This was the last day of eastern Oregon’s Rocky Mountain Elk Season. In the four days prior, I’d jumped elk, heard them run, but had not visually been able to see them. But as the saying goes, “Always hunt the first day like it was the last … and the last day like it was the first.”
Emotionally charged, I eased out of the pickup in the predawn darkness, then fed a cartridge into the chamber of my Browning .300 Winchester magnum and closed the bolt on the rifle. The excitement and pure elation were building. I was ready to hunt, not knowing the day would be full of surprises.
A couple more trips around the sun and I will have hunted this area high in the Eastern Oregon’s north fork of the John Day Wilderness for 50 years. From tagging big bulls to seeing nothing during a 5-day hunting season. From seeing a surprised look of excitement on my late-father’s face at the news of getting a bull down or struggling to overcome an active heart attack deep inside the forest.
I’ve seen the reflections of myself in deep snow and tip-toed through dry pine needles. I’ve spent exhausting days during the daunting tasks of packing out elk and those coming out empty handed but for a picture or two in my camera when I didn’t have a tag. I’ve felt the heavy, chilling wind and heard the trees moan, snarl and growl. And too, I’ve listened to the silence of the wilderness.
If there was a constant it was that each year, I wished for my family to share this experience. I missed them but I loved this place and loved being here at this moment. I felt supremely relaxed.
The nostalgic shadows of time circulated through my mind as I slipped on my pack and started in on a slow, cautious stalk. The hunt for elk would pull at my heartstrings — roadless forests of tall pine and golden tamarack dotted with spring-fed meadows and breathtaking vistas framed by the distant majestic snow-covered granite peaks.
This is a place whose unimaginable beauty begs you to stay.
Solitude delivers comfort. Being alone here brought balance and a sense of being thankful. Long ago I’d realized that it wasn’t just elk I sought to find; to some degree I was searching for myself. If all went well, today’s dark-to-dark hunt would take me 11 hours, covering several miles; descending 1500 feet down the mountain, ending up at camp as daylight faded. Elk, of course, would play an unknown part.
I entered the silent dark timber as the dawn lightened and the sun rose into the blue-bird sky. Illuminating light penetrated the canopy of the forest, flooding the landscape with sharpening brightness and turning nighttime shadows into real shapes. For the next few hours, I glanced from spot to spot like a camellia — carefully watching my steps over snow-covered blowdown, while at the same time looking for elk.
The morning passed seeing only a few pine squirrels and magpies who entertained me with their scampering and fly-in approaches and picking up the peanuts I sat out for them, convinced through the years of success that by feeding them they would not signal the elk of my presence.
It was early afternoon and the sun had begun its downward journey towards the Western horizon. I had just finished a sandwich and bottle of water and was putting by backpack back on; stretching to get the tightness out of my legs the 5 miles of rugged terrain had help to create. Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of movement and heard the pounding of heavy hooves. Elk were on the run!
In that petrified moment my heart raced and my eyes strained. My first thought was to chase them but I’d made that mistake before. The steeplechase from hell over windfall and through twisted pines had not ended well. A slippery slope had felt my crashing body and torn a gash in my leg. I would not run after elk like that ever again.
Quickly finding tracks where the elk had churned up the ground and seeing their direction of travel, and too, knowing where the elk would most likely go gave me a boost in confidence. For the next couple of hours, we played cat-and-mouse. I’d catch flashes of color and hear them go. It was hard to close the distance because they knew I was behind them and the wind blowing over my shoulder was not doing me any favors. I needed to get downwind.
There was only one way to do it: climb the face of the steep ridge ahead. I needed to get to its spine before the elk crossed it. Adrenaline fueled my body as my steps shortened and I leaned forward, grabbing lodgepole for balance as I climbed. The accent to the top would take only 30 minutes but would take its tole; youth had long since vacated my aging body. My legs and lungs burned while my heart pounded in my chest. Sweat streamed down from behind my ears and over my eyelids.
Breathing deeply, I made it to the crest and found a shooting lane in an opening in the timber. I settled on my knees behind a large blowdown, resting my rifle across it for stability. I was certain I’d beat the elk to the ridgeline. I’d wait, listen and watch.
I am always amazed at the way such large monarchs of the forest can move so quietly and disappear like ghosts. For over an hour I remained, then stood and sat on the large windfall in a pose most remember as ‘the thinker’ in history books. Comfortable, I listened to the breeze whisper through the swaying tops of the pines while my eyes searched back and forth like a beacon in a lighthouse.
Finally realizing the elk were gone I headed for a special spot not far down the ridge, a large rimrock outcropping in the otherwise tree covered terrain. Not only did it offer an eagle’s view of the timber and elk trails below, but was also a place where I’d enjoyed lunch several times before. It would be a perfect spot to relax and watch for elk, but that was not to be.
As I cleared the heavy timber and looked up at the rimrock I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Something had changed. What I saw instantly reminded me that all things, no matter how good, die.
A large tree, certainly hundreds of years old, that had stood watch over the butte had finally snapped and was now lying across the rocky perch. Its limbs had lost their life years ago and its trunk had turned to a gray-like statue but it had remained standing. Until now. I climbed up the rimrock and stood silently, thinking about the life of the tree now blocking my access to the flat spot behind it.
Numerous large busted limbs covered the area where the tree had landed. The sentimental longings raced through me as I felt the wistful affection for the past. I knew the spot so dear was forever changed. It was gone… I decided to move further off the mountain before enjoying the refreshments my backpack contained.
The afternoon passed as I found my way down the mountain, getting closer to camp with each passing hour. With only about a mile to go and the sun long-since gone behind the Western horizon, I neared the end of the elk trail and came face-to-face with two young hunters who were advancing up the mountain towards me.
In all the years of hunting this place I had never met another hunter in this particular area. I nodded as they got closer. In a whisper the younger man — I guessed to be in his early 20s — asked “seeing any elk?” Still feeling a little surprised by their presence, I returned the friendly gesture.
“One or two, but it’s tuff hunting in this stuff.”
I’m not sure my answer wasn’t covered in a go away tone, as much as I tried not to let it be that way. They smiled, then as they began to walk away the other hunter said “this is our first time here. We heard it is a good place to hunt.”
Drawing from an emotional tank of aquatic feelings, I felt tears welt up in my eyes before I understood why. I quickly said “good luck!” then turned away and didn’t watch them go.
It had been a day filled with beauty and happy memories, savoring the moments each spot held, including saying goodbye to an old tree and its final resting place. But too, it had been a day of adventurous excitement and the thrill of the hunt. In all of it, I was satisfied that I’d found comforting reasoning.
Meeting the two young men reminded me of my first time here. I was a 23-year-old, fresh out of school State Trooper doing time as a game warden. Now in my early 70s, I couldn’t help but feel blessed at being able to have enjoyed the experiences this mountain had shared with me — the many memories now in my rear-view mirror — and a desire for a few more in my windshield.
Wishing the young men good luck on their first year here and saying goodbye to this place for another season seemed to bring my thoughts full circle. I hoped the young men would build wonderful memories here, as I had done. Though my heart was begging to stay, I felt comfort.
God willing, I’d be back next year to see the autumn colors and hear the October wind welcoming me home.
Jerry Chartier has written Outdoor Tales for The News-Review for 35 years. He grins when he says, “I haven’t shot an elk for several years, but each year I seem to find what I’m looking for … Life is good.”