My First Big Game Hunt

Published 2021-01-31

By: Outdoor Ambassador, Eric Balken

“I don’t know, man, this might not be my year”.

After six days in a row, waking up in the wee hours of the morning to trek around the hills outskirting the Salt Lake Valley, I felt defeated. I had finally pulled an antlerless elk tag for my first hunt, but the prospects of success seemed to elude me with each passing day. We had seen plenty of bulls, lots of deer, and more moose than I could count. But the snow in the hills was thin and melting, and there were only a few days left on my tag. Little did I know that 30 minutes after declaring defeat, I would be taking down my first big game animal.

Photo by Jay Beyer

My path to hunting could be described as long and hesitant. I’m a big proponent of eating “real” food in the interest of my health and the environment. I’ve been growing vegetable gardens for a decade and have always felt the allure of eating something I harvested myself. Homegrown food tastes better, feels better on the body, and has an indescribable quality—all gardeners and hunters know what I’m talking about—that comes with self-harvested food. An old friend of mine described it as having a “higher vibrational frequency” than food bought from the store.

But hunting has never been my thing. No one in my family did it, I didn’t grow up around guns, and the hunting world always seemed too foreign for me to ever crack into. And I’ve never understood the trophy aspect. Seeing photos of people smiling next to a dead animal leaves me feeling morbid. The closest thing to hunting I had experienced was slaughtering one of my chickens that ended up being a rooster, which was an experience I didn’t exactly enjoy.

All that being said, I eat meat. I try to eat it in moderation and be cognizant of its ecological impacts, but I love it. I’ll always be a sucker for a perfectly cooked burger or chili verde burrito. But it always comes with a little tinge of guilt. I know most of the meat I’ve consumed over the years came from an industrial system where animals aren’t raised humanely, contributing to pollution, climate change, and unsustainable food production. Most of the beef in the U.S. is fed with corn, an unnatural practice born of subsidized agricultural production. Since cows evolved eating grass and not grain (they have four stomachs to digest the cellulose), these corn-fed cows need to be given antibiotics and hormones to survive life until slaughter. Not exactly a mouth-watering thought.

Understanding the reality of industrial meat and the desire for real food is what drove me to hunt. Wild game is the cleanest, most natural, and humane meat you can put in your body. I’ve been interested in the idea of harvesting my own meat since college, but I never had a family member or a mentor to show me how to do it. It wasn’t until I started shooting ski photos with Jay Beyer that I could actually talk to someone who did it. Jay is a hunting fanatic and is also obsessed with real food. If you spend enough time with him, you’ll eventually end up talking about hunting, gardening, and cooking.

I pestered Jay for several years about teaching me to hunt. He finally said if I took the time to get my hunters safety permit, he’d help me do it. I took the online course and field test alongside a dozen 12-year-olds and immediately started applying for tags. It took several years of building points, but I finally got it last summer.

“Now what do I do?” I asked Jay after an exciting text about finally pulling my tag. “Start practicing shooting,” he curtly replied. Duh. I asked him how much rifles and scopes cost. My jaw dropped. Turns out this is not a cheap hobby. Being the person he is, Jay said I could borrow one of his for target practice and the hunt. He even took me out the first time and showed me how to use it. Drive to the desert, set up a target, lay the rifle on a backpack, position your body, line up the shot, control your breath, fire. I practiced as often as I could through the summer and fall.

When fall came to an end, and our early-winter window approached. I started feeling anticipation and some dread. I felt fairly competent in my shooting, I knew all the benefits of hunting, but could I actually pull the trigger when the time came? What if I cracked when the opportunity arrived? Would I have a change of heart and become vegetarian? The thought of killing a large wild animal was daunting.

On the first day of the hunt, Jay took our friend Jonah and me out into the hills. Jonah had the same tag as me and was also learning. Even with Jay’s guidance, the thoughts of doubt ran through my head. We hiked through frosted scrub oak and sagebrush and tip-toed around in the calm, pre-dawn air. Jay showed us how to move through the landscape so that it wouldn’t reveal ourselves to the animals. We used trees and bushes to stay hidden, moved slowly when cresting hills, treaded lightly over crunchy snow, and frequently stopped to scan our surroundings with binoculars.

Photo by Jay Beyer

I quickly took to this part of the process. As a backcountry skier, I spend a lot of dark mornings trudging through snow, only now I had a rifle on my back instead of skis. Instead of moving as quickly as possible to chase a photo or a ski run in perfect light, we were moving thoughtfully and quietly to pursue an animal that could help feed my family for the next year.

Jay pointed out where deer had been bedding in the night, identified by their imprints and droppings. We also acquainted ourselves with the moose in the area: where they slept, what twigs they were eating, where they walked around in the morning. The more time we spent out there, the more the story came together. When it gets cold, the animals move down from the mountains. After a fresh snowfall, they bed in open fields to avoid snow falling off trees in the night. This is where we were trying to find them.

Day after day, we continued the routine of early starts and methodical navigation of the hills. I didn’t realize how zen this whole process would be. Since we had to stay quiet and couldn’t really talk, it became meditative. Bird chirps became louder. I noticed where porcupines had been eating bark and where they sauntered after. I began to notice the moose and deer beds from days prior and could track their walking paths all around us. I heard hawks screech in the distance and glanced at eagles gliding overhead. We even glassed two black bears in the distance—a rarity in Utah. Usually, when I’m in the mountains, I’m trying to summit a peak, speed across mountain bike trails, or find something exciting to ski. While it was still athletically demanding, hunting felt more like naturalist training. In the process of tracking elk, we were immersing ourselves in a living ecosystem.

Photo by Jay Beyer

But the process was onerous. We had been doing this for five days in a row. Waking up hours before dawn and hiking around the hills, looking for an animal that had been on my mind for months. We had seen several large groups of bulls and pursued a few cows, but they all seemed to notice us from a comfortable distance and waltz away. It had been days since it snowed, and everywhere we walked, the speckled white crust on the ground crunched so loudly that any animal could hear us from a mile away. I was leaving town in a few days, and the tag expired the week after. My excitement started turning into disappointment.

On the last day our little team was able to go out together. We were blessed with a couple of inches of fresh snow. Our footsteps were once again muffled. Seeing fresh tracks became easier. The herds would probably be bedding in the open.

Just like the days before, we were on the mountain early and pacing the hillside as the sun lit up the peaks around us. Hopes were high, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t completely exhausted. We trekked up through the scrub oak, cautiously cresting every hill horizon we approached. Expecting to finally see a herd where we needed them to be, we saw nothing. Over the next hill. Nothing. Around the next one. Nothing.

Photo by Jay Beyer

The morning was getting late, and there weren’t many more hills or valleys where the elk could be hiding. We started to walk back down, and I told Jay that this might not be my year, accepting that this was just a part of my learning experience. He didn’t say anything.

Less than a minute later, he pulled down the binoculars from his eyes and said, “there they are.” He spotted a herd of ten cows one ridge over. We kicked into high gear and bee-lined it down to the valley between us. I was trying to keep up with Jay, who was somehow sprinting downhill in what was now three feet of powder. We were moving full speed, clawing over and under tree branches. We crossed the valley bottom and began ascending up the next hill, now in the sun and melting snow. It took everything I had to control my breath and heart rate as we powered uphill. My heart was pounding so loudly I could hear it in my ears.

As we got closer to the top of the hill, Jay turned back to us and started using hand signals like a SWAT cop in an action movie. I was confused because we never went over hand signals before, but it felt pretty badass. The herd was bedding in the opening just over the hill. We had to sneak up and get into a close enough position but wouldn’t spook them. Being the novice shooter I am, I had to get 200 yards or closer for a safe shot. This was the moment I had been visualizing for months. The hunt was on.

While the sport of hunting was all new to me, and the final stalk was surprisingly instinctual. I don’t know if it was from playing hide and seek as a kid or if it’s just in my genes, but the act of staying low and sneaking up on these animals with rifle-in-hand felt very natural. After so many days of thinking about them, looking for them, tracking them, and being evaded, they were finally within reach.

Since Jonah and I both had tags and could take one down, and we whispered a game plan with each other before the final approach over the hillcrest. We would sneak behind a sage bush, lay down our packs, and set up a shot. Whoever had a clean shot first should take it. We accepted that it was unlikely both of us would get one at the same time.

Doing my best version of an army crawl behind the sagebrush, I slowly put my pack down and laid my rifle on it. I put my eye to the scope and spotted several cows lying in the grass with their heads up. But my view was obstructed by the grass in front of me. I had to adjust. After scooting over and rearranging my setup, I looked through my scope again. The whole herd started standing up—they had spotted us.

Feeling an extreme sense of urgency now, I did everything I could to get positioned for a clean shot, shuffling my hips and shoulders so the rifle would rest perfectly with an elk in my scope. Boom! Jonah took a shot. I was still scrambling. Boom! Jonah took another shot. I was finally in a good position. While focusing on staying steady and keeping a clear sight, an elk walked right into my crosshairs. I took my shot.

After the smoke cleared, we stood up to assess. Elk were bounding away at full gait. We quickly grabbed our packs and ran toward the meadow. One was down, and another was injured and hunkered 300 yards away. Jonah set up to get the injured elk in his scope, but it was too obscured by the bushes. Jay and I ran across the adjacent hill to get a closer shot. We got a clean view of her between the bushes. 200 yards. I set down my pack, laid the rifle on it, slowed down my breath, and took the shot.

Photo by Jay Beyer

As we prepared to field dress our animals, the adrenaline of the moment started to wane, and a sense of awe kicked in. After thinking about this moment for so many years, it finally happened. I wasn’t as emotional as I thought I would be—I didn’t even cry. But it felt surreal. Not just succeeding at the hunt but feeling the warmth of this creature I had taken down. Smelling it up close. As I put my hand on it and took in the moment, and Jay said, “you just took part in something that our species has evolved doing for thousands of years.” After all was said and done, it did indeed feel natural. Even for a newbie like me.

Photo by Jay Beyer