The part about hunting that non-hunters may not understand is that it isn’t about killing. It’s about life. It’s about sustenance. It’s about family. It’s about conservation of all things, including wildlife and human beings.
I have so many favorite hunts that I cannot remember which one I would list at the top. They are all grand in their own unique ways. When I’m called to declare one that is impactful or that made a difference in my life, I scan through the decades of files. My mind lands on one in particular. It’s not a memory of me killing a 6×6 Colorado bull elk or a big typical muley.
While it’s difficult to declare just one hunt as the one that made a difference in my life, there is one from my childhood that I remember with adoration, and it seated the knowledge I knew within. The knowledge we get from our ancestors. The wisdom from generations before.
You see, as a child, my dad moved us to a small rural town in Southwest Colorado. The populations had to have been less than a couple thousand. Mom worked summers for the U.S. Forest Service, and Dad’s work in construction seemed a bit seasonal as well.
Those were hard times financially, but that’s when I learned the most about life. Mom sewed clothes, crocheted afghans, and grew a garden. We had chickens, goats, and other small livestock, which the family would butcher for food, but the real celebrations were when dad would bring home a deer or elk.
The family would dress and process the wild game together. We all put the labor in to clean, cure, and then process the meat to put in the freezer for the long, cold winter months. There’s some sort of satisfaction that goes into that work, and then enjoying a steak in the middle of a snowed in February night.
That’s not the hunt though. That’s a way of life; a laborious way of life I continually appreciate.
Many years my dad’s cousins and friends would come to hunt the elk of Colorado. Many years we would have fun enjoying their company as they camped out in our yard, or on the floor of the main house. No matter the time of year, I remember dad building a campfire out back where we’d all circle around. They’d tell stories of the trials, tribulations, and successes of the hunts. Every year hunting season was a joy for all of us. Not always, but many years the season would close, and they would head home with no animal on which to put their hunting tags.
One of dad’s friends, who he’d met in kindergarten and I call my uncle, came year after year. He, his brother and his friends hunted hard. Sometimes one in their group would successfully take down an elk. They too shared the campfire stories, and one time he brought his son. My brother and I played in the hills while the adults visited. The next day he was blessed to tag along when one in his dad’s group got a nice 4×4 bull elk.
Year after year my uncle returned. While he’d taken cow elk (a female), he’d never taken a bull. He was determined to successfully tag one and continually worked toward the dream. As the years advanced, he gained a bit of weight, and his health deteriorated a bit, but it didn’t deter him from his quest.
One year he showed up, and his breathing was short. The doctor had put him on medication and suggested a healthy, low-fat diet. That year he couldn’t make the hikes up the steep San Juan Mountains. His brother, my dad, and their friend headed up the first short hill. Dad came back and asked if I was going to come. I declined and said I’d stay behind as well. I knew my uncle was feeling down. He still dreamed of tagging a bull and hoped his health would be better next year so he could get up there and go after them.
He and I sat on the tailgate of his pick up truck, at the bottom of a mountain draw, drinking coffee, warming our hands on the cups that chilly October morning, and watching the sun come up. Oh my, how one can never tire of the majesty of a morning sunrise over the Rockies! As the shadows came, the sun glistened, and we sat there, the coyotes’ song rang loud, echoing across the valley, announcing a new day. We looked at each other and smiled then continued to quietly tell stories, taking our binoculars and glassing occasionally, to see if we’d spy any elk in the vicinity.
We wondered how the others in the group were doing, and I could see the weight on my “uncle’s” mind. He told stories of past hunts, hiking to the highest peaks, seeing horned owls, bears, and other wildlife, and a time when his horse took him to close to a tree. He laughed saying he was lazy and thought he’d simply break off the branch before him, but the branch was stout. Before he knew it, he rolled off the back of the horse and found himself laying on the ground. We shared a good chuckle and refilled our coffee from his thermos.
As we sat there smiling on the tailgate, we caught movement out of the corner of our eyes. We raised our binoculars and spied a herd of cow elk descending from the oak brush toward the meadow before us. We turned to look at each other in amazement. We thought, “Could this really be happening?”
Before the elk could clear the brush, he grabbed his rifle, and we slowly crouched to the ground, getting into a prone position. We knew the cows would be first, and we hoped a bull would follow. As he readied his rifle, resting it on his pack, I glassed further up the mountain into the oak brush to see if I could spy antlers.
The oak brush is thick, and it always amazes me at how quietly an elk can maneuver through. Since the branches are nearly as tall as they are you sometimes don’t even hear or see them until they emerge in a sparse area. I knew I needed to scan for movement or antlers that look like branches. Then I saw them! — Antlers!
I whispered, “I see a bull.” My uncle shuffled his position. I explained how far above, the direction he’s coming, and where I thought he’d emerge. Uncle readied, moving his rifle in the direction I’d indicated. I notified him when the bull would stop and when he’d begin down the hill again.
Before long there were more than a dozen cow elk feeding in the middle of the meadow. We waited patiently as we watched the bull emerge, clear the brush and then begin to feed out into the meadow. Uncle was patient. He waited for the elk to turn broadside, and then for him to move his front leg forward, and then he took his shot.
I watched through my binoculars as the big 6×6 bull spun, attempted to run, and then fell to the ground. After years of working so hard, he’d finally tagged a bull elk, and it wasn’t just a legal bull. It was a beautiful 6×6; every elk hunter’s dream. The cows scattered up the mountain, and we lay there in the dirt, in awe.
I looked over and saw the most massive smile I’d ever seen. The disappointment of not being able to climb the mountain had dispersed, and a tear of happiness filled my uncle’s eye.
He and I field dressed the bull, and when dad and his other friends returned there were huge smiles all around, lots of high fives, and congratulations, and still that tear in my uncle’s eye. We all loaded it into the truck, took it home and readied it to hang and cure. That night we shared fellowship and celebrated with elk tenderloin. The celebration was not only about his success but about health, happiness, and the meals his family would have.
We’d spent quality time together, watched that beautiful sunrise over those majestic mountains, listened to the coyotes’ song, watched hawks soar, and witnessed the incredible stealthiness of a massive animal. We helped one another, and despite my uncle’s health, we’d filled his hunting license. He and his family would have a freezer full of organic, low-fat meat. Hunting is about life, sustenance, family, friends, and conservation of all things, including animals and human beings.
Although I knew that hunting animals isn’t about killing, that season, it became even more evident. It’s about overcoming obstacles, finding sustenance, being skillful, and sometimes it’s about chance.