The sun hasn’t risen as I don my first pair of camouflage. Pants, shirt, vest, jacket, even a stocking hat in colors meant to hide me from the animals I’m after—every garment stiff with newness.
“Do you think you can do it,” asks my mentor husband. “I mean, for real…do you think you can pull the trigger?”
He has asked me these questions for the past several months, in particular as we trudged into the Idaho desert for repeated target practice. They are prudent questions, given that I’m a lifelong animal lover, the kind of person who rescues half-dead baby mice from the bottoms of empty buckets, gingerly hand-feeding them tiny sips of water through makeshift straws of hay; the kind of person who traps spiders in wads of toilet paper, only to deposit them outside where they are free to resume their busy lives.
If I’m honest, I believe I can pull the trigger, which leaves me unable to reconcile the obvious conundrum: how can I cherish life and still be able/willing to take it?
“All set?” he asks me.
I nod my assent, strap the binoculars around my neck, and climb into the truck.
I’ve accompanied my husband before on various hunts; often successful, sometimes not, but my roles have been limited to spotter, and if we’re lucky, leg holder to make the process of gutting go smoother. Every time I shed tears. Every time I am conflicted.
On the one hand, I believe the meat we harvest is superior in terms of our health, very low in fat, no artificial hormones, a by-product of an animal living exactly as nature intended. I also believe death by way of a hunter’s bullet is the most humane way for a wild animal to leave this life for the next. Starvation, predation, disease, and icy weather—these are not nice ways to die.
On the other hand, I hate delivering death, perhaps because I’d prefer to live in denial, pretending all living things go on and on, forever. Hunting pulls back the curtain.
Luck is with us this morning and within an hour we spot a herd of elk in the distance. Separating us from our goal is private ranch land, indicated by the bright red lines on our hunter’s app. Armed with the landowner’s information, we do the responsible thing and begin knocking on doors for permission.
“Are you the owner of Hansen Ranch,” I ask?
“I am,” replies the young man. “I’m JR, the son.”
I launch into a spiel about how this is my first elk hunt and would it be OK if we crossed his land in order to reach the herd on the distant hills?
Luck is with us again; JR not only grants us permission but also suggests we park our truck at his mother’s house and invites us to ride our four-wheeler across their land in order to gain easier access. I say words of gratitude as we depart and minutes later we’re out of the truck and gearing up: gloves, neck gator, gun. Since the rancher tells us this herd has been hunted recently and therefore somewhat skittish, we opt to leave the four-wheeler behind, striking out on foot.
The ground is covered in a thin layer of snow, hardened like stale toast, and as we crunch our way toward the distant herd, we discuss topography and how best to make our approach. This is my favorite thing about hunting, the endless strategizing as we struggle to remain hidden and downwind. It feels like meditation, a type of Zen that uses up all the space in your head, your body relaxing into the primal work of drawing close to your quarry.
I’m also drawn to the land: rolling hills marching across the horizon, welcomed by the distant arms of tree-lined mountains. Boulders peeking through the snow, eager to flaunt their riot of lichens in saffron, orange, gray, and green velvet. Tiny streams edged with intricate webs of ice crisscross our path, as do the workman like tracks of coyotes, foxes, wild turkeys, and the occasional large cat.
Breathing, in this place, feels sacred.
We follow the northern most draw, a deep gully that divides one hill from the next, hoping the wind will remain in our favor as we cover the intervening miles, pausing occasionally to drink heavily from our limited water. At a predetermined landmark we trade places, I take the lead, and we begin crossing the hill due south. Cresting the ridge, we drop to our knees and scope the closest animals. It’s obvious to us both this course will never work. Too much distance between the hillsides, and too little cover, means we’ll never get closer than 200 yards, outside the range of my black powder permit.
So we retrace our steps back into the draw, then continue climbing up before circling around, approaching slowly and scoping every few minutes. It’s again clear we’ve made the wrong approach—too much distance and no cover behind which to hide. We backtrack again, drop a third of the way down before side hilling to the next ridge, only to by greeted by the same situation. We huddle together and discuss the various options before agreeing our only hope is to go all the way back down, cross two hills and approach by coming back up the southern most draw.
We hike downhill until our knees scream, splash through a thin stream, then head back up, hunching together in what we hope will approximate an elk-like creature to the unsuspecting elk—me going first with the gun, my husband right behind me, one hand clutched to my pack, our steps in unison, hunched at the waist in order to present a less human-like silhouette.
Best-case scenario, we resemble a cartoon elk gone horribly wrong.
At the crest of the hill, we drop to the ground to assess the situation. It’s not promising, the terrain completely open for at least 100 yards, not a tree or shrub in sight behind which to hunker. Which leaves us two choices: find yet another way around and back up, or gut it out and stride through the snow as if we belonged there.
We go for bold, assume the backbreaking position of pseudo-elk, and begin hiking up the hillside. As we reach the distant tree, it’s clear our decision has paid off—we are surrounded by elk who seem to have no idea we’re present. It’s a situation hunter’s dream about, probably a once-in-a-lifetime, as bulls and cows amble calmly past our position.
“You’re going to have to jump up and take the shot,” whispers my husband. “Once you’re standing and they realize what you are, you’ll only have a second, so be aggressive.”
“OK,” I answer, unsure if my tone gives me away—I’m terrified.
“Go now,” he urges, “they’re about to bolt!”
I rise to my feet like a specter, push the butt of the gun into my shoulder like I’ve been taught, zero in on the nearest cow and pull the trigger, thinking at the last second, did I just pull up? It is a cardinal sin, allowing the energy of the explosion to raise the end of gun mid-shot, rather than absorbing the energy straight back into the shoulder, keeping the gun level as the bullet leaves the chamber.
Through a cloud of smoke I see the animal drop to the ground like a bag of heavy rocks. I mimic the action, overcome with anguish and a fierce sense of accomplishment, in equal measure.
“You got her!” my husband assures me. “Oh my word, baby, you did it! That was a great shot!”
I don’t tell him about my last second thought.
“I don’t want to look,” I sob, as though he needs a reminder. I never look, not ever. The long moments between animals being shot and actually dying are more than I can bear.
He finishes reloading as I continue to blubber.
“Whistle when the coast is clear,” I say, as he heads out to confirm the kill.
“Will do, honey.”
Too much time passes and I feel a rising dread.
Where is she?
Finally, a whistle, and I gasp with relief—he’s found her. As I round the bush I hear him say he hasn’t found her yet but I should come take a look. He leads me up a small rise and below us is a herd of close to 200, easily clearing a rancher’s fence before grouping to assess the level of threat and deciding whether to scatter. We watch them through binoculars, searching for a bleeding animal, an animal limping or lagging behind, maybe lying down, because one thing is certain: there is blood where I shot the elk, but there is no dead animal.n
“We’ll just follow the blood trail,” my husband consoles. “She can’t have gone far.”
So we spread out in different directions and search for my mistake. All I can find is a single drop of blood on one side of the fence, and a single drop on the other. We continue the search for another hour, scouring the draws and hillsides, a litany of self-recrimination circling my head.
As the sun begins to set, my husband wraps his arms around my slumped shoulders and says he’s sorry. He knows this is the outcome I’ve feared the most, the reason I’ve resisted his invitations to hunt.
To harm and not harvest is my nightmare.
“We’ll look again first thing in the morning,” he says. “She’s probably gone downhill and is laying down right now, stiffening up.”
Great, I think, she’s out in the cold dying a slow and painful death.
It takes hours to hike down from the hills and once I stop crying, I start thinking.
I did not deserve that elk, I tell myself. I wasn’t willing to watch the consequences of my decision to pull the trigger, wasn’t willing to see to the suffering that decision inflicted, therefore, Nature was not willing to share her bounty.
“I think I was supposed to learn a lesson,” I tell my husband.
“Yeah. I think I have to own every part of the process, not just the easy stuff. I think by not watching the hard part, I was being disrespectful to the animal.”
“I won’t do that again,” I continue. “Shoot and look away. I’ll force myself to watch. Then, if I’m successful, I’ll know the animal gave itself to me because I was willing to pay the price. The full price.”
“Oh, honey…” he says. “I think you might be right.”
And our hearts break together.
Day two and the elk herds feel the pressure of weekend hunters, their movements quick and alert. We will need to work twice as hard to catch them unaware.
By noon we’re exhausted, dropping into the snow for a quick lunch and gulps of water, our heartbeats returning to normal, then it’s back on our feet, descending the next ridge in order to climb up its neighbor, hours passing until we stumble across a stream, round a corner, and discover a second herd of 200 spread across the opposite hills.
We freeze, and then whisper our agreement to assume the badly animated elk pose before proceeding closer to a scraggly stand of shrubs. The herd is curious, not quite alarmed, and I figure we must be the only couple crazy enough to use this backbreaking approach: heads lowered, back’s bent, thighs burning with the effort to step between frozen rocks.
At the shrub I go belly down beside the stream, inching my way past the thin branches until several elk are in sight.
“I don’t have a shot,” I whisper to my husband.
“Are you sure?” comes his reply. “Because I think you can take a shot at this distance.”
He is such an optimist.
A quick primer on my black powder rifle:
1. it is the same type of gun used in the American revolution
2. the kind that requires gun powder first, then a bullet stuffed on top of that with a long, skinny rod
3. the kind that requires a cap, placed into a separate chamber
4. the kind that has open sights, which is to say no scope, just you and one red dot framed by two green dots at the end of an impossibly long chamber
5. the kind that shoots somewhat accurately at 100 yards, less so at 150 yards, and laughingly so at 200 yards
6. the kind that is prone to misfire, like when you pull the trigger but nothing happens except the quiet thump of hammer against defective cap
7. the kind that breeds doubt, every shot a fervent prayer
“I’m sure,” I whisper. “The elk’s entire body disappears when I line up my sights.”
“I still think you can do it,” he whispers back. “You’re a good shot. You’ve put in the practice. I think you can do it.”
“I can’t do it.” I tell him. “I don’t have a shot.”
My only choice is to belly crawl closer and see what happens, so I inch awkwardly across the ground, elbow followed by hip followed by heel—pause—elbow followed by hip followed by heel—pause. My methods are the opposite of stealth and I’m not surprised when the elk begin shuffling their feet, a clue my luck is about to run out. Still on my belly, I place my gun on the nearest rock and line up my sights.
Again the entire animal disappears, so I resign myself to waiting.
Maybe they’ll settle and return to grazing.
Maybe they’ll forget I’m here and wander in my direction.
Maybe pigs will fly.
More than once I place my finger on the trigger and consider taking a shot, but my mind can’t shake the imagine of a second animal, wounded and running, never to be seen again.
I don’t take the shot.
Backtracking to my husband’s position, I explain to him over and over how I didn’t have a shot.
“What do you want to do now?” he asks.
“Let’s pretend we’re giving up,” I say. “We can work our way back to the quad and if there’s an opportunity to hunt, we’ll take it. If there’s not, we’ll call it a day and try again in the morning.”
“OK,” he agrees, in deference to the beginner.
But the tone of his voice says he’d rather keep hunting. He knows as well as I do we’re at the end of the season, our last chance to fill the freezer for nine, long months.
As we approach the ravine that hides our quad, he gives it one last try.
“Honey, I think if we stay in the bottom of this ravine and hike around the next ridge, we might run into the herd we spotted earlier.”
I know the herd and the area he’s describing and it’ll mean another hour or more of added effort.
“Sure,” I tell him. “Let’s give it a shot.”
The pun is lost on both of us.
Twenty minutes later, his hunch proves correct. We drop to the snow yet again, spread eagle, inches apart, a huge herd just out of sight but close enough to hear their calls. I have time to wonder how ridiculous we must look, prone in the middle of nowhere. Then, above us on the hillside, we spot a small satellite herd—two young bulls and a handful of cows. My husband slowly removes the pack from his back and shoves it forward, whispering instructions about how to stuff it under my barrel for a makeshift rest.
I do as he says, then place my sights on the nearest cow and again it disappears completely behind the red and green dots.
“I don’t have a shot.”
“I think you do.”
“I’m telling you, I don’t.”
“Then lets just wait a bit, maybe they’ll move closer
Ten minutes turns to twenty, then thirty, the snow melting into our clothes, both of us pushing ourselves up on elbows and toes in a futile effort to keep the wet cold from spreading.
I start to shiver.
Oh great, that’ll help…
Forty minutes and we’re surrounded by the herd, elk mewing and calling to one another, youngsters rearing up on hind legs in playful fights, a baby nursing from it’s mother.
“It’s better than National Geographic!” we whisper exultantly to one another.
Eventually, I convince myself it’s OK to take a shot, but before committing, I extract a promise.
“Here’s the deal,” I whisper to my husband. “If I take a shot, you have to promise you’ll jump to your feet and run as fast as you can to track her.”
“I’m serious,” I whisper fiercely. “I can’t wound another animal. I just can’t.”
“OK, honey,” he tells me. “I’ll do it.”
“You’ll do it?”
“I’ll do it.”
“You’ll jump up and take off running while I reload the gun?”
“Yes, honey. I’ll jump and run.”
“OK. Then get ready, I’m about to take a shot.”
I put my sights over the nearest cow, mouth a prayer, and pull the trigger.
“Welcome to black powder,” whispers my husband.
“Are you serious?!”
I can’t believe this is happening.
“We need to get the cap out and put in a new one,” he tells me.
“Right. And how do you suggest we do that with the elk looking RIGHT AT US?”
We move as little as possible but the gymnastics involved in turning the gun upside down to eject the defective cap combined with the struggle to get the bag of fresh caps out of a coat pocket and into a gloved hand, then inserted with frozen fingers, all while lying face down in the snow and being observed by a herd of elk, makes me almost lose hope.
“Let’s lay still a few minutes and let the herd relax,” I whisper, now that the gun is finally sorted.
But it’s clear we’ve pushed the herd’s tolerance too far, as the satellite animals nearest our position begin shuffling away, craving the safety of larger numbers.
Oh man...there goes my chance.
Then, over the crest of the hill appears a cow elk we hadn’t noticed, the lead animal who has changed directions and now brings up the rear. She is close enough that my sights over her body leave the narrowest of outlines.
“I can see a sliver of her around my sights,” I tell my husband. “How high should I be aiming?”
“Aim for the spine,” he replies calmly. “At this distance the bullet will drop as it travels and you’ll have a good shot.”
Always the optimist.
“OK,” I breath out. “Get ready to run.”
I remind my eyes to stay open, say a prayer of hope, and pull the trigger.
The elk hunches, pirouettes, then drops to the ground and rolls on her back. Two swift kicks and she rolls on her side, perfectly still. I keep my eyes open, pinned to her agony.
Tears stream like rivers but I do not look away.
Within moments, it’s clear there will be no running. No frantic search for a downed elk.
She is dead.
I lay in the snow and sob, my husband beside me murmering words of comfort.
“Honey, she didn’t suffer, I promise. She never even knew what hit her.”
Eventually, I stop crying and begin the reverent walk to her body.
She is huge, a perfect specimen, a beautiful cow in the prime of life. Her fur is dense and luxuriant, her ears finely shaped. Her dark eyes are empty, but for a moment I glimpse her life; browsing in contentment, surrounded by the comfort of numbers, her body strong and warm, every aspect of her life exactly as nature intended.
When we remove her internal organs, we’ll discover my shot went straight through her heart, making it true: she suffered as little as humanly possible.
I kneel and place a hand against her shoulder, bowing my head.
I took a life.
I fed my family.
Thank you, thank you, thank you…
Then I throw a promise in the wind toward the backs of her swiftly receding herd: we will honor her gift, I tell them. Vowing to let nothing go to waste, to use every part of her body that we possibly can, we kneel together in the gathering dark, my husband and I together as we begin the long hours of work still ahead.