In Defense of Killing: Part 5
Into the Wild
As one would expect, the alarm came quickly and I looked at the time incredulously, sure that no more than a few moments could have passed. I gathered my gear and began my slog through the dark. The dark wet dirt underfoot felt spongy and my step felt strong. I crossed the first stream and ascended in silence though the dark timber. The trail was steep, filled with switchbacks and enclosed by dense pines. I found a rhythm of pace and thoughtfully placed my feet between the slick roots that frequently presented themselves. Sporadically I would feel that I had heard something else moving through the woods and freeze waiting for a confirmation over my silence but none would come and I would trudge on.
When I broke treeline I found myself on snowy moonscape. I continued my ascent across the gently sloping convexity 2,000 vertical feet and several miles from my car. The moon was beginning to peak the jagged alpine horizon and the stars were some of the most striking I’ve ever witnessed. The sharp, frozen, perfectly still air drew them close as if the immaculate clarity created a vacuum. The space in-between myself and the vivid points of light was filled a cold nothingness so pure and perfect that nothing could prevent me from extending my arm and touching them. I lingered for long moments and did my best to impress the idyllic scene on my memory.
A powerful string of mood swings defined my internal life as some fatigue set in. I vacillated quickly from elated and exalted to exhausted, frozen and frustrated. I balled my hands into painful fists in the palms of my gloves and then tried to coerce my frozen fingers to grip my backpack zipper and open the plastic packaging to my hand warmers. I felt a moment of frustrated desperate rage as I fumbled. I use the blades of my hands to wrestle open my hydration pack to sip from the reservoir since the hose had frozen. I opened a granola bar in similar simian fashion and chewed it like a Novocain filled dentistry patient. Then I looked up again at the sky, scanned the mountain range silhouetted on the horizon, and found my numb face crack from a frozen wincing grimace to a smile that properly represented my ethereal surroundings. I kept walking.
Once I descend on my envisioned perch I stomped a small patch of snow and sat amongst a few isolated trees with my rifle in my lap. I spent the morning scanning meadows scattered in the valley below me with a monocular and sitting silently in the snow as the as the ambient light grew with a subtle blue cast and color and luminosity returned to the world. . I willed (at times verbally) the sight of large mammals to no avail. I concentrated hard into the small glass circle looking for movement and then shifted focus to my breathing. When the sun was high enough that it was a reasonable assumption that most elk were bedded down for the day I started exploring. I scrambled in the snow covered folds and micro-valleys looking for sign (hunting slang for foot prints or droppings that would indicated an animal had been in that area).
Elk generally tend to stick to daily patterns of movement unless they’re pressured by predators (including hunters) or weather to move to a new elevation or area so if you find reasonably fresh sign, it’s probably worth coming back to that area. You can fairly easily make an educated guess how recently the animal left the tracks by observing the effects of sun, new snow, or freezing and thawing. If the sign seems fresh it’s worth feeling the droppings for warmth to gauge how close the animal might be. These were the things I was filling my brain with and spending my days thinking and talking about.
After an hour or so I hadn’t found any sign so I happily hung a hammock, crawled into my sleeping bag, and basked in the sun reading Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard and writing in my journal before falling into a deep sleep. Eventually I packed up my things and meandered back down the trail to the car. Though I saw no action, the first 12 hours of hunting were some of the most beautiful and serene I had experienced on earth. I was already in love.
Over the next month I spent 11 sunrises and sunsets walking silently through the woods. I stood by a stream and watched the crystal light shine with brilliance on the silver surface of flowing water. The sun wrapped each needle of the overhanging pine boughs from behind and illuminated bits of frozen water floating in the air, bringing sparkle and magic to the space above the surface of the flowing stream. The sound washed out all other sound and cleansed my thoughts. In that moment… In those many moments, I was cleansed of desires, wants, and worries; flowed away in the beautiful perpetual motion.
I sat in an aspen grove, miles from another human, thousands of feet above the valley floor and rested with my back against a thick and steady trunk. Perfect crystals began to fall through the frozen ringing stillness each finding it’s own unique path to the snow covered ground. The auditory world was filled only with the building symphony of each crystal finding it’s inevitable resting place on an aspen leaf, on the millions of crystals already stacked on the ground, or on my shoulder.
My hunting experience was filled with these transformative moments that will be forever imprinted on my soul. The in-between moments allow reflection and a wide holistic connection to the universe. The actual hunting, stalking, searching focused that attention to a glinting pinpoint. You must calm the heartbeat, find stillness in the body and constantly shift the mind’s eye between sensory inputs. I could feel my aural focus grow more acute as I let go of the visual. It seemed impossible to exist completely in more than one sense at a time. I found difficulty scanning the horizon as I sorted through the cacophony of tiny sounds: my hair brushing my nylon collar, the fabric of my shirt settling on each exhale, a falling pine cone, chattering of squirrels, or the shockingly loud beating of a ravens wings as he navigates the air above the treetops. In order to hear a distant elk’s footsteps in the snow or on a bed of pine needles you must break the landscape of sound that we generally allow to mash together into a tangled mess of ‘background noise’ into each individual sound source.
To begin the series from the beginning start HERE.