Last post was casual nothings for days of driving, prep, backpacking.. then BLAM! BULL ELK ON THE GROUND!
That post was simply the entries straight out of my field journal – I didn’t necessarily intend for the tone of the tale to go from zero to climax in two sentences, but I’m actually glad it went that way. That’s how it felt to me, in real life. It was four days of sipping coffee in the morning, drifting about the alpine forest kingdom during the day, watching the sky turn and the temperature drop each night, revealing the stars and kicking off the visits by the forest’s nocturnal residents. An easygoing existence. Then, without prelude, the opportunity, the stated goal, the moment I had been seeking was upon me. A crashing noise from up on the ridge, 15 seconds later the 4x4 bull is broadside at 20 yards and thwack! my arrow disappears into his side. Holy cats. That just happened
It was Sunday, September 1, and after a day of hunting and four nights of backpacking, I was looking to do a physically easier morning hunt, so I left my tarp/bivy shelter at about 6 AM, first shooting light, and walked toward a nearby creek with my empty pack, bow in one hand, jet boil full of coffee in the other. I found a spot a few yards down slope from a T-junction of two game trails, took a seat on a log and nocked an arrow. I drank coffee and looked about for 20 minutes, ranging the trees in the moderately thick pine/aspen forest, all of the yardages coming in under 45 yards. I slid off the log, all the way to the ground, and sat with legs straight out in front of me. I decided to try to meditate, but first I made a few cow calls* with the AMP diaphragm - a few without the bugle tube, a few with the bugle tube. Meditation was not particularly deep, having just downed a large coffee and the small critters of the forest rustling about. I cow called again, meditated again. 20 minutes in I figured that was enough 'meditation' and I pulled out my field journal to fill in notes from the prior afternoon. Before putting pen to paper, I paused to make a few more cow calls through the bugle tube. I had been sitting for about an hour, and I had paused the small activities of the morning every 10 or 20 minutes to make a handful of cow calls of various emotion/tone, volume, direction.
*Typical cow calls sound like this - watch from 0:18 to 0:30 seconds.
Two sentences into writing my field notes, there was crashing up toward the ridge. I quickly saw the brown of an elk and a flash of antlers. I picked up my bow and started counting points - top fork, that's 2. Another tine, that’s 3. Having moved without pause from 75 to 25 yards I saw the eye guard - 4 points. A legal bull. He came straight down the slope, with the morning's downhill thermal, to 20 yards before turning broadside and continuing his walk, slower than when he first crashed into the area. I drew as he walked left to right, and at 20 yards - from my butt, legs in front of me, straight over my feet - I put the first pin in the general proximity of the vitals and the arrow was gone, thwacking high and back on his ribs, yellow fletching disappearing with full penetration.
The bull elk bolted, still going left to right. I started cow calling just a few seconds after shooting, and just after disappearing from sight, at around 100 yards, I heard him stop. Maybe he will come back in, I can get another arrow in him. Maybe I... but before I could do anything more I heard the crashing and stick breaking resume, and the probabilities started running through my head – the probability the elk dies at all, the probability I find him, the probability I find him in less than an hour..
I stood and walked the 20 yards to where he had been standing, finding his startled hoofprints, dirt strewn backward from where his rear hoofs had pried at the soft earth. I found blood right there, on the arrow-entry side. A few seconds later, more blood, on the arrow-exit side. Good, a pass-through. I expected as much, shooting a heavy and powerful bow-and-arrow setup, but was relieved to see the desired pass-through in actuality. I looked about for my arrow, believing I may be in for a long blood-trail and wanting more clues as to the nature of the wound – supposedly, an arrow can show different colors of blood or smell differently, depending on where it passed through the animal. I looked thoroughly but could not find the arrow, the same arrow that’s previous disappearance helped put into motion this series of events starting on Thursday, August 29.
It was perhaps 8 AM by now and, already, the mercury was noticeably rising. It was going to be another scorcher and I needed to get on with looking for this wounded bull elk. I followed the sparse blood trail slowly, examining the blood and dispersal for clues about the wound. I fully expected the blood trail to end at any moment, leaving me to wander with little hope of finding the bull, but fortune shone upon me – I may have lost my cool in those most critical last moments before the shot, but I had practiced enough that even my worst execution, smiled on with a bit of good luck, was enough – the arrow had passed through both lungs and I found the elk toppled, dead at 120 yards.
After the shot, I saw the bull run 100 yards and go out of sight. I cow called, I heard him stop, then I heard him resume his crashing sprint through the forest. Except that’s not what it was. Above, I was surprised and elated to learn that the final noise of sticks breaking was the bull elk falling over, dead within seconds of the shot.
I thanked the Universe, the Good Lord and the Animal. I took the time to set up my phone for a photo, out of respect and memory for the animal and the adventure. Then it was time to work. I hustled over and grabbed my gear from the previous night’s still set-up camp. I set out water, tarp, rope, game bags, spare knife blades. I turned on some tunes for the first time in 5 day, and I cut, heaved and carried non-stop until my back ached, forearms cried and the quarters were bagged and hung.
It was weird being alone. Not bad, just different than I would have expected. Things were procedural: Dead elk. Better cut it up and get it hung. Chug some water, otherwise you’ll be a useless blob. Pack your bag. Take a wiz by the hung meat, to keep the critters away overnight. Walk out. Sleep. Walk in. Pack your bag. Walk out. Walk in. Pack your bag. Walk out.
It was surreal, really. There was nobody to celebrate with, or to replay and analyze what just happened, or to comment on the incredibleness of the moment. So I was left acting like “this is normal". I was stoked, out of my mind stoked, sure. But I knew the activities than needed to occur, and I knew they would take well over a day to complete, so I did them, continuously, with urgency but without rushing, taking an elk from woodland creature to butcher paper wrapped steaks over the next two days.
Final Notes to the Tale:
1. The shot.
I shot this elk almost ‘center of mass’. I don’t remember where I was aiming. I don’t think I was. I think I put the green pin close the vitals, never picking a specific spot, and suddenly the arrow was gone. Many, many repetitions of nocking an arrow, drawing and anchoring, picking a spot and cleanly releasing – the hundreds, maybe one thousand, reps during the Summer – it was just enough, combined with a spot of luck, to get the arrow where it needed to go for a remarkably swift kill.
2. The solo pack out.
As I’ve stated, this was a fully solo excursion. That includes the ‘pack out’ – the part every backcountry hunter wonders about, fears and takes pride in. I like to think myself mentally and physically fit, and this ‘solo pack out’ took almost every bit of that endurance. First out was my camping gear, hunting gear and the elk ‘odd bits’ (the organs that need to get on ice, pronto). The next morning I walked back in with an empty backpack and packed out the miscellaneous meat bag and the 2 front quarters. I put them on ice and turned back for one more load, this final time carrying out the 2 rear quarters and the skull and antlers.
I came apart, physically, on this last load out. My glutes just stopped working, and I had to stop every 100 yards to plop down, breathe and recover, get to my knees, lunge and rise. The pack weighed in the range of 120 pounds for each trip, far and away the heaviest loads I have carried to date, so it didn’t seem surprising that I would have some muscle failure after 6 total hours of carrying that much weight up and down slopes, through brush and bramble. Later that night, I realized the final struggle was probably less from fatigue and more due to rapid dehydration – highs hit the mid 90s that day, and despite drinking 5 liters of water during the drive back to Denver, I didn’t wiz properly until the next day.
3. The 'odd' bits.
I carried out the ‘odd’ bits – heart, liver, caul fat, tongue, testicles (“Rocky Mountain Oysters”!). Last year, weeks after shooting the 2018 bull, I was disappointed that I didn’t get these parts into the freezer. Taking care of that much flesh and bone was overwhelming and, in the moment, I decided that enough was enough. I had the same temptation this year, again experiencing the overwhelming list of activities that must be quickly, safely and continuously completed. I was tempted to leave the odd bits out in the field for the bears and carrion birds. But I had the commitment in the back of my mind, and I took the time and effort to get these bits out in the first load and onto ice.
Tongue is tongue, testicles become sliced and fried Rocky Mountain Oysters, I was recently given a southern liver recipe I’m excited about, the caul fat will wraps steaks to add fat and crispy texture, and the trimmed heart becomes 3 pounds of steak – tender, nutritious, delicious.
4. The meat.
Seemingly, this was a supremely healthy animal and my efforts and fortunate circumstances combined for good ‘meat care’ - the quality of this elk meat is top-notch. It is prime. Before freezing, a pal and I butchered the two front quarters and the miscellaneous meat, cutting it into steaks and roasts, jerky and grind. Informed by last September 2018’s butchery adventures and then cooking with that meat for the last year, I was able to make better decisions as to what to trim, what to leave, what is a good steak for grilling or cast iron, what is better for the slow cooker or dutch oven.
Later, I was able to share part of the Odyssey with two sets of non-hunting (yet) friends, bringing a rear quarter over to each of their houses for them to butcher (with my novice-at-best guidance, and of course YouTube). They kept this meat cook, to eat and to maybe even further share with more people the bounty of the meat and the Tale of the Hunt.
We sawed the front and rear ‘shanks’ (the leg from knee to ankle) into bone-in shank roasts. I haven’t cooked any yet, but I am quite excited for everyone to use them to make osso buco.
5. This was a beautiful animal and top-tier adventure. Incredible. I’ll cherish it forever.