Thursday, October 20, 2011

armed hiking

For slow-learning elk hunters, the effort morphs into good healthy exercise in the pure mountain air, with guns. There was a lot of fine empty country.

We'd hiked in under moonlight to hide in the woods near a confluence of game trails. In the silver pre-dawn chill two coyotes on the far ridge performed a howl and response duet, interspersed with barks and imitations of elk bugling. Perhaps they weren't imitations ? but we found no evidence.

The small orange spot here is Ian, left to guard the exit from the woods while I circled around to tramp through the crusts of snow remaining in the shade of the dark timber. Nobody home there, either.

The hunter's moon waned. The weather was good and forecast to hold so, which is bad. In warm weather like this, with plenty of water available, the elk tend to scatter into the woods, there to hunker down and wait for cold. They detest heat. Time for plan C and 3/4 (I had many different plans, none of them effectual).

We hied ourselves off the top of the mesa and to another drainage. Here I embarrassed myself in front of the DOW, who were sitting on top of the mesa with spotting scopes, inspecting the hunters. Some joker had planted a trail marker on top of the hill next to the parking area. A simple trusting soul, I plunged into the scrub oak and fought my way up and down the cliffs several times, trying to find the trail, which surely must exist behind the trail marker. The officers of the DOW were alarmed by this erratic if not eccentric behaviour and came down to check. They found only Ian, as by now I was down in the wash looking at some unusually large bear tracks. It turns out the real trail is 200 yards up the road, marked with a stick.

Camp on the side of the hill, tucked in among the scrub oaks, surrounded by bear trails. Elk tracks were everywhere too, though none too new. By this time we'd hiked about eight miles, ten for me, the last few with backpacks in searing heat. Ian went off to inspect the nearby meadows while I cooked dinner, but found a freshly steaming bear sign in the middle of the game trail, which rather blunted his enthusiasm for solo wanderings into the dusk. All of this country sloped to one degree or another, our campsite no exception. The night was spent gradually slipping down to the bottom of the tent, then inchworming back up in the sleeping bag, all the while nervously listening for approaching bears with one hand on the bear spray. I've slept better.

Morning, looking out over Pinon Mesa with the La Sal peaks in the distance. I climbed up behind camp and glassed the hills for signs of life. Two elk were pottering around a meadow a half mile away across the creek. We pelted over there, circled around downwind, then stalked up along the game trails: the elk knew several tricks each worth two or more of ours, they skedaddled quietly and comprehensively.

Some animals had bedded down for the night below these aspens. It was hard to tell if they were bears or small elk. Later I went out to find an ambush spot above the meadow for evening. The picture below is taken from one of the candidate spots. The scrub oak here is dense, penetrated only by bear tunnels, trails closed over by the bushes at about four feet up. I got lost in these for some time while trying to find a way across to some dry water holes with good grass.

In the afternoon we climbed up to the other spot to wait in hope. No elk appeared, instead a bear ambled through the spot from which that photo was taken. We weren't sure what one would do with a bear once dead.. make a nice rug ? seems insufficient reason to shoot that handsome beast. I knew the old mountain men would eat bear, then again they'd also go without bathing for years, so their tastes might have run to the rancid. These bears were eating mostly berries, to judge by the steaming evidence. Berry-fed bear, mmm. Perhaps we'll get both tags next year and try it.

Rereading that last sentence, it sounds both sanguinary and offensively nonchalant. I recall an interview with a French chef, part of some new wave of cuisine, where he said his primary concern when cooking was to remember that in order to produce the meal, something had to die: the approach was always through gratitude and reverence. Even our language hides the animal and its death from us. As historian Robert Bartlett observes, "When it's in a cold and muddy field covered in dung, it's named in English with the old Saxon name - ox, cow, pig, elk. When it's been cooked and carved and put on a table with a glass of wine, it's named in French (by the Norman conquerors) - beef, pork, venison." It seems more honest to do one's own killing, though of course this also might be mere affectation. Bears are different though, it would feel like murder I think: not sure I could actually pull the trigger.

Lenticular clouds hung above the mesa as we waited. The morning brought 5:30am sleet to ice the tent before packing up for the hike out at 6:30am. As we drove out so the local hunters were driving in, the weather now being more like hunting weather and less like sunbathers'. There's always next year, though I'm running out of them: in five years or so, Ian will have to take me hunting.