It is hunting season, or more specifically archery season. It opened up here in Montana last weekend and thanks to the generosity of my husband and mother in law I was able to sneak away for 3 hunts that weekend. As I headed out on the first hunt and the miles ticked away behind me I felt my worries and stresses melt into the passing white and yellow lines and disappear completely by the time the tires of the truck rumbled onto the graveled road and into the mountains. The dirt kicked up behind me leaving a cloud of dust to slowly settle onto the leaves and grasses trying to push their way into the two-track dirt road left over from the labors of the loggers who traversed this landscape long before me. After rattling my way for more than 30 minutes I finally reached the gate that turned the road I was on into nothing more than a walking path for those souls lucky enough to have the time to traverse it. Here the woods were damp and dark, shade prevailed throughout the day and the smells here were ethereal. I got my gear situated, turned on my GPS and shouldered my pack. I strapped my release onto my wrist and grabbed my bow. Slowly and methodically I made my way behind the gate and up the winding path kept open by foot traffic alone. It was not a heavily traveled path and some of the leaves had already started to fall leaving crunchy little obstacles littering the path. Tracks of does and fawns were prevalent as well as an old moose track and some fresher elk tracks.
I crept slowly and quietly along watching, waiting and listening for any sound coming from the creatures I was certain were sharing the forest with me. I made my way along for some time before I came to the fork in the path I was looking for. I had been to this place only once prior. It was in the springtime and I was looking for bears but the spot stuck in my mind because it had potential to be an attractive location for many animals. This spot held water, even during the heat of summer it was cool and wet. These places are coveted in the dry arid environment of the woods in Montana’s September. I checked the wind. Here where all of the drainages seemed to meet each other the wind just swirled. This was not going to be easy. As I crept toward the water I saw fresh signs that the elk had bedded and wallowed here. Tall thick bushes surrounded the path they had taken to leave the area and the leaves of these bushes were covered in dried mud that had collected on them from the sides of the elk as they pushed their way through them. My mind wandered to what the elk might look like that had walked this same path as me. Suddenly I heard the tell tale sound of hooves on dirt. I froze. In the brush and uphill from me I could here cracking and movement from a large animal. It was either an elk or a moose but I would never know for sure as suddenly the animal rushed down the side of the mountain and crashed out of hearing. I assumed whatever it was most likely winded me. I wanted to get a better understanding of this area and what it had to offer so that the next opportunity I had to come back here I could make the best approach and hopefully not spook the animals out of the area. I continued to creep down the path trying to get to the line of timber that I could see on the mountain ridge to the west. It was where the logging stopped and I knew that there the timber would be older and the undergrowth more thin. After wading through another spring area and walking for about 10 minutes I reached the edge of the old logged timber and coincidentally the end of the logging road. Here the path turned into no more than a maze of deer and elk trails traversing the steep undergrowth of an age-old forest. It was beautiful in here. Old huckleberry bushes fought for sunlight with the thimble-berries. Elk scat and bear sign mixed with each other as this place had enough foraging for all. I sat down and pulled off my pack. I grabbed my GPS and started looking at my map to see how far this area went. It was a huge area with no roads in it, not even old logging roads. I knew this would be a place where animals felt safe.
I spent quite awhile there enjoying the solitude and listening to the sounds of the tamarack woods. It was peaceful and the sun was setting. I had gained a lot of knowledge about the area and decided to sneak back along the path the way I had came never knowing when an animal might be standing just around the bend. I got back to my truck right after dark and I loaded up my gear and bounced my way back down the mountain, around the pot holes and wash out and back to the white and yellow lines that led me home to my family and a surprise that I had not expected.
As I neared home I came back into cell service and my phone lit up like a Christmas tree. After wading through the missed calls and notifications I realized that my mother in law had decided to take the kids home with her for the weekend. Suddenly it dawned on me what that meant, I could hunt tomorrow too! Excitement hit and my mind went wild trying to decide where to go. I held tags in my pocket for whitetail deer or mule deer, elk, wolf, cougar or bear and all of these were open this weekend. I decided to confer with my hubby when I got home and see what he had planned. I pulled in the driveway and headed inside to my abnormally calm and quiet house. Kids add the energy to a home and when they are gone it is more lifeless and still. My hubby and I sat down with some dinner and hashed out the next day’s plan. He and a buddy were headed up to a fishing spot in an area I like to hunt and I decided to go with them and hunt there for the morning. We hit the sack quickly that night knowing that the alarm would be waking us up early the following day. We were on the road long before the sun was up and the guys launched their boat into the fogged over lake as the first hints of light were showing in the sky.
They broke the stillness of the water and headed out to their favorite pike fishing spot. I took the truck and dropped off the trailer then headed down the road to the place I had been on opening morning the year before. Here I knew there were elk, deer and wolves. I passed the spot I stopped at last year and continued on up the mountain…up and up and up until I reached the top. Here there was a gated road and for some reason it called to me. I stopped and grabbed my bow. It was just light and dew was glistening on the grasses and shrubs that littered the path.
Steam was starting to rise in the few places touched by the first rays of sun and it was eerily quiet. The path had a layer of moss on it and it allowed me to be incredibly quiet as I crept along. I moved very slowly and stopped to listen and look often. I had stopped behind a large bush on the side of the path and waited for a while to see if I could hear a twig snap or catch movement in the woods ahead of me. Satisfied I began to move and as I did I caught the movement of a buck making the exact same decision as me. I froze, as did he. His antlers were covered in a thick layer of soft velvet that glistened in the sunlight that was streaming down through the canopy and illuminating him on the edge of the pathway. He looked my direction sensing my presence. I faded slowly back behind the bush and waited praying he would step out. He stood like a stone fixated on what he knew he had seen but could no longer make out. His breath twirled like smoke from his flared nostrils as the heat from his tensed body escaped into the coolness of the crisp morning air. He seemed to settle a bit and after what felt like 10 minutes he lowered his head and prepared to step out fully into the path. I drew my bow and settled my pins on the place I hoped would soon be filled with the broadside view of this majestic buck. He began to step and then suddenly spooked and turned around. He stopped momentarily facing directly away from me then bounced off down the trail in a flash of fur and hooves disappearing around the corner.
I took a deep breath and let down my bow. The beauty of the deer had taken my breath away and burned an impression in my memory that I will never forget. I stood silent for a few minutes hoping the buck would settle down around the corner and I could catch another glimpse of him. I crept my way past where the buck had been and around the corner one slow step at a time. While standing still and listening, three does and two fawns suddenly surrounded me. They ran up the path and onto the hillside next to me only 20 yards away. The does were feeding and the fawns were chasing each other about and playing almost running me over at one point. I stood motionless shocked that they had not yet noticed me. Finally one of the does realized something wasn’t right and she locked eyes on me and snorted. She continued her stare and stomped at me while the other deer fed around me for over 5 minutes. I watched her muscles ripple under her fur as she stomped her small hoof into the dusty earth trying to get me to move. Her eyes twinkled in the sunlight and I could see her trying to piece together all of the sensory information she was receiving. Eventually she decided I was nothing and slowly they fed off into the forest. This close encounter left me in awe of nature and thankful for such an exciting morning spent in it. It was getting close to the time for me to go back to the boat launch and pick up the guys so I backed out of that spot and headed back down the mountain vowing to return to that location again and with the glistening velvet haunting my thoughts.
…to be continued.