The River Elk

By Tom Walton 

Every hunter's had that moment; the moment you realized you've found your true north. Something clicks, and you get the sense that your soul is full. You suddenly feel at home in the wilderness and become part of the landscape. That moment comes at different times for different people, and we experience it more than once. For me, it happened shortly after my 30th birthday while I was on my first hunting trip. As a Marine and police officer, I am the type of guy who is always seeking adventure and challenge. Shortly after moving to Idaho and meeting some hunters, I knew hunting would be just the type of adventure I was looking for and a great way to unplug. So, as I usually do, I took it to an extreme and decided to get my feet wet with an elk hunt. 

After doing some research and scouting, I found myself sitting on a frost-covered hillside overlooking a crystal clear mountain river in North Idaho's Panhandle National Forest. Being late October, the colors were beautiful beyond words. The mountains were a rugged collage of yellows, reds, and various greens, all of which reflected brilliantly off the river below. The sight was breathtaking, the morning air icy.

Sitting next to me, looking like all the coffee in the world couldn’t help him at this early hour, was my new hunting buddy, Sam. He was also on his first hunt. We decided to do this hunt together only a month prior. This morning, we sat on our perch overlooking the river and occasionally disturbing the cold morning silence with several attempts at bugling and cow calling. After hearing no response, we sat silent for about a half an hour, both daydreaming of the giant six-point bull elk we hoped to see on the far hillside any minute. 

Suddenly, the silence was broken by a loud splashing in the river. I looked down to the right, wondering what in the world could be making such a sudden racket. I couldn't believe it! Down in the water was a sight I will never forget. A sight that made my heart pound. I instantly forgot the cold and the tiredness. Tromping up the middle of the stream, as if it were on some serious mission, was a lone cow elk! This was not just any cow elk though. It was the first elk I'd ever seen while hunting in the woods.

I was stunned at the majesty of this animal. She was huge, and despite her cumbersome appearance, moved gracefully through the water without effort, her hooves clunking on the submerged rocks. I watched the elk, which I could not legally shoot with my tag, in silence until she trotted up the far bank just beneath our position and disappeared into the thick timber. 

I knew it right then and there: I was a hunter. I would never be the same. I wanted to experience more. I wanted to see more. I wanted to be a participant in nature. This would not be my last hunt. I’d just obtained a memory I will carry with me for the rest of my days, an unforgettable combination of the pristine countryside, the mountains, the river, and the one elk that made it so spectacular. 

We never saw another elk during that hunt. Although, we did experience the thrill of hearing a bull roar back in response to our own calls. I learned I could have a kind of conversation with wild animals. Silly as it may seem, that one moment on the cold October hillside was my trophy. That simple experience made my hunt successful and secured my dedication to the sport. Every hunt has special moments like this one. Just in the last three years, my hunts have been filled with memorable wildlife encounters. As the 2020 season ramps up, take the time to reflect on and appreciate those perfect moments in the woods, and to get excited for the new memories about to be made. Best of luck to everyone in the woods this fall!