There’s something wrong with my binoculars,” I said to Oldest Son.
“Well for starters, you’re looking through the wrong end,” he replied, turning them around for me. “Try this way.”
Well yes indeedy, that was better.
It was Easter and we were in the Gravelly Mountains south of Ennis, MT looking for elk antlers with Shawn.
We have friends who make a tidy sum every spring — around $1,500 last year — getting “paid” to hike by trudging through mud and snow in the mountains hunting for newly-shedded bull elk antlers and selling them.
Oldest Son, who is just finishing his first semester at MSU and getting ready to move to Gardiner for the summer to work as a guide on the Yellowstone River, had mentioned that he was running out of money and that he might need to borrow some to hold him over until river guiding started. I suggested we go find some antlers to sell, and he agreed.
It was a sunny, 60-degree day with patches of deep snow everywhere. There were other trucks parked on the dirt road nearby, most likely full of people out doing the same thing we were.
For the first hour we worked our way up and down a mountainside until Shawn announced, “OK, let’s split up.”
“What? Wait,” I said, feeling a bit of panic.
Shawn and Oldest Son have logged hundreds of hours hunting together over the past years, trudging in rugged terrain together, splitting up, coming back together, collapsing into the vehicle together after a long day – the type of tired that allows them to forgive themselves for eating gas station hotdogs and disposable troughs full of Coke on the way home.
Every once in a while I join them on an adventure, and although they never intentionally make me feel this way, I am a liability, someone to make adjustments for.
Shawn explained our plan, and we split up. I scanned the sagebush-covered ground, looking for an elky gift pointing skyward as I trudged through snow, filling my tennies and soaking my socks.
We repeated the scenario several times, coming back together at agreed upon spots, then splitting up again. “How you doin’?” Oldest Son said to me at one point, turning around to make sure I was able to navigate through an off-trail steep mountainside full of snow, ice and brush. That’s a nice boy right there, I thought to myself.
When we stopped for lunch we glassed the endless valley below, watching what we estimated to be more than 1,000 elk grazing in greening meadows, letting the specialness of the place soak in. The elk had been up where we were not too long ago – there were tracks and poop everywhere to prove it – but so had other people. It was likely that we were there too late for antlers.
We split up one last time, agreeing that it had been a gorgeous day of hiking no matter what. “They should be here,” Shawn said before heading off on his own.
I walked around slowly downhill, then paused under a huge evergreen, it’s limbs like an umbrella with a protected circle of ground underneath. And there, I saw them. Two antlers. My heart pounded.
“I found some,” I yelled. “Hey! Guys! I found some,” I yelled as loud as I could.
“Where are you?” Oldest Son yelled back.
Then he was busting through brush towards me and I focused. “They’re small,” I called.
We stood there together breathless, and I held them up, my brain settling down, “Deer,” I realized (which are different in several ways besides size from elk and generally not resellable).
Then Shawn was there. “Oh, cool…Those are deer,” he said, looking at Oldest Son.
“She knew,” Oldest Son replied.
I knew that.
We called it a day and began retracing our steps back to the car, Oldest Son reaching back to offer me a hand down icy hillsides and ferrying me via piggyback across the creek.
On the way home we stopped at the gas station. “Get anything you want,” I said to Oldest Son, waving a credit card.
None of us got a hotdog (“Lot shorter day than a regular hunting day,” they mentioned after our six hours of hiking), but I’m pretty sure we all felt full.