After about the third day I began to settle in and get more comfortable with the altitude, hiking expectations, and camp life. Being the newbie with a bunch of veteran mountain hunters and horsemen this here redneck from the Midwest just wasn’t able to contribute much more than wood chopping, cleanup duties, water and beer toting. I didn’t know any fancy knots like they did; nor did I know my way around the horses beyond knowing where not to stand and how not to get stepped on (which my grandpa taught me as a young man growing up). The cooking was done by our resident camp chef, Uncle Russ. And let me tell you that this was no granola and freeze dried garbage. These were meals better than my wife can cook (sorry honey). We ate breakfast when we came back from the morning hunt and dinner after arriving back late at night after the evening hunt. As a matter of fact, knowing that we were walking back to an incredible camp meal every evening made me hustle just a bit faster on those long dark hikes. I was beginning to get the feeling that this trip was incredible in so many ways and that I was extremely lucky to have been invited along to be a part of it. The group was always up for answering my many questions (some of which I’m sure sounded quite ignorant at times). From hunting, to horses, mules, camp cooking, elk hunting, and more. They answered them all.
The stories that Uncle Russ could tell and his mannerisms reminded me instantly of my late grandfather, Harvey. He, like Russ, was a horse guy and an avid outdoorsman who always had a great story to tell (believable or not it never mattered). He was born in the same era with firm beliefs and he had dark skin from a lifetime spent outdoors enjoying what he knew and loved best. Being around these folks on this trip made me miss him dearly as this was the type of trip that I always dreamed he and I would embark on some day—only he was taken too early for it to happen. I bought and wore a brown wool Stetson hat for this trip exactly like he used to wear in his memory. Grandpa was surely smiling down on me from above.
On the third afternoon, I asked to head up to Stewpot Rock to hunt some of the “parks” (as they called them) at the very top of the mountain. This was the epic hike straight up that I’d heard about for so many years. And for so many years the hunting there had been great. Whoever could make such a hike was often rewarded with a shot opportunity. That first night arriving at Stewpot Rock we took a break and waited for the wind to change before going into the timber and parks. I was learning that the wind was perhaps the most vital thing to get right as the elk were intolerant of human odor and the wind blew often with force here. A bull bugled in the dark timber nearby and I knew that this spot would be all that they described. The “parks” turned out to be what I, as a Biologist, call a wet meadow. Various sedges, rushes, and other wetland plants made up many of these openings among the conifers. The elk used them to feed after dark. The first night I did not see an elk but heard several in the nearby timber as they were crashing through on their way out to feed after dark. One of my camp mates missed a bow shot at a cow in a meadow near me.
The next few days were spent exploring the other known hot spots and seeing a few elk here and there as well as mule deer, sheep (left over from those that were brought up to feed during the summer), pine martens, porcupines, dusky grouse, gray jays, and bear sign (a tree with bear claw marks a good 20 foot up). I had my first real encounter with a cow on the fourth night in a park up on top. I was told that unlike our spookier Midwestern whitetails, I should stand in front of trees to break up my outline and allow for a shot. I wore full camo (including gloves and a facemask) but when two cows came out I hadn’t pulled up my mask so I was bare faced and staring them down at 42 yards. I nervously tried to get a good range but as they began doing the classic (air sniff) as they were downwind from us I decided that I had enough good landmark ranges to make the shot. I locked in my one pin sight, drew when their heads went down to eat, and let fly an arrow. As the Nuge says—the mystical flight of the arrow failed to hit its mark. I overshot her! My buddy, with muzzleloader in hand, watched as the cows bounded away up and into the dark timber from where they came. I looked at him with a smile and explained the obvious—my ranging skills needed work. Now let me just say that I will be the first to tell someone that if you think you know yardage you don’t—so trust your rangefinder; however, the heat of the moment ended in a poor decision on my part. I was only happy that I didn’t wound my first elk. Pete and I whispered about what had just unfolded, both of us with smiles on our faces because of my first elk experience on top of the mountain—I’ll never forget it.
A couple more days of heading up to the top of the mountain and checking out some of the other usual elk haunts in this area led us to believe that either a) the bulls just weren’t getting fired up yet b) the dry weather was affecting their patterns c) the elk were not coming out until dark or d) we still weren’t finding where the majority of the elk were hanging out. Of course, there was likely some combination of factors but on about the 5th or 6th day one of the hunters in our camp connected with a cow on a morning hunt in a part of the mountain that we had not yet spent much time. After that event, we spent more time in that area and realized that, in fact, more elk were holding there. One final afternoon hunt was left and Pete and I decided we would spend it in this newly found area. As we glassed this amazing basin, we immediately noticed a dark bull on the far side—black from wallow mud. Soon thereafter we glassed another bull nearby the first. All great signs to start our evening hunt. As we descended into the basin, we crossed a freshly used wallow and then another. Elk droppings and tracks were fresh. Pete decided that he would hunt low with the muzzleloader and I would go high but within sight of one another because of safety and my insecurities surrounding getting lost. As we neared our final destination I caught whiff of what I can only best describe as a combination of a dirty horse and deer in rut musk—it was elk, and they were close. The wind was blowing perfectly into our faces from over the next ridge. We moved into our hunting positions and settled in to the sounds of bulls bugling in the nearby dark timber. My best hopes were suddenly dashed by what appeared to be a steady rain. Pete and I both retreated to nearby fir trees for cover (which, by the way make incredibly useful rain umbrellas). Before too long and before my hopes were dashed at the loss of daylight the rain ceased and the clouds rolled out. I got back up to my vantage point to view the last half hour of daylight looking into the valley from which the elk scent was emanating. As if out of the dreams we dream about seeing game in the woods, out pops the first cow of the night, soon followed by 2 more cows, 3 calves, and my first close encounter 6 x 6 bull! This is what I had been waiting to see the entire trip. My previous calling had done no good so I decided to be quiet and hope that they hit the trail I was sitting 15 yards from. I rode the wave from despair as the ascended the mountain to extreme nerves as the found the trail I was on and began the slow descent to my hiding spot—they were following the script exactly! Cold, wet, and now on edge from the sight of animals at close distance I began to get the shakes but was able to overcome it with a tactic I’ve used time and time again—force myself to shake hard, breath heavy, and close my eyes. Time was running out on daylight, however, and they needed to keep moving in order for me to get a shot. At 60 yards I ranged the first cow. She disappeared over the edge of the adjacent ridge and my heart sunk—where they now following a different path? It did not take long for me to find my answer as floppy ears and a huge brown nose came back over the ridge headed straight at me. As hunting fate has it, the wind was swirling and I heard an alert call. Although I’ve never heard an elk make such a noise I’ve hunted enough wild animals to pick it out from calls. Short, abrupt, and loud—they’ve made me. I made a snap decision to range the first cow within bow distance and put her at 57 yards—just inside my comfort zone of 60. In one motion I set my one pin to 60, rose and drew. The arrow zipped within inches over the cow’s shoulder as they all retreated up the mountain. I stood for a minute or two to gather my wits and come to grips with reality—I had missed again! I walked with a low head to the spot where my arrow laid buried in the mountain and then to Pete to explain my story during the long walk back to camp. In the heat of the moment I simply misjudged where my pin should have been set (57 exactly) to compensate for the arrow drop at such a long distance. I went over the scene again and again in my head for the next several days but came to grips with the fact that this was hunting and I had so many amazing new opportunities, experiences, sights, sounds, smells, and more on this trip. Harvesting the elk would have only been the cherry on top of an already amazing adventure. Aside from the meat for the freezer, I was just fine with it.
Although the story’s over I’d like to take a minute to thank the folks I was blessed to spend time with on this once in a lifetime trip. Eric for teaching me how to hunt elk and putting up with all of my dumb questions. Russ and Joel for treating me like another family member, for cooking some amazing meals, and for using their horses and mules time and energy to pack me in. Judy for some great conversation. Pete and Allen for inviting me along and for continuing to be some of my best outdoorsmen adventure buddies. I’m hooked—I’d love to do it again in a few years!