by Gary Carlton of Comanche Creek Llamas
The faint tones of orange and grey in the eastern sky hold the signs of the first morning light. I was perched a hundred feet or so off the valley floor at the head of a long gulch in mid-November; the thermometer back at camp read a brisk twelve to fourteen degrees below zero when I had left the warmth of my tent an hour before.
I was sitting at the base of a large tree that a friend and I had nicknamed “Hawks Roost.” Its limbs and top had been taken by fire many years before my arrival on this earth and its grand trunk and large roots extending a foot above the ground made for a fine seat and a good windbreak from the stiff breeze that was blowing from the northwest. The ten inches of snow on the ground made everything visible in the early morning light. I would remain here for several hours until my frozen hands and feet could take it no more.
As the day progressed and the sun begin to rise, I watched a half-dozen doe deer and a large buck feed their way through the valley and a coyote scamper along the ridge looking for a meal before settling into its den; no elk would be seen on this day.
As I made my way back to camp later on that morning, the sun had warmed the crisp mountain air to a comfortable fifteen or twenty degrees and a beautiful day was in full swing. The birds were out singing as the gentle tones of the river below sent all of my aches and pains flowing away. The smell of wood smoke sent a cold tingle down my spine; I knew warm hands and a hot meal were only moments ahead. After settling in for a brief afternoon nap, my mind and body were recharged and ready for the evening hunt.
After several days of slowly walking the rims of the seemingly endless mountain valley that I have adopted as my temporary home, my thought process begins to take on a less intelligible form, changing to one more of basic necessity, keeping warm, getting enough to drink and eat and having enough rest. I become less of an intruder and start to simply co-exist with my surroundings. Although I am still the hunter, I am acting more and more like the hunted; keeping the wind in my face, the shadows at my back, and using the foliage cover to move within the forest. I am giving less thought about the time, and concentrating more on the time of day as to how I will travel within the timber.
The next day and a half brought in a large storm from the west, laying down another six to eight inches of snow on the ground and, with its passing, I find myself in what would end up being the right place at the right time. The clouds begin to part, giving way to a deep blue sky and a bright warm sun that had not been seen in two days. A celebration begin to erupt in the forest. The squirrels were chattering and telling of the news, and one by one the animals of the valley stretched their legs and were coming out to feed. As the crows were circling above, the first two elk came into my view.
They were five or six hundred yards down the ridge and moving out into the open meadow to feed on the tips of bunch grass that were sticking up through the newly fallen snow that covered like a blanket. I could see more elk just inside the timber’s edge and I decided to move down the ridge in their direction for a closer look.
As I worked my way out of the timber, about a hundred yards from where I had last seen the elk, I noticed five more were out in the open, three of which were very close. One of them was a fine bull with five points on one side and six on the other. His horns were almost black in color with ivory white tips. He had a very shiny, light tan body, making him almost translucent against the snow in the bright afternoon sun.
I settled in next to a tree to brace for a shot, when suddenly the wind changed directions, blowing straight at the elk from my position. The cows begin circling with their nose in the air. Knowing something was wrong, the bull shot forward like a freight train. He disappeared into the timber before I could even release the safety from my rifle, and in just a moment’s notice the opportunity was gone.
I sat there for a while, thinking about what had happened as the sun faded over the mountaintop. Darkness began to take over the valley and the day was quickly fading into history. I would not find another bull elk on that trip and have since given a lot of thought to what makes a hunt a success.
I miss the bone-chilling cold stinging my face like a million bees and splitting wood at my camp for a fire. The llamas kushed around my camp site contently chewing their cud as if they had lived there forever. The lonely whistle of the wind passing through the leafless trees. The chipmunk, who has a way of showing up at dinnertime for a hand out. The thrill of setting up the camp and the sadness of taking it down at the end of the season.
All of the soul-searching you do while days alone in the field and the things you learn about in the process of day dreaming about things that matter little anywhere else in the world, and I realize that taking an animal is only a small part of the reason I hunt...