It was spring when I met the man I am proud to call my husband. Our first ” Date ” ( not sure we actually called it that ) was a trip out to feed and sit over a bear bait in Idaho. We spent the evening laughing and joking. He taught me about lighting a fire with my flint and steel and we just simply enjoyed the outdoors together. It is a favorite memory of mine. Here is a picture of us being ” Quiet ” at the bait site.
Needless to say we hit it off. The year before we got married I was blessed with the opportunity to join him on his elk hunt in Montana. I drove over from Idaho and we headed up to his family cabin in the beautiful Montana mountains. I remember being so excited to get in on the experience and being nervous that I would slow him down in this steep country. We set out our numerous layers of hunting clothes the night before so they would be ready to pile on in the dark the next morning. I can’t remember what time the alarm went off but I know it was very early…way before daylight. We had to be up and dressed and out the door with lots of darkness left because it was a bit of a drive to where we parked and a long hike to where we wanted to be sitting when the sun rolled out of bed. Even though I was very excited it was hard to get up. I put on all those layers and remember feeling so overdressed…I knew once I was sitting still I would need them though. He got his gear ready and I grabbed mine, loaded the car and we were soon bumping along down the dirt road to the access point for the public land we would be hunting. I was mentally preparing myself for the hike I knew was coming. Finally we rounded the bend and saw the small grassy meadow we would be parking in. Once there we quietly prepared our packs and headlamps. I would be carrying the pack frame in the event he got his elk down on the first hunt. He had his pack with all our gear and the rifle he got from his Grandfather and had killed many elk with in past years. With a glance at each other we started off into the night our headlamps on red so as not to disturb our surroundings. Our trek started off with a creek crossing which was easy for my husband but proved challenging for me. Having tackled that obstacle we proceeded on, quickly coming to a steep hill. We started up knowing that this hill would seem to go on forever and would take up the majority of our trip to the ridge top. We would hike up grabbing handfuls of grass and brush to keep ourselves from sliding back down. It was difficult going as the darkness was thick and there was no trail to follow. We trudged until we were breathing heavy and then plopped down on the bank digging in our heels for support and looked out over the vast, empty, dark space that loomed out and under our feet. The quiet was peaceful…the stars were awe inspiring. Back up we jumped and trudged some more. We stopped a few times for these breaks until the brush and steepness leveled off onto a rolling, grassy, ridge top. It was still pitch black darkness and seems to be getting darker as clouds built up and covered the blanket of dancing stars. It smelled like rain. Suddenly as if from nowhere it was windy…powerful wind gusts tugged at our silhouettes pushing us along the ridge line. Then it started raining…raining a river…drenching us as we frantically dropped our packs and grabbed our heavy coats to try to keep ourselves dry. We managed to get them on but not until after we were very wet from the continuing downpour. We hoisted the packs back on and continued our march up to the vantage point. We hiked for a ways more and the rain quit, almost as fast as it began. We were wet…our already heavy clothes weighed down from the water soaking into them. Eventually we made it to the spot…the place we wanted to be sitting still and unnoticeable when the sun peaked its rosy face around the mountain and hopefully the elk peeked out of the timber too. We found a huge boulder and sat down behind it huddled together trying to get out of the wind. It was cold. We still had a long time to wait for that warm sun…I dozed off until the cold woke me again. It was still dark but this time I could see hints of grayish light above the mountains. The stars were back out but were dimmer now. We sat there together watching as the darkness turned into shadows, the shadows turned into dark silhouettes and finally we could see the canyons, draws and valleys stretch out below us. It was beautiful. We pulled out our binoculars and began scanning. We watched deer work their way along their regular morning trails from feeding grounds to bedding grounds. We saw some hunters pushing the brush through a draw and saw the deer they spooked out run to the next ridge over and disappear. We watched and watched. I got colder…eventually I had to stand up and walk around to try to get my circulation going. I could see the rays of sun glowing on the mountain range behind me and couldn’t wait to feel their warmth when they hit our ridge. It seemed like forever but finally I could see the magnificent warm rays heating my damp clothes and shivering skin. I began to feel warmer. We decided to hike along the ridges and over the edge of the hills to try to locate some elk. Walking felt awkward on my numb feet and legs, my steps were choppy and sluggish. After awhile it warmed me up and I enjoyed the fresh fall morning air with its smells and sounds filling me with energy and happiness. This is why I love hunting. These moments make it unforgettable. We plopped down on a steep hillside and watched some hunters shoot a bull on the mountainside across the valley from us. They were a long ways off but you could hear the shot and see the busyness of the hunters like ants on a cookie. It was exciting knowing that there were elk in the county at least. Perhaps we would run into that herd another day. It was quickly getting past those golden morning hours where seeing game is the most likely. We were still enjoying hiking around looking for sign but decided to turn around and head back toward the ridge we climbed up hours before. We dropped down on the other side of the ridge and were standing together discussing our plans when Tristan looked up and over my shoulder and froze. I knew what that look meant and instantly froze as well. He said, ” There are some elk, Cakes, don’t move. ” He carefully pulled up his rifle and rested it on my pack frame. I closed my ears and felt the jolt of the rifle as he dropped one of the 2 bulls that had wandered up behind us. I was facing the other direction and couldn’t see the elk or know if he had hit anything. He said he had hit it and I turned around just in time to see it fall not more than 100 yards from where we were, dead. I looked at him and suddenly it hit me! ” Congratulations babe!” I was just as excited as he was. We marveled at the fact that the elk never heard us making our plans and just walked up behind us. We took our pictures and spent some time admiring his beautiful antlers and gorgeous hide. Such majestic animals deserve reverence and respect.
Then the work began. It was close to midday and we had a lot of meat a long way from our car in steep mountain country. We skinned and deboned the elk and began packing the meat into game bags. We knew we could not take it all in one trip so we set out with half of it and knew we would be taking the hike again in a couple hours.
Heavy packs make hiking down those steep hills very tough on your knees. It was slow going and we knew if we rushed we could end up hurt. At one point I pulled back on a large branch to break it out of our path and lost my balance falling onto my back…my pack was so heavy I could not roll over and was like a turtle on his shell helpless. I started laughing hysterically much to Tristan’s relief. He seemed to find it funny when he realized I wasn’t hurt and helped right me back on my feet. We made it to the truck and relieved our backs of the burdens. It felt wonderful. A friend came and took the meat we brought out to put on ice and get it cooled down. We drank some water and ate a granola bar to renew our energy, hoisted the packs back on and turned around to face once again the looming, massive hillside. This time it was light out which helped us pick the path of least resistance. It was still a couple hours before we had made it back to the remaining meat and antlers, packed them up and returned down the treacherous slopes to the meadow below. I don’t think I have ever been as hungry for dinner as I was that night. It was the most satisfying feeling to have worked so hard and have come off the mountain successful and enriched. The memories we made will last a lifetime. We bonded through teamwork, laughed through obstacles and found happiness in each others company surrounded by some of the greatest beauty known to man…the pristine Montana mountains.