The bullet tore through the silence of the mountains like the detonation of rolling thunder. It called out to itself and answered like a skipping record, eventually fading away, as if the explosion happened between two facing mirrors, the memory of it retreated into infinity.
The hunter breathed a sigh of relief. The sheep she’d been stalking for hours lay dead. The single shot broke its neck; it was a quick death with no suffering.
Later, when I looked at the footage I captured of the kill, I am amazed at the appearance of life to death and back to life again, as I jog the moment back and forth, one frame at a time. As I tapped the frame forward key, frame by frame, from the moment the hunter pulled her trigger, I can see the vapor trail of the bullet frozen in time and space. The bullet travelled only several hundred yards to its destination, the otherwise unaware Dall Sheep standing at an edge that sharply divided grass from rocks.
A single frame backward, life. A frame forward, death. The vapor trail in between the two gave me, maybe, a glimpse of one of God’s vantage points. Though it feels almost blasphemy and arrogance to suggest it, may God forgive me. But I do wonder. Does God, being omnipresent and without obligation to time and space, ever take a “moment” to frame forward and back, so to speak, and study His creation?
Perhaps the gunshot sound that reflected itself into infinity, (or oblivion if you’re a glass-half-empty sort of person) was a reminder that time only marches on for us. There is no stopping it. Nobody can cheat it, there are no buttons on life’s interface. We only go forward. We can only go … “on”, as it were, which was where we headed eventually.
I was filming a guide and hunter in the Brooks Range of Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. The final push to find this ram began at 9am that day. It was 8:30pm when the sheep lay down for the last time. Those eleven and a half hours included several thousands of feet elevation changes, stream crossings, side-hilling along loose slag (piles of tons of broken fragments of rocks) on trails cut into the edges of mountains by herds of migrating caribou and crawling on hands and knees up craggy chutes of falling rocks. I realized I was crawling without bending over up the steep mountain face. My pack chained me to the earth with an earnest commitment to gravity. Each step was a chore.
Getting to a prey animal is not easy. They react to anything that might prove their lowly position on the food chain. We whispered, and walked softly, wincing every time a rock popped loose underfoot and dominoed down the slope. Stop, look through the binoculars, go higher, stop, look, go lower and across, stop…. It went on like that for several hours until finally the beginning of the end. “I see him”. After that, there was little stopping until we were at the top of the cliff at eye-level and 800 yards away from the only likely legal ram within miles in every direction. Too far to shoot.
A watched pot, as they say, never boils. Apparently the same principle predicts that a watched ram will never rise. I was on one ridge. Our target was dozing on the next one. My ridge had crumbling rocks teetering on a steep angle. The sheep’s ridge had a grassy, flat ledge, called a “bench” that was backed like an amphitheater, by a huge rock wall.
If I pause that frame, it’s easy to think the sheep was the lucky one. Ignorance, of course is indeed bliss and luck has a way of spiraling down the drain. Once it lifted the heavy curled horns and stood up to feed, we began to move. Our hunter mentioned the likeness to Spider Man, as we clung to the cliff face, stepping carefully on sheep trail to move closer to where the ram might feed. As we closed the 800 yard gap, I thought, “no way. Spider Man doesn’t have 30lbs of junk on his back that keeps yawing toward the 300’ drop below my feet. My senses are tuned to their limits.
I heard my heart beat in my ears. The falling slag that complained its way down the slope with every step sounded almost like broken glass, or porcelain. Wind slinked around my face, then reappeared on the other side of my head. Hot sweat in my shirt ran cold as the air found its way into my coat. A mosquito buzzed in my ear, (I thought to myself, “seriously??? Up here too???”) I touched the cold rock that fit together like a huge gray Lego set. I fiddled with a piece, it slipped out, leaving a hole of the exact size and shape. Someone shifted their weight releasing more rocks, and I thought, “That’s what slag sounds like, I’m standing on a big pile of drab Lego’s.” I thought of my kids pawing through their Legos. “Time to go”. The whispered words hang there. A frozen frame that for all I know is still sitting there. The whispers endlessly bouncing back and forth forever.
I later asked the guide how many people he would guess have stood in that exact spot on the mountain. He had no way of knowing, but did a quick history lesson on human occupation and cultures there and wagered, “less than ten”.
We had one last stretch to make. The entire path to the next hidden ridge that divided us from the ram was a 100-yard straight line that cut through a slide of more slag that disappeared below. Every step loosed a wave of broken rocks, each fragment tapping another which had a cumulative effect similar to the deafening roar made by the millions of bubbles in sea foam as the ocean expires on the shore.
Before I knew it, I had the camera set and hit the red button, the hunter peered through her scope, her gun resting on packed down jackets and packs, and the guide whispered in his excited raspy voice, “Now. Hit him right in the chest…”
The bullet tore through the silence of the mountains like the detonation of rolling thunder.
We stood near the beautiful white sheep and set up for the typical poses you see in hunting magazines. And, to quote Jimmy Buffett, “that’s when we first saw the bear”.
He was a grizzly. A big one. Sitting on a rock about 200 yards below us. It’s hard to know if he even knew we were there, but he would have soon enough as the wind blew from us to him. It was nature’s can-on-a-string and would take our dead sheep scent straight to the opportunistic carnivore. He was easier to chase off than I would think. But the chase itself was adrenaline filled. I kept asking myself, “can this get any harder?” We yelled, and threw rocks and fired the gun in his direction until he finally, panting, ran off.
The sun was going down, and by 11pm the animal was skinned and butchered. The gut pile stank. The meat, cape (another way of saying “hide”) and horns was packed in special bags and loaded into packs and as the sun finally disappeared and the mountain phased into its coldest hours, we set out for our 7 hour journey through the darkness back to camp. That is an entire other story though, and I’ll probably write it up at some future date.
I am not a hunter. I’m a story-teller. I’m a filmmaker and merely try to observe the world as actively as possible. Sometimes that’s turned into words, and other times it’s with images. Something I can’t shake from this experience is the elasticity of time.
“The mountain has a way…” I’ve heard that sentence ended many different ways. It has a way of bending time. Maybe that’s where God sits as he takes (or makes?) a moment to witness His own doings. The bends and curves and elasticity of time, perhaps, are where we might meet Him. Sometimes it’s in the blink of an eye at light speed. Other times it’s a billion lingering blinks, the bursting of sea foam bubbles – one at a time, the vapor trail of a bullet hanging like the last dry, red leaf of a tree in autumn; just one frame away from falling to its destiny. Whether I’m stuck in rush hour traffic or sitting on a ledge where fewer than ten people may have ever been, it’s the frames that matter most.
One at a time, or 24 at a time… life to death… then back to life again.