A lone hunter weaves his way through the sagebrush islands pockmarking the sand of the San Luis Valley. He left at daybreak, just as he has on countless autumn mornings before this. His breath, suspended and frozen in the air, reflects the color of the fiery sunrise barely eclipsing the peaks of the Sangre De Cristos before him and wraps him in an ethereal halo against a background of blue shadows. The wind in his face hides his sound and scent; calculated movements avoid the crunching noise of the frost still glistening on the brush at his feet. He follows an animal that has roamed this valley for millenia. Moving like a ghost to catch the same, he inches towards a slight ridgeline for a better view of the vast expanse before him.
He hears a sound, almost materializing out of the frigid air itself. Something eerie, primal, and nearly devoid of description altogether. Its transcendence of time itself has pierced many October mornings in the Valley and the ears of those in its pursuit. A bull elk greets his domain, daring any nearby rival to challenge him. Time stops completely, save for the hunter’s heartbeat keeping the rhythm of the morning’s measured song. He raises his binoculars and scans the horizon, but with no reward.
The man remains stoic, unfazed and confident with dozens of seasons’ experience to rely on. He completed his first hunt before he could walk, secured in a pack on his father’s shoulders some thirty five years ago. This story is written in his blood and on the very sand beneath his boots, passed on to him through his parents’ passion and the environment surrounding his childhood home. His prey reciprocates this generational tradition, eluding and frustrating hunters for thousands of years. To successfully harvest the second largest North American ungulate, the hunter will need to think like an elk.
Across the valley, a lone bull scans the same horizon. He searches for a target of his own, seeking creation rather than harvest. The arrival of frigid air and fiery leaves has signaled the changing of the seasons. His antlers, massive and now free of the soft velvet of warmer months, crash through the vegetation in his path on his way to the valley floor. The rut has begun.
Up until this point, his time was spent mostly alone in the high country or in small groups of bachelor bulls. The wind surging between the San Juan Mountains has grown colder, harsher, and more frequent, forcing him to lower altitudes in search of mates. He doesn’t have much time; his success hinges on barely two months before the dead of winter sets in and he returns to his mostly solitary existence. For now, he is already prepared to fight off would-be suitors that might get in the way. The jagged scars above his eyes document his experience earned in battles of seasons passed. This year would be no different. With his attention focused on his harem, his physical health will suffer. Guarding his group of mature cows and young calves will leave little time for his own eating.
He wallows in the mud to cool off and emerges in a steaming heap, equal parts earth and animal. The commotion stirs his surroundings. A nearby challenger calls for a fight. The old bull is much obliged, spurred on by eons of hormones distilled from instinct. He walks towards his rival unseen to defend his newfound territory.
The hunter shares the primal calling rooted in the same inexplicable instinct passed down through millenia. Even now, areas surrounding the Valley’s water sources reveal arrowheads emerging through the sands of time and tell the story of ancestors lying in wait in the same location, looking for the same prey. The first humans to reach North America chased wild game across Beringia nearly 30,000 years ago on the same route elk traveled to the New World. Back then, they were wapiti, or “light colored deer” in languages of the First Nations. When the Europeans arrived, they named them elk. Now, the hunter chases Cervus elaphus canadensis, the second largest ungulate in North America, a descendent of the prehistoric migratory wapiti ancestors of yesteryear.
Prior to the logging, plowing, and taming of the continent, their habitat range was massive. Estimated populations of ten million elk roamed nearly all corners of Canada and the US, save for the Gulf Coast of the southern US and tundras in the northernmost reaches of Canada. Extensive hunting throughout the 1800s and subsequent habitat loss forced them to recede to higher elevations in search of more protected and often mountainous areas they now call home.
Over one million elk remain today, most commonly in the mountain ranges of the west. They still range quite a distance; throughout the warmer summer months, they spending time at higher elevation, free from predation and human pressure. The calves born here feed on readily available grass in preparation for winter, but the herds are forced to lowland habitats when the weather turns cold. Here they search for new growth shrubbery, forbs, or cured grasses to survive the harsh season. The lowland migration provides relief from the unforgiving climate now taking hold on their summer environment, but exposes them to other dangers: the hunt.
The hunter moves on, midmorning sunlight transforming his setting. He decides to make for a water source, hoping the rising temperature will consolidate the herds at a drinking point. A cloud of dust rising above the horizon stokes a fire of anticipation, a possible gang of elk moving towards his location or a pair of bulls sparring for control. He settles in between the rabbit brush and waits. Moments feel like hours. A few shards of obsidian as black as the night lie on the surface of the sand next to him. He feels an inexplicable connection to a stranger, a hunter, nameless and anciently waiting in the same place fashioning arrowheads out of the earth itself. He carries this bond to the earth and its inhabitants with him on every hunt. He dares not move.
The lone bull charges through the sage and lays eyes on an intruder. A young, formidable bull stands across from him at the edge of a small clearing. Lifting his head to attention, he matches the older bull’s confrontational body language. This challenger, although smaller, displays considerable size and confidence for his age. The two bulls walk towards each other, eyes locked and alert, ready for the battle to come.
In a furious explosion of dust, debris, and ivory, they clash like a pair of wrecking balls and wage their war for mating rights. The goal is domination. A test of endurance and resolve, the battle lasts for a short eternity. Their horns remain locked, spinning in tandem in a primal tango of testosterone fueled chaos. The thrashing and kicking releases a tornado of dust into the air above them. For a while, they are matched, but the younger bull’s speed proves no match for the incumbent’s strength and stamina. The vanquished concedes his own defeat and darts off into the trees to rest, leaving the victor in his domain. Both are exhausted from the encounter, and the old bull needs rest. This is only the first of many battles he’ll wage during the rut. He lifts his nose to the wind to find his harem, rights his compass, and continues on towards the watering hole.
The hunter sits, motionless and unmoving as a boulder. He waits at his vantage point, hoping a bull elk emerges from the brush to join the small herd of cows and calves now converging on the small creek in front of him. They cannot see or smell him, for the wind is favorable. They drink lazily, unbothered and unaware of his presence. They stand upwind, so close he can smell them and hear the dampened trudging of their footfalls in the sand. Nearly a dozen fill his field of view, but no bull needed to fill his tag.
Suddenly, one of the females lifts her head and peers into the wall of sage surrounding the creek. The bull lumbers through the greenery, bloodied and half crazed from a fresh sparring session victory. He announces his presence with a proud bugle so loud that it resonates down into the hunters bones and seemingly arises from within him. His heart beats so loud that he knows they can hear it. The bull continues towards the herd. Just a few more steps, and he’ll make the shot. He draws his bow and anchors his wrist to his cheek, waiting. His heart beats louder. The bull gets closer. His heart beats faster. He waits….he waits…he waits.