Family Ties

Lilly Brogger's picture

Elk hunting, family history, and connection.

“Take me to the place I know, where the golden ryegrass grows, and the winds of heaven do blow…”

These words organize themselves in my mind and trail off as I blunder over fallen trees in the dark, thinking of where I'm bound. Clouds of grainy snow blowing into my face, I readjust my rifle to prevent it from slipping off the shoulder of my wool jacket. Finally, we are just a few yards from the treeline where rest awaits.

The wind blows as usual, and the golden ryegrass thrashes back and forth. Shivering, I rest my gun on the shooting sticks, waiting for light. As the sun begins to rise, colors dance over the landscape, making every feature jump out, like a live topographic map. Entire hillsides become illuminated while shadows fill the void between. My dad leans up against a tree, glassing for elk. The new light casts warmth upon us, a relief from the cold that comes with hiking and sweating. 

A herd of elk off in the distance.Waiting for our quarry.

After an hour of waiting, my dad quietly gets my attention, telling me to get my binoculars and pointing to a lone cow elk. She sniffs the air, taking one step at a time toward the trees. Her long neck is straight in the air as she sniffs, then steps, sniffs then steps, evaluating her surroundings—she has survived this long for a reason. She’s at least 500 yards away and with the wind blowing the scent of elk our way, we know she's completely unaware of us. Only a few seconds later, another elk appears next to her, and another, until finally, a hundred animals have moved over the hillside trickling down toward us. We're waiting for the lead cow to come within 100 yards, knowing that with patience, an easy shot will present itself. Through the scope of my mom’s .270, I’ve been deciding which elk to pick. Not the first because she looks old, not a spike, not the next cow because another is next to her. Suddenly the lead cow stops, looks in our direction and snorts. It’s now or never. One cow trots forward, separating herself from the herd. I shoot, and she falls.

My dad and I with last year's elk.My dad and I with last year's elk.

This scene is a familiar one in my life. It’s happened in some variation for the last ten years. Details change—some days are muddy and cloudy, some sunny and clear. My age has changed—I began when I was twelve and since, have taken seven elk. Some days we found no elk—we would hike up and down the face to finally find elk through binoculars, sitting in rocky, unfavorable country too far away. But the reason I’m there and the people I’m with never changes.

I’ve always enjoyed elk hunting and do so for practical reasons, but the overall experience has always transcended the actual act of killing. My dad has been my guide. When I started, he would pack my gun up the hill—a favor he’s since put the kibosh on despite my occasional appeals. He continues to lead the way, showing both my sister and I the best route to the top and what to do if we come across any obstacles. On most trips, our family friend Lyle accompanies us, quietly following and helping dress and pack out the elk.

These trips have shaped my relationship with my dad. Looking back over each trip, he slowly handed responsibility over to me, first making me pack my own things, and now, allowing me to sit at the treeline alone. Heading off to glass over the ridge, he always says, “Just don’t shoot a spike,” before leaving me there to make my own choices. 

Rationality has been instilled in both my sister and I through these experiences. If the elk doesn’t fall, we know to never panic and shoot again—a mistake we’ve seen lead to two dead elk, one tag, and an unhappy game warden. If we don’t see elk, we know just to wait. New, fancy gear doesn’t improve your skills—I’ve never owned a piece of camouflage in my life and a classic .270 will kill an elk just as well as anything. Things don’t become useless because they’re old.

Another view, elk hunting. A particularly chilly day, sitting under a tree, waiting for elk. This trip ended with a campfire to thaw out before heading down the mountain.

This same mountain has been a mainstay in my life. Not only has it filled our freezer every fall, and built my relationship with my dad, but it happens to be the area where my family homesteaded five generations ago. On the other side, in a beautiful little meadow in the Bridgers, my great-grandmother was born in a one-room log cabin. Each time I hike up that mountain, and as thoughts and words flood my mind, I wonder if a family member climbed this same trail years before. There’s no way to know, but I’m certain that as the family grew up and settled on the creek bottom bellow, they undoubtedly took a similar path. My success hunting in this area can be attributed to these people. Their footprints fill the area, and their presence makes me feel like I belong. Taking an elk in the land where my roots run as deep and thick as the trees covering the hillsides, truly is an incredible, humbling feeling.

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