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Winter may not be here officially for another couple of weeks, but for me it started Monday morning, bright and early. For me, it begins every year on the Monday after Thanksgiving. I always wake up on that particular morning knowing that even if there is a fresh mantle of tracking snow on the hills, it doesn't matter. Another big game hunting season is over.

I can't explain it exactly. It isn't a bad feeling. I certainly harbor no ill will toward the idea of winter coming on. It's just that somehow, with the rifle cleaned and stashed away and the rest of my hunting gear piled in the basement waiting for the same treatment, something important is over for another year. Yes, there will be more trips for ducks, perhaps, and there is sure to be at least one grand foray over east for pheasants, but for me, the time that Archibald MacLeish so aptly called "the human season" ends with the last of the days afield in pursuit of big game.

From early September on, I am preoccupied with being out there on the hunt. It's been that way since I was a kid. More than once in high school, I missed important information in class because I was gazing out the schoolroom window at snow-covered mountains and wishing I was up in them. In my years of college, military service and beyond when I had to be away from Montana during the fall, even in places where seasons didn't happen, the autumn months found me distracted, yearning to be loose in the hills. It won't be too long until I can claim 50 years on the hunt, and I still suffer from that ache to be out there on fine fall days.

For my family and friends who don't happen to hunt, the fall may be a disconcerting time when it comes to getting my full attention to the mundane matters of day-to-day life and work. When I walked into the office Monday morning, I imagined my co-workers looking up from their tasks to see me as if for the first time in weeks.

"Welcome back to the real world," they seemed to be thinking.

This is the week I reserve each year to sort out what it all means to me, one more time. One thing I know for sure is that there is a lot more to it than meat and antlers.

This year was a case in point. Despite the fact that it seemed as though everyone who went afield this year brought home an elk, I didn't fill the freezer. So I won't be one of those people who get to say "Yup, 20th straight year I got me a bull." Well, actually, it was determined a long time ago that I wouldn't be in that category. But that has little bearing on whether it was a good hunting season. It was another good year.

When I look back on the fall of 2005 in years to come, these are some of the things that will come to mind.

Silence. Most of my days on the hunt began with a whispered farewell to my hunting companions and a solitary uphill walk toward the high, timbered ridges in the darkness. Each step was guided by a shaky beam cast from a headlamp. Shadows danced in the faint glow and the only sounds were the rasp of my own breathing and the scuttle of stones and the snapping of twigs underfoot. And around me, in the black enveloping forest, I imagined a thousand wary eyes, watching me, and waiting quietly for the dawn.

And I will remember the way the long quiet of one chilly October morning was shattered by the rich, defiant bugle of a bull elk, only a few dozen yards away through the thick timber on the north side of a windswept ridge. My first inclination was that it was too real to be real. But the sound of hooves clattering on rocks and antlers rattling through the dense forest betrayed the presence of large animals close at hand. I will remember how I heard my heart pounding as the bull came into view while his female companions wisely stayed back in the timber, not affording me a clear shot. It was as if they had been forewarned that I had a cow tag for the area and the bull was safe.

I will savor the memory of long hours on the trail of a small group of elk moving from the grassy slopes toward a tangle of timber and brush on a steep north slope where they could wait out the day in safety, their route rarely following the path of least resistance, at least from a human point of view. I will remember the moment when I knew I had taken one too many steps on that path without carefully scanning ahead, when the bark of a cow elk and the crashing in the brush signaled that although I had found those elk, they had found me first. I dropped to my knees and strained to find an opening for a shot as the animals clambered to their feet and moved hastily on. There was no shot.

I will remember that feeling of being completely alone, several miles from the rig, and suddenly coming across boot prints in the snow and recognizing from the pattern of the soles that it happened to be one of my companions, Walleye, Casper, or Sparky.

In years to come, this will be the one that goes down in history as the "year of the blue grouse." I have never encountered so many of those chunky, noisy birds during hunting season as I did this fall. On one or two occasions, the explosion of a blue grouse from a nearby tree or from the snow at my feet was so startling that I had to compose myself and check for whiplash after the bird had disappeared in its long glide downslope.

There will be the memory of lunch, leaning back in the sun against the bole of an old monarch of a ponderosa pine high on a slope with a commanding view of the nearby drainages, and the mountain ranges beckoning across the broad valley floor and beyond. Seen from a vantage point like that, the world beyond does not seem to be nearly as chaotic or dangerous a place as it seems back down here in the world of us humans.

Of course there is also the good feeling that comes at the end of a long day, trudging along again in darkness, but this time back to camp or to the rig, tired, eager to hear the stories from my friends and tell my own. One evening last week, just as I was able to discern the lights of camp, the starry night was filled with the mournful howl of wolves somewhere out there in the valley below. I stopped in my tracks to listen until those wild voices faded away.

The autumn chase is over now. I, for one, am ready for whatever lies ahead.

Greg Tollefson is a freelance Missoula writer whose column appears each week in Outdoors. He can be reached at gtollefson@montana.com.

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