The sunlight stood in bars leaning lazily against the trees when my Dad bit off the silence.
“Steve, STOP!” I froze, squinting into the dark places, expecting to pick up the tan flash of an elk. It was early September and the opening day of a much-anticipated Montana archery elk hunt.
“No, look down,” he whispered. One more step and I would have tripped over it. An elk shed. A huge one! The thought of a bull carrying such headgear gave me chills.
That evening we set up at the convergence of two coulees, my Dad calling behind me. Soon we were surrounded by a herd bull, a dozen cows, and a challenger for the harem. There was no opportunity to draw for a shot, but it didn't matter. I was 16, and it was my first day ever elk hunting. I was more than pleased.
Those first few years, I never hunted more than a mile from the truck, and always with my Dad at my side. To be honest, I didn't know a lot about the woods, how to cover country efficiently, or how to live out on my own. And what you don't know often scares you.
It was four years before I took my first elk – a rag horn with my bow. He died just 100 yards from an access road, but my inexperience turned what should have been my easiest pack out into one of my most difficult yet. I was entirely out of my comfort zone, but I was hooked on hunting and badly wanted to elevate my skills.
In the five years since, I became a pupil of the hunters I admire and of wild places. I've been fortunate to come upon many opportunities to build my skills and confidence, and I've jumped at each one.
Last August, I spent 20 days taking photographs in Canada’s Northwest Territory, living out of a backpack and documenting the harvests of Dall sheep and mountain caribou. I tried to capture the beauty and ruggedness of the hunts and the people who make them happen.
The trip really stretched me. Our party hunted remote drainages 200 miles from the nearest road, which we accessed via bush plane. We then walked 10 or more miles each day with 70-pound packs in search of game. We had run-ins with grizzlies, climbed through high, sketchy terrain, and forded waist-deep rivers cold with glacial melt. It was the most grueling and fun hunt I’d ever been part of, requiring a colossal amount of time, energy, and logistics to pull it off.
The experience left me with a new perspective on what’s possible in the mountains, and left me champing to apply some of what I’d learned to the elk country close to home.
When I got home, there were still a few days before the opener, and another photo assignment – this time to Alaska – would pull me off the elk in three weeks. I left Bozeman at 2 a.m. to scout my favorite spot, and at first light, seven bulls materialized in a remote basin, one a giant. I backed out, headed home, and began planning.
The night before opening day, I hauled in enough food and water to last five days. I camped within striking distance of the basin, playing out the approach in my head. In the dark I would descend a 1,000-foot avalanche chute into the head of the basin. The thermals would switch at first light and the bulls would follow their morning routine along a game trail that crosses the bottom of the chute. I would wait just yards from the trail, wind in my face, arrow nocked, ready. And if the bulls cooperated, I would be neck deep into a tough pack out, nearly six miles from my truck. I chuckled at the thought of that first pack out five years prior.
I stood atop the chute in the predawn dark and had a bad feeling. Experience taught me there should be bugles by now, but the basin was silent. I descended anyway, found nothing and spent the rest of opening weekend going deeper in search of the bulls.
Two weeks came and went. Time was running out, but I knew persistence was key. I pushed in by headlamp for a final go, setting up camp in the wee hours of the morning to a soundtrack of distant bugles. Sleeping out alone had once been unimaginable, but there I lay alone in my tent, miles from the truck, and slumber came easy. With knowledge and routine, I had lost my fear.
In the morning, I paralleled a herd bull making for his bedding area, but a satellite bull picked me off and sent the herd into the next basin. I covered country and that afternoon got into another herd, but again couldn't get off a shot.
As evening came on, I hustled back toward camp and came across the same bull from that morning destroying a sapling less than 100 yards from my tent. He was separated from his cows, giving me only one set of eyes to worry about. I cut ground fast, and when he broke from his bout with the sapling, he angled toward me. I ranged a few trees, drew, and stopped him with a cow call at 35 yards. His front shoulder was forward exposing vitals. I squeezed my release and watched a streak of green and white fletching close the gap. And then the ‘twang’ of an unnoticed twig sent the arrow into the dirt. I went to bed dejected, with no choice but to keep at it. There was one day left to hunt.
At first light, the only sound was the drumming of a grouse. I still-hunted down a nearby ridge where I had heard bugles during the night. It wasn't long until I spotted antlers. A six-point bull, walking up the ridge toward me, and he was close!
At 20 yards, his head went behind a tree, and I drew. He kept coming – 15 yards, 10 yards, five yards. The bull's eyes went right through me, and his eye guards were about to do the same when I figured I was close enough to take a frontal shot. I squeezed the release and watched my arrow sink into his chest. He wheeled and tipped over.
While I cut and packed out meat, I thought about my first season hunting elk, the autumn encounters with these awesome animals, my many mistakes. I thought about the wild trips I’d been on since, and how the experiences had evolved me.
Halfway through the pack out, my friend Shane drove out to join me, providing some much-appreciated assistance and company. We got all the meat in coolers ready for processing and packed out camp and antlers just in time to make the plane to Alaska – another trip that could only expand my comfort zone.
***Photography by Steven Drake, Jole Wilson and Shane Rickert***