My husband and I were archery hunting as the sun peeked over the mountain giving every leaf the glowing colors of early autumn; glistening off the frosty dew; lengthening the shadows of the timber. Donned in our camouflage, we hoped to be invisible to the elk we were hunting. We sat in Porcupine Meadow. Quills of elk trails led to and from the lush creek bottom that wound through the valley floor.
A few elk began their cautious descent into the valley. These were cows. Last year I had a cow tag and I only saw bulls. This year I have a bull tag. I let down my bow in disappointment, but watched with amazement as the massive creatures lowered their heads to graze, their eyes glowing in the morning light. The elk took turns grazing so that many eyes could keep watch over the herd. The animals continued to saunter and feed across the meadow before disappearing into the timber along the east end, becoming shadows once again.
My husband asked if I wanted to trek up to Sagebrush Meadow. In the Wind Rivers, everything is a steep incline or rugged decline. Sagebrush was another long hike up the corresponding hill. “I’d rather hunt the Quakies,” I answered, referring to the stand of aspen trees we’d passed through in the dark.
“On the hour,” my husband said to me. “Keep your radio on channel six.”
“Every hour,” I replied as he disappeared into the thicket where the elk had gone, I smiled. I’d rather hunt on my own terms. I pushed the button to turn on my radio, checked the volume and then started treading on the heels of an old elk trail. Leaves crackled beneath my feet as I tried to step as softly as I could. I caught a glimpse of gray fur behind a tree about 70 yards to my right. Crouching in a tribal squat, I removed my cow call from my vest pocket and slowly brought it up to my lips as the elk’s head turned towards me. It was another cow. I sat motionless, hours transcending into mere moments, watching while she wandered through the forest.
I saw no more elk, but as I crawled through the trees I realized why my husband enjoys hunting. The sunlight dissolves within shade and blooms in glowing colors as golden flaxen of the aspens contrast with emerald green of new growth. The faded wildflowers and forgotten leaves add tints of yellow and orange to the forest floor. The air is peaceful. The wind chimes through the leaves and creates a rhythmic rustling carrying scents so fresh any animal that passes through can be detected. Elk leave a strong odor of musk. Bear traces are more like dirt. Raccoons have a rotted stench.
Suddenly, my radio clicked three times; the signal for elk. I pressed the button on my receiver as I pulled the radio from my belt. “I got one,” my husband’s voice said. “That’s the good news.”
“And the bad news?” I answered.
“He ran off. I’ve got to blood track him,” he told me. I sighed, wishing I’d stayed with him. He always finds elk. Why didn’t I go with him? While my husband relayed the details of his hunt, I relaxed. I realized that if I’d been there, he would have let me shoot, and that would have changed everything. The situation was better this way. I had faith in his abilities to track a thin trail of blood, even spots. He was an expert while I was still a novice.
“Meet me back at camp,” I said. “I’ll have dinner ready when you get there.” As the sun set slowly behind the mountain and the foliage became incandescent, my thoughts wavered between reality and imagination. He’d found the elk and began to quarter it. But how could he quarter it in the dark? He’d have to hang a flashlight in a tree. It’s easier when you have two people. We still have to run home to get the horses to pack the elk off the mountain. I glanced at the time. Quarter after nine. A shape appeared in the darkness. Ross was trudging into camp.
“I couldn’t find the elk,” he began his tale. “I saw it several times, but it kept running.”
My husband told me that at first he spotted the bull elk standing alone, one step outside the cover of the trees surrounding Sagebrush Meadow. It turned broadside; giving him what he thought was a clean shot. He drew his bow. The arrow sailed. In the second that it took the arrow to burrow in the elk’s body it had turned away from him. He thought he’d made a clean kill. He ate a candy bar while he waited until it was time to start trailing.
After searching for two hours, he realized that the animal was mortally wounded, but missing. By this time he’d traveled down the trail into Pencil Meadows lunging over a section completely void of color containing deadfall–what we call the dark forest–and just to the edge of a tree lined pasture. The darkness permeated the foliage making tracking an impossible task.
“I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” he told me as the smell of sausage drifted. The dawn littered through the dirt-spotted windows of our camp trailer. We ate breakfast intermittent with dressing. We gobbled scrambled eggs while putting on our pants; nibbled venison sausage in between sleeves; and chugged orange juice while stuffing our packs.
Returning to the point where Ross had last found evidence of his elk, we found the blazing-orange tape he’d tied to a limb. My husband began moving slowly, examining the ground, probing every leaf for indication of the wounded beast. “Blood,” he said. “He went this way.” We traced the elk by his tracks for another 30 yards, but then the footprints disappeared. “Hair,” Ross said as he tugged at a limb.
Stopping only for a short lunch, we continued this scrutiny toward Table Meadows, about three tedious miles from where he’d started the day. Elk travel anywhere and through just about anything. When an elk is hurt like this one, he tries to rub his wound against newly grown trees, which helps in the pursuit. The last spot he’d wiped left a broken branch prickled with crimson. At last we discovered the elk, down amidst the broken limbs. He’d bedded in a miniscule grove of freshly sprouted evergreens.
Ross said grim-faced, “Let’s get him quartered and go gather the horses.” I rested on a rock, stroked the elk’s soft, grizzled fur with my hand, and sighed. “You should always feel bad when you kill an animal. Because if you don’t, you’re just a killer, not a hunter,” he told me as soft tears flowed down my cheek.
In the midst of the Wind River Mountains, there’s a man who will strive to do anything to retrieve a wounded animal. He’s a hunter, yes, and sometimes he’s the one who causes the pain. However, he also has a heart, which sometimes breaks.