The discipline

Shirley Mt sunset 3THE FIRST SET OF TRACKS LED TO A SECOND, THEN FOUR OTHERS, THEN EVEN MORE— a herd of elk weaving through the timber. The prints weren’t all that fresh, probably made the previous evening, but the herd didn’t seem to be in a hurry, and, against all the hard experience I’ve had trying to catch up with elk, I figured it was worth a try, especially since this was the freshest sign I’d seen in three days.

A mile later, I broke out of the trees onto a windswept point that gave me a view of the next big ridge to the east, a spine of rock and lodgepole pine that formed the east rim of Ten Mile Canyon. A ravine opened at my feet and dropped steeply down to the river a thousand vertical feet and half a mile away.

The tracks dropped into the head of the ravine. Of course.

If it had been the first day or even the second, I wouldn’t have followed. But, by the morning of the third day, it gets hard to find easy elk on public land. This might be the best chance I had left. Following them down there was going to be hard— I could see where the elk had slipped and slid down the slope. And if I killed something down there, getting it out was going to be a lot worse. I hesitated, thought about a couple of alternatives, and shrugged. The first thing to do was find them, then I could make up my mind. I followed the tracks.

All the way down to the river, as it turned out. When they got to the bank, they turned upstream and walked another quarter of a mile to a riffle. Where they crossed. It was nearly four feet deep out in the middle; the current was brisk, and there was a shelf of ice in the eddies along the bank. The ambient temperature stood at about twenty degrees. Another close look at the tracks— still several hours old. I was not going after these elk.

I walked along the river to the next side canyon and turned up it in the forlorn hope that it might have an elk or two of its own, then started the long, weary climb back to the west rim.

We call this a sport, I thought, as I stripped off my hat and gloves and opened the zipper on my fleece. I’ve been involved in several sports over my lifetime, mostly for entertainment, but one or two pretty seriously. I spent a number of years training for those— weight rooms and wind sprints, intervals and over-distance. A lot of sweat, a lot of hard work.

But not as hard as this. A serious training schedule may take three or even four hours out of a day. I’d rolled out at four this morning; now, it was ten, and when I got back to the top of the mountain, I would continue until dark. The same yesterday. Same the day before that. And, if I don’t find an elk this afternoon, I thought, it’ll be the same tomorrow.

Nor was endurance all I needed. I’d learned the hard way that I ‘d better stay focused, no matter how tired I was. Putting my head down and just pulling the hill was a sure way to be ambushed instead of ambushing. Covering miles was pointless if I wasn’t paying attention, which is easy to say when you’re back in town gossiping and remarkably difficult to actually do when you’re worn down to a frazzle and your socks are wet.

“Sport” hunting. We use it to distinguish what we do from other pursuits that involve killing a wild animal. Somewhere in the long, shadowy history of the hunt, a certain breed of practitioners needed some way to distinguish the concept of fair chase from taking game for the market or to just to provide meat for the family. Someone— an Englishman, I have no doubt— decided to call this peculiar brand of venery “sport” hunting.

I’m sure he meant no slight. The English are known to blur the distinction between casual pastimes and more weighty matters. Henry Newbolt is famous for his poem “Vitaï Lampada,” in which he draws a comparison between a battlefield in Sudan and a game of cricket, of all things: ”The river of death has brimmed his banks/ And England’s far, and Honour a name/ But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks/ ’Play up! Play up! And play the game!’”

The blood-soaked sands of the desert may have been Newbolt’s idea of sport, but such moments seem altogether more somber than that to me. To my ear, there’s something lightweight about the word “sport.” Webster’s defines it as a verb— “to amuse oneself”— or a noun— “physical activity engaged in for pleasure or exercise.”

I stopped to pant, looking up to where the ravine forked and steepened. Long way to the top yet. Am I doing this for exercise? Or pleasure? Is this amusement? That faint taste of pennies on the back of my tongue suggested that this “exercise” was somewhat less than “amusing.” But, I reflected, if you want to find elk, you need to go where the elk are . . . or might be. I stripped off a layer and stuffed it in my daypack, saddled up, and continued the climb.

It seems to me that hunting is much more serious than sport. Many of its forms call for a combination of strength and endurance, knowledge and skill, and, above all, patience and persistence that are seldom required in other sports, especially when those sports are conducted far from any approving crowd or paying sponsor. And, setting aside the physical and mental challenges for a moment, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that, sooner or later, the hunt results in a death. While some people wax overly hysterical about that, it is a sobering reality that sets hunting apart from just about anything else that is considered sport (except some kinds of fishing, which are really just aquatic forms of hunting).

Back up on the rim, I gave myself five minutes to recover. Somewhere over on the other side of the river, on that tall ridge, the bunch of elk I’d been tracking had settled down for the afternoon, five miles from the nearest road. If I came in from the other side tomorrow, could I find them? Would this tracking snow survive the afternoon? Decisions to be postponed. For the rest of the day, I’d look for elk on this side of the river. Patience. Persistence. More often than not, a hunter makes his own luck. I turned south and started for the next patch of timber.

As I walked, the snow dragging at my feet, calves still complaining a little after the climb, it occurred to me that hunting is really a discipline, a martial art. Hunting well, with insight and precision, reverence and humility, is exceptionally difficult. Not even the most experienced, dedicated hunter can always achieve that higher plane. And, I thought as I scanned the treeline ahead, that may be what keeps veteran hunters coming back over the decades— the challenge of attaining the elusive moment of perfection. The quest for grace.

Words are powerful things. They convey meaning on many levels, the most important often being the most subliminal. And so we should take great care in our choice of words, especially when we’re attempting to describe exceptionally intense experiences to people who have never had them.

Like hunting. When it’s just us folks, a bunch of hunters swapping tales around the campfire, we can indulge in that special shorthand that comes from shared experience. In that situation, everybody knows how steep the mountains are at the head of Horse Creek, what it’s like to find a way through the nasty deadfall on the north face up there, how hard it is to see an elk in the black timber before the elk sees you. Everybody knows that the hours spent looking for the first fresh track aren’t empty; they’re spiced with unexpected encounters: the black bear in the huckleberry patch, the great gray owl up in the lodgepoles, the marten, the eagle, the massive bole of that 500-year-old Doug fir on the edge of the palisades where you can eat lunch while you soak in the matchless view below. The perfect stillness in the timber at dawn and sunset.

We don’t need to tell each other that part of the story because we’ve all lived it, so we cut to the chase, the climax of hours, days, even weeks of effort. The moment of the kill, how he appeared out of nowhere, the angle of the shot, the follow-up. Hunters fill in the rest of the experience.

Nonhunters can’t. When a nonhunter is listening, we do ourselves a disservice with our shorthand, whether we’re chatting at a party, posting a photo on Facebook, or talking in front of a video camera. The commitment, the involvement, the focus hunting requires separate it from nearly everything else a modern person does. In its most intense moments, it transcends physical and mental demands and becomes something spiritual. It’s not a game. It’s not a sport. It’s a calling. A discipline. A way of life. Most hunters know that, of course; it’s why we hunt, but we should always be careful to say what we know. Words matter.

Leave a Reply