The Elk Hunt

40-miles east of Kamas along a road that begs to be driven hard through curtains of quaking aspen and lodge pole pines, a crystal blue lake hides in the mountains of the Uintas. The air is biting cold in the late afternoon even though the sky mimics a child’s blue marble. Up a beaten path, through trees hunkering down for the winter, is Lake Washington. The absence of people means nothing to the lake as it performs with the breeze and the beginnings of twilight. Little waves ripple off of the grey shores and the sun plays a game of catch with the artic water as I hike along the shoreline. I am looking for a place to settle in and cast out a line in search of trout.

It is the first time I’ve been fishing in 10-years.

It was elk season in the Uintas and I was joining my friend, Matt Mietchen, and his family as they go after their elusive bull. I am not a hunter. In fairness, I am not a fisherman either. The only field and stream I know was the oversized Bowie knife looped into my belt that bore the popular magazines logo on the sheath. I accepted Matt’s offer as an opportunity to experience the thrill of the hunt and to sneak off to try my hand at fishing.

I loaded up my truck with a cartoonish amount of supplies and equipment for the 2-day journey. I was warned repeatedly that it was going to be cold at 9,000-feet and made sure to have enough blankets and jackets to stay warm through the black nights. I had food, whiskey and beer and a lot of apprehension. Where I am at home behind the bar, mowing a lawn or reading a book, a seemingly thousand miles from anywhere in a hunter’s camp with neither cell phone reception and indoor plumbing is definitely outside of my comfort zone.

Yet I went. I went because Matt is a very good friend and I always try to push myself to do things outside of the realm of things I know. Besides, quoting Matt’s father, we spend too much damn time at home.

Before joining Matt, I drove up to Washington Lake and unloaded my brand spanking new fishing gear. I am sure any experienced angler would look at my childish tackle box and $20 rod and reel and smirked. I carried an oversized fishing net, freshly printed fishing license and a little bit of anxiety. I was anxious most of the trip because I am not much of a mountain man. The abundance of signage warning about being in bear country doesn’t help and neither does the time of day. I was late getting up to the mountains and I knew that I only had about 2-hours of fishing before nightfall.

I made my way to the abandoned lake and marveled at Lake Washington’s beauty. Pines line the entire lake with rolling hills meeting stark mountains all under a sky so blue that it genuinely looks sad. The water rippled along the shore as I randomly selected a spot to set up my silly gear. In surveying my equipment, I shrugged when I realized it was a step above a Snoopy fishing kit. I attach a spinner to the end of my line and hooked on my lure. The lure was promised by the tackle shop to be the best hitter in the Uintas and I deferred to the ancient man working his fishing shack. I gingerly snap close the spinner and look out into the water for my first cast.

I raised the bail, hooked my right index finger around the line and slid the pole around me. Holding my breath, I swing the pole over my right shoulder and watch the lure fly into the air. I lose it in the sun and hear the gold and red lure splash 20-feet off the shore. I snap down the bail and start reeling it in. There are perfect moments in life and for a brief moment, I was experiencing it. Instantaneously, I wasn’t thinking about bear country, work or the mounds of debts waiting for me at home. I was fishing a beautiful mountain lake alone with no sign of any person, listening to the wind and the screech of my reel as the line speeds out into the water.

I return the lure back to the top of my rod and cast again. And cast again. And cast again. Some casts were better than others. Some flew like birds out into the middle of the lake and dropping down immediately into the cold lake. Others stopped short feet in front of my thumping into the mud. There were upsides in being alone at Lake Washington. None better than not having to explain why I tangled up my line into the adolescent pines lining the shore or catching the tri-hook into the back of my jacket.

I moved around the lake casting and returning the lure back with little success. Time moved differently that first hour. I swore only 15-minutes had passed when I realized I only had another hour left to fish. I exchanged lures and worked different casts with limited success. I caught the hook on rocks and logs hidden in the water. It wasn’t until I returned to the original lure that something happened.

I threw out a long cast and something was different when I snapped the bail down. The line jerked hard to my left and suddenly got a lot of slack. I started reeling in the line when I realized that there was something on the end of my line.

Holy shit! I think I caught a fish!

I start reeling in carefully feeling the weight and movement of the line. The tip of my rod bent forward and snapped back when the tension temporarily disappeared. About 10-feet from the shore, I saw it. A carnival of red, brown, green and black fought against my lure as I snapped it up on to the shore. Fighting for air in the yellow grass was a cutthroat trout.

Holy shit! I caught a fish!

I laid down my pole and pulled out my pliers. I was shaking with excitement and nervous energy. The fish flopped as I tried to grab it. It was slick. Not slimy but really hard to hold. I saw that the hook went into its mouth in two places and was trying to remove it. I got the first one out easily and fought the fish trying to get out the second. Its jaw was rugged and its namesake fanned open and close as I tried to work out the hook. Blood was coming out in different spots and I didn’t like what was happening. I finally jerked out the hook and left the fish on the ground summarizing what had just happened.

Holy shit! I just killed a fish!

The dilemma of the omnivore is we’re indifferent to where our food comes from providing that it is readily available. I eat fish twice a week but that fish is already filleted and ready for BBQing. I haven’t seen an animal gasp for its last breath while I stand triumphantly over it. I know it is just a little mountain trout but I felt like a prick killing it. I hid it away in a canvas sack and walked back to the truck to meet Matt and his family.

They were camped alongside the Lower Provo River. There were two RVs bookended the camp with a make shift kitchen in the middle with the fire pit next to the river. I got to work setting up a tent and trying to stay warm. The sun was disappearing quickly from the sky and the temperature was dropping quickly. Before Matt returned, I wanted to clean my fish. I figured since I killed it, I might as well eat it. Following the directions on the back of my tackle box, I removed the head and started cleaning out the guts. My stomach was in knots cutting off the head and pulling out the inners. I put them inside of a plastic bag and threw them away while my fish went into a Ziploc pouch and into the cooler. Washing my hands in the river, I unloaded the truck.

Matt returned to camp with his father on 4-wheelers and looking every bit of the hunter. They were dressed in oversized orange jackets and driving dusty off-road vehicles with rifles resting along the handle bars. He greeted me and we got to work setting up my portion of the camp. In most social settings, I know how to act—be polite, generous and not annoying. I know what soup spoon to use at dinner, knot a bowtie and break-up a bar fight. I figured as a guest at an elk hunter’s camp, the most important thing to be was not annoying. Fortunately for me, Matt, his dad and the rest of his family could not have been better host. They got to the business of starting a fire and dinner all done with cold beer being slid into customized koozies.

They talked about the day’s hunt and the lack of success. They ate herculean amounts of food and washed it down with pulls off of whiskey bottles and beer so cold that it froze to your lips in the ever chilling night. They were all concerned about my safety sleeping in the unheated tent but I assured them I brought enough gear to survive the night air. Fortunately, I went to bed with a stomach filled with hooch, steak and the little trout that I caught. All in all, with the exception of falling into the fire and rambling about professional wrestling longer than I feel comfortable talking about, it was a spectacular night. Sleeping on an air mattress was surprising comfortable and the layers of blankets kept me warm throughout the night.

The next morning proved to be different. I woke up with a pounding headache and the threat of the business at hand. The morning air was simply fucking cold. We were mounting up to head to a portion of the Uintas called Soapstone to look for their elk. Shaking off the hangover with a fistful of Tylenol, coffee and a grapefruit, I climbed into Matt’s monster truck and headed up to their hunting spot. For future references, I will use the road to Piuta as the ultimate comparison to a bumpy road. We banged along the road as if we were inside a rock polisher. Strapped into the back seat of Matt’s Ford, I felt like the first stages of a Saturn V launch with the tugs and pulls. Even though I was being thrown like a rag doll, the natural beauty outside of the window was stunning. The fall months framed the landscape in a sea of different colors. The aspen were in the last stages of losing their leaves and the pines binded the wilderness together.

I couldn’t help but think how alone we were in this high desert outback. The collective 50-years of experience in the truck (Matt’s dad has been hunting for 40-years), their equipment and survival skills were awe inspiring but nonetheless, we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We drove for almost an hour through switchbacks and narrow canyons until we reached their hidden spot facing a phalanx of quaking aspen.

They gear up as I put on my orange reflective safety jacket. Whereas they are loading weapons with large, shiny brass shells, I am eating the last of their donuts. I was warned as we headed out into the wilderness that elk are incredibly smart animals and we would have to be very quiet as we head through the forest. I walked off with Matt who outlined our plan of attack as his dad began walking along a more easterly route. We were to head to this mountain meadow and try and scare an elk into the pastor for his father to take a shot. Using walkie-talkies, they coordinated their position and moved tactically through the trees. I followed Matt and tried to keep the talk to a minimum taking in my surroundings and looking for an elk.

The pines were a thick mess with fallen limbs and trees making for uneasy footing. We hiked for very brisk periods of time and stopped dead in our tracks for moments trying to see if anything got shaken up. The altitude was definitely a game changer. Breathing became problematic at 9,000-feet. You suck in as much as you can but there is never enough even though you feel you can huge the sky. The night of whiskey chugging before probably didn’t help either. We came across the meadow and had different impressions. Matt was surveying the landscape looking for the markings of an elk’s footprints and scat. I couldn’t help but think it looked like something from a travel brochure to Manitoba I once saw. The Uintas offer different perspectives to different people and my frame of reference usually comes from movies that I’ve watched. I challenge one not to think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Red Dawn when they’re up here.

By day, Matt is an epidemiologist for Utah State. He studies sexually transmitted diseases and the impact it has on the community. He is tall with a great head of sandy brown hair and inquisitive eyes. He is generous to a fault, the best host I’ve ever met and a very funny guy. I gravitate to smart and funny people simply because there are not nearly enough of them. In the arena of somebody who can make you think and laugh, there are simply not enough guys like Matt. Even though we’ve been friends for four years, I’ve never seen him in this capacity. The Matt Mietchen I am familiar with is the guy working the grill at a summer party making sure everyone is having a good time and keeping the beer flowing. When he’s not flipping brats and downing suds, he’s talking about the state of public health in Utah and what we need to do protect our citizens.

Up in the mountains, Matt is a different guy. It’s not because he is carrying a boomstick and dressed in hunting attire. There’s a shift in his eyes that demands authority and commanding a sense of urgency. His usually regularly flashed smile has been holstered and he is in driven in a capacity that I’ve never seen before. Considering my anxiety being in the mountains, surrounded by natural and human danger and gun fire, it was calming having him with me as he showcased his hunting ability.

We walked through forest along the ridgeline of the meadow hoping something would appear. The forest was alive with the sounds of birds, trees being pushed into each other with the stiff breeze and all sorts of noises somebody raised in the suburbs of Las Vegas would never understand. Matt pushed through the trees and kept setting up position. I learned that elk hideout under trees and can run through a forest of aspen. We heard what we thought were elk behind us but given our position and the thickness of the forest, there was no way he could make a shot.

We were out in the forest for almost four hours before we headed back to the truck. The day was gorgeous but it felt disappointing for Matt and his dad. Neither one of them even shot their rifle. I was trying to come to term with what they were doing. The fact that we were in some of the most rugged and challenging terrain I’ve ever seen and they were cruising through the forest with a purpose was strangely beautiful. In conversations, you see the bond Matt and his dad have and their tradition is longer and stronger than they are. The act of hunting is bigger than trying to kill an elk—it’s an extension of their affection and character. Never once did I feel like there was a sense of bravado larger than the one they’ve earned by simply marching through the mountains in search of elk. Hunting as a way of life is not providing food on the table but a matter of reconnecting with family and traditions.

The hunt is about the hunt. The elk is the purpose but not the goal. That goal is found in the campsite with family and friends and the promise of what tomorrow brings.

We headed back to the camp. The road was twice as rugged as I remembered it going up to Piuta. By this time, my head had cleared and I told Matt that I would not be joining them on the afternoon hunt. I was going to return to Lake Washington to fish one last time. They wished me luck and I headed east.

Hiking up to the lake and casting lines into the water, my mind wandered into the role I have with wildlife. I was upset about killing a fish the day before and a bit horrified cleaning it but here I was returning to the scene of the crime. Even worse, here I was trying to catch another. Reeling in the casted line, I thought of Matt and his pursuit of an elk. I don’t know what I would have done if he had shot one. The work and effort that goes into killing an elk is outstanding. From my limited knowledge, I don’t think there is anything more difficult than bagging one. Elk are elusive, large, smart and powerful. It almost seemed like a sin to kill one. But with all sin, there is forgiveness and the respect they treat hunting would be their absolution.

In the middle of this internal monologue, my line snagged and I reeled in a large rainbow trout. I brought it to shore and grabbed its cold, slick body with my hands. The small mouth was nothing like the cutthroat and I easily removed the hook. I held it up and took a picture of it. It was lovely. Over a foot long, thick and heavy. It was twice the fish I caught the day before and would have made for a tasty dinner. But in holding it close, I saw it struggling for breath and seemingly in pain. I had bested him in that moment but didn’t feel like the conquering champion. I dropped to one knee in the mud along the banks of Lake Washington and lowered it back into the water. It slid easily out of my hand and back into the deep.

I felt good. Better than good. Catching and releasing apparently is what I am meant to be as a fisherman because I felt whole returning it to the water. My relationship to nature was exclusive to catching and returning fish to the water. For others, it is taking animals out of the forest. Neither one is right and neither one is wrong. I celebrate the fact that Matt has his traditions and it felt important to honor them. I packed up and headed back to camp to meet Matt and his dad.

After a dinner of pulled pork and reports from their afternoon hike, I packed up my truck and headed back to Salt Lake. I wished I could have spent another night but life got in the way late Monday evening. I thanked them for their hospitality and made the drive back to Salt Lake. It was a whirlwind trip filled with emotions and anxiety, highs and lows.

Mostly what I’ll remember from this trip is clipping a deer of the way down the canyon. That’s right, you read that correctly, I hit a fucking deer driving home at night.

I was warned by his family to drive slow down to Kamas and keep your headlights on. I did them one better. I drove barely over 20-mph on a posted 55-mph stretch of road. My eyes were peeled and I scanned as far ahead as possible looking for anything that was hanging out on the road. My first scare was a family of black cows jogging down the road as if they were exercising. There were two large cows and two baby cows and I slammed on the brakes and pulled to the left to miss them. Needless to say, my heart damn near came out of my breath.

I regained control of the car and crept down the road begging for the welcoming glow of Kamas to tell me I am out of the canyon. My speed was the same when I drive through a school zone. I was sober, conscious and hyper-vigilant. About seven miles outside of town, I instinctively hit my brakes when I saw it. Some deer with a large set of horns darted across the street. He was crossing left-to-right while my brakes locked up and I slid down the hill. Everything in the bed of my truck slid forward banging into the cab while I braced for impact. The deer looked at me while sprinting the length of the road and shot me a look that said, “Are you serious? Are you really going to hit me with that girlie truck?” The next moment my front right fender hit it squarely on the butt.

I pulled the car off the road. I hit my hazards and fought to get my breath. How is it Matt and his dad can’t get a trophy and I clipped one with my Tacoma? I grabbed a flashlight and retraced my steps. I had stopped about 50-feet away. Inspecting my truck, I discovered the front of my truck was no worse for the wear. The headlight wasn’t damaged. There was a musky smell in the air. Carefully, I made my way up the hill. I might have been upset after killing a stupid fish but if I had destroyed a deer with my vehicle, I was going to be a wreck.

I walked carefully along the side of the road and literally jumped when I saw him. He was standing up about 25-feet away from me huffing. I guess in the pantheon of bad ways to die, getting mauled by a deer would be pretty high on the list. I held my breath and in a whisper asked if he was okay expecting an answer. I apologized about hitting him and told him my truck is a piece of shit and that he’s lucky I wasn’t driving Matt’s truck because he’d be hamburger. Even in these moments, I’m trying to crack a joke. Steam came out of his mouth in the bitterly cold night. I told him I was sorry again.

I thought he might charge me but instead, I think he understood it was an accident and maybe he shouldn’t have been hanging out around the road at night. I wished he wanted to exchange information but instead, he darted south across the road and into the darkness. I got back into the truck and left the scene of the crime.

The long drive back to Salt Lake was a carnival of images, thoughts and experiences. Is hunting for me? No. Is it something I would do in the future? Not likely. Did I have a life changing couple of days? Absolutely. Living in the intermountain west, you are surrounded by people who base their lives around the hunting season. It’s probably the same way I wait all year for particular television programs or the Jazz to start play. It’s a part of their DNA and while I don’t understand it, I certainly respect it.

I’ll find my way up the mountain again with fishing pole and tackle box. I’ll hike the trails into deep lakes hidden from human eyes and the sound of civilization. I cast out my line and weight for the trout to be deceived by biting my lures. I will also make sure the hook is barbless and my fish makes it back into the water. Because my hypocrisy has no limits, when Matt bags his first elk I’ll be the first one to take a steak and raise a beer with him.

Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Check out the podcast, SLC PubCast, on iTunes. He might be a fisherman but he certainly isn’t a hunter.

2 thoughts on “The Elk Hunt

  1. i love this piece, it was so lovely and the description made me shiver with memories of how cold and dark country nights in the wilderness can be. bravo!

  2. I’ve started mentally reading these posts in your voice, Ben. It’s a little unsettling but no less atmospheric…
    Sounds like an amazing few days. Wish I could describe even half as poetically how it felt to be driven in a Jeep up 60 degree petrified dunes…

    (Hi Xtica!)

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