My elk hunting adventure
So a few years back I took a few buddies out to Colorado elk hunting. For some reason I decided to write the story down yesterday as it was a pretty crazy ending to a hunt that literally involved me chasing elk across a hillside. I figured I'd post it here in case anyone wants to read it.
They’re Either Here…or They’re Not.
It was early February as the five of us prepared to head out West for a Colorado do-it-yourself elk hunt. For myself, I had some previous experience in the hills of Colorado, but for the other four accompanying me this would be their rookie season chasing these magnificent animals. Growing up in Lancaster County Pa, our crew was typically only afforded the chance to chase the occasional whitetail through the fencerows. A trip to the Rockies in pursuit of elk was a lifetime in the making. It felt like years on end as the next few months passed by with me having countless meetings and answering every question thrown my way. “Where will we be hunting”? “What are the accommodations going to be like”? “What type of weather could we expect”? For the most part I could throw answers right back and try my best to transfer my knowledge to them. Unfortunately, the one thing I couldn’t predict, was the weather. Routt National Forest is an unforgiving place to say the least and what comes from one day to the next is anyone’s guess. Regardless of what we would encounter, we did what any hunter typically does. We hoped for the best and planned for the worst.
The game plan was to spend the first 3 days of the trip trekking the mountains and valleys of Routt National, just above Craig Colorado. There is a decent size heard to be found here but the hunting can be difficult at best. The valleys are steep and scattered with aspens and pines and the hunters you could encounter rival some of the Pennsylvania public lands I have hunted.
The day we arrived found us meandering up the mountain through serviceberry and sagebrush at lower elevations, dodging the occasional mule deer making its way down the mountain for water. As we ascended, the landscape around us morphed in an instant, for the shorter laurel-like brush was replaced abruptly by towering pines. The pines enveloped all light within 10 feet of the ground and you couldn’t help but imagine elk hiding in every spot just outside of eyesight. As you take this all in for the first time, your mind continues to race and every sense is playing catch up in an attempt to get back on the same page with each other. The sun through the windows and green all around you tell you that flowers should soon be blooming and the young of the year should be taking their first steps and you begin to wonder how spring has begun before winter has made an appearance. That thought is swiftly swept aside as we exit the vehicle. The chill mountain air cuts to the bone as it sweeps across your neck making the hair on your arms stand on end and you quickly realize there is no question that winter is not far off.
The spot we pick was right along a well-traveled road and provided us easy access to the backside of the mountain where we planned on hunting our first morning. Within minutes, the tents were erected, the mess hut was in place and a campfire was started with chairs waiting our arrival. At this moment I know this trip was already a success, if nothing more than to watch the fire flies spring from the fire against the backdrop of the pines as the sun set behind the Rockies. A moment like that, with friends, is something all men should hope to experience before they move on from this world. The rest of the night went as expected, with friends telling lies and half truths about hunts long past. Before long, it was time to hit the cots in preparation for an early morning on the mountain. Gear was readied, plans were made and the last glowing embers were doused with a sizzle as the smell of the smoke hung in the air.
The next morning, what we awoke to was something none of us expected, but all should have seen coming. A snow storm passed through while we slept and the camp that looked so perfect the night before was suddenly in shambles. The tents strained under the weight of the snow and the mess hut was collapsed and barely visible but for a corner that happened to still be standing. Luckily for us the corner that was exposed happened to be where the stove was set up and Tim was already at work cooking breakfast. I was in utter shock that he was cooking breakfast amid all the chaos but his attitude quickly turned me around. He figured we were here to hunt and were in the Rockies, why let something like a tent get in the way. Our attitudes quickly changed with sausage in our bellies and rifles on our backs, ready to set off for the first time into the timber.
As we departed, we all headed our separate ways and decided to meet back in camp around lunch time to regroup. Most of the morning was uneventful as far as game sightings went. A few mule deer doe here and there and the occasional distant shot was all we had to occupy our time. At noon, we met back at camp and quickly decided that it would probably be wise if we cut our drop camp short and headed into town a few days early, as our gear would probably not handle much more mother nature would throw at us. The tents were quickly packed away and in less than 24 hours we were on our way back down the mountain.
The new location we would be hunting out of our new “apartment base camp” would be night and day from the timber we were walking through just a day earlier. Small plateaus at the base of the mountains would be our new stomping grounds and dark timber would be replaced with jack rabbits and sage brush. The view was far more likely to produce a distant herd of pronghorn than it was a stampeding herd of elk, but I knew our chances were good.
Tim was the first to question the spot I had picked out. “So this is it?” he muttered, as we first pulled up to the parking area. I could sense the doubt in his voice and knew that everyone else was thinking what Tim had the courage to ask. I looked at him and said, “This spot produces elk, I promise you that. The problem is, they’re either here…or they’re not”. I immediately got the look I expected. The crease in the for head, the curled upper lip and the slight upturn of his shoulders let me know immediately that he thought the thin mountain air was going to my head. I elaborated enough to explain that in this spot, three days of silence can be interrupted by pure chaos in the blink of an eye. You will either not see a single thing the entire day or you’re going to be overrun with them. Hence, they’re either here…or they’re not.
The first three days followed the former of the two scenarios, producing little more than the occasional jack rabbit or mule deer doe. It did give us time to find our favorite lookouts though and everyone began to settle in and learn the lay of the land. For the most part, the entire group decided to flank to the right along the mountain side just below an open plateau so they could look down onto the flat lands. With private land to our left, that was pretty much the only direction they could go. Each morning the same routine would play out. We would drive to the parking area and start our trek along the hillside with each guy spaced a few hundred yards apart looking into pure openness, wondering what the heck I had gotten them into.
On the next to the last day of our trip, that all would change. That morning we decided to wait for daylight to make our trek out into the open prairie. Tim and Charlie would head out to the right across the bottom and make their way up the far side of the hill, while my brother Joe, Uncle Bret and I would head straight up the hill before flanking in their direction. As we slowly meandered up the cow path that leads up the hill making small talk, I pointed to a rock outcropping I had sat on the day prior and said “Joe, that’s about where I spent all morning yesterday watching that ravine”. He looked at me and said “you mean where those elk are at”?!
In an instant, all bets were off and my mind started working overtime trying to determine the best plan of action to get everyone in the best position for a shot. The elk were coming from the direction of Charlie and Tim and headed right for us. The problem was with plenty of trails to choose from there was no way to know if they would make it to us for a shot. I quickly told Joe to sprint to the top of the hill and head for a point about 200 yards above us. My uncle and myself would then stay low and watch the flat lands. The elk would surely have to cross somewhere to give us a shot. In less than 3 minutes I look up to see the lead cow crest out of the ravine below me heading away from the rest of my group and taking the herd with her. I knew my only choice in turning them back to the others was to try and fill my cow tag and hope the others would turn back. My .300 WSM barked to life and the chain reaction had begun.
The elk, unlike whitetail I had experienced back home in Pa, had decided they knew where they were going and nothing was stopping them. Unfortunately for us, where they were going was in the opposite direction I wanted them to. Immediately, as if by instinct, I handed my rifle to my uncle and started sprinting across the hillside not 40 yards above the elk trying to cut them off. In all my years, never did I think I would be in a footrace with a cow elk along the side of the mountain, but I knew if I didn’t turn them nobody else would get a shot. Finally, with enough of a lead, down the hill I went and stopped in the path of the oncoming herd. Crazy? Absolutely! At that point in time though, rational thoughts were long gone and instinct had taken over. The cow came to a halt not more than 10 yards in front of me looking as surprised as I was to be standing there looking at each other. Two steps up the mountain she went, two steps up the mountain I went. Two steps down for her, two steps down for me. We danced for what seemed like eternity until she decided that back tracking was her best option.
Within seconds, shots rang out from the direction I came from and I knew I had set the wheels in motion. The only thing I could do now was hope that it would all be worth it. On trembling knees I slowly made it back to my uncle. Excited and out of breath I couldn’t wait to see what had transpired. As I crested into the ravine where the elk originated from I could finally see the point I stationed my brother on. The sight of him standing on the point backlit by the morning sun and holding his rifle over his head in celebration would forever be etched in my memory. I then look below and intertwined with the brush lay a 5x5 bull. The feeling at that moment cannot be explained, but it was becoming clear that the chips fell into place. It wasn’t long after that we found that Tim had also taken a nice bull out of the same herd. There may have been a few out of place Pennsylvania boys on that mountainside, but their experience in the hills of Pa sure turned the tide that day.
The blur of what had transpired from there on out seems to be a dream, but the feeling of knowing the part everyone played in making that hunt successful is as clear as ever. After all was said and done the elk were quartered, the meat was packed out and standing by the truck the stories would start. It wasn’t until all was quiet and we had a chance to reflect during the ride off the plains that Tim looked over at me and said “Hey Eric, they’re either here…or they’re not”.
<span style="color: yellow">Trying to understand women is like trying to smell the color nine. -Ferrell</span>