By Alyssa Bowen
Heavy. That was what people kept saying when I told them we would pack the elk out on
our backs. Elk were huge animals, they would be so heavy. They were right.
Elk natively roamed the southwestern region of the Oklahoma, but they were hunted to
near extinction in the 1800s. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt designated the Wichita Mountains
area the nation’s first big-game wildlife refuge, and shortly after, transplanted a small herd of
Rocky Mountain elk from the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming. Today, the refuge
covers approximately 60,000 acres of mixed grass prairie and granite mountains and holds an
estimated 1,400 elk.
My friend, Paige, and I drew out together for a walk-in, cow only tag on the refuge. The
hunt was a week and started off with a meeting to go over rules and regulations. Of the crowd of
over a hundred people, Paige and I were two of three women in the audience.
When the meeting was over, we headed into the backcountry, Paige and her husband
going one way, my husband and I going another. I spent the better part of the time walking,
making sure I was stepping either solidly on a rock or solidly on dirt, fearing I would end up with
a sprained ankle. We were about two miles in when we saw our first elk, jumping two bulls and a
cow with two calves. We followed them up, hoping to glass from the south face of that
mountain. We spotted a herd descending into the valley and heading for water. Worried they
would spook, we made a decision to go around the northside to see if we could cut them off. We
didn’t run, but it was as close to running as we could get when every step was on or off a boulder
and through thick scrub oak. We reached an edge where the mountain dipped into a saddle, and
looked into the valley. They’d gone away from the water in the direction from which we’d just
It was in these frustrated moments I saw them appear, walking straight at us and
wandering into the saddle to head north. I dropped my pack to the rock in front of me, resting my
rifle on it as they moved closer. A young bull in front with a half dozen cows following him.
I was letting my scope move over them when my husband hissed, “There’s more cows
coming from the north.”
There were elk coming from my left and elk coming from my right, and they were all
meeting in the saddle below us. They were too low to see now, my angle a barrier for my rifle to
get a shot. There was a large boulder on the edge, and on instinct, I leapt over the rock in front of
me and slapped my seat cushion on the boulder to use as a gun rest. The elk had noticed nothing.
I picked one out and pulled the trigger.
My heart pounded as I waited for the elk to move, and eventually all but one did. I could
see the bullet hole in her ribs. I felt confident it was a lung shot, but they’d said it often took
more than one. Another shot, another hit, and still, she was unmoving.
It’s not often that you watch something stand there, dying. I contemplated taking a third
shot right about the time she took a step and laid down. We stayed perched there, watching her
chest heaving until her last breath blew out and her head fell to the side. The tears that wet my
cheeks were unexpected and unrestrained.
It wasn’t sadness, but they weren’t tears of joy either. I was happy, excited to have the
experience to hunt and harvest a magnificent animal, but it overwhelmed me to watch this
powerful creature stand there until she physically couldn’t. The responsibility of it, making the
decision to steal the last breath of another living creature–it’s heavy. I felt the weight of it as I
walked to her, as I ran my fingers through her hair and admired her beauty, as my knife separated
the meat that would feed us from the bones that had supported her.
The adrenaline and excitement had set in, and I was exhilarated with pride in the
accomplishment and the fact that under closer examination, I had made two good shots–she’d
just been strong as an oak.
We didn’t have great service, but we were able to get a pin drop to Paige and Trey, and
they hiked over to help us pack out. We were able to get it all out that night with plans to go back
for the hide the next day while Paige continued her hunt.
Split between us, it was still the heaviest thing I’d carried on my back, and we had to
climb down a mountain and hike over three miles back to the truck. By the time we’d loaded her
up, my feet were aching. After packing out the hide and the cow Paige harvested the next day, I
wondered if I still had feet at all. We passed around a bottle of ibuprofen after dinner like it was
a celebration toast, elk meat chilling on ice.
All the people were right. She was heavy. The physical demands I’d been somewhat
prepared for, but not the emotional ones. I reflect on it often, those moments between my pulling
the trigger and her dying. Hunting is a part of me, a way of life that I not only choose but greatly
enjoy. Those moments between remind me of my humanity, remind me that taking a life is big
deal, and I do not take it lightly. I hope I am still as grateful for a dove harvested in thirty years
as I am for that elk I took last December.
I hope every single one is heavy.
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