A dozen hunters huddle together at dawn in a thick evergreen forest deep in Sweden’s northeast, getting their orders as they anxiously await the day’s first kill.
“Today we can shoot elk and bears,” guide Emil Toivonen informs the group he will lead for the day.
It’s 6am, the sun has yet to rise, and wisps of fog float in the brisk air.
The hunters — fortified by the previous night’s feast of smoked elk killed in last year’s hunt, and washed down with moonshine — are raring to go, clad in head-to-toe camouflage, outfitted with fluorescent orange safety stickers.
By 7am, they will be set up in their pre-established positions that they pulled out of Toivonen’s hat. At age 26, the guide makes his living organising hunts like this one.
In Sweden, hunting is a national pastime enjoyed by around 300,000 people, mostly men but some women too. Two-thirds of hunters are affiliated with the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management (Jägareförbundet).
A variety of animals are hunted in Sweden, including wolves which has sparked controversy both in Sweden and abroad.
But today’s group is primarily out to hunt elk because of its reputation as “the king of the Swedish forest”.
“It’s written in the DNA of Swedish hunters,” says Örjan, 56.
Yet with the local quota not yet filled for brown bears, they can also be shot … if the hunters are lucky enough to set their eyes on one.
Waiting patiently in the middle of the forest for a hulking elk to amble by, one can’t help but recall the photos of a recent hunting expedition that were passed around the supper table the previous night.
A 280-kilo bear hanging by one leg. The same bear skinned of its thick, luxurious fur.
A large basin full of innards, in the middle of which lies … a blue sock.
Nobody wants to think about how it may have gotten there.
For now, the long wait is on, silent and still. On the screen of his smartphone, Örjan follows the dogs’ trail thanks to the GPS collars they are wearing.
“You can even phone them and hear if they’re barking,” he whispers, a sign they’re on the scent of an elk.
“You can even see how fast they’re advancing and how many times they’ve barked,” he adds.
Suddenly, Oerjan looks up: in his earpiece a hunter tells him one of the dogs is on the trail of a elk nearby.
“We have to be ready,” he says quietly, clutching his Winchester .338 Magnum.
Two shots ring out through the air. It’s Markko, the shooter in the neighbouring position hidden behind a knoll.
From a distance of 75 metres, he puts two bullets behind the elk’s shoulder, in its lungs, after one of the dogs chased it to within shooting distance.
“After the first bullet, the elk stood still and hunched over. After the second one, it staggered a bit and then collapsed,” he says, his voice void of emotion after killing the 19th elk of his hunting career.
“The shots were perfect,” praises Robert, nicknamed “The Norwegian” because he hails from Oslo.
The lungs, and the region just below, the heart, are the bullseye zone, but “aiming for the heart is dangerous because if you hit too low you just wound the animal,” explains The Norwegian.
With precise, determined and experienced hands, he begins gutting the beast which weighs in at around 450 kilos, 2.50 metres long and 1.80 metres (six feet) tall.
He makes a 30-centimetre incision down the neck. He pulls the skin away and slashes the throat to grab hold of the oesophagus, which he clips and ties in a knot.
“It’s to avoid the stomach coming out,” he says, pushing the entire length of his arm into the gaping wound.
Then, standing over the body, he guts the animal in one swift move. With a gurgling sound, the innards seem to rise up and spill out of the stomach.
“Since the stomach wasn’t opened, neither by the bullets nor the knife, there’s no smell,” explains Robert.
He doesn’t need to finish the sentence.
At the end of the day, the hunters will return to the spot to pick up the elk on a special wagon. They’ll cut it up and divide it amongst them.
And one evening next year, they’ll dine on the meat with friends before waking up before dawn to go hunting again.