I knew I’d been accepted as part of the family when my father in law asked me to go elk hunting with him. Elk hunting in November was Sacred Time for Ernie, one of the high points of the year.
Of course, I said yes, knowing that there’d be snow, that I knew nothing about elk hunting, especially in Northeast Oregon, and I had to get myself into better shape. I’d heard from a lot of hunters that the purpose of deer season was to get in shape for elk season. Since I wasn’t a hunter, it was time to face reality.
So, I worked out, borrowed my mother’s 30.06 rifle, and read up on what sort of ammo one takes elk hunting. I bought a scope, insulated and waterproof hunting gear, and extra socks. I even took the rifle out one weekend and had a buddy help me sight it in, so that if I did see a bull elk during our hunt, I’d at least be somewhat accurate with the rifle.
I took two weeks off from work and headed to eastern Oregon, my pickup filled with all my hunting gear, two sets of long underwear, and several pairs of wool gloves, not to mention my freshly cleaned rifle and a couple of boxes of ammo. I’d hoped I’d packed my courage and my machismo, too. I kept checking on that, during the drive, and never once thought I’d over packed in that department.
Once I got to Ernie’s house, I put my gear in his pickup, and helped him load the last of his gear, and a couple of boxes of food. He’d already been to the hunting camp the day before, and pitched his big tent, and got ready for opening day. I could tell he was a little leery of my lack of hunting prowess, but he was happy to see me.
We headed off down the freeway, and soon turned onto a small paved road, which quickly turned to gravel. We climbed up the steep mountains and Ernie simply announced, after about ten miles, that we were “going up Bear Creek”. Another ten miles and we arrived at camp. There was a large canvas tent, with a wood camp stove inside, and two cots. His cousin, Kenny, was already there.
They quickly showed me around camp, and told me I could sleep in the camper. There wasn’t any snow on the frozen ground yet, but the wind was bitter, and the thickening clouds promised snow by the morning. We took a hike up to the top of the ridge, Ernie showing me where we could take our “stands” in the morning, and wait for the bull elk to come into range. There were clumps of mountain fir and spruce, and, where there was a creek or a spring, some aspen, which had already lost most of its bright yellow leaves. The air smelled crisp and clean, and the place started growing on me. I started getting a sense of the sacred in this place.
That night, Ernie cooked up some chili, and cracked open a fifth of whiskey. We kept pouring a few shots into our campfire coffee, and telling stories. Ernie and Kenny had hunted together for years, and they had their own rhythm going, feeling comfortable with each other. Yet, they treated me like a brother, and told many stories of their hunting adventures.
Over the next week, I’d hear many stories, and came to know that Ernie started hunting here when he was a child, and I came to know the various stands by the names of his grandfather, his dad, and his uncles, all of whom had long passed on. They each had their favorite stand, and I heard of most of the successes they’d had hunting on this ridge for the past sixty years.
These were stories I had never heard him tell, but then, when I visited him at his house, he was pretty silent, and certainly didn’t tell hunting stories. And, he certainly didn’t add any whiskey to his dinner coffee, well, except on Christmas Eve. That was the night we could slip outside to the milk house, and he’d pass around the bottle he kept stashed out there. Just like my grandfather, who kept a bottle stashed in the barn, and I was sworn to secrecy about what we did there, on a cold evening after the milking was done.
The next morning, we were up at 4 o’clock. Ernie had the coffee cooking and the bacon and eggs frying. We gobbled down our breakfast and headed out into the dark. Snow had moved in during the night, and Ernie led the way up the ridge in the dark. I had to work to keep up with him, and not get lost in the falling snow. Up, and up we went, into the thin mountain air. My sea level lungs were put to the test at 4,000 feet, and I’d wished I’d put in quite a few more miles in my training.
Drenched with sweat, I stopped behind him to pant, as he showed me the log he wanted me to sit on for the next couple of hours.
“Wait here, and be quiet. I’ll come get you a few hours after dawn,” he said, as he strode off to his own favorite stand.
I brushed the snow off part of the log and sat down, watching the sky slowly lighten a bit, the light odd and hushed through the falling snow. The forest was eerily quiet, with the snow falling and the night turning into day. I looked around, and saw a chipmunk, and then a blue jay, scurrying around. In the distance, a few snow-laden branches crashed to the ground, their snapping and popping nearly scaring me to death.
I checked my gun, telling myself it was loaded, and wondered what I would do when the elk came. My hands started to grow cold and stiff, despite the two pairs of gloves I wore. I was glad for the long underwear and the insulated pants and coat I’d purchased from the sporting goods store last week. The snow started to accumulate on my hat, and my pants, as I sat there, still and quiet, just like Ernie told me to.
I did get up once, to pee, writing my name in the new snow, and watching my handiwork quickly being covered by the snow. I worried about being lost, but remembered that all I had to do was walk down hill and I’d either find the road, our camp, or the little creek that led downhill to our camp. I had my compass, too, but I realized that all the clumps of trees were starting to look a lot alike in the snow. And, our trail up here was already lost in the white accumulation.
Then, I heard a deep noise, almost a roar, and realized it was a bull elk bugling in the forest. The sound drew closer, and I realized the elk was coming towards me. Crap, I thought, I’ve got to be the hunter here. Yes, the hunter with the frozen hands, and not really knowing which end of the rifle to use, when faced with the bull elk coming straight at me. And, I certainly didn’t want to be the complete fool in front of my father in law and Kenny, both of whom had hunted this ridge for most of their lives. Shooting an elk would be a natural thing for them, quite unlike my task, me, the citified novice.
I gathered my manliness about me, and checked my rifle, finally realizing I needed to take the eye caps off the scope, so I could actually see the target. I checked my magazine again, and yes, there were still bullets there, and one in the chamber. I was ready, I thought.
Aim and squeeze, but only as you breathed out. Yes, that was what I’d learned. Now, to put that little mantra into practice. Yes, even I could be the hunter here.
Sweat dripped down my chest and ribs, as the frozen wind picked up a bit more and the snow started falling even harder. I thought I had to pee again, but realized that unzipping three layers of clothes at this moment wasn’t very “hunter like” and I’d miss the bull. Now, that wouldn’t be a very studly story to tell at camp tonight, even after the requisite shot of whiskey.
I heard a branch snap and then I heard a snort, a very bull like snort. I was downwind from where he was coming, and I could actually get a good shot. Closer and closer he came, and my fingers stopped trembling a bit, as I realized I could do this, I could take a good shot.
He came into view, about eighty yards away, just behind a big log. He looked in my direction, but he didn’t see me. Not me, the mighty hunter in my store bought camo coat and half snow covered hat. I slowly raised the rifle, and watched him jump over the log and move closer to me.
It would have been a tough shot, straight on, and I’d probably miss him entirely. It was just too small of a target. Yet, he was magnificent, in his early winter cape of thick fur and a massive rack of antlers. My heart raced and I sweated through the first layer of my many shirts, the cold wind pushing against me.
He slowly turned to the side, looking up the ridge towards something he had heard. I knew he wouldn’t stay still for long, and I’d better take a shot. I took aim, finding him in my scope, watching the cross hairs meet just under his shoulder blade. Yes, the perfect shot. My finger slipped quietly, clicking off the safety, and I began to pray my mantra, “aim, breathe out, squeeze”.
Time stood still there on that ridge for a bit, my mind forgetting the cold wind and the snow and the stiff frozen muscles that came from sitting on that log for the last few hours. All of me was focused on that elk and the cross hairs, and me slowly squeezing the trigger.
And, boom, and reload, working the bolt, and aiming again. He didn’t move, and so I squeezed off a second shot, aiming for the same part of his chest, just below his shoulder.
He went down, forelegs first, then all of him. He was huge, yet, he fell silently. The echoes of my rifle shots still rang in my ears, and, I thought the noise still echoed off the ridge and the nearby tree trunks.
Somehow, I clicked on the safety again, and moved forward. I remembered Ernie telling me to not move too close to the elk if I had shot him, as the bull can easily feign death and will thrash his big rack of antlers. Many a hunter got gored by the elk they had shot, not being patient enough to wait until the bull had bled out.
I stood there in shock, and amazement, at what I had done and the magnificence of this beast of the woods. Adrenalin rushed through me, yet I had stopped sweating, and the wind quickly cooled the sweat dripping down my face. The forest was silent now, my shots scaring the birds into silence, and the still falling snow absorbing the rifle fire.
I heard footsteps behind me, and looked to see Ernie coming down the ridge, a big grin on his face.
“Got him, did ya?” he whooped, grinning from ear to ear.
Yes, the son in law really can hunt, I thought. And, I knew he was proud of me that snowy frozen morning up on the ridge above Bear Creek.
Neal Lemery May, 2010