Aging Hunters Can Cheat Neither Time Nor the Mountain
Updated: Sep 13, 2021
SODA SPRINGS, Idaho -- Funny how much you read into things when looking at the world through aging eyes.
The first leaves dropping from high-mountain aspens in early September remind me that not everyone from the same birth year departs the same time, either. Some dry, yellow leaves drop swiftly to the ground just after Labor Day, while those still green cling to their petiole, and it to the stem, far into September. Only then can winds tug them free and cartwheel them down the mountain, some far beyond where most settle out.
Those tumbling leaves also remind me of questions that nagged my mind long after I fell on this steep mountainside one year ago while hauling out elk meat: “Am I getting too old for this stuff? Are these mountains of the Targhee-Caribou National Forest truly no country for old men?”
The questions seemed fair. When talking to folks parked at area boat landings or gearing up at nearby trailheads, the hunters trend younger, and the hikers and anglers trend older. Sure, you see younger hikers and older hunters, but those dressed in camo and toting compound bows are mostly in their 20s through 40s; while those wearing jeans and launching boats look mostly in their 50s through 70s and beyond.
I’m hunting this year with my youngest camp companion yet, Dave Burgess, 37, of Aurora, Colorado. Burgess and I met three years ago when he poked his dreadlocks into “my” mountaintop meadow while working his way back to his spike camp. We stayed in touch since, and when none of my friends could make the trip this year, “Dreadlocks Dave” volunteered to help set up camp, text daily, and drop by for supplies every three or four days.
Now that I’m back in Idaho, I tell myself each morning that I still belong when climbing the mountain behind camp. Just to prove it, I time my daily ascents to “the top,” an overlook where you can see for miles; and then check my time from there to “the meadow,” where I usually spend the day watching for elk to funnel through from surrounding ridges and brushy draws.
The elevation gain from camp to the top is roughly 900 feet, and it’s nearly 200 feet higher to the meadow’s highest point. The total distance on a map is 1.5 miles, but even with topographical lines, maps can’t explain or predict elevation’s demands. Maybe maps should include conversion charts showing how many floors or stairsteps you climb between each line.
On good days I reach the top in 50 minutes. On not-so-good days, 65. On good days I reach my meadow stand in 80 minutes. On not-so-good days, 95. Either way, I congratulate myself after each arrival.
I try not to think how fast younger hunters could complete the course. I try to keep that competition to myself. I’m in better shape at age 65 than I was at 35 or 45, but I’m more comfortable taking the point when climbing or descending the mountain with younger folks. I don’t like falling behind and seeing them paused ahead, drinking from their water bottle, casually waiting for me to catch up.
I want to think I’ve still got it, that I can still do this. But I know no one beats age, no matter how many miles you run each week and how many pints you sweat at the gym. Age also helps me better understand Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” where he concludes:
“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
No, we can’t beat age, but we can make it earn each inch of its advance up our beach. Maybe that’s why I keep returning to these steep, rugged mountains to bowhunt elk each September. When I concede it’s time to move on, I want age to know it got my best fight, my strongest effort.
Locals tell me of easier places to hunt, and with just as many elk. Some even invite me to call for details. Maybe they feel sorry for the old guy. I explain that I like it here and, at least for now, I’m in no hurry to leave.
I also know my own moods and attitudes toward the mountain will improve each day I’m in camp, just as they have since my first hunt here in September 2006.
The first day up the mountain, I always feel sluggish and doubtful, and wonder if I should just go fishing more often or devote equal energy to bowhunting deer back home. I feel less unworthy by Day 3. Those thoughts fade. I simply wonder why the elk aren’t bugling and why pesky blue flies can’t leave me alone during post-lunch naps.
Finally, when it’s time to break camp and go home, I’m sad it’ll be another year before those 3:30 a.m. daily wakeups and lung-straining ascents to the meadow and beyond.
When I return to the mountain a year older, I know that mood swing will replay, no matter how hard I’ve worked to stay fit and focused the previous 12 months near sea level. I assume that mood sequence has physical roots. It’s my body adjusting to the lower oxygen of higher elevations, stubbornly accepting the realities of those scrunched lines on topographical maps.
That annual attitude adjustment reminds me of “Bear Claw” Chris Lapp’s advice to Robert Redford’s character in the “Jeremiah Johnson” movie: “Many a child journeys this high to be different. To get from here what their natures couldn't get them below. It comes to nothing. Can't cheat the mountain, pilgrim.”
Nope, we can’t. Still, I intend to cheat age as much as I can.
That will come to nothing, too, but it seems the fun, respectful thing to do.
Patrick Durkin has bowhunted elk in the same rugged mountains of southeastern Idaho since September 2006. — Patrick Durkin photo