feature By: Shawn Stafford | July, 18
At basecamp, prior to riding in, the group talked of high hopes and experiences from previous years. Some members hadn’t seen each other for years, but old friendships were quickly rekindled by the magic of a hunting camp. The site was more than welcoming, nestled in a beautiful valley with one of those perfect mountain streams running through it. The wall tent with a wood floor, a stove and cots felt like a long-lost friend. The weather was mild but with reports of snow coming in, our attention was focused on our expected levels of success on opening morning. This particular camp had proven fruitful in the past, and with the knowledge gained from those experiences we were confident there would be ample amounts of elk meat coming home with each member of the group.
We rushed over to the corral bright and early the following morning to ensure our status as the first out of camp. Once we claimed our spot, spread our gear out and separated it into equally weighted piles, it was time to head to the main tent where a giant enamel coffee pot rested on an old-school, cast iron stove. It was likely the nostalgia talking to me, but that was possibly the finest cup of coffee I’ve had west of the Mississippi. After the horses were loaded, we were all sized up and paired with an appropriate equine; it was finally time. With one foot in the stirrup and a little push from the other, my leg swung up and over and the adventure had begun.
Not much rivals a western pack in when it comes to an iconic experience. This one would not disappoint. During the ascent (and later descent) it was as if we kept venturing from one world to the next based on the geographical changes along the way. First it was the low-land willows, followed by a dense jungle of scrub oaks which led to those beautiful aspen stands. Coming out of the aspens we were met with the chill brought on by shadows of dark timber and eventually the warmth of the sunshine in high-mountain meadows.
Camp was everything a hunter would imagine a drop camp would be; a wall tent, wood stove, four cots, lantern and stove. We were even lucky enough to have a table and a radio to check in with the outfitter each night, letting him know if he needed to bring in horses the following day to pack out our elk. I have stayed in larger tents, but this one was more than adequate and helped to support close knit comradery. We immediately staked our claims to a bunk, constructed a latrine and began the task of cutting and splitting firewood. Once settled in we discussed the next day’s hunt plans and took a few minutes to suck in some pure mountain air.
Opening day came with blistering cold and snow. One hunting partner and I decided we would head to a canyon that showed tremendous promise on the map where elk had been spotted in previous years. The only bad thing was the predawn hike to reach it was long and required significant elevation gain. We set off in fresh snow 6 inches deep wearing nothing but base layers. To say the hike was brutal would be minimally accurate, and at worst not nearly descriptive enough of the endeavor. It included tossing frozen rocks into a creek to create a crossing that would keep the water from going over the tops of our boots, and sweat simply pouring from my body. I stopped at one point to catch my breath, and as I bent over, sweat streamed from my head to the ground; freezing temps and a soaking wet body were not good. It was so cold after that horrendous hike to our chosen spot for the day, my partner could not get a cartridge chambered as a cow stammered towards him inside of 100 yards. Thirty minutes after spooking the cow and shoving hand warmers in the chamber, he was finally able to insert a bullet and actually shoot if the opportunity arose again. Much to his dismay, not only did the cow have him pinned down with no cartridge in the chamber but he also hadn’t had a chance to put on his outer layers. Once I arrived at my perch I couldn’t stop shaking. Unknown to me, my partner was losing feeling in his arms and legs. I literally had my fire starter and lighter in my hand ready to go into survival mode, but luckily for us, the sun was bright and brought with it some ever-important warmth. With a morning like this the excitement quickly faded, but after regrouping and a quick warmup at camp, enthusiasm was back, and we anticipated the afternoon hunt.
One member of the foursome managed the strength and endurance to stay out all day in pursuit of filling his tag and was ultimately rewarded with a fantastic 6x6. He had chosen a steep climb near camp to access a secluded meadow on top of a timber-choked ridge. While this particular meadow didn’t pan out, he slowly made his way from one meadow to another that he had identified on his map, searching for fresh sign. Eventually he reached a large, distant meadow meandering up one of the nearby peaks that happened to have a picturesque saddle located on the north side. After sizing up the situation and the results of his efforts, he opted to ride this spot out until dark. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait that long. After a short time he noticed something peaking up over the curvature of the land in the direction of the saddle. He first saw a smaller, busted-up bull accompanied by two cows and a calf. Unlike me, he exhibited some patience to see if by chance a bigger bull was hanging around. As luck would have it, his hunch was correct, and a gorgeous 6x6 joined the party. They were slowly approaching his position and not being particularly cooperative, denying him a shot opportunity. Once the chance was given though, the crosshairs were aligned and the bullet flew true. It took a major effort for everything to come together, but as they say, good things happen to those who work hard. Spending the whole day executing his hunt plan stacked the odds in his favor, and he filled his tag because of it.
Following the shot, the remaining elk ran in my direction. It was early, so three of us opted to continue hunting as a group and let the successful hunter tend to the post-kill activities solo. The alarmed elk never made it to me, but I couldn’t help but be excited that we had an elk down. Shortly after the confirmation of the downed bull, a pair of shots rang from the direction of another member of the group. A short time later, a radio transmission let us know the eldest hunter from our group let-off two shots, but he had missed on both attempts. I have seen him shoot and know his capabilities as a marksman. One can’t help but smile, chalking it up to “cow fever.” The thing about this hunter is that he was not bitten by the hunting bug until later in life. Since then, he has absolutely grabbed the bull by the horns and took the challenge head on. In his first year he managed to knock out a trifecta of his first turkey in the spring and his first deer and elk in the fall. What I really appreciated about his dedication and interest in the sport – and more so the experience – was his first first hunt for elk was guided, but he wanted more next time. He learned a tremendous amount and had a fantastic time making great memories, but he needed to do it on his own to get that sense of personal satisfaction that yearned within him. He knew of our little band of hunters and our propensity to go it alone, so thankfully we worked it out.
That evening, once everyone had returned to camp, there was so much to talk about we didn’t know where to start. In just one day we hit on a lifetime of hunting experiences: The high of a kill; the low of a miss; the frustration of gear malfunctioning; the disappointment of not seeing a single animal. We had covered it all! With the wood stove crammed full of fuel, we scarfed down our supper and slid into our bags. With a first day like this, who could know what the next would hold.
The next day left one hunter in bed savoring the warmth while the rest of us trudged into the darkness. The remaining three only managed to see one elk, but a shot never presented itself. Hiking back to camp had some serious benefits late that morning, though. There was elk meat at camp and a hunger that only the freshest red meat could cure. We feasted like we hadn’t eaten for weeks, even though we only endured freeze-dried meals for a few days. Our camp tradition was bringing the heart along with the backstraps back to camp and grilling them over an open fire. It was these small moments that truly completed the experience. Without meat there would be no hunt. Without the animal’s life there would be no meat. Everything coexists in this delicate and priceless cycle.
The afternoon and following morning held more fruitless hiking and hunting with not much to speak of other than one of the bull’s quarters was ripped down and dragged off never to be seen again. The tracks indicated bear, so there was concern about what may happen to our precious cache. My partner and I from the first morning decided to head farther north and east on the third afternoon in hopes that expanding our range would reveal some new, unpressured elk. I planned to back into a small section of timber atop a rock structure while my partner continued up the trail towards a slightly higher elevation. Arriving at my spot a little early, a moment was taken to strip down to base layers, remove my boots, and let things air out in the bright afternoon sun. It was one of those moments where you just felt at peace with the world. But I was here to hunt and not sunbathe, so as the shadows began to appear I slipped into the dense conifers.
As had been the status quo for me, I watched birds ride thermals until I heard my partner shoot. There was no waiting for the radio call. I grabbed my gear and started climbing. When I finally got there, he could not hide his excitement. After a rough last couple of years from a hunting perspective, he was finally back on the board and itching to butcher his animal. The moments were replayed as we walked to the fallen cow. A hunter’s mind can play some serious tricks in the heat of the moment. When three cows appeared from the undulating terrain, he waited for his shot. At the crack of the rifle it appeared the cow literally went feet up, but much to his surprise three cows were spotted trotting off. The shot was about 350 yards, so he immediately hiked toward where the elk may have fallen. He made a mistake determining on which hill the elk was located, leading to a brief bout of panic, but after traveling a few more yards his trophy was spotted. Apparently a fourth cow was there the whole time, just hidden by an obstructed view. Some pictures were snapped and we happily began breaking down the elk. We quickly had the elk in pieces and game bags while the other two hunters marched toward us. Upon their arrival the bags were carried to the nearest tree and hung to cool. Grabbing the remainder of the bull from the first night, the two brothers packed it back to camp as an insurance measure in case the bruin decided to come back for seconds. It was a joyous hike back that night.
We were out late so we decided to sleep in until midday and stuffed ourselves on elk, carrots and potatoes. It’s very difficult to admit, but the joy of sitting around an open fire with the sun shining, mountains as a backdrop and such a fine meal had me content enough that no more hunting was needed to fulfill what it was I wanted out of this trip. As a hunter, though, desire got the best of me, and I headed to that first morning’s location. This time climbing much higher than previously, I patiently waited, battered by the unobstructed wind. The effort was briefly rewarded when a pair of cows popped out above me. I did a double take. On a steep, uneven slope I struggled to get into a steady shooting position. Peering through the scope, the telltale raising of a nose was seen, indicating they had gotten a whiff of something that didn’t belong. It was projected that the elk would come out more to the west and side hill towards my location, negating the impact of the rising thermals. As with all well-laid plans, the elk did not cooperate and came out directly above me, putting them perfectly in line to catch my scent. As quickly as they had appeared they disappeared, and that would be the only two live elk I would see all week.
The three of us with remaining tags continued to hunt hard the rest of trip without firing another shot. We logged many miles and arguably viewed some of the most beautiful scenery money can’t buy. I left it all on the mountain and tried my best to find an elk of my own, but at the end of trip I was eerily pleased even though I hadn’t shot anything. This trip was the first elk trip where the adventure was enough. Some may never know the peace that one gets when isolated from society, but I can guarantee you that I have lived it, and little is as satisfying.