After meeting me, wild game became the norm for my wife. Stefanie did not grow up eating much wild game, and it was certainly not a staple in her diet. However, we now process our game, make sausage, sandwich meats, and specialty dishes, and naturally love the lean and flavorful protein sources. After adapting to a wild game diet, Stef con- cluded that she would like to harvest an elk, her favorite table fare. Her only stipulation was that she did not want it to have antlers.
It did not take long to figure out the limited entry draws, and before we knew it, Stef had her first big game license for antlerless elk. The license was for the late season, from late December to late January. We set dates, planned carefully, and spent time developing proper shooting skills at the range. She quickly mastered the required skills and declared she was ready to em- bark on her first hunt.
With frigid temperatures, we headed north on the shortest day of the year. The temperature was a balmy -31° Fahrenheit, and the wind chill felt like -40°. As we pulled the truck to a stop adjacent to the road allowance, we could hear the snow creaking and groaning under the pressure of the tires. It was so cold that even the snow was complaining.
It was a reminder of what winter is like in northern Alberta. To top things off, it was the first day of winter, the winter solstice, which was December 21. Leaving the comforts of the truck, we immediately felt the cold penetrate exposed skin, making us hustle to get our snowshoes on. We would start the mile-long hike down the trail to where the oat field was, where we hoped to find elk. There had been a large herd of elk feeding in the field for several weeks, and we were hopeful we could locate a couple of antlerless ones to fill Stef’s late-sea- son tags.
I was there for moral support and to help with field dressing, spotting, and whatever else I could bring to the team of solstice elk hunters. Stefanie was anxious and excited to try and bring an elk home to fill the freezer. Our long-time friend, Joe Winter, was also along and armed with a tag of his own.
We were soon fully geared up and headed down the extended road allowance that would lead us to the field. It would’ve been impossible to make the march without the snowshoes, and we took turns leading and breaking the trail to get us to our destination. Even with snow- shoes, we sank deep into the powder below, which was well above our thighs. It was so cold that I could feel the frost developing on my eyelashes and exposed facial hair. The cold made the hunt an adventure, and Stef had a huge smile, which told me we were successful already.
We left the truck shortly after 8 a.m., hoping to get to the field before legal light. Legal light wasn’t until a couple of minutes before 9 a.m., and even though we had over half an hour to get to the field, it was slow going. It was officially the shortest day of the year with the least daylight hours, meaning we could take our time without an early wakeup.
We covered over a mile of ground on snowshoes when we came to an access trail leading into an oil well site. Joe headed up the line on his own to set up and try to catch elk moving through the bush that may have already finished feeding in the field. Stef and I continued down the trail, hoping to get a peek into the actual oat field to see if we could catch a straggler elk or two.
I used my binoculars to scan through the trees and saw a single cow trotting away from us across the field. The extra crunchy cold snow must have given away our presence, sending the cow in the opposite direction we were hoping she would travel.
We checked the field quickly to ensure no other elk were still there before heading to a cutline running parallel to the field. With any luck, we would catch some animals still moving within the protection of the forest. We only walked about 100 yards when I spotted some- thing brown off the trees, way down the line. On closer inspection, I could tell that they were ears. The dark brown coloration made me think they were mule deer bedded in the deep snow along a large patch of alders. After a second look, I could tell the ears belonged to three cow elk resting comfortably between the trees. My heart raced with excitement, but I did not show it, hoping to help Stef stay calm and focused.
SITUATING TO SHOOT
Stef and I assessed the situation carefully before taking another step. The best bet was to circle, stay downwind of the animals, and cut through some stunted aspens to get closer to the elk. We snuck out onto the overgrown cutline and could see the heads of the elk. I raised my binoculars and ranged the closest animal at 152 yards. They were well within range and Stef’s ability to shoot. We decided to set up for a shot and carefully aligned ourselves with the elk. I steadied the three legs of my BogPod tripod so Stef could rest the rifle on it. She sat down behind the sticks and tried to make herself comfortable, sinking into the deep snow. It did not take long to be ready; all we needed was one of the elk to stand up and present itself for a good opportunity.
Stef and I had discussed waiting patiently for the elk to stand and offer a broadside view and the best shot opportunity. We knew it would be a waiting game. Stef concentrated on the elk and carefully watched down the line through her scope, anticipat- ing one of them coming to their feet. The minutes ticked away, and the cold soon settled into our cloth- ing. Stef still had her snowshoes perched precari- ously under her legs. When her feet and legs started to fall asleep from the awkward position, I told her to concentrate on the elk, to make sure they didn’t move, and I removed the snowshoes.
Silently, I was thinking the wrestling and ex- tra noise to get the snowshoes off may have been enough to get the elk to their feet, but they seemed oblivious to our presence. Stef scooched in closer to the rifle rest. It was more comfortable than before, and she knew she could make the shot if given the opportunity.
We had been sitting well over an hour, and the elk were content to stay nestled in their beds. The mid- dle elk looked like it was getting restless, lifting its head and perking up its ears. It eventually did stand, and Stef shuffled behind the rifle to get ready. There was no shot opportunity at first because the head of another elk was in line with the one targeted. Being calm and showing patience eventually paid off as the elk finally took a step providing a clear window of opportunity.
Stef slowly tightened up on the trigger, and at the rifle’s report, the elk dropped its head and jumped into the adjacent trees. The other two elk stood look- ing around, trying to figure out what was happening. I told Stef to sit tight and watch what happens so as not to spook any animals. To our surprise, another 60 elk walked onto the line, providing an incredible view of the big herd hidden just yards away.
It took about five minutes for the animals to slowly walk away and provide the break for us to walk up and find the trail where Stef’s elk disappeared. I still had my snowshoes on and could travel much faster than Stef, who sank deeply with each step. She was too excited to get to the elk to worry about the snow depth and extra energy required. I knew she was nervous about finding her elk and wanted to ensure that she had made a clean kill. As I neared the spot where the elk had been stand- ing, I could see some brown fur through the trees in the deep snow, and I turned around and raised my thumb, indicating that she had been successful. I waited for Stef to catch up before we approached the cow. It was an exhilarating and emotional moment for this first-time elk hunter. She had successfully taken an animal on her very first trip and made a perfect shot.
The culmination of events made the hunt very reward- ing. It was a true adventure with hard work, snowshoes, stalking animals, battling the extreme cold, and waiting for the best shot opportunity to present itself. However, it was also full of emotion. When Stef got to her elk, she placed her hands on it, and tears welled in her eyes. It was a challenging moment that would not stop her from hunting again.
The temperature had dropped even more, and with a wind chill of -47°F, we were glad to end our winter solstice hunt with great success with frost-laden smiles. Stef was extremely excited to have family over for a meal and serve elk meat from her efforts and success. It was a pivotal moment in the life of a new hunter.
THREE MORE SEASONS
For the next three years, Stef obtained antlerless elk tags and filled each one with enthusiasm and re- spect. As a biologist, Stefanie understands that elk are a renewable resource. In many ways, hunters have the utmost respect for the animals they pursue and want to ensure they are always on the landscape. Knowing the value of wildlife does not mean you cannot enjoy it as a consumptive user. We enjoy every sighting and encoun- ter as much as we do the steaks, roasts, and burgers that grace our table.
Stefanie is now applying for moose and mule deer licenses. She is looking forward to expanding her ex- perience and hunting adventures with new species. Waterfowl and upland game bird hunts are a regular fall activity, and Stef enjoys the field-to-plate experience. It is and always will be about the food. Antlers may look great, but you can’t eat them.
The best way to obtain naturally sourced, organic proteins is to hunt. It took several years for Stef to decide to try hunting. It had nothing to do with a trophy or ego and remains all about the meat and sharing with friends and family.