It’s a warm, rainy morning here at my new home on Branch Lake. Foggy, too. A scud layer is moving in from the nearby coast and the once-bright foliage has begun to fade. It would be a good day to still hunt deer, to sneak silently through a cedar bog, but deer season is still two weeks away.

At this moment, at a far away place that I know so well in western Colorado, my son Scott and two companions, Rick and Greg, are in a maroon pickup truck winding their way ever so slowly up an awful mountain road. It is spitting snow. The road is barely passable with deep ruts encrusted with mud and ice. This is elk country. The hunters are pumped, but nonetheless there is a conversational lull and a silent prayer at each switchback. “Please chains, don’t fail us now.”

It’ll take time, but these three eastern deer hunters will make it to the trailhead at the top, as they have so many times before. As they ready their 55-pound packs for the long trek to base camp, they will watch the wranglers and elk guides cinch down the saddles and lash the panniers to the pack horses and mules. The view of the mountains looming beyond the mud-spattered pickups and spike tents is spellbinding; the aspens still hold a few golden leaves that contrast sharply with the deep greens of the dark timber; up on the Beaver Tops, the snow cover remains. “Will it drive the elk down into the greener browse in the drainage?” the hunters wonder.

By late this afternoon, Scotty and his crew will reach their campsite at the west end of the basin, a place where we have camped and hung elk meat before. The thin air and the heavy packs will have taken a toll. They will be dog-tired, but giddy with the anticipation of tomorrow’s hunt.

They’ll make camp, build a fire and set up the one-man tents. After a bellyful of beef stew (Mountain House freeze-dried), they’ll play one hand of cribbage. Each of them will then crawl into their small tents and sleeping bags for the short night. Some of them, beat from a long, demanding day, will be out like a light. Others, trying to get acclimated to the thin air, will sleep fitfully. Into the night, a bugling elk or perhaps a wailing coyote will keep them company.

The next morning, long before first light, the hunters, with headlamps aglow, will begin the long winding march down the drainage and, eventually, up into the higher elevations amid the aspen groves, grassy meadows and dark timber.

The elk hunt will be on — without me this year.

Diane has heard my lament, more than once since we made the family decision in September that I should stay home this year, and take care of too many loose ends on the home front.

“Oh, grow up,” she says, “Stop whining. Can’t you just be thankful for all of the elk hunts you have already had?”

She is right, you know. My mind tells me that I have been blessed by more elk hunts than most men could dream of having in a lifetime. But my heart — and the little boy inside of me — struggles with being deprived this one time of my passion. I want to be there so bad I can taste it.

It’s not what you think, either. It is not being denied the opportunity to see an elk in the crosshairs of my Bushnell scope on my Ruger One that makes me feel deprived. I swear it is not.

It is the absence of everything else, besides putting an elk down, that is such an integral part of our brand of Colorado elk hunts. I relish the rocky mountain high: The colors. The long, breathtaking views. The men on horses. The cramped one man tent. The puffy, down sleeping bag that swallows you up and protects you from the biting mountain air. The freeze dried food. Carrying an overloaded pack. The hard-drawn breaths. The pain and the personal satisfaction of holding up for a few days in a state of relative privation. The spitting snow and the colbalt sky that follows every high-country squall.

As I explained to Diane, it is not all that complicated. No deep reflection or soul searching needed. It’s simple. It is not being able to be there this time with my fellowhunters that has me preoccupied, and pouting on the inside, like a spoiled child.

Honestly, I would enjoy being with Scott and the others up high and camped along that magnificent mountain basin whether or not I had a cow tag or even carried a rifle.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He isalso a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] . He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.”


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