While I pulled into the small trail head parking area, dawn hinted its arrival as the sky line blinked back the
fading stars. Snow melt puddled in the ruts left from the previous hunting season. It was the awkwardness
of early spring, where hints of green started coloring the remains of winter.
The closing of the car door was a silent effort because I didn’t want to disturb the coming of the day. As I
slipped on my pack frame, I adjusted its waist band allowing a little more room to accommodate some
added winter pounds. I crossed the small creek which waited for the day’s warmth to add to its volume.
The marked trail that paralleled its wanderings was not my path as I started to ascend to the ridge top that
had been carved by the retreat of more than one ice age. The game trial that I chose for my climb wound
through scrub cedar, twisted pine and filled my nostrils with the incense of sage brush mixed with the
moistness of morning.
I was no stranger here. For the past four years I had began my journey in the same fashion until I
reached the plateau that the ridge and the creek skirted. It was here that I started scanning the area
looking for the shedding of bulls and bucks. The sun now threatened to rise above white cloaked peaks,
falsely making them seem warm and inviting. The trickery of shadows appeared but made it light enough
to search for antler treasures.
I breathed in the freshness of the day and exhaled my thoughts of its wonders. This was when I was
most alive; now, here, the beginning, with anticipation mounting as to what may lie in store.
Tines up caught my eye and I gathered in the sight of a fresh shed four point deer antler cocked against
the rotting of a dead fall. A ‘yes’ welled up inside me and almost became speech, but it was too perfect of
a moment to let it out. My heart beat raced as I tried to look every where at once, as a child would at an
Easter egg hunt. “Slow down, slow down” kept repeating itself as I mouthed the words.
I retrieved the antler and slowed my pace hoping its mate might be close by. I made small circles out
from where I found the shed but had no luck. Hiking on, I came across a three point deer shed bleached
white. Had I missed it from the year before or had it been brought here by coyotes or rodents? A couple
of the points had teeth marks in them so I told myself it was not a miss but a gift.
While crossing the cattle mowed plateau at the base of the mountain I came upon a fresh shed elk
antler. The burr still had the stain of fresh blood on it, and the tips of its tines were polished to make ivory
jealous. I held it above my head and shook it toward the heavens in a gesture of thank you.
When I got to the base of the mountain, I started going back and forth over the finger ridges that laid the
foundation for the peaks above. The day was warming and it felt like spring had truly arrived. I picked up
two more elk sheds and an assortment of deer as the day wore on. One of the deer sheds was a freak of
sorts. A drop tine ran at odds with its normal characteristics.
Tucked under the branches of a battle rubbed juniper was just the hint of a white tip. I had almost
passed by before my mind acknowledged its existence. Pushing back the layers of dead grass, I retrieved
an old mule deer shed. It had eight points, plus a four inch long brow tine and I couldn’t get my hand
around the base. Cracks from aging were mixed with a protective covering of velvety moss on its main
beams. Shrugging, I asked myself, “How many times had I passed by this very spot?”
As I rounded the bottom of a small cliff, I was caught by surprise. There in the warmth of the afternoon
sun was a bull elk or what was left of him. Most of his hind quarters were gone. Hide, stretched over bone,
clung to the cliff face. After dropping the few antlers I was carrying, I set down to remove the mounting
burden of my pack frame. I scaled the smooth surface of the cliff and investigated what had happened.
The bull was no youngster. His rack was six points to a side and fairly heavy. It looked like he had been
feeding along the edge of the rounded cliff face where the snow had melted, exposing some nourishment.
He must have lost his footing and slipped off. I doubt if he would have been hurt much if he had just fell
because the cliff was only about ten feet high. What happened was his front legs got caught in a crevice.
His hind legs were about a foot from reaching the ground so there he hung, seven hundred pounds of
terrified animal hanging by his front legs. It had to be a slow agonizing death.
His head was thrown back, with his mouth opened to let his last breath be the only thing to escape. His
eyes had been stolen by scavengers so all that was left were black holes starring into emptiness. Birds
had streaked his antlers white with their droppings as they perched to let their bellies rest from feasting on
his flesh. The shadow of an eagle passed over me as it circled above. The sun’s warmth seemed to try
and masquerade the cold hard realities of Mother Nature. I felt like an intruder who had stumbled onto
something that he wasn’t suppose to witness.
I didn’t have a camera to preserve the tragedy but it is something that I well never forget. After
removing his head, I took care in carving the ivories from the roof his mouth. My vandalism made me feel
small and the need to escape before I was caught by some avenging spirit.
My day continued and my rewards were many. I dropped off the ridge over the trail head an hour after
the sun had dropped behind the horizon. I stumbled to the vehicle weighed down with the findings of the
day. The elk set, I brought out the way I had brought out antlers when I was a kid with a dozen elk antlers
ricked along the main beams and I in the middle with the skull pointed forward. My pack was pilled high
with deer sheds making my back sore, my arms numb and my feet refusing to continue. But to be this
tired, for this reason, made it a perfect day. As darkness flirted with the last of days light, I inventoried my
good fortune. One set of elk antlers, twelve elk sheds, one deer set, thirty one deer sheds and a snap
shot in my mind and a feeling in my gut of how unforgiving nature can be to the unsuspecting.
On the drive home and many times since I have wondered about the bulls tortured demise. I have
thought of the slips, trips and falls that I have had over the years. I hike alone much like the lone bull of
winter. I have found myself in the tangle of slippery Lodge Pole dead falls with antlers weighing down my
pack making my balance questionable. Stubby fingers have provided a death grip while I skirted rock out-
croppings or groped at finding something solid to keep me from tumbling down a steep slope. I have fallen
over my own feet landing on splintered branches, or jagged rocks or in needle sharp cactus while trying to
avoid being stabbed by tines meant to do battle. I have not always been careful so maybe I’ve used up my
luck and the buying of lottery tickets is a waste.