Witness to Wonder

What lies just out of sight in the wild?

My husband and I had been dirt-bagging it out of our SUV for the past few weeks, road-tripping around southwest Montana. The name of the game was adventure, and so far we were doing a hell of a good job of playing it. We'd already hit Yellowstone, killed it fly fishing six different rivers, and hiked up Beehive Basin, despite several feet of lingering snow. The weather had been it’s unpredictable self, but we were getting better at preparing for the unexpected roller coaster of thunderstorms, followed by blue skies and hot sunshine. It made for wet treks up rivers and frozen fingers, but also beautiful clear conditions in which to watch a grizzly bear and her cub lounge lazily in the warmth of the sun. Bottom line, the weather wasn’t holding us back. We embraced it and charged forward in our pursuit of adventure.

Our travels took us to the Madison Range where we decided to spend a night or two in the backcountry. We set up camp at the base of the mountains the night before hitting the trail. It was a stormy, rainy night and I didn't sleep more than an hour or two because I was fairly certain a tree was going to fall on our tent. We were still alive come morning and boiled some water over our little stove, enjoying our camp coffee and oatmeal before packing up.

The trail we intended to follow wound through a dense wooded area before gradually emerging into an alpine meadow in which thousands of bright wildflowers danced among the bright green of the wild grasses. It was breathtaking, and I may have forced my husband to stop several times too many for pictures. The wind had died down a bit and we were nearing where we had seen a small lake on our map. We intended to camp there for the night.

While I've never turned down an opportunity to sleep outside, I've also always had an irrational fear of wild animals, especially bears. If it were up to me, I'd have several bear bells on my pack, cheerily clanging away, announcing my presence to all predators for miles around. But my husband has a deep hatred of bear bells as he likes to enjoy the peace and quiet of nature, and who can blame him? So I refrained from attaching my bear bells to my pack before heading out on this excursion, but clutched my bear spray tightly, just in case. I was comforted by the fact that my husband's a hunter and is very in tune with the sounds and smells of animals. He promised me that I had nothing to worry about.

We marched on, our packs heavy on our aching backs, giddy with fresh air and the excitement of being in the mountains. Suddenly, from up ahead of me, my husband stopped and held his hand up. I stopped abruptly and watched him curiously. Then, quick as can be, he pulled his bear spray out of it’s holder and held it up, backing toward me along the path. My heart skipped a beat and I followed his lead, pulling my bear spray out of its cover and looking around wildly, whispering, “What is it?” to my husband. Then I heard it. A loud crashing noise from just a small ways up the path in a patch of trees to our left. We froze, all of our primal senses engaged, ready to fight or flee, ready for our opponent to make his appearance. The fact that Ben was standing in front of me, bear spray raised and at the ready made me certain that we were about to encounter a bear. Adrenaline pulsed through my body as the crashing grew louder. It was so close.

Then, from the trees stepped the largest bull elk either of us had ever seen. Our mouths dropped simultaneously. It munched some grass, picking its way along the side of the mountain. We looked at each other, wide-eyed, and chuckled in disbelief. It was a huge, powerful, beautiful creature. With a start, the elk lifted his heavy head and looked right at us. Our breaths caught in our chests. He took off and disappeared into a patch of trees up the trail from us.

We speed walked up the trail, hoping to catch another glimpse, and as we rounded a small hill, we heard what sounded like thunder. Up ahead through a meadow ran several bull elk, their massive forms floating effortlessly as they disappeared in the distance. We'd never seen so many bulls, and none of that size. We stood on the trail long after they'd disappeared, big, stupid grins spread across our faces.

Anna M. Cohen is a writer, adventurer, fly fisherwoman, and founder of the outdoor lifestyle blog Wild Writes. She is all about the mountains, chasing trout, and inspiring others to get outside. Check out more about Anna at annamcohen.com