The luck of the hunt

Last week, I was returning home from a long day of hunting when I received a simple text message from a friend: “Any luck?”

It’s the most common question I hear at this time of year, when my every spare day is spent afield, hiking high up quiet mountains in search of elk. On that particular day, I had left home well before dawn with an old friend whom I’ve seen far too seldom in recent years. As we drove up Highway 200, winding roughly parallel to the Blackfoot River, we caught up on life and work, relayed the stories of recent hunts, talked about music, fretted about an ill friend.

As the first glow of dawn began spreading in the eastern sky, we arrived at the foot of a tall mountain we once hiked together, years ago. Tall and steep on every flank, it was a mountain only fools climb. Fools, and elk.

We silently skirted the lower reaches of the slopes on a road for awhile, then began the grueling climb. Partway up, under the shade of an old and dying tree, my friend stopped and whispered my name. Grinning, he pointed above my head. On a low branch of the tree sat a blue grouse, nervously shifting back and forth. We silently watched the bird for awhile as we caught our breath.

Hours of uphill, walking on our toes due to the steep grade, occasionally slipping on the snow and frost-heaved earth. My Achilles tendons began to ache; sweat soaked my clothes.

As I scanned the surrounding forest for a glimpse of fur or antler, my mind quieted.

This is why I hunt.

Reaching a low ridgeline, we spooked a lone elk. Scanning our surroundings, we spotted a group of six or eight elk grazing atop a nearby mountain – too far to reach, alas. We watched them for half an hour, perhaps more.

We continued our slow climb, trudging into deepening snow, finally cresting the mountain at midday. At the edge of the bald knob, we built a fire and ate lunch, gazing in quiet wonder at the Bob Marshall Wilderness to our north. Elk tracks everywhere, but nowhere an elk. We began the long descent.

By the time we reached the truck, the sun was wilting in the west, my knees ached, my thighs felt like jelly. We toasted the day with a slug of bourbon, and laughed at our fortune: Neither of us could imagine coming down that mountain with an elk on our backs.

Any luck? On days like this, I feel like the luckiest guy alive.

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