I like secrets. I covet mysteries. I love that a fallen cottonwood branch, when snapped along its dark, whorled knuckles reveals a clandestine star. When I talk about hunting, I'm not talking about trophies or points, I'm talking about attempting to plumb secrets from dark timber. Being part of something bigger than me.
My grandmother grew up on a farm in rural Nebraska. She rode her stubborn pony , Tiny, to school through snowbanks, bracing herself against a brittle midwestern wind that flayed the top layer of flesh from her cheeks. When our house was cold as a child, we'd curl up by the fire, making a den of blankets and random limbs. But we never turned up the heat. Conservation and frugality are as much a part of Tangy as her grim, secret smile. So while I shared a roof with a woman who ate squirrel stew during hard times and killed chickens with her bare hands, my city girl childhood couldn't have been more different. I rode the bus to school. There wasn't a gun in sight. Maybe my desire to hunt harkens back through my maternal bloodline, to hungry winters and farmhouses buried beneath violent blizzards, to nights when my family tied a piece of string from the house to the barn so they wouldn't get lost in blinding white on their way to milk the cows.
When I returned to Colorado from New Zealand, I knew I wanted to continue hunting. The first thing I had to do was get my hunting license. My friend, Grace and I took a two day course and had to pass a shooting test. Next I had to get an over-the-counter elk tag. I'd missed the draw so I had to content myself with the leftovers.
Over the summer, any good hunter explores their unit on foot. Looks for ridges overlooking dark timber, spots where they can glass unobserved but see long distances. They get to know the creatures they're stalking. Their scat, their tracks. I did none of those things. My hunting units were over two hours away. I have no car. I worked two jobs. There were a lot of excuses. But none of them strong enough for a true hunter.
So come November 16th, and opening day for 4th rifle season, I steeled myself for an experience, but perhaps one without quantifiable results. You have to do the legwork to get the reward, right? Since I don't have a gun or a car, I went hunting with my friend's husband. We left Denver at 2am in order to arrive near Hot Sulpher Springs and our units, 181 + 18 by first light.
I'd done some research into Elk migration patterns online before arriving and found a Big Game atlas on the Colorado Fish and Wildlife website. The map detailed winter refuges and the corridors Elk use to leave the high country and their summer habitats. It showed me the direction of their migration and spots of high concentration. It was the treasure map to our Long John Silver. Based on the maps intel, we began in Arapaho National Forest near Granby--in a place where everything overlapped.
I'm only just now coming to appreciate the beauty of the cold. The way the breath from your lungs leaves a trail in the air, the way frost forms on your eyelids. Even two years ago and I wouldn't have left the car the morning of November 16th. Beyond frigid, everything within vision was solid ice. Our truck fishtailed on the road to the entrance. But that morning, just as the sun was coming up, nothing could have made me stay in the car. I got my Remington 700 ready to go and trudged out along the path that hugged the edge of Monarch Lake. The entire eastern side of the lake was frozen over but sun was rising, heating the ice. The warming water created eerie creaking and rustling noises, the kind I'd imagine a stalwart ship trapped in ice floes would make.
As we walked past a group of thick evergreens, my hunting partner and I both heard it--the sound of huge antlers cracking against low branches. But the wild grasses were too thick and we were too close to see what was concealed not even fifty feet from us. Together, we bushwhacked high up on the hill to a cluster of rocks overlooking the frozen water. From our height we could hear at least two animals, if not more, in the brush below--we could hear as their hooves broke through frozen ice and their antlers crashed against the pines. But after close to two hours of constant noise, the animals stayed hidden within the camouflage of reeds. So, like any rational human, I decided to crawl down on the ice with them. Don't tell my mom. Probably a stupid idea, but I figured, the only way to see them was to get close, right?
Down, on the water, the noises and the crashes were much louder. Their proximity made the hairs on the back of my neck stand perfectly erect. It's scary to be surrounded by creatures you know are there, are big, and yet, you can't see. Once down among the reeds, I could see fresh prints and very fresh scat. My heart raced. But even there, the grasses were too tall and too dense for me to get a good line of sight. After a full day of being surrounded by the big game we'd hoped to find, we decided to give up and try to find another location. Maybe that was the wrong? Maybe an experienced hunter would have played it all differently. Who's to say now?
I'm not going to detail the rest of the days--just know they were beautiful and left my spirit viscerally singing. It was the happiest I'd been in a long time. I'll just share one final moment. Once, alone on a ridge overlooking a hill of wooded, dense forest, I felt restless and impatient. So I closed my eyes and willed myself to relax, stop fidgeting and be quiet. As I sat there, I heard that sound--the sound of antlers cracking low lying branches. I took a deep breath and assumed a seated shooting position, aiming my gun at the spot where the sound emerged. A huge buck ambled up out of the pines and into the clearing before me.
Not even twenty feet away, he stopped. We locked eyes. I didn't have a deer tag so I laid my gun down and looked at the massive, muscled creature who dared to stare right back. There was no fear or tension in his stance and his face was completely open to mine. I have no idea how long we remained like that, eye to eye. I just know I'd stopped breathing and felt like I'd floated out of my physical form and that I was now overlooking myself and the stag, all alone in the woods.
And that's the magic. Right there. These animals are difficult to track. You have to remain still, quiet and even then you might never happen upon one of these furtive creatures. Finding an elk or a lone stag in the woods is a secret you have to earn. A privilege that, once deserved, takes your breath away.
I know there is so much I don't know about hunting. I have a hard time getting to a position that overlooks a southern facing slope in the morning without disturbing the nightly Elk migration. I have a hard time being patient. I'm terrible at glassing. I could definitely do with a good mentor (where can I find my elk-hunting Miyagi, anyone?). But that's not the point. The moral of the story is that I want to learn. And it's not just about feeding my family (although that's a big reason. Click here to learn about the pro/con arguments for sustainability re:hunting), or killing, or bragging rights. Hunting is about being out there, amidst this whole other world comprised of a language of subtle sounds and sights. It's about learning to belong in an entirely new way, and through that belonging, divining the rituals of another, private world.
And I'm willing to do the leg work this time around, I swear.