Montana sunrise
A hunter looks for elk at sunrise in the Sweet Grass Hills of Montana.

In my head, the plan seemed perfectly simple.

During the fall when I turned 50, I would go on my first serious bowhunt for elk in Montana and shoot a big bull.

Streamers would fly, horns would blare and the half-century mark in my life would be properly recognized.

Born in November 1967, my 50th fall was 2017. The area where I wanted to hunt in northcentral Montana requires a limited-quota permit that’s available only through lottery drawing.

“But everyone who wants one draws one every year,” I was told.

Until 2017.

I didn’t draw a tag.

Due to prior commitments, I couldn’t go in 2018 or 2019. But I was able to secure valuable lottery points those years so that 2020 would be a lock.

And it was.

I drew an elk permit this Spring, which set in motion the plan to mark my 50th year on this Earth in my 53rd year on this Earth.

I hunted Sept. 27-Oct. 2 with Northern Rockies Outfitters, whom I had previously hunted with for antelope. Owner Rich Birdsell runs an excellent outfit, and the ranch he hunts in the Sweet Grass Hills is nothing short of spectacular.

This isn’t a column about my adventure, however.

This is a column about lessons I learned.

They say, “You can’t teach and old dog new tricks.”

Well, I don’t know if 52.8 is old, but I definitely learned a thing or two on this trip.

Some of the lessons pertain to hunting. But on a larger scale, they are life lessons that I don’t know if I was capable of learning before I reached my 50th year.

Here are the top-five lessons I learned while chasing elk in the mountains of Montana at the age of nearly-53.

Elk shape is a real thing.

I’d heard many people talk about being in “elk shape” over the years, but I never really put much thought into it, since I hadn’t been elk hunting since I was like 24 years old.

But it’s real.

And after feeling my thighs and lungs burn after the first 200-yard climb, I realized you don’t achieve it by eating cookies and watching TV.

Slow and steady might not win the race, but it gets you to the four-wheeler by dark.

I’m not sure how old my guide Beau Hill is, but he’s more than a few years younger than me.

And he’s a native of The Treasure State. Both of which mean he glides up and down mountains like they’re flat.

For the first day or so of my hunt, I felt some strange need to try to keep up with Hill. Eventually, I realized that was wearing me down rapidly, so I let him range ahead and I caught up to him when I could.

I always got to wherever we were going. It just took me a little longer to get there.

Good boots are worth the cost – even if it’s $500.

I’ve never owned a really good pair of boots designed specifically for mountain hunting/hiking. I basically bought whatever I could find that looked decent and cost under $200 and I made do.

The last time I hunted with Northern Rockies Outfitters, I noticed everyone in camp – including the guides – wore Kenetrek boots. I had heard of them, but I knew they were expensive, so I never even considered buying a pair.

But after killing my feet hunting antelope in 2016 – which is far less extreme than chasing elk – I decided to bite the bullet and get a pair of Kenetrek Mountain Guide boots early this year.

They cost $500.

And they’re worth every penny.

I’d probably even pay a few dollars more.

I had no idea what torture I was putting my feet, my legs and my back through until I was no longer hurting myself because I had a pair of boots made for the work I was doing.

The soles gripped tight on 60-70-degree slopes. My ankles never rolled once trekking sidehills or going downhill. And no matter how many miles we walked or mountains we climbed, I didn’t feel any pain in my feet, legs or back, like I had on every Western hunt I’d ever done in the past.

What am I going to do with these boots now?

Well, I broke them in all summer on hikes in the Pennsylvania mountains. They work just as well there as they do in Montana, so they’re not going to collect dust until I head West again.

When conditions are right, outdoor naps are the bomb.

Now I know I was supposed to be on high alert, hunting the wily wapiti.

But one day, after a long climb, I sat down on a nice patch of grass beneath the boughs of a Ponderosa pine, on the sunny side of a mountain overlooking the Alberta prairie, and I just fell asleep.

I didn’t care about elk. I didn’t care about the long walk back that awaited me.

The sun was warm on my face, but the heat was moderated by a steady, cool breeze.

The grass was soft under my back and the sound of an easy wind rushing through pines and aspens was calming.

I’m half falling asleep right not just thinking about it.

My point is – well, I’ll cover that in my next lesson.

Hunting adventures are infinitely more enjoyable when you don’t count success solely by filling tags.

When I was younger, I was somewhat of a hunting fiend. I hunted all kinds of game, all over North America.

The sad part is, I can tell you about what I tagged or didn’t tag, but my memories of the places I visited are lacking. Simply put, I really didn’t care about that. I only cared about filling tags.

On my Montana elk hunt, I didn’t fill any tags. The elk and antelope just weren’t cooperating.

That’s part of the game.

But I can honestly say that I don’t care I came home with unfilled tags.

I got to see much of a 50,000-acre ranch in the Sweet Grass Hills of Montana that relatively few people will ever see.

I looked into a tunnel, hand-dug into the side of a hill, that was a 19th-century gold mine, with the tailings still piled outside the entrance.

I opened an old pill bottle we found attached by wire to a random tree high up on a mountain, many miles from anything that might be considered a road, and read over the paperwork inside that spelled out a mining claim made in 1982.

After looking over the papers, we put them back in the container, which we reattached to the tree. Maybe they will sit there for another 40 years before someone comes across them again.

I saw six spectacular sunrises and six equally awesome sunsets from the top of a mountain that provided views of both the Rocky Mountains and the Canadian prairie.

So my plan for marking a half century on Earth didn’t quite pan out the way I’d envisioned. But I’d say it still turned out OK.

I even learned a few new tricks.