Some of you regular readers may know the esteem in which I hold my brother Barb. While you may have heard a disparaging word from me from time to time when referencing him in past stories, you know he is … well, he is my brother.
Fudge … I’ll have to a break here. Aye gosh but this is a rough start to telling a good and fun story.
OK, I’m back.
Being the manly man I am, it is challenging to be so transparent with my feelings. Being the honest man I am, and desiring to tell a well told story, I am so.
OK, let’s get to it …
One of the best days of my life was with Barb on a hilltop just off the Prairie Divide in the mountains of Colorado, west of Fort Collins. Barb, having shucked his socks and boots, was stretched out napping and I was hunting up manageable sized boulders to push off our hilltop in hopes they would make the meadow below. The pretense for our presence on this hilltop was elk hunting but we were both very involved in activities far from that. The afternoon was at once incredibly mundane and … satisfying. Such are my times with Barb.
While rolling boulders off the hillside, I pondered such life mysteries as to why uncles and aunts become less interested in nephews and nieces as they become older and what benefit to the ecology are turtles. I know not what my myriad of aunts and uncles are up to in their lives anymore and, though I frequently see turtles, never witness any meritorious behavior from them. Conundrums to be sure.
About the time I began wondering when something would spur my brother into action, for it was mostly Barb that was our initiator of fun, he asked in an angry voice what the heck I was doing. Having no reasonable answer, I did not respond but continued testing boulders with my boot in hopes of finding one I could roll about. When I next glanced his way I saw he had turned his head so he might watch my activities. Unashamed, I gave a boulder a last roll and down the hill it went. Barb had to shift himself in order to see the result of my efforts. He remarked that I was not making much change on the landscape and likely no one would ever appreciate my efforts. I replied something about classic art and artists.
As I gazed upon my handiwork, desperately trying to locate any one of the numerous boulder I had rolled down the hill, Barb was suddenly on his feet crouching like a wrestler and hissing with demanding urgency, “We’re hunting! We got a bull!”
My response was as one who suddenly realizes he is being watched in foolish behavior and shyly looks around for witnesses. Wide eyed I followed his gaze and found myself looking to an adjacent hill a mile or more from our vantage. That hill looked no different from the untold number of times I had peered at it from many other vantage points over the preceding days of our hunt. It was a dominant hill that could be seen from many locations within the ranges we were hunting. This was another occasion, for there have been many, when Barb demonstrated he was the more capable, and wiser, hunter. Not that he is a domineering sort of fellow or anything, but he is however a bit of compassionate dictator. Nevertheless, on this occasion he again showed his hunting prowess and once I raised my field glasses I located the two elk grazing that distant hill perhaps three to five hundred feet higher in elevation than our hilltop. Not only were there two elk there, at least one was a bull! We were hunting indeed!
For those of you reading that lean towards disparaging hunting and hunters … shut up. That argument is for another time. For those of you who have ever caught sight of game, when also holding a weapon, you know what happened to my heart rate and my emotions. Game on! Let’s move!
Unlike the day before, when we followed bear tracks across ridges crags, valleys and meadows in hopes of at least spotting a bear, here we had game in our sights, albeit a long way away.
Having learned to hunt elk mainly from Barb, I’ll point out here that while we were tracking the bear mentioned above, we indeed were still elk hunting. For elk hunting is done mostly by trying to find on which part of the mountain they are. So any activity that carries you through the mountains also provides you the opportunity to scout for sign of elk. Elk, unlike whitetail, tend to move in herds and they travel great distances. Your typical first sign of elk is likely to be disturbed earth. An elk herd cannot move without leaving obvious sign of their presence. Hunting requires patience and attention to movement and sound. Following fresh bear track helped us in this regard, though neither of us had experience with what should be done were we to actually encounter one. It certainly helped keep us maintain that hunting edge though, as we made our way.
After throwing on his socks and boots, and with us both having donned packs and rifles, off the side of the hill we went doing our best to maintain a steady fast walk and not an all-out sprint. Fortunately our path down was at a point of the hill where it was transitioning from the north facing to east and where trees were first making an appearance. Thus provided cover, we were able to swiftly make our way down the hill.
For the unlearned, trees grow only on one side of the mountain. I know this quite well and I know, okay suspect, this has something to do with how much sun a particular side of a mountain gets. No matter.
Having made our way to the saddle between our hills we had some hundreds of yards to cross where me might be seen by the elk. We could not stop long enough to determine where the elk were so had to proceed as though we were always in plain sight. In this scenario elk hunting requires humility. You must humble yourself to the clownish looking behavior of acting “elk-like”. Acting elk-like involves bending at the waist while walking and swinging your free arm as though it were another leg. Sighting bull elk in the field is rare enough that this clownish behavior felt very un-clown-like and rather I felt very much the hunter. This day was a first for me. Never before had I sighted a bull elk in the field, much less while carrying a rifle!
Saddles are my favorite part of a range. They provide a vista from which game may be scouted and the majesty of mountains may be witnessed. From the valley, or lower saddles, one might spy an elk, mule deer, or a whitetail motionless standing in a saddle. When availed of this opportunity I can tell you from experience that it is … magical? In your mind’s eye you can see their very hooves while they stand silhouetted against a clear sky on that pinnacle. All animals demonstrate this capacity to simply watch for long spells without moving. Makes some wonder what they might be thinking. Hunters know … “they ain’t thinking nuthin'”. However majestic, they are dinner and must be kilt if you want to eat. For you sympathetic types, this goes for the meat you buy at the gettin’ place too.
Further to this, on the topic of mountain parts … for the uneducated amongst you reading, mountain tops are the highest hills, hills are places where you can only go down, saddles are between hills, and drains run off both sides of a saddle. A valley is where you find the creek and the way back to camp. For the uninitiated, DO NOT try making your way back to camp any way other than by the creek. In the end it will take you longer going another way and may be dangerous to boot. Stepping down from my high horse …
Once located, elk are not hard to get close to if you control your excitement and are deliberate in your movement. On this day we were lucky in our position and the availability of a ridge on the far side of the saddle laying between us and our quarry, for we were not particularly in control of our excitement or our movement. But close to our elk we were soon to be! Holy cow! Uh … I mean bull!
Have you ever seen a kid get so excited they lose their mind and start running wildly? Maybe they even run into things that are in plain sight. Such was the excitement I felt. I felt compelled to aimlessly run around shouting like a knucklehead! But Barb was steady and enabling me with heart thumping in my chest to stay close at his heels!
There have been times I wondered if he, Barb, was really all that he seemed. You know the guy that talks a good game but folds like a girl when the going gets tough? Never in my life have I seen my brother thrown. Okay, there was that time in Simington he got thrown by a bull, but that’s a story oft told, but yet written.
Having made our way up the ridge to about the same elevation as the hilltop from whence we started our stalk, Barb silently indicated we should ease our way into the trees and over the ridge for a looksee. My position was a bit higher than his and, his being already well into the trees, the hillside the elk were grazing came into his view before mine. He waved me off going deeper into the trees and indicated we needed to go higher. Well shuck me running! Didn’t even get to see ’em! Back we go to our hunched over elk-like stalk moving up the ridge side.
When next we took a peek on the other side of the ridge, we were on the same elevation as the elk, and they were still grazing the hillside! My having played first base came in handy as I deftly caught my heart as it jumped out my chest!
Our elk were at two hundred fifty to three hundred yards with their heads down grazing. My bull, I say “my bull” ‘cuz this was Barb putting me on a bull, had good sized antlers and, as it turns out, six points on one side and seven on the other! His companion was not to be seen.
Lest you get the wrong impression of our position, let me draw you an image. My shooting shoulder is lust above my left arm. Looking up the hill, my shot was to my right. Sharp shooting is not a skill in my toolbox and so an offhand shot without a rest was out of the question. After finding a good vantage from which to shoot, I sat my butt down. No one sits down with their feet pointing up hill without rolling ass over heels, so my feet were pointing downhill. This put the elk to my left. Nice shot for a right hander which, as mentioned earlier, I ain’t. This meant I had to turn around and knell on the upward facing hillside to attain a suitable shooting position. Grabbing a smallish tree trunk I fashioned a shooting rest of sorts using my forearm.
Now in position to shoot I took aim. As I struggled to get my breathing under control, Barb hisses, “Don’t shoot!”
With my arms tired from the strain of excitement and from holding the rifle at shoulder height, it was a relief to hear those words, and I lowered my rifle. Again, for the inexperienced, try holding a three to four foot treated four by four at shoulder height for a full minute and then act like you are going to shoot something with it. Good luck with that shot!
Quizzically looking at Barb for explanation, I found him pointing further up the hill from my bull. The reason for his missive became clear when I spied the missing elk. Turns out, it was another bull! A twofer! Now what?
Creeping up closer to my position and pointing to the other bull, Barb uttered, “After you shoot I’ll shoot that guy.”
So I resumed my awkward shooting position and again began working on my breathing. It was soon apparent my breathing and excitement would not be totally controlled so I took my shot. The hit had little appearance of hitting the bull though I knew my aim was on target. Knowing a single shot kill on a bull elk was rare, I shot again. My second shot was followed closely by one from Barb, who it turned out was shooting my bull as well. Down he went!
That Barb shot at my bull was not at all surprising to me. Many times had I listened to stories of bull elk running off with multiple well placed bullets in their body. The rule of thumb is, “Keep shooting ’til they drop.”
Barb turned his attention to his bull and took a shot. His bull not immediately going down was, to my excited mind, reason for my shooting at his bull too! In my excited state I took an unwise, and as it turn out, an unnecessary shot. We had two bulls down!
For the type of hunters I tend to spend time with, the excitement of hunting is dampened by the kill. Killing is not the sport. Getting yourself to the circumstance and place of the kill is what’s thrilling. That’s why it is called “hunting”, and not “killing”. So it was with muted excitement, camaraderie and respect that Barb and I first hugged, then shook hands.
Shaking hands, for men of our ilk, transcends time from when early man first used an outstretched hand to show no mal-intent as they approached one another. The shake was the first communication between equals. For it is in the shake that future intent is indeed communicated. How long the shake, how firm the shake, even the vigor of the shake, all contain important messages. Customs associated with the “shake” are known well by all men, not unlike the way rules associated with peeing when around other men are observed and well known. More on these topics can be found in another story.
Successful hunters do not immediately go to a kill even when their quarry is lying, apparently dead, in plain sight. Many are the inexperienced hunters who have gone home empty handed as a result of spooking a wounded animal that jumped and ran on their approach. So we sat down and talked of the hunt. We talked of our excitement. We laughed at our elk-like stalk across the saddle. We cried from emotions, whose source and intensity were mysterious. We looked at one another. Our gaze was open, apparent, clouded, unknowable. We were truly “with” each other. We were together as we had been as boys trailing our father through the woods in our early years. Oh, our father. Were he only here!
Dang it! I’ll be right back …
Okay, I’m back.
Our father, who has since died, was not with us on that trip, but that did little to dampen our spirit. Such is the nature of selfish children, as judged by this parent.
After time to enjoy a good cheap cigar, which are the best by the way, and more excited talk about how we were going to manage having two bulls down, we gathered our gear and headed off. Now in the mountains it is unwise to take a beeline to your destination, as this requires much up and down walking. While more time consuming, it is more efficient energy wise to maintain elevation. In order to get where you are going and maintain elevation you must walk in towards, and out from, the mountain. And so we did until at last we emerged into the open hillside where our elk lay.
Here were our immediate results …
Me with my elk:
Barb with his elk: http://1drv.ms/1DrI59k
Well … for me this has been both a fun story to write, and an emotional one. Seems I cannot talk about Barb or our father without getting emotional. Blessed and Highly Favored by our Heavenly Father am I!
Later I’ll follow up this story with how we got those elk off the mountain and in our bellies, but for now, it’s “so long pardners!”