A successful elk hunt isn’t always judged by meat in the freezer. Sometimes, it’s simply about being in the high country as dawn breaks and the world awakens
I set the alarm for 4 a.m., but that turned out to have not been necessary; I was wide awake at 3:30. Early mornings in my Alberta foothills cabin are now so routine they don’t require thought, which is fortunate because at those dark hours, I’m barely capable of it. Turn on the heat under the kettle. Restart the fire in the wood stove. Brush teeth. Start toast. Fill bowl with granola. Make coffee. Sit down for a quick Internet doom-scroll over breakfast. Yup, the human world still sucks.
You don’t linger over breakfast when you got up that early, however. It’s just time stolen from what could have been a nice, warm sleep. So, I wrapped myself in several layers of clothing, loaded my pack and stepped out onto the porch. Pitch black. Even the owls were silent as I flicked on my headlamp and crunched across the snow to my dark, frozen car. It was calm and still, with no hint yet of the wind about to descend on the snowy hills. Again.
Following the arc of light up the gravel road through a sleeping world, I spotted the shapes of a couple of animals in the ditch by the fence. Mule deer, I assumed, as there are lots of them around here. Then one wheeled and ran from the fence as I drew abreast, and I saw the telltale yellow rump of an elk. I know who owns this land, and hunting isn’t allowed there, but I was curious to see if there were more elk. I hit the brakes, made a K-turn, and headed back. There were indeed two mule deer by the fence and, behind them, the pale form of a cow elk retreating back up the hill. I backed my rear wheels off the road and flicked on the high beams, then got out my binoculars.
Venus hung low over the hills to the east, which were now etched dark against the first pale hint of dawn
I could make out the dim shapes of four or five more elk up on the hill, moving against the distant lights in the background. I was still not thinking clearly, evidently—there are no lights scattered in the background here. I readjusted my brain, and realized I was seeing the reflected light of about 150 pairs of elk eyes just out of reach of the headlights. A big herd was clustered on the grassy hillside, watching to see what I would do next. I wheeled back onto the road and head north again, wondering where all those elk had come from and where they would go next. Occasionally, I braked for white jackrabbits that seemed incapable of escaping the headlight beams. They all got away.
At the parking area, there were other vehicles, looking cold and forgotten in the darkness. Venus hung low over the hills to the east, which were now etched dark against the first pale hint of dawn. Overhead sat a million stars and a vast, dark universe. By the much flimsier light of my headlamp, I walked into the leafless aspen forest, boots crunching in old snow, heading for a familiar trail that leads, eventually, to a familiar ridge. The dark forms of grazing cattle moved aside as I reflected on the aging process and why even an addiction to regular long-distance runs doesn’t prepare muscles for the pull of gravity in elk country. It always seems steeper than the last time.