Posted by: Bob McMichael | November 18, 2009


Sunrise at 8300' - Blue Bunch Ridge

Sunrise at 8300' - Blue Bunch Ridge

Seeing the fresh snow dotting the mountains above our house makes me think of being up there in it, trying to kill an elk. I wasn’t able to get out this year, the first elk season I’ve missed since I moved here almost ten years ago. It feels a little wrong not to have gotten out since it’s been the most profound thing I’ve done in the outdoors, and the most provocative.

I have only been a part of one legal elk kill, with my friend Mike, on his tag. Every year about this time I think about it. The scene was superb: bluebird (but frigid) days after a remarkable November snowfall, many miles from a paved road. We were in the right place at the right time, and Mike killed a very nice bull on a snowy ridge top.

After the work was done and the two trips hauling meat down the hill left us exhausted, I began reflecting more intensely on the death moment. Not deeply, but intensely. The difference is that I didn’t try to make sense of the whole episode in terms of justifying the death of the elk as an act with primordial roots or whatever, but simply that I willingly replayed the death of that elk over and over and over in exact visual detail, usually with sound effects. In the following weeks and months, I continued doing so. The quality and intensity of my replaying the memory never wavered. And without exception each time it was very clear to me that it was massively wrong to kill that animal, and – by extension – any animal. Regardless of the connections with history, tradition, and culture, killing the animal is the same as murder. Or it is possibly worse than murder because wild animals are – in terms of their vast superiority to humans in manifesting the urge to live – far more accomplished and highly developed than humans, from both a biological and a behavioral standpoint. Murdering a human is taking another life similar to your own. Murdering an animal is taking a life better than your own. In any case, it is wrong. Indians – before we killed most of them – had meaningful ways of apologizing to animals they killed. White people never learned that lesson. Which is why they have been able to kill recklessly and without apology, and why they have destroyed so much in the name of creativity and innovation. There is always a victim.

It is no different with animals. My problem with hunting, then, is knowing that the objective of it is wrong and still wanting to do it. This is a problem for me because I do not want to explain the contradiction simply with the excuse that my modern white culture has shaped me that way. I want to believe there are other more noble and even spiritual reasons I like hunting. But really there aren’t. I may do it differently than some and think my way is better or fairer. But in the end the act is the act. And killing is wrong. And – although I have been remarkably unsuccessful at killing – I still want to do it. The contradiction is just something I accept in exchange for the things I get out of it, which are irrelevant to the question of whether killing is wrong or right.

Posing with Mike's bull

Posing with Mike's bull

Two years ago I was involved in an illegal elk kill, again not mine. That season I spent sixty-one hours trying to kill an elk. Most of those were alone, and most were spent hiking over very steep terrain. About half of those hours were spent “still hunting” – moving as silently as possible through terrain that seemed elkish. The particular tag I purchase, usually at Fred Meyer, allows me to hunt three separate sub-seasons with three different weapons, but I can harvest only one elk. In September, I can hunt bulls with a bow-and-arrows. For one week in late October, I can rifle hunt for “spikes” (young male elk without branched antlers). And for two or three weeks in November I can hunt cow elk with a muzzleloader (a rifle shooting large caliber but low energy slugs, with far less range than a high-powered rifle). The nice thing about this tag, in addition to the presumption by game managers that it doesn’t jeopardize healthy herd numbers, is that I can walk around the mountains with a weapon and a hope to kill an elk for three months, assuming I don’t get one early.

In my six or seven seasons of hunting with this tag, I have experienced a lot of memorable things, as anyone would who walked quietly off the trail in the woods beginning before light and finishing near dark. Miraculous sunrises. Close encounters with mountain lions, bears, and wolves. Salmon spawning in the Sawtooths one thousand miles from the Pacific. A cow and calf elk nosing up to me in a thicket responding to my calf calls. Six straight hours of wolves howling. Huge sage grouse at 8,500 feet above sea level exploding in flight at my feet and scaring the bejesus out of me.

Halloween deer hunt

Halloween deer hunt

Getting lost at dusk in a blinding snowstorm. Watching a sliver of moon rise from above it, its orange light through the forest below looking like the flicker of a pre-dawn campfire. Smelling the musk of elk the first time, and then creeping on my hands and knees through dense lodgepole forest to get a look at them. They are beautiful creatures. Seeing them is worth the trouble, which is considerable. But I still try to kill one every time I go out.

Blue Bunch Ridge

Blue Bunch Ridge

On the final day of that sixth season, after four-and-a-half hours of pursuing a herd of elk up and down severely steep slopes through heavy, deadfall-covered snow sometimes a foot deep I got close enough to fire a shot with my muzzleloader. I took the shot and missed. The herd broke down the ridge back toward the road I had parked on before dawn. When they reached the flat area just short of the road, all kinds of shooting broke out. I saw one animal – still a couple hundred yards up on a ridge – go down in a flash of powdery snow and tumble to the bottom of the draw. It was ten minutes or more before I saw any hunters, and they were at the road, the main highway through these mountains. Only a rifle could have killed the elk on the ridge – the shot being at least 200 yards uphill, while muzzleloaders have a range of 100 yards or less on flat ground. It is illegal to use a high-powered rifle during muzzleloader season. As I crept down the ridge toward them, I noticed they were unloading their rifles and hurrying to put them away. Then they saw me and got in their truck and drove closer to the elk they had shot on the ridge. They had a 4-wheeler in the back of the truck. Then I noticed another dead elk laying just feet from the highway where their truck had been parked. They didn’t tag it. I waited near the elk at the bottom of the draw to see if they were going to head up and begin field dressing it. It is bad for the meat not to dress an animal as quickly as possible. By now it had been thirty minutes since the elk died and the sun had come out and it was getting warm. I watched them stand around their truck, talking. Eventually, I walked toward them and asked if both elk were theirs. They said yes. I was frustrated that I missed my shot and frustrated that I had spent a lot of time and energy pursuing these animals only to drive them toward these “hunters.” They seemed nervous when I approached them, as if they knew they had done something wrong.

This is not exactly the kind of “wrong” I spoke of earlier.

I think what bothered me most – aside from missing the best shot I’d ever had to get an elk – was the carelessness these two men showed about what they had done. It was as though the fun part – killing – was over, and they appeared to be indifferent about dressing the game and collecting the meat. I think part of it was their concern I would figure out they had broken the law and would turn them in. But even so, they had come by these animals through a combination of my hard work and tremendous luck, and did not seem to have any concept of appreciation for their good fortune. What makes killing most wrong is to have no concept that it is wrong.



  1. […] I imagine most people supply their own soundtracks to whatever they do. Maybe not. But I got conscious of my doing this one day while elk hunting during muzzleloader season. I spent over five hours chasing this damned herd of cows through two feet of snow up and down hills I chukar hunt in better weather. Bill Frisell’s “Throughout” looped in my head the whole time, up until I missed the climactic shot, resulting in a nightmare experience related in another post. […]

  2. […] I imagine most people supply their own soundtracks to whatever they do. Maybe not. But I got conscious of my doing this one day while elk hunting during muzzleloader season. I spent over five hours chasing this damned herd of cows through two feet of snow up and down hills I chukar hunt in better weather. Bill Frisell’s “Throughout” looped in my head the whole time, up until I missed the climactic shot, resulting in a nightmare experience related in another post. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: