What’s not to like about a September backcountry elk hunt?
Aspens, cottonwoods and mountain maples are dressed for a parade, showering gold and red confetti on the world. Mountain streams run clear and cold, laughing their way toward a winter vacation on the seashore before winter can freeze them in place. Beneath their swirling waves prowl trout, attacking every bug and minnow they see, fueling up before the coming fast.
You ride or stride into this glory land, stale from a summer of office work and backyard barbecues, baked and desiccated by the August sun but primed by months of dreaming. That first crisp dawn at the trailhead, the wet grass sparkling like Christmas wrap, the air so sharp you could shave with it… That moment brings you fully awake, fully into the new season, back into your life. This is you, the real you, and this glorious landscape before you is you reward for months of patient slaving. You’ve earned this and now, by God, you’re going to take it, grab it by the horns and hang on for as long as you can.
Up on the slopes elk are trumpeting their virility, reassuring their cows and daring other bulls to question their rank. Try me if you can, they sing. I’ve got 12 daggers here says you can’t do it. Some will try anyway, risking gouged eyes, punctured necks, broken bones and even death for a chance to rule the roost. Bones clash, hair flies, blood flows. Sixteen hundred pounds of passion and fury plow up meadow turf as contesting bulls throw their weight around. And weight is usually what wins, antlers often overrated as predictors of muscle, stamina and the enthusiasm to back them up.
Harem “ownership” is mostly wishful thinking, a revolving door that may see as many as four or five bulls ushered through it. Burning their rut candles at both ends, each stud in turn wears down and surrenders when a fresher bull challenges. It’s Nature’s way for keeping the genetic pool circulating. But each bull must continue to call, continue to invite competition or his cows will drift away. So the bugling whistles ring from the high mountain meadows and forest, surging at dawn and dusk, raging deep into the night, continuing late in the mornings, erupting in the middle of the day at the rut’s peak.
This is what pulls us up those mountains, lures us on and then, sweaty and worn, tempts us down into dark dark canyons where hemlocks and spruce stand in hallowed groves cloistering dark pools rimmed in pocked mud, waters roiled and murky from the harem master’s recent bath. A red squirrel erupts like an alarm clock. A branch snaps. A big branch. And we hold our breath, clutch our rifle or raise our bow.
This is what we live for. Our annual backcountry elk hunt. Our big slice of sanity.
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