The woods were still and silent in the predawn darkness. Every twig that broke under our boots or brushed our shoulders seemed deafening.
With each snap and crackle we'd freeze, our lips formed silent curses as we waited for the telltale thunder of elk crashing down the canyon wall to cross the river and leave us far behind. A moment passed, then two and everything remained quiet.
Taking a deep breath we resumed our slow ascent through the woods to the top of the ridge. We could hear the faint murmur of the Miami River on the far side of the canyon rim and the occasional soft rustle of animals feeding on the moss-shrouded plateau above. The top of the ridge formed a shallow bowl of old growth firs, looming high above the perpetual gloom of the forest floor. In the shadow of these giants, the ground was deep with fallen needles, thick hanging moss and clusters of pasty white mushrooms. The mushrooms were what drew the elk to this ridge each night to feed until just before dawn. A heavy tangle of scrub brush and vine maples blanketed the steep ascent on each side; it was thick enough to give fair warning if anything approached their feast.
The first morning of elk rifle season Van Zallee and I awoke well before dawn, and hiked up the river valley to the base of a ridge. October in northern Oregon is frosty and our breath clouded in the moonlight. The property we were hunting belonged to Van's in-laws and extended over the point and down to the river's edge. An hour of worming our way slowly and (almost) silently through the dripping brush had brought us to within fifty yards of the mossy clearing. The first gray of dawn was just seeping through the treetops.
I eased a foot forward and grimaced as another twig snapped. We heard the sound of something rising to its feet above us and to our left. The noise was followed by a split-second pause, and then a steady, bounding retreat up and over the top of the hill. We knew it wasn't quite the headlong rushing panic that means the game is up, rather it was the cautious repositioning of instinctive prey that seems deafening a silent forest. We froze again and Van leaned forward, whispering in my ear, “Elk?” he asked. I shook my head and tried to peer through the half-darkness toward the sound of the animal's flight. “Blacktail,” I whispered back, “deer.”
Spooking an animal into noisy retreat can be disheartening after a long, quiet stalk, and this was my excuse for blundering ahead the next step or two through the clutching vine maple. That's when the real sound came! From the top of the ridge off to our right came a sudden onslaught of shattering branches, like a multitude of huge boulders rolling and crashing down the canyon. But the sound wasn't coming toward us, it was traveling toward the safety of the river. I brought the butt of my .280 to my shoulder, barrel down and thumbed the safety switch just in case; then came the real heartbreaker.
The whistling bugle of a bull elk is a mighty thing. To hear it from a couple hundred feet away, in the frigid twilight of opening morning is very nearly a religious experience. For a moment the woods were silent again, as if in awe and respect of the bull's warning as it echoed across the canyon. Then came another volley of tree-splintering charges and the bull, along with the rest of his harem, was gone. They escaped the dark plateau and the best intentions of our skulk. I thought I could hear them splashing across the shallow Miami, but it was probably my adrenaline-charged imagination.
We hunkered down in silence and, as the woods around us grew lighter and colors began to seep into the surrounding woods. I saw that Van's eyes were as wide and alert as my own. His frame was tensed and coiled, waiting and hoping to hear another sound in the woods above. None came. Resuming our trek up the hill we swung west to skirt the flat, hoping that our absence might give us another attempt later in the week, on the herd that fed there. Working our way around the bluff, we came across the spot where the blacktail had been bedded down before we'd pushed it over the hill.
How could I have been so dumb? Any elk hunting book worth its ink will tell you that a spooked deer doesn't necessarily mean spooked elk. (Considering I had most of the books at home on my shelf, I should have known!) Deer spook for any number of reasons and sometimes for seemingly no reason at all. Any animal that shares its range with deer, especially those in the thick forested Cascade Range of the blacktail deer and Roosevelt elk, take the flight of the deer as a warning, usually they pause for several moments to assess the danger before resuming activities with greater caution. Had I paused long enough to remember this, we could've rooted ourselves to that spot for the next ten minutes and let the elk return to their feeding, unaware of our presence. In their heightened state of alertness, however, the sound of maple branches sundering beneath my boot was all the grist they needed to confirm all wasn't right with the world, and head for different ground.
Several hours later, disappointed but somewhat the wiser, we found the spot where the herd had come down out of the trees and crossed the river. The sandy soil was churned up and spotted with the fist-sized prints of many elk. As I knelt beside the river and traced the cloven outline with my fingers, I thought back on my two previous elk seasons, hunting in southern Oregon, near the California border. I'd seen a lot of cows, and some of them came quite close when a herd of them were spooked down into my cover from a high ridge, but I didn't see any antlers. That day I'd found a small pond in a basin between two high bluffs, with a freshly torn trail skirting one bank.
Twenty yards of open meadow led from the thickly forested hillside to the edge of the water, with another 20 or 30 yards leading back into the trees. Kneeling in the brush on the far side of the meadow, I found a good rest for the 50-yard shot and settled down to wait. I found out later that one of my hunting partners had decided to skirt the ridgeline above for the next valley and had walked right up on a dozen cow elk bedded down on the side of the hill. When they spooked, the direction of their escape led them right down the hill behind me. The sound was like someone had rolled a school bus, sideways, down through the trees at my back, and with my heart hammering in my ears I held my rifle up and searched the fleeing russet bodies for the glint of horns. The elk burst from the woods just yards to my right and left, following the trail past the pond and back up the far side of the canyon. There hadn't been a single antler in the dozen. Once they'd disappeared into the far tree line, I had to safety my rifle and lean it against a tree until my hands stopped shaking and the slamming of my heart against my ribs began to ease.
Now, a year later, I'd come so close again. This morning had been the first bugle I'd heard in the woods, and something in that call cemented my desire to bring home a bull. But I didn't bring one home this year. One of the guys in our party did shoot a very large spike, only to have a huge branch bull saunter out of the woods in front of him after he fired. There was a small sense of victory when the spike was divvied up and meat was packed in the freezer. Still, as I wait the long months until I can go into the woods again and hunt elk, I imagine that opening morning bull: He's a hefty 5x5 or 6x6 bull, and the whistling echo of his bugle breaking the morning silence comes to me again and again. Next year, I'll return to that plateau and climb through the wet vine-maple in the magical first light of opening morning and this time, I hope, I won't give fair warning.