Writers on the Range

Ari LeVaux

How I got my elk

After the election, I went elk hunting. A week in the wilderness was what I needed after all the noise and drama-even though I found myself obsessively checking the post-election fallout on my device, at the expense of scanning for elk.
Montana’s weather forecast had called for unseasonably warm temperatures, but that understanding failed to register in the chill of that first pre-dawn morning. And I failed to remember that my hunting buddy hikes like a maniac. Overdressed, I heated up quickly, huffing up the mountain trying to keep up. By the time the sunrise put away its colors, my waterproof pants had trapped a juicy layer of sweat. Soon after, they were hanging from a tree, inside out, drying in the sun. And I was hunting, comfortably, in my underpants.
The fact that I could do that in mid-fall at 9,000 feet, combined with the winning presidential candidate’s statement that climate change is a “Chinese hoax,” reinforced the sense of doom I’ve been feeling since the election.
I noticed on the forest floor that some baby plants had recently sprouted. Bad timing. The heat was confusing the elk as well. Their bodies have prepared for cold weather at this time of year, with thick fur and fat underneath. Like me, the elk were overdressed but didn’t have the option to shed layers like I could. For the first few days we didn’t see a single animal, and without snow on the ground it was hard to get a sense of how many were in the vicinity at all.
Most likely, the elk were holed up in the highest, steepest, most north-facing slopes on the mountain. These are the coldest places, as well as being among the most inaccessible and difficult to hunt. Pants are advised for two-legged travelers.
That first day, since my pants weren’t around, I rested on the ridge, sunning my legs and taking the long view with binoculars, while taking advantage of cell service to read an article by Naomi Klein on my phone. She argued that the election hinged on the votes of working-class Rust Belt dwellers, and was won, and lost, on the issue of free trade. Trump opposes efforts to facilitate free trade, and I agree with some of his reasons, much to my chagrin.
In many ways, free trade deals are contrary to principles held dear by local food snobs like myself. While a global perspective is important, spending locally - not just on food - benefits all parties. With local commerce there is more accountability, more opportunity to work directly with the producer, and more of your dollars stay in your community. I suspect that many of the Trumpistas share this view with the hippie farmers.
Bill Clinton was behind the North American Free Trade Agreement, which in hindsight has been widely regarded as a disaster for the Rust Belt workers, something they haven’t forgotten, Klein argues. The Trans-Pacific trade deal is like NAFTA on steroids, and Hillary only backed off her support for it in the primary, after seeing how much success Sen. Bernie Sanders achieved by opposing it. Clinton’s switch was perceived as insincere political calculus, and the rest is history, still to be written.
A few days later, now wearing my pants, I was staring at my phone like a total idiot when my buddy noticed a herd of elk spilling over a ridge above us. We managed to hunker down, but the elk disappeared like an exhaled puff of smoke.
The direction of their escape, over the ridge and onto the north-facing slope, was a clue that even we couldn’t miss. We followed them over, and I found a slope so steep and perfectly north-facing that the sun hadn’t touched it for weeks. Suddenly, I was in snow, and soon enough, I found fresh elk tracks. There is an elk at the end of every set of elk tracks, and this set was no exception. I was somehow able to sneak to within 100 yards, shooting a beautiful cow elk.
Then began the work of hauling 200 pounds of meat out of a canyon so steep it barely held snow. Most of the meat spent the night at the bottom, cooling on a sheet of ice, and it was nearly frozen when I returned the next day to retrieve it. Thirty hours, many of them grueling, after I shot her, the meat was in the truck.
In addition to the meat, I’d like to think I returned with some extra wisdom. It’s important to keep cool. Respect your adversary. Put one foot in front of the other. Don’t forget the big picture. And don’t forget your pants.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about food and food politics in Missoula, Montana.


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