The Ticking Clock of Sand Hill Cranes
I almost missed it. The entire elk rut. It would have been the first time in three decades.
No matter where I lived or was stationed, I have always sought those sheltered places where elk felt secure enough to vent. Cows to chide their calves and bulls to cough their discontent and desire. It is essential for me to live within a stone’s-throw of country that affords that type of wilderness.
Most of those seasons have been spent here in the Hills guiding or hunting. Although there was a pair of years coaching on the borders of Glacier Park. South Dakota elk were the most musical by far. Montana bulls had learned that too much noise brought lion, wolf, and grizzly so they did much of their muttering under their breath. Thirty years ago, the elk of the Black Hills sang like a chorus. You never heard such a lusty bunch of baritones in your life. But then their songs brought the lions and wolves here too. Are bears that far behind?
But this fall I had to cut back on my bookings. Building a house, family obligations, and things far more important than hunting had won my time away from the forest. Only one new hunter and a handful of old friends who have been out so often that they guided themselves. I had gotten bloody, loaded a few bulls, deer, and antelope, but never gone deep enough into the woods to hear the music. I had one tag for myself but had never even bothered to unpack a rifle or dig out any shells before the season ended. But that all changed on Friday.
I was tending chores on the prairie‘s edge when I got the text message from Mark, “Hey Bob, we have a wounded bull, can you bring out your dog?”
I asked for their location and it was in an area I had never hunted, which is so rare in itself that I tossed down my tools and fueled up my truck for the long trip into the timber. An hour later I was with the hunters, a familiar father and son who had made contact with the fall herd, gotten a shot, but not yet confirmed a kill.
This late in the season, the elk congregate for one huge party awaiting the last of the cows to come into season. In September they break up into smaller bands, but by the end of October they are in one noisy mess of bulls, calves, and cows all calling and on edge. You are either in them or travel for miles and days without seeing or hearing a thing.
Angus, the invisible dog, put his nose to the ground and found the first blood. It was a puddle the size of my hand but the stream seemed to weaken almost immediately. I had the hunters circle far ahead to avoid muddling the trail and we proceeded to follow a track that led through thick cover.
We worked for half an hour. Just when I thought he had lost the scent, I would see a trace of blood in the leaves and fallen pine needles to confirm we were still in business. We crossed two old logging trails and at the second his head came up and there was no more blood to follow. We cast back and forth in search. We discovered the bones of another elk from seasons past but that day’s bull had taken the hit and walked away. There were far too many other fresh elk trails to single out the one wounded that morning.
Angus had just let me know he was done when we heard the bugle that saved my thirty-year streak. Several other bulls began to answer and the cows chirped in to try and quiet them down.
That first call was like the voice of a long lost friend from your high school class reunion. It reminded me of dozens of seasons crouched in the forest grinning with hunting family as we imagined the bulls awaiting at the ends of their own musical rainbows. For the next hour the big dog and I sat down to listen to the show and reminisced.
The sand hill cranes flew in low and circled overhead adding in their own calls to the festivities and for a moment I forgot it all. The other hunters, work, house building, all lost focus as I whistled back my own line that I might take part in the music.
For the first time I heard the cranes as a ticking clock. Their call has none of the musical lilt of song birds or turkey. It is rather a metronome of life ticking by. A reminder for us all to take time to listen to the music and join in.