried in the rock and gravel and dirt. The bull bugles still, mocking us into the shadows. We walk after him, but he is now a vapor. We hear something in the wind. It sounds like him winning. We see something on the way out. It looks like him living forever.
Later we will learn the broadhead was loose. Taking an arrow in and out of the quiver causes this. Considering the fact that we called this bull in four different times to 40 yards or closer, and the fact that my friend drew his bow back four different times as a result (not to mention all the times he knocked an arrow) a loose broadhead is a likely culprit. It makes the arrow fly erratically when deployed. It spins unpredictably. It planes with its own mind.
On the way down the mountain, we stop to admire the view. Giant spires peer back at us across landscapes too distant to seem navigable. I feel for my friend. He is disappointed. And at the same time, ecstatic. He has experienced the epitome of archery elk hunting. I look down at my GPS. We’ve chased the bull and his cows over nine miles for over nine straight hours, not counting the hike in. Our bodies are spent and rapacious. Our minds are reborn and awhirl. We have lived among the wild things. They allowed us into their inner circle. This is the gift of the bow and arrow.
As we hike down, we laugh. At each other. At old jokes. At the beginning of something beautiful. Something that will span generations. Something that will bond us in the rekindling of boyhood dreams and spirits. A brotherhood. Melded by elk and the places they live. A friendship. Across mountains and time.