|Whale Tail Outdoors|
|Whale Tail Outdoors|
My breathing labored, I decided to sit down for a moment. The textured landscape rises and dips across the spread, the curves and angles calling for attention in the new light. As the sun creeps higher into the morning sky, columns of light break through the clouds, illuminating patches of the forest and shining on single patches of wild earth.
Somewhere out here is the elk I seek, quietly chewing on grasses and forbs, making its living, doing very well at being an elk. The fabric of the forest is beautifully laid out before me, occupied by the plants, animals and fish who fill these mountains and my imagination.
Bears are padding quietly and using their incredible nose as a guide to the invisible, leading them to turn here or there, deciding to ascend a ridge or follow a creek. Trout are swimming endlessly in clear, cool streams waiting for the next insect to glide into view and provide sustenance. I feel the cadence of wing beats as songbirds methodically fly overhead and careen in and out of the scrub on their way to and fro the places of their livelihoods.
I could easily be caught up in the magic of it all, caught up in the gifts these moments offer, but a chill begins to set in after the sweat loses its heat and becomes the vehicle for cooling breezes to drop my temperature.
Upwards again. I must make the ridgeline before too much longer. I know where the elk like to be and I want a long look into an aspen filled bowl before the sun decides to spread its warm, bright blanket over that cool draw.
The snow alternates from dry and quiet in the shade to crusty and loud where the sun has had its turn at morphing the ice crystals. I’ll need to stay on the shaded north faces as a move nearer to the destination.
A light wind picks up, interrupting the rhythm of each new step. It helps remind the senses that a repeated pace will surely alert inquiring ears. Wispy streaks of snow leap as they crest the ridgeline and fall as the energy fades on the leeward side. The wind will help if it maintains its current direction but I remain weary from knowing that it could change at any moment and send my scent whirling towards the group of elk that I’d prefer remain ignorant of my presence.
I’m getting near the treed bowl so I slow to a snail’s pace and try to become hyper alert to any clues I may be able to gather. My heart begins involuntarily racing as the adrenaline starts making bodily decisions without asking.
I take deep breaths through my nose hoping to catch that musky scent stamped into my brain through olfactory senses. I wait between breaths, hoping for absolute silence, trying to discern even the slightest of noises. My binoculars offer super vision for methodically scanning the trees. Back and forth, looking at every dark spot two or three times, trying, hoping to make out elk fur.
A few more steps. Scan, listen, smell. A few more. Same thing.
Nothing. The adrenaline subsides and the wind picks up again bringing with it a lonely feeling. Solo time has its highs and lows. Thinking deeply and then not thinking at all. Feeling absolute freedom then constrained by rugged terrain, rocks, ice, trees and wind in two moments not five minutes apart. Miles of ridges and valleys all here for me to explore. A wife and two kids at home, in the warmth, away from me.
My targeted bowl turned up empty but I am certainly not finished. There are tracks, beds. They have been here recently. They can’t be far.
The ridge stretches before me to the west. A methodical, prudent walk begins. This country is familiar. Blessed by the gift of public lands, I have been able to become intimate with lands like these. I know that another half mile will bring me to another high elk probability area.
Two hundred steps, three hundred, five hundred. My breathing is again heavy, ushered in by the steep climb. At once I hear the crack of a limb. Stillness, quiet. There it is again only this time accompanied by the soft thump of ungulate footfall growing louder.
Slow rotation towards the noise. Senses heightening. Wait. Time seems to stand still. The snow muffles the sound of hooves steadily contacting the ground beneath snow but it is surely there. Coming closer, I freeze.
A dark nose appears just through the boughs of a stately Douglas fir. Steam rises in the sunlight with each breath. Then eyes and antlers. 20 yards. I am a statue. The entire beast is now present. A beautiful mature bull. He somehow knows I’m there even though I am extremely still and partly concealed by a large aspen. He looks my way, blinking and sniffing heavily working to assemble the pieces of the scene. The moment is surreal, happening in slow motion. He came to me, like he wanted me to see him or he knows.
Maybe he knows that I have a cow tag. In any case, he is not in a hurry. I do my best to slowly draw out my camera without spooking him. I get off a couple mediocre photos of his behind as he glides away into the aspen beyond.
An overwhelming feeling of joy comes over me. I am here to kill an elk, yes. But I am here for all of this. The connection to here and all those who walked before me or will ever walk these mountains, the smells, the sounds, the emotional roller coaster, the visceral explorations. The disconnection from there, the computers, phones, noise and bustle, and from those who wish anything other than prosperity for these precious wild landscapes I so need to soothe my soul.
The long ascent provides ample time for reflection. Scenes of the varied landscapes of my life dancing through my head mingled with the hopes and dreams of the future. Random questions race in and out. Where were the cows? When can I bring my kids here? How will we keep these areas wild and free forever?
I return home without an elk this time, my only encounter the lone monarch. It may be a stretch but I like to think we are a reflection of one another. Two strong healthy males, trying to make a living, trying to find comfort and sustenance, hoping to make good choices and avoid danger, to go down the right path and to prosper.
This journey renews my vitality and reinfuses my vigor for protecting these wild places. These lands are a truly irreplaceable gift. A gift we must nurture and protect. They are a family heirloom with greater value than any actual thing. They are the theatre of the greatest experiences of my life. I hand these lands down to my children and impart in them the sense of collective ownership and stewardship. They are theirs and they are ours.
Although I came home without my query on this occasion, I found something in abundance along the way. I found vitality, humility and connection, all afforded to me by having wild places to roam.
About the Author
Aaron Kindle is lifelong westerner, originally from Wyoming, who possesses a deep appreciation for the west, its people and its wild country. He works for National Wildlife Federation as the Western Sportsmen’s Campaign Manager. He is an avid hunter, angler, boater and all around outdoor enthusiast. He lives with his wife and two children in Golden, CO.