Friday, November 2, 2012

elk fortress II

Yet though we examined it through eyes prejudiced in favour of gently rolling slopes and shallow draws, we could not but admire the gigantic abandon with which the tall cliffs broke away in ragged bluffs and ridges of rim rock, the sweep of the towering timbered ridges, the sinister depth of great yawning canyons..
Another year, another bootless elk hunt. Like many another high-budget sequel, the special effects were tremendous but the experience as a whole was not up to expectations. We emerged from the trail once again bruised and bowed, but unbloodied. This is a problem when you went in explicitly to shed somebody else's blood and devour their flesh.

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Here's the camp, above in the green and pleasant land of maps, below on the cold cold ground.

We arrived late at the trailhead in dusk shading fast to dark. Loaded up the protesting boy with his backpack and a headlamp, and took off down the boardwalk over the swamps. Beavers slapped the water in alarm as we creaked on by. The boardwalk ended abruptly in the middle of a marsh. Twenty minutes' stumbling in and out of water found the other end of the boardwalk, just beyond headlamp range. It was rickety and posted as closed but we went on anyway. Now my boots were well soaked through, the mist of breath hung in clouds in the headlamp light and lightly fogged my glasses. Well, at least it wasn't raining. Soon after that a mixed rain and sleet began to fall. Usually when night hiking it's possible to go by starlight but tonight the blackness was Stygian. Well, at least it wasn't snowing. Soon after that the sleet hardened into a rattle of icy pellets on the raingear, then softened again into flakes. We came to a stream crossing some thirty feet wide with no clear route through, decided to camp for the night.

In the morning the snow continued. Legal hunting hours are half-an-hour either side of sunup and down, so you need to be out and in position long before that. Ian doesn't do mornings, so I went alone and climbed the icy steeps to look for animals through the veils of snowflakes. Nonesuch. We breakfasted and packed up camp in the slop, then moved on to the campsite I'd planned to reach last night. Well, at least it wasn't cold. We hiked several miles up to McQueary creek in poor visibility with the snow squeaking underfoot, not the best approach to spooky wild elk.

The next morning we found a big bull (from the size of the hoofs, that's my size 11 hoofprint nearby) had wandered past the tent about 20 yards away in the middle of the night. Informed opinions say this might have been a moose but I'm sticking to the elk story. More fresh tracks and scat and bedding areas found every day, but I think they were all nocturnal. This morning we had to deal with some equipment failures: my boots were sodden and cold, Ian's supposedly waterproof pants the same. We gave up and made a nice fire. This really stinks up your hunting clothes, not a good idea, but it was that or leave altogether. After that we had a snoop around in the dark woods, springs, seeps and benches up on the Middle Fork, to the same effect as every other day.

Another morning it was clear but frosted hard, the tent sparkling in the night and our boots frozen rigid. No morning hunt today as we could not physically get the boots on. By now the hunt had degenerated into a backpacking trip, with side excursions into the trackless woods. Ian described it as 'scenic torture'.

Elk hunting by the steps, 
001. get out in the woods where the animals are
002. evaluate food and water availability, hunting pressure, terrain, weather for elk comfort level, which is lots colder than human comfort.
  ... through ...
098, are all 'find the elk'
099. stalk into position
100. shoot 
Step 1 is easy and enjoyable; I have complete confidence in Ian to handle step 100; we can probably manage step 99; but steps 3 through 98 are a perfect mystery.

At the heart of the elk hunt are secrets that cannot be told. It needs a kind of instinct developed over years of hunting, dependent on so many variables that the search goes through a fractal decision tree with no leaves. I used to have the beginnings of that instinct for trout, since atrophied through disuse. Now I may be too old to learn elk hunting, at least not without dedicating myself to a full-time study. I'd like that but my creditors would not I think.

The beasts are deep in woods behind miles of deadfall, once disturbed the herd will be three drainage basins away before you reach the first ridge to see where they are going. The only hope is that other hunters will bother them and send them back into your drainage. Once they were plains animals but they have adapted like the tigers of India to become nocturnal mountain woodland animals. The approach then is to spend your elk days still-hunting a couple of prime acres in the middle of hundreds of square miles of deep woods. The trick of course is in identifying those prime acres, requires a few summers' worth of scouting.

We tried that for a couple of days. Here's some minor deadfall on the creek we followed up to 11000ft or so, as always lots of tracks including some bear.

Here the unfortunate boy needed a bathroom break. His feckless father had packed insufficient TP, so he had to use bark and leaves - like that murderous punctuation panda who eats, shoots and leaves. I'd used aspen leaves with some success earlier. On this haul up the hill, Ian took a bad fall on a rotten log into another log, saved the rifle but bruised his quad extensively. We limped out the next day since that put a stop to effective hunting.

We saw a half-dozen hunter trucks on the 10 miles of dirt road in to the trailhead, another dozen or so on the drive out, but the four days we spent a mere 3 miles down the trail were in perfect solitude. The rifle took a beating, rain then sleet then snow, plus hauling it through deep woods and deadfall on 30-40 degree slopes, so it is now in pieces drying out on the flytying desk. It's taken me a whole day just to clean up.

Here's Ian practicing some magical thinking, if you aim it they will come ? nope, this screenplay is bitterly realistic I fear.