December 27, 2010

Racing the Wind - a Story of a Hunt

I remember what it felt like to jump off the ledge. That was the best part, the part where I was just a little afraid. The swimming hole. Out West there were multitudes of rivers and streams in which we could swim, many with ledges that looked down on deep pools in which the braver kids would jump.

First steps, first leaps. Over the years it became a car, then an airplane, then marriage. All attempted with the luminosity of not knowing any better, each a new journey, some ending better than others.

Such as my first antelope hunt. It's not just a tasty steak on four legs. It's North Americas fastest game animal

Racing goats.

Like deer and elk, the rut is the time to go, with the antelope exhibiting behavior much like you'd see with your whitetail. They snort, they grunt, they try and draw the attention of any nubile doe in range. They'll fight with other males for the attention of the female. In a nutshell, during the rut, pronghorn bucks are just as stupid as the males of most species under similar conditions; you don't even have to add alcohol.

But this is the time to go, when there's movement and the animals natural sense of wariness is doused by raging hormones. During spring and early summer, if you live in the area that the antelope play, you might see several bucks hanging out together with the womenfolk long gone. Normally, after breeding is over with, the antelope gather in large herds with a mix of both bucks and does.

Late August was when we went. The pre-rut prep in most states starts as early as mid August, as the bucks begin to split up and concentrate their attentions on the females. Most of the action is over by late September, depending on the same factors that affect elk and deer hunting. Weather and temperature. A heavy early snow will damp the ardor of about any pronghorn stud, and cooler weather early can change when the rut begins.

As it was my first time, I went in knowing I may not take one home the first time. Antelope are a challenge regardless of your skill or the flat shooting rifle that you select. It's not just speed, it's habitat. Antelope love to hide out under vegetative ground if they have the slightest inkling danger is near. If your presence is felt, even a couple hundred yards away, they will disappear as quick as you would expect into the underbrush, not to come out until you're muttering four letter words on the hike back out.

In deer season, we normally scout out our hunting area first. Og, RB and MH and I will go on up to Frank James spread of land ahead of time, watching for ruts and scraps and paths. Like whitetail, antelope will leave a rub, which serves a dual purpose, to mark the area for other antelope and to prep them for the shoving and sparring that occurs between the male fighting for dominance and does. The scout is useful, it helps you gauge where the population groups might be, where their escape routes will likely go, as well as evaluate just what you have in the area (i.e. do you want to take the smaller buck when you know there's a trophy in the corn patch?). Scouting for antelope is much the same though you'll need a good set of binoculars. In this landscape just wandering around a small area is NOT going to be enough,

But we didn't have a chance to do this, though we had an informal guide, a friend from the area who would hopefully lead us to where the antelope were. I had a .270 Winchester with 110 grain bullets on hand, binoculars, and a white hanky. No, I wasn't expecting to wave it like the damsel in distress, but as antelope are by far more curious than the whitetail, waving one from a distance has, for more than one hunter, brought one in for the perfect show though some states don't allow "flagging".

Antelope are typically shot from long range, their bright white rumps making them easy to spot, even as their vision and speed make them a challenge to get close to. I had a rifle for the long range, but this was my first hunt, and to sit and treat them like prairie dog on steroids was not our goal. We were going to try our hand at stalking and getting close in, hopefully for a shot from 100-200 yards (and likely becoming vegetarians).

The landscape was perfect for stalking. Sure they have vision like a fighter pilots times 10, but they don't have superman x Ray vision either. We had rocks, we had brush, We had some camo that perfectly matched the landscape. The countryside may have looked flat when I flew us in, but it was not flat,; there were no stairs like the hills in Ireland, and my thighs were telling me that with every step.

If you looked out across the draw you would see them come into view. Not the antelope, but us. A small brace of tall bodies, moving deliberately, guns in hand, sweat evaporating into the high desert air, the movement of the bodies, that of predator stalking, far away from the cities unsleeping and melancholy murmur. In our pockets and bags back in the jeep were ammo and supplies, toilet paper, aluminum foil, duct tape and other things that might be needed. In my pants pockets, string, a compass, paper clips, a bit of dark chocolate, a map. McGyver would have liked pants like these. I was armed, I had duct tape. I was ready to try my hand at stalking an antelope.

What is stalking? It's not getting in your car and driving by the antelope's house 8 times a day, it's not hacking his computer, it's finding him at distance and then using the terrain and the wind to get close. It's hunting at its most elemental, and for me, more exhilarating than any leap off a cliff into the water. Not that many game animals lend themselves to stalking. Most hunting I've done as been from tree stands or blinds, or sitting at the base of the tree, calling in a horny Jake and his buddies during Spring Turkey season.

Antelope, mule deer, and under the right conditions, elk, are best for the "spot and stalk".

We move upslope breath catching on the thin air, staying apart, yet close, there in the resplendent, insulate light that is high country. We fan out as we head uphill, silent with dormant guns, amazed and incredulous that we are here, staying down low and downwind of where antelope have been spotted.

We were miles from any road it seemed, but antelope habitat in North America is generally not near the nearest Quick E Mart and subdivision. So we did some serious driving in with the help of a sturdy four wheel drive to where we could hike in. Not for photos or fun, but for stalking what would become to me, as elusive as a steelhead trout. The topography, trees and shrubbery in places might be such we could approach on foot, but we also knew that after opening day, the antelope were going to prefer the biggest, flattest, most coverless expanse of ground they could find to perch.

This is not a sport for the out of shape Sure, I usually carry an additional 25 pounds of padding most guys and supermodels don't have, but I can bench press most of my weight and hike with a backpack for miles. Fourteen years of ballet and tap dancing built up muscles in my legs and thighs that still are there, even if the only "six pack" you are going to find on me is in my cooler. But this isn't pheasant country and some of the antelope like to hang out where the pheasants would get hypoxia and auger in.

To get where it was huntable meant not just away from the other hunters, but up through an area where snow will dust this winter, on a south facing slope, up where the wind burns our throats. Sagebrush mixed with green shoots that were shooting up from the continual melt of the last of the winter's snow. There were some trees, just enough for shelter from the elements or the predators, but not enough for real cover. Further up, rock outcroppings form into a maze of paths away from danger, headed down to the south. And cactus, just waiting for some idiot that tries to do this in rubber soled shoes you'd used in Mountain country (check Macgyver pack, tweezers, check!)

I was, for a moment, regretting all the gear, as the terrain rose higher and higher and my breath shallower and more frequent. I had to take just a moment to catch my breath and rest. looking out on a the headwater of a nameless creek, looking down on rivers and land that shaped our Nation. Antelope land runs near the source of waters that feed our history. The Colorado, the Yakima, the Gunnison, the Yellowstone. I stood there, on weathered alien land, rock sentries watching my movements mutely. I stood and looked and it was as if for the moment my life back in the city did not exist. Not gone, merely vanished into the myriad life of sameness and dry dusty hallways, the secret sunless places that herds of people flock to quietly live and die without fighting.

I'd rather be here, overpacked, overweight and free, the footsteps I made as I walk uphill simply part of every leaf and rock, particle of air, rain and dew, dark and dawn and breath and desire. I've got a 1200 foot ascent in 85 degree weather to find a animal that will spot me and run to the next county before I've even raised my weapon. I've got to pee and can't do that while standing up or uphill. But I'm where I want to be, alive and focused. Especially focused, as the high desert is a harsh and unforgiving place and won't hesitate to send me express mail down to flat land in a body bag.

But from up front, our friend, not a guide by profession, but our guide this trip, had spotted some antelope through his Nikon binoculars.

Decoys are popular in archery season, but I didn't really want to be sitting out here on public land behind a decoy that looked like someones prize trophy, even if it was allowed (which I'm not sure it was during firearm season) I checked the terrain, I checked the wind, and noticed a ravine, not a big one, but big enough for me. Perhaps with my smaller size I could sneak in closer through that to get closer without being noticed. So I concentrated and moved towards it, even though my eyes are stinging with sweat from my forehead, my normally rosy cheeks are the color of fresh lobster, and my lips are so chapped, a chap would hesitate to kiss them. As a blister raises itself on top of another blister I start thinking I could probably trade in this equipment for a Cuisinart, that hunting license for a card at Krogers. But I won't.

I looked around me as I exited the little ravine, noting the availability of any bits of grass, sagebrush or vegetation that would break up my outline. Looking for dry watercourse or depressions that would keep me below their line of sight. I didn't want to stay down on my belly in rattlesnake country any longer than I had to until it was safe to rise up to a crouch and more in slowly, taking advantage any natural cover I could find.

If this type of movements sounds uncomfortable, rest assured it is. I considered stalking closer in, I had the clothing for it, with dyed knee and elbow pads (not useful against a rattlesnake mind you) but I wasn't sure I was experienced enough to pull it off this time. But I also0 wasn't sure I had any other choice, there not being enough vegetation to walk in further.

It was painful work, but worth it. I'm looking out across terrain few men have crossed, peering out from a slope that is kicking my butt to simply see the world as it is. A world raw, untamed, marked by nature and the years, the wetness and the sheer juice of life bubbling up from what appears to be dry land. My feet crouched proud on rock as strong as God and as fragile as a pheasants egg, steady, yet perilous.

The guys were letting me go in first, as this was my first antelope hunt and as much as my flanks burned, I wasn't going to give up and let them down. . We were in this thing together, because hunting was the heritage of us all, out of the earth and beyond it, the miles of footsteps up a slope simply following where others had gone before. We were simply part of the long chronicle of men and women who share the love of the hunt, of the outdoors, and in that sharing, become one with each other, and the earth. We hunt in the face of darkness and cascading water, gathering around the fire at night, sleeping to dreams of antelope in flight, drawing an invisible firearm from the darkness and thumbing the safety off.

The buck John had spotted wasn't doing so well rounding up his women and so he didn't notice me closing up the distance, though I was still too far away for a shot. I lay flat, watching him for what seemed like an hour. I think the does had spotted something (perhaps my movement) that made them nervous, and in their nervousness they were trying to move out. He was thinking they weren't in the mood and was doing his best to bring them back. All while I continued to stalk from the down wind side as in his hormonal anxiety he wasn't paying as close attention to the surrounding area as he should be. When I got about 275 yards out, I sat still for a long while, while they settled down. Then I took a chance with a little bark call with the primos Antelope call as Pronghorn Romeo moved out from the girls towards me, ready to challenge a rival. At about 250 yards, he decided against it, though not alarmed, simply turning back. Broadside, it was now or never and I jumped of that ledge of first time anything.


The sound of that rifle flew through that ravine I had just left like a gully washer. There was nothing left in the air but the echo of motion and speed. The friction, the form, was gone, the antelope not racing away, but walking as though not quite of what had happened, before he fell, the does already bouncing off to find a new boyfriend.

No one spoke. I stood, and there was only the trickle of sweat on my cheek and the velvet air and the smell of gunpowder in my hair. My flanks still trembled, but not from fatigue, but from the adrenalin.

Yet, like any life that I will take to provide sustenance, I stopped over the form of that worthy adversary and said a silent prayer of thanks. Game animals may not have a name or an individuality, but I admire them. They live in the most complete retreat that exists, the capacity for the life of rugged seclusion in which we all must die, racing off as if they have no interest in their own demise, bursting over the cold form of earth, shrugging off the notion of death, here in the high desert.

The antelope will not be a lot of meat, but enough for nourishment, but that's not why we are here really. It's for a moment of brief unsubstantiated glory, of the sharp, shock of sound that belies the silence of a heart, the crack of decision, the momentary cessation of breath that comes as through willful act you cause another to cease its life. It is life and it is death, sustenance from the land that is earned, not purchased in bulk at a supermarket. It's summer and fall, wet and sporadic springs coming on the conceit of the last days of winter. As a fleeting white bottomed rocket bursts forth from the remnants of the West, I realize, it's not about the antelope.

It's seizing that last brace of freedom for both predator and prey. It's a jump off a ledge, for one a moment, the other eternity, that both echo in the places we all remember.

Posted by Brigid at December 27, 2010 12:28 AM