Optimism. The line is blurred between false confidence and truly believing that the next moment will be ‘the one’. In one moment I might say out loud, “There’s no dang elk here” and 5 minutes later I’ve convinced myself that the next bench is where they are or that my next bugle is the one that will elicit a response. It’s doublethink. I know that my belief that the next moment will be ‘the one’ is without statistical justification. Yet, regardless, I say out loud that I’m going to stick an elk within the hour. One part of my thinking knows that it’s impossible. Another part of me is convinced that this morning’s hunt is the one where it all happens. I don’t think you can be successful without some of this blind optimism. Optimism helps you stay out there for the requisite hours and days, setting up enough opportunities that, finally, you will have an encounter, you will find a piece of evidence to support your flickering optimism and confidence.
That’s where I was on day 5 of the Colorado backcountry archery elk hunt – pretty sure that “this is impossible, there’s no elk here”, yet equally sure that this next slope was going to have an elk and I was going to stick it with an arrow. Then it happened, and it is still a surreal experience. It feels like I’m making it up. But I’m not. Here’s the rest of the story:
I called back-and-forth with a bull elk in the Colorado high alpine, starting around 2pm. Thirty or forty minutes later, I had closed the distance to within 100 yards of mature forest, positioned myself in the shade and on a narrow game trail, kneeled down in front a small pine tree and built the calling to a crescendo finale – the “breeding sequence”. The bull elk I was calling to knew that “I was a cow”. He bugled and chuckled, imploring me (the cow) to close the distance. Then, while kneeling in my final set up, he responded to my cow call with one last bugle, I bugled ‘over the top’ of his call, and then grabbed branches in front of me, snapped them off and raked the sticks and leaves on the ground in front of me, imitating a defensive bull’s bugle and antler raking.
That was it. It was on. The bull was coming in, no doubt. He knew that there was a cow, there was a bull being defensive about that cow, and therefore that cow was probably ‘hot’ (ready to breed). Nothing could be more interesting to a bull elk during the rut of August/September. I finished this calling sequence, and in the most unreal 40 seconds of my life, I heard him smashing through the forest toward me, saw the tips of his antlers, drew my bow, saw his face and beautiful body, centered my second pin on his vitals and released.
The elk flew down the slope after the shot, disappearing in seconds and the woods returned to silence within a few more moments. Shaking, I walked over to where he had been standing. His scent still floated in the air. His front hoof marks were plainly visible, having sprung backward and then down the slope after the shot. I made a cursory search for any sign – hair, blood, tissue. Nothing. I saw my arrow bury half of its length into the front of the elk, but, so far, there was no blood trail.
I went back to find Tim. “Tim. It was an elk. Not a hunter. A real elk. Yup, I saw it. Dude. I shot it.” We sat down and made coffee. I hoped that the adrenaline would clear sometime soon and that I could have my mind back, because I had fully and completely lost it when the bull had come in.
Tim and I were back at the scene 90 minutes after the shot. I had told Tim the story, told him that it wasn’t a great shot and that I hadn’t found any blood in my initial search, and explained that we were looking for hair, tissue, blood, running hoof prints, and the arrow. We went to where the elk was standing when I shot and started the search in the direction I saw the bull run, examining the ground, leaves, needles and grass for any sign. Nothing. A half-hour of searching the area, no sign. Then we started expanding the search, doing ‘spokes’ and ‘semi-circles’, looking as far away as ½ and ¾ of a mile. It had been a long day, and after a couple hours we separately set out on ‘one-last-search’ for the day. An hour later I was back, still no sign. I resigned myself to coming back the next morning for another desperate search.
I was devastated. Hearing, calling in, seeing and shooting a bull elk had been the wildest experience of my life. A moment of culmination and fulfillment, a peak experience. And I was now in a serious trough, so upset at myself for making an impatient shot. I replayed it in my mind over and over and over again. An elk is as tough as anything in the animal kingdom. A flesh wound won’t do it. A shot in the shoulder or in the muscle of the neck will not take them down. They can bleed extensively and yet not die. And if they do die without leaving a solid blood trail.. Well, that is the saddest of it all. Something will eat them, nature will go on, it is not a complete ‘waste’, but it is a dreadful experience nonetheless, a bow hunter’s worst nightmare. If there is no blood trail, there is no chance of finding an elk in the vast woods and mountains.
“BLOOD!” Through the woods, across the slope, Tim is shouting to me. “BLOOD!”
I rush over there. It was just a couple hundred yards from the shot, but 90 degrees to the direction the bull had initially run. “No way.” “CHECK IT OUT!” Sure enough, there was hope. Great hope. The ground was covered in blood. A minute of searching later and I found the arrow, white fletching now painted bright red. The arrow was intact, except missing the broadhead. To be precise, the blade of the broadhead was missing, and the threaded portion of the broadhead was still in the arrow. Seemingly, the arrow had been flexed back and forth enough times that the broadhead had broken where it interfaced with the arrow shaft, like a nail or screw will do when repeatedly bent back and forth. The broadhead broke from the arrow, the shaft had slid out of the elk, and the external bleeding began.
Tim was a hero. He had asked himself where he would be if he was the bull and, on his final leg before we planned to call it for the night, he had come across the spot, possibly one of the only spots we would have been able to pick up the blood trail.
It was quickly dark and the blood trail much too faint, too difficult to follow using our headlamps, so we went down the mountain and set up camp. We went to sleep that night on a high. We were on the emotional roller coaster - we had gone from low, to high, to much, much lower, and finally back onto the high. We had searched for 3+ hours and then we were touched by fortune – there was a blood trail and it seemed like we would be able to follow it. An impossible task now seemed once again possible, even likely.
Sleep was restless with the excitement of that day and the anticipation of the next, and we woke just before sunrise to a heavy frost. A series of fortunate events had come about to hear a bull, call him in, get a shot, find the blood trail. Much good luck is required for all of the stars to line up just right. The good fortune continued into this next day – the bull, which hopefully was dead at the end of a short blood trail, would have been cooled and the meat preserved by the cold night.
18 hours after the shot, we were back at the spot of the shot, then to the start of the blood trail. We began the slow process of following the faint but mostly steady blood trail. We took separate roles – I looked within a few feet of the ‘last known blood’, often on hands and knees, to see if the bull changed course, and Tim looked further ahead to try to make big jumps of 20, 30 yards at a time. Every undulation, every patch of trees, every creek crossing was “surely the last.” I was quite concerned that the wound would close up and we would lose the blood trail. Tim and I took turns stating the obvious, “He’s bled so much!” “What a tough animal!” “Surely he must be near!”
Mid-day, a jumbled 1.25 miles of tracking and several hundred feet of elevation higher, we found the bull.
Luke: “Oh my.” “What!?”
Tim: "Oh my godness!"
Luke: "Goodness gracious."
Tim: “Look at that thing!”
Luke: “Look at that thing!”
Tim: “How in the world do we get this thing off the mountain!?”
He had ran and then walked and then tipped over from blood loss, never lying down. It took us over 20 hours to find him, but he was probably dead 5-10 minutes after the shot.
We celebrated. We laughed and and exclaimed and screamed. We reveled in the moment.
Then it was time to get to work. We cut up the bull with a fillet knife and another small replaceable blade knife. It was the blind leading the blind. I had watched a few youtube videos how to quarter and pack out an elk, in anticipation and expectation of this moment, and now I was several miles into the Colorado high alpine with a 700 pound dead bull elk, a 3” knife, 5 game bags and a physically capable but even less knowledgeable partner. Several hours of back-aching work later, we had 4 quarters in game bags, a miscellaneous bag of backstraps and other cuts, the heart in a zip-loc and the skull and antlers all hanging in a shady creek bottom in the valley.
And so began the pack out. “Pack out” is the term for carrying out your animal. In our case, it was just a bit over 3 miles from where we had hung the game bags to my truck. In between was a 12,200 ft pass – 2 miles and 1200 ft up, 1 mile and 1000 ft down. We carried out the first load that afternoon – all of our gear plus one quarter.
We got to the truck at dark, drove into town for the first time in 6 days and promptly smashed calories. At Smash Burger, actually. I remember the specifics of this meal because we were exceptionally hungry - they had a ‘date night special’ – 2 deluxe burgers, 2 large sides and 2 drinks. “Great, we’ll each be having one of those please.” 4,000 calories and an hour later, we were sleeping hard.
It had been an epic day. A day of culmination. A peak experience. So many new experiences. A day of great fortune. And the loose ends had been tied up – there was work to do, tomorrow we were in for a huge day packing out several hundred pounds more of meat and bones, but there was no more uncertainty. The bull was dead, found, quartered and now we just had to put in a huge day of effort to carry it out.
The next day, 2 days after the shot, was the biggest effort day of the whole hunt. Far and away the biggest effort. It was a huge output day, the legs burned, the back and shoulders ached. Up the pass, down the pass, along the valley. Load up. Hike back out, now 60 to 100 pounds heavier.
It hurt. The first load hurt. I went pretty quiet for the first hour of the hike out. I wasn’t sure I would be able to get up the pass. Eventually I settled into the rhythm of it, I put earbuds and some tunes in for the first time in a week, and I let it rip up the mountain. Down the mountain. Unload into the coolers. Repeat one more time – up, down, load up, up, down. Tim and I had 12 hours to catch up, figure out the problems of the world, express gratitude for the amazing lives we are living, tell stories, laugh, soak up rays. What an experience to share with a friend.
It was the most satisfying ache I’ve ever felt.
You can see the strain and the days of caloric deficit. But I don’t think I’ve ever looked more satisfied. This was a moment right up there with anything I’ve experienced. I was flooded with satisfaction, pride and gratitude.
Last load, at sunset. 54 hours after the shot. 6 days and 3 hours after going into the backcountry.
That’s that. 8 months of preparation. 1000s of arrows, 100s of youtube videos, dozens of podcasts, 5 books. 10 days of in-person scouting, 7 days in the woods, 1 day processing at home. Freezer full of elk for the year. Adventure of a lifetime
I have a freezer full of elk. Maybe it’s called venison. I don’t know. I’ll call it elk. There is no need to separate myself from what it is, to sterilize it with euphemism, like calling a cow 'beef' or pig 'pork'..
I am intimate with this animal/meat/food. I’ve spent days living in his habitat. I’ve communicated with him. I ended his life, cut him up, packed his flesh out on my back. I processed the quarters in my kitchen, wrapped the cuts of meat, put them in my freezer. Half the protein I eat this year is going to come from this animal. Quite literally, his life becomes mine, his flesh becomes mine. My muscles will be made of the same amino acids that his were. I’ve fully participated, first-hand, in the cycle of life here on Earth. I am going to call it elk out of respect to the animal, the adventure and the story.
Speaking of respect, how about those antlers!? They’re going on my wall. Talk about a gesture of respect and gratitude. They’re not going up for my ego. They’re not a display of skill. They’re a reminder of this animal and our intertwined story. The skull and antlers will be on display for my entire life, my friends and family and children will see it and will know the beauty of this animal, will know the story of the hunt, will have a chance to relate to who and what we are, will have a glimpse into the wilderness that is also our home.
I don’t know what to say to conclude. Thanks for reading and sticking with me. I just wanted to relate the wild adventure, I wanted the people in my life to be able to experience a part of it. Not everyone is going to be able to or want to do this. But I still want everyone to be able to have this, to take part in such a fundamental human experience, and this was my attempt to make that happen. Over and out.