We cut our first elk tracks five miles in, post-holing our way through heavy snow often reaching past the knee. Kyle has taken the front, breaking the trail, one foot slowly in front of the other. A faint “whoomph and crunch” with every step. Despite the cold I'm sweating from exertion. A gust of wind howls over the saddle. Flipping up my hood I watch the sun burn off the last morning clouds. It's the first full day of the hunt. I squint from the sunlight and the grin that creases my face; I could not imagine a more perfect moment.
This trip has been two years in the making - a D.I.Y. backcountry public-land hunt in Montana with my oldest son, Kyle, who is a student here. Since the idea first took hold I have been plotting, planning, scouting, training, shooting, upgrading equipment and packing for this very moment. And now, after a long 26-hour drive, I am living it. Here, with him, in our element.
I catch my breath and do my best to follow the size-12 boot prints. Deeper into the heart of the beckoning wilderness. Deeper into the new, yet seemingly familiar, landscape that binds us. Briefly I’m reminded of a Theodore Roosevelt quote from his book,Wilderness Hunter:
"Day in and day out we plodded on. In a hunting trip the days of long monotony in getting to the ground, and the days of unrequited toil after it has been reached, always far outnumber the red-letter days of success. But it is just these times of failure that really test a hunter. In the long run, common sense and dogged perseverance avail him more than any other qualities…"
Surely this is what our 26th President envisioned when he penned those words.
Back at camp we build a campfire and cook up eggs with ground venison and taco seasoning. This concoction is then thrown on hot dog buns and covered in Ketchup before being washed down with cold beer. We dub them “Crater Dogs”. Everything, they say, tastes better in the mountains, even this. Especially after ten hard miles in tough terrain. Looking at his plate, Kyle laughs, recalling some of the more “creative” dishes we’ve eaten over the years together. He brings up Mentos candy that I gave him at an early deer camp. They had frozen overnight and he chipped his tooth trying to eat them. I feel myself grinning stupidly at the memory. If his mother only knew. But Kyle learned early on the sacred credo that what happens at deer camp stays at deer camp. Tired, we watch the embers burn down as we talk about the day, reminisce about campfires past and lay our plans for tomorrow before finally turning in.
The next morning we're off to a new location, up well before the sun. Once again, I find myself following his lead. A steep game trail leads over the first cliff, crests one false summit and then another before reaching the glassing spot overlooking a deep and wrinkled drainage. The scent of sagebrush and evergreen hang gently on a faint breeze. Behind the mountains the sky is beginning to glow, like a lantern when first lit. As the first streaks of dawn grow gradually brighter, Kyle spots the day’s first deer. A group of seven brown spots off to the left. He keeps watch as I continue to glass the rest of the bowl. And then his clenched whisper breaks the silence: "BUCK!". The words are like a stab of electricity directly to my body. Looking over I see four more deer have joined the group, just slightly farther up the hillside, and one clearly has headgear. The rangefinder reads just over 300, a little more than I'd prefer. I pull up the .30-06 to take a closer look. A tall fork and three does. I want to take this buck. A small argument ensues. Reluctantly the gun drops. Junior has talked me down. After all, he assures me, we have many more days to come. Eventually the deer work up and over the hill and quietly vanish into the broken landscape as if mere figments of our imagination. For now, the rifle remains silent.
In the moment, I’m reminded of one of our first hunts together. We’re in tree stands, maybe 10 yards apart, hunting whitetail in northern Michigan. I can still picture him, small in his oversized camo with the legs rolled up and his giant boots. The anticipation fresh in his young eyes as the morning dawns. I spotted the first buck and caught Kyle’s attention, pointing to my eyes and then in the direction of the activity. He acknowledges the signal and tenses. The deer crosses through but never comes into range. Not long after, a second buck meanders through the thick vegetation in front before we can set up for a shot. The disappointment is palpable. We wait a little longer. There’s more movement. A small six point moves down the run coming into range. We make eye contact knowingly. Kyle draws back and, as the buck crosses into the shooting lane, I give a quick grunt that stops him. My heart is in my throat. My eyes only on the deer. I hear the arrow release as the buck runs off. The shot falling safely short. Glancing over I can see the frustration. I can see tears starting to well up. This, I assure him, is hunting. There will be more misses. More frustrations. More mistakes. I talk him down.
We’ve decided to pack up camp and drive southeast about four hours to an entirely new location where last year Kyle filled his tag on a giant muley. We leave the snow and the mountains in the rearview as we head deeper and deeper into an arid landscape that is both beautiful and bizarrely different. One filled with history and conflict. An almost desert-like terrain with rolling hills, strange rock formations and steep cliffs with draw after draw. We make camp for the night, build our fire and dig through the cooler for something to call the evening’s dinner. Coyotes bid a distant goodnight before we extinguish the lantern.
Kyle has promised to take me to the spot he shot his buck last year. An overlooked section of BLM that borders state land. The weather is pleasant and the wind perfect. We settle in with anticipation. It feels special, seeing this place. Somehow sacred; a glimpse into part of his world that I wasn’t there for. A watershed moment for him as a hunter and a man. He methodically walks me through the sequence of events from last season and in my minds-eye I watch it unfold in front of me like I was there. The buck coming down the draw. The anxiety as he plays the wind, moves into position and waits on the shot. The excitement of the trigger pull and the momentary disbelief when the buck falls. The mix of joy and sorrow that comes from taking the life. The warmth of the animal as he first lays hands on him. The coyotes howling nearby as he quarters out the meat and the weight biting into his shoulders on the pack out. It’s a hell of a story and I have to choke back a bit of fatherly pride that comes with hearing it.
Despite perfect conditions there’s little activity. For a couple hours, we simply sit and talk and laugh quietly. Sharing stories of past hunts. Remembering adventures together. Fishing, camping, hunting, girls, school, family, places, life. For the first time in a while, I’m completely present. Removed from distractions in a way only places like this can afford. He recalls one of the first times he came afield with me, he and his younger brother. I had my bow and we crept along together until we spotted a few doe. Me in front with the boys following eagerly behind. Kyle remembers, very vividly, me getting upset (at least to a young child’s mind) about him stepping on a branch while we were on the stalk. Apparently it left an impression because he always carefully chooses his steps now.
Suddenly, in the timber to the left, there's movement. The pulse once again quickens, snapped back to the present. I range the spot at 240, pull up the rifle and wait. I see legs through the tress. Could we actually have a repeat right here in this very spot? I wait for the buck to walk out.
But then into the opening, as if by some slight of hand, a lone bull appears. Large. I can hear my own heartbeat. Kyle and I steal glances at each other. He mouths the words “HE’S HUGE”. The bull crosses directly through where Kyle’s buck fell last year. Broadside. He turns his head and we can see the full width of his antlers now. I find myself holding my breath. He’s easily 300 inches, with dark beams and stark white tips. For a moment time feels frozen. My brain feels three steps behind.
In this unit our tags aren’t good for an elk on federal land, and on state land they can only be used on a spike bull or cow. This bull is alone and moving toward the state land border. We decide, perhaps just to see if we can, to drop back over the ridge, play the wind and see if we can loop around and intersect him on the state property – who knows what might happen. We leave everything except the guns and, once over the safety of the ridge, nearly sprint to work a cut off. Kyle leads the way, masterfully avoiding stepping on sticks that might betray our presence. Carefully crossing the barbed wire that designates the border, we crest a ridge and watch an opening. Within moments the bull comes into the shooting lane and stands broadside at 200 yards. We have him dead to rights, if we only had the tags. He pauses a moment and then slowly trots off as daylight begins to fade. We look at each other and shake our heads in disbelief. It’s hard to comprehend the sequence of events that just unfolded. We both know we had him - and we did it together.
Darkness settles in and Kyle can’t find his headlamp, so I take the lead while he guides from the back. We grab the packs and make the long trek back to camp. Finally the tent comes into view and I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m tired and hungry but Kyle is frantic. Now he can’t find his hat. He had placed it in his pocket when we were chasing down the bull and here, back at camp, it’s gone. I’m annoyed, but he reminds me that this isn’t just any hat, this was my hat that I gave him to use when he was six and never got back. This is the hat that has been on his head for every successful hunt he’s ever undertaken. He can think of nothing else. We tear camp apart. The tent, the truck, the duffels, the storage bin, everything. But we both know the hat is likely somewhere back in the dark woods. Lost somewhere on the crazy route we just navigated over the last two hours. He wants to search, but we realize it’s a needle in a haystack. Tomorrow morning is our last hunt but, knowing the power of lucky hats, I promise him we will go look before we pack up.
The last morning is a hail-Mary. We sit until shooting light and then move to a small ridge overlooking a large basin. We’re more aggressive in our approach. Time is not on our side. Kyle is in front and crests the top just a bit too quickly. There are deer but we’ve bumped them. I hold the scope on the saddle they will cross at 320 and a decent buck passes into the crosshairs. I hold the shot. In many ways I just don’t want the finality of the adventure. For the hunt to be finished. To have this time with my son end. We pursue them over the top, but they have vanished as quickly as the years since Kyle and I started hunting together. There’s a lump in my throat at the thought.
After packing up, as promised, I agree to retrace our steps in search of the beloved hat. From camp, we cross through a meadow and then drop into a drainage where, in the dark, we followed an old cow trail the night before. Another half mile and still no sign. We follow our footprints from the evening before and the tracks of a lone coyote that must have passed through not long after we did. I’m discouraged but not surprised. We are, after all, looking for a camouflaged hat in the middle of a timbered forest. Kyle won’t be dissuaded. He moves on ahead and I follow. Suddenly he stops and points. And there, a mile back in, lying beside the path is his hat. I don’t know if I’m surprised or relieved or grateful – likely the combination. The hat and all the memories it holds has been retrieved. He slips it on his head and we hike out in silence. It’s time to head home.
We hunted hard to the very last minute, putting over 40 miles on the boots and pack over six days, through rugged and breathtaking terrain. But in the end, the tags went unfilled. And while I longed to wrap my hands around battle-scarred antlers, feel the heft of a heavy pack on the shoulders and cook fresh tenderloins over a campfire, I found myself, surprisingly, not disappointed in the experience. I had gotten what I came for: time with my son doing what we love together outside in the backcountry. We had the opportunity to test ourselves. To reminisce about previous adventures. To share laughs around campfires. To breathe in sage-tinted air and once again feel wild and alive. And it gave me something to look forward to; another excuse to come back. An unfinished chapter in the book.
Kyle wrote this: "On the car ride back, my dad turned and asked me what my favorite part of the week was. Initially I said it was the night we successfully spotted and stalked a 300-inch bull to within 200 yards. But that wasn't it. My favorite part was watching my love for the outdoors come full circle."
"For 18 years my dad has been by my side nearly every time I stepped into the outdoors for an adventure. Whether it was hunting, fishing, camping or everything in between, my dad was by my side, guiding me, coaching me or exploring with me. But this time it was different. This time the roles were reversed."
"That, I realized was truly my favorite part. For the first time in my life I was able to guide and coach my father while we both explored the Montana wilderness. Although I enjoyed every minute of our hunt together, the whole time I couldn't help but acknowledge that neither us of would be standing there together if it wasn't for the deep appreciation for the outdoors that he had long instilled in me at a young age."
I simply don't believe anything could make a father's heart fuller than those words.
What I brought home can't be clutched in the hand, but it is possessed nonetheless - the burning for adventure, the thirst for wild places, the contentment in my soul only found in nature and, more than anything else, the memories of irreplaceable moments with my son.
I miss the little boy in the oversized camo and the borrowed hat. I miss the times he followed in my footsteps sometimes carelessly stepping on sticks. But, today I couldn’t be more proud to follow his footprints on the path that leads deep into a wilderness we both love.