Shadows Below the Ridge

By Taylor Donner

When the treetops mimic the black of the night sky, though a single shade darker from envy of the stars and the residual glimmerings of sunrises and sunsets, the experience of a hunter is reflected brightly within their own inner peace. As a young hunter, every step in the dark felt like I flicked off the lights and started walking up the stairs from a basement my friends swore was haunted. It felt as if the entire landscape behind me held the charge of an opposing magnet.

Over time, I learned to put up with the dark. I did not particularly enjoy its presence, but I reigned in its control over my heart rate and imagination. Later still, I grew to love it. Perhaps not in the way that people love horror movies and develop fascinations with the macabre, but in the way people love a strong cup of coffee steaming over the words of the daily newspaper.

The dark represents a beginning. It is inherently auspicious. It always gives way to light and color, generally passing us by until the world and ourselves are recharged and reawakened. And best of all, those fleeting moments of transition between dark and light bookended by the sun’s braggadocios flares of red and orange across the sky are the most likely times to cross paths with our crepuscular quarry.

My rifle elk tag was burning a hole in my pocket towards the end of the season. This was my last opportunity to fill the freezer with ample steaks and roasts. A mile or so from the truck, I separated from my thoughts, switched off my headlamp, and took in a deep breath of the thin air lofted over the mountains. A bugle answered the silence, inducing the ringing of my ears with his firm hello. So much for reigning in my heart rate.

What a beautifully dark way to start the morning.

Moments later, I stopped at a fork in the game trail. In front of me laid a metaphorical representation of one path towards my days of inexperience and one towards my days of fearlessly punched tags; at least that’s how the magnitude of the situation weighed on me.

Where in the hell did that bugle come from? Elk can be so elusive that I don’t doubt a bull’s ability to throw his voice, sending predators towards a destination of bitter failure and what-ifs. Do I take the low road and risk bumping the elk before sunlight permeates the ridge enough for me to even see them? Do I take the high road and risk the wind swirling my odor through the bare aspens below, leaving an elkless oblivion in its wake? I stood there in a state of pseudo-cogitation, pretending to put reason into a choice better left to either a true professional or a coin toss. Eventually, my inner calculus spat out a rational answer: tails. The high road it is.

This is hunting, after all. It's where the animals almost certainly know what tags are in our pockets and prance in or out of our lives accordingly, yet where the prospect of a little luck and good fortune gets us out of bed, laces our boots, and kicks us out the door. Without it, we all might as well go back to sleep. I shouldered my rifle, prayed to anyone listening, and took on the elevation. 

As I topped out on the ridge, the view took my breath away just as forcefully as the altitude. The next mountain range over cut the world in half as the city lights below bordered on celestial. What were they all doing down there, I wondered, do the elk and deer and bears ever wondered the same thing? Despite my distance from the grid, I felt comfortable and at home, insignificant and peaceful all the same. Is traipsing through the wilderness in search of food aberrant, esoteric, or simply instinctual? 

A bugle. Then another. And another. They’re close. Really close. I continued following the trail as it paralleled the top of the ridge, careful to avoid crunchy leaves and crunchier sticks to the best of my ability. Although my nimble footwork suggested otherwise, each misplaced step was a cruel reminder that it truly was crunch time: the last morning of Colorado’s 1st rifle elk season, preceded by three and a half days of trudging through an ostensibly empty landscape. I had finally seen a large group of elk below the same ridge the night before, but only cows found themselves within the view of my scope. Unfortunately, the black lettering printed onto my neon green tag read “antlered.” I told you they know.

The day’s timer eventually ran out and—after a night of fitful sleep and fractured dreams of bugles—I only hoped the dark would give way to one of those new beginnings, right where the last chapter left off. As the distance between myself and private land shrunk, the size of the lump in my throat grew. The sun began to peak over the horizon, splashing the sky with color and the earth with a penumbral gray. I came to a stop as the most vocal bull was now clearly on the private land. Reality began to set in, working its way down through my mind and into my boots. I felt heavy and hopeless until I looked over my shoulder.

Down below me, several hundred yards away, a clearing on the mountainside was dotted with shadows dark and moving and very much alive. Instincts kicked in as I crab-walked through deadfall and towards the clearing, eventually finding a sturdy limb to rest my rifle on. Through the scope, the authors of those shadows came into focus. I sat and watched the elk graze, unsuspecting and full of life, for several minutes. One let out a bugle, sending a chill down my back as I eased the crosshairs over to the source of the haunting narration.

I settled in, but the distance between us was pushing the edge of my comfort zone for an ethical shot. So, I waited, attempting and failing to compose myself for the trigger pull on my first elk and its ultimate consequence. The bull stood alone, away from the larger group of cows. If he followed their route, a clear shot would likely not present itself.

Time for another crab walk. I set up again, this time within 250 yards of the cows, but the bull stayed back, obscured from my vision by a small grove of aspens. At once, the cows reacted to something below and began walking straight towards me. I quickly swung my rifle back to the bull to find him standing alone, completely unobstructed. In a fleeting moment of equanimity, I let out my breath and pulled the trigger.

After a brief rush of noise and a moment of violence, the silence always settles back in as softly as snow falling from the ether. It’s one of the most enigmatic moments in hunting—whether it’s after letting an arrow fly or coupling with the ignition of gunpowder—when an action that would seemingly send the whole system into disorder is instead met with casual indifference. Mother Nature just marches along, possessing an austerity immune to any attempts at anthropomorphism and providing sustenance through the inscrutable relationship between beauty and death.

The bull now laid in the same place he once stood, shrouded in the silence after the light in his eyes flickered out in an instant. I walked down the mountainside towards him as the birds chirped again and as the cow elk scattered about, confused yet aware. I cheered and celebrated and sifted through emotions between every stride, feeling endlessly thankful for the animal at the end of my path and overwhelmed by how much it would provide. My shadow remained motionless and sober throughout it all, resembling the black of the pre-morning sky, though a single shade lighter, welcoming a glimmer of the sunrise.