Excerpt taken from an article I published in the May/June 2019 issue of Bugle Magazine.
As summer faded into fall, the wheat fields surrounding our community gradually assumed their amber tones, signaling the time of harvest was soon at hand. I always love this time of year, but the stress of dealing with a sick child was ever-present. Jen and I both dealt with the energy-sucking stress in different ways. She sought comfort in talking through her pain with friends and family. Naturally more introverted, I sought solitude, my mind often wandering to the lonely, snow covered peaks of the Teton Range.
With the arrival of the archery elk season, I longed to be in the dark timber which shades those mountains. On the other hand, in my heart I didn’t feel it was fair to leave Jen alone with all four of our kids so I could enjoy some selfish solitude. Given my hectic work schedule, I knew I would only find a few evenings scattered throughout September to hunt. One such evening during the third week of September, I decided to take Matt with me and head to a canyon I had hunted two years prior. The last time I was in that canyon, a friend and I had been sitting on a waterhole surrounded by tall fir trees with pockets of green grass, then matted down, betraying the latest bedding area of the nearby elk herd. Several elk answered our amateur bugles and cow calls, causing our pulses to race and injecting our souls with the perfect concoction of adrenaline and elk fever. While we never managed to get close enough to the elk, the sounds of those bugles echoing through the canyon have haunted me ever since.
Within the canyon lies a saddle, connecting that canyon to a neighboring canyon. I wanted to explore the other canyon, and knowing the hike should be easy for Matt, we began to ascend the saddle. Matt’s strength had returned over the summer. He was now riding his bike, running, and playing with his friends almost as if he had never had a brain tumor. Matt’s resilience to trauma was inspiring and I wished for a share of his confidence. I could not shake the worry that one day I would wake up and he would not. The image of his CT scan with a large, apricot sized tumor was irrevocably burned in my mind’s eye. It rarely left me, except when I was engulfed in the stillness of the mountains, inhaling the scent of pines and feeling it’s intoxicating aroma fill my lungs, eventually infusing my blood with its healing strength.
Cresting the saddle, I quickly noticed someone else had had the same idea. A trail camera was strategically placed so as to capture all the traffic between both canyons. Matt decided to have some fun.
“Hey dad, look!”
Matt walked in front of the trail camera, posing like the old-school blurry photo of bigfoot walking among some deadfalls. We both laughed, thinking about what the owner would see the next time he or she checked their camera. Matt circled the camera, making faces at it periodically. It was amazing to see Matt’s usual, fun-loving disposition coming back out after months of post-surgical dormancy. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the camera was probably only being triggered every few minutes. Eventually, Matt grew bored of the game and joined me as I pulled out my bugle tube.
I cut loose with a locator bugle, a soprano whine which would win no bugling contest, aimed down the unexplored drainage. Pausing for a few moments, I heard a faint bugle in response, deep within the rustling fir trees.
“Did you hear that?” I whispered, cracking a smile at Matt.
“Yeah, what was that?” Matt has always had a way of asking questions with very obvious answers, earning him the nickname Captain Obvious.
“That was a bull elk,” I paused, “or another hunter.”
“How do you know which one it is?”
“At this distance it is hard to say,” I said. “Sometimes you have to just see what happens.”
After a few more minutes, I bugled again and heard another response, perhaps a little closer. For the next thirty minutes we would bugle and cow call, getting responses that seemed to be closer at times and further at others.
“What do you think about going down the canyon to see if we can get closer to the elk?” I asked Matt.
The look on his face told me everything I needed to know. Although he had recovered significantly, he still didn’t have the stamina to chase rutting elk down steep ravines. At that moment I knew this would just be a hunt where we would call and listen, enjoying the early evening sounds and smells of the elk woods as we sat in the shade of firs, swatting at the occasional ambitious mosquito.
“I don’t know. We can do whatever.” Matt doesn’t like to make decisions or displease anyone.
I paused, choosing my words carefully, then replied “Well, it sounds like they are heading away from us. Maybe we’ll just hang out up here and see if we can get them to come to us.”
I knew the odds of my plan being effective were essentially zero, but I could not fathom putting him through another death march like I had done on Mt. Washburn three months ago. We slowly walked the wooded ridgeline, pausing on occasion and calling down into the shaded forest. No answers. The sporadic piles of fresh elk droppings informed us that the elk had been on this ridge recently. However, by now the elk had either moved on or had stopped answering. My elk tag would remain unpunched. The sun cast long shadows through the pines as we picked our way back to the SUV. As we jumped in and started the drive down the gravel road, Matt began to talk excitedly about hearing the elk bugles, replaying everything which had happened. It was as if I was reliving the moment I had heard my first bugle.
As we descended the canyon, some grouse hopped across the road and into a patch of small pines. Instinctively, I mashed my foot on the brakes and pulled over.
“Wanna chase some grouse?” Though the sun was behind the mountains with light fading too quickly, there was no mistaking the sparkle in Matt’s eyes.
I strapped on my release as we slipped out of the SUV, closing the doors gingerly. The grouse were noisily feeding near the trees only a few yards away, oblivious to our presence. Slowly, we crept into a shooting lane, Matt staying several steps behind me. I realized I was too close to the birds and had to actually step back so I could use my 10-yard pin. Matt watched as I nocked my grouse arrow, slowly drew, anchored, aimed, then released. The arrow pinned the first bird to the ridge of earth behind it. A second grouse saw the pinned bird and began to circle around it excitedly, puffing out its neck and strutting. Matt and I both laughed, not expecting this kind of response. I grabbed another arrow and shot at the interloper, which was still moving about in a frenzy. I must have only grazed it because we saw some feathers fly off as the bird took to the air seeking shelter by the nearby stream. With the first bird still firmly pinned to the ground and nearly expired, Matt and I began searching the brush for the second grouse, though the search would prove fruitless.
The first grouse was dead as I pulled my arrow out of the ground, wiped it clean and placed it back in my quiver. We would not be returning home empty handed, and fresh grouse is always a welcome addition. Matt held the bird in his hands, examining its mottled feathers and feeling the still warm body beneath the soft down.
“Let’s say a prayer of thanks,” I suggested. Matt and I both bowed our heads, thanking God for providing this bird and a wonderful bonding experience for us.