The ride to the trail head was an interesting one as we gained elevation and passed many ranches, crystal clear trout streams, and outfitter posts. Pulling into the trail head, my heart began to beat a little faster. It was very much either straight up or straight down. I immediately wondered what I might have gotten myself into. All of my Cross Fit, running, and weight lifting routines were immediately questioned in my head as to whether or not they had really prepared me for what was soon to come. We were starting at around 9,000 feet and would climb to nearly 10,000 in order to camp. 7 of us total began to carefully weigh and pack the 2 horses and 3 mules. Butterflies arose in my stomach as we began the hike in to camp. Myself and one of my two buddies walked in after everyone else, them knowing that as a first timer I would likely be easily winded in altitude and a bit slower than the rest. As we walked the trail, we ran into an Indiana man who told us he had been hunting this area for over a week and camping at the trailhead in a small tent. He looked haggard and mentioned that he very much regretted letting a cow pass the first night. He had one other interaction with a 5 x 5 bull but was unable to get a shot. We later learned that he was a game warden from Indiana that had been coming here for many years to chase these animals—another flatlander like us.
I am prone to a bit of anxiety so I will admit that I likely did not take this initial day or two as others might. Even with such beautiful scenery, tons of equipment because of the horses and mules, and an extremely knowledgeable group, I just didn’t feel right. Some of it was homesickness, some was guilt, and some was outright worry over my physical abilities and the fact that we were quite far from civilization. As a flatlander, the typical hunts we experience do not require nearly what I was already experiencing on this trip. I’ve hiked up the Ozark, Blue Ridge, and other mountains in Alabama for various game but this was very much a step above. Had I bitten off more than I could chew this time, I wondered? As it took multiple trips to get all of our gear in the first day, we resolved ourselves to hunting first thing in the morning which I was being told was difficult. They explained that elk, somewhat similar to the whitetails back home, spent most of the day bedding down in the darkest, gnarliest timber at high altitudes. This meant that we would be trying to catch them going back to bed (a race to the top) in the morning and then catching them coming out and down the mountain just before dark each day.
The next day or two I reserved myself to close hunts with one of the guys in camp showing me the local spots. The altitude was effecting my mood, fatigue, and was giving me headaches. I drank a ton of water and took my time hiking. They had a name for each main landmark/hunting area nearby. Cool names like “The Wallow”, “Stewpot Rock”, “Cecil’s Ridge”, “Cyclone Basin” and the “Blue Slide” to name a few. Of course, they were all named after a good story or ten. Average 45 minutes to 1 hour walks up hill were the norm—and I’m not talking about a 25 degree pitch. Some of the walks were better than 45 degree or better pitches up and through both deciduous (Quaking aspen primarily) and coniferous (fir and spruce) forest. This is the part where you have to be in shape to make it even somewhat enjoyable. Even being in shape these hikes winded me. The cool part was that with little to no humidity, you sweat and then stop and dry quickly. Most of the spots we headed to were at the highest of elevations (~10,000 feet or so). Most of the wallows that were normally used were dry as were many of the normally lush high meadows. We quickly ascertained that the elk were sticking tight to the dark timber during the day until the last bit of light and headed back up in the morning very early to avoid the heat of the day. Temps were around 70 during the day and 40 at night (perfect on my account but not so much with the elk). We heard a fair amount of bugling in the dark timber but the bulls weren’t responding to calls nor were they willing to come out and play before dark.