It started to snow and didn’t quit.
The flakes were big and slow, covering the sky and providing a kind of screen for the elk that moved out of the canyon and through the open glades of yellow pine to the plateau.
When the elk reached the hay fields, they were single file, a slow procession that kept mostly to the swales. They topped off on the lee side of a knoll heading for the timber that sprouted like a high and tight haircut on the other side of the yellow fields.
Their destination was a deep grove of fir, cedar, some spruce, the dead spicules of bug kill and large patches of reprod that could hide a house. Thick as dog hair the trees dropped into the creek bottom that fed the canyon and the river.
Well-covered benches not far from farm fields had browse, blocked the wind and in general provided a good place to hole up.
A mile away, from the hogsback across the canyon — there are houses now — you could see them.
They always do that, someone said, but you have to be up the ridge when the snow hits hard and pushes the herd in a single file across the plateau and into the northern timber.
The road is paved these days.
Forty head, maybe more, the man said. A few bulls, raghorns and spikes the rest are cows. Their orange rumps visible as a hunter’s cap.
I was in the timber when they filed toward me. I watched their heads bob over a swale, saw the dark and light colored capes, the ruff and ears press forward.
The snow made no noise. It covered sound. Sometimes a breeze huffed in my face, or blew crossways. Errant gusts occasionally crawled down the back of my neck. One of those stopped the elk.
The lead cow seemed to stand up. She raised her head and barked to alert the others. Still as a chord of tamarac, their eyes pierced like arrows into the patch of crabapples where I crouched, my bird gun on my lap, and binoculars raised.
I was a quarter mile away at the edge of the timber they expected to reach without fuss.
They had, however, found fuss.
It was me.
I slipped off the log and crept backwards into the fanning arms of young fir and circled around and away in an effort to not interrupt their migration. By then, however, the herd had broken rank and spread west over swales where it likely regrouped, maybe forming another single file that slipped, more quickly, down a timbered slope on my flank.
This is what we know about elk.
When I moved out to a house in the hollers, tight lips were the rule.
Not many people spoke about elk.
But a man who lived a long time up the road said there was no hunting season for elk when the big deer were introduced into the country a half century ago.
So, the herds grew.
This man, a farmer, complained to the game warden back then that the ungulates busted his fences and bored into the winter hay meant for his livestock.
The warden came out a few times, a taciturn man, gaunt and smoking a pipe.
One day, he turned to the farmer and said, “It looks like you need to develop a taste for elk meat.”
The farmer eventually hung a heavy set of antlers on his barn, and when a hunting season opened he supplemented his income with guided horseback packs into the hills: Lanterns, bedrolls and rifles.
The people who had been there much later I learned, needed their own freezers filled and changed the topic when elk were mentioned.
New hunters had to look:
See the broken dogwood, its limbs chewed. The elderberry bushes trampled. An antler in a draw, sun bleached on one side, brown on the other.
On a hillside at first light, watch a cow pick her way through a brush field talking quietly to a calf.
“The elk have always been in there,” said a man who sells tires now. “Ever since I can remember.”
The landscape changes. Driveways, private gates and no trespassing markers, fences and neighbors you never see, except in a pickup truck when their haste runs you off the dirt road. You once killed a buck in their yard when it was trees.
But the snow falls, and the elk file from the canyons into the quiet, covered benches where you can catch them.
Because that is what they do, this time of year.
It’s the thing we know about elk.
When the regular season is over and most hunters are home, and the snow comes down fat and makes the forest silent, you might walk right up on them as they look at you quizzically.
It is the season for mittens and front-loader rifles that shoot just one ball at a time.
That is what we know about December elk hunters.
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Ralph Bartholdt writes about the outdoors for the Coeur d’Alene Press.