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On the ridge, we encountered a beaten trail made by hunters who scrambled to this spine of grass and stone, then paced along its backbone. Based on my map reading and knowledge of elk behavior, I expected the big ungulates to be a mile or more from this ridge. We pointed our steps east, dipping through a stand of aspens in a depression. From nearly under my feet a startled ruffed grouse took wing, sending my heart pounding into my sinuses. Within minutes we began encountering more deer tracks, but the shuffling, oval-shaped paw marks of the Homo sapiens all but vanished. The forest before us appeared wild and pristine. Towering Douglas and alpine firs, and a smattering of Engelmann spruce thrust their smooth and scaly trunks from the north sides of the rippling foothills. Aspens lined the draws. Though it was early November, I could detect a faint poplar scent on the intermittent breeze. Pausing on a hilltop, I heard the unmistakable music of a frolicking brook in the ravine below. Who cared about hunting? Let's go explore, I thought.
We angled down the slope, arms swinging, laughing and chattering like the most clueless of greenhorn hunters. Then I spied two objects that simultaneously refocused my senses. The first was the waving white tail of a buck deer bolting up through the scattered timber on the opposite side of the draw, no doubt alerted by our careless passage. The second was twin sets of prints in an expanse of snow ahead. Even at a distance, they appeared much too large for deer.
As I suspected, the tracks were left by a critter with larger feet than a whitetail. But it was not the hoped-for elk. Other predators, it appeared, were attracted to the seclusion of the area as well. The pugmarks were as wide as my mittened hand. Though somewhat indistinct, the patently evident pattern of clawed toes spread from a larger pad. My assumption that we left the hunting competition behind on the yonder ridge was in error. At least two other hunters were also seeking prey in the vicinity: a pair of gray wolves.
Looking up from the wolf tracks, movement caught my eye on a south-facing slope, barren of snow, a half-mile from our position. A quick look through the trusty Nikons around my neck revealed the form of another whitetail buck. We were ostensibly hunting elk. But both boys had deer tags in their pocket.
We slid down the gradient toward the creek, slipping on our boots like stubby skis. I sent the boys ahead as I watched the whitetail through binoculars, allowing them another 50-foot slip when the deer dropped its head to feed. We ducked into the creek bottom, jogging along the sprightly watercourse in an attempt to intercept the browsing buck. Moments later, I saw the barrel of Micah's rifle rise slowly above a mound of sage. His first shot flew wide of the mark, but the second connected. We stood and walked toward the motionless buck, Micah's first whitetail. The smile on his face spread as wide as when he'd downed his first elk.
Just as the tired sun dropped from the western horizon, leaving the earth cloaked in shadow, we boned the buck and stashed the meat in the folds of its already cool hide.
We returned in the morning with backpacks. Micah elected to build a small fire and hang out by the meat pile. Dominic and I departed on a looping hike farther east, penetrating what I hoped would be more productive elk country. We encountered piles of old elk sign, then discovered a matched set of shed deer antlers, their bone bleached to a hue similar to the faded grass surrounding the tines on each horn. Ahead was a boulder-strewn knob protruding from the edge of the flat bench like the aftermath of a forehead whacked by a baseball; it was a good place to gnaw on some jerky from last year's elk and take a look around. Ten minutes into my binocular reconnaissance, I spotted the large dark bodies of not one, but five bull moose in a not-so-far-away copse of aspens.
As I savored the sighting, Dom lounged on the ground beside me.
"Know what, Dad? Next year we should bring our backpacks and just camp out here."
Whatever regrets he had about missing the traditional elk camp seemed to be gone.
Two weeks later, the week before Thanksgiving, my search for new elk hunting grounds and a potential place to pitch an elk camp closer to home continued. The kids were in school, so my sweetheart and I tromped another drainage issuing from the stern, imposing flank of the northern Beartooths. With six inches of fresh snow on the ground, I looked hungrily for elk tracks. But another deer encounter got in the way. Ahead, in a dense stand of limbless lodgepoles, we glimpsed a whitetail buck weaving through the overgrown matchsticks in our direction.
"Interested in a deer, or are you holding out for an elk?"
Lisa had tags for both species snuggled happily in the inside pocket of her hunting vest. She'd yet to down either species.
"Let's try for this deer," she replied with an excited smile. If eyes had feet, hers were leaping ecstatically around like a bird dog freshly freed from a kennel.
The buck veered away, yielding no opportunity for a shot. Paralleling its course we encountered it again, with scant minutes of legal shooting light remaining. A single shot, and I had another buck to bone and backpack from the forest. I still didn't have my elk or a campsite for future seasons. But there remained Thanksgiving weekend, one of my favorite times to hunt.
A blizzard raged from Monday to the day when Americans pause in grateful celebration for the bounty of the land in which we live. The next day dawned cold, with a fresh blanket of nearly knee-deep snow. Conditions were perfect for elk hunting.
But the rest of the household had other plans. It was opening day of a different sort, the first day of the ski season at Red Lodge Mountain. Lisa and the kids were ready to carve some turns. I stifled my longing to be an egocentric, anti-social male of the most stereotypical stripe, and I pulled on my ski clothes instead of my wool pants and hunting boots. Riding up the Miami Beach lift with my daughter, not two hundred yards from the lift station, I spotted a dozen places where elk had pawed through the snow to reach the grass below.
It was too cold to ski or hunt for the following two days. On Sunday, the last day of elk season, I still had an unfilled tag.
The following morning, with the kids back in school, I found myself riding the first chairlift of the day at the ski area. It was easily as frigid as the previous days, but Lisa had somehow reasoned it was now warm enough to take some morning turns on the slopes. I suspected the eight inches of fresh powder had something to do with it.
Midway up the lift, Lisa spotted an indistinct object at the edge of Lower Royals. It was a cow elk, digging at the snow. The rifle, I thought, might still be in the backseat of the Tahoe. How much trouble would I encounter if I shot an elk, the day after the season closed, from a chairlift, then filched a toboggan from the ski patrol to retrieve the carcass?
The fantasy was lovely, but so was reality, I realized. Although the elk season hadn't turned out exactly like I'd hoped, and though we hadn't replaced a mystical mountain haven with another, neither the boys nor I missed the old elk camp as much as I'd expected. Find enough pleasure in your quest for paradise, and the goal and search meld into one.
The road was still closed. But it didn't matter. For whether it happened on familiar slopes or unknown forests, the magic of elk hunting transcended the bounds of tradition and place.
By the time we reached the lift station, the only evidence of the cow's passing was her wandering trail across the mountain. Next season we'll again look for the prints of her kind. But for now I'm happy to make my own tracks, on skis, in the powder.