Saturday, October 18, 2008

Thoughts from an Unsuccessful Elk Hunter

Seeing a live, wild animal close up in the woods without being seen is strange and wonderful. Elk droppings, still wet through, on the path ahead make elk seem real in a way, but seeing the ruddy, course hair and muscular sides of an elk brings that feeling to a new level. Knowing elk exist and inhabit the woods you are in is dull compared to watching an animal that can with dignity cover two miles of broken terrain in a few minutes walk calmly past not thirty yards away.

As a boy I would often try to sneak up on birds. And though the birds I was approaching often lived in neighborhoods or parks and were half tame, I had only tried it a few times before I became convinced that even a half-tame animal will only be approached on its own terms. So it thrills me to approach a wild animal like a deer or coyote on my terms.

We value things more when we realize that they could slip away at any time. When a mother jerks her son out of the road as a bus roars by, she gasps and hugs him for a moment before she can bring herself to reprimand him. She realizes how he could have been gone instantly, and that makes him seem the more precious. Seeing a deer walk by is a fleeting experience. Nothing is holding the deer near to you; it could slip away at any time, so seeing the deer is the more precious.

To the man stalking in the woods, an elk is a phantom that leaves behind a lot of sign but has no physical presence. Trees in all directions point up, but there is nothing between them. A wood is like the landscape of the moon. On the moon, stones are strewn about, but nothing is there. In the woods, hoof marks are imprinted deep in the mud, but they are left by a creature of ether. There is “only a host of phantom listeners”* in the empty woods that tease a man’s imagination and subconsciously convince him that nothing is there.

So when a deer moves through the empty woods not thirty yards away, the woodsmen is struck simultaneously by how ordinary the deer is and by how outrageous it is that the deer is walking calmly in front of him as if he were the vapor. The deer is opaque, gray like a rock. It makes sound; it takes up space. It is ordinary.

And yet electric. Its own demeanor is demure, but the woodsman feels the wonder of it in every part of his tingling body. Something far off has abruptly drawn near. Seeing it is like being hit by lightning. There is no warning, the shock is intense, and then it is gone.

It is easy for someone who enjoys animals to wonder why a hunter would want to go out and kill a living creature. A common misconception is that hunters are sadists who enjoy destruction. But as a man who belongs to the world cannot understand the joys of knowing God, a man who has not been hunting cannot know its thrills. Someone may have a lot of fun playing with his dog or riding his horse, but I cannot believe he enjoys his animals as much as a hunter enjoys the wild creatures he sees.

*From Walter de la Mare’s poem The Listeners.

Bulls in the Ruts

Most hunters have a close association in their minds between “radical insanity” and “bulls in the rut.” Consequently, if anyone had seen Nick G—— and me four-wheeling away from our elk hunting camp this year—no one did, because everyone else had already hightailed it out of the place—they would likely have mistaken us for bulls in the rut. And they would have been right, in a way; for much of the journey back to the civilized world (the part of the world where roads are differentiated from roller coasters) we were stuck in eight-inch-deep ruts.

There were three of us elk in the pickup—Nick in the driver’s seat, Muni Beduhin in the passenger’s and a cow in two coolers. The bed of the truck and the trailer were stuffed full with a wall tent, a large roll of carpeting, a stove with a grill, bottles of propane, a water heater, two cots, four sleeping bags, bins of clothes, bins of cooking utensils, coolers of food and many other articles. After we got out of the backwoods onto the open highway, we topped out at 30 mph over a 65 mph pass. It should not be hard to understand that while we were still where the character of the road meant that 15 mph was closer to demolition than titillation, we didn’t float over the mud.

The mud, resulting from several inches of snow that night and morning, was closer to fish slime than something made of dirt. Driving that road when it was mostly dry wasn’t for wimps. The ruts are deep, the mud holes are numerous, and the rocks embedded in the road are large. I was glad Nick was driving now that the road had confused itself with a slough.

We had chains on all four tires, which was helpful for pulling ourselves forward—and backward the time when we almost fell into a deep hole—but we had no side-to-side traction. The trailer was fishtailing behind us, jerking us all over the road as we remarked on how hard it was to stay out of the ruts. When we reached the top of a hill, the road curved quickly to the right. The truck, like a belligerent ox, plowed straight ahead. The drop-off was steep. Considering that our mini-caravan had been obeying Nick’s steering about as well as most of us live out our doctrine, it was not surprising that Nick was hollering as he steered wildly to the right. “Nice ruts!” he cried. “Ruts are wonderful! I want to be in them!”

We hadn’t learned our lesson completely, though. As we approached “The Pond,” Nick pulled us out of the ruts again, in attempt to escape the worst of that worst of mud holes. But once again the truck refused to turn, and Nick barely got us stopped. Six more inches and we would have been nose-down in a deep hole. We backed up and resigned ourselves to going through The Pond in the ruts. However, someone had put aspen logs at the bottom of it for traction, and our left front tire picked one up and jammed it between our axle, bumper and steering shaft. It took the bow saw to get us out of that mud hole.

After that we stayed in the ruts, and discovered an unexpected perk of doing so. I was looking out the window when Nick said, “I don’t even bother to steer anymore.” His right hand was resting on the gear shift and his left elbow was sitting on the open window. The wheel was turning according to the ruts as we went down the winding road.

I don’t know whether or not it is advisable to hunt the rut, but it is definitely advisable to drive in it when you are going over a slick, three-dimensional road with an elk and a hunting camp in tow. Not going over any cliffs is more important than not pushing logs down the road ahead of you.

Friday, October 17, 2008

End of the Evening

The sun is falling away now

and as the valley is slowly torn from its clutching fingers
it leaves scratches of flame in the clouds

It clings

—and falls away

The valley is all sprinkled with ash.
The coals on the peaks burn out:
the day dies