Jake Mosher, a full-time nature photographer, avid hunter and frequent contributor to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine, recently won a World Natural Photography Award for best landscape image (see photo above).
Mosher took the photo in June of 2021 after climbing to the summit of Wyoming’s Table Mountain overlooking Grand Teton Peak. In his words, “I was treated to one of the most spectacular displays of airglow that I’ve ever seen – similar to the aurora and created by photo-charged particles but spanning much of the horizon.”
Below is Mosher’s article as it appeared in the July-August 2022 issue of Bugle magazine.
Beyond the Ridge
Story and photos by Jake Mosher
During the last moments before sleep took me, I saw a
collage of reflected flowers, beams of light streaming
over mountains deep in shadow and a single-file
line of elk dropping over a ridge. Beyond it, if I could
follow, I was sure lay something wonderful.
June 17, 2021, 4:05 p.m.
Teton Canyon, Alta, Wyoming. Table Mountain trailhead, 6,980 feet elevation.
Most elk hunters can accurately judge the weight of their pack to within a couple of pounds. There’s a fine line between moderately uncomfortable and something that’s going to get miserable in a hurry. I’m one 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade into the red zone, but it’s in the bottom on my pack, buried beneath what I estimate is exactly 60 more pounds of camping gear, clothes and camera equipment that I don’t want to rearrange. I’ve gone about 100 steps across level ground in the parking lot, the last flat terrain that I’ll see for a long time, and I feel okay. But damn that Gatorade.
I’m still thinking about whether it’s worth unpacking everything when I hear a woman’s voice.
“You can’t go up that way,” she says.
I look at the battered Forest Service sign before me and then at the
woman who seems genuinely concerned.
“Not recommended,” I say, tapping the words on the sign with one of my trekking poles.
“Snowshoes?” she asks, looking at the pair strapped to the outside of my pack. It’s 74 degrees at the trailhead with mourning cloak butterflies gliding through air that carries the scent of fresh leaves. “Are you spending the night up there or something?”
“Or something,” I reply.
“That’s crazy,” she says.
I lean into the mountain and take my first steps up. An adventure, I think, but not crazy. And then, as I often do when climbing a steep grade, I let my mind go somewhere else, realizing that today’s excursion began exactly 26 years ago to the day. I was near the Continental Divide north of Butte, Montana, in the time between dark and dawn, between spring and summer, between a young man who had no inkling of what he wanted out of life and someone with the spark of a dream. I flicked the windshield wipers of the Chevy Luv pickup, and as they cleared slush from the glass saw the silhouettes of large animals in snowy sage. Elk. The first wild elk
I’d ever seen. I stopped and rolled down my window, oblivious to the snow coming in, staring hard, wishing for more light.
A moment later I heard wind pouring down the hidden mountain behind the elk, and then they
vanished in billowing clouds of fog and sleet. For two seconds, I lost sight of them. When the wind died, I saw only sage. How could something so large disappear so quickly and so completely?
I didn’t know any more about hunting elk than I did about felling lodgepole pines on my first day of work that summer on a logging crew. But I couldn’t get the vision of those animals—here one second and gone the next—out of my head. Wrapped up in that snapshot image was a vague sense that I’d hit on some clue to the very essence of my existence.
Then in September, on a mountain less than two miles from where I’d seen that small group of cows, an arrow left the string of my bow and crossed a short span of steep sage hillside. Five minutes later, with sun painting the slope in golden fall light, I sat beside a dead elk whose eyes remained open. One of them held the miniature reflection of a nearby lupine—two
withered, blue blossoms clinging to a season that I could feel slipping further away by the minute. In a profound silence so pervasive that I wondered if there was another living thing on Earth, I crossed the threshold from someone who had wanted to kill an elk to someone who had done it.
A simultaneous sense of both accomplishment and disbelief washed over me. Later, as blood
dried to my hands and my back ached from a pack foolishly overloaded, came the more haunting feeling that I was on the edge of something far larger. During the last moments before sleep took me late that night, I saw a collage of reflected flowers, beams of light streaming over mountains deep in shadow and a single-file line of elk dropping over a ridge. Beyond it, if I could follow, I knew lay something wonderful.
June 17, 2021, 5:40 p.m. Bridger-Teton National Forest, 8,133 feet elevation.
I’d happily trade much of what I’ve learned about elk hunting for the legs that I had 25 years ago. I’ve got the contents of my pack scattered around me on the ground, spread out from “hell to breakfast” as my elk hunting friends from Butte like to say. I’ve made a terrible mess of whatever organization there was to my load, but that Gatorade is getting drained.
Below me, I can see the tops of firs along the trail I’ve been climbing, delicate new growth shining sea-green in an ocean of heat waves. Farther out, through holes in the forest, distant mountains blur on the horizon, and though my destination lies much closer I can’t help wondering what that far-off country holds.
During my formative years of elk hunting, I was guided by the often-unfounded conviction that the farther I went—from roads, trails, essentially every whiff of civilization—the better the hunting would be.
Toward the end of one season, toward the end of the ’90s, I followed a tremendous swath of elk tracks backwards, my obstinance greater than whatever common sense I possessed. These migrating elk were the young of the herd, I told myself, and wherever they came from was the country I wanted to see.
I climbed a south-facing ridge where hooves pocked exposed dirt, dropped through a canyon
full of tight lodgepoles whose trunks told the story of decades of rutting, then inched my way up a mountain covered in squat whitebark pines. I broke over the summit just as the sun set behind me, the world ahead full of the soft blue of deep snow.
The bull that materialized did so as magically as the first elk I’d ever seen had disappeared. One
moment it was simply there, standing motionless, not far away, sweeping antlers dark above a blonde body that seemed to retain the glow of sun. It was an easy shot, and as the echo of my rifle came back to me, I noticed that not far above the smooth trough where the bull slid down the mountain, a lone billy mountain goat—long hair the color of the pale, eastern
horizon—climbed slowly uphill.
Instead of rushing down in the heat of celebration to see my elk, I sat for a long time, watching a nearly full moon emerge from behind the peak where the billy was headed. Elk and obstinance had given me a moment that I knew would never repeat.
June 17, 2021, 7:02 p.m. Bridger-Teton National Forest, 9,266 feet elevation.
I’m in no hurry, and this carpet of spring beauty wildflowers next to a crease full of rushing snowmelt looks like a great place to rest. There are elk tracks here, the first I’ve seen today, coming and going in all directions, a dozen or more animals on the edge of timberline. I smile thinking of the elation they must feel as true summer begins to arrive. Calves will be dropping soon, their first view of the world these high vistas ringed by jagged peaks still deep in snow.
I can see more mountains now myself, shark teeth on the spine of the Tetons. This contrast of flowers and sky and formidable peaks is like a key whose specific ridges and valleys fits the lock on my soul. I sit in the early evening wind a little longer before shouldering my pack, then turn into the mountain again, following elk tracks higher.
During the height of summer in 2005, I climbed into a basin dotted with mountain lakes. I was
searching for new country to bowhunt, trying to imagine what this land would look like in the middle of September, wondering if any of the elk I saw evidence of would continue to call it home in the fall. I had no plan for the day beyond doing what I was doing, no particular destination in mind, and certainly no desire to leave these mountains a single second
before I absolutely had to.
In the shadow of a great, granite boulder, weather split and beginning to crumble on its west
face, I thought about my job—a semi-corporate venture a world removed from the logging I’d once done—which now dictated that my time spent in places like this was relatively scarce.
The rain began in earnest a few minutes later, pouring down as if a celestial aquifer burst. Lightning danced on the peaks above and thunder roared from all around. I huddled beneath a stand of spruce, still happy enough to be where I was, still gnawed by the truth that I couldn’t stay nearly as long as I’d like.
When the storm broke, I walked to the edge of a pond ringed with paintbrush and asters, a trillion glistening drops of water catching late-day light. The mosquitos wasted no time resuming their feast, and though they darkened my bare arms, I didn’t move. From the opposite shore, a bull elk stared at me, huge, velvet-covered antlers bronze against dark softwoods. We watched each other while the surface of the pond took on a golden cast, while a rainbow faded, while the sun’s rays grew stronger. We stared until a mosquito bit my left eyelid and I instinctively swatted it.
Standing alone then, I still hadn’t decided if this would be a place I’d return with my bow. But I made up my mind that I would find a way to spend more of my life in the wild places these elk were showing me. That I would, somehow, share a little of what I saw and how it made me feel.
June 17, 2021, 8:38 p.m. Bridger-Teton National Forest, 10,400 feet elevation.
There’s a mile of snow ahead of me, the remnants of winter in one of the Lower 48’s most wintry places. I flounder for a few steps, post-holing along, then shuck off my pack. I didn’t bring these snowshoes because I wanted something extra to carry. Strapped to my boots, they provide the buoyancy I need, sinking barely an inch into this snowfield.
I’ve gained enough altitude now that most of what I see lies below me. Fissures of valleys are carved into the land as if by the fingers of some giant dragged unwillingly away from these peaks. I can well relate to his yearning to remain.
Over the scrape of my snowshoes I hear the whistle of a hoary marmot. He’s as black as a moose and the size of a young bear cub, hunched on top of a rock outcrop slowly melting out of the snow. I whistle a short blast back at him and he shakes his tail before retreating into a burrow. Beyond his rocky den, in a sky that seems much nearer than it did a few hours
ago, a raven tucks its wings and tilts sideways, cruises a nap-of-the-earth flight over a deep canyon and drops out of sight. A moment later, I hear his watery call and he appears above the trees with his mate, both soaring straight up, playing in the thermals.
By 2017, more than 10 years had passed since I’d stared across that alpine lake at the massive bull. I was still working the same job, a long way from the mountains, and time was disappearing faster than ever. A decade had melted away in a millionth of a blink.
I’d made some wonderful memories, many involving elk hunts with great friends. I relived some of them one summer morning, rolling along the same long stretch of Interstate 90 that I drove to work each day. I saw great gray owls and grizzly bears. I heard wolves on the edge of earshot just after dark. I felt, again and again, that odd combination of relief and soreness that comes with a pack full of elk meat. I saw mountains and sunrises, and the seasons in Montana flashing by with dizzying speed. And then, in the rearview mirror of my truck, I saw the eyes of a man no longer young.
Instead of continuing on to work that day, I drove to the top of Beartooth Pass and, with a freshening wind blowing the first far-off hints of fall into my face, hiked to a no-name lake where I sat staring out over the water. At my feet were the tracks of elk where they’d come to drink before dawn. Small waves lapped at them, flecks of mica swirling in the water.
I thought about Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and his quandary involving paths in a patch of woods not unlike those where I grew up in northern Vermont. The paths that I pictured before me were more starkly defined. One was paved with asphalt, certainty, creature comforts and stability. The other was an elk trail.
In my mind’s eye, I saw it crossing spring streams brimming with snowmelt, side-hilling talus
slopes, dropping through shining patches of aspens in September, pushing through blue evening snow during the middle of winter. Even in my imagination I could never quite catch sight of the elk themselves. They were calling, unseen in dark timber, from beyond the next ridge, in a roll of sage-covered winter range, asking if I was ready.
I was. In that instant, I knew exactly what I was going to do.
June 17, 2021, 9:19 p.m. Bridger-Teton National Forest, 10,900 feet elevation.
The last 200 feet of my climb will be across exposed rock, a whale’s back of weathered mountain that I won’t need snowshoes for. Within six inches of where the snow ends, two buttercups are blooming, blossoms beckoning to small bees where yesterday there was only ice.
Behind me, on top of mountains in Idaho, the sun clings to the sky during one of its longest appearances of the year. The sandstone around me, remnants of a 500-million-year-old beach, reflects its warmth up into my face. I haul myself out of a narrow crevice and, in the final seconds of sunlight, have my first view of Grand Teton. Its cliffs glow for a few moments, then darken slowly, the eastern sky far beyond fading to silver.
Night comes fast with a chill bordering on cold, and before it’s too dark I bundle up. A sweatshirt, down coat, heavy pants, gloves. I slide the band of my headlamp over my hat, go to work setting up my tripod and attaching my camera, and then lean back against lichen-covered rock.
In the fall of 2017, I turned my back on a career full of financial safety at a time in my life when
most people I knew were talking retirement savings, making dents in mortgages and racking up stamps in their passports. I sold one of my custom rifles and a secondhand car and bought the best camera equipment I could afford.
These elk that had led me through their beautiful homes for more than 20 years opened my eyes to a world that I felt compelled to share through photographs—my interpretation of this extraordinary country and the moments of wonder that occur there. I didn’t really have any more idea of how to go about it than I did hunting that first group of elk I saw in 1995.
What I did have, mostly thanks to my stubborn refusal to stick to any well-traveled path, was an intimate connection with some of the wildest, most beautiful places in America—places where I had first hunted elk and now was determined to spend the rest of my life. Places I was convinced, if I could show them during their finest moments, might have as an arresting effect on others as they had on me.
The learning curve was steep, but I felt such a sense of relief to be away from a desk or watching the clock, trying to budget snippets of time in the wilderness, that it was invigorating and rejuvenating. And just plain fun. Yes, looming in the background was some sense that if I wanted to pay my bills I had damn well better make this work. But loving what you do is wonderful motivation, powerful medicine to deal with bumps in the road. I told myself that if I was happy at the end of the day enough things would fall into place and that reward alone would be worth the risks.
June 17, 2021, 11:59 p.m. Table Mountain summit, Wyoming, 11,090 feet elevation.
I’m looking up into the Milky Way, arcing over this landscape so bright and full of stars that it seems to cast a shadow. Between it and the winking lights of Moose, Wyoming, the sky is filled with flowing airglow—the colorful phenomena similar to the aurora caused by photo-charged particles retaining light. I sit for a minute more before I begin photographing this horizon-to-horizon scene, in literal awe, wondering how many people have any idea what these iconic mountains look like at midnight under a clear sky.
I finish my shoot 45 minutes later and crawl into a tent modeled closely after a silk moth’s cocoon. I can’t begin to sit up in it, but there’s a vent in the roof I can crack. At 11,000 feet with very little humidity, through this slit I can see layer upon layer of stars. They go on and on like the elk tracks I imagined four years earlier when I decided to begin this journey as a nature photographer. I dove in headfirst, but sometimes that’s the best way. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the most important things we accumulate in life are experiences. They’re coming to me now, rapid fire, the way they often do as sleep overtakes me. A kaleidoscopic slideshow of memories whirring too fast to process any one image.
June 18, 2021, 4:20 a.m. Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming, 9,388 feet elevation.
I slept a couple of hours and woke without an alarm, wanting to cross the snowfield below me
before the new day softened it and I had to wear snowshoes again. One cup of instant coffee later, it was like pavement beneath my feet. I cruised over it and am now making good time down the trail. I’ve just clicked off my headlamp, able to see far enough in this pre-dawn to make out shapes 70 yards ahead where a finger of fir traces a seasonal creek. Elk are there, probably some of the ones whose tracks I saw yesterday, staring at me, no doubt surprised by my intrusion. I sit down to let them drift off on their own.
I owe them at least that, though I know my debt is far larger. My income, my lifestyle, my happiness is all wrapped up in my relationship with elk.
I watch them slowly melting into the trees beside the creek, and behind one cow I see a calf. It teeters as it walks, still getting the hang of life outside its mother. She waits for it at a break in the firs where water flows between narrow banks of snow, then leaps across and trots off without looking back. Her calf isn’t as graceful, but it stays upright, its steps perhaps a bit more confident on the far bank. I give it half an hour and then, as it seems I’ve been doing for a very long time, I follow.
Jake Mosher is a full-time Montana nature photographer, an avid hunter and a frequent contributor to Bugle.