I write this remembrance for my children as well as their own including those who follow us down those halls of time hallowed by our endless line of ancestors reaching into the remote past. If I can pass but one gift to them it would be imagination; not just for visions to amuse but to fully appreciate the universe in which they find themselves involved.
There is just nowhere in the emerald mountains of Idaho which is not heart-achingly beautiful. Just to find yourself amongst the peaks and and valleys; the pine, fir, aspen and hemlock; and standing surrounded by beasts which could end your life without departing their daily lifestyle is a return to our primal spirit and refreshment to our eternal soul. To be mounted on a fine horse, riding the narrow roads gouged from the sheer cliffs surrounded by eternity…this is heaven.
My good friend and I had arrived in the southern most reaches of the mighty Bitterroot Mountains above the great Snake river to hunt elk. The headwaters of the Snake spring to life high upon the Yellowstone caldera. It races through the mountains to begin a long twisted trail across Idaho and Oregon to it’s magnificent confluence with the huge Columbia river.
The Bitterroots erupt skyward along the splendid western Montana border and extend their glorious elevations south, skirting the unequaled glacier clad Tetons, and finally into Idaho where their roots are at the last washed by the Snake.
I seriously doubt there is an area more conducive to this huge member of the deer family. Dense stands of forest interspersed with grassy parks (aptly named elk parks) all spread over the steep mountainsides were perfect cover for this handsome animal called the wapiti (elk) in the native Cree tribal tongue.
Even before the camp had been pitched, an officer of the Idaho Wildlife Department stopped by the gradually growing camp the first day. He was probably the most courteous and friendly game warden I have ever met in any state.
I talked of many things with the warden offering up many helpful tips on camping and hunting the area. I had offered to exhibit my permit and tag early in the visit but he politely declined. He went on to explain this area would be teeming with elk once the snowfall began and the snow was then late in coming. He speculated that hunting pressure would drive the animals over the pass at the upper limits of the valley we had located camp.
Yet…(fade to ending)
After two weeks of hunting, scouting and riding the huge area in which we had claimed for hunting on our permits, it was found to be sterile of the elusive wapiti. A massive bull moose became a familiar, if antagonistic, acquaintance as he was usually to be found standing in the center of the trail challenging all comers.
Bears, well, the black bears, of all sizes, were everywhere. The hillsides were covered with a bright red berry which the bears loved to browse. The season was just prior to their winter nap time and they were taking in all the foodstuffs they could manage.
Down to our last day of hunting, I rode the miles-long perimeter of the the valley while my friend went to the very top of the pass. We agreed to meet back at camp around noon to compare notes and findings…if any at all.
When I rode into camp he was ecstatic. A good-sized group of elk had crossed over the high pass and milled in the new snow on the very mountain top. He described a large circle which the herd had trampled while milling around. They had apparently drifted off searching for food.
Quickly we laid plans to find well-covered stands around the location upon which all the elk had converged in hopes they would return before today’s darkness extinguished our right to hunt and turned our hunting activities illegal.
A bite to eat for the horses and ourselves and we hit the long trail back up the mountain one last time. The slopes were clad almost entirely with evergreens making the scene appear almost spring-like. This changed as we climbed beyond the snow line.
We had only experienced a couple of light snows in camp which melted without delay. Even with temperatures lower down in the mid 30’s, no snow or ice lingered. Higher was a different story.
Snow upon the Mountain
No snow on top of the mountain when we arrived changed slowly into a now 6 inch layer. Each day it crept lower, but we had arrived about two weeks too early for the white cover to move the elk towards us. Even the steadily increasing pressure of many hunters across the pass failed to prod them into moving into our area.
We tied the horses a good half mile below the hunting ground. The smell of horses and the small noises they make carry for long distances in the crystalline air of high mountains.
Approaching the open space upon which the elk had milled about, we silently chose our stands. I was above the circle left by the untrammeled herd and to the northward. I enjoyed unobstructed views and could spot any moving object for nearly a quarter mile in a great sweep to the east, south and west.
I carried every type of weather-proof clothing on my person. The temperature was hovering about 25 as we left camp and steadily lowered as we climbed. I knew not to what extremes the climate might plunge but I was ready for it!
Time crept as if a metronome were slowly beating within my ears. Snow fell in light flakes and soon covered my bundled body blending me into the surrounding landscape. Maintaining my head steady I swept the whole of the area with long slow eye movements. I knew that my peripheral vision was the valuable motion detector in this situation, I focused upon objects and allowed free rein to my senses.
Wedged as comfortably as possible between two massive fir trees, I hoped to avoid cramps, pains & the fearful “Charlie horse”. It has got to be programmed into the human psyche that during extended moments of inaction, somewhere an ache, pain or itch becomes the sole and uncontested focus of the mind. Desperate to not reveal my position I slowly moved within my clothing only to find the pain following that movement; often arriving before I reached the new position.
Eventually, I found that by concentrating on the heights above or upon some comely spot and allowing my imagination to roam my mind denied the banal bodily cramps conscious attention. It was in this manner I passed the hours leading to darkness. I could vision the Blackfoot, Crow and Nez Perce men moving across this clearing challenging faith and life in their grueling yet noble existence upon this earth.
I became familiar with every bush, tree & stone upon this high inclining and scenic masterpiece. Colors, shadows, and textures blended into unimagined allure. Over the years I have reminded myself while viewing such scenes spread about me to be mindful that I may well never travel this way again. Seeking to imbue into my memory this spectacular niche of eternity.
As alluring as this place of seductive beauty, it was eventually clear that the elk had moved on with no thought of return. As darkness approached the frigid air seemed to be abating. Clouds above us gradually lightened and soon the small snowy chips falling evolved into larger and larger wafers. One by one they grew into great orbs forming the creative and non-reproducible crystal structures.
Forgotten in my reverence of the moment was that this night marked a full moon. Movement to darkness lower on the mountains was swift and complete. Up here nearest the sky it took longer and soon I sensed that dark was not entirely to be.
The glare of the late evening developed into a mystic ethereal glow of mixed moonlight radiating through the billowy snow clouds and dispersed by the multitudinous flakes filling the world about me.
End of the Hunt
At this moment my friend materialized below in the clearing as if an apparition had leap full life from the very earth. He stood motionlessly staring at the still visible circle left by the descendent’s of the wapiti hunted by my just imagined Native American neighbors. In my mind he looked forlorn thinking of what might have been his long dreamed end to this epic undertaking.
Quietly joining him I noted his disappointed demeanor as we made our careful way down to the tethered horses. With a bit of relief we found them placidly awaiting our return.
I mention our relief because, near this very spot, my friend had tied his horse while he scouted the area on our second day on the mountain. In his absence a bear had stumbled upon and panicked the animal into ripping the reins lose and, in his terror, running at full speed down the mountain and past the campsite.
The bridle rein was broken where attached to the bit and, tied to the other rein, trailed far behind the speeding horse further adding to his hysterical flight. Far below I heard and gave chase to this totally unnerved animal. Sides heaving-in great gasps of air, I slowly gentled him and wondered at his appearance hoping the rider did not lay injured upon the mountain.
Returning up the mountain we encountered the beleaguered animals rider and discovered the source of the run-away mystery.
Now, as we mounted for our ride down the mountain, the giant flakes of snow obliterated all evidence of our unrequited hunt. Yet the ending of the hunt did not mark the last of adventure. Before us lie the long miles to the end of this the highest trail over our mountain. Endless in the moon-glow and falling snow.
I led-off and allowed my tall mount to determine his own slow pace. In most points of the trail merging with the ancient logging road there existed an abrupt precipice on the right and vertical bluff to the left. A misplaced foot or turned hoof and eternity would meet both horse and rider (me) on the long way downward.
To further aggravate me this beast of an equine hard-headed and free spirited individual moved inexorably toward the outer edge of the path. He seemed to relish balancing on the knife-edge of road and cliff edge. Turning the faithless animal back to the other side was only a temporary relief. Step by step we unerringly headed back to that line demarcating this existence with the next life.
A Night of Great Beauty
I was unable to long focus on my mount’s peculiarity as the growing moonlight was creating a vision about me beyond my own poor imagination. I have often noted the differing appearance of the night sky at these great heights. On clearest nights the stars dance temptingly within an arm’s reach. The Milky Way becomes a true highway of the gods extending endlessly across the unfathomable universe.
The huge moon was clearly visible through the over-covering clouds transforming those snow-filled vapors into a massive source of radiance effusing the world with a light both seen and felt.
And the snowflakes, huge frozen orbs of sculpted ice, became carnate with this exquisite glow. Each snowflake manifest as a lantern with it’s own soft smoldering blaze. Legions of luminescent and full of glory small entities gently drifting earthward. Each flake became a star glowing, writing it’s brief existence into my memory.
Hoof falls became muffled upon the earth’s pristine new white skin. All my world approached an unchallenged silence. Only the light, myself and my horse upon the mountain existed encapsulated in a totality of separation from normal time and reality. This journey downward became a lifetime entire; a beginning and ending encased and exclusive of other mundane life.
Lost in my reverie I rode in blissful abandon. Sensing the gradual ending of the steep slope blending into the soft incline of the valley, I endured a sadness realizing the culmination of this my dream journey.