Looking for the elk, August 27, day 4 of the Colorado 'backpack style' wilderness hunt.
The wilderness hunt started with a 4th of July weekend scouting trip. My first look into the basin, I spotted 150 elk. The next day I hiked ridgelines, at and above 12,000ft, spotting 2 more smaller herds of elk. I could see for miles and miles, the grass was vibrant, the sky Colorado- blue, the air cold and blowing, the sun friendly. I fell in love with the area. I was solo overnight-backpacking for the first time in my life, AND I was seeing elk. Couldn’t have been better.
I was back a month later, early August. And they were still there – 150+ cows, calves and yearling bulls, all meandering the green high alpine meadow, closed in by sloping dark green pines on each side – if I hadn’t seen it myself, I’d pass such a description off as an idealized stereotype of wilderness nature. But I did see it myself. I’m not going to tell you where, exactly, but I’ll gladly take you there next year, in person, if you’re willing to lace up the hiking boots.
After this second encounter with the mega-herd, I started mentally referring to the area as Elk Basin. Both of these visits to Elk Basin went similarly – hike a brutal slope, spot the elk, watch the elk, bust the herd the heck out of there. I felt pretty stupid busting the herd out of Elk Basin, both times, but the encounters and the ‘busts’ provided important education.
This area appeared to be elk heaven. Or at a combination of my heaven and elk heaven – I spotted elk in several different herds, in the open and in the timber, saw sign everywhere, I hiked meadows and ridgelines, ate wild raspberries, shivered in the mornings, took afternoon naps on sun-soaked slopes, filtered (probably unnecessary) clear and cold water from mountain streams, saw dozens varities of wild flowers. And, seemingly, I was the only one back there, on thousands of acres of our public land.
Fast forward three weeks and it’s opening weekend. Archery elk season is long in Colorado - this year it was August 25 to September 23. It’s long, but I was so stoked to get out there, pronto. I was counting down the last days before the season opener. But certainly not idly counting down the hours – I was gathering gear together, doing more e-scouting on digital maps, reading elk behavior books, watching hunting videos, researching backcountry meat care, strengthening the back and legs to carry a heavy pack, shooting the bow, tuning the bow with broadheads, learning calling scenarios, practicing cow calling and bugling,.. the preparation list was endless. Enjoyable but endless. That was the ‘hunt-specific’ preparation. Then there was all the other areas of life I needed to get in order, so that I could disappear into the mountains for weeklong stints. It’s remarkable how a goal, a specified deadline motivates me – I was lighting up the activity meter – all the hunt-specific prep, plus prepping my house and truck and other small projects, but most notably, the enthusiasm and the deadline of the approaching hunt actually translated into more focused, longer and more productive hours of Pulse LLC finance work. Win-win.
Anyway, it’s 3 weeks after my last scouting foray and 12 hours to first light on opening day, and I’m hiking into Elk Basin. Everything is finally ‘live’. Here’s a comparison to my last few years as a triathlete: In triathlon, there is training and there is racing. Comparatively, there is scouting and there is hunting. Scouting and hunting are similar but there are important differences. There is different gear. There is a different mentality. There are different consequences – “Yeah I’m training (scouting) today, I don’t have this piece of gear and I made this mental mistake, but it doesn’t matter today, I’ll get it right when I’m racing (hunting).” Then, suddenly, it’s race (hunt) day, and it’s kind of surreal, that this is actually the moment. It’s live. Try hard, focus up, we’re here to win (stick an elk).
One more note. I often mention calling to the elk, or the elk calling back to me, particularly a bull elk bugling or chuckling. Here is what that sounds like (skip to 0:25 seconds):
Day 1 - Friday Afternoon, Season Opener-eve
For the first time, there are no elk visible in Elk Basin. And I’m fine with that – hopefully the herd is in the timber and I won’t bust them out of there. I slip through the meadows and timber and camp in a pre-determined spot. I’m banking on the possibility that the elk will still be in their ‘summer pattern’, and, if they are, this camping spot will give me great advantages in the morning and a high likelihood of sticking one at first light, opening day.
Day 2 - Saturday, Season Opener
I woke 2 hours before sun rise, put all the clothes on, stuffed camp into the backpack and started walking the meadow. Opening weekend corresponded with the full moon. Apparently full moon means that the elk tend to feed nocturnally (more than usual) and bed during the day.
This brings up an important point. I say “the full moon apparently…” “supposedly elk like to...” “elk sometimes respond to…” I’ve read, viewed and listened to all kinds of ideas about what elk apparently are, do and prefer. But my first-hand experience is laughably limited. I’ve listened to hours, days, of podcasts, read books, blogs, message boards, watched youtube videos. Our 21st century mediums of communication taught me almost everything that I think I know about elk. Elk Quest ’18 was a test of these mediums – could the internet really teach me to find, call in, kill, quarter, pack out and butcher an elk? Is it really possible find success on one of North America’s premier big game hunt – a backcountry, public land, archery elk hunt – using knowledge gained from a handful of books, various podcasts and some youtube videos? ElkNut, BornAndRaised, HuntBackcountry, Hushin, Joe Rogan, Corey Jacobson, Steve Rinella.. I came in confident with the knowledge these guys gave me, but really, I had made 'friends' with a bunch of online 'elk celebs', and I had no idea if I had actually learned anything useful.
The opening day gameplan was that I could locate elk by walking meadow/forest edges in the pre-dawn, listening for elk social talk and bugles. Half the battle is won once they are located. You’re still a long way from getting an arrow in one – you still need to choose a place to set up or approach extremely close, decide to wait for them to move to bedding and intercept them or start a calling scenario to bring them in, do it all while ensuring the wind (scent) stays in your favor, you aren’t seen and aren’t making unnatural noises (synthetic material rubbing on branches, bugle tube banging on trees). Then it needs to get light out. Then, while adrenaline is pulsing through the veins, you need to make a smart, high probability shot, maximizing the odds of making a fast and clean kill. This requires a short distance, no brush or other obstacles, preferably an elk standing broadside, and preferably that elk is relaxed, holding still and unaware of your presence. So a lot still needs to happen after ‘locating the elk’. But none of that can happen until they are located. Step 1 – be in elk habitat. Step 2 – find the elk.
This first day of hunting I found zero elk. I had hoped to catch them in their summer pattern and have an opening day opportunity, but they had seemingly already left their summer meadows and were in search of better feed elsewhere. I did find a few other hunters – 3 guys and 1 guy in the morning, then 2 guys in the afternoon. All in all, a pretty great first day of bow hunting – loads of elk sign (but no elk), crackin weather, a bunch of miles of meadows and saddles and ridgelines, midday poptarts and coffee, a constant belief that any moment could be the one, and going to sleep with the belief that the next day would be the day. I saw a few more hunters than I would have liked, but I expected to have some company, and I actually didn’t see any other hunters or hikers for the next 5 days.
Day 4 – Monday, Season Opener + 2
I planned to meet my pal Tim Pupak on Monday. I love rendezvous, and we had planned what became my favorite rendezvous yet – above treeline in the Colorado wilderness, 6 miles or so from any roads or trailheads.
I hunted my way up an avalanche slope in the morning, once again listening for elk in the pre-dawn dark and then looking and glassing for elk in the first hours of light. No elk. Eventually I arrived at the ridgeline, over 12,000 ft, that I would follow to rendezvous with Tim in a few hours. All season I walked with my bow in my hand, ready to nock and arrow and let it rip, in the event of a fast encounter. But this ridgeline was just hiking, not really hunting, so I strapped the bow to my pack and enjoyed the walk – no elk were up this high, and if they were, I would see them from a mile off and have plenty of time to take off my pack and unstrap my bow.
A few miles later I was at the rendezvous. I waited for Tim and took advantage of the non-walking time. I glassed for elk every 20 or 30 minutes, laid out my tent to dry the previous night’s rain, massaged the feet, ate some snacks, journaled a few notes, eventually took out the sleeping bag and caught a few midday zzzs. I had finished my nap, repacked my backpack and was glassing for elk when a noise 20 ft away caused me to jump out of my boots. Tim had arrived at the rendezvous and scared the heck out of me, sneaking up while I looked past him through my binoculars.
Tim is among my favorite people and greatest friends, and I was fully stoked to have him along on the adventure. We did a couple hours of above-treeline hiking (moreso hiking than hunting), so we had time to talk and catch up on his most recent adventures. Tim created great success for himself at his job over the last few years, building skills, making friends, earning and saving money, developing life principals and dreaming dreams. This Summer, he made the awesome decision to take advantage of the opportunity he had created and earned, leaving his job and starting a US roadtrip and eastbound backpacking circumnavigation of the world. He was over a month into this grand adventure when we rendezvoused in the Colorado backcountry, so we had plenty to catch up on. Check out Tim’s thoughts and ideas, and follow his adventures, including his write-up on this hunt, at his blog - https://pupakprinciples.com/
We hunted our way down a north facing valley, moving slow and keeping our eyes and ears peeled for elk. Once again, no elk, but Tim did spot a moose moving through the dark timber. He saw the moose slip through the trees from about 50 yards away. Not entirely sure if it was a moose, thinking maybe it could be an elk, we stopped and cow called and bugled for a good half-hour. Then we started down the mountain again, only to be stopped by a deep growling-moaning sound and loud crashing through the timber below us – it was a moose, and we had bumped him along once again.
Day 5 – Tuesday, Season Opener + 3. THE ENCOUNTER.
This was my fifth day in the backcountry. Long days of not finding elk and carrying a pack through the steep mountains was definitely starting to cause mental and physical fatigue. My food was also coming to an end - I had brought what I figured was enough food for this day, Tuesday, plus the next morning. So we really only had 20 or 30 hours more to make it happen.
Tim caught an hour of extra sleep after his long hours of driving and a solid hike the day before, and I went on my usual pre-dawn ‘locating’ mission. The pattern continued – no elk were located.
I consulted the OnX map and plotted a semi-ridiculous route – hike the valley-floor meadow for a mile or two, hike an avalanche chute straight up for 1500 vertical feet, traverse another couple miles, then descend into Elk Basin. This route was circuituous and was going to take huge time and energy, but it was the only way to get into Elk Basin while keeping the midday uphill thermals in our favor. Elk Basin.. one more shot. I said that if we found elk or fresh elk sign, we could continue the hunt into Wednesday. If no sign and no elk, we would hike out, back to the truck, that evening.
After several hours of hiking, we were in position for another good ‘roll of the dice’. I think that dice rolling can provide a reasonable explanation of the probabilities of elk hunting. Say we were trying to roll a ‘7’. Sometimes I felt like we were only rolling one die. Way above treeline, wind blowing on our backs, walking areas with zero elk sign – these are all times that I’m trying to roll a 7, but only have one die. It’s impossible. It won’t happen. Then there are times where the situation is good – there is a basin in front of us, the wind and thermals are in our favor, the habitat is favorable for elk. They may or may not be in there. But at least I’m rolling with 2 dice at this point. It’s possible to roll a 7. Most of the time, I won’t roll a 7. But there was a decent probability that I would. And, hour after hour, day after day, my goal is to create as many situations as possible where I have a chance to roll a 7. Set up as many high probability situations as possible and success will eventually come.
We still hunted, looking and listening, weaving our way through the large pines and making our way down the dark slope toward the bottom of Elk Basin. There was sign (rubs, prints, droppings) everywhere, but it all seemed old. Not really old – just a few days or a week – but clearly not fresh. An hour later we were at the bottom of the slope, where the pine trees met the grassy meadow, separated by a small creek. It was a good idea, good execution, but once again, no luck. A good roll of the dice, but our number simply didn’t come up. I said to Tim, “Ramen time? Spin up lunch and get out of here?” He asked if there was a bit more slope we should hunt. I agreed that, sure, I guess we should hunt the last little bit. So I walked along the creek, diaphragm in my mouth, making a few calls, mostly long and whiny cow calls.
A bugle sounded off - first bugle I've ever heard. A few minutes later, another bugle from the same area. Hmmm. Cool.. Hunter making calls? Or elk? Tim was filtering water from the creek, so he didn’t hear these first couple bugles. I found him, told him I heard a couple bugles, and said with a shrug, “Check it out I guess. Maybe hunter. But could be an elk..!?””
Tim and I crossed the small and steep creek valley and stood on the edge of the meadow, staying in the shadows of the last few trees. Another bugle! A chuckle! We both pointed the same direction, across and down the meadow. I scanned the trees, then made it double-time across the meadow, solo, to the shadows of the trees on the other side. I cow called again. And received a chuckle, hot and heavy, in response. At this point, I knew I was dealing with a real elk. A chuckle is a difficult noise for a hunter to realistically imitate. And this chuckle had the deep power, the forest filling reverberations, that can only come from a bull elk, 700+ pounds of muscle, bone and vitality.
It was day 5 in the backcountry, and I heard the first bugle of my life, and now we were within 200 yards of each other, communicating, playing a game that I had read and heard about, but scarcely believed could actually happen. But it was happening, I was there, the bull was there, screaming, and maybe, maybe Hunter and Hunted were about to have an ancient encounter, a moment unique in our lives, infinitely common in our histories, a moment that could inextricably tie our life stories together and be an infinitesimal piece of the ongoing story of The Hunt.
I was thinking about zero of this deeper story. That would come later. Nothing existed except for the moment. I was calling, listening, moving from shadow to shadow, checking the wind, running up the mountain to keep the wind in my favor, keeping my eyes up, setting up, calling, moving again, resetting up, range finding, looking for a better spot to set up, getting ready again, cow calling, bugling, ripping branches off a downed log and raking a branch across the sticks and leaves. Then I listened. And it was on. He was coming in, no doubt, he is right there, smashing through the trees and brush and he is coming on a rope straight to me. Oh boy, oh boy. Easy, pal. Easy.. Oh God, there’s antlers. There’s his face, neck, two tone body. Oh geez. This is the moment. Draw. Aim. Hold. Hold. Breathe. Breathe. Oh God. Aim. Release.
5 days in the backcountry, but the hard work, fun and endurance had just begun - the rest of the story, the dramatic roller coaster and more-adventure-than-we-bargained-for, will be told in the next post, with plenty of text, photos and some awesome videos.