We smelled them before we saw them, the dog and I.
We were back at the old homestead, and the forester said his company had once again logged that valley where more than a couple decades earlier I had chased an elk, spooked it with too much bugle, and it had skittishly walked away from me, but not without letting me know its surrender was reluctant.
Next time, it seemed to say. Next time, let’s do this.
The sun was getting high that day and the steam from the fallen tree trunks met the warming autumn air as I picked my way across the down cedar at the edge of the clearcut.
The sharp limbs snapped and cracked like cold cereal under my soles as I bugled, squealed and mewed pleadingly for that bull to come back.
He had left for good, though, trotted into the cedar swamp and likely over the ridge onto another less crowded, north-facing slope.
Today, however, the dog and I slipped into the lowlands below the new cut, where the loggers left a strip of timber along the creek and its swamp thick with alder.
We had agreed that morning, the dog and I, to walk — and hunt — what was the loop, a grouse hunter’s path that kept to the aspen sidehills, snowberry and elder patches, winding in and out of early sun, before dropping to the creek edge, then rising again to skirt the real thick stuff, vine maple and dogwood that prohibited a hunter from swinging a gun.
The loop was a few miles of North Idaho backlands that crossed dirt roads and passed locked gates that the forester said, go ahead on‘er.
As long as you’re walking, the company doesn’t mind, he said. It’s ATVs that aren’t welcome.
So the dog and I passed the green company gates too, walking the rights of way, and ended in the bottom lands along the new clear cut at the exact location where more than a decade ago I and another dog — gone now — had been greeted on many occasions by the thunder of ruffed grouse blowing from the berry patches into the dark crevasses of cedar where BBs from a shotgun blast wouldn’t catch them.
A big culvert let the stream flow downhill. In spring, cutthroat trout, fat as a forearm and red sided, finned to the flooded swamp to spawn before heading back down to the river.
This morning, the grouse were not there, but the smell of elk wafted through the place like a barnyard and we stopped and took it in.
The dog’s tail wagged, he knew something special was about to happen. His nose stabbed the air.
I held the over-under shotgun in one hand, and clicked the safety since it appeared there were no birds to swing at, and I inhaled what I knew to be the perfume of distant elk. Not Herefords. Not out here.
The fences that kept cows in, had long fallen down.
Their posts bleached and green-mossed. Their barbed wire rusted and buried in duff.
The people who ran the cattle and mended the fence, and who had charcoaled the split cedar posts to keep them from rotting too quickly, had quit, moved on, or died.
The place, once part of a larger ranch that owned a section all to itself, was now eyed by investors and real estate agents.
Cattle were frowned upon.
But the timber companies were slowly making a much-needed comeback, and the latest clearcut would in time provide browse for deer and elk and grouse.
We walked slowly through the meadowrue, camas and clover. The morning had been spectacular. Not another person had we met, nor had we grimaced at the idling of an ATV. The land, that day, despite a few new houses in places where we once waited patiently for dusk and the deer it released, was mostly the same as it had been a couple decades earlier.
Even the silence hadn’t changed much.
For this we were grateful.
When the road switched back through the bottomlands we eyed the swales and edges of the clearcut and felt the morning breeze switch and blow across the hill.
Then, just below a ridge near the tree line, the yellow rumps appeared almost pumpkin like.
The cows picked their way through the down cedar, the dry bones of limbs, the brittle cartilage of cut trees.
They moved without a sound, and cared not to notice us.
Likely a bull drifted nearby. Experience said so.
Likely it watched from timber’s edge the slow flux of our limbs as it waited for movement that meant danger. But none came.
The dog saw them too and stopped.
Their smell was intoxicating.
It said you’ve been gone too long from this whole dirty, sweating, hands and knees, sneaking, cow calling, cartridge chambering, glassing and air gulping, this sweet science of elk hunting.
C’mon, it said. You remember.
As our ears synced with our eyes in that October light we heard them talk. It was a purring sound like cats.
Elk talk. An ancient exuberance.
We listened and relished the fragrance as if it were new.
• • •
Ralph Bartholdt covers crime, courts and the outdoors for the Cd’A Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org