It’s hard to say where a hunting trail ends. In the mountains, sometimes a logbook in a waterproof container at the summit marks the spot, and hikers write their names in it or take a photo to prove that they have “bagged” a particular mountain peak.
If the trail continues beyond this point, often its character changes. It might look more like a game trail used by sheep or caribou, one that meanders naturally.
Once, on a hike in the Brooks Range, I followed Steve along a hillside. In a place without built trails, we seemed to be on one.
“Caribou make a pretty good trail,” Steve said.
We had been following their well-worn path, yet his words caused me to envision an earnest crew of caribou trail builders in work vests. Perhaps I watched too many cartoons as a child.
Another time on a long morning in the Kenai Mountains, we hadn’t found birds when we headed west into a valley that ended in a steep vertical face.
We had left the access trail several miles behind us, and new snow obscured the trails of sheep and caribou. Often it is when we leave the shared path and enter the wide-open high country that the hunt begins.
“We’re in the country now,” Steve will say, and instead of a trail, we follow Winchester, our English setter, who chases the invisible tracks of birds.
I watched as Winchester ran with his nose slightly lifted. He circled in wide arcs at the edge of a scent cone that would draw him around again until he found the source.
There was sign of ptarmigan — fresh tracks we couldn’t follow because they took to the sky. As we approached the back of the valley, with the towering headwall now in front of us, it seemed we’d gone as far as we could go that day.
I waited to hear Steve’s plan. If I was the one to make plans, it would be to accept as the end the first insurmountable obstacle. A mountain trail may not end for me at a marker, but it often ends where my technical climbing abilities fall short.
Yet both Winchester and Steve had found a way to continue. They followed a creek that ran between rocks from a bench a few hundred feet above us and to the north.
The view beyond Steve’s back promised nothing but a chance at exhaustion. I was tired from hours of hiking, and my eyes were scraped raw from the wind and white around us. Above, it was only whiter and windier. The birds we hunted took refuge in those cold peaks and used as their best defense the very silence and color of the mountain.
Many times I had seen their white wings against white and felt humbled by the knowledge that no matter how cold and quiet a mountain is, it has life. The birds are its life, a secret knowledge a summit cannot tell you about, and what is called by the Scottish writer and hill-walker Nan Shepherd “The Living Mountain.”
But I was tired. Instead of looking ahead, I watched the ground at my feet. A few wind-blown patches revealed lichen scabbed to rocks like flaking paint in bright orange or minty green. The sight was a relief from the daunting white landscape. I pondered the coral-looking growth that clung to bare rock, rootless and capable of growing on a gravestone.
When I looked up, Winchester had stopped and was on point. Steve readied his gun just a few yards ahead of me. I searched the snow and rocks for birds. Even with three sets of eyes searching, the birds dared us to see them.
Just above the creek, we found a small lake where Winchester sat down to look over the country he had covered. We could have continued, but our day ended there. We rested by the milky teal water as the wind blew and broke against the thin layer of ice, making a haunting chirping sound. I held the two birds in my hands and struggled to find a prayer that was my own to express my gratitude.
Before I was hunter, I was a hiker, and my trails ended in logical places. They finished where they were said to end on signs and in guide books — a scenic clearing, an overlook, or at a particular lake or landmark. They each had a known distance, elevation gain and level of difficulty.
While hunting, there is no certainty in these things. The day’s journey may be shorter or longer. There may be ups and downs and back ups. The destination is not the end of the trail but a fulfillment of your purpose. You are there to hunt, and yet the day doesn’t end if you take a single bird, a limit of birds or no birds at all. Each day in the field has its own rhythm of urgency.
If you don’t find game, when and where to end is still an open question. It may be the time of day or the light you have left. If you are backpacking and plan to stay the night, you may need to find where you will set up camp.
A hunting trail doesn’t end anywhere in particular. Each day I spend afield, I learn to recognize the turning point — that moment when the pursuit of the day is over. It’s tough to know when to go over one last hill or when to leave it for another day.
It’s easier to decide when hunting with Winchester. At a certain point in the day, he stops and sits. He looks around, enjoying the view, I suppose, as we humans do. It’s often at a scenic place or an overlook. It isn’t that he is exhausted, although we may be.
Sitting beside him, I tend to agree that the first long break he takes is our turning point. No matter what we set out to do, along the way we’ve had an experience that brought us a deeper insight, a closer connection to what it means to be alive. We’ve learned enough to leave.
There is still farther we can go, and maybe we will next time.