By Ryan Castle EBS CONTRIBUTOR
As I push open the flap of the wall tent I embrace the crisp, cold early morning air against my face. I walk across frozen crunchy snow, my headlamp beam casting shadows off the trees in the dark as I stumble through a small willow patch into a meadow. I look upon the silhouettes of our horses and mules awaiting me after having grazed all night. They stand still in a calm silence, and I try not to shine my light directly in their eyes as I greet them.
Frozen leather is thrown upon warm horses’ backs and I take one last sip of coffee. I turn off the white gas lantern and notice that sweet smell of the leftover gas looming in the air for a moment. I get on my buckskin horse and look behind me at my friends Tom and Singeli. We shut off our headlamps and stride out across the meadow and up the mountain.
Tom and I have been guiding mountain goat and elk hunts together all season long. We had one camp that needed to be packed out and not having had much of a chance to hunt for ourselves, we took advantage of the one day we had to try and successfully take a bull elk, then pack out our camp. Singeli, a videographer who had been traveling all over the West to capture the true meaning of why people hunt, needed a horseback wilderness elk hunt to go with her film. Tom and I were the ones for the job.
At the break of daylight, we tie our horses in a patch of scraggly Douglas fir and crawl onto a nob. Fighting my binoculars as they fogged, I look out at a mountain side with long sweeping finger meadows divided by dark streaks of timber.
The first thing I see is tracks, a lot of tracks. Elk were here last night. It was confirmed when we spotted a small bull elk cross a sliver of open field. Tom and I decide to get a closer look at this hillside.
We tie our horses in another spot and walk in elk tracks on and off, skirting the tops of meadows and weaving back and forth ever so quiet. It became disorientating walking through that country. As we break out into one meadow after another, they all start to look the same. We aren’t exactly sure where on the mountain we are.
As we walk, we smell the musky odor of elk—a scent I have oddly learned to love. Singeli bounces around stealthy and swift bearing her camera to capture every moment. We walk out into the top of a large snow-covered meadow. I recognize it—we ‘re just above where we saw the bull this morning.
The day growing warmer, the snow begins to soften. We sit down, eat a snack and whisper about our next move. Tom suggests I walk over a rise and make a loop to see what tracks I cut while he stays put in case I bump something into the meadow we’re looking at. Singeli decides to stay with Tom for the sake of not having to lug her camera equipment around further than necessary. I take off.
I barely get out of sight of my companions when I notice the tan backend of a cow elk in the dark timber. I slither quick and quiet down the hill to get closer. I sit in the wet snow, put my rifle up and peer through my scope. One by one, cow elk walk through an opening in the trees well in range. I watch as cow after cow walks through my shooting lane.
When the brow tines of a bull enter the opening and stop, I take a deep breath, knowing I only have a split second. I steady my crosshairs in the opening and wait. My shooting lane is only big enough for about one step of an elk.
As the bull elk’s shoulder passes through my scope and my crosshairs center behind the shoulder, I pull the trigger. Smiling ear to ear, I walk back to my wide-eyed friends.
The horses and mules, with feet sprawled out slipping and sliding, head down the muddy narrow trail, loaded with elk. Back at camp that evening, we retell the story as our tired stock grazes in the dark meadow. Tomorrow, we go back to work, saddle up, tear down camp and pull our pack string down the trail to home.
Ryan Castle resides in the Shields Valley and has spent his life as both a local outdoorsman and professional hunting guide.