I have never been more consistently terrified than I was for the four days I rode a horse that November. I like horses, and have ridden them before, but not this one. Harley was his name, and in addition to being generally uncooperative, he had a specific problem with randomly refusing to move, followed by sudden acceleration. He was also afraid of streams, rocks and elk. I expected him to be afraid of streams and rocks, because I was too while riding him, but I was not ready for him to fall over on top of me when three large bull elk burst from the woods to our right.
To be fair, it was not entirely his fault; the deep Montana November snow covered any rocks, pits, shrubs or prairie-dog holes. Wherever we went, we went rolling and heaving. The only thing that was worse than riding Harley was walking without him.
The cold air made inhaling sharp and painful, so I would cover my nose and mouth with my fleece balaclava every 10 steps. Then I’d have to remove it when I couldn’t get enough air through it in another 10 steps. Condensation from my desperate breathing froze on my face, occasionally sealing my eyelashes shut. The heavy clothing that kept me warm while riding worked against me on foot. My personal policy against letting anyone ever carry my rifle added about 5 pounds to my shoulders, and while the snow was up to everyone else’s knees, it was up to my waist.
But despite the cold, the hills, the horse, we were on an elk hunt. We saw the aforementioned elk on the first day, but they ran off when Harley loudly collapsed. The second day was one of the more physically miserable days of my life. We left at 6 a.m., and were out of the barn on horseback at 7 a.m. Our group consisted of me, our guide Mike Myer and family friend Courtney Braswell. Three minutes out of the barn, we reached the side of a small, icy creek. Thirty-three minutes out of the barn we had reached the other side of the small, icy creek.
When we got to the top of the first of the tall rolling hills leading away from the barn, we saw elk, maybe about a mile away, in the back of a forested valley. We dismounted and decided to walk around to the back of the valley, about 3 miles. I was soon gasping for air, and a windswept plain across to the last known location of the elk almost killed me. Courtney had gone around to the other side of the valley, so Mike and I stopped for a rest.
Out of nowhere, a huge bull came running down the hill behind us, running through our tracks from five minutes past. I stood up, ran after it, but saw nothing. It was the second time in two days that one had gotten so close. Disappointed, I unloaded my gun and looked through the scope at the ground to see if it had fogged up. It was black. I looked at the front lens and saw that snow had filled it up. Without thinking, I hit the back of the scope and the snow fell out.
The valley itself had no elk in it. Exhausted, we arrived back at the horses around noon. I immediately drank my only bottle of water. I was so thirsty on the walk to the valley, I was melting snow in my hand to drink as we walked. Tip: This is very inefficient, and only makes your hand cold and glove wet.
We had our frozen sandwiches, and gnawed our frozen candy bars, and did some more terrifying horseback hunting, before going back to the barn well after dark. Hopefully Thanksgiving Day would bring better luck.
It was 7 a.m., but this time we were riding at a full gallop. Mike had spotted some elk on the highest hill in front of the barn, and since Harley was almost useless when paired with my impatience and bad riding skills, Mike grabbed the reins—the only things with which I had to control my roll-prone horse—and took off. When he looked back, he would have seen me hunched over the saddle horn with one foot out of the stirrup and carrying a large branch stuck to my knife sheath. I chose to not look at anything.
We dismounted near the top, and watched as four of the five bull elk disappeared over the hill, but the one that had lingered headed across it. We climbed to intercept it at the top, and found that the other four had stayed close by. I lay in between two boulders, and Courtney was on the other side of the one on my left. The whole cluster was about 180 yards away. I realized there was a chance to shoot, then immediately remembered hitting the back of my scope to clear the snow on the lens. Then I felt sick. The gun was sighted in to 150, but who knows what it was sighted in to after I undoubtedly shifted it with the palm of my hand. But since I wasn’t sure, I felt like I had to shoot. I inched forward to get a better angle, propped my left arm on the rock, inched forward some more, re-adjusted my arm, and inched back some. Everything seemed ready. Except the scope, why did I do that? I picked one of the bulls and fired. Courtney fired at another one. I reloaded, rose to my knees, and only saw one of them noticeably injured. I shot it, and Courtney shot again. I shot, he shot, I shot two more times. One was dead, but the other was back on the other side of the hill. We walked quickly and nervously to where it was last seen, reloading our guns. I had already reloaded once, meaning we had fired seven rounds. The second elk lay dead on the side of the hill.
Courtney and I had shot each other’s elk, but by re-creating the hectic 45 seconds, we decided which was whose. When I sat on the side of the hill in the snow next to mine, I thought of how cold and tiring and painful the past two days had been, and how much I had hated them and Montana and snow and Harley. I had been so busy thinking of not elk hunting, I forgot how much I loved it. In the end, though, that made it better. When I did finish the hunt, I felt it all, and it was worth it.