Success isn’t always measured by animals on the ground.
There are a hundred, maybe more, stories to tell about elk camp, and choosing the right one to put to print is a chore. I could talk about the camaraderie of sharing camp with fellow fanatics, or of sneaking through the timber at daybreak, or of watching a bull rake his antlers on a sage pile. Or I could write about the timeless nature of the hunt, where time, as told by the face of a clock, is meaningless and the passage of days, hours, and minutes is defined by single events: an elk at the wallow, a shot that went awry, a close encounter with a bear that blew a stalk. Those defining moments are not governed by the tics of a clock, but by the beats of the heart of the hunter who lives them.
To choose one significant moment among so many has been difficult because, as I sit down now to write about them, they seem to have blurred — to have gelled together into one block of life. So, while the words begin to take shape in my mind and transfer themselves to my fingertips, I’ll begin by telling you about a ritual that I have developed over the years.
I’m not what you would call a superstitious person. There are no rabbits’ feet in my pockets, and I don’t shudder at the sight of a black cat or a leaning ladder. When it comes to elk hunting, though, I take on a different personality, one in which I believe in certain rituals that have become as much of the hunt as my camouflage clothing, calls and bow. And for any hunt to be deemed a success, I must complete the ritual each year: I must find a feather.
Feathers, believe it or not, are not a common sight in the wilderness. Given the number of birds that live in the mountains where I hunt, you would think that finding a stray feather would be a cinch, but it’s not.
Finding a feather in the wild, one that’s been dropped naturally and not as the result of the untimely demise of the bird, is as difficult sometimes as finding an elk within shooting range. When I find a feather on the ground, I pick it up, stuff it into my hat band and wear it for the entire season. Feathers that bring me luck are burned at the end of the season. Feathers that don’t are simply put back on the ground, where they might soak up some luck for the next year.
During the first week of the season, I had been unable to find a feather on the ground, and I felt that the lack of this essential item was causing an imbalance. I felt as though a black cloud was hanging over my head, not because I hadn’t had a shot opportunity — in fact, I had four shots during the first week — but because I had failed to complete the mission, to seal the deal.
After missing four gimme shots at elk during the first few days of the season, my son, Jeremiah, came up to join me in the hunt. Jeremiah is only 11 years old (35 in kid years), and I looked forward to his long weekend in camp with a bit of anxiety. I didn’t know if he would enjoy himself or be able to handle the difficult walks in the woods. I wasn’t sure if he would be able to cut the mustard, but I was also unsure if I would be patient enough to show him the ropes in a year when I wasn’t having much success.
Jeremiah wasn’t hunting elk. He was there to walk with me and learn, and to be my shadow through this hunt. It was preparation for next year, when he would be old enough to do it for real. He would hunt grouse while I hunted elk, and I hoped he would catch the fever that would ease him into the crazed obsession that I enjoy each fall. I hoped that after this hunt that he would dream of following me through the timber in search of the bugling bulls that beckoned us to paradise.
And he surprised me. Jeremiah isn’t a big kid. He has his mom’s slight frame, is thin as a rail and doesn’t leave much of a shadow. But what I learned, and what surprised me, is that the kid is tenacious!
It’s funny what you can learn about someone in just a few days when there are no cell phones, work, school, friends or afternoon activities to get in the way. Sometimes the hardest people to get to know are the ones standing right in front of you your entire life. You think you know everything about them, but you really only know what you see through the cloudy lens of everyday life. In the wild, without all the distractions, you actually hear what the other person is saying, both verbally and non-verbally, and you form an appreciation for that person that might not have been there before.
Jeremiah and I were hunting together during the first full day, and we called in a decent bull that surprised us by coming in from downwind and behind us. The bull was within mere feet when it finally snapped a twig and got our attention. There was no shot, as the bull wheeled away and fled. We did, however, find a grouse feather on our walk out of the woods, and I believed that things were finally going to change for the better.
And they did ... sort of. Over the next two days, we saw 15 elk, including several big bulls. We got close a couple of times but took no shots. In fact, I didn’t have another shot opportunity the rest of the week. We continued to hunt hard, sometimes walking up to 6 miles and staying out for hours in the morning, but the shot I had hoped to make to redeem my earlier mistakes didn’t come.
I took Jeremiah home on Labor Day and returned to elk camp the following day. I had considered taking the feather from my hat band and letting it go back to the earth. But as I held the feather in my hand, I began thinking about the hunt that I had shared with my son. We had experienced things together that few fathers and sons ever will. We learned from each other, gained respect for each other and shared time in the most beautiful place on earth. With the feather in my hand, twisting it in my fingers by the quill, I replaced it into my hat band. I’ll burn it at the end of the season — a lucky feather that didn’t bring an elk to the freezer but brought a father and son closer and allowed two people to realize that success isn’t measured by animals on the ground, but by the time that is kept within two beating hearts. Read Recent Articles:
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This article was published in the August 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.