The two bull moose sat in a square of open ground under the fanning scales of cedar.
We found them after a heavy snow that had driven the deer into the woods.
It was whitetail hunting season, and the trail that left the highway ended at a gate. The gate was locked, so we hoofed it through the trees, pushing ahead of us the new snow that silenced our footfalls, listening to the wind in the tops of the tamaracks and watching snowy dust sparkle as it blew into our path.
A long time ago I had taken the kids skiing on this road. It became a weekly thing. We’d strap on the boards, slip around the gate and slide uphill, skirting the trees, making a loop as I cut track and the kids followed, their cheeks turning red.
Today, on the same road but years later, the forest opened into a series of small clearcuts of an acre or more before closing and opening again. The clearcuts grew larger until we came to a swath of 40-plus acres, partially logged, meaning the bigger trees had been selected and pulled out, leaving patches of young growth like the cedars where the moose bedded, keeping out of the wind.
We watched the two bulls from across a small draw.
Their eyes had given them away: A glint and flick of an ear, their rumination, large, dark shadows in a spindly growth of cedar and fir.
The binoculars were passed back and forth as we measured palmed antlers, points, the sheer volume of hair and bone.
We considered the bulls tucked under the low-hanging boughs with a fine vantage to discern friend or foe, and they considered us back.
This went on for a while.
Brushing snow from adjoining stumps as stools, rifles were laid over legs. We waited for passage, or a young buck to emerge anxiously from the forest.
Then the moose rose somewhat grudgingly, like someone readying for work. Maybe the wind had changed, and they had caught a whiff of a predator far off, or our presence harried them.
They were methodical, though. Long legs poked brush and slash as the animals tiptoed through snow into a gully and out of sight.
We found no deer that day, but despite what has become an occurrence that can these days be chalked up as common in northern Idaho — seeing Shiras moose — the memory of the two bulls remains.
I have a friend who killed an elk with a bow after years of trying without success.
None of those many days he spent in the woods were wasted, or expended without purpose.
Once I took a pal from Ohio onto a ridge early in the morning. We had to leave the house when the exhausts of log trucks fluttered in neighboring driveways. It was so early the gas stations hadn’t brewed a pot of coffee yet, and we reeled out of town and along a river for miles then cut through a former mill and lumber town increasing in elevation. The gravel road turned to dirt, and behind us the red flecks of our taillights were obscured by cool, early autumn dust I knew smelled like pine and fir, the duff and detritus of centuries.
We crossed a cattle guard, passed a couple skidders whose engines had not yet been turned over, and we kept going. It was miles of switchbacks, and at one time we looked west and saw the halo-like glow of human existence, a pink bowl over the mountains in the dark.
When we reached the road’s end, we parked and the engine pinged and we gathered our gear and hiked along a trail, spooking mule deer that huffed at us, their hooves pounding away in the darkness.
The black sky was pinpricked with stars.
“How much farther?” my pal asked. He had not anticipated the rigor of mountains.
“Not too,” I said.
We broke a sweat.
After an hour, I said we can rest here and wait for daylight.
I said the bulls will come out across the ridge.
As our sweat dried, it got chilly. We lay on our packs, which were warm against our backs.
Then the horizon to the east opened up like an incision. Pink light spilled out and over the mountaintops.
It won’t be long now, I said.
And a bull bugled from across the ridge and my pal said, “No way!”
“Way,” I said.
Three bulls, their backs steaming, spread out across the ridge at the edge of the treeline; we could see their rumps in the earliest slick of light.
The bulls’ bugles danced strongly over the valley.
“Those aren’t elk!” He exclaimed.
I handed him the binoculars.
“No way!” He said again as he glassed across the canyon.
He lives in Montana now, somewhere near the Yellowstone River.
This morning it was dark and cold outside, even for northern Idaho, when he sent me a text message.
“I am drinking coffee and listening to elk bugle in my neighbor’s alfalfa field.” The message glowed in my palm.
I wrote him back.
“No way,” I said.
Bartholdt writes about criminal justice and the outdoors for the Coeur d’Alene Press. He can be reached at email@example.com