Bullies in Big Country

A winter elk hunt without the white.

A proud bull elk tops a ridge in the National Bison Range near Charlo, Montana. (Photo: B.P. Perry/iStock)

 

We left our boots outside.

That’s my first thought when my son wakes up, looks out the window of our camp trailer, and declares it’s Christmas. We hiked muddy trails yesterday, so we didn’t bring our boots in. It’s actually Labor Day weekend.

We weren’t expecting snow. Buried boots aside, my husband is thrilled. We’re camped in the coveted central Idaho elk hunting unit he drew for November. We already saw a decent herd in the sagebrush flats last night. This weather will push down more. By November, there will be hundreds of elk at lower elevations if this snow keeps up.

But it didn’t.

The Labor Day storm was the last of the white. The hunt opened November 1 and the ground was bare, dry, and brown. No reason for animals to move down. My husband was going to have to hike high ridges on the Idaho-Montana border to find elk, but he wasn’t worried. He’s new to hunting and has beginner’s luck. He dropped his first elk on a cow hunt with a muzzleloader last year. I was at hockey practice with our boys when his text came in.

“I got one!”

As soon as our friends taught him how to clean and butcher the elk, I made sure all that precious red meat from forest rather than feedlot lasted us all year. I only used it in recipes I deemed worthy of wild game. Store-bought chicken and locally butchered pig filled in the lesser meals.

 

This is how winter in elk country should look. Instead, this Labor Day weekend snow disappeared, only to return after the hunting season closed.
This is how winter in elk country should look. Instead, this Labor Day weekend snow disappeared, only to return after the hunting season closed. (Photo: Kris Millgate/Tight Line Media)

 

We ate our last elk steak just before Halloween, knowing my husband’s muzzleloader hunt in trophy territory started a week later. I know sizable beasts are in there because I saw their tall-statured rubs when I ran a 100k trail race through my husband’s hunting unit in July. It’s unforgiving, wild land, rising and expanding beyond human limits. But it sure is beautiful, and we quickly developed a fond attachment to the big country our bull would come from. We knew it well, and though it’s rough and remote, we’re a brood of similar stock. We’d have elk by Thanksgiving.

And then we didn’t.

I played single parent, hockey coach, and patient wife for days on end. Well, really only four days at a time. That’s how long my eager husband and his seasoned hunting buddy went, for then the trailer would prove too tight, the food stale, and the elk elusive, so they came home for a few days at a time, too.

“We are ok. On our way. No elk.”

Empty-handed texts went on for three weeks. After Thanksgiving they made one last-ditch effort on the last day of the hunt. My husband saw elk, but they saw him, too, and with no snow to slow them down, they ran for miles. The closest he ever got was 80 yards. Two bulls fighting. He didn’t have a clear shot with all their anxious posturing. The only clean shot that presented itself was 150 yards away, and with a muzzleloader, it was a no-go.

“Off the mountain and I’m ok. No elk. Sorry. We’re going to have to go back to turkey.”

The thought of turkey bores me. I check the extra freezer we bought for all the game we planned to butcher—only a few bricks of frozen pig in the bottom. No more elk steaks, roasts, or ribs. A refill is another year away, and in Mother Nature’s own way of humbling a hunter to his core, snow dumps the day after my husband’s hunt closes. All those bullies of such big country are certainly down lower now. I know my husband is thinking about them, but I’m certain they’re not thinking about him.

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. See more of her work at tightlinemedia.com.

 

 

About Kris Millgate

The quiet cast of fly line cures writer's block for outdoor journalist Kris Millgate. She runs Tight Line Media out of her Idaho basecamp while covering outdoor issues nationwide via print and video. www.tightlinemedia.com.