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The Trophy (part two)

{continued from The Trophy, part one)                           This is a short story about one of my most memorable hunting and outdoor adventures from September of 1999, and thought it might be worth sharing here.  The scenery was breathtaking, the journey unforgettable and the outcome was so much more than I expected.  It still impacts me today, 14 years later.  Hope you enjoy the ride. (part two)

Jagged edges of the Sawtooth
Jagged edges of the Sawtooth

The wood was so dry I thought it might pop and crack right out of the stove but soon it was roaring and provided much needed warmth.  Despite the looming uncertainty the mood in our tent was jovial.  Finding the elk was prevalent in both our minds, but there was nothing to be done until morning, so the conversation drifted from one topic to another.  Both of us seemed determined to avoid the subject of hunting.  Nothing either of us could say at that moment would bring us any closer to finding the elk.  It was going to be a long night.  Hours later as the remaining embers cast a modest glow I would lie awake in the cold darkness of a primitive land, wondering.       

            Rising once more before the light of day, Mike and I ate a quick breakfast and packed our lunch.  Anxious to get moving we set out on foot guided by the beam of a flashlight.  With nearly an hour of hiking behind us, the sun appeared above the eastern rim of the canyon and we greeted day five with great anticipation.  Clear skies emerged and I absorbed the scenery.  A hawk soared high above and small animals scurried from the narrow trail as we followed the same path from the previous day.  I had been too intent on scanning for game to notice these things before.  Rejuvenated from the night’s rest, my legs were fresh and my lungs seemed to adapt to the thin brisk air.

            As we neared the shooting spot my thoughts drifted to the photo opportunity that awaited us.  I envisioned myself kneeling behind the trophy elk proudly holding the six-by-six rack in one hand and my deadly weapon in the other.  It would be a culminating moment for Mike and me, highlighting our many years of hunting together.  The search was about to begin and I knew my prize was out there lying dormant at the end of a red trail.

            By noon we had tracked the blood trail for nearly a mile, and no elk.  After my arrow invaded the bull, he had climbed upward heading for the rim of the canyon.  The blood trail offered both positive and negative signs.  There was a lot of blood, indicating a severe blow.  But the blood was bright red and clear, hinting that vital organs had been missed.  If no vitals had been hit, it could take much longer for the bull to die.  We kept searching.

            Following the trail of blood was difficult at times with much distance separating one drop from the next, though at other times, the trail seemed to be a constant stream of red.  At one point the drops became puddles and the musky aroma was so heavy that I was certain the bull was lying just over the next rise.  My heart pounded.  Notching a new arrow in place and securing the release, I proceeded with the bow upright, prepared to take aim in case the bull lay wounded and still alive.  I knew he was close.  Pushing through the thick brush, we staggered up the rocky ledge.  Since my hands were occupied by the bow, I had to bob and weave to avoid the draping limbs.  At just the moment when our nerves were standing on end and tensions reached an uncomfortable climax, a mountain grouse flushed from the brush!  The chaos of sputtering wings startled us both.  The bird disappeared in the heavy cover, but before the flapping sounds faded, we resumed our unrelenting pursuit. After several more moments of eager expectation, the puddles again became drops and the scent faded. 

            By mid-day my eyes saw only two colors.  With all of our focus concentrated on finding the next red drop, my vision became blurred and the background blended into a callous shade of gray.  The emotional struggle was tormenting.  Frustration mounted as we searched for the next drop, often on hands and knees.  Our spirits soared while connecting yet another dot, then another, then another.  The budding enthusiasm would then fade with each passing moment until the next red drop.   

The trail had led us several hundred feet up and onto a shelf that was shaded by dense timbers.  The bull had ventured into a well traveled area, evidenced by the numerous hoof prints forming multiple paths in every direction.  This was not good.  Since we had lost the blood trail once again, it was impossible to decide which set of prints to follow.  Reaching an impasse we made the only logical choice and took a break for lunch.  I had planned to eat only after we had skinned and quartered the bull and prepared it for the hike out.  Instead, I sat on a fallen timber and ate with significant reservations.  Perhaps the wound was not as severe as we had thought.  For the first time since our search began, I realized that we might not find the bull.

While eating our cold sandwiches and fruit, Mike and I discussed the broken piece of an arrow lying on the ground next to my feet.  We discovered the severed half of metal a few paces back along the trail.  The bull had snapped it off while maneuvering through the thick brush.  After finding the arrow, the blood trail became more and more difficult to follow and greater distances separated each drop.  The wound had begun to heal.  If the arrow somehow missed hitting an organ, the bull could survive the intrusion and live.  “He could still be running” Mike said almost apologizing.  “Could be” I replied.  Five hours of daylight remained.  Our search would continue.

After stuffing empty lunch bags into our packs we decided to split up hoping that one of us would stumble upon a clue.  “You follow that track and I’ll take this one” Mike said.  Since we had exhausted our efforts at finding more blood, following separate hoof print trails seemed the only viable option.  We faced a domineering rock slide with thick forest on either side.  Mike went left and I ventured off to the right.  “I’ll meet you on top” he said.  Our new plan was to search up to the rim of the canyon, and despite the dreary outlook, I was certain good news would accompany our reunion.

Two disheartening hours after we had parted, I approached the crest of the steep canyon, and my confidence plunged to a state of depression.  The thinning air and fatigue took its toll on my concentration and an overwhelming sense of loneliness stunned me.  Standing at the edge of the tree line, I peered out over the cliffs below.  Above were more cliffs and oppressive boulders.  For five days I had paraded through the rugged terrain as a hunter, yet as dusk neared, my mind began to waiver and confusion mounted.  Paralyzed by an unprecedented surge of fear, I felt that I had now become the hunted.  This was mountain lion terrain. 

The perception of accomplishment that had awakened with me that day dissipated into a bitter disdain.  My weaponry and deadly intent had violated the serenity of this unbeknown land.  Seeking restitution for my actions, I wished to never hunt again, for the price was too high and the pain too great.  Fighting off tears of frustration, I wanted to scream away my agony.  Gripping the bow by one end I longed to heave it over the cliff.  Perhaps the sounds of metal colliding with rock would end my pain.  Mike would be waiting.  Maybe he had found my bull.  I continued to climb.

Ascending high above the tree line I finally crested the brim of the canyon and the view was astounding.  The stiff breeze created a melodious whirl that encompassed my solitude.  If my journey had been merely to hike to the top of the world, the moment would have been cause for a grand celebration.  It had been a long and grueling hike and the view was sensational, yet my mood was far from triumphant.  Looking out beyond the canyon toward the distant mountains lay hundreds of square miles of rugged mountains.  Why would I think that there was even a remote chance of finding my bull?

Heading north along the fringe of the canyon navigating the jagged contour I began a new search.  Having long since drained the last drop of water from my bottle, I was in hopes that Mike would have some to spare, but I needed to find him first.  It would be dark soon.

Descending the mountain would require far less time than it took to climb, yet at least four hours separated us and camp.  Mike was reclined against a pile of rocks when I rejoined him.  He had spotted me his direction and sat down to wait.  Neither of us asked the other if we had found anything.  Our silence resounded volumes, the pain of defeat apparent.  Mike’s only question answered the one I had yet to ask, “Do you have any water left?”

Thousands of stars filled the crystal blue sky and the moon was bright, allowing us to make the trek back to camp without the flashlight.  Instead, we walked in silence.  The sounds of nightfall were comforting, yet I could not escape thoughts of what could have been.  Had we found my bull, quartered sections of meat would be hanging in a tree waiting to be packed out and a six-by-six rack would have returned to camp strapped to my back.  I would have enjoyed the labor of shouldering the extra pounds.  Instead, the weight of my emptiness seemed more to burden.

Three-fourths of the jaunt was behind us, and I paused for a break at the same spot where we had watched the bear and coyote the previous day.  Hunger prevailed and I searched my pack for anything to eat. Removing a lone apple, I unsheathed my knife to cut slices.  Offering a wedge to Mike I noticed the sharpness of my blade.  How I wished it had been dulled by elk hide.  It was getting late and after a few bites Mike was ready to move on, so I suggested that he go ahead.  Although he was reluctant to leave me alone, we were not too far from camp and he knew I would make it back.

As he disappeared into the darkness I contemplated the question he left with me.  We only had one day of hunting left.  It would take all of the last day to pack out.  Before he left Mike had asked if I wanted to cut our losses and spend the next day looking for another Elk.  “There is still time for a shot at another bull” Mike had said.  Or, we could go back to where the blood trail ended and continue the search, hoping for a miracle.  I knew the prospects of finding my bull were more than futile.

An easy answer was not apparent, so I began walking in hopes that a resolution would find me.  In asking the question, Mike had assumed his role as guide.  He just laid out the options, but the final decision would be left to me, the client.  Before he left, I inquired as to what he and other hunters had done on previous trips when faced with a similar situation.  This time it was my friend, not the guide, who responded.  “None of my previous hunters would have searched half as long as we already have” he said.  Those words echoed inside me as I wondered why I could not let go.

The tent flap was open so I pushed through the folds and went inside.  A fire was blazing in the stove and Mike had already brewed a pot of coffee.  I poured a cup and sat on my cot.  With boots and wet socks removed my feet rejoiced in the cool damp air.  Even in the most remote wilderness, camp usually provides a sense of comfort; the warmth of a fire, a hot meal in the dim light and a dry place to sleep. 

Never before had I felt so far removed from the world.  There was no clear right or wrong answer.  We had more than exhausted our efforts in trying to find my bull and no one would blame us for moving on.  Was there really any chance of finding that bull?  None of that mattered for some unknown reason and there was only one decision that I could live with.  “We need to go back tomorrow and keep looking” I said. 

Mike continued stirring the noodles in the pot atop the stove.  He never looked up.  A slight grin emerged and he just nodded.  He already knew what I was going to say and his only response said enough, “We’ll head out early again in the morning”.  A stream of smoke rose from the stove pipe and floated up and out of Ten Mile Canyon.  For what remained of the night, the conversation between two old friends was casual.  Neither of us broached the topic of hunting.

On the last day of my Idaho elk hunt we searched in seeming futility, reaching further into the canyon.  Perhaps it would have been more logical to spend that last day searching for a new prey.  I was not ready to move on, and Mike understood.  A transformation occurred, born from a faded ray of hope and spawned by a tireless respect for a process we had long ago embraced.  Capturing a trophy was no longer the impetus of our intent.  Having exhausted every effort in pursuit of a single reward, maybe there would be resolve in the measure of our efforts, though in the depths of my disappointment I would struggle to find gratitude.  I knew that I should be thankful for the chance to experience such a remote wilderness.  Perhaps some day later in life I would be able to reflect upon the journey and find meaning.  But how then might I respond to the only question that would be asked of me?  ‘Did you get one?’


By late afternoon that last day, Mike and I stood miles away from camp.  My legs were tired and it was hard to stand on the loose rocks of the steep ledge.   It was time to go, but we paused for a moment to view the boundless landscape, the depths of which would remain unknown.  Looking out beyond the seemingly bottomless ravine was a view that had no end.    The land before us was open and sparse, a symbolic three-dimensional map manifesting a single definitive message: to venture any further would be in vain.  The rocks beneath my boots were no different than the millions of other rocks scattered across thousands of square miles, except they would forever mark the end of a bitter pursuit.  Embracing a dream, I had traveled so far and come so close.  Yet, my trophy would remain somewhere out there.  It was time to turn back and make the long walk to camp.  And an even longer journey back home.  No longer would I think of that bull Elk as a trophy.  Such a beautiful creature deserved more from me.  My parting hope was that the broken arrow would be a mere thorn in his side, a sour reminder of one near fatal day.  Regardless, it will be a wound we share.  The life that I had so desperately sought to end, I prayed would live on.  I longed for but one more glimpse of my Elk, still running.


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