For over a decade, elk season has punctuated the years like no other annual event.
There is a cadence to each year. They're broken into the four seasons determined by the earth's orbit. We anticipate the coming of ski season, camping season, race season, maybe baseball or football season. School years start and end. All of these seasons have definite start and end points - a time in each year when they have our focus. Elk season is different. It gives the year a pulse.
Early each January after the holiday chaos has calmed and we've headed back to our routine, big game brochures arrive in the mail. We get excited and text one another photos of brochures in hand. Bragging rights are gained by the person USPS happened to deliver to first. Over the next few weeks, the act of repeatedly thumbing through, looking at season dates, units and tag quotas starts. Emails and texts are sent and a plan is hatched... then we wait until spring.
Excitement spikes again in early April when applications for the draw have to be submitted. Then it's time to wait again.
Summer rolls around and in mid-June, licenses from the draw show up in the mail. Information on leftover licenses is published in July. Leftover licenses go on sale in August.
Then it's fall, time to reload, check the zero on your rifle. Do a gear inventory, purchase food, pack, then finally, after 10 months of waiting...
It's elk season.
Elk season is about much more than just hunting. In an ever increasingly connected world it's nice to escape to a place where there is no cell service, no email and no social media. It's a time to catch up with family and friends you've known so long they might as well be family. It's a reason to get out into the woods and experience all the grandeur that fall in the high country has to offer. It's time in the backcountry. It's the best sort of vacation.
Like many of the people I hunt with, I grew up backpacking, climbing and generally wandering around in the woods. It wasn't until I started backcountry hunting, however, that I had a reason to explore off trails and become a part of the woods. The act of hunting offered me an opportunity to notice things in the forest that I'd overlooked for years.
Other backcountry pursuits tend to have a defined start and end point. Hike to this point, bike this trail, ski this run, climb this peak, send this route. Hunting has an objective too, but it doesn't have a timeline. It involves being patient. It involves sitting still and observing the landscape. It gives you a reason to hike in the dark to a place where you sit in the woods alone and quiet and wait for the sun to come up. A reason to watch the stars fade from the night's sky as the first rays of the morning sun paint the bark of aspen trees a brilliant orange. It provides the gift of amazing adrenaline rushes when you hear a bull bugle, a cow mew, glass animals in the distance and plan your spot and stalk.
Days (or entire seasons) when you're not seeing animals can be frustrating, but spending time wandering in the woods is always a gift. On these "slow" days, I have "discovered" high alpine lakes, found shed antlers, noticed how aspen leaves land in evergreen trees and make them look as if they are decorated for Christmas. I've had amazing cups of coffee, taken in memorable views and found a 5x5 bull elk "dead head." I've hiked miles and miles with good friends. I've had amazing laughs and waited out countless storms in camp. I've shivered in the cold, I've sweated in the heat.
If the season is going well and you're lucky enough to find an elk in your crosshairs, the pounding of your heart in your chest is a sensation you're not likely to ever forget. You squeeze the trigger, yet you hear no sound and feel no recoil. You feel countless emotions when you fill your tag, excitement for the food you'll provide, anticipation for the meals you'll share with friends and family and inevitably, remorse as well.
You mark your tag, then the hours of work begins. The heaviest packs I've ever carried have all been during hunting season.
When the season closes, when we've packed everything out of the backcountry and we're driving home, I think to myself, "Only two and a half months until the Big Game Brochure comes out." The cadence continues into next year.