Out in the Cold

Learning the hard way.

After a day and a half of snowfall, the storm finally broke. The others were still snoring as I zipped the canvas and crept off into the dark. Usually, Dad would be with me. But today I wanted to cover some ground—to get far away from roads, gain elevation, and obtain lofty vantage points. I wanted to go deep, into remote and wild country.

I climbed through sunrise as clouds floated out of the canyon and high meadows opened to a brisk autumn sky. Morning light bent through mint-green lodgepoles and reflected off white-capped sage. The colors of the day seemed brighter than usual, the air crisper. 

I stalked as if there were an elk behind every tree—believing there was an elk behind every tree. Eventually, my intensity tapered and the acute sneak relaxed into a more casual hike. My movements became automatic, unthinking: stopping to glass clearings, creeping along game trails, checking bedding areas. All the while, my mind wandered, as free and wild as the forest around me. 

Reflections of time and place: it was Dad, I remembered, who showed me these hunting grounds, having himself discovered them long before I was born. I thought about how most of the areas I venture to, he’s been before, and if I go anywhere else it’s because he’s taught me what good elk habitat is. Somewhere along the line of hunting together, we’d undergone a slight transformation, a subtle switch in roles. He still comes to elk camp—he’ll never stop—but these days he spends his time closer to the woodstove. And while I’m now the one rambling out yonder well after dark, it’s only a version of him, 30 years younger. 

After seven hours, I was back at the first ridge I’d topped that morning. Camp was just down the hill. The sky turned purple and a fat yellow moon swelled over the nearest ridgeline. I gazed absently for quite some time, tired but elated. Turning downhill to finish the final stretch, my eyes met the tawny hide of a bull elk. He was standing in the open, broadside, 50 yards away. I was bewildered. I’ve seen nothing the entire day and now an elk just magically appears a half-mile from camp?

The sunset had kept me content and I wasn’t yet convinced that this elk was real, so I stared at him for a few seconds. I blinked three or four times and he was still there, looking back at me. 

Slowly, I unslung the .270 and brought it to my shoulder. The scope filled with stout muscles stretching his golden hide. I flicked off the safety, took a final confirmation breath, and pulled the trigger.

Click. The bull remained broadside, unfazed. I gave the trigger a second pull and then a third. Nada. A dud?I am one-hundred-percent sure I loaded this thing. The elk watched curiously as I fumbled around and cursed my rifle. Scrambling, I ejected the cartridge, put another one in, and brought the crosshairs up just in time to see the tips of his antlers disappearing down the hill.

I fumed, verbally assaulting the gun and almost throwing it off a nearby cliff. Plopping down in the sage, I looked back at the moon. As my tantrum subsided, I remembered that it had been snowing the past few days and I’d been out in it. I remembered that when I’d gotten back to the tent, I was so tired that I just put my gun in its case without a proper cleaning. And I remembered a story my dad told me about a frozen .270 slowing his firing pin so it couldn’t knock the primer.

Muffled laughter echoed up from camp down below. I stretched my neck to see our glowing wall tent, smoke rising from the chimney. Dad may have tried to groom me well, but I still had a lot to learn. That laughter was about to get a lot louder.