The wolves traveled down the valley, three in a row. Cresting the slight rise that brought the ranch into view, they scented the elk grazing just outside of our back fence. Their pace picked up, accelerated into a run, snow spraying as they descended on the small herd. Two above, one below, they cornered an old cow elk between fence and a down tree, latching onto her hind end. Blood flowed red across the snow as the elk fled for her life, the canines still on her.
The chase went across the pasture, towards the corrals, flying hooves and twelve big paws digging a furrow in the snow, scarlet stains along the furrow’s edge, a clump of hair, a red chunk of hide. The elk ran into the corrals, into a corner. The wolves faced her, her hooves striking. But she was done, and the great canines brought her down, inside of the arena, her body stretched out along the fence.
Which is where I saw her the next morning. Standing at the sink, clearing up the breakfast dishes, I looked out towards the brightening day to see a dark mound in the arena, a body. Before going out, I counted the horses, wanting to be prepared for the loss of one of our equine friends. But it was an elk, another kind of friend. She lay with her head stretched out, face untouched, eyes clear and staring. Her skin was warm and supple, as if life still clung to the carcass. But it was death, and I shuddered. A breeze caught a loose bit of her hair, the fluttering tuft the only motion in the chill of the winter morning, the sighing of the trees the only sound.
The scene was eerily similar to last year, when wolves brought down an elk even closer to the small cabin where I live. The emotions the same. In this death is life; in this death is the survival of wolf, coyote, fox, eagle, raven, and all the other creatures that would tear muscle and guts from the elk. Yet, there she lay, with liquid eyes, hooves strong and unbroken, the presence of life’s last warmth lingering. Hours earlier, she’d been pawing snow away from the grass that sustained her own existence. The feelings that arise in the face of this dance, the predator-prey cycle that is vibrant and violent all at once, lie outside of words.
We knew what needed to be done, having gone through this last year. Dave fired up the bulldozer, wrapped a heavy chain around her neck and drove off. She bumped and bobbled behind the heavy machine, her back hoof carving a groove in the packed snow, her bleeding body painting red down the road. She was left at the same place as the carcass of last year, just beyond the big dead lodgepole pine that I called the Writing Tree, the place I stood and jotted thoughts and observations in my small black notebook.
We went down to the carcass in the afternoon. Looking at the mass of hide, flesh, guts, and bone, I wondered if last year’s experience could be repeated. As it turned out, the answer was no. The story of this carcass was its own tale, a different experience altogether.
…Continued Next Blog…