Steam rises from the fallen animal, and a certain disbelief settles in my chest as I take in the timeless human rite of the hunt. I have never been hunting before, nor have I ever really understood the appeal. However, for my husband, George, hunting is a huge part of who he is. Every season fills our deep freezers with different game: doves, ducks, pheasants, and deer. This month brought a larger aspiration for George as he set his eyes on an elk hunt in the mountains north of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Knowing the lodge was less than an hour from my hometown he asked me if I’d like to join him. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. With three months to prepare I had plenty of time to mentally envision stalking prey in the mountains. The problem however was I never imagined anything beyond my usual experiences of hiking. It was only a few weeks before our trip that I started to really think about what I had signed up for, and I began to question whether I was up to the task of watching a kill.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate eating and preparing wild game, its flavors bold and untainted with hormones and antibiotics. It is a leaner meat that you can rest assured is less processed than most of what you find at the grocery, which is often laden with fillers and preservatives. Cooking what George brings home is a healthy alternative, but I’ve never been inspired to join him on his expeditions.
An animal lover at heart, I feared I would be sentimental and get upset to watch an animal killed. I was happy to let George take this role on alone. With the elk hunt quickly approaching, I begin to get nervous about how I will react when the time comes, and an elk goes down. Will I cry? Will I judge my husband as callous?
We settle into a handsome modern lodge at the Sawmill Ranch, nestled in the Wasatch Mountains. This private cattle ranch sprawls over 40,000 acres of wild desert terrain. Red rock spires and bare aspen trees with their brilliant white bark give a stark contrast to the scrub oak and sage brush thickly dispersed on the hillsides.
This landscape inspires an undeniable sense of homecoming, and I can’t wait to get out there in the thick of it. I want the sensation of being lost- which only these mountains can afford. After a quick lunch, we pack up our gear to scout the terrain for our hunt planned for the next morning. I hang back a little from George and our guide, Brett, as I’m not really sure what to do.
I listen closely to what is said about scoping the trees and brush, spotting the different species, and the weather that is moving in. I feel completely out of my element. Through the binoculars, we spot some moose, several mule deer, and finally a small herd of elk bulls in the far distance.
George decides to go in for a closer look. A cold wind rises from the west, and we are less than an hour before sunset. My heart races as we stalk closer to the animals. There is not a lot of cover on the top of the ridge Brett calls Black Hawk, and we are banking that the wind will continue to work in our favor as we hike closer to the bulls.
Seven of the largest animals I’ve ever seen graze on the sage brush and dry grass. These beasts were huge, and their antlers look deadly. In my mind, I think a foul shot on such an animal would be disastrous. I look to George; his face intent on sizing up a possible shot. Any of these bulls would be an impressive mark, but I see my husband hold back.
We had only just arrived and have all week for his shot. I watch as he weighs the existential reality that any of these animals would be more than satisfactory on the last day. George passes and we silently retreat leaving the herd in peace.
Everyone at the lodge is excited to hear and share what they saw. A certain thrill begins to brew inside me as well, and I can’t wait for tomorrow. Leaving before dawn the next morning, we go to Black Hawk in darkness, quietly watching shadows emerge with the rising dawn. The air is frozen as is the ground beneath our feet. My breath fogs the binoculars, and it’s tricky to get a good view of the land. At last, the sun crests above the eastern ridge and lights up the mountain.
Immediately, we spot seven bulls at twenty-eight hundred yards off, one of which catches George’s attention. He is a massive animal that dwarfs the rest of the herd. Brett and George’s excitement is palpable as we begin the chase. In our side-by-side, we close four hundred yards, the rest of the distance will have to be won on foot. Quietly we climb the mountain side, creeping from bush to bush we make our line toward a large red cedar tree for cover.
Halting abruptly when we spot a group of mule deer above us. They are easy to spook and if they bolt so will the elk. It is a tense fifteen minutes as they make their way out of our sightline, and we continue cautiously toward the elk herd. Eight hundred, six, five, then four hundred yards, George unsheathes his rifle. There is a severity to this moment, a hushed reverence for the skill needed for an ethical hit. The shot rings out; echoing through the canyon. The muzzle break makes me jump and I struggle to keep the bull in view. He runs.
He drops. I release the breath I’d been holding when I see George’s bullet was true. I approach the animal with awe. I watch the scene as George sizes up the animal and inspects the angle of his shot. He looks at ease, without a doubt this is his environment. Unexpectedly, I feel overwhelmed with appreciation for both the animal’s sacrifice and for the opportunity to see further into my husband’s world.
Hunting is an enormous part of his life; it inspires his travel and his time with his family, and it has always been a mystery to me. I see how this is the way he connects to nature, resets himself, and recharges so he can face the stress in our day-to-day lives. I consider it a privilege to have shared it with him, and to witness the hunt through his eyes.