The pre-dawn forest is ink-black, save for the circular orb of my headlamp. I make my way from the road and its mud into the willows and their dew. It’s not 20 steps before I’m heading uphill. The climb is steep and relentless and my muscles are sore from this process, which I’ve repeated a dozen times in the last several weeks. Slowly, begrudgingly, my body kicks into gear and I develop a steady gait. Despite the cool temperature, it’s not long before I’m down to just a base layer. For an hour I fumble finding the faint trail, making my way up to an area I simply know as “the paddock.”
I’m elk hunting. Well, honestly, so far I’m just a guy that hikes with a gun. I’ve been grandfathered into the zone and have been “allowed” to hunt only through a couple of seasons of helping two friends pack animals out. People would argue that 2,500ft of rugged approach is a “secret” they’re not much interested in, but not my mentors. They’re insistent that I hunt alone or with one of them, and I even have specific instructions on what animal I can take. And I’m totally fine with that. Same as a surf spot — tight lips add to the sanctity of the zone, even if I haven’t seen fresh sign in a week.
The sky slowly turns from dark to dusty blue. Although it’s technically shooting light, I concede to myself it’s too dark for me to feel comfortable pulling the trigger. I trudge on, the higher elevation snow making my movement far from stealth. I walk, look through my binoculars, glassing the forest for any signs of movement, and then continue moving. So the morning goes, painfully slow, with no excitement. I think to myself, if any real hunter saw me they’d laugh at my tactics. I’m not patient enough. I’m not quiet enough. Hell, I probably look like a total idiot too. Once again I’m thankful for the secrecy of the spot.
The morning wears on. Dawn turns into daylight. A rain shower passes and as I hike up one ridge and down another, the thrill of being out alone gives way to the frustration of not seeing anything. I find some empty leads — fresh tracks in the snow, sign that looks fresh, but no action. No sudden breaking branches. No movement out of the corner of my eye. Nothing.
It’s nearly midday and I’ve abandoned any attempt at being quiet. I’ve covered 4,000’ vert and 10 miles, and I’m more interested in the fastest route back to the truck than harvesting anything. I move up a hill dotted with sagebrush, the final uphill before the return descent, on a game trail peppered with what I can swear are fresh tracks. I feel like I’m being mocked. I think to myself, hell, I can even smell elk.
Then it happens: the cracking branches and glimpsed movement I’ve been anticipating for weeks. A bull and four cows emerge from seemingly nowhere and briskly move away from me to the adjacent hillside. I crouch down, remove my rifle from my shoulder, click the safety off, and eye up to the scope — all in one smooth motion. My aim is far from steady. I put the bull elk into the crosshairs as he begins to move further away from me. No good, I think to myself. As fast as they appeared they’re out of sight, contouring across a well-established game trail.
Reinvigorated, I’m on the move again. The moist trail makes being quiet easy. I follow fresh sign for a mile, across the south-facing sagebrush slope and back around to the heavily forested north face. My heart is racing. The slightest noise from any branch I brush against seems to echo through the still forest. I finally gain a small opening on the ridge, where I suspect my best vantage point will be. I know if they’re not in the next gully I’ve likely lost them for the day.
Crouched low, I retrieve my binoculars and glass the game trail. Then, I see them. Staring straight back at me from the adjacent ridge, slowly moving out of sight. I methodically remove my gun from my shoulder, switch the safety off, and put my eye up to the scope. I’m steadier this time, taking slow, controlled breaths. Just before the last elk of the herd moves out of sight, it pauses, broadside to me, offering a clean shot. I breathe in, exhale partially, and squeeze the trigger in one smooth motion.
The only thing more surprised in the forest than the elk is me, as it falls without taking another step. Safety back on, gun around my shoulder, I breathe a sigh of relief. Far worse than not seeing anything or missing a shot would be the heartbreak of wounding an animal. I feel a primal sense of pride, not from the kill but from the many meals that are going to come from it. I somehow feel more self-reliant, rawer, manlier. My heart is still racing, this time fueled by excitement rather than nerves. I give thanks for the harvest as I reach the animal. The gun is put away, and as I begin the process of cleaning the meat with my Gerber Instant blade, I crack a smile thinking about a full freezer for the winter.
This post was produced in partnership with our friends at Gerber, whose gear is stoking out the Matador Ambassadors.