Elk Country

"Do you feel that? He turned and asked me, tucking the brim of his camouflaged cap up an inch on his forehead. How everything just got quieter?"

Do you feel that? He turned and asked me, tucking the brim of his camouflaged cap up an inch on his forehead. How everything just got quieter? I nodded silently, solemnly, though it wasn’t completely true. I’d been focusing on the trail in front of me, a particularly rocky stretch, and on the way my brand new hiking boots slipped over the shards of mountain slick with pine needles and a vague lingering frost. I’d just been trying to keep up.

This is the imaginary dotted line in the woods. When I cross it, I know I’m in elk country.

• • •

The morning hadn’t yet begun when we’d headed out, pulling on gear in the empty trailhead parking lot, loading the rifle by headlamp shine. I’d stumbled along the first few miles of the marked trail in darkness, skipping to keep up with his familiar, brisk pace and hoping my rain pants swishing as my thighs moved rapidly weren’t making too much noise. The sun rose gradually over the next few hours. Deep in the crease of a canyon in southwestern Montana, surrounded on all sides by glacier-cut rock and centuries-old pines, the sunrise appeared only as a slow greying of the air we breathed, dark purple giving way to the fuzzed pale fog of daylight in the mountains. It gave an ethereal, hushed quality to the day—the sounds of our boots muffled by a carpet of needles, the occasional swish of a branch against our jackets.

As we walked the first few miles, he told me about how hunting used to feel. Most of it’s gone now for him, he said, and he misses it. He told me it used to be an adrenaline thing, a-got-to-get-that-animal drive of problem-solving, a heart-pounding urgency, a competition. Now, it’s as much about being in the woods and walking around as it is about taking an animal.

In a restaurant the night before, he had crouched beside me, among the crowd, to talk about our planned expedition, and I could sense he was testing me.

What I’d told him, when I’d asked the favor, was that I needed to see what a hunt really was. After seven years as a vegetarian, I’d decided to start eating meat again in an effort to live more intentionally as part of my food community. But part of that meant facing my choices head-on. I thought if I couldn’t stomach the sight of an animal dying, then I shouldn’t eat one.

Later, when we thought for a while the hunt was over and we were walking straight down a steep ridge to find our way back to the hiking trail, he turned and said, We’re not really hunting right now. We’re just walking.

• • •

We left the trail about four miles in, veered off to the right and straight up a steep, rocky slope. The debris grew slicker as we climbed, and he told me this was how he knew there’d be snow up ahead. We cut back and forth across the mountain, lungs heaving, arms slicing through snapping branches, ankles turning as our feet slid from rock to uneven soil. We had to climb long and high, he’d told me already, to come down into the burned remains of the canyon from the north, so the animal—that’s how he spoke of it: as a single one, the mythic, iconic animal—wouldn’t catch our scent on the southern wind.

As we scaled—as he scaled, and I scrambled up behind him—and as our bodies leaned into the incline, my hands sometimes dusting the frosty soil in front of me for balance, he showed me the muted symbols the elk had left behind. He would pause, his voice hushed as the sun bored through our heavy jackets, and crouch slightly, point towards a patch of scuffed dirt. There. An animal. He spotted little clusters of pellets or hoof prints in the crumble of a bit of snow, and he could know the animal that way. When he pointed them out, I could see them. But if he hadn’t been there to show me, they would have remained hidden. He was tuned to the higher frequency of the hunter.

I knew this wouldn’t be the day I learned to stalk an elk. Why had I ever thought it could be taught in only one day? This was a lifetime’s work, to learn the woods.

• • •

When I said, I just want to see what it means to hunt, I could see in the softening of his face, in his solemn nod, that I’d said the right thing.

• • •

When we stopped for lunch, brushing snow off a log near the side of the slope we were climbing, my exhaustion began to set in. My ears rang with the thump of exertion, my cheeks flushed with blood. I crouched on the log and ate peanut butter and jelly ravenously, to quell the lightheadedness, and he showed me how much farther we had to go. From here, we could see the canyon, and he pointed down into it, to a patch of blackened trees that had burned years before. There, where the elk made their daybeds, high enough to ensure a thick blanket of snow to cool them as they slept, we’d find the bull he was after.

The climb became harder. Suddenly aware of my awkwardness, I heard every branch that snapped under my feet; I flushed with embarrassment at the noisiness of my labored breathing. He pulled ahead of me easily while I willed my legs to lift in and out of the now-ankle-deep snow. He stopped and told me I was doing great for someone who’d come from sea level. For someone who’s come from sea level. I was hauling myself up by tree trunks and seeing little hypnotic worms around the edges of my vision when I saw that he’d stopped up ahead.

There they are. Elk tracks.

And that’s when we heard the gunshot.

• • •

Shit. Fuck. Our eyes met, our faces static and waiting. No second shot. He swore again under his breath, turned from me slightly. That was our animal.

We hiked on a little, following the now easy-to-spot hoof prints in the snow. Soon, the prints of another animal, a horse, danced in and out of the elk’s to form a wide, woven trail, something more obtrusive than anything I’d seen all day, obvious, the way it is when people walk in snow. In all the years I’ve been hunting around here, I’ve never seen another soul, not one person. We heard the whinny of a distant horse. He showed me where the elk had first noticed it wasn’t alone, how the prints began to weave around trees, up and down the slope. He laughed and shook his head as if at an old friend’s joke, a familiar, endearing story. The elk had toyed with them.

As we walked, I placed my feet intentionally in the elk’s trail, treading the same path as a dead or dying animal, as if our overlapping steps were some sort of ritual, though this wasn’t my kill, though we wouldn’t get an animal. But when we came to the place where they’d shot the elk, to the explosion of kicked-up snow and the dirt revealed beneath it, the charging downslope footprints, there was no blood.

And just down the ridge slightly, he began waving, seeing the hunting party before I did. He swore under his breath again and then called, cheerful, Congratulations!

• • •

I must have looked crazy to them, in my heavy rain pants and fleece vest beneath my winter coat, with a hat pulled down around pigtail braids and black smudges of burned tree char on my face. When I saw them, I saw the hunters I’d always imagined: men with cowboy hats and blaze orange vests who’d ridden in on horseback and were photographing one another with casual arms draped over a dead and broken neck. As they prepared to butcher the animal, the hunter with the blue sweater, who’d fired the fatal shot, held a small hatchet in his hands, spread his arms wide, and said, Welcome to my kill.

I remember the enormity of the animal and the faint, stuffy smell of its fur, damp with sweat and snow. I remember seeing the puddle of blood and thinking, this is where it all was. I remember its open brown eyes, wet with the glaze of death. I watched carefully its rear haunch, its massive chest cavity, not yet split open, fully expecting the lungs to heave once more, the foot to kick, a last-ditch effort at life. It remained still, and we left the three men to clean and pack the elk and carry it out on horseback.

• • •

The Native American tribes of the Great Plains are sometimes called the “buffalo tribes,” because the animal was so central to every aspect of their way of life. Though some tribes were fully nomadic, following the herds along their seasonal paths of migration, and others were semi-sedentary, raising crops in addition to hunting bison, all relied on the bison for food, clothing, shelter, decoration, crafting, and spirituality. Before the tribes fully adopted horse culture in the early 18th century, they hunted and killed bison on foot, requiring large numbers of Indian hunters to move out early, surround a bison herd and drive it into a place where the animals could be most easily slaughtered.

Sometimes the tribes would build v-shaped funnels and corral the bison into an enclosed space where they could be easily targeted with bow and arrow. A hunter dressed in the preserved skin of a bison, imitating the call of the animal, could induce a stampede, and then direct the flow of snorting, startled animals directly off a cliff, where sometimes hundreds of bison would fall to their death.

• • •

Elk were once plains animals, he told me. They roamed the Great Plains of the Middle West alongside bison and other herd grazers. So they are grass animals, flat land animals. But white settlers moved onto the plains and needed more and more land for themselves, tearing up grasses to plant fields, or to build houses, and the elk were forced farther west until they had no choice but to move up into the mountains. Their bodies developed thicker skin, heavy with fur. Their hooves hardened, their bones strengthened into a tougher skeleton, to better weather the tough climbs and treacherous stumbles of a ridge and canyon life. And their herds shrunk because there is so much less grass on a mountain’s stiff vertical incline, too little grass to support multiple elk families. Now, they graze in herds of four or five, just cows and calves, with bulls ranging separately. Despite the best efforts of geography and evolution, the elk couldn’t shake their communal lifestyle. No matter how small their numbers, they still roam in small herds.

• • •

He knew the rest of the herd would have panicked hearing the gunshots, charging down the mountain to their safe, familiar bedding spots. He knew another kill was impossible today. With the echo of a gunshot fresh in their animal brains, they wouldn’t let their guard down easily. And I was showing my exhaustion, dizzy and panting. We decided to begin the hike out.

We descended along the nose of the ridge, across the elk’s canyon from our lunch spot, weaving back and forth out toward the edge where he had once seen his favorite, the prized big bull, bedded down. We followed the small herd’s frantic tracks away from the kill site—great swathes of dirt kicked up, paths staggering, intersecting, careening away from each other. Even I could see this. He showed me where some more sure-footed, older elk had found well-known escape routes, and where young, flustered elk had just spooked, knowing only that they should run down.

• • •

He’d pulled the rifle up to his shoulder so many times I didn’t think much of it anymore, except he fired it this time, and the gunshot rang like it’d been fired in my skull. I watched, distracted, as the golden shell dropped to the soil, and didn’t get my hands up to my ears for the second shot, either.

When he turned to see if I’d spotted the animal, his face broke into a wide grin at the shock in my expression. He spoke more softly than he had all day, told me we’d have to sit and wait. I was puzzled but compliant, though thoughts burst into my mind and I wanted suddenly to talk, to run over what had happened, what we’d each seen. But instead we waited in excruciating silence, so that the animal wouldn’t hear us and try to run. If it was wounded, we wanted it to lie down and die right there. We wanted the death to be fast and painless. We wanted the elk to be easier to track to the kill site.

A few paces back, we’d spotted the bull, grazing casually out on the very nose of the ridge we were descending. We hadn’t been looking. We froze, and he fired, twice.

• • •

When I read accounts of Plains Indian bison hunts, I am struck by how similar they sound to the infamous large-scale bison kills of the 19th century. There may not have been gunshots or horses, but we can imagine that the bison were equally startled, to stampede off a cliff. We assume a level of fear. I can’t know whether it is more or less painful or desirable to be killed by a bullet wound or by smashing my skull on a cliff floor, my brain exploding out from inside. Why, then, does it feel different? The fates of the animals are essentially the same—the bison end up dead in both stories.

The only answer I can come up with comes from what happens afterwards, from the results of the hunt. European settlers valued the bison hides, primarily, and after slaughtering large populations would leave the bodies piled in the sun to rot away the meat. But Native hunters sought to optimize use of the animal. First, they skinned down the back in order to get at the tender meat. Then, they would remove the front legs along with the shoulder blades, to expose the hump meat as well as the ribs and the bison’s inner organs. After everything was exposed, the spine was severed and the pelvis and hind legs removed. Finally, the neck and head were removed as one, allowing the butchers access to large pieces of the animal’s toughest meat, making it easier to stretch and dry into pemmican, a mixture of fat and protein that was more easily preserved. In this way, each bison rendered as much meat as possible. After all this, the hunters would tan the hide for leather to sew into clothing and tipis, strip the sinew for bows, scoop out the fat and innards for cooking grease, dry the dung to build fires, and even boil the hooves for glue.

Certainly, these practices evolved from necessity. But there is also a ceremony to it, the respectful ritual of processing an animal so thoroughly and intimately. Maybe this suggests that the idea of how an animal dies is not limited simply to the conditions of its life, or to the process of the hunt, or to the circumstances of death, but also to the aftermath. In order to fully own the reality of an animal dying for human consumption, perhaps we have to be willing to dig our hands in after the fact, to muddy around in the blood and sinew long enough to understand the possibilities inherent in its body. By refusing to leave any part of the animal behind, the Plains tribes honored the animal’s sacrifice, venerating its life by making good use of its death.

• • •

When it was time, we found the spot on which he’d shot the elk marked by a surprisingly small
amount of blood. We weren’t in snow, having descended far enough to come out of it for a while, and we had to find and follow the blood trail to the animal across rocks and pine needles and fallen tree branches.

Finally, I had a hunting skill. I could spot the blood trail with ease. We crept, hunched over, staring intensely at the forest floor, and I would spin my head slowly, point, Here’s some. And revel in his surprised Jesus, because I could finally contribute to the hunt.

We wove improbably around, watching for blood smears on sagging trees, as the trail looped back over itself. Clearly, the animal was panicked—a good sign. But after a few moments, he began muttering again. This wasn’t nearly enough blood. Worst case scenario. A non-fatal shot.

Sometimes we had to touch a spot to test whether that was a speckle of blood on a leaf or just the orange of fall beginning to pull the chlorophyll from the plant. Blood. I rubbed the familiar warmth between my fingertips, brushed it off onto my pants, staining them for good. Every now and then there would be a lurch, a gap in the steady but minuscule stream of blood. In one spot, he found bone—a fragment of leg or shoulder that told him the bullet had ricocheted inside the animal’s body, the shot probably not direct enough to reach any vital organs—and swore again.

After what felt like an hour, we hit snow and found a giant puddle, a wide ribbon of bright, red blood. I was sure we’d find a body any moment, and was already dreading the weight of meat slung around my shoulders. But no. The elk had started to give in, had lain and rolled in the cold snow, and then had surged, with a last burst of life, to its feet. A few paces away, there was another, smaller puddle where the elk had fallen again. But again it had kept going.

• • •

In his book Buffalo for the Broken Heart, former cattle rancher Dan O’Brien writes about his decision to begin raising buffalo for slaughter on his South Dakota property. In the book’s final chapters, all of O’Brien’s ideals about raising grass-fed beef the way nature intended are called into question, as he is forced to finally slaughter the buffalo. Though sad to lose his animals, he sees the way in which the animals die as his responsibility, a central part of his negotiation with nature. O’Brien’s principles are based on the concept that there are two great forces powering existence: the first is our inherent desire for life; the second, a connective force, a force that places us all in a context, in relationship to the rest of the world.

In the spirit of the second, connective force, O’Brien makes the buffalo kill into a ceremony. He asks a friend, suffering from the great loss of his son, to perform the honor of shooting the buffalo. O’Brien refers to the entire process as a “harvest,” comparing it once to the act of picking fruit rather than to hunting. And when the corpses of five buffalo bulls are loaded on the bed of a trailer, hitched to his pickup, and they are on their way to the packing plant, he pulls off to the side of the road to burn sage over the bodies, his version of a Lakota ritual to whisper a thank you for the sacrifice they made for his living.

We can’t turn away from the fact that suffering is a part of eating, for all of us. Even if we don’t consume flesh, we can’t look away from the implications our actions have in the pursuit of this death. Vegetarians who purchase meat substitute products are simply eating a different product made by multinational corporations that also raise and kill livestock. Even produce sold at alternative grocery chains is often picked by underpaid workers in near-slave-labor conditions. Even a small-scale, organic, family-owned vegetable farm, using natural pest-control methods, kills insects and worms. If we acknowledge that we are a part of a web of life, we must acknowledge that any action we take to feed ourselves is inherently disruptive to that web. To look away is, I think, to abdicate responsibility. Ignoring the death of the buffalo is to ignore our own death, to forget that we are all still animals, caught in an intricate web of survival, a complex dance about the quality of an animal’s life, the conditions and dignity of a death.

• • •

After at least two hours of following the blood trail, weaving through the dripping river of life seeping from the elk’s body, we decided to give up. After the two puddles, the blood had virtually disappeared. He told me what the elk had actually been doing in the snow was packing its wound. Instinctive first aid. Animals know to roll around in snow to stop the bleeding. The elk probably had a broken leg, and would limp for a while, but would find its way back to the herd, and would be just fine.

He was determined to come back, to find the wounded elk later and take it, but we were losing light fast and wouldn’t have time to clean the kill anyway. We needed to find the trail soon. So, exhausted and dejected, we walked away from the hunt. He told me he’d killed twenty-one elk in twenty-two years and had never, not once, lost an animal. I couldn’t help but feel like a bad luck charm.

In our erratic wandering after the trail of blood, like dogs, we’d ended up far from where we’d started and far from where we needed to be, tucked on a side slope near the back of the canyon we’d hiked up and around earlier. Our path out was in a rocky chute, covered with crumbling boulders, and after that we’d have another few miles on the trail before we made it back to the car. We were cold now as the sun began to set, and my thighs quivered with exertion. My knees ached from the sheer inclines up and down. But we had no choice. Crab-sliding up and over rocks, ankles wobbling, slipping, catching our hands on bare rock, we kept going.

• • •

The night before, I’d met him for drinks at a restaurant where he’d been with a group of friends—all writers—and we told about the hunt we had planned. One man laughed and said, This is your first time hunting and you’re starting with elk? That’s like learning to fly-fish with steelhead! I had no idea what he meant.

Later that night, I spoke quietly for a few minutes to that man, and he told me of how sacred fishing was to him. He said, You stay focused on that animal. Sometimes there will be other people around and it won’t feel right—but when I’m about to take a fish, I look right down at the water and focus all my attention there and put on the blinders and block everything else out. That’s when everything slows down and fades away. And all the little things, like tying a knot and casting the perfect line, become important. No matter how many people are around, he said, it is a liturgy.

And those little actions, I said, are your prayers.

• • •

When we reached the car it had been dark for hours. It wasn’t until I sat down that I realized how freezing cold I was, with my feet soaking wet in puddles inside my boots, muscles vibrating in sheer exhaustion, and nothing left to give but warnings. I was done moving for the day. The drive back fades in and out of memory. He fed me chewable aspirin for my knees but didn’t take any for himself, saying his discomfort was on autopilot. Our headlights cut around the swerving mountain road out of the canyon, and we spoke only in scraps.

One thing I’ll remember, I told him, is how little advantage it turns out a gun is. After hours of hiking, careful walking through woods, avoiding branch-snapping or rock-knocking, he got two shots off, from seventy yards away, and missed. The gun was the only chance he ever had at taking an animal, and that had surprised me.

And he told me this wasn’t how most people hunted. He hunts like this because the walk matters to him. The woods matter. He hunts like this because he wants to track and find the animal as if he, too, was an animal, as if man with a gun was a natural predator for the elk. Mostly, he said, people get up before dawn and hike in while the elk are out for their morning feed. They camp out in a tree or lying down, load their guns and wait. They wait for the fed, tired elk to return to their beds for the day, and they fire at them, unaware. That, he told me, was a lot easier.

I laughed a little. Body and mind exhausted from fourteen hours in the woods, I couldn’t imagine such a thing as easy right now.

Yeah, he said, it’s a fuckin’ hard way to get meat.

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About the Author

Marissa Landrigan

Marissa Landrigan is the author of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat (Greystone Books, 2017), and her essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, the Atlantic, the Rumpus, and others.

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