Elk season 1993 brought me back to the familiar black timber drainage I'd come to love. The magnificent Tamarack trees towering in the creek bottom with trunks from six to ten feet in diameter appeared as bright orange and yellow blazes from the ridgeline twenty-six hundred feet above. The bracken ferns carpeting the floor of the virgin timber basin splashed a dazzling display of color ranging from pale greens to yellows, oranges, reds and browns. Punctuating these bright patches of color were centuries old Douglas Firs, sporting limbs the size of a man's waist, and trunks at their base of seven feet and larger.
Springs bubble up in every little finger draw of this drainage, and the impenetrable Hemlock and Cedar thickets on North exposures provide a haven for hunter-pressured elk. The five-mile breadth and seven mile length of this drainage has only one primitive foot-trail meandering along its creek bottom. Two to five acre beaver ponds spaced the length of the creek provide ideal habitat for moose and native Brook Trout. The area being closed to all motor vehicles separates hunters from sightseers.
In this setting the sights and sounds of fall melt away the cares of daily life, and the intoxicating beauty of God's creation stirs my heart each year. It is here that I come to enjoy that ritual and rite of passage where fall becomes winter. Invariably, during the second week of October, the first snows of winter come, covering this awesome display of color with a freshness that only new snow can bring. That day each year creates a special memory each year...every one distinctly different in it's own way...that day when winter comes to the high country. To be in this setting when that time comes is something that only experience can describe. A time special beyond words.
It was on this special day, the first real snowfall in the elk woods, that I was high above the creek bottom, planning to work the main North ridge of my drainage; coming in from the top of the mountain, just below the old fire-lookout tower. Daybreak came with me sitting against the base of the old lookout at sixty-two hundred feet elevation, waiting for the gray light of dawn to illuminate the dazzling display of color awaiting me in the basin below. But that dawning came late, as a major weather system had blown in out of the Gulf of Alaska during the night. The temperate crispness of fall was replaced with a frigid sharpness in the air, and a cold steady Northwest wind blowing in my face.
As soon as daylight came, I eased down the mountain, staying just off the crest of the ridgeline holding to the south side. I had all day, and the hunt should take at least eight hours. This hunt was familiar to me, and I knew that with the changing wind and weather that elk would be bedded on south exposures, on the leeward side of the ridge, where a natural bench ran nearly the length of the entire basin, just off the main ridge, broken at times by heavily timbered finger draws with huckleberry brush ridges.
About ten in the morning those first few fluffy white flakes of winter began to fall. Slowly at first, but sticking when they hit the ground, as the forest floor had been freezing every night for a week. With the pre-chilled earth below, the ground soon became blanketed with the first snow of winter. Within an hour the snow had become a full-blown storm, but the wind died down, and flakes fell gently, but steadily, making a soft patter as they fell as only snow can make.
Continuing down the mountain, a soft breeze picked up, and Tamarak needles fell like rain from the bright golden spires sticking up above the firs and pines. As they fell, they laid a golden-brown layer upon the fresh blanket of snow. It was this blending of color that made it difficult to distinguish detail while searching for bedded game.
Soon my eyes became adjusted to the changing scenery, and I began to see deer bedded under the bowl of a big hemlock or Doug Fir, many deer. Although deer season was open, it would take a very special buck to take me from my elk hunt today... besides, I really wasn't into a six-mile drag just to pack out a deer!
Watching the bench below me, I silently still-hunted along at a snail's pace. I examined every rock, wad of upturned tree roots and under each and every tree with low hanging branches; any place that would conceal an elk waiting out winter's first storm. I glassed until my eyes ached, making perhaps less than half a mile per hour progress down my ridge.
Darkness comes early to the North Country this time of year, and by four-thirty in the afternoon, one had better either be kegged-up for the night, or down to a main trail to navigate your way out of the dark, black timber. It was about three o'clock, and I'd been at it since four in the morning. The heavy snow was falling steadily, and made visibility difficult in the waning light.
Yet my hopes were higher than ever for success! After dropping to about the thirty-five hundred foot level, elk sign was abundant. Fresh tracks not yet snowed in, punctuated the clean white carpet underfoot. I strained my eyes searching every last hiding place imaginable.
Soon my eyes began putting ears and horns on Tamarak needle covered rocks, stumps and logs. Deadfalls in the black timber grew feet and dark manes when covered with Tamarak needles as well. With about four and a half miles to go before reaching the trailhead, and hunting by myself as well, I decided to pick up my pace having only about forty minutes of daylight left.
Moving up onto the game trail that traversed the top of the ridgeline, I avoided the myriad of deadfalls which impeded travel. From the ridge trail I could watch the bench below, but in rushed glances, as time was running short. Yet, as I hunted, the game sign was thick. Lots of deer, moose and elk had moved down here just in the last few hours, judging by the tracks and their various stages of being snowed in.
I rather quickly moved down the trail, occasionally glassing the odd shapes below, just to see another needle covered log or rock. Towards the lower end of the ridge the natural bench is closer to the ridge crest, perhaps only twenty five yards below, instead of the fifty to sixty yards that typifies the rest of the landform. Again, even at that short distance I still glassed everything that looked out of place...several deer and a moose materialized in the matter of less than half a mile, bedded down on the bench under cover.
Finally darkness was winning, and I made haste. Twenty yards below, a rockslide had covered part of the natural bench with massive car-sized boulders, all of them golden brown with their layer of needles showing through the blanket of snow. At the west side of this boulder strewn mess was yet another massive boulder, kidney shaped and needle covered. They all looked the same. Yet this rock struck me as strange, being smoother in contour than the other jagged granite boulders strewn around it.
Just as I thought it might pay to glass things a bit, the kidney shaped rock, with the small tree laying in front of it, jumped up! A mature branch-antlered bull materialized out of my kidney shaped rock sixty feet away! That bull went from a curled sleeping position to the dense black timber below in two sixteen-foot jumps!
By the time I reacted, and the .444 hit my shoulder, hammer back, all I saw through the receiver sight was snow falling off tree limbs where he had disappeared into the blackness of the timber and darkness of night.
As darkness ended the day, so did elk season for that year....with an empty tag in my wallet, and an awesome memory of a very special day, enjoying God's creation, hunting one of the grandest game animals on earth....and having the privilege of seeing my prize!