Illustration by Phil

Why a successful elk hunt isn’t always judged by meat in the freezer


Illustration by Phil

The ridge crest drops gradually and more bits of terrain reveal themselves for those who choose to follow it. I decided to go about halfway down to where it ends. It was a good plan, as it turned out. Peeking through an opening, I saw a shape at the edge of the aspens below and ahead of me. My binoculars told me it was a cow elk, then another. I couldn’t see any other animals, but it was still worth a sneak, just in case there might be a legal bull with them.

I got out of sight and moved forward 50 metres, then eased to the edge of the ridge and looked down again. They were gone. My first thought was that the crazy turbulent wind must have given them my scent, but then I spotted the shape of a solitary hunter way out on the grassy flats. He was studying some white-tailed deer I’d spotted earlier, and must have disturbed the elk without even knowing it.


As I moved a few metres further, there was a sudden crashing just below the crest of the ridge, where the aspens give way to firs. Three elk had evidently been coming up from where the other hunter had disturbed them, only to encounter me. They were gone almost before I saw them. That happens. Then I saw what looked like fur about 20 metres away. My binoculars confirmed that it was a fourth elk.

She had heard the others run away, but didn’t know why they’d fled. She looked all around her, took a couple steps towards me, barked for the others, then stood stock-still, listening. She took a few more steps and barked again. My magical powers were insufficient to the task of getting her to grow antlers, so I simply watched her as she stood, only a few paces away, tense with alertness, perfect in her wildness.

The standoff ended when I felt the wind shift and thought to myself, She’s going to smell me. And she did. It was all the information she needed. She crashed off through the trees and was gone. The wind raged and the trees danced and the slope was empty again in the golden morning light.


I left, too, picking my way down the treacherous slope, grateful for the ice spikes I started wearing on my hiking boots the previous fall when I realized I need all the help I can get to stay unbroken out there. A white-tailed buck jumped from its bed in the aspens as I cut through the woods below, ducking and dodging until he was gone. I didn’t even bother unslinging my rifle. Grosbeaks flew past, whistling. Nuthatches beeped happily away in the fir trees, sounding like nasal little bicycle horns. Ravens talked among themselves as they blew past, flying sideways in the wind.

I simply watched her as she stood, only a few paces away, tense with alertness, perfect in her wildness

Eight kilometres of walking ended back at my car. When I closed the door, I just sat for a moment, savouring the sudden peace from the crazy wind. It was 10 a.m. If elk can take a nap in the middle of the day, I thought, so can I. So, I did, thinking maybe I’d go back out in the evening, but probably not. The alarm was already set for the next morning, though.

I’m hoping for another successful morning of elk hunting, immersed in God’s country, open to the next surprise, intent and focused on finding an elk and, if good fortune holds, never quite being in the right place at the right time. It’s the hunting I love best, after all. The getting is always a bit sad and it leads to an awful lot of work. I’ve reached the point where I now believe the most successful days are, in fact, the unsuccessful ones. Yet it’s the hope of success that keeps you going.

My ambivalence is strange, admittedly, because it’s the prospect of a freezer full of elk meat that also provides the necessary motivation to send me out into the dark world to meet the sunrise, my legs aching and fingers frozen, up in the windy pines, close to heaven. Possibly in it. I hope I never lose that urge, even though I’m sure relieved when I come home empty-handed. That’s partly because I still get another chance to pry myself out of a warm, comfortable bed and go out into the cold to do it all over again.

Many people might find that a bit strange, but I don’t. And I never will.

Long-time contributor Kevin Van Tighem lives in Canmore, Alberta. His most recent book is Wild Roses Are Worth It.