Like any backcountry woodsman, my first priority was to replenish our water supply and purify it. Dusk was approaching quickly. While traveling back to the pond, we moved slowly and stealthily, with guns in hand. Every now and then my leader would turn around with a finger in front of his mouth. We’d stand perfectly still and scan for any signs of movement. “The ghosts of the forest” could have been moving in the dark timber down the slope below us, what our eyes could not see, our ears would have to step up. However, no sounds of crashing timber or rustling brush were heard below us.
I had noticed when we first past the pond, that it was frozen. Since I’ve dealt with that before, I just assumed I could punch a hole in the early November ice with a rock. It proved not to be very easy. The ice was a few inches thick, frozen completely through from the center of the pond out to the fingers that snaked through the grass and down the hill. Giving up the rock, I opened up my leatherman pliers and started stabbing frantically at the surface. I busted more knuckles than ice and all but gave up when my partner innocently asked, “Do you think it will break if I shoot it with my .45?”
“Will it break?! Shit yeah, shoot that thing!” I jumped up and got out of the way. Before the trip, I had rejected the idea of carrying a pistol on the hunt. I viewed it as unneccessary weight, and a less effective form of bear deterrent than mace. But Army Guy over here just had to relive the glory days with his in a strapped holster.
He aimed and shot down at a high angle to the surface. BLAM! SPLASH! The water blasted up like a fountain 10 feet in the air, leaving a hole in the ice. One shot was enough, and I was just about to take a step forward when he fired another shot, and another, at the ice repeatedly, shooting well over a half dozen shot before holstering the sidearm. (VIDEO LINK)
“I think that will do it, I said and drew water into water bottles and hydration bladders. We sat on a log wait for the chemical reaction to work in the water, in the cold, dark silence.
When we got back to camp, I started to get comfortable. Now that it was dark, It was going to get cold very soon, and stay that way until well after sunrise. I was grateful to have packed in a foam bedroll. It was not very heavy and made the entire night much more comfortable. I had also brought slightly more insulation than necessary, but I knew the next day would be ruined if I didn’t sleep well tonight. We built a small fire and remembered a lesson that was given to us by J.L. back at Elk Camp the night before….
“Hey laddies,” the original orator started out after a swig from a Budweiser, “do you know the difference between an Indian fire and a white man fire?”
“No”, we all replied.
He changed his tone to mimick a wise old native of the western slope: “Indian fire very small…sit very close.” Then he tossed a capful of Coleman fuel on the flame, causing it to flare up to the height of him, illuminating his face in a blaze of red. “White man fire very big…sit far away!” and folded his arms in front of him.
Deep in the wilderness, when our small Indian fire was built and crackling away, it was time to eat. We were careful not to overdo the food packing during the trip, but nonetheless we managed to bring the “red neck gourmet”, which included, roasted Spam on a stick and hot cocoa spiked with a flask of Jack Daniels. After dinner, I tucked into my sleeping bag with all my thermal clothing on, and pulled the hood of my down puffy over my head. I gazed up at the stars for a bit. It was a very clear night, and I could not think of any other place more peaceful to be in but in the deep mountain forests of the North American West. I don’t know how long I watched the sky, but I slept soundly and warm the entire night. (Utilizing an old method, I had boiled a bottle of water and zipped it up in an insulated sleeve. I placed it down between my legs, and when I awoke sometime in the middle of the night with a chill, I unzipped the bottle and replenished the warmth in the sleeping bag, and fell back asleep.) Occasionally through the night, I heard the coyotes howling away. I hear them everytime I camp out in the woods, but have never had an encounter with one at any time.
We woke at nearly 4:00 AM, and it was still dark. I was already dressed and ready to hunt. My Jet-boil, already loaded with water from the previous night, was right next to my sleeping bag. I fired it on and brewed two cups of coffee for us in minutes. My headlamp, navigation tools, binoculars, and rifle were on the other side of me. I stepped out of my bag and was ready to go.
We hiked through darkness back down towards an open talus field that we encountered the previous night. We hid in the dense trees at the base of the field and leaned against a log, each of us viewing in a different direction. Then we sat in utter silence until sunrise. We realized then that we had made a slight error: today was the first day of daylight savings time, and the GPS had already recalibrated when we awoke this morning, thinking that sunrise was approaching, when in fact we had added an hour to our wait.
I’ve never truly experienced a dawn awakening in the mountains before. At any time I was up before dawn for a mountaineering ascent, I was moving and staying warm. I never realized how truly cold it gets just before dawn until sitting motionless that morning.
I first felt the shiver in my toes, and then spread to my legs. I started wiggling them slightly, careful not to move. “C’mon, dude,” I told myself, “just ride it out like a wave, and then it will get warm again.” It was a strange experience, because although the horizon started to glow with a slight dim of sunlight, the temperature was getting colder with each second.
I heard my partner snoring on the other side of the log. Damning him, I had a smoke to relax, and rode out the cold snap.
Listening to the forest wake up was another new experience. There was total silence for a long time, and then I distinctively remember hearing the first bird chirp of the morning. The first official awake animal of the day. Then another, and another, and soon birds were flying from tree to tree, overhead. Then the small mammals, squirrels, pika could be heard talking to each other and scurrying around the grass.
My partner was awake and heard the low rumbling sound from far down the valley below. “I hear a generator,” Construction Guy said. “Someone is running a gas generator.”
“No…listen. Those are the frogs, down in the swamp at the base of the mountain,” I explained. True, the massive rumbling sounded very much like a generator, but I knew we were miles away from the nearest Homo Sapien.
Unfortunately, we did not sign a single Wapiti. Discouraged, we decided to head back to camp and strip some layers, now that the sun was up.
Afterwords, we headed out east from camp. “Let’s split up,” Scott said, “do you want to go to the right or to the left?”
“I’ll go this way,” I said and pointed off to the left, down the northeast slope of the mountain. This was the first time we had split up. Although I had expected it, I was flush with a sudden apprehension. “So what’s the protocol?” I asked. “If I see it, shoot it?”
“If you see it, shoot it.”
Because the statistical facts of Elk hunting in Colorado state that all hunters start out with a 20% rate of success the minute they buy their tag. From that point on, we had done everything to increase our chances: hiking in far away from human pressure, tracking through the steep, dark, north-facing timber, and now splitting up to improve the odds once more. The rest of the odds were controlled by pure luck.
I scrambled down the slope, careful not to lose too much elevation, and sat on a large rock where I had a wide view of the mountainside below me. I then sat and watched.
I had not sat there ten minutes, when I heard the shot–BANG!
I was startled, then my mind started to race. We had heard a few shots during the first day of hiking, from many hunters miles away in the valley. But this one was LOUD. I knew there was only one other person out here. Excited, I started running aimlessly in the direction of the shot. I did not hear a second shot, which was a good sign.
However, there was a second shot quite a while after the first. I was confused, but headed for it, climbing higher and higher to the south, and finally over the spiny ridge that separated the faces.
“Adam!” my partner yelled. I looked down through a grassy clearing, but did not see anyone.
“Yo! How are you?!” I asked.
“Bull down, baby! BULL DOWN!”
I grinned from ear to ear after hearing the news. If I had any traces of jealousy for my partners success at that moment, they died almost instantly. I was so happy–SUCCESS.
“Let’s hike up and get all our gear. We’ve got a lot of work to do!” He wasn’t kidding. Now it was for real, and stopped being just another hike in the woods. I was ready for anything.
We met back at camp and he was fired up, telling his story. “I was hiking down that field when I saw movement to the side, and I was surprised by a cow. She was locked on to me and I was on to her. It was a staredown. Another cow came behind her, and before I could draw my gun, they bolted. Then another cow appeared, followed by the bull. He stopped to look for the disappearing cows, and allowed me a split second shot. BANG! Did I hit him? I tried to reload and the gun jammed! Fuck! While messing with the action, I watched him take a few steps, then drop to the ground. Dead.”
“Wow. Good job, man.”
We scrambled back down and I had my first look at the game. It was a middle-aged mature bull, with a wide, sweeping 5×5 rack.
“Wow…that thing is huge!” I uttered in amazement.
“Yeah, I’ll give you half the meat if you help me pack it out of here,” he offered.
Of course I had no choice. We were looking at at least 200 pounds of raw meat, 6 miles back in the middle of the mountains, and the storm clouds were moving in. Every working effort put forth by the both of us for the rest of the trip was spent on bringing this meat to the dinner table…
Tags: 3rd season, area 54, backcountry, Big Game Hunting, colorado, crested butte, elk, GMU 54, gunnison, gunnison national forest, hunt, mountains, rifle, rocky mountains, swampy pass, west elk wilderness