Thursday, October 16, 2008

Back from the Hunt

Went elk hunting this past weekend, for the first rifle season. It was a grand and sometimes perilous, yet fully rewarding and thoroughly worthwhile venture. As long as you don't use actually hunting success as a measure.

No, neither I or my two buddies managed to "make meat," as hunting philosopher David Petersen calls this most ancient and human of endeavors. But just hunting itself is its own reward -- reigniting those senses of both place and presence that are practiced and renewed by spending time in the woods. And not just time in the woods, but long stretches of time moving through the woods, in the way the hunter does, and must. Slowly.Deliberately. Consciously. Fully aware. Often immobile, not moving the body, but still moving the senses: looking and listening and smelling and sensing without focus, focusing on it all.

Together we saw a deer and five elk, a large cinnamon bear (which we were able to watch munch rosehips for a while with the comfort of a chasm between us), and a 6 X 5 still-antlered skull that Bryan found up a remote dry wash.

Good stuff. And in a really good place: We were up on Missionary Ridge, on the backbone of land between the Animas and Florida river valleys. So our views were out over these two deep glacial valleys, and toward the sugared ranges beyond, those rocky waves of land comprising the westerin San Juans and the nearby La Platas.

Of course that white "sugaring" I refer to is from the blustery winter storm that blew through on Saturday. And blew hard while it was here, especially up near treeline, where we chose to do our stalking on opening morning.

We crawled out of tent and into the dark, gusty morning at 5 a.m., and walked into the Weminuche Wilderness to pass the day wandering some high country drainages in search of wapiti. And hoping to make some meat.

No meat, but the morning was real Rocky Mountain early-winter -- and a blessing to be out in (for who would get out and experience a tree-line autumn storm, unless they had a reason -- or excuse -- to do that? Not me). The wind swirled and groppel peppered us and salted the ground. The woods were perfect for camouflaging us, and the clouds were grayscale artwork, yet nothing was so intense that I never felt I couldn't see hundreds of yards or have my shooting ability hindered. I was warm, dry, and felt the self-assuredness that comes with feeling I was equipped to survive a night if I needed to.

More good stuff.

Until about noon.

At which time, I got caught in a two-mile-long stand of lodgepole that must've had just the right combo of exposure and wind gust, 'cause it just started getting uprooted all around me, for about 20 or 30 minutes. I only witness 15 or so trees -- both snags and living, healthy looking hulks -- actullay fall. But those seemed to be within arms reach. The other two or three dozen I only heard, because I dare not glance up from my narrow line that led out of there. I was something how I imagine combat to be like.

During that time, I trudged, scampered, trotted, crawled, and, when I could, downright ran -- mutiple-layered, backpack-strapped, rifle-toting and all -- through what seemed like a scene from some Lord of the Rings sequel. I panted and frothed like a rung-out horse, as trees creaked, then croaked with a crash, in every direction -- inlcuding several across the snow-covered trail that was my only path out of that surreal piece of nightmare.

Hey, it was scary! I wasn't whimpering, exactly, when I finally ran into one of my comrades as I walked warily down the dead-middle of a narrow valley that was the first save haven I found. I was, perhaps, though, drooling and speaking in tongues. It had been a powerful, surreal, and mildly terrifying experience. Through it, though, I have achieved a deeper -- nay, mystical -- appreciation for and understanding of life.

The next two days, though, were more like the October that is perhaps the finest, most magical time in Colorado's woods and mountains. As long as you're wearing blaze orange. We moved into a lower drainage, and passed two days walking aspen glades and conifer stands with ridiculous views of the Animas Valley and La Platas out yonder.

Defining "success" after that is a matter of broad interpretation.
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