My hunting costume was on before the kids were out the door for school. Carhartt pants issued from Teton County Parks and Rec in 1999, a base layer, a hoodie, a micropuff and the inappropriate red “fashion boots.” Online shopping is the pits. I didn’t mean to get them. I got bamboozled by Sierra Trading Post. On the screen, the boots appeared tall and warm with a flat footbed, like a pair of Vans. The boots that arrived were much more petite and fancy. They were city boots, not mountain boots. My others were kaput though, and I had already returned two other pair, so I had to roll with it. At least they were red.
In 2014, we moved 12 miles outside of town to a property at 8,000 feet right in the heart of Wyoming elk country. That first fall, I purchased a general elk tag. The kids were toddlers, and it was a terrific way to get out of the house without having to go anywhere. While I did get a good introduction to the lay of the land around us, I was not as committed to the hunt as I was to hiking with a rifle. We had elk in the freezer as my husband Jeremy harvested a bull during bow season. It was more of a lark than a hunt.
In November 2020, my children returned to their public elementary school after 18 months away. We homeschooled last year before Covid said we had to. The kids were in 2nd and 3rd grades and we took the year to adventure together. We pedaled ourselves on a bikepacking trip through Wyoming and Colorado. We hiked through the fall foliage in New England and camped in Acadia National Park. We marveled at the Grand Canyon and sweated on backcountry hikes in Sedona. When COVID halted travel in March, we continued to adventure together from home. We fished and backpacked and climbed up 11,000 foot peaks. We biked and paddled and helped Jeremy pack out his elk. Our local school offered in-person classes from the start of the schoolyear in August. While we were reluctant to return to the indoors in the early fall, once the days became shorter and colder, we made the decision to return to school in town on November 1.
Our morning routine got completely up-ended. Relaxed coffee drinking and book reading together gave way to a mad dash of breakfast-making, lunch preparing, folder checking, paper initialing, snack gathering, water bottle filling, dog and cat feeding, car starting, windshield scraping or snow shoveling, bundling, hugging, kissing, and waving good-bye…all before 7:20am. And then….nothing until 4pm. I knew I had to have something big to devote my focus and energy toward once they walked out the door in the morning.
When Jeremy asked last spring if I were interested in putting in for a late season cow elk tag, I said sure with an air of indifference. It had been six years since I gave it a go at elk hunting. Hunting had never felt like my thing. I had two successful deer hunts 15 years ago, when I was first on my own in this small mountain town. The year I shot my second deer was the year Jeremy shot his first elk. Once I got a taste for elk, I never desired to hunt another deer. For several seasons before our kids were born, I purchased elk tags and hiked around with Jeremy. I grew to love hiking through the darkness into day. I was never successful. I make a ruckus in the woods and according to my husband, do not have a quiet whisper.
Jeremy has become a mighty elk hunter. I have become a mighty elk butcherer, packager, and preparer…but not hunter. He was thrilled that I was going to give it another shot. He helped me pack my pack, sight my rifle, load my bullets, sharpen my knives, and share his OnX tracks. The rest was up to me.
The first week was all about reclaiming some fitness and reorienting myself with it all. The days were splendid and I hiked to the top of all the hills I could see. I practiced moving quietly through the timber and swiftly across the meadows. My shoulders ached from the awkwardness of carrying the rifle and my mid-forties muscles wagged their fingers at me for asking so much of them after so long. I pulled my rifle up on several bucks just to line myself up and consider what would make for the most stable shot. I learned the landscape. I grew in comfort and confidence throughout that first week of training.
Since the kids returned to school, I amped up both my yoga and meditation practices. The quiet that the children left behind allowed me to go deeper and stay longer in meditation than I have in quite some time. I hunted in the mornings, stretched and sat in stillness in the afternoons, and went back out in the evenings. I was beginning to become lighter and brighter by the day.
On the second Sunday of my hunt, there were several fresh inches of snow that fell overnight. Without the school day routine, I was out of the house while the stars were still sparkling. My first choice destination was covered in fresh grizzly tracks, so I went a mile or so farther and explored some new turf. The sunrise hike through the freshly fallen snow left me grateful and giggly. The alpenglow shining on the back of the mountain stopped me in my tracks. I was pleased with the morning hike when I hopped back in the buggy to head home.
As I drove back out, I came across a bunch of elk tracks that were not there when I drove in. I pulled over, investigated, tossed my pack on, slung my rifle, and followed the tracks. I stayed right with them for 1.5 miles of downed timber up to a slight ridge in the deep woods. There I found eight beds. I returned to the side-by-side with my head down.
On Tuesday of the second week, I left the house in the blue dark. I turned onto the dirt road and noticed I was the first one out for the morning. I cruised the familiar line of straddling the ruts as I hummed a happy tune inside my head. I think we noticed each other at the same time. They were up above me, around the corner, and on the go. I zoomed around the bend and shut the engine off. I grabbed for the range finder—it was attached to the pack! No problem, I knew they were close enough. I hopped out of the side by side with the rifle. I pulled it up and had a cow in the scope. I did not feel stable, and it moved. There were so many, but they were like one. They moved like a school of fish. I changed positions a billion times but couldn’t get myself adjusted quite right. I kept telling myself to chill out. I had the lead elk clearly in the scope, but it was a spike. I couldn’t get it all to line up. I wasn’t ready. I missed the opportunity to shoot an elk, but I relished the experience of being with a sea of them all alone in the transition of dark to dawn.
They scattered together; separate and synchronized at the same time. Poof —they were gone. I got back in the buggy and scooted to the far side of the meadow. I gathered my wits, my pack and my rifle, and pursued on foot. I followed the tracks for an hour, but never saw them again. How can 60 elk vanish into thin air…or thick forest? I worked up a soaking sweat and I was shivering, so I headed home. My body remained buzzed from the thrill.
On Monday morning of the third week, it was negative 5 degrees, and the snow was fresh, so all the tracks were new tracks. I spent the entire day out hunting. The temperature never rose above 7 degrees. I told myself I’d stay out till 4:45. By 4:15, I felt too cold to honor that last 30 minutes. I had been pacing back and forth for an hour or so on a hillside covered in icy beds from the night before. More than forty of them. I was hoping to catch the elk making their move back up the hill for bedtime, but I couldn’t stay out that long. On my way driving out, a local fella pulled over to glass for bucks. I zoomed by and smiled and waved.
The next morning I left the house before the kids. I wanted to be in the meadow at sunrise. Although it was a magnificent morning in the high country, I saw no elk. I cruised home earlier than normal. On my way out, I passed the same fella coming in. He stopped so I stopped.
“Are you looking for elk?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“They came out behind you last night. I tried to flag you down, but it was too late.”
“Shoot,” I thought. If I’d just managed to weather the cold for a little longer, I would have had a chance at them.
Over a foot of snow had fallen in the weeks since my hunt began, and the temperatures dropped significantly. My trusty costume was no longer serving me well. But like the fashion boots, online shopping for snow pants did not work out so well. The pants were too long and I struggled to figure out a way to hem them. It took me a couple of days, several failed attempts, thousands of pulled out stitches, and plenty of do-overs, before I got them all squared away. Living such an isolated lifestyle requires a self-reliance I did not know I had in me.
On Wednesday, I transferred the pink Starburst candy my son Devlin gave me for good luck from my Carhartt pocket to my newly hemmed and custom fitted snowpants. I finished my last gulp of coffee as the kids walked out the front door. I strapped the binocs to my chest, laced up my fashion boots, and headed to the garage.
I drove to a location I had not accessed yet. When I hopped out of the side by side, I noticed I had not bothered to trim the bright orange thread of my new hem job, and I winked at my fashion boots. In the past three weeks, I’d traipsed nearly 100 miles in those boots, leaving tracks in the snow and the mud every day. Up and down hills, through and around meadows, over downed timber, following game trails, making my own trails, and leaving behind a dainty narrow footprint, with tread meant for a slushy urban street. The deer, the elk, the bear, the wolf, and my prints are the only I’ve seen for three weeks.
While I post-holed up the hill, I brought it all together, the fitness, the yoga, the meditations, and the hunt. Typically, I have a couple of inspirational tunes playing in my head to give a little pep to my step. It wasn’t like that this morning. The morning held a tranquility I did not want to disrupt with “Eye of the Tiger” playing in my head.
My steps were more intentional and purposeful. My breath was in synch with the meditations. With each uphill step, I worked to dissolve my ego of all titles and become love. I felt peaceful and deeply connected. I did not truly expect that I would see those elk. I was just practicing outside what I practice inside.
When I did see them, my nervous system was calm, cool, and collected. I did not shake. I did not fumble like I did just a week before when I sat in a swarm of 60 of them.
I moved gingerly to an appropriate shooting spot. I chambered the bullet as I crossed the hill. I ducked behind two rocks, and pulled the bipods down. With ease, I removed the covers from the scope and peeked through.
My breath was long, deep, and steady. My mind was tuned in and focused. A slight smile breached the corners of my lips just before I pulled the trigger after the bottom of my exhale.
Three elk scattered up the hillside. Mine took a few steps and fell behind a tree. One stopped in a clearing and looked back at me. The sound of the bullet was still vibrating through the valley. I looked back at her and felt darkness shiver through me. Instead of emitting sorrow, I tried to shine gratitude. But I thought of the humpback whale that carried her dead baby for forty days, and that brought me sorrow, nevertheless.
I hiked down to the elk. I set my rifle against a tree and knelt down next to her. I laid a hand on her warm body and swelled up with gratefulness. I took a moment to just be there. That smile returned to the corner of my lips when I thought of my family at the dinner table together giving thanks for this elk over and over again.
Sitting still with her allowed me to shake off the shiver of remorse or regret. It was replaced with a sense of reckoning, and deep connection, and honor, and gratitude, and wonder, and awe, and nourishment, and abundance. Both sadness and joy existed not in conflict, but in duality.
I just made a pass by. I wasn’t 100% ready for what came next. I stopped attempting to regulate my nervous system by that point, so it was close to hay wiring! I walked up to a ridge where I could get cell phone service and I called Jeremy.
He said that he and Ian would come back out to help me pack the elk out to the side by side. I figured I had an hour alone before they showed up. I sent out two other messages, then went back down into the gulley.
My second approach seemed to hold less reverence. There was work to be done, and I felt up to the task. The temperature was pleasant enough that I could work without gloves. I pulled the knives out of the backpack, called on every anatomy lesson I’ve ever had, and got down to business. I had never quartered an animal before, nor ever seen it done. I’ve seen the end product for over a decade though, so I felt confident that I could figure it out.
I started with a front leg, and made quick work of it. So I went for the second. Easy enough. I found nerdy pleasure in seeing actual synovial fluid drip from a joint once I severed the ligaments. I was all science.
Once I had all four quarters off the elk, and the backstraps, I heard Ian and Jeremy coming over the top of the hill. I pulled out the pink strawberry starburst that Devlin gave me, popped it in my mouth, and waited for Jeremy to show me how to get the tenderloins out. That was the one thing I was not sure of. He took out one, I got the other. He helped me to load it all into game bags and then into the backpacks. It was a chill stroll back to the side by side.
We zoomed back home and hung the quarters in the shed. Jeremy and Ian took off and I was brewing my second cup of coffee by 10:30am, wondering what one does with oneself all alone after hunting her first elk.
I began by drying my fashion boots in front of the fireplace.