What we know about elk and snowy hunts

Ralph Bartholdt

The shivers take a toll.

Teeth chattering, and sometimes heart thumping can throw a hunter off his or her game. This usually includes making a clean shot for a quick kill, but may also entail the simple art of concealment.

Say for instance a bunch of cow elk are strolling past and a bull is bringing up the caboose.

Cows, just like does — be they mulies or whitetails in this part of the sphere — are keen observers of their surroundings because staying upright is their business and keeping the next generation alive is paramount.

So, they — to quote a phrase — live with their heads on a swivel.

While you’re poised in the shadows with your bow fully drawn, a cow will see you frown a fly off your forehead or scrunch tight your eyes to shoo away a glossy aphid that invaded a tear duct. Or, maybe it wasn’t the facial movement, but the errant huff of a breeze that for a fraction of a second touched the back of your ear and lifted the head of the browsing cows, in unison, like a water aerobics team. Their eyes locked on yours.

Now what?

Once as a teenager in a tree stand, after having diminished the sensitivities of some pals who swore to the relevance of a disease called buck fever, I heard my heart jump in my chest as a 4-by-4 buck walked through the frozen swamp below.

I packed a .32 Special, lever action with a 3x scope. It was a brush gun that belonged to my dad, who had graduated to more refined hardware.

The deer was in sort of a hurry. It walked the same path where minutes before I had watched an ermine hunt voles. I already had the rifle poised because I heard the deer coming, quietly, as my breath frosted my face and I lifted a bandana to hide it, but it was my loudly banging heart that stopped the buck in his tracks.

Buck fever, I heard myself whisper.

A man in Clarkia once told of tracking elk to the top of a plateau, stepping in their tracks and when he reached the summit, the elk had disappeared. Their tracks didn’t betray their direction. It was as if they had taken flight.

He backtracked, then ringed the mountain top until he once again picked up the tracks. This time heading down.

The animals, when they had reached the peak and knew he was following, leaped 30 yards over the edge without leaving a trace, he surmised.

All without a sound.

I chuckled at the tale, until years later.

Arriving in a honey hole after a long trek through new snow in the dark, I was met with elk talk. There were mews, squeals and a bugle. A group was mucking it up nearby. I crouched under a fir in the dark for an hour among them until shafts of morning sun pressed in, and I couldn’t stay still.

Freezing temperatures, the lack of movement and the sweat from the hike were making a ragdoll of me. My teeth chattered. My body was an orbital sander turned on high.

Seemingly from nowhere a bull appeared to fence with a small tree just a stone’s throw before me. A beautiful cone of sun like a halo surrounded him.

I mustered my energy to keep from shaking and chattering, slithering to a downed log that I would use to rest the rifle on and keep my flailing arms from messing up my shot.

I slid the rifle up on the log and counted. On the count of five, I would compress my breath and my shivering body into a stoic and muscle-still killing machine.

Instead, five seconds later, with my body in a disciplined moment of non-movement, I looked through the scope to the empty spot 40 yards away where the bull had been.

No sound had ushered his retreat.

The herd was gone too.

I stood up, and like an exorcism allowed my entire body to shiver and shake and my teeth to loudly chatter.

With the ruckus diminished, I walked through the woods to where the elk had been.

Nothing. Just their scent, and muddy water in a stream that earlier ran clear.

The man from Clarkia had a point: It’s magic out there.

Bring electric mittens and socks.

Bartholdt writes about crime and the outdoors for the Coeur d’Alene Press. He can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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