We had one week, two tags, three little ones by our side
and miles of wilderness before us.
Chills ran through my body as the silence was broken with the sound of a bugle echoing through the mountains; a sound unlike any other.
My husband, Jesse, and I scrambled to pinpoint where the sound was coming from. We reached the top and scanned the hillside. There, we spotted the bull just as it was bedding down. My breath caught as he turned and I was able to count points.
Everything in me shook; from the hike, the excitement, and the anticipation.
I felt Jesse’s arm around me and heard his quiet, calm voice, “There is no rush. Relax. We have this.”
I loved how he always said that.
We have hunted through the years with babies in bellies, toddlers in packs and little hands in ours; it is what we have always done and what we are committed to continue doing.
We have harvested countless animals over the years, together as a family, but this time was different.
This hunt was abundantly and exceedingly more than what we expected or could have asked for.
We had 1 week, 2 tags, 3 little ones by our side and miles of wilderness.
A feat some would deem impossible, but to us it brought joy, excitement, and anticipation. It also brought us to our knees as we wrestled with feelings of being overwhelmed by the challenges that came with it.
While we prepared, we told stories of bygone days, stories that took us back to over a decade before when my husband, Jesse, and my father in law filled these same tags the very month of our wedding.
They were a father-son team that couldn’t be beat; a team that would pass down the lessons learned, the values taught, and the passion held for backcountry hunting.
As time would have it, aging minds and bodies closed that chapter and opened a new one, as son became father and traditions were passed down.
Opening day approached, putting town in our review mirror and anticipation in our hearts.
This land was not new to us; it was the public land that made up the backyard of my youth and held memories that could fill a book. It was the land that our children grew up making their own memories in. It was home.
My parents hunted this same unit for years together and were brought along on this trip to hold down camp, manage meals and remind us, again, of the rich heritage we have.
For decades they were the ones that packed up and set out together, now they have taken on a new role in the hunt, one we are grateful for and one they love.
The first night was a restless one as we played out our carefully planned morning over and over in our heads. We knew the ridge, the route and the animal we would be after, it was just a matter of waiting.
Finally, the morning of the opener arrived, and spirits were high as our plan was about to unfold. This was ‘our spot’ and we were confident.
As we fastened our packs for the climb, a light on the ridge caught our attention.
Our eyes adjusted, and our plan was quickly put to rest by the sight of a headlamp on the route we were set to climb.
This is a challenge all too familiar when hunting public land.
We were, once again reminded that man’s plan is but a hopeful idea;
we were along for the ride.
We were now behind the 8-ball and scrambled to regain our opening morning.
After some time behind the spotting scope, a new plan came into focus and packs were once again fastened.
The sun was up as we climbed. We knew we may have lost our window, which pushed us up harder and faster to try to regain the hours we had lost.
After some time, we stopped so I could catch my breath and take in the incredible space that surrounded us.
In this moment we heard the bugle and spotted my bull, bedded down, surrounded by several cows and couple smaller bulls.
I began to set up on a perfectly placed rock ledge; struggling to find a rest I was confident in.
Just as I started to squeeze the trigger, to my alarm, the sound of a helicopter approaching broke the silence. Before we knew it, it was flying directly over us, so low we felt we could touch it.
In unison, the heard looked up and anxiously started scrambling,
frantic and unsure.
I lost site of my bull in the mess.
My heart sunk and my eyes darted as I struggled to find him amongst the chaos.
I prayed under my breath they would not all bolt.
Moments felt like hours and finally the helicopter distanced and the heard settled down. I spotted my bull again, regained my composure and settled back in behind the rifle.
With the squeeze of the trigger and a prayer whispered, he went down.
With the next moment came the unnerving split-second decision – should Jesse take one of the remaining bulls?
Our minds raced with images of two elk, 2000 feet up, miles in, unpredictable weather and only the 2 of us and a couple kids to pack out.
He lowered the gun.
As we sat and watched the second bull skyline, then disappear over the hill, we were unsure if we would be left with feelings of relief or regret in letting it go.
As the sun was setting and the temperature dropping, we broke down the animal, loaded our packs and began our first descent down in the dark.
As the nearly-full moon lit our path down, the adrenaline and exhaustion merged and my legs could no longer hold me. I dropped to the ground as my stomach wretched from exertion as tears flowed.
This was the best kind of pain.
The next morning, exhausted, we fastened packs on the kids and headed back up for the second of three trips it would take to pack out.
They were full of such excitement and youth I could hardly keep up.
The littlest remained behind with grandma and grandpa, climbing smaller hills to ‘get stronger for next time,’ she would say (turns out ‘next time’ was sooner than anticipated.)
The kids worked hard on the side of the hill, breaking down and packing meat while laughing and playing.
As I watched them I was reminded that this is where the true joy of hunting comes for us: the lessons learned, the laughter heard, and the bonds made as we point our children to their Creator, standing in awe of His creation and provision through it all.
After 2 days of loading and packing, trip after trip, up and down for miles in weather that went from scorching heat to a snowy blizzard, we finally rested…
…but for only a moment
With another tag to fill and kids who can’t get enough, our rest was short lived;
It was time to head out again.
The first night we had little expectation to hunt; we were using the evening to make a plan for the following day.
Once again, we were reminded that our plans are simply ideas as we immediately spotted something.
Unsure of the climb and the fact that daylight was limited, we decided I would wait below with the kids while Jesse went up to check it out.
The four of us watched him climb as long as we could through our binos until eventually he disappeared into the trees.
We passed the time by dreaming up stories of what was happening on the hills above us.
We ate our weight in jerky and nuts, told tales of hunting and trapping legends of the past, and made up more songs than I would like to admit.
Darkness replaced light and I was running out of games to play in the sagebrush with three children.
Then, we spotted a headlamp coming down the hill.
Excitement built as the light grew closer.
Would there be a harvest in the story daddy was coming to tell or simply a plan made for tomorrow?
Nonchalantly he approached, but he couldn’t fool us – the smell of elk and the of blood on his hands gave it away.
Cheers erupted as we sat down to hear the story; a story only God could have orchestrated.
We spend the day, once again, on the side of the mountain breaking down the animal and hanging meat, everything a lesson.
Because the weather had cooled and snow had fallen, we were able to work at a slower pace this go-around; making time for games built out of imaginations, snowball fights and sitting around the fire, re-telling stories and praising God for what He had done, as we went along for the ride.
It was a day that will not be forgotten.
That night, tucked into our sleeping bags, feelings of both sadness and joy washed over us. We knew the following day would be the last pack out and we would be headed home; hearts filled with thankfulness for the time spent combined with feelings of mourning that it was over.
The next day, the trip culminated on the final descent as I carried the most precious cargo of the entire trip down the mountain for the last time: a pack full of meat on my back and one tuckered out little girl in my arms.
Many people think we are crazy to do what we do, not understanding why we would bring 3 young children along, slowing ourselves down and adding to the already immense amount of work hunting is.
True, it would be easier to leave them home, but easier isn’t always better.
We do the hard thing of packing up our kids, slowing down our steps, and taking them with us because hunting is about so much more; it’s the memories made, the lessons taught, the laughter heard and the tears wiped as challenges are overcome and success is celebrated.
Above all, it’s seeing God’s hand as creation speaks His name.
We are simply grateful to be along for the ride.
Excerpt of this article can be found in Eastmans’ Hunting Journal issue 180
Article can be found in the July/August 2021 issue of Western Hunter Magazine
AS SEEN IN WESTERN HUNTER