October's mountain magnetism
Oct. 12, 2001
The hunter peeks around the last tree in the juniper thicket and looks out across a 50 acre opening, called a park here in the Rocky Mountains. Downhill there is a small stand of aspen trees, their golden leaves quaking in the morning updraft. Beside the aspens are 5 cow elk, stirring about in preparation for bedding down.
Suddenly a huge bull steps clear of the trees, eyeing each cow, making certain none have slipped away from his private harem. He drifts among the cows and at last steps clear of them. The hunter chirps a short bark on his/her mouth diaphragm elk call. The bull freezes in place and the hunter moves the scope's crosshairs low beneath the point of the shoulder.
Further south, another hunter surveys a wide basin covered in a blanket of sagebrush. The hour-long wait since dawn has produced a sighting of a couple of doe mule deer some 200 yards below near a dry streambed, called a wash out here. The hunter sweeps the binoculars slowly right to left in paintbrush strokes that move progressively upward, ultimately revealing every detail of the tangled brush all the way to the ridge top a half mile away.
As another sweep begins where the does disappeared, obviously having bedded down in the low sagebrush, a tiny flash of reflected light appears near where the does last stood. The binoculars pause and the hunter scans a hundred sagebrush limbs that look like antlers. In the next two hours the glint occurs 3 more times. At last the buck stands to stretch, having bedded in the dark before the hunter or the does arrived on the scene. The hunter aligns the sights.
Up near the Tetons another hunter slips through dark timber, tall spruce and fir. Tired from crawling over blowdowns, he/she arrives at last at the edge of a clearing. A smooth log provides a welcome seat from which to watch the willow bog just ahead, a damp depression fed for thousands of years by snow melt. The low-growing clumps of western willows show yellowing leaves, frost having faded their summer green.
Here, in the willows, is where the sound had come from; that sound that emanates from a 300 pound defensive lineman who has taken a helmet to the stomach. It is the same sound a bull moose makes in October. The hunter waits.
A willow limb moves and then the whole tree shakes. A popping sound breaks the silence as a giant hoof is pulled from mud that sucks back, yielding at last with a snap. A black form the size of a Honda appears, antlers oversize even for the giant body. The hunter holds for washtub- size lungs and squeezes the trigger.
All these outdoor enthusiasts are hunting far away from home, in country that they see only on rare visits. They are southerners. They are there right now, stalking the big game of the mountain west. By the thousands they stream westward each fall, and the first half of October finds many of them enjoying the earliest hunting seasons.
There is something about the mountains that calls us. Crisp cool nights? Few insects and snakes? Millions of acres of public land? Aspen groves with blinding yellow brilliance? Game that grows big and beautiful? Perhaps all this and more.
Every hunter should make a western mountain hunt. Even a trip without a gun, perhaps assuming the camp cooking job for a group of hunting friends, offers most of the benefits with less expense.
It is hard to improve on coffee boiled over a campfire of smooth, dead aspen limbs that snap easily by hand and burn with a hot, clean flame. Camp-robbing jays are so friendly they can be enticed to take bread scraps from your hand. Marmots scurry about and blue grouse stand like yard chickens as you walk within touching distance.
And if you lie back in a bed of beige colored needlegrass to let lunch settle, keep your eyes open a bit before you nap. A bald eagle may sail in silence overhead on a noontime current and take your thoughts along to other sublime places.
(Note: Signed copies of Otha Barham's book, "Here Where We Belong", are available from Old Ben Publications, 3100 38th Street, Meridian, MS 39305 for $11.22 plus $1.85 shipping. Mississippi residents add $0.78 tax.)