RALPH BARTHOLDT: Tracking night into day

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It doesnít get any more natural than this.

Everything out here is organic.

Youíre walking a trail that you have learned to barely make out in the lack of light that your pupils, wide as dimes, can scrape from the night.

Your learning started 15 minutes ago, the time it took to get the gear together from the back seat and carry it through the chill across the dirt patch of road to the trailhead, and up the trail 100 feet, 200 feet and then you stopped and listened. You adjusted your bow and your pack. Checked manually for things like binoculars, knives, calls and camo gloves, the accoutrements youíve learned to pack along while keeping the junk to a minimum.

You check for these by feel because itís dark as the inside of a cedar box outside and your hands are cold as you wait for your eyes to adjust and your pupils to crank open like a can of soup.

In the meantime you listen, mostly for the distant motors of other hunters heading your way so early this morning, and also for the thin, taut bugles of bull elk meandering from the surrounding timber like wind-borne spider webs. So faint, curling, lifting, falling, but you donít hear any. Not yet.

You wear three shirts but will shed one soon, you know, when you cut a sweat.

On the trail a squeaking, squealing sound stopped you. It meant the morning breeze had started squirreling in the poke pole tops of snags, the ones that rubbed against standing green trees and the rubbing of the wood is eerie as a slate call.

But itís natural and not unusual. There is the sound of the wind too in the brushy tops of pine and fir, a wooing sound, ghoulish that ends in a hush.

Thatís OK too. Itís been a while, and the sounds come back like old pals who want to scare the bejesus out of you, before you have a laugh about it.

You remove a shirt, roll it tight and push it into a side pocket of your cargo pants before shuffling up the trail, gaining elevation.

A loud bump and the cobble sound of stones and then a wheezing huff stops you. A louder huff and then more stomping follows. Deer. The huffing in intervals is angling downhill away from you accompanied by breaking limbs and brush.

You stop. Give it a rest. Youíre breathing hard and so is the doe, wondering about you. You wait and hear the deer trail off.

Youíre gaining elevation and check your watch. Another half hour to the ridge and then another to the big draw that angles downhill to the park. A metallic light begins to fall around you and there is the meowing sound of a raven somewhere in the trees. Then the wing pumping swoosh swoosh swoosh as the big bird trails you from overhead to get a better look. It lights a hundred yards away and calls, making a bell sound. Allís OK. Just a hunter heading to where the herd slid over the saddle last night, it seems to say, and another raven calls back. The call mimics a cow elk. The two birds do this for a couple minutes and then you hear them push off again and the wings fade down the reach to the valley where through the trees you see the silhouette of the neighboring mountain that youíll use as a bearing in the light.

Trees squeak in the morning breeze like yawning cats. A squirrel skitters up a trunk, itís claws scratching the bark, and it chirps.

Youíre two miles from the trailhead and now, intermittently stopping, you hear an engine accelerate and coast around a turn way below you. The diesel rattles and its cylinders clunk up into the sky through a mist you just now notice. The sky is lightening and you smell the barnyard whiff of beef cows, but out here itís elk. They mucked along in the elderberries hours earlier and left behind their hoof prints in the path and scent.

In the gloaming darkness, the bushes glow almost white where they were broken and chewed and spit out.

After hiking more than an hour, you hike out of the saddle carrying in one hand your bow, by the strings, itís scabbard attached to the beams, because itís almost shooting light and you have folded the carrying strap into another side pocket of your cargo pants.

As you hike higher, one step at a time through the organic noises of night, the crepuscular sounds, the normal rendition of morning for all purposes just minutes away, the lingering whiff of elk crisscrosses in the early breezes. It swirls around.

Through the trees you see a rural valley and the last flickering lights from driveway poles.

You stop for a break and to breathe.

A put put put sound seems almost at your feet.

Then an explosion that stops your heart for a brief moment. Grouse. Its blurring wings hop over a ridge and through the trees carrying with it the bird you had failed to notice before your nearness frightened it to flight, and it frightened you.

Now you are through the side hill to the benches and the open trees under a dark canopy where you stop. Wipe away the sweat. And listen.

Youíre three miles from the trailhead, maybe more, and the nearest road is the one you left.

Youíll wait here for the wind to change or for the high notes of a bugle to whinny through the trees and chuckle.

There it is.

Then another, separate call from a different angle.

How many yards away? You measure what you think you know about sound and distance.

From your back pocket you lift a diaphragm call as big as a quarter, place it on your tongue and adjust it.

You move when the bulls bugle again.


Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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