My house here in Laramie is surrounded by four general ecological settings: the high plains, the sagebrush steppes, the timbered mountains, and the alpine peaks. The animals I hunt range through these biozomes. Pronghorn can often be found high in the foothills, skirting aspen and lodgepole pine outcroppings. Mule deer bucks linger on the alpine peaks, moving into the timber in the fall; other mule deer transition from the tops of canyons for bedding, out onto the sagebrush and prairie morning and night. The elk, too, range from the tops of the mountains to the sagebrush flats.
Each animal is the product of its environment, a contiguous part of the land which nourished it. And when we consume those animals, we are indirectly being sustained by that very same environment: grass, becomes pronghorn, becomes human. It is a cycle which connect us, as a contiguous part, to the land on which we live; a chain which helps to convert us from living on the land, to living within it. As an outdoorsman, I love each of these enivornments and spend numerous days every year, year round, wandering through them (alone, with family, and with friends). They are magical to me; spiritual.
This year was a transformative season in which I was changed from a New Mexico transplant to this land, to a citizen of it. Not, of course, in the arbitrary political sense of these terms, but in the spiritual sense...
The Prairie: The year began, as always, with the true native of the land, the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana; photo). The bow season begins in mid August when the daytime temperatures still soar into the 80s and the "goats" must come to drink on a daily basis. This year, my brother and I had to change are hunting location last minute. After two days of scouting we finally settled on a new spot and set up our blind. We got to observe the prairie in action: mule deer, ducks, porcupines and coyotes. We also got to see a number of pronghorn, but none of them presented a makeable shot with the recurves.
As a result, I found myself trapsing over the prairie in late September with my .243 Winchester, a small but highly accurate rifle given to me by my father-in-law. I had two tags to fill, a doe/fawn tag and a buck tag. (The herd in this unit is over sized and doe/fawn tags are plentiful, this being the best way to reduce the herd size and correct the buck:doe ratio.) My philosophy with the rifle is to take the first legal animal and it didn't take long to fill my doe tag in the rolling foothills where I hunt. I got to my hunt area a few hours before dark and within minutes had glassed a small band of antelope feeding over the next ridge. 30 minutes (and a belly full of cactus spines) later, I selected a young "dry" doe from the back of the group. A clean shot at 40 yds, an ideal humane kill.
My remaining pronghorn tag was for "any antelope", which I feared was going to try my commitment to shooting the first legal animal. As it turned out a week later, however, the first legal animal was a nice buck. A few miles south of where I had taken the doe, I glassed another band of antelope feeding over a small ridge: 5 does, a large buck, and two smaller bucks. The rut was in full swing and the herd buck was distracted keeping the two little guys away from his girls. Again I eased over the ridge and there was the buck staring down one of his rivals at about 60 yds. The shot was again clean, but he bolted about 30 yds downhill with his group and finally buckled a lay still.
We learned from last year's pronghorn that we love the taste of these prairie ghosts and look forward to some sacred meals. Indeed, we are visiting my sister-in-law for Christmas and will cook a bone in rump roast to share with all.
The Sagebrush Steppes: I decided this year to dedicate September to the pursuit of elk, only chasing mule deer as opportunities arose. This was a tough decision, because I truly love mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus; photo); to me they are the epitome of all that is wild and rugged in the Rocky Mountain West. But as a practical matter, I thought I would be more likely to tag my elk with the bow than with the rifle.
Consequently, the day after shooting my buck antelope, I was contouring through the bitterbrush and sage canyons of Sheep Mountain. Opening morning I came upon a little fork horn (yearling) buck feeding out in the foothills--but the wind was at my back and he scurried off into the brush. The rest of the weekend was an exercise in futility. I would pick my way to the tops of the steep, crumbly canyons where the deer were holding--only to hear them sneak off just ahead of me. It was hot and the deer were not staying visible very long in the mornings.
Finally, on the next weekend, I decided to work my way up an unnamed canyon which I call "Buck Canyon". As I headed up, all the factors were in my favor. A small snow during the week made stalking a bit quieter, the wind was at my face, and there was just a hint of daybreak peaking over the eastern mountains as I reached the bottom of the canyon. Slowly, I moved up: step, step, glass; step, step, glass. One hour and 400 yards later, I still hadn't found anything. Discouraged, I began to move a bit faster. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Almost immediately I heard the tell-tell snort of a mule deer across the canyon. Busted! Without looking, I dropped to my knees and began to scan the opposite side. I quickly located the dark face of a young mule deer buck. He had been bedded behind a small juniper and had stayed low, probably watching me the whole time until I got too close for comfort. But he still didn't know what I was (the reason that having the wind at your face makes all the difference). I put my glasses on him to confirm that he had antlers, as only an antlered mule deer was legal at this point. Sure enough, he was a small fork horn. Easing the .243 up, I put my scope on him and waited. At the moment, he was staring at me nearly dead on and this was not the shot I wanted. So I waited for him to move. Finally, he blinked, easing from behind the juniper and turning broadside at about 100 yds--trying to get a bead on the object across the canyon. As usual, I was startled by the ring of the rifle; a ring he never heard.
I was now back in the mountains quite a distance. After field dressing the young deer (and, as is the tradition, burying the liver in a small unostentatious ceremony), I put him under a tree for shade and headed back to get the horses to help pack him out. My wife and two children joined me and I was glad that the kids got to learn a bit more about the nature of our relation to the world.
The Mountains: Nothing on earth is as exciting as hunting rutting elk (Cervus elaphus; photo) in the transition areas between the heavy timber and the alpine peaks. Two days into bow season, I managed to move in on a young (raghorn) bull and a cow crossing an old logging road. The big bulls had been bugling all around me in the darkness as I made my way to this point. The little raghorn, walking about 100 yds ahead of me, let out a little squeal. Quietly I closed the distance as he fed on the exposed grasses. 80 yds, 70 yds, 60 yds. At about 50 yds, decided to move across the the road, broadside to me. With a modern compound bow, I could probably have taken him at this point. But with my recurve, I still had at least 15 yds to go. But it was getting light and he was now heading for timber off the road. After the pair disappeared I knelt down and gave a couple of soft cow calls, hoping to lure him back. Nothing. The big elk continued to bugle and answer my calls, but none of them would come closer than a few hundred yards. By 9:00 am, the morning symphony was silent and no elk were to be found again until evening.
Variants of this scene, with different bulls of different sizes, played out every morning and every evening of the bow season--but I just couldn't get to withing bow range. (I learned, though. Too much calling on my part. Bugles to locate, only cow calls thereafter.)
It was an exciting and highly successful elk season, but I did not fill my tag. So again, I was back out opening day of rifle season with a bigger gun (30-06) that my brother had loaned me. The area that had been crawling with elk a few weeks before was now nearly devoid of sign even in the fresh snow. I decided to go lower on the mountain, down in the aspen canyons and foothill parks. Sure enough, there was plenty of elk sign in the wet sand. I knew that still hunting through these tangled canyons would only pollute the area and at best give me a running shot at a spooked elk; better to stay put for evening and glass the parks. So I waited, and waited, and waited. Nothing. Finally, I glassed some mule deer feeding in a small sagebrush ravine below me. Thinking that there might be some elk higher up in the ravine (where I couldn't see) and needing to get off the mountain before it was too dark, I eased my way along the aspens. In the ravine there were four or five more mule deer, but no elk. The park, however, had a small finger along a little bench between aspen groves so I focused what little time I had left of shooting light on that bench. Finally, I picked out the silhoutte of an elk. Light was fading fast and my tag was for "any animal". I took the binoculars and confired that it was a young cow. Dropping to a knee I put the scope right behind here front leg. Bam! She never moved.
After dealing with the calf cow in the dark, I picked my way off the mountain to return the next morning to pack her out.
The point of this lengthy post is this: The areas I hunt are wild areas, places I love to spend my time. For some people, the church is their santcuary; for me, it is the wildlands. And these animals each represent some different component of those wildlands, they will nourish and sustain my body as the wildlands nourish and sustain my soul.