“I don’t see how this can go wrong,” I thought as I followed the set of deer tracks.
Famous last words, I know. Such a thought is either the strongest jinx or a step towards manifestation. This time, though, was the later, as fortune shined once again this 2019 Hunt Odyssey.
I now realize that this was a top-tier adventure, a culmination of interests and aspirations. This was a "Dream" (cherished aspiration, ambition or ideal) "Hunt" (determined search for someone or something).
Here is the "Dream" "Hunt" tale:
October 21, Day 1:
Worked at a coffee shop in the morning. Did last minute e-scouting. Packed bag.
Left the trailhead at 2 PM with the bag loaded for up to 5 nights of rations. The snow had been coming down all day, so there was no surprise about what I was getting into – it would be cold, wet and the sun was not in the forecast for at least 3 days.
I only made it 1.5 miles from the trailhead. I had never backpacked, or camped at all, in true winter conditions. It turns out to be challenging. I had read about it and never understood how Shackleton’s crew could only make a mile or two some days. Now I get it. Winter travel is tough. My backpack was literally twice as heavy as in early-September. The footing was challenging, every step requiring you to break through a thin snow crust, stomp down to a stable foundation, stride forward while your boot sole slips back down the slope. I was burning hot with the effort. I was concerned about becoming a soaking mess from the inside-out, but I was equally concerned about getting wet from the outside-in – the spigot had opened further, and a heavy, wet snow was coming down. The terrain was wide open, but I was making maybe ½ mile per hour as I coped with the winter conditions. Backpack hunting has its advantages, but today it seemed to be only a liability.
I set up camp a couple hours before dark. I busted through the slushy ice of a cattle pond to collect water and made tea. I took efforts to keep everything dry, but you can only do so much while camping on solidified water. I knew I would look back and be grateful for the experience, but I hoped that I would become more comfortable and confident so that I might, just maybe, enjoy some of the coming days out here.
October 22, Day 2:
A light snow throughout the day. No sun.
I was up before dawn (not so tough this time of year – first light is 7:15 am) and spent the morning glassing the meadows and oak brush near camp. No deer, but a good number of tracks in the snow.
Made breakfast around 10 AM – hot oatmeal. It was game changing. For much of September's elk season I was slightly hungry, and I was fine with it. I have better energy and motivation if I am running a caloric deficit. But now I have found that eating, especially hot food, is a key advantage for winter conditions. It brought the physical warmth of digestion and a huge psychological boost, for a couple hours quelling the thoughts of heading back to the warm and dry truck, the thoughts of quitting.
I glassed three deer around noon. On close inspection I realized one of them was a buck – the first buck I had seen in Colorado, during season, with a valid male mule deer tag in my pocket. They were about 1200 yards from me and walking further away. I had finished packing up camp and all of my gear was on my back, so I could have chased without concern of getting back to camp before dark – I would just set up camp wherever I ended up. However, I chose not to pursue the deer – it was across a steep and slippery ravine, it might take two hours to get over there, and who knows where they could be by then.
I unpacked and re-set camp just a half mile from the previous night. I spotted three more deer, this time within 100 yards, but no bucks.
October 23, Day 3:
I glassed the valley below camp at daybreak. It was a good glassing spot, with about 80 visible acres of sage brush and oak brush, and there was enough topography to facilitate a stalk to within 150 yards of anything I spotted.
No deer this morning, despite lots of tracks in the area. Maybe it was poor luck, or maybe camping so nearby had temporarily pushed the deer out of the area.
I packed up and walked out toward the trailhead around 10 AM. A small but welcome delay was provided by the flushing of a grouse, which I shot, cleaned and carried out for a fine dinner in the near future.
October 23 and October 24
On Day 3 of the hunt, I decided I had been wet and cold for long enough. Plus, the weather was forecasted to turn wetter and colder. I went into Steamboat and rented a hotel room. I spent the next two days drying out my gear and doing finance work.
October 25, Day 4:
I left the trailhead ready to stay out for the remainder of the season, up to three nights. Half a mile up the trail, I turned and walked straight up the steep, snow-covered mountainside. I was headed to where I had spotted the buck on October 22.
I glassed a high meadow for an hour. No deer, but I was finally enjoying the warm sunshine on my back after the difficult weather of the last week.
I continued walking up the meadow and happened upon a set of fresh prints in the snow. I could tell they were very fresh because the little flecks of snow kicked up by each step had not yet been thawed by the strong sun. And it was suspicious that it was a lone set of tracks – does rarely travel alone. These tracks were likely a buck’s, and he was probably nearby.
I followed the tracks for 100 yards before the single straight line of prints was broken by a stamped down area about 3 ft x 3 ft. Adjacent to this stamped snow patch was a skinny tree that had been partially stripped of bark. A fresh antler rub – there were ribbons of bark lying on top of the snow, at the base of tree. Now I was amped up. The prints were clearly very fresh, within an hour or two, and the rub was positive proof that they belonged to a buck.
I followed the tracks for another 100 yards, looping around a dense stand of oak brush. The character of the track suddenly changed – where it had been single walking prints, one after another, spaced about 18” apart, it was now four prints tightly grouped, then a blank slate of snow for 8-12 feet, then another four prints. The mulie buck was running. Or, more precisely, it was hopping. This is one of the unusual characteristics of mule deer – they tend to hop away when alarmed, bounding eight, ten, fifteen feet at time on spring loaded limbs. Seemingly, this mule deer had caught my scent while I was tracking him and had bounded away down country.
I was disappointed that the deer was alarmed and running. I didn’t know how far it would go, and it would be much more alert to my approach. Regardless, there was only one thing to do – keep following the tracks.
Eventually the tracks transitioned from bounding leaps and hops to trotting and then to walking. Over the next mile, though, two more times the tracks switched back to alarmed hopping – the wind was not in my favor, and possibly the deer continued to catch the scent of a human. Sometimes the tracking was easy, with a blank white canvas and bright sun putting the prints into obvious shadow and contrast. Sometimes tracking was difficult, with my target deer’s tracks obscured among fresh elk tracks or day-old tracks from other deer.
I had never done this before – track an animal across a vast swath of land, no private property boundaries to bring the stalk to a premature end. I remember trying many times – in Wisconsin mid-state, in hometown Germantown, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – but it was always on a relatively small plot of land, and property boundaries either directly interfered or cast enough doubt on the feasibility of the hunt that I would give it up.
I followed the tracks but kept wondering if I should be doing something different – loop around and try to get in front of the tracks, be patient and wait, try to move faster… “Man, I’ve never done this before! I don’t know!” Excitement and urgency pushed my pace but overheating checked it back down – I was working hard, carrying at least a 40-pound pack of hunting and winter camping gear. I just kept moving along, a small amount of experience and innate human ability helping me stay on the set of tracks through the dirt, mud and snow.
After two hours and a couple miles I spotted a deer. It was across a shallow creek valley, about 150 yards away. I had seen it too late – it was already looking back at me. The deer moved into the brush before I could get glass on it, so the brief encounter left me unsure if it was a buck or doe. I believed it was the buck that had made the rub hours earlier, but I had crisscrossed so many other sets of tracks, plus patches of trackless dirt and grass, that I was no longer certain if I was still following the right set of tracks.
I walked up to where the deer had been standing. Unsurprisingly, there was no deer there, just tracks showing the direction it had hopped away. A positive surprise, though, was that the tracks were “horseshoe-ing” around – the deer didn’t want to get too far from its “home” acreage, from the places it knew for nutritious feed, safe bedding and easy travel corridors. The tracks did a complete horseshoe, or lollipop, and then there were deer prints on top of the boot prints I had made only minutes previously. Then, a couple hundred yards later, another horseshoe, and the deer was headed back in the original direction.
I crested over the lip of the 10th or 20th valley of the day, and there the deer was, 120 yards away. I plopped down onto my butt, the hillside and brushy trees providing a backdrop. I swung my rifle up, elbows resting on thighs, pack still on but supported by the ground. I looked at the deer through the rifle scope, and the deer looked back at me. It was a buck. It was the buck. The antlers clearly identified it as the same buck I had glassed three days earlier. He stared in my direction, totally motionless, for several minutes. I examined his face and antlers through the magnification of the rifle scope.
The buck’s vitals were covered by thick brush, but this was a high odds scenario – there was over 100 yards of clear slope once the buck started moving again. He was trying to determine the level of threat, but the wind was in my favor and he was unable to visually make out my profile as a human. I was solid and steady with my elbows rested. I was confident in making a clean shot across the approximately 120 yards.
He began a deliberate walk up the slope, directly away from me. “Meehhhh!!” I called, almost shouting across the drainage. He turned slightly, stopped and looked back. I settled the crosshairs for the quartering-away shot. BLOACH!! I yanked on the trigger like a total jackass. I knew right away that it was a total whiff. I chambered another round as the deer trotted further up the slope. Mule deer are apt to stop and look back when startled, and this buck was no exception. He stopped and looked at 150 yards. The first shot had calmed my nerves, and now I knew this was a dead buck. BLOACH! and his chest sunk toward the ground as he stumbled forward. 15 yards from the shot he disappeared into oak brush, a tree thrashed about, and in a few more seconds all was still.
This was a beautiful animal. Truly a most beautiful specimen. Gentle face of gray, black and browns. A heavy and full winter coat. A healthy layer of fat. Clean as any animal I have seen, domestic or wild. I definitely felt remorse. This was a wild animal and would eventually die a grisly death, but even having taken it quickly and knowing that I would put the tale and the flesh to good use, it is still a powerful thing to personally kill an animal, an inhabitant and essential element of the mountains and forest that I so love.
I took some moments for the emotions – gratitude, sadness, excitement, pride. A few photos, and then I set to work cutting up the buck. This was a much more relaxed experience than September’s bull elk – the deer weighed maybe 35% or 40% of what the bull did, and the cold weather meant that I could take my time without fear of spoilage or the hassle of black flies. I put the quarters, neck meat and backstraps into game bags. Then, in an unusual backcountry processing step, I pulled the guts out and hung the remainder of the carcass – I wanted to come back later with a saw to harvest bone-in ribs. Gallon ziplocs held the tongue, testicles, tenderloins, liver and heart.
It was late-afternoon by the time I finished cutting and hanging meat, so I decided to stay out for the night. I was a bit concerned that critters would try to steal a free dinner from the hanging meat, so I wanted to stay close, but the nearest flat spot I could find was 200 yards away. A combination of factors made for poor sleep – excitement, cold temperatures, and getting up to yell at coyotes three times during the night.
October 25, Day 5
A non-hunting day. A pack out day.
I woke with the first light, drinking coffee, stamping around the snow while the warmth of the sun made its way over the horizon.
The first load out was my hunting and camping gear, plus the buck skull. I unloaded at the truck, then came back with an empty pack and a bone saw. I cut the ribs and loaded my pack with all of the meat and bones – four quarters, a miscellaneous meat bag, ribs and ziplocs of the tasty bits. I sat down to strap into the pack, then was surprised to find that I could barely stand back up. This load was near my maximum capacity. I slowly made my way back to the trailhead and truck, leaning on my trekking poles, grateful for the opportunity to hurt and to work in the mountain air, carrying out food, a memory and a tale.
Growing up in Wisconsin, we would talk and dream about the hunting and the backcountry “Out West”.
Maybe 15 years ago I had seen videos of guys tracking whitetail deer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, hunting down bucks through the snow for hours and miles.
As a child and still today I read accounts of explorers and mountain men, like Ernest Shackleton and Dick Proenneke, camping and traveling on foot through the winter.
Careful what you dream. A dream internalized will come to reality.