When my son Max realized that going elk hunting with me was unlikely to involve any actual elk, his attention wandered.
So did his feet.
This epiphany happened about half an hour after we set out, although I concede this estimate lacks precision.
I didn’t keep a time log or anything.
Possibly as many as 45 minutes elapsed before Max, who’s 8, stopped shadowing me and began to veer off the game trail I was trying to discern among the camouflage of tawny grass and desiccated balsamroot leaves.
(The latter foliage, by the way, is the bane of any hunter. Balsamroot leaves grow about a foot long and if you mistakenly step on one of the dead husks it makes more racket than a pair of castanets tossed down a flight of wooden stairs. This is the sort of cacophony no elk within half a mile could fail to heed.)
When I noticed that Max was no longer so near that I could hear the soft fabric swish of his coat as he swung his arms, I looked back and beckoned him, in a stage whisper, to come closer.
“Did you see an elk?” Max asked, not in a stage whisper but in his regular voice, which can outdecibel a lot of competitors.
Crunched balsamroot leaves, for instance.
His query had a quality of certainty about it — as though finally, after what probably seemed to him an interminable period of aimless hiking, we had come across our intended quarry and the shooting and associated excitement would soon commence.
I couldn’t bear to give Max the real, Vegas-level odds. We had quite a lot of ground still to cover, and if there’s anything more vital than a supply of fun-sized candy bars to keep an 8-year-old going in rough country, then it must surely be the hope that something dramatic will ensue.
But I did concede that it was possible we wouldn’t see any elk.
He didn’t act disappointed, exactly.
But he no longer seemed particularly invested in the endeavor.
It was one of those moments, fraught with potential peril, that every parent recognizes and fears, wondering whether the child’s patience — as unpredictable as certain rare and unstable elements — has come up empty.
Sometimes the child at this point demonstrates an aptitude for stubbornness that would impress an overloaded mule.
This wasn’t one of those cases.
I told Max that even if we didn’t happen across any elk we would no doubt see something interesting there on the steep slopes overlooking Brownlee Reservoir.
And soon enough we did.
By way of avoiding a particularly dense patch of balsamroot I led us toward a massive gnarled juniper whose branches, many of them dead, sprawled over the ground, rather like a nest of gray snakes.
Max, like many young readers who have discovered the joy of fiction, has developed an affinity for tales of fantasy. He quickly dubbed this juniper the “tree of evil.”
It did have the spooky quality common to the species — in particular those that, like this tree, have at least as much deadwood as live.
We rested for 10 minutes or so in the juniper’s ample shade — the morning was already unusually mild for November, and the air strangely still for a typically gusty place — and then resumed our climb up the hill.
Like almost every hill in this part of eastern Baker County, this one is pitched at the sort of angle that delights extreme skiers.
But the juniper, evil or no, seemed to have stimulated Max’s interest in natural phenomena, and I sensed that so long as the Milky Ways held out we’d be fine.
They did. And we were.
To be sure, Max’s appetite for exploring outdoors needs only the barest amount of whetting.
He can be waylaid by a golf-ball-size stone that I wouldn’t even notice unless I tripped on a fin of limestone, barely jutting above the bunchgrass like a shark’s dorsal, and ended up seeing the rock on its own level, so to speak.
During his meanderings Max exclaimed over, among much else, the husk of a yellowjacket nest wedged into what looked like the burrow of a portly ground squirrel or a diminutive badger, a coil of rusty barbed wire, and a shard of white plastic that I told him came from a mining claim marker.
We waded through a hip-high field of rabbitbrush (shoulder-high, from Max’s perspective), bypassed turrets of limestone and gingerly tiptoed across a shaly slope that was about as solid to walk on as marbles.
Max slipped once and announced that he wouldn’t be able to climb back to where I was precariously standing.
So I shuffled down to him, raising a dust cloud around my feet much like the character Pig Pen in “Peanuts” (the past couple dry weeks have sapped the top layer of soil of the copious moisture from earlier this fall).
I told him to use my back as a sort of brace, and we tentatively made our way to the slightly firmer footing of a wider game trail. Max said the television survival star Bear Grylls, one of his current heroes, recommends the shuffling strides as the fastest way down a precipitous slope. I took this as a compliment.
Just before we got back to the side-by-side we saw four bighorn sheep — a fine ram and his harem of three ewes — clambering across a rockslide.
I told Max that I don’t have a tag for one of those and Max, an inveterate follower of rules, nodded with a serious look on his face, although it seemed to me he yearned for me to do something with my rifle besides keeping it slung over my shoulder.
The sheep served as a reasonable substitute for elk. I thought it a successful hunt, in any case.
Max, as I expected he would, proved capable of negotiating the torturous terrain with aplomb. There were no significant injuries, and no tears were shed.
And his fascination with the minutiae of nature reminded me that just being outdoors on a pleasant autumn day is an experience to be savored, whether or not it puts meat on the table.