By: Dan Solsman
I remember the jolt of reality on this day as clearly as one might remember an earthquake shaking the foundation of their house. I was sitting at the kitchen table in mid-February on my 28th birthday. I had my two-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son sitting on my lap, and I had just eaten an entire tray of pizza. As my wife and a few friends sang happy birthday to me over those candles, I might has well have been on a different planet mentally. All I could feel was guilt. At 28 I should’ve been at the physical peak of my life, and instead, I was disgusted by myself. I was 240 pounds, hadn’t worked out in months, and had become a habitual excuse maker for my lackadaisical habits. I realized at that moment, I was sliding headfirst and mouth open into being the dad who couldn’t keep up with his children in his mid-30s. As someone who grew up hearing stories of his WWII hero grandfather dying of a heart attack in his mid-fifties, I was panic stricken. I laid in bed that night staring at the ceiling, having a mid-life crisis at 28.
The following morning at work is when the spark I desperately needed found the bed of tinder it was looking for. I was leafing through the pages of a popular hunting magazine when I happened upon a story of a backcountry elk hunt. I was fascinated. Average Joes like me going out on their own into wild places and bringing back an 800-pound animal on their backs. They wrote of the hunt like conquering warriors returning from a great victory. I had always read stories like this, but none of them ever seemed to resonate with a Pennsylvania boy who had never hunted anything but whitetails from a blind. But here I was, suddenly a recent transplant to the state of Idaho, Living in the land of these awesome creatures. “why not me?’ I thought to myself. I prepared to make a list of all the reasons… Firstly, you’re far too out of shape. After that, I couldn’t seem to find anything to justify why I couldn’t make this dream a reality. I was a good shot with a rifle and a bow. There is more than enough access to public land here. Surely, I could scrape enough gear together before the fall, and that’s how it happened.
From that moment going forward, I was consumed by the idea. I scoured the internet for every nugget of information I could find about DIY elk hunting. I started hatching plans and changing them daily. I combed Craigslist, eBay, forums, and anywhere that sold used or cheap gear, but most importantly, I started working out again. This time I wasn’t forcing myself. I worked tirelessly, and with conviction. I was motivated. I had purpose. I got up early to run every morning and lifted weights at night. I ran a 5k for charity and didn’t die. A few months later I found a half marathon trail race that started practically out my back door and forced myself to register for it. After that, a sprint triathlon. I was consumed by being fit enough to pull this off, and the fact that I had no idea what to expect fueled me even more. Looking to take advantage of every possible chance of success, I put in for a limited rifle bull tag in the spring. In early July, the letter showed up in my mail box. Ready or not, I was going elk hunting in October.
That summer as the pounds melted away from my midsection, and the miles started rolling past easily under foot I had another realization. If I was going to improve this one aspect of my life so drastically, why not pursue other dreams I had convinced myself I was unworthy of for too long. Fresh out of excuses, and in the best shape of my life, I walked into the recruiter’s office that summer and signed my name on the dotted line. Things were taking shape. My life as a whole was gaining momentum. The Calendar flipped toward opening day, and I was ready.
The first week of October found me at nine thousand feet in elevation. Three miles from my truck, three hundred miles from home, and in the middle of an experience so surreal for me I couldn’t believe it was my own life. It was driving sleet sideways in the Lemhi range as I tried to glass for bulls that morning. I hadn’t seen an elk in two days. For the past two nights, a shallow cave in the on the north face of an unforgiving hill had been my home. I was grossly under equipped for the weather, and starting to wonder what in the hell I had gotten myself into. I was being tested, just as I was sure would happen, but I knew even then someone would have to drag me off of that mountain before I quit.
The following morning the weather broke, finally. The sky was clear blue, the air crisp and cold. I had relocated to a new area the night before, and shortly after daylight that proved to be the right decision. The elk appeared in the canyon below me. Like ants, they marched single file up the rim of the opposite side. Realization soon set in that these elk were headed to bed somewhere well out of my reach with the rifle, so it was time to act. I dropped my pack and started on a dead run through the timber. As I crashed through a dark creek bottom about half a mile into the chase, a bugle erupted. The next few frenzied moments swept past me in a blur. Yet, in hindsight, I can see through them clearly enough to pluck out small details from the fog. The sound of rolling rocks giving away his position. A split second of branched antlers through the pines, and just enough of that golden brown hide behind the front shoulder to settle my sights on.
That next instant, standing over that five point bull with hands still shaking, is when a newly found aspect of my personality cemented itself into place. A drive I never knew existed somehow was revealed. Every practice adopted in the anticipation of this hunt has stuck in my life without divergence or hesitation. Never could I have anticipated the impact this short period would have. Still warm at my feet that morning laid the end result of a plan I had put together. A goal accomplished, that once appeared so monumental it was difficult to conceive. This hunt and all of the hunts since then have transcended into blueprints for overcoming adversity and challenges in life. Grinding through pack-outs, enduring miserable conditions, each has had their own unique teaching moment. I reflect upon them often, gleaning life lessons from trial and error, successes, and failures, over and over again. As it turns out this hunt was the catalyst for change in my life, and it could not have been any more unexpected, or any more perfect.
Be sure to follow Dan and the Provider Life story on IG: @dansolsman