For six hours we've been surrounded by elk we never see. They move around us in tight circles, mating, pooping, bugling, but always invisible. How can this be? After all, between the two of us, we have one person who knows hunting backward and forward and one who at least knows how to be quiet; we also have a muzzle-loading rifle and lots of ammo. In a contest between us and a herd of distracted, lust-crazed elk, we should win, right?
"Ha," says Patt Dorsey, as she lies down with her head on her backpack and closes her eyes. "People say, oh, those poor defenseless animals, but they're very, very smart."
So far today, they've been smarter than us.
"Yeah, we went the wrong way," Patt concedes. "But that's why they call it hunting, not killing, you know?" She throws me a Rice Krispies treat. After I eat it, I lie down, too. The forest floor is amazingly comfortable, and in our wool clothes, we could surely lie here through a blizzard, fueled by sugar and the sense of having all the time in the world.
After a while, quiet becomes a barely perceptible cacophony of woodland sounds. About fifty gossiping chickadees. Squirrels in the tops of the ponderosa laughing and throwing down cones. The wind sighing through the underbrush. And beneath it all, the background noise of cow elk musing, chatting, chirping, while the bulls, in their unsubtle mating frenzy, squeak and honk and tear at the shrubbery with their antlers. It sounds more like a troupe of frustrated hairdressers dropping their combs than the noble-sounding act of bugling.
Testosterone, I think: What a hassle!
Fortunately, Patt and I are not troubled by anything of the sort, though these woods are also full of men on ATVs, duded up in safety orange, determined to get their elk so they don't return home in disgrace. Having accepted disgrace both at home and abroad hours--or years--ago, we continue to relax.
Patt is the special projects coordinator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Education Section--which means she develops classes and workshops in "non-traditional hunting," which this certainly seems to be. During the week you can find her dressed up in city clothes, lecturing, or out here in the woods, hunting whatever's in season.
That this particular week is her vacation does not seem to have changed her basic plan. She still rose early enough to get here before the sun was up, and she still plans to stay until something interesting happens.
Half an hour of silence slips by. Because there is nothing pressing to do, we can chart the progress of the sun through the trees. A three-minute discussion of President Clinton's definition of sex. Ten minutes of quiet. Then:
"I know I'm never going to be a beautiful young girl," the 37-year-old Patt observes. "So I'm planning to be a cool-looking old lady."
"With a face like an old leather sofa," I agree.
"Like Georgia O'Keeffe," she says.
Five minutes of nothing. Another Rice Krispies treat. A discussion of the tomato harvest.
"As a matter of fact, I was out in my garden yesterday morning," she recalls. "Right away I saw a hornworm. I told him: That's your last meal, you little asshole. That's the difference between hunting and gardening. Patt the hunter is nice. Patt the gardener destroys."
"I've blown away hornworms with my BB gun," she confesses. "They blew up real good."
Patt grew up fat and figured she always would be. "I added the extra T because I figured if I was going to be Fat Pat, I should be an interesting Patt," she says. But one day fifteen years ago, she began to eat lots of fruit, which pushed some of the junk food out of her diet. Weight melted off until one hundred pounds were gone.
Rather than viewing this as the central accomplishment of her life, Patt was more surprised that it had happened at all. It was not as though her body was all she thought about. Also, she had been too busy messing around in the wild to notice.
"I always had," she says. "Usually, with a woman, they start hunting at thirty because of a husband or a boyfriend. I started hunting when I was ten."
Ducks. It was a freezing cold day near Peetz, Colorado. Her father and grandfather took her to a slough where the water still flowed, crawled with her for half an hour--over ancient buffalo wallows, past arrowheads from long-gone hunters--and then waited patiently while she took many, many shots and finally got a mallard, whose tail feathers she still possesses. "They thought that was the most important thing, that I kill a bird," she recalls. "I didn't care so much. I just wanted to be with my dad and my grandpa."
Her father, a Frito-Lay salesman, hunted religiously on weekends. Her grandfather's parents had come to the Sterling area from Ireland, a place presented to Patt as a country "where the woods belonged to the Kings. The American system was terribly important to everyone in my family," she explains, "because whoever you are, the woods belong to you."
Certainly they belonged to her, even if they were nothing more than a backdrop for hours of shooting clay pigeons, her father and grandfather supervising. "I drove them nuts," she says. "As a kid, whatever we shot, I'd cut the stomach open. My dad thought it was gross, but how else could you know what the animal ate?"
After getting degrees in wildlife biology and horticulture--she supported her lengthy schooling by working at King Soopers--Patt finally went to work for the Division of Wildlife in 1991 as the Boulder district ranger. Much of her work involved chasing bears and mountain lions out of people's yards--sometimes with a gun, but more often with her own feet and sneakers. Some of Patt's "non-traditional" hunting ideas took hold while she was on the job in Boulder. "The dead raccoons in the dumpsters," she offers. "I often thought about how homeless people could use the skins and eat the meat."
But by 1996 there was no time to lobby for such unorthodox community activism. Patt had gone to work in her current amorphously educational position, teaching all-female hunter-education classes--"they are always surprised that I don't have a crew-cut and leather pants"--and traveling to seminars nationwide to address Big Issues, from the simple Why Hunting? to the more complex "Like, is it true that if you train kids to use guns and to hunt, the next thing you know they'll be hunting each other?" she says. "Or what is a disadvantaged youth, anyway?"
And another thing: How is it that certain thoroughly hyperactive boys who can barely sit still through a five-minute McDonald's meal can morph into such patient, Zen-like fishermen?
Or the clunky, cliche-ridden subject of women: Why do they hunt? Or, why don't they? Patt proposed writing a story on just that topic for Colorado Outdoors magazine and was told the subject was too narrow. You could, her editors suggested, write about why people hunt, instead.
"At one time in history, almost everyone hunted," she says. "That includes women, although people assume men were the hunters and women were the gatherers. Not true. Women always hunted. They trapped fish, they killed gophers, they hunted."
A few months ago she came up with a weekend seminar designed to teach women some of what they'd always known, with the added inducement of gourmet food and comfortable beds when the hunting and fishing were over for the day. "Becoming a Wilderness Woman" needed ten women to break even. Eighty signed up.
With 27 years of woodsmanship behind her and at least fifty to go, Patt is increasingly drawn to the kinds of hunting that require more stalking and comparatively less firepower. The only gun she still uses is a muzzle-loader. Eventually, she may switch permanently to bow and arrow.
A few weeks ago she went out to the Tarryall state wildlife area to practice shooting targets with her bow. This would count as a work-related activity whether she went by herself or took along a truckload of disadvantaged youth from "non-hunting families." This time I got to go, filling the role of "middle-aged woman from a family in which only boys hunt, and even they do it sporadically."
Shooting targets was good fun, even though my hands shook visibly and my arrows flew wild. It gave me a new respect for Robin Hood.
"Good job," Patt said charitably, as I sent another arrow whirring into the ground several yards from the nearest target. "How about we go hunt some actual animals?"
Could she be serious? Well, no. Instead, we stalked and took down Styrofoam animal-shaped targets, sneaking up on them G.I. Joe style. In, oh, forty attempts, I cleanly killed a bear, a mountain lion, a deer, a coyote--
"But there's more," Patt reminded me. "You can't leave without taking a shot at the warthog."
By the time we left, it was very clear that in order to cleanly kill any of these critters in the wild, I would have to be a much, much better shot than I will ever be, not to mention steadier and stealthier. Still, when I finally sent an arrow into the Styrofoam warthog's bloodless heart, I felt quite pleased with myself. Ready, perhaps, to stalk a real Rocky Mountain elk and witness its demise.
The black-powder elk season here lasts only nine days, all of which Patt Dorsey typically takes as vacation time. She hunts in the Roosevelt National Forest outside the town of Ward, alone or with her husband or father. In seven years, she has yet to bag her elk. When she has a license to kill a bull, she sees only cows, or vice versa. Or she never gets close enough to take a humane shot.
"I always manage to think I'm so cool, walking through the woods tracking my elk," she says, "until I realize I'm not going to get one. Somehow, though, it doesn't bother me at all. I almost like it better when nothing goes right."
Certainly that is what happened today. We walked into the woods, Patt blew a whistle that is supposed to sound like a cow elk, and, almost immediately, we were answered by a bull. A symphony of sympathetic and aggressive elk noise erupted around us. Our lassitude gave way to pure adrenaline.
"He's coming in," Patt whispered.
Instead, though sorely tempted by our artificial cow noise, he elected to stay with his herd. As far as I can tell, however, he spent the rest of the morning coming within fifteen feet of us to wallow in the tall grass, destroy a tree and deposit a maddeningly fresh pile of poop.
"Oh, well," Patt says, "I've been woken up from a nap by an elk fart and not seen him. The Native Americans believe nothing dies till it's ready, and you kinda gotta believe these elk aren't ready yet."
Continuing our aimless stroll, we finally arrive at a vast meadow where Patt has often seen signs of elk. This time it's as if a massive delegation had been here minutes before. On our hands and knees, we breathe in the weird, fresh smell of elk; we rub the bare wood of the shredded trees.
"Do you get the feeling we should have been here about ten minutes ago?" she laughs. "But, hey, look at this. It's a kind of wild blueberry. It'll be ripe in a week."
I look around. Vaccinium myrtillus is growing as far as the eye can see, but I, who have always cruised as fast as possible up a hiking trail or down a running path, have never seen it before. In fact, the slower I move, the more the vegetation swims into focus. Laziness is rewarded. I could be converted.
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"You cover the ground one step at a time, as a hunter," Patt says. "Your object is not getting there so much."
"You have a great job," I say.
"Yeah! Last year, during the winter, I even got to go into a bear's den. Some of our science guys were doing a study on bear's milk. They tranquilized her and took a tiny sample. I got to hold the cub. It relaxed after a while and fell asleep," she says proudly.
"I must smell the most like a female bear.