Fifteen years ago I kept a journal on the last elk hunt I took with my son, Andy. I’ve been sharing it with my readers, not just as a way to commemorate one of the happiest times in my life, but as a way to celebrate the simplicity and the complexity of a parent and child relationship.
Today I give you the final installment. It’s quite a bit longer than the others have been but I just couldn’t cut it up without destroying the intent. I beg your indulgence.
10-15-2002 Tuesday Fourth day of elk season
We slept in until 5 am this morning then headed out west, crossing Marvine Creek on a big log with a cable stretched above it. It’s a very steep but short climb on both sides, about 20 yards on the camp side, about 100 yards on the other – straight up. Anyway, we walked back to the valley where West Marvine Creek is. It’s a pretty little valley filled with stunted willows around the creek and the ever present blue spruce and quaking aspens blanketing the mountainsides. I wanted to go northwest and walk through the dark timber, looping out to look in the valley now and then. We did that for a very short time but Andy didn’t like that technique. He wanted to go back to the trail and follow it like everybody else does. So we did that for a few more miles. Andy built three bridges of fallen branches for us to cross the West Marvine.
By the way, the West Marvine is just full of fish. I’m sure they are trout but can’t be positive. They were darting around in that icy water, and I do mean icy. There were ice dams and travertines resembling little terraces. Limbs adorned with icicle-beards overhung the creek. We did not want to take a bath in that water, believe me. Thus the bridges.
After crossing the creek we followed the trail west until we came to a pretty valley with a brook running through it. The brook was so tiny that you could stand normally with a foot on each side. We started down the valley but I was just running completely out of energy so we headed back to camp.
We saw three mulies down the valley where I originally wanted to go. I quashed the urge to say, “I told you so.”
I got the idea that, if neither of us gets an elk, we might take the hide from that cow we found. If I get it tanned it might make a nice throw for the couch in my trophy room, if I ever get one built. Or I might hang it on the wall like I did Andy’s and my deer skins from last year. Maybe hang pictures on it. We’ll see.
The people at the Buford store were real (reel?) good when we took Andy’s fishing kit back. They replaced the reel with a better/more expensive one at no extra charge.
When we got back to camp we ate the sandwiches we’d made for lunch. Then Andy headed off to go fishing while I write this in my journal.
As I’m writing this, a little chipmunk is climbing up a blue spruce in camp. He scampers from limb to limb; I guess he’s looking for pine cones. There are lots of those. We haven’t caught any chipmunks in our mouse traps (10 mice, though) which is good, because Andy has named two that hang around camp. What else? Chip and Dale. Chip has brighter markings than Dale. They are both real cute. If we were going to be here long Andy would have them eating out of his hand.
I gave one of the camp Stellar’s jays a cheese nip. I guess they are not as smart as our blue jays back home because he couldn’t figure out what to do with it. He pecked at it for a while and it didn’t break (Does that say more about the jay or the cheese nip?). He cocked his head as if studying the situation, then picked the cracker up and flew away. He never came back. I hope the cheese nip didn’t prove fatal.
Andy came back while I was writing, then went to another place and came back. No luck fishing.
I was so tired that I lay down on our queen size flocked air mattress and fell asleep for an hour. These modern air mattresses are nice. This one has been to Colorado with me twice and never gone flat.
After I got up I went out and Andy was doing his homework on the picnic table and eating Vienna Sausages. My lovely Annie did a great job of packing food for our trip. We’re at the end of our second week and have enough food left for at least two more weeks. I wonder if that is a hint. She may have overestimated my love for Vienna Sausages though. Twenty cans! But Andy’s been putting a dent in them (pun intended) since I showed him how to eat them with snack crackers (like Ritz).
Andy and I were talking about an old song (my cousin) John and I used to sing…
Look up on the mountain and what’d I see?
Bear tracks, bear tracks lookin’ back at me!
Papa get your rifle before it’s too late,
bear’s got a pig and he’s headed for the gate.
Well he’s big around the middle and he’s broad across the rump.
Doin’ ninety miles an hour, takin’ thirty feet a jump.
He ain’t never been caught; he ain’t never been treed.
Some folks say he’s a lot like me.
Andy agreed the bear sounds a lot like me, especially the big around the middle part.
I left Andy working on his homework, took my rifle and backpack, and headed down the north fork of the Marvine Trail (I think now it may have actually been the Muskrat Lakes Trail). I followed it to the big valley that the Marvine Creek flows through. I didn’t see much sense in going on that way as there was a hunter on horseback in front of me and three hunters on foot behind me. So I headed back to camp on the south fork of the Marvine Trail (It parallels Marvine Creek there.).
Thinking I might see some elk by doing so, I left the trail and climbed to the ridge to still-hunt the dark timber. A couple pine squirrels watched me from ten feet away, chattering their indignation at my intrusion into their home territory. I came upon a steep-sided valley to my right that looked like a cyclone had passed through. The sides were so steep that I would have had trouble climbing them with a rope. The valley was full of blown down spruce trees, some of them hundreds of years old, looking like giant “pick-up sticks.” There was no way to navigate that valley so it funneled me back down to the trail.
There I came upon a spot where an ancient spruce had fallen across the trail. Someone had chainsawed a section out of it so that people could get through. I counted 170 rings more or less meaning that the old tree sprouted sometime around 1830!
When that tree germinated there were still people living who remembered when the United States was just a silly thought in the minds of certain idealists and dreamers. Veterans of the War of 1812 were in their 30s and 40s when it first began to grow. This part of the Rockies was still the province of free Native Americans and a few hardy mountain men, persistently trying to eke out a living, even though the beaver fur business had, “gone south.” The tree was in its own thirties when the great war between the states erupted back east, but it wasn’t affected because this was still wild country and the Indian Wars were under way. It was in its early 40s when an arrogant cavalry colonel named Custer made a fatal miscalculation a few hundred miles north of here. That was the same year that this young nation celebrated its centennial year and admitted Colorado to the union. The tree was 70 years old when a new century began, but it didn’t care. It celebrated its own 100th year during the heart of the great depression. It was 110 when the second war to end all wars began and 130 when a young, idealistic president was shot outside a school book depository in Texas. It slipped quietly into a new century at the age of 170, still standing, although it was already dead or dying. At last, sometime in late 2001 or early 2002, its roots gave up their tenuous grasp on the rocky soil and the forest monarch crashed to the earth, ready to begin a new cycle of life as it slowly returns to the earth from whence it came.
When I got back to camp Andy had started a fire in the fire pit and was roasting hotdogs. I had already poured 12 gallons of water into our make-shift tub so we heated a few pots of water and poured them in. A-a-a-a-ah that bath felt good!
Then I helped Andy with his homework. He had to do two two-page reports on two of Newton’s laws of motion. We had a great time writing about football passes doing loop-the-loops, baseballs going into orbit, and nacho cheese dip flying around the basketball court – not to mention those awful bowling alley fatalities.
Today turned out to be a pretty good day after all. I started out the day tired and a little depressed because I hadn’t accomplished what I set out to on this trip.
As my mom can attest, sometimes I just need to get off by myself. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having Andy along on this trip. I’m not even sure that I was fully conscious of my own need. But Andy still had homework to do and has gotten out of it a lot lately. So he stayed behind and I went off alone.
In the process, I found what I came out here looking for, even though I didn’t know it at the time. No, I didn’t find an elk. I found something I’d already had but which needed the renewal I can only get alone, especially in the wild places. I discovered…myself and my connection to life. Yes, it sounds silly and esoteric, but it’s true. Only, or especially, when I am alone in nature, alone with God, if you will, do all the pieces of the puzzle fit. In nature I see how truly important and powerful I am. After all, I have given life and I can take life. And I can see how really insignificant I am. Like the fallen giant I described above, who will really care when I’m gone?
On a larger scale, I see how powerful man is. Mankind has destroyed so much of nature. Yet I see how weak man is. After all, no matter how much of nature man destroys, he will eventually destroy himself…and nature will survive. If every bomb that man has (and ever had, for that matter) were to explode right now, and the planet were reduced to a blackened cinder, at some point it would begin to rain and something, somewhere would sprout. And God would look down, and perhaps frown, before deciding which of his creations would have the next shot at supremacy.
My own insignificance does not sadden me or make me angry. On the contrary, it clarifies things. It is clear to me that God does not intend for me to be the most powerful or important person in this world. And really, how important is that person? After all, ask some starving child in Ethiopia who Bill Gates is and he will shrug his shoulders and tell you that the most important person in the world is the one who feeds him.
No, God intends me to be important to only a few people, coincidentally, those who are most important to me. That is where my priority lies.
That is life…and that is where I fit…and that is where I belong.
That is where my journal ends. The next morning, in my semi-conscious stupor, I got totally confused by the difference in times and got up at 3 am. I made my way to the clearing where the elk carcass lay and sat there for hour upon hour, waiting for daylight. Leaning against a lightning-struck tree I alternated lifting myself up a bit to let the blood get back to my numb lower region and watching the meteor shower.
When the sun finally arose, I sat there for a couple hours before coming to the realization that harvesting an elk had become almost a moot point. Oh, I still wanted to, but my reawakening of the previous day had been my true goal all along and I had achieved that.
To commemorate the hunt, I salvaged the beautiful skin from the cow (I had found out that the hunter who had taken the elk didn’t want the hide.), wrapped it in plastic, and stuffed it into my LARGE Alice pack. What a load! Luckily I got to descend the longest hill, but I had to ascend the steep trail on the other side of the creek. There’s an experience for you – crossing a rushing, just barely liquid creek, tottering on a log with a 50 or 60 pound pack making radical changes to your center of balance. At least I’d had a relatively empty pack that morning when I had crossed it in the dark. When I got back to camp, Andy and I loaded up all our gear and headed for home.
It was a great trip, as all of them have been so far. Well worth the comparatively small amount of money it cost (But please, don’t ask Ann her opinion about that.).
What will I remember about this hunt?
I will remember gasping for breath in the thin air. I will remember how that same air made everything seem crystal clear. I will remember leaning against that lightning-struck trunk, deriding myself for getting up so early, and secretly glad that I got up in time to watch the meteor shower, lights streaking across the sky before dying out without reaching the ground – knowing they aren’t actually falling stars, but not wanting to believe that space rocks, dust, and debris could be that beautiful. I will remember those beautiful elk climbing the steep mountainsides like I would stride up a slight rise at home. I will remember the pine squirrels and chipmunks, liquid, brown eyes filled with wonder, curiosity, even fiery with anger as they looked at me. Man. Master of the planet. Only the look in the eyes of the little ones said they didn’t buy into that idea. I will remember the golden aspens covering the mountainsides like some overachieving Rapunzel had gone crazy working for the diminutive Rumplestilskin and how the branches of those same aspens seemed to have no idea which way they wanted to grow, each foot-long section bending up, down, or sideways, seemingly at whim, any direction except the one in which the previous section had grown. I will remember the big buck mule deer staring, unafraid, at Andy and me, before disappearing magically into the forest. I will remember the pungent smell of the spruces, so crisp and sharp that I could almost taste it. I will remember the quavering bugle of a love-struck bull elk, echoing through the darkness of the valley where we were camped. I will remember the amazingly loud fluttering of the blue grouse flying around us in the gathering daylight, and the grouse that landed on the log beside me. I will remember the tiny mountain bluebirds, dozens of them, flitting around the mountain glade in front of us, looking like blue sparks from a wind-stirred campfire.
But mostly I will remember my son, working hard on his homework, or splitting most of the firewood we would need, and having fun doing it. I will remember his smile, his laughter, his often juvenile, sometimes inane, but frequently insightful sense of humor. I will remember him carrying a pack like a man, rarely complaining, never giving up. And I will remember looking at him while he was sitting atop the mountain, waiting for an elk and doing his homework at the same time. And I will remember looking at him then, and seeing so many things – the grinning baby he once was, the wobbly toddler that he had been, the boy on the cusp of manhood that he is, and getting a preview of the man that he will be.
And then I will smile. ‘Cause that’s what it’s all about.
Back to today: Thus I conclude the narrative I put on paper in that Colorado mountain valley fifteen years ago. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it, and getting to know me a little better. And I hope you have learned a little about my son, Andy. He was so young then, yet so full of life, and the promise of it. In the ensuing years he has achieved everything I wanted for him, and more than I could have dreamed of. He’s grown, tall, handsome, and hardworking, and has become a better husband and father than I could ever be.
To Andy, Scotty, J.B., Bobby, T.J., Patrick, Annie, and all the daughters-in-law and grandkids: I’m ready to go back to Colorado. Who’s with me?
I think we’re gonna need a bigger tent.
(above) The cow elk skin that I brought back and got tanned is hanging at right in my studio. The skin at left is a moderate size whitetail deer buck skin.
(above) Johnny Horton performs “Slew Foot”, the song my cousin John and I used to sing, and which I referred to in the journal.
(above) The mountain bluebird. Imagine what a few of these little beauties would look like flitting around the yellow fall foliage of the aspen trees.
Stellar’s jays are entertaining little birds related to our blue jays back home in Missouri.