In exactly eight days from now, I will be hiking in by headlamp to an area deep in the mountains to chase elk. I will be hunting with my good friend Josh Kuntz, and after a river crossing, climbing across steep side hills, bushwhacking and ascending one more matchstick tree-covered hill for good measure, we will arrive at a nondescript spot in the timber that edges out into a small clearing. Here is where camp will be for the next four days. Up go the tents, the bear bag is hung, we clear out an area for some gear, filter water for the day and prepare for life outside, away from the trappings of work, traffic, cell phones, computers and the general incessant buzz we call modern life.
That first day is tricky for me to settle, slow down and soak in my surroundings. I am still on the harried pace of the workweek, and while I feel “switched on”, I start to realize that my senses are not as tuned as they need to be out here. Where my ability to quickly dump my pack and sort gear may be dialed, I realize a bit too late I missed the flock of geese cruising by, or that the breeze from the west is a bit cooler than it was an hour ago, and the weather is likely to be changing soon…or that I need to sit down, let the mountain air rush by, and truly “see” where I am right this moment. This settling in time is key for the rest of the hunt. Don’t focus, be more aware. Try to see and hear everything around you.
These days for me in the wilderness are very clarifying, and allow me to switch over to a different mode of existence. I thoroughly enjoy the fact that I will not be under a roof (other than my tent) or lounging on a sofa, watching TV or mowing the lawn. Every minute of every day and night, cold, warm, rain or shine, will be outside. The days are long, tiring and I go to bed whipped, yet ultimately satisfied, and ready to go again the next day. I replay the hours, the miles, the animals spotted or close calls like a movie as I lay in my tent, tucked in my sleeping bag. Before long, I am out cold and the alarm is beeping at me, seemingly minutes later. As I ease out of my warm cocoon, the bracing cold air hits me. On go the frigid clothes and boots, my breath visible in the pale shaft of light from my headlamp. I want only for the small blue flame of the camp stove to spark to life, heating water for coffee and instant oatmeal out under the stars and perfect stillness. Something so basic never tasted so good. We eat quietly, talking in hushed tones about the day ahead, where we will go, if the weather will hold, predicting that this is the day we get into rut-crazed bulls.
The light starts to change imperceptibly from inky black to dark blue, and the faint, jagged silhouettes of pines towering around us come slowly into focus. Time to get moving. We pack away the food bag, and hoist it into the trees. Packs are shouldered, we grab the bows and descend down the ridge, walking into the wind and into some very elk-rich country. Today is the day.