“The danger in civilization is, of course, that you will piss away your life on nonsense.”
In a consumer society, where so much of what we require for daily life forces us into roles of utter dependence upon complex, fragile, and unaccountable systems, there are few remaining outlets that allow us at least the illusion of self-sufficiency. Hunting is one of them. While it is one thing to be a subsistence hunter in the Alaskan interior, where hunting often remains a fact of daily life, it is entirely another to be a seasonal hunter in the lower 48 where, for all practical purposes, the next meal is waiting conveniently at the corner market. So I’m under no romantic illusions about the practical necessity of hunting. Said another way, I KNOW its not strictly necessary to hunt for my meat, but I choose to do it anyway because I believe it remains an important pursuit of the body, mind, and soul.
I feel compelled to hunt precisely because it is a respite from raw consumerism, that other life where we are both dependent on the system that provides for us, and walled off from the entire sequence of events necessary to bring meat – or even vegetables – from the field to our dinner plates. I feel compelled to hunt for many of the same reasons I feel compelled to raise vegetables – because raising and securing food brings intimacy with the details of my life.
I believe that sort of intimacy is important for perspective, and for a better understanding of cause and effect, and better informs my views in discussions about how our descendants are going to live on this planet generations from now. I feel compelled to hunt for protein because killing an animal in the wild, and doing the work necessary to bring that meat home to my family still resonates in my mind as the important work of a male adult. Hunting an animal, and taking its life with respect and with gratitude, to provide life for my own family, blows out the X‑Ring in the target of my life.
Killing animals is not an unusual activity for me – slaughtering chickens, hogs, sheep, and cattle, were principal activities of my upbringing. But nothing compares to being out on the land with a rifle. Nothing else I have experienced even comes close to the solemn thrill of finding, tracking, and finally putting an elk down in the brush with a rifleshot.
This fall I drew a nominally terrific deer tag out east, which is to say east of our homeplace here on the Figure 8, near the John Day Wilderness of Oregon. I spent two days scouting that country and saw exactly two deer: a faun and a doe. And because deer tags there are abundant, I knew that hunting deer after opening day would resemble an Elmer Fudd cartoon with hundreds of yahoos — and their assortment of atv’s and side-by-sides chugging relentlessly around in the woods – which is a ridiculous spectacle and puts so much pressure on already reduced deer populations that the experience is essentially ridiculous and full of misery. And so, happily, I decided to skip deer season altogether and focus on elk.
I was fortunate that way because an old colleague, Doug Kresky, had procured deprivation tags for the North Point Ranch, owned by a cattle rancher named Don Cavaletto. Don runs cattle and farms wheat on a sizeable chunk of country in the heart of Oregon elk habitat. And because the elk herds on his property and the surrounding country are abundant, the state of Oregon issues deprivation tags to reduce the size of the elk herds on his property. This is necessary for those in the business of agriculture – raising food for everyone else — because a herd of 300 elk grazing in a field overnight can cause tremendous damage, and financial loss, to anyone trying to grow a crop, or whose cattle herds depend on the same grass. Deprivation hunting is a good practice, and from what I can tell it is well-managed by the state, and the downstream effect is better prices in the supermarket, plus a bonus opportunity for hunters like me looking to escape the Hanna-Barbera version of hunting in the modern west. It’s a win-win-win, for landowner, hunter, and consumer.
This is not trophy hunting. Not that I wouldn’t love to mount a gigantic 7x7 bull on the wall above our fireplace, but it isn’t what drives me. I want meat, pure and simple. But even without paying thousands of dollars for a guided trophy bull hunt, a mere deprivation cow tag doesn’t pencil out. When you sit down to do the math on how much you are paying for the meat – that is, after buying a decent rifle, decent ammunition, a hunting license and tags, necessary gear such as a bedroll, binos, fuel, food to eat on the hunt, and possibly a professional butcher if you do not have the skill or capacity to process the meat at home, it is quite likely you are paying more per pound than you would for decent beef at a supermarket.
But it tastes better than supermarket protein, and more importantly, writing good poetry has never paid much either.
And the truth is, I love to hunt. I love the early mornings, the camaraderie in a group of good hunters, the sense of individual purpose in the vast wilderness, the requirement to find some finer level of attunement with the natural surroundings, the participation in a cycle of life, and the employment of a skillset that sets one aside from the madding crowd of pure booger-eating consumers waiting in the checkout line and reading tabloid headlines next to the breath fresheners. I take no small pride in saying yes, indeed, I am a hunter. I kill meat for my family.
So last week Doug drove up from Paso Robles, California, where he lives with his wife on a vineyard and raises grapes for wine. He brought his youngest son Keith with him. Doug has taken his sons on hunting trips around the western states, but they had never hunted elk, and I was privileged to be invited to share in the gift of deprivation tags on country I had never hunted. And on Tuesday morning, early, we left the Figure 8 hauling a horse trailer with our gear, driving east through Redmond, Prineville, Dayville, and the tiny hamlet of Mount Vernon – home of world champion rodeo cowboy Trevor Knowles – on a winding and mostly valley-bottom highway that traces the banks of the John Day River.
It is a big, empty, country.
In Mt. Vernon we gassed up and turned north through the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest toward Pendleton, home of the world famous Pendleton Round-Up and the Hamley Saddle Company. We made a short stop in Pendleton at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office to pick up our tags, where we also met a decidedly obese and incidentally limited-thinker who insulted my friends for being from California, was chocked full of the twangy bluster of the blissfully ignorant, and claimed to have been working as an outfitter in the country for three or four hundred years. I forget which.
There isn’t much we can do about that sort of unfortunate failure of intellect, or just plain manners, in a man fair-met in a public space, except weather the stupidity by taking the high road, rolling our eyes behind his back, and hoping humanity will offer up some better version of people in the not too distant future. But that tension towards all things California is also a real thing in many parts of the more rural west, even when it is ultimately stupid, rude, and self-defeating.
And it wasn’t lost on me, as we shifted uncomfortably in the ODFW office and waited for the new secretary to sort out the tags, that just on the other side of the road sat the sad produce of over two hundred years of disgraceful treatment of the indigenous people of the Columbia plateau. Forty feet from where we stood next to Cowboy Dipshit in the ODFW office was a plot of housing for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla (Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla tribes) which, translated into real terms, means a third-world pile of wrecked mobile homes with cars on blocks, piles of shrapnel, swingsets turned upside down on dead grass, stunted and broken trees, blown out old burn barrels, and a distinct aura of poverty, neglect, and hopelessness.
And all of this despite the Wildhorse Resort and Casino, which is nearby, run by the tribes, and meant to pour money back into a community that needs every advantage it can possibly leverage to overcome two centuries of spite and racial hatred.
But that sad state of affairs is a long thread which is better not pulled on here. I noted that the construction flagging crews — there was considerable roadwork taking place on highway 11 between Pendleton and Milton-Freewater, were native — which was at least encouraging in the entrepreneurial sense.
We arrived in the small city of Milton-Freewater greeted by an assortment of public statuary depicting frogs in various antics. This is a result of either Milton-Freewater’s nickname, Muddy-Frogwater, or the efforts of a former mayor to make lemonade out of lemons and give the town some claim to a sense of humor. It’s hard to say which. Milton-Freewater is an agricultural town, which means it is full of churches, taco trucks for the armies of Mexican laborers who pass through to pick apples, cherries, plums, or peas, and tractor dealerships every eight or nine feet. The city itself isn’t particularly appealing to the eye or the sensibility, and anyone with a discerning mind has the sense that methamphetamine mopes do a brisk and heart-wrenching business among Milton-Freewater’s shifty and restless youth.
From town we made our way out toward the North Point Ranch, through rolling orchards and out again onto the dryland wheatfields, now in stubble and dotted with towering silos and grain elevators, up a narrow and potted Birch Creek Road until we made the ranch gate at the foot of the mountains and the steep draws leading up into the towering, piney heights of Government Mountain. From the ranch gate we drove down into an oak studded draw and pulled up in front of an old shop building and some sorely beaten sorting corrals, where two saddle-horses were tied to the rail, a cattle hauler was backed up to the loading chute, and the cowboys were busy weaning calves off their mothers and running them into the truck with whistles, curses, threats, and hotshots.
Which meant, for me, that I felt instantly at home.
After introductions all around we made our camp inside the shop next to an enormous John Deere combine parked inside against the coming winter, set up our kitchen in a cloud of box-elder bugs excited to have company, and lit a fire in the stove. The stove was essentially two fifty-five gallon drums welded atop each other, with a flue held together with baling wire and a spot-welded support system, a structure cavorting at various angles until it reached a hole in the ceiling, some thirty feet above us. But Terrell, the 6’4, 340 pound ranch manager who was covered in cowshit, dust, and good humor, assured us that the stove would put off enough heat to drive us out of the shop, which later turned out to be an accurate assessment of its efficiency. Terrell also mentioned that he had just seen 30 elk in a different draw just up the road, and seemed to be encouraging us to go shoot them right then and there lest we lose the opportunity.
The idea was intriguing but the sun was tilting into dusk and after a long drive I wasn’t up to a night full of gutting elk, quartering them in the moonlight, and hauling them out. This was elk country, after all, and I felt confident we would find them in the morning without much trouble and would probably have our cow tags filled by lunchtime.
And why rush it? A hunting trip is meant to be enjoyed as much as it is meant to harvest meat, because it is the thrill of the hunt — far more than the kill — that releases something ancient in our DNA and gifts us with stories of prowess – and no shortage of outright lies — to share with those who would listen far into the future.
Once I had my bedroll set up on a cot I yanked a beer from the cooler and went outside to watch the cow work. It has never failed to amaze me how much good work good cowboys can do with limited equipment and/or terrible conditions, and in this case I was pondering the dry-rot in the loading chute that just kept taking repeated abuse by a thundering roll of stupid cows wedging themselves in the squeeze or turning around in the chute.
It’s been said that you can measure the money behind a ranch by whether or not the gates all close properly, but I’ve never seen an actual working cattle outfit where that was even remotely true. Most of the working gear is just hammered back into shape and held together with baling twine, which was the case on the North Point — as it has been on every ranch I have ever cowboyed on. Around the sorting corrals of real cow outfits there are always a few scour-splattered five gallon buckets full of squashed beer cans, random piles of old ear tags, various objects of uncertain origin discarded for unknown reasons, heaps of unrecognizable castoff wood, iron, and twine, and in this case there was an elk hide draped over one of the fence panels and a row of ravens sitting on that with infinite wisdom and impertinence shining in their big black eyes.
The down side to arriving when we did was that we would not be getting any sleep. With their calves weaned off cows don’t shut up for a couple of days, instead they stand around bawling at the world for the cruelty of their station within it, and sitting inside a steel shop with a hundred cows on the other side of the wall made for quite the old-west serenade as we sat around in ruined plastic chairs by lamplight, sorting our gear, stoking the fire with wood hauled from the Figure 8, drinking cold beer and a little whiskey, and watching the evening light give way to darkness in the draw.
And still I slept like a child, which is a rare thing for me.
In the morning we rose, and shook the bugs off our bedrolls with the cows still bawling in the dark. Doug made a fine egg and potato breakfast on the two-burner. I boiled water for tea. We took turns in the privy out in the yard, which was really just an old Andy Gump stationed over a small hole in the ground, and so overwhelmed by alder bugs and hornets it turned a man’s morning ablutions into an Olympic-style feat of courage and endurance.
It was frisky in the morning moonlight, though not altogether cold, and the shop was more or less filled with smoke because we’d closed the towering doors (only recently replaced after the combine sheered them off in the parking exercise) and clamped the damper too hard on the stove overnight. Old contraptions like that take some time to negotiate with, but there was absolutely nothing about the challenge of our camp in that shop that I didn’t love. By the end of our hunt I had that old stove dialed, and could have lived in the shop all winter, bugs and all. I’ve certainly lived in worse places.
With a cup of tea steaming on a table with stacked paint cans for legs at either end, I laced up my hunting boots and pulled out the one piece of camouflaged gear I now wear when hunting: an old quilt-lined jacket (with the stuffing coming out in places) I picked up for fifteen bucks on a sale rack that says “Deer Killer” on the label. It is a terrible jacket in a lot of ways, particularly when wet, but it has been lucky for me, stuffs into my pack without too much heartache, and I’m not willing to part with it.
Also, I don’t go in for much of the Gucci hunting-gear craze. For one thing, I’m mindful that our grandparents made plenty of great hunts wearing red plaid, and for another thing Chief Plenty Coup of the Absaroka went out of his way to condemn the white man for always wearing too many clothes and building fires that were wasteful. That’s a strange combination of influences but I’ve hunted with guys who paid thousands of bucks for their hunting outfits – the newest ensemble from KUIU for instance – and even some who believed putting all of their clothes in scent-free bags overnight was going to make them better hunters.
Mostly, it just doesn’t, which would come as no surprise to old Plenty Coup.
So I generally hunt in Wranglers and the Deer Killer, and since I’ve harvested three elk in the last five years maybe I’m not so crazy. I top off my own ensemble with a comfortable and very warm Stormy Kromer my daughter bought me for Christmas, and carry a bloodstained old backpack containing my gutting and skinning knives, a range-finder, water, some rope, marking tape, an extra pair of gloves, and in this case a breakfast burrito wrapped in aluminum foil. And of course I carry good binos, which is my one capitulation to the sporting-goods industry’s ferocious exploitation of a largely working-class pursuit. I like Leupold glass because the Gold Ring still means something in terms of service and reliability, and all of my riflescopes are built by them.
My hunting rifle is a .280 Ackley Improved built by Nosler in Bend, Oregon. Through a friend I was fortunate to buy this rifle directly from the gunsmith who built it, shortly after he retired from Nosler, and at a discount even though it had never been fired. It is a light-weight rifle with a wooden stock – which I insist on in a hunting rifle – and is perfect for shouldering around during long days in rugged country. The .280 AI is a flat-shooting, powerful round that will drop virtually anything walking around in North America. It also has an exceptionally moderate recoil, which is something I prefer in all of my rifles. And it shoots sub MOA, which is probably the most important feature. I like that rifle a lot, and would prefer never to hunt with anything else.
I also carry a pistol on my hip, usually a Glock 19, but in this case a M&P Shield, in 9mm, by Smith & Wesson.
With breakfast down and tea in my mug, we loaded our rifles in the truck, pulled out of the HQ, and headed up in the dark toward Government Mountain, which forms a kind of naturally boundary between the North Point and other ranches in the country. At its lower ends, where we started, the land is dryland wheat country, wildly sloping hills (driving a tractor over that ground, given the angles, is impressive as hell) giving way to steep and narrow draws where oaks become cottonwood and finally ponderosa pine at the heights. What isn’t plowed is still in grama grass and shrub. The road up to Government Mountain is marginal, and we were told in winter it is virtually impassible. The various fields on the lower slopes are marked by oft-repaired two and three-wire fences, or no fences at all, and while all of it is perfect elk habitat that country is also home to the Walla Walla wolf pack. Terrell, the ranch manager, told us that sighting wolves on the country is not at all unusual, and is rather a kind of running gunfight to protect the calves from predation. But that too is a longer string to pull on.
We made our way up the road in the dark – it was light enough to see without headlights – jouncing up a rocky road until we were high above our camp, where we finally parked and got out to start glassing the country for elk.
The short version of this hunt is simple. We glassed all morning. We made some scouting forays into the country. We drove around to the very top of the ranch, got out of the truck, and punched back down to the top of the draws looking for sign, looking for elk on the move, and enjoying the country while learning to read it. On the far edge of the world sat Milton-Freewater, the red lights from an impressive array of windmills giving way to daylight and the occasional soft boom of bird cannons in the thin green swaths of distant orchards. The wind was out of the southwest and mostly warm. We hunted separately, though loosely coordinated, combing through the brush and the rocks and the tops of the draws, looking for water where the elk might congregate, for evidence of beds or fresh spoor, and at one point I encountered a beautiful four-point white tail buck. He stopped and stared at me, and I at him, no more than fifty yards from each other. In the end I watched him bound across the tall grass and over a hummock into the rest of his life.
By noon we had seen no elk, only cattle placidly grazing on the 40° slopes. Doug had walked down into the bottoms and made a long scout through the country back to the shop. Keith and I met up in the field, took a short drive into even higher country to see what it might hold, then drove back down to the shop for lunch and a rest.
I sometimes get a sense when hunting. I can’t entirely explain it, but there is an otherworldly physical thing that inhabits my body and mind. It whispers that success is near. This is a real experience that has never once failed me. It’s true that before a hunt I try to force my thoughts and dreams into a kind of animal reality, where I see and rehearse the possibilities in the field. I see the animal. I see myself on the country. I see us drawn together. I suppose it is my own kind of mental dance around the campfire, my own summoning of the Norse God Ull, my own ancient and resurrected need to summon the powers of chance and skill by the stars so that they might meet together out on the grass or deep in the trees to make a successful hunt.
It is a ritual of the heart and mind and it is a personal ritual that I believe in, so much so that I sometimes doubt the academic interpretations of ancient depictions of hunting. The lessons drawn from the hunting art of antiquity are often imagined by well-intentioned academics who seem to have never hunted for their meat, or personally felt the draw of the animal and its power over the mind, or the power of blood-ritual on the land. The symbols and figures found on ancient cave walls lose their meaning and immediacy by dissertation. Which is beside the point really, because I was feeling that feeling. And strongly.
And back here, in the 21stcentury, we made lunch in the shop from white bread, salami, and cold Coors Light in a can.
We had a plan for the afternoon, which was to return to the heights and sit on some water holes where we thought, rightly, the elk would travel when they were up from their beds and on the move again. So we jounced back up to the top, and then made a slow and deliberate hunt until we were in a good position – spread out over half a mile – to glass the country.
And we were several hours into that when I saw, far down below, a single cow elk emerge from a copse of oak trees and begin wending her way across a field of stubble. I watched her through the glass for quite some time, and watched the trees to see if any other elk would emerge because it is a fact that several hundred elk can be bedded down in the trees and be nearly impossible to see.
And it was about this time that I encountered another of those weird modern hunting puzzles, which is the oddity of humanity making a sudden appearance for, just as the elk disappeared into a cleft in the land, a paraglider swung into view, piloting his go-cart on a bright blue parachute through a saddle in the rolling wheatfields.
What a paraglider was doing there, or where he came from, or where he eventually went, is entirely a mystery to me.
But I had seen an elk, which could only mean there were more elk in the offing. And, as the Gods would have it, she had made her way to exactly the place that Terrell had told us we would find them. So I moved out to find Doug and Keith and to guide us down.
I found Doug a half-mile away glassing a hillside, but it turned out, in a frustrating text-message exchange in a place where cell-service was either bad or non-existent, that Keith had also seen that lone elk, and had already set off on a desperate long distance haul down off the mountain and through the bottoms, up again on the other side, across the road, into the stubble, and was now sitting on a herd of 50 elk.
So we vamoosed, made the frustratingly slow drive back around the mountain and finally pulled up on the edge of the road, disembarked, linked up with Keith in the tall grass bordering the stubble, and poked our heads up to see a delightful herd grazing the greenest shoots of winter wheat. There was a beautiful bull standing in the middle of the herd and somewhere to our left a second bull was bugling, a sound that echoed off the stubble and around in the oak bottoms far below.
It was at that moment that I had a strange, discomfiting experience. I felt, fleetingly, as though I were a cavalry soldier peering down at an Indian camp blissfully unaware of our presence. It was a sudden and very hard vision and bothers me still. I will only be able to work out what that might mean, and I believe it means something, with time and reflection.
I shook off the vision and we made a short stalk for better position, crawling deep into a screening border of tall grass. I surveyed the elk looking for a cow without a calf, and settled on one nearer the far side of the herd. And then we fired.
In retrospect I think we rushed the shots because we crippled both cows instead of dropping them in place, and while the herd scattered they limped slowly down into the cover and safety of the trees, about 100 yards apart. There was nothing to do then but to sidehill down and find a blood trail, follow it, and finish the job. I found a blood trail and finally found my cow at the exact bottom of the draw, in a wild tangle of oak trees and brush riven through the center by a narrow, deep, and dry creekbed. I stood over her enormous body and talked softly to her, thanking her for her life, and for her courage. And then I finished the job with a single shot from my pistol.
What comes after the kill is nothing but hard work. It was late in the afternoon, turning toward evening, and with two elk down we had decisions to make. In the end we decided to gut them and leave them in the field until morning and daylight, when we could quarter them and begin the arduous process of hauling several hundred pounds of meat straight up out of the bottoms. There is always the chance that predators — coyotes or wolves or birds — will get after the meat overnight, but in this case there was very little we could do about it. So I gutted my cow and then coached Keith through his, and we climbed up out of the killing ground in the solid dark covered in blood up to the elbows.
We made it back to camp that night exhausted by a full day of hunting, the exhilaration of the kill, and the very hard work of gutting two large elk in the dark in a Tolkeinesque creek bottom. And in the morning we returned, refreshed, and relieved to find that the predators had left our kills alone even as a coyote was following his nose to our elk and scampered off when we arrived. We spent the next several hours skinning and quartering out our meat, then stacking it on tarps we had decided to use for sleds to pull out the loads. And it is worth mentioning that when we were finished we hauled the first loads out on those makeshift travois up a hill which might rival K2 for the elevation gain. It was an ass-kicker, that first load, and left us with the unhappy prospect of going back down to bring the rest of the meat up. Which is precisely when the toys of modernity and the convenience of contemporary living entered like a Deus Ex Machina, and saved us the hassle, as Terrell arrived in his side-by-side accompanied by two cowdogs and a cowboy. He was able, by some miracle of skill against gravity, to maneuver that grinding little machine down impossible angles without crashing, load up the rest of the elk, and bring it out.
We brought the meat back to the shop, unwrapped the tarps, then hosed the dirt and the hair off. We drank beer. And then Keith and I took the load down to a freezer owned by a large-scale farmer in Milton-Freewater named David Morris. We had called ahead and David told us that he would take payment in a 30 pack of Keystone Light, so we bombed into a convenience store, restocked our own supply of beer and secured the Keystone, and took the meat to the headquarters of David’s orchard, where we met David. Which becomes one of the other highlights and bonuses of hunting–the people one meets. David harvests 800 tons of cherries, another 800 of plums, and several hundred tons of apples each year in his orchards, and gave us some interesting opinions on the people of Milton-Freewater: “They are all liars,” he said, only half-joking, and before launching into a discussion of how his third marriage is working out only two years into the enterprise. We might have known him our entire lives, and we saw him later again that evening, back at the shop, when he came out to the North Point to cut an old beehive out of a tree because the new wife makes decorations out of them. “The things we do for love,” he said.
In the morning we packed up our camp and began the long drive home. We had secured our meat. It was a good, albeit brief, hunt, and I look forward to many more before the sun sets on my ability to get out on the land and tie myself back to it by participating in the cycles. I hope that day never comes, but it is certain to, and I hope I will have done enough by then to pass on whatever I have learned to someone else who cares as passionately as I do about the conservation of our wild lands and our wild life. Someone who can see that by hunting responsibly, in a strange way, we are exhibiting and modeling our love, passion, and gratitude for the resource.
And maybe later, in some other post, I’ll tell you about the wolf.