Thanksgiving can flourish in less-than-desirable circumstances

This is about thanksgiving, but first it’s about hunting.

Some buddies and I finally scored some coveted “big bull” tags this year and we set off for the canyons of eastern Oregon with a lot of high expectations.

To make a long story short, I’ll just tell you that we ended up with five bulls, which was a very satisfying result for eight guys.

They were all special. Wolves were about – we saw several leaving an elk they’d appeared to have killed by driving her over a cliff.

Their tracks were everywhere.

The elk were clearly jittery, and it was unseasonably warm, to boot. They stayed hidden in the forests for most of the daylight hours.

I won’t go into all the details, but we were thankful for each elk we got.

But particularly so in one case.

We were into our fourth day out there and things were not going well. The elk we did see were not branch bulls (full sets of antlers) and they were few and far between. We were disappointed and getting a little frustrated.

One of our party, a veteran who has been hunting this particular area for decades, suggested mixing things up with a “pleasure” hike on Sunday afternoon to a ridge that he hadn’t been to for about 20 years. It was supposed to be a short, easy hike – a couple of miles – and we figured, hey, it would be a chance to see some different territory.

Five of us went, carrying our hunting packs and rifles because, well, that’s what good hunters do – always ready for anything, you know.

The sun was out and pretty soon we were stripped down to sweat-soaked T-shirts. It was a decent trail, but it went on and on – a lot farther than two miles. I’m a runner. I know my distances. Not to mention, we were at altitude.

Some recreational hikers came by us, down the trail. Some mountain bikers. Some cattle.

“Why did we pack these rifles?” somebody muttered through clenched teeth. It might have been me.

Finally we reached the top. Our veteran hunter, behind me, was gutting his way to the summit, but he was clearly suffering. Frankly, so was I.

Reaching the top of the saddle, we looked down into a deep canyon below, where we could see a white cabin tent set up – a nice outfitters camp. Great. What with the hikers, the bikers, the outfitters, we’d just hiked way more than two miles for – not pleasure, that was for clear.

Our veteran seemed to be feeling it worse than us all. He’d had a hard year coming into this trip. He’s an accomplished hunter, with many successes, but things weren’t going well for us right now. This was pretty miserable.

He worked his way up the final incline behind us, slowly trudging up to the bench we were standing on.

Reaching the top, he gazed at the expanse below as we all panted and wheezed. Then he croaked: “Hey, there’s a branch bull!”

“Huh?” All five of us crouched down and whipped out our binoculars.

Sure enough, a few hundred yards down, between us and the outfitters camp, here came a bull elk – in the hot sun, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Walking up the steep slope right toward us.

Our veteran grabbed his rifle and started working his way down the steep cliff, moving pretty fast for a guy his age. The rest of us spread out along the rim, trying to position ourselves to be ready for whatever this elk might decide to do.

It was quick and it was clean. We had a 5-by-5 bull. Just like that. In the middle of the day, in the seemingly unlikeliest of places, given all those circumstances.

Had to pack it out, of course – in the dark, but it was well worth the pain and misery.

Personally, I find it’s way too easy to forget to be thankful when things are good. Of course, that’s when we should be most thankful, but we aren’t.

But when I’ve got cotton mouth and my body is aching. When optimism is low – or nonexistent, when I’m hating life … we get a gift like that.

One of our guys put it succinctly as we looked at this beautiful bull that had literally walked up to us: “That was God.”

We were thankful.