Saturday, December 12, 2015

Silence of the Mountain

     I’ve never known exactly why, but sometimes late in the elk season, the mountain just goes quiet. If you’ve never been there, maybe you can’t appreciate that. But in early October, the high country is a pretty noisy place. There are elk bugling, and chickadees chipping and gray jays squawking and even a wolf howl from time to time. There are ravens speaking their ancient language in the roost trees at dawn. But a few weeks later, everything just goes silent. It’s a little eerie, and it makes you feel very small indeed. 
      We left the trailhead at 5:00 AM, and were high above Story Meadow before first light. Having fulfilled our contract as packers for the Great Desert Elk Hunt, the Apprentice and I had the next two days off. Apprenticedad – ever the team player – said he could handle the butchering himself. He set us free to hunt some mountain elk. We were out of the cabin like we were playing hooky from school. And we were standing in the predawn graylight before I realized how quiet it was. Not a sound, not even the breeze in the fir trees. But we were not alone. There were elk.
      All the elk in upper Notellum Creek were on the move – or at least they had been the day before. The day-old snow told the story than anyone could read. They were headed out. There were trails five or six feet wide, all headed the same direction. It wasn’t the snow that was moving them – just the ancient wisdom of the herd. Someplace southeast of us, there were elk. Multiple bunches, actually – and each being led by some old slate-blue colored cow who knew every tree, every rock and every draw between here and the winter range. All we had to do was find them.      

     We spent the morning in the high country where Long Rifle shot his cow early in the season. We we saw lots of elk tracks and they were all heading to the West Fork of Notellum Creek. We spent the entire day on the mountain to see if we could catch stragglers, but no such luck. We checked all the hidey-holes and sat the right meadows until dark, but the country was still silent.
       The next day, we were in West Fork – again before light. And we were immediately into elk. Second rut bulls - bugling over cows that hadn’t been bred the first time around – were all around us. At first light, there were at least 2 bulls on either side of us. We moved carefully, always with the wind in our faces, to ease up on them. Surely one of these guys had some girlfriends! We were always within 500 yards of them, but they filtered up into the dark timber each time. We cow-called often, but not too often, and we heard at least two cows calling back. At one point, we thought we had them, but at the last second they dove off off into deep dark timber and were lost.
      Late in the afternoon, the snow squalls moved in. The elk were silent now, and so were we. We worked the north side of the West Fork country, knowing that there were elk there and hoping we could find them. We didn’t. We did find a winter-killed raghorn bull skull, broken in two parts – one for each of us. And when it was too dark to see anymore, that’s what we carried out in our packs. But what we carried out in our hearts was another great day in our home country. Just Grandpa and grandson in the silence of the mountain.