Editor's Note: W.L. Gore & Associates teamed up with Capitol Peak Outfitters, Sitka Gear, Freedom Hunters, and Cabela's to give two deserving hunters an unforgettable elk hunt in Colorado, called "Hunt with Heroes." Two lucky hunters were chosen from among hundreds of entrants who submitted essays about their service to their country and community, and their passion for hunting. Search and Rescue Dog Handler Charlie Ek of New Hampshire was one of the winners. This account is part two of three, as told by writer and photographer Alex Tenenbaum... (see part one here, part three here)
The shadows of tattered clouds rolled in steady progression down a bald grass hillside like movie credits projected on a drive-in movie screen, like beads of sweat rolling from a retreating hairline, down a pasty forehead covered in dew, wrinkled – as if in perpetual surprise – by the transit lines of game.
Charlie Ek eyed it closely as the October day grew unseasonably warm, the cloud-shadow credits rolling too soon, the movie having just begun. The horses, tied up and silent somewhere back in the night-cool timber, just as they'd started that morning though without the lanternlight.
Charlie resides in New Hampshire these days, almost begrudgingly after two lovely stints in Alaska, saying it's the farthest south he could think to put down roots. In that way he's like the arctic willow, the world's northernmost woody plant. You might find one high in the Rocky Mountains, but this gritty thing thrives in the skin-splitting cold of stony moorlands, the gelid tundras of Canada and Scandinavia and Alaska. These places call to his Scandinavian blood. They dominate his dreams.
He won't tell you that, though, unless you pry a little. Nor will he come out and tell you that, decades ago, he founded Minnesota's first Search and Rescue Dog unit. He's served as a search and rescue volunteer everywhere he's lived: Minnesota, Alaska, northern New England, Washington state. At last count, he was involved in more than 100 searches.
The shadows of clouds continued to edge down the silverscreen hillside and Charlie leaned against a tree, his black rifle raised like the hand of a schoolchild who knows the answer, waiting impatiently to be called on. He and his guide Kyle existed in comfortable silence, neither of them much for gabbing. Their births were separated by many decades but both were thoughtful and bearded and seemed to get each other.
Amidst an audience of trees at the filmhouse hillside, they watched as the images of elk appeared at the edge, gliding smoothly across as though they too were projected. A handful of cows, two young bulls, one a shooter.
"Being a search dog handler means you understand that things don't always go the way you hope," he said. About a third of the searches he helped with turned up shivering and grateful people. A third were bodies. A third were never found.
Charlie doesn't much care for extra attention, would rather not be photographed. When media vans pulled up to search and rescue operations, he would hide in the woods.
You have to pry into him. And it's worth it. He's an encyclopedia on Danish, Swedish and Norwegian culture, on the history of the Scandinavian people. He talks about dog breeds you've never heard of, recommends out-of-print books on history and obscure titles on the loveliness of winter camping. He embraces all things winter.
"For much of human history," he said, "winter has been a threat, a chore. But all you need is a little creativity and the right gear, and it really becomes paradise."
Charlie has worn GORE-TEX just about as long as he's handled dogs. He said so in his entrance essay for Gore's Hunt with Heroes contest, won, drew a tag for Colorado's second season, and arrived in Aspen – a town that in its high season of ski bunnies and attention seekers would have rubbed him like a hair shirt. In October, though, the streets were mostly empty, the evidences of Hollywood fru-fru caged quietly behind storefront glass, within red italian sports cars.
Elk camp and elk hunting suited him better, though his snowy paradise had yet to arrive.
The elk were filing in cinemascope across the hillside. Charlie called upon his gun, it leapt to his cheek, he tried to hold the bull in his crosshairs but the bull kept its steady cinematic glide, and though Kyle cow called he could not freeze the projector. The clouds continued their roll and the bull continued on and Charlie didn't feel comfortable with the moving shot. He watched the shooter bull in his scope until he finished his cameo, exiting screen right.
Three days Charlie and Kyle rode their horses out to the bald hillside, sat riveted like moviegoers, and rode back to camp. Charlie's hips ached badly in the saddle, arthritis brought on by the Lyme of an old tick bite, and on day three he was done.
He spent the remaining days kicking around camp, baking pies and zucchini bread, wandering the close-by woods. The temperature plummeted and snow fell in half-dollar sized flakes and Charlie was grinning. Sixteen inches overnight. He immersed himself in it, walking about, tending the fire, his Scandinavian blood warm and satisfied, elk or no elk.
The arctic willow in his element.