These are my field notes from the start of the 2019 Hunt Odyssey. Later, I will provide other details and explanation. But for now, enjoy this tale, this chapter in the Saga of The Hunt, just as it occurred, with words coming straight from the field notebook, no re-sequencing of events, no dramatics needed.
Drive West Bend, WI to Germantown, WI.
Drive to Omaha. Stay in Council Bluffs.
Drive to Kearny. Disc golf. Sleep near CO border.
Tuesday 8/20 through Sunday 8/25
With Katie/Chris in Boulder, Mark/Vanessa in Denver, Andrew in Denver. Work, hunt prep, socialization.
Drive to Fort Collins. Hunt prep and work all day. New Belgium Brewery.
Drive to Steamboat. Hunt prep and work all day.
1. Colorado archery elk season started Saturday 8/31. I went into the mountains on Wednesday 8/28, with my bow strapped to my pack. I went out 3 days "early" to backpack, to become familiar with the area, to look for elk. I was prepared to stay out for 6 nights. On Saturday 8/31 I did the same things – backpack and hike – but now my bow was in my hand and I was hunting elk.
2. I'm elk hunting, but I keep referencing 'looking for bears'. This was because Dad and I were planning to bear hunt starting on Wednesday 9/4.
3. All of the below was solo.
Work 6am until 3pm. Drive into mountains, along Mt Zirkel Wilderness. Higher elevation than I remembered. I don’t think there will be bears, so I may go lower to look for a spot to base/spike camp with Dad. At about 6 PM parked truck, hurriedly packed bag with supplies for up to 6 days in case I get on elk. Shot a few arrows, screwed on broadheads. Camping with bivy bag and tarp. In position to glass in morning. Might stay out ‘till opener of elk archery Saturday 8/31. Saw one mule deer doe while packing. I happened to be playing with a diaphragm, cow calling, and I look up and she was stopped in the middle of the road, staring back at me.
Glassed from 6 AM to 8 AM. Saw 1 doe and 1 raghorn elk. Raghorn was cruising a ridgeline. Good sleep in bivy with 10-degree down bag and liner – too warm, really, but comfortable for the night of perfect weather. Delicious instant coffee with coconut creamer and ghee for breakfast.
Hiked to ridge of raghorn elk, just about 1 mile straightline, but it took almost 2 hours. Saw beds. Moved a bit further and an animal galloped away. I figured it was an elk and I cow called toward it. 40 yards away another animal stands up from its bed – a Bull Moose! I snapped a photo of his wide-antlered stare, then I backed away, and he moved off as well.
Thursday 8/29, written on Friday 8/30
Bugling Bulls! The last 18 hours has been incredible.
Around 2 or 3 PM yesterday I started on a planned route down valley, to look for elk sign at lower elevation; to look for bear, bear sign and berries; to look for a car camp spot for a base camp for Dad and I to bear hunt from. I was walking through varied vegetation of berries, ferns, oak brush. After one especially thick patch I looked back and saw the fluorescent yellow fletching of one of my arrows on the ground, 10 feet back. I wondered how many other arrows had fallen out over the last ½ mile of bushwacking – turns out, one other arrow. So I started backtracking to look for the lost arrow, following bootprints and knocked down vegetation.
I came to a bike singletrack trail, which I remembered having followed for a bit, but I couldn’t tell where my footprints stopped, indicating I should start up the un-trailed hill again. I walked back and forth once or twice, then was standing on the trail as three mountain bikers came rolling down, stoke apparent on their faces. We chatted for a bit, 2 guys and 1 girl straddling their bikes, me on the side of the singletrack, loaded up for up to 6 days in the alpine. They work for “Route County Riders” and they were the workers I had seen earlier in the day from a couple hundred yards off, hacking out new trail with pulaskis. We chatted amiably for a few minutes about mountain biking, their work, hunting. They volunteered that they had seen lots of elk sign, and, more interestingly, had heard “them calling in that next valley, over that way, this morning.”
I had seen these 3 earlier in the day, and shortly thereafter was kicking myself for not approaching them. Then the Universe gave me another shot to meet them, as my lost arrow had brought me backtracking, just at the right moment, along the same trail they were riding down.
I had been curious about the indicated valley and surrounding area, but I was not planning a route to it – I thought I should focus on finding a camp and likely areas for Dad and I to bear hunt. If there are elk over in that valley, though, that’s why I have 6 days of gear on my back – I’m there!
The mountain bikers left, and I made my best guess as to where I should continue backtracking, still hoping to find my arrow and broadhead, for $40 and because I only have 3 total big game arrows with me. I got to a point where I was reasonably sure I had sat with my pack off an hour earlier. I made another best guesss as to how I would have proceeded from there, and within 20 yards I walked up to the fluorescent fletching of my arrow, hanging in the dense brush. I whooped in victory! I threw down my trekking poles, swung my pack to the ground, reached toward the reunited arrow and was punched hard in the shoulder. What the heck!? I recoiled to standing, realized what was happening and scampered back 5 yards. I laughed out loud - deep and long laughter. Come on! What are the chances! I lose one arrow, notice when I lose a second arrow and am thus prompted to look for the first unnoticed lost arrow, I make friends and get super useful intel from the mountain bikers/workers I regretted not approaching earlier in the day, I successfully backtrack and find the lost arrow, and I promptly drop my pack onto an active beehive. The bee sting sealed the deal for the serendipity of it all.
I hiked down the slope, across to the adjacent valley, down a near-shear wall to the Soda Creek, filled up with 3 liters of water, climbed up the opposite near-shear wall. Imediately a number of things occurred, or in my meory it is that way – the vegetation became beautiful green long blades of “un-cured” grass (unlike above 9000 ft), shin to knee high, moderately thick, beautiful for grazers like elk. Everything about it screamed elk, but I had to be sure, I had to go look closer for “fresh elk sign” before I committed to the area for several days. The grass was perfect elk food, and I quickly walked across a bed. Then there was crashing and hooves stamping, the deep thuds of a large ungulate. I actually think it was a moose, based on the marshy area it came from and the size of the bed I saw. I cow called after it, in case it was an elk, to try to calm it enough to keep it in the area.
I looked at OnX, thinking I had seen enough, that this area held animals, and I plotted a route up about 400 ft and laterally about ¼ mile, where I could camp for the night and hopefully leave this immediate zone unaffected by my noise, sight and scent. As I started on this route a bull elk bugled. A powerful bugle, and chuckles, of a mature elk, within 200 yards. Whoa! Cool. I gotta get out of here!
This was the exact scenario you could ask for – plenty of daylight, a sounding-off bull, likely without cows and thus probably responsive to calls. I hoped he would remain unbothered for 38 hours, and that he would then only be brought out of his wild existance by the twang of my bow and twack of my arrow.
I was pretty smashed when I got to the top of the ridge, ready to unload, drink water, set up camp.
I saw some elk sign in the area, and fresh berry bear scat, but I figured I was far enough from the bugling bull not to disturb. him.
I set up a tarp lean-to, put out my sleeping bag, pad, bivy sack, dressed in my sleeping costume, ate lentil noodles floating in salty pasta water and olive oil, drank more water, read fiction, set everything out to dry and stay dry if it rained, plugged the phone into the battery bank and closed the eyes at 800 PM, right about at last legal shooting light.
While reading in ‘bed’, though, I had an ‘encounter’ at 7 PM. It was still plenty light out, but the temperature had cooled, the typical time for deer, elk and moose to be active. I laid under the lean-to, reading, and I heard footsteps and soft, short persistent mews and chirps – a cow elk. I giggled to myself – she must be within 30 yards, now 20. Then, maybe just 10 yards on the other side of the tarp, she startled and thundered off.
I closed my eyes at 800 PM and almost immediately reopened them, alert to a whoof/blowing noise and then soft steps headed my way. It was fun and funny an hour previously when I knew it was a cow elk, but now I was concerned this visitor was associated with the berry scat I had seen earlier just 100 yards away. “Hey! Enough of that! Get outta here, Bear! or whatever you are!” Nothing. I flashed my headlamp’s hi-beam on and off, and that got the desired reaction – the “bear” scampered away. Now a bit on edge, I thought I heard “it” again, coming back in, 5 minutes later. “I said GET OUTTA HERE! GIT!” I flashed the headlamp. After the first “bear” encounter (which was real, whatever the critter may have been), I was definitely prone to imagination and the second approach very well may have existed only in my mind. Regardless, I remained unvisted, to my knowledge, the rest of the night.
Unvisited, but not without further excitement. I heard a bull bugling, 5 times, 10 times, between 830 PM and midnight – the first time I have slept with the elk and among the surreal screams of a Rocky Mountain Bull.
Left to Right, Top to Bottom: 1. Author stoked to get out there, soon. 2. Out There. 3. Wildflowers. 4. Drinking and Bathing Creek. 5. Berries. 6. Bear Berry Scat.
Friday 8/30, 10 AM
I woke to my alarm at 550 AM. At 6 AM a bull sounded off, maybe a few hundred yards away. “Cool. They’re still here.” I brought binoculars and coffee making paraphanelia to the edge of the ridge, but before I could even begin the glassing and coffee session, a bull ripped a bugle, maybe 150 or 200 yards, max, from my tarp lean-to. 24 hours early! But so exciting. I decided I need to get out of there – the elk and other wildlife were all over me last night, now a bull was way too close for the day before season. I grabbed my gear, shoving it in my pack and carrying it in my arms, stumbled off 200 yards, then stopped to pack more properly.
I walked another 1 mile and re-set camp. Tomorrow morning, for the first day of Colorado Elk Archery 2019, I plan to walk to last night's camp spot and to sit in the pre-dawn, listening for bugles.
Today is a rest day, time to be quiet and still, to rub the feet, stretch the quads. I’ve found elk habitat and real, live mewing and screaming elk - thanks to getting out here days early and the remarkable sequence of events involving lost arrows, bee stings and amiable mountain biking friends. Tomorrow the bow comes off the pack and into my hand, the release is buckled to my wrist, and the chase is on.
Friday 8/30, 3 PM
What a spectacular day. I have mostly laid about and done little but look and read away the afternoon. Cool this morning, hot midday, just right to laze in the shade, and I have moved my foam mat several times to follow the patches of shade through this high, dry pine-aspen foest. I sit and walk bare foot, as comfortable right here and now as I ever have been in nature, or in civilization, for that matter. A light breeze tickles the aspen leaves, providing a most calm background. It smells of drying timber and pine sap. There is very little urge to create or consume anything – all is good and fine in this forest mountain home.
I filtered water this afternoon. An elk busted away from its riverside bed as I approached the creek, both of us unaware of the other until only a few strides apart, thick vegetation and forest hiding us from one another. The elk was lying right next to very fresh bear berry scat, and I noticed the creek bank was lined by many fruiting berry bushes. There were 2 trout, perhaps 6”, in a small pool of this tiny creek deep back in the mountains – I never would have thought it viable fish habitat. The creek and sunshine were so lovely that I was compelled to strip and bathe, drip drying as I filtered water into my bottles, leaving the creek feeling $1 million bucks, or more accurately, feeling right, natural and spilling over with gratitude.
Today was as relaxed and beautiful as they come. I walked maybe a couple miles. I ate modestly, enjoying the simple food I packed. I drank clean filtered water from mountain streams. I heard bugling bulls. I read and generally lounged about. I was alone all day, but did text Mom, Dad, friends. I did what I could to prepare for tomorrow and the coming 30 day elk archery season, shooting a couple stump arrows, cleaning gear, massaging and bathing and taping my feet. The air was still, the breeze rustled the aspen leaves, a storm blew in and I moved myself and gear to cover, the storm blew through, the air returned to stillness. I laid in the dirt and twigs. Ants crawled onto me, flies and grasshoppers zipped about. The biome of the soil interacted in complex ways with my barely comprehensible biome, cells and molecules that make up “me”. I looked at the colors of the hills. I saw the grasses and sage brushes, the aspens and pines that spotted them in stands, meadows and marshes. The alpine forest was an embracing mother, a spectactular garden palace. The mountains of Colorado can be unforgiving and show a temper. Today it was the Shire.
Well, I figure that’s about enough. Ready and stoked to hunt elk tomorrow and to walk in, be part of, God’s creation.
Saturday 8/31, 9 AM
Elk archery opening day. Last night, 800 PM, I heard a bull chuckling 2 or 3 times over 10 minutes. Good to hear they were still vocal.
More visitors last night. I had one right at dark, about 820 PM – I laid quietly, eyes wide-open, hands on my headlamp. I relaxed after 5 minutes, thinking that whatever had approached to 25 yards had left. I adjusted my sleeping bag and, at my motion, an elk bolted, pounding down the mountain. Alright, now it was actually gone. Later, not sure quite when, maybe midnight, several hooved animals (by the sound of them) were in the same spot, and I came to full consciousness as they thundered away, down the slope.
This morning I woke at 415 AM. Coffee, pack, look at Orion, out at 518 AM, bow in hand. Walking the 800 yards by red headlamp took longer than I expected. I heard my first bugle of the official season at 620 AM. I followed bugles northeast for 1 or 2 miles over the next 2 hours. Seemingly I was chasing a bull that was traveling away from me, moving along the top edge of the valley and bugling and chuckling as he went. All quiet starting at 8am, and now I sit waiting, waiting to start bugling myself, but first waiting for there to be a consistent updraft.
As I sat here a dude walked by, 10 minutes after a cow and calf elk ran by. I talked to dude, nice guy, volunteered what I knew - that this area has real elk running about and bugling.
Saturday 8/31, 6 PM
“Hunt 1” – as described above, walking the edge of the valley, chasing bugles.
“Hunt 2” – a higher loop, 9000 to 9500 feet – no good feed and no elk sign.
“Hunt 3” – A loop down into the valley where I heard the first bugles on Thursday after talking with the mountain bikers. I walked over, then down the slope, then back across toward where I started, to properly address the wind. I aimed to be at the “bugling spot” at 430 PM, when the bull was bugling on Thursday, and I was there at 430, but he was not. Many elk beds on the face, but all empty. For a moment I thought this maneuver was a success – just below me an animal was walking through the brush. It was goigng to pass very close. I saw it was brown, and I hurriedly nocked an arrow, hooked the D-loop and drew back. Immediately below me, 4 yards, 12 feet, it stepped out of the brush and turned the only direction made available by the thick brush – toward me.
In my head:
First – “An elk! Yes!” Next – “Oh. It’s a little elk. A short elk.” Finally – “Bear!”
“Get outta here, bear! Git!”
And he got. At 12 feet away I had a detailed look – he had a beautiful face, dark brown in color.
“Hunt 4” – Currently. It involves sitting at camp, waiting for an elk to show up or to hear a bugle. It worked the last 2 nights. Today was particularly hot and hunters and Labor Day weekend may have stirred up the woods, but I am feeling greatful for the luck and sounds and sights so far, and I am feeling lucky for more.
Sunday 9/1, 730 AM
Last night, after eating pasta, rehydrating and cooling down, I decided to pack up and move camp. It was past 7 PM, I was tired and sore, I already had camp set up. But I decided that I had to make one more push for the day. The elk won’t tolerate people hunting, hiking, dirt biking, mountain biking, fishing, camping on Labor Day weekend, and I believed the area was played out. I chose to go where
I just shot a 4x4. Seated. 20 yards. I lost my mind. Hardly picked a spot, hardly anchored. I pray for swift death and finding this elk. I hit up and back. There is blood, but I’m not sure..