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Meeting in the Middle at Slippery Ann

By Emily Standley

Autumn is by far my favorite season. I’m a sucker for changing leaves, apple cider, flannel shirts, and Halloween decorations. All year I look forward to having an excuse to turn up the thermostat and cook comfort food. And, I will unashamedly admit that my husband and I love participating in all the “cutesy” fall couple activities. We carve dynamic duo jack-o-lanterns, pick apples, seek out corn mazes, and last weekend, we stayed up until 3:00 am baking autumn-themed sugar cookies. But there’s one fall tradition we don’t carry out together.

For a lot of folks in this part of the world (including my husband), autumn’s most exciting prospect is the start of hunting season. I’m not a hunter though, not necessarily because I don’t want to be, but more so because I’ve never made much of an effort. I haven’t ever made time for taking a hunters’ education course, I’m not keen on wandering around outside in the cold, and I am definitely not an early morning person. Basically, hunting and I will probably never be a good fit for each other. This difference between my husband and I is easily spotted in our everyday lives. Driving down the highway, he’ll take care to point out every speck in the distance that happens to resemble a deer, elk, or antelope. Meanwhile, I have a hard time using a set of binoculars properly. As strange as it may sound, my interest in big game is typically something along the lines of, If I’ve seen one, I’ve seen them all.

I’ve always felt a little guilty about being so apathetic towards Logan’s declarations of wildlife on the horizon, and the fact that I’ve never joined him on a hunting excursion, because at 5:30 in the morning I’m too groggy to even form a complete sentence. So this year, I made it a priority for us to find some middle ground by visiting the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area just north of the river. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time with my husband, where he could enjoy ooh-ing and ah-ing over big game, while I enjoyed the cozy warmth and heated seats of our Subaru.

I’m a “be prepared” kind of person, so before we headed up to Slippery Ann, we packed warm clothes, cameras, binoculars, snacks, and anything else we had a 1 in 100 chance of needing. We also made sure to go on a weekday, to hopefully avoid too much traffic (watching the elk is a popular adventure for lots of families!). Even still, we were not prepared. Not prepared for the incredible show we witnessed.

Since moving to Lewistown, I’ve heard all kinds of praise for watching the rut at Slippery Ann. Folks from multiple counties, and varied walks of life, told me the experience was incredible, unique, fantastic, amazing! Until we actually visited for ourselves, I had sort of shrugged off the hype, thinking people had built it all up way beyond what was deserved. But I was happily wrong.

After work, Logan came home to the car running, the dogs fed, and everything ready to go. I wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to witness the supposed splendor of the elk. On the way up, I kept looking over at my husband, and seeing the anticipation in his eyes, I remembered how only a couple weeks before, he had told me that even with all his years of hunting, he had never heard an elk bugle. I was ecstatic he might finally have that opportunity, but incredibly nervous that we would arrive only to find nothing. What if we came at the wrong time? On the wrong day? What if this whole deal was sort of a hit-or-miss excursion?

Almost immediately after passing the border sign for Slippery Ann, we came across a harem and their bull, gathered just off the side of the dirt road. Wow! I thought. How lucky are we?! As we stepped out of the car, cameras in hand, I heard a faint bugle further east in the bottoms. I turned excitedly to Logan and said, “Did you hear that?” He disappointedly said no. I solemnly hoped he would have another chance, worried he might not find what he was looking for. But not more than thirty seconds later, another cry rang out, followed by another, and another, eventually convincing the bull in front of us to show off his bugle too. I saw my husband’s eyes begin to gleam, and I found myself captivated as well. Was this the way my husband feels when he hikes through the foothills and spies one of these magnificent creatures? Probably not quite. But I began to understand his fascination with big game, and together we continued to travel along the road, keeping an eye out for new harems (not that we had to look very hard; they really are easy to view), striving to get the perfect picture, and watching drama unfold.

Just down the road from the first group of elk, we came upon four or five different harems, all guarded by different bulls. It was like watching a soap opera through binoculars. There were a couple of lone bulls on the outskirts, trying to finagle their way into a group. There was a young one, who kept running back and forth from his harem to a foreign one, as if he was giving himself a pep talk, trying to build up confidence to infiltrate. We witnessed betrayal. A cow made a dash for the neighboring harem, which led to a clashing of antlers that cracked loudly in the dimming light. There was always something to watch. Always something to hear. Competitive bugles throughout the valley served as the soundtrack for this intriguing play. Orange and yellow cottonwoods paired with violet sunset light served as the backdrop. We watched the actors until the only spotlight left was the moon.

Upon leaving, I was wishing for an encore. I’m disappointed that, like autumn in Montana, the viewing window at Slippery Ann lasts only for a short time, but I’m excited about our new fall tradition. Turns out, I can be captivated by big game too. And while I’ll probably never be an avid hunter, maybe this excursion will give me the strength to pull myself out of bed at o’dark-thirty one Saturday to join Logan on a different kind of adventure, just so I can catch that gleam in his eyes once more.