Its a warm day in a spring beset by snow. A day when carrion beetles proceed about their work with renewed vigor, and the ticks begin to stir. A day when spring greens grow another inch up through last year’s debris. A day of birth and death.
The winter snow is mostly gone down low, but persists in the shade and as drifts on lee slopes. A rotten ice mantles ponds and lakes. I walk among leafless aspens and willows, and noisy chickadees. The elk have fared the winter well and few have died. Deprived of carrion, the coyotes hunt for mice and ravens hunt for insects and spiders.
I reach the outer point of my circuit, above the confluence of the Lamar and Yellowstone Rivers, and above a small lake. I relish the beauty and solitude of the day while eating lunch in a sheltered nook, on the lee side of a boulder left by the receding glaciers. It is a small private space shared only with two startled ground squirrels. The world moves and shakes while I repose in this gentler place.
I repack and leave my small hollow that crowds the horizon, emerging on the edge of a scarp that overlooks the small lake. A group of elk emerges from the timber and stops by the lake shore. The lead cow edges tentatively forward, nose down, and steps out on the ice. My instinct is to yell out a warning, but I stop, aware of the distance and futility. The portent of death leaves me light headed. I watch as if events were a scripted inevitable tragedy.
The ice is pocked and rimmed by dark purplish patches where it is thin and rotten. Faint trails speak of winter-long transit by elk. But the world changes…and ice melts. The lead cow continues slowly on, followed hesitantly by nine other elk – cows with last year’s calves.
All of the animals are on the lake and moving slowly forward when I am startled by the drop of two elk through the ice. The remaining elk scatter and run, some returning to the shore they had left, the remainder farther out onto the lake. But none of these reach the farther shore. Three more drop through the ice, in two pockets. The few elk that returned to the near shore pause and look back at their recent companions, thrashing in the ice and water, and leave. Nothing remains for me but to watch the elk futilely lunging up onto the ice and falling back, into the slurry of ice and water that will be their grave. I briefly consider trying to help them, but see no possibilities. Within 15 minutes they have stopped lunging and just keep their heads above water. A coyote trots out onto the ice and makes a circuit, visiting each stranded elk. He views them with a business-like eye, and then proceeds to the opposite shore, stops, sits down, and waits. A raven croaks in the distance. I mark on the map five more carcasses to augment my sparse count.
I continue on and surmount the scarp of the lake basin, starting out across a broad bench. Snow from recent storms covers the ground, like white shadow. Ahead lays a mire. Every year I find the remains of at least one hapless elk or bison that bogged and died in a small murky pool and run-off channel. Bones are piled around the edge and jut out from layers of peat exposed by the death-throws of trapped animals. The place is a boon to bears, coyotes, and human hunters of elk antlers.
I gain my first view of the mire and see a coyote and raven crouched and attentive. The twin angels of death slink away as I approach, the raven giving vent to raucous complaint at a safe distance. I walk up on a cow elk mired in a runoff channel that I can easily jump. Although the scavengers have eaten a large portion of the flesh exposed on her neck, they have only begun their work…and her eyes are still intact. I crouch down to look at her teeth, to judge her condition at time of death. I am electrified when she suddenly exhales. I cut her throat and leave, pausing to check a nearby pool. I find myself looking into the eyes of a spike bull whose head is submerged only a few inches below
the water. I push away the mat of hair that floats on the pool. The bull mired and drowned. Its’ neck is outstretched, its’ nose thrust towards the elusive air, an infinity away. I curse God and leave the mire.
The remainder of my route crosses benches and slopes alive with elk, ravens, and chickadees, all pursuing life and fleeing death…
I find several mats of hair and rumen – less poignant testimonials to death. But as I look up from the few remains of what once must have been a yearling elk, I see in the waning light a coyote slink through the sagebrush in that distinctive way that betokens nearby carrion. Its’ presence confirms my suspicions roused by raven chatter over a nearby ridge.
I walk slowly toward the rise, watching and listening to the ravens, judging where they rise and fall, and how they congregate. Most of them are apparently on the ground, concentrated, which suggests that a bear is not yet feeding on the as yet unseen carcass. I pass the last break of ground and rouse up a heavy squawking cloud of ravens from some inert flesh. It turns out to be a yearling elk, dead within the last 12 hours. Already its’ entrails are spread over the ground, and most of the meat is gone from the fleshy areas of its’ upper legs and hind quarters. Its’ eyes were probably pecked out within hours of, if not before, its death. The missing eyes are a conclusive statement of death, allowing me detachment from a fellow creature. Its’ neck is arched back in the characteristic posture of death by starvation and disease, a diagnosis confirmed by its’ bloody gelatinous bone marrow.
As daylight fades, I collect my data and leave, pondering the absurdity of a loving God, and curse Him again, for good measure, just in case He does exist.