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Author Topic: Opening Day - Sean Tomkinson  (Read 2406 times)

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Opening Day - Sean Tomkinson
« on: June 14, 2004, 08:49:00 AM »
Opening Day

by Sean Tomkinson
  The days had been getting shorter for some time now.  There wasn't quite as much green feed as there had been earlier and he noticed this morning a certain scent on the breeze that he remembered from some time in the past.  There was nothing wrong with the scent, it wasn't danger he smelled, no, it was a longing, it was excitement, it was sometimes anger, but it was only faint.  It would become stronger he new but this morning he only felt the stirrings of a new season and in response he let loose with a halfhearted bugle. The call only climbing two notes and then trailed off.  

     The time of hot days and clouds of biting flies was drawing to a close, his coat was thicker than it had been and there was a chill that he smelled rather than felt in the air this morning.  The other bulls, with which he had spent the hot days, had all gone to different places and from across the canyon he heard a bull call.  It was a bull whose voice he recognized from lazy days spent lounging in the dark timber on the cool side of the mountain.  In days past, the other bull's voice had been comforting; it felt good to hear his herd mate.  This morning there was a difference somehow, gone were the feelings of herdship; no longer did he feel comfort in the other bull's voice.  It was a challenge, a challenge that would go unanswered this morning for the stirrings were not yet strong but some how he new that would change.    

      It was a long hot summer for the man.  Memories of the previous hunting season left him full of yearning for the one to come. Commitments to work and family left only a few days for hunting elk.  A trip into Yellowstone Park to see the “cattle in elk suits” as he liked to call them only left him cold.  “They look and sound like elk but a guy could just about walk up and swat "em on the nose with a stick.”  The experience in the Park left him with an even greater loathing for the morally bankrupt poachers that could sneak into the Park to film their “hunt” for elk but also with a longing to be back among “real” elk; pitting his puny human senses against the prowess of the monarchs of the mountains.

     As August wore on, a couple of scouting trips to elk camp seemed to stoke the fire within. The fire that often kept him up at night with memories of encounters with bugling bulls, all the couldas, wouldas, shouldas, and gonnas, swirled together to create such an inferno that by the end of August he could scarcely contain himself.  His wife was glad to see archery season arrive because she knew the only thing that could return to her the rational thinking man she loved would be to send him away to the mountains and elk that held his heart and mind captive.

     Opening day arrived on the heels of a now familiar sleepless night. Thirty-six years of life and twenty-four opening days had done nothing to dull the anticipation of morning's first light on this, the most anticipated, if not holy day to people of his kind.  The anticipation itself had not changed but experience caused the object of his desire to mature.  When he was twelve he could hardly wait to shoot a deer, any legal deer.  In the mountains and hills of southeast Idaho deer were plentiful if you knew where to look and he learned scouting pays off, even when you are a teenager.  With passing years and varying degrees of “successful” hunts his passion for opening morning had gone from bringing home meat to feeling the cool late summer morning air; the smell of the sagebrush and pine, the pungent aroma of a fresh elk wallow, and feeling the fury of a bull elk early in the rut screaming his passion for the season, the cows, and at rival bulls.

     The desire for a quality hunt with fewer human interactions led him to take up bow hunting.  He found that he preferred the more intimate nature of the hunt and the undisturbed attitude of the game he encountered. The same reverence for the spirit of the hunt that would not allow him to even consider using a modern, inline muzzleloader, inspired him to hang up his compound bow and become proficient with a yew wood self bow of his own crafting.  His journey as a hunter that began as a youth carrying an eight pound rifle into the field had reached a new milestone as the weapon he now wielded only weighed a little over two pounds. He was not conscious of these things as he drew the tent flap aside an hour before first light, he only felt the rush that a hunter feels as he draws his first breath on the morning of the best day of the year.          
     Autumn had come early to the high country that year and a light layer of frost coated the slightly yellowed leaves on the quakeys on the edge of camp.  An unusually wet summer had left the grass and underbrush thick and green.  As the man let out his fist breath of the morning, the lantern's light illuminated the plume as it hung in the air and began drifting away before it dissipated.  The woods would be cool and movement would be quiet.  This was going to be a great opening day.  

     The man turned into the tent and said “c'mon pal, time to get up.”  Words were not needed though, the ten year old boy hadn't slept much that night either.  After a summer spent practicing different sounds on a cow call and watching elk through the binoculars the boy had developed the same fever that infected his old man. The pair donned their camo, the propane stove hissed, breakfast was bagels and hot chocolate.  The partners headed up the trail just as a faint glow began to paint the eastern sky.  

     This wasn't the first time the boy accompanied his dad during elk season. The partnership began on an opening day when the boy was three.  Father and son covered eight miles that day sharing the experience, enjoying the mild weather of early October in the mountains along the Couer "D Alene River in northern Idaho.  The boy sometimes walked and other times rode but he never complained.  When the man looks at photos of the trip he sees a light in the boys eyes that makes him believe the boy didn't think he had anything about which to complain.  Over the years the boy's appetite for the outdoors grew to the point that he never seemed to be ready to return home to mom and his sisters when the hunt was finished.  He just could not seem to get enough time in the woods with his dad.  This time they could stay for a whole week!  

      Father and son made their way up a trail that wound its way toward a meadow with a spring at its head and waist high grass growing on its floor.  Neither cattle nor sheep were allowed to graze this part of the forest and as such, it was unspoiled by their particular brand of leavings.  The evening before, the pair heard three bulls bugling on the ridges that rimmed the meadow as all five, the bulls and the boys, welcomed the nightfall before opening day.

       Days and nights passed and with each day the stirrings became stronger until whipped into such frenzy that with each call from another bull he would scream his challenge to the mountain for all to hear.  He was the bull! He was the master! The cows would be his! The mountain is mine!  The familiar voice from across the canyon returned his challenge with such force that he could no longer ignore the taunt.  He began thrashing a small tree with his antlers, tearing up and down, shredding bark and limbs, spreading his scent, leaving no question that this mountain was his.  When the tree was stripped and marked to his liking he once again screamed his challenge, seven notes, each higher than the last, holding the final note then following with several bellowing grunts that reverberated though his massive chest.  He was the master.  

     The bull from across the canyon responded to his challenge proclaiming his supremacy and daring any bull to prove different.  The master had ruled this season for several years now; he kept the most cows, fending off lesser bulls, commanding the respect of all elk that he encountered.  The challenge could not go unanswered; the interloper could not go unpunished.  With fury in his heart he plunged off of his ridge toward the bottom of the canyon signaling his attack with another long high bugle, how dare you challenge me!  

     As he charged across the bare hillside the first rays of the morning sun bathed him in a cool golden light and he noticed his shadow, the shadow of a huge bull elk with high, wide, sweeping antlers; long sharp tines jutted out from heavy main beams.  The challenger screamed his insolence as he crashed through the dark timber on the cool side of the hill. The breeze was still moving downhill and the master angled his attack to catch the scent his aggressor.  The aroma that filled his nose further enraged him; there was no mistaking the musk of another mature bull, a bull with fire and fury in his veins, a bull that would take his cows, a bull that he must defeat.    

      The two arrived back at the tree line on the edge of the meadow just as the first rays of light touched the east facing peaks presiding over the scene below.  Morning's silence was only broken by the screams of two bulls proclaiming their supremacy.  Each seemed convinced that he was king and was willing to argue his case before a jury of his peers; the cows, the trees, and all others who might care to listen.  Two very interested parties looked at each other with anticipation.  The boy's eyes shined with at light that the man was sure only reflected that from his own and as the two looked on, the ages old drama played out before them.

     Two hundred yards away and about half way down the hillside a huge old bull charged toward the taunts that rang out from the south side of the canyon.  A continuous explosion of popping and cracking branches announced similar progress from what sounded like another mature bull.  Reaching the bottom of the canyon the old bull stopped and let out a challenge that raised hair on the back of the partner's necks.  He began thrashing the mud of a seep at the base of the hill just as his challenger emerged from the edge of the trees.  The man noticed that the challenger was a lesser bull and thought it unlikely that the pair would ever lock horns and so he gave the boy the signal to fall back into the woods with his cow call.  As the bulls began posturing and circling each other, the man used their distracted state to creep closer, ever closer, hoping against all hope that this time the wind wouldn't change.

     As he reached the bottom of the canyon the master smelled only the earth, the trees, the sagebrush and the other bull.  The presence of the other bull drove the old monarch further into his fury but as his challenger emerged from the tree line he knew there would be no violent conflict today.  Instead he lowered his head slowly rocking his massive beams from side to side, spraying himself and the air with a stream of urine and a scent that left no doubt in any elkish mind of his intent.  Look. You are inferior. I am the master. Your cows are now mine! Just then he heard one of the members of the demoralized bull's harem call from below and just inside the tree line.  

      By the time the bulls had decided who was still the boss, the man was within fifteen yards of the old monarch.  Like the perfect timing of a well-coached football team the boy knew just when to let loose with a lonesome cow call.  Without hesitating, the old bull turned toward the call and let go with one final bugle.  As he bellowed his demand for the new member of his harem to show herself he felt something jab him in the ribs.  Wisdom and reflexes demanded a retreat. Quickly! Into the woods! Escape the danger! Run!  As he fled he felt his strength begin to ebb and there was moisture on his side.  Soon he only wanted to lie down. Nothing else mattered.  The woods grew dark.

     Following the blood trail was an easy task.  The pair arrived at the final resting place of the old bull feeling the kind of sadness and elation known only to those whose passion is the hunt.  Father and son admired the massive rack that would soon grace their home and pondered the many fine meals that the elk's flesh would provide.  Then the boy look up and said, “ Dad, does this mean we have to go home now?”

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