Friday, October 16, 2020

elk dreaming

In the summer I went out here on a scouting trip. It was supposed to be a moderate hike with time to explore for elk lairs. The trip thought of as moderate turned into a survival plod while my bad knee groused about the load. Elk season dawned: the knee and I blindly plunged like fate into the lone backcountry.

A winter storm on the passes, Loveland and Vail. First plan was to hike in before dark, but slow going traffic and snow meant arrival at the trailhead in last light. From the edge of Routt National Forest to the end of the road there was an elk camp in every turnout. Four inches of snow on the road had been driven flat in less than a day. Hunter numbers are dropping steadily, while crowding in hunt season increases steadily too. This apparent paradox is easily resolved - no-one is building new elk forests, just as no-one is making new trout streams. New condos, new private ranching fences, yes.  Bigger RVs to hunt from, expansive canvas tent structures that use wood frames and portable power tools to construct, quieter generators for power in camp, yes: all the appurtenances of consumer fetishism, packed densely into the dwindling remains of wild country.

I think often of the Richard Brautigan short story where he finds sections of trout stream stacked up in the hardware store, available on easy purchase terms.

Slept in the truck, the bed is short but gets to 6ft with the tailgate down. Only an inch of toes hanging over the edge, then. The zero-degree sleeping bag kept me warm while the outer nylon frosted into an icy shell by 3 am. Up and hit the trail in moonlight and several inches of snow, 30lb backpack plus 8lb of rifle. This went OK for a mile or two and thousand feet up, then Windy Gap nearly blew me over. After this is a short section of ledge trail with a good long plummet off to the side.
In daylight on the way back,

now imagine that at 4am with snow, blowing snow, stiff winds, 2ft of snow over no perceptible trail. The headlight beam petered out in a haze of white, though I had a strong sense of vasty deeps in the windy dark. 

Chickened out (prudence is the name I'd prefer), crawled back into the woods for shelter and waited for daylight. Finally got to use that survival bivy sack I've been carrying for decades. By daylight another hunter had gone up and left footsteps. 

Further along there were fresh elk tracks. By now it was too late to spy on elk movements if any, in the shades of dawn.

I've never seen an elk during hunting season. So it seemed reasonable to drop the pack and follow these for an hour, until meeting my own footprints coming back around a tangle of deadfall. The elk like a manoeuvre termed the j-hook, circling back on their own tracks to check for followers. Clearly I'm not as smart as the average elk. Still don't know where he went after the hook, maybe was lying doggo in the deadfall.

Back through the pathless woods to the trail which disappeared again under blown snow at the ridge. Picked a drainage to follow which I believed would intersect the trail lower and luckily was right. I've done that before only to end up on a cliff with fine views but no way forward. 

Dropped the pack in camp spot and ran around the woods looking for signs of elk life. Plenty of old sign, no fresh tracks, no bedding areas, not much of anything. I'd have hiked back out if physically capable of it. Good country though. 

Spent the night in perfect silence with Mars glowing redly in the east, moving overhead as we turned toward dawn. Up at 5am to hike up a ridge and look for beasts in the early light. There was more deadfall navigation to the hilltop.

One view from the ridge of empty country,

and another, 

Nothing to be seen except another two hunters vivid in their hunting orange. Later there were two shots, booming into the silence of late fall in this high country. 

Walked the dark woods along the ridges and past potential bedding areas identified from topo maps and satellite pictures, nobody home. Scrambled up another peak in the evening to look around, country all quiet and still.

Out again in the morning, three and a half hours to do five miles and 2000 feet of elevation change. 

There was a day left in the season, but I had made no plans for hunting from the road. My strategy had always been to be fitter and stronger than the other guys, move fast and cover ground in the back country. I hadn't realized just how old I have grown. 

Gave up and drove down the hills, fished a bit at a lake on the way. Hoped for pike but found none in the surf.

On my last cast with a big white streamer, the Pfleuger reel chattered as something made a strong long run. Thought I'd found a good pike, until the trout leapt high over whitecap waves, a gout of spray disintegrating over the long curve of orange fly line bending downwind.

From Brautigan: 

 As a child when did I first hear about trout fishing in America?  
From whom? I guess it was a stepfather of mine.   
Summer of 1942.   
The old drunk told me about troutfishing. When he could talk,  
he had a way of describing trout as if they were a precious
and intelligent metal.   
Silver is not a good adjective to describe what I felt when
he told me about trout fishing.   
I'd like to get it right.   
Maybe trout steel. Steel made from trout. The clear
snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat.   
Imagine Pittsburgh.   
A steel that comes from trout, used to make buildings,  
trains and tunnels.   
The Andrew Carnegie of Trout!

A small pretty brown out of the tailwater below the dam, then home. 

Kept and ate the big one, red as a salmon. This was the last dinner at home for the older son before he left for his first job. We ate the fish with gratitude and reverence.

Told the other son at college about my elk trip, cold dark snowy and tough. He said "so pretty good then". Of course he's right..