Archive for the ‘Big Game Hunting’ Category

Bull Down! — Part III (Elk hunting near Crested Butte, CO)

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009



With the morning sun moving higher in the sky, we got to work fast.  This project was going to be an all day affair.  First we started to skin the animal, starting around the ankle of the rear quarter.  The layer of skin on the hide was incredibly thick, and slowly the skin peeled off while constantly cutting at the membrane with a knife.  My partner started with the rear quarter and then I moved to the front quarter.  However, I quickly found that my brand new Buck knife was very dull, and I was having a hard time with the skin.  Instead of each working on a quarter, I moved back and helped him by gripping the hide with both hands and pulling, while he kept cutting away with his knife.



After removing the hide, I left my partner to work on the meat.  I only returned to help when he was ready to sever the quarter at the hip bone, in which I got above the animal and held the leg up in the air.  Otherwise, I got to work starting a small fire, cleaning a bit of backstap meat and cooking up a few pieces for our breakfast.  The taste of fresh elk meat, dead for for a few hours, was a feeling experienced by the few.  While ingesting the meat, I felt like I was being sworn into a select society of hunters going back 10,000 years.

By noon, my partner had half the animal quartered, and we rolled it over so he could get at the other half. With so much meat already into game backs, we both agreed that it was too much to pack out in one night.  We would have to leave most of it here and return in a day or two.   I left him to quarter and debone the meat (I wasn’t much help anyway).  My job was to find an navigable route down to the foot of this mountain, and then find an appropriate location to store the meat, far away from the carcass that would certainly draw scavengers as soon as we were to leave.

I packed up all of my camp gear, and headed down the mountain, following the fall line but also being sure to have a southeast heading.  According to the map, by traversing east, I would pick up the “High Line Trail”, which we could follow south through the swamp and back to the road.  From the road, we could walk or hitch hike a few miles back north to our car.  The other option was to bushwack back towards swampy pass, but I had wanted to avoid that.

The slope was much steeper than I had anticipated, and I was having trouble moving around, over, and under many downed trees.  At one point, I slipped and slide down a steep bank, but was not injured.  About half way down, I could see a creek below.  My heart sank when I saw the extensive boulder field between me and the creek.  I clicked on the radio.  “This mountain is surrounded by boulder fields!” I yelled to inform my partner.  There was no answer.  Very carefully, I picked my way down the boulders and finally arrived at the creek, out it a large open meadow.  There was a trail along the north bank of the creek.  The creek was unnamed on the map, but I read that it would bisect the Highline Trail a few miles to the east.  There was an easy log crossing to another dense forest which I favored as a hiding spot for out meat and possible camp location.  I unpacked all of my equipment and hid it under a small bush.  With an empy pack, I used my GPS to navigate back up through the boulder field to Scott and the carcass.

Somewhere up there is the game.I had to hike through these boulderfields three times up and down.

When I had arrived, he had the carcass picked clean, with six game bags that seemed to be anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds each.  Lastly, he sawed away at the skull to acquire the antlers: a trophy from his first bull ever killed.  Before taking all the meat down to the creek, we first moved it all about a hundred yards away from the carcass.  From there, I loaded two bags into my backpack.

“Holy shit!  This is heavy!”  I whined.  My knees buckled with every step down the steep face of the mountain.  It was almost unbearable.  Quickly we picked out way down the boulderfield to my cache location, then hiked back up for the rest of the meat.

By the time we had everything down by the creek, dusk was approaching.  We agreed to make the hike out in the dark, as long as we could keep to a trail we couldn’t get lost.  Taking a small risk, we decided to leave all our warm clothing and camp gear at the cache.  If we returned late the following day, we could stay another night.  I also left my gun, not only to lessen my load, but also to keep my options open of hunting again when we returned.  The weight of the bags meant we would each only take one.  I took a clean hind quarter and my partner took the bag of backstrap and loins.  We strung a line between two trees and hung the remaining four bags a few feet off the ground.  We assumed that most bears were nearing hibernation by now, so we only had to keep the meat away from any roaming pack of coyotes that may have picked up the scent.

Our cache was somewhat poorly constructed, but we thought it would work.

Before departing we sat near the river for a smoke and to purify some water.  We reflected on our accomplishments.  So far the hunt had gone as planned. We did everything by the book, travelling deep enough to escape any other human pressure, caught our prey by surprise shortly after breakfast, and harvested enough game meat to last through the winter.  My partner’s only regret was that he did not also shoot one of the cows he encountered, to fill my tag (we had either-sex tags).  However, not only did I personally view this method as unethical, I also admitted that harvesting this one elk was more work than either of us had anticipated.  We did not have the energy to harvest another.  I wondered if our friends had fared successful in their hunt.  If so, surely their four-wheeler would have helped immensly in transporting their meat.  Judging by the events of our hunt, and the scarcity of wildlife throughout this forest, we doubted our friends were successful.  But there was only one way to find out, so we set off for the 6 mile hike to elk camp.

We had about an hour of sunset when we set off.  The unnamed trail followed the creek towards the north.  We saw many horse tracks, as well as some small campsites.  The obvious human traffic made me feel a little better about following this trail in the dark.  Surely it would lead to a road at some point.

However, after a mile or two, we had not crossed the High Line Trail.  I had started to worry.  However, if this trail continued to follow this creek to the north, it would join the Pass Creek and pick up the Swampy Pass Trail, which head due east back to our truck.  If my estimation was true, we would save ourselves at least an hour or two by avoiding the High Line Trail (which deviated too far south for my liking).

The hiking was brutal.  We were both exhausted from the day’s ordeal, and our packs seemed to each weigh 100 lbs. (they were probably more like 60 lbs.).  Darkness had settle in.  Guided only by headlamps, we continued on the trail.  I felt good each time I looked at the map.  This was an excellent trail!  I couldn’t believe it was not on the map.  It maintained a constant elevation on the countour just above the creek, eventually crossing it.  From that point, we began to climb up, crossing three additional creeks that I remembered from our hike in.  The Swampy Pass Trail was above us, and we continued to climb to the northeast, eventually meeting the original trail.  It began to rain, and then snow.  With only a few miles to go, we pushed forward on the Swampy Pass Trail.  Finally, I saw the familiar National Forest registration kiosk, and practically ran my way back to the truck.

Exhausted, we returned to camp to find our friends sound asleep.  They awoke and we sat for a bit, comparing stories.  They were amazed at out success, for all the other parties in the general area were unsuccessful.  We had tried to persuade either of them to return with us for the remaining meat, but they declined after hearing how far away it was!  Eventually we retired to our warm tent.  My cot and wool blankets provided a comfortable nights sleep after the previous night in the wilderness.

Then next day, we awake to a couple of inches of snow on the ground.  Our friends had already departed on their vehicle for more hunting.  For breakfast, I cut up a few pieces of elk meat and cooked them over the campfire.  This was my first ever “elk steak n’ eggs”.  Then I took a refreshing hot water bucket bath and dressed in some casual clothes.  Although there was some snow on the ground, it was a sunny and warm day, but we had little time to relax.  We had to put together a plan to retrieve the remaining meat.  We both agreed that plan must include some sort of pack animal, although we differed on the species.  My partner wished for a horse, I thought a llama more suitable.  Regardless, we set off for civilization.

The town of Crested Butte is a short decent down Kebler Pass road.  What many people dub the “anti-Aspen”, it is an old mining village, complete with tiny Victorian bungalows, all painted with modern pastel colors.  Many of the roads in town are dirt.  I have only been there once before (for some world class mountain biking), but I really like this place.  There is a vibrant community of outdoor enthusiasts, hippies, cowboys, and artists that provide hilarious character against the impending luxury developments a few miles away at the ski area that borrows the name of the town (the village at the base of the mountain is actually a different municipality, named “Mt. Crested Butte”).

In town, we stopped at the Alpineer, a local climbing and cycle shop.  “I’m looking to rent a llama,”  I started off.  The staff laughed out loud and begged for our story.  We explained what had occured over the past few days, and they were blown away at our endeavors.

“There’s a guy in town that may help you, actually there is a flyer posted out front,” one woman said to me.

Sure enough, on the bulliten board in the front of the store was a flyer that read:  “Need help packing out your elk?  I’ll work for meat!”  There was a phone number on the flyer.  I called it and was soon talking to a cheerful fellow.  He was amazed at my story.

“That sounds like a load of fun,” he said.
“I’m not going to lie to you, its going to be pretty tough,” I told him.
As his fee, he asked for “half of what I carry”.  The thought of loaded this poor fellow up with 100 lbs. of meat and force marching him out of the woods had me smiling, but I told him that I would have to confer with my partner and get back to him.

Back in the store, I checked with the cute girl who was steaming some clothing on the retail rack. She said that a few young guys in the store had offered to pack it out on foot.
“So…so far its just dudes who want some meat,” I verified with her.  “No llamas?”
She laughed, “Actually, there’s a house up the street with a bunch of llamas out front.  Lets try to Google it.”  I followed her over to the computer, where she tried to look up llama rentals.  She was relatively unsuccessful.

Finally, my partner returned into the shop.  “I’ve got a guy that will rent us a horse for $200.”
“Yeah?  You know anything about taking care of a horse?”  I asked.
“Not much, whaddya do?  Feed her some oats, make sure she has water, and a place to shit,”  he responded.
“Yeah that’s about it.”

From Crested Butte, we drove through Gunnison, past the Blue Mesa Reservior, to a small desert ranch.  There was some sort of makeshift RV park on the property.  At first I thought it was a storage yard, but then realized that many of the trailers were occupied.  At the entrance to the ranch was a house that housed a gift shop and front office.  The gift shop was full of old west souveniers and Indian trinkets.  There we a lot of printed papers posted all over the place which seemed to promote the strengths of Sarah Palin and condemn Barack Obama.  I had thought to ask the shopkeeper if she had thought to alienate some customers with her propaganda, but held my tongue.

After we filled out our paperwork, an short old man in a cowboy hat burst into the room “Okay…which one of you is going to handle the horse?!”  he excitedly questioned.

“He is.”  I pointed to my partner.

The man went through a list of simple instructions, how to feed and care for her.  He made it seem very easy.  Then we went outside and met “Baby”.  She was an old mare, and definitely with a personality.  While showing us how to use the harness and saddle system, the horse gave him some attitude.  First he yelled at her a bit in a grouchy old voice.  Then they started kicking at each other in the legs.  This went back and forth for about 10 minutes.  Then she didn’t want to get into the trailer, and he had to push her on the butt while we coercered her to the front with food.  It was hilarious.

The grouchy old man and his horse.

Finally arriving back at Elk Camp, the rest of our crew was quite surprised to see the truck pulling a large trailer.  To unload the horse, we opened the back door, but she didn’t come out.

“Go to the side door and push her out.”  Scott said to me.

I went around the side, and as soon as I opened the door, she jumped out, on top of me.  I tried to push her back, quickly realizing that it was useless, and just rolled away.

“What the hell?!”  we both said.  Then, inspecting the back doors, we discovered that we hadn’t unclipped the rope in the back of the stall.  We were total rookies, but the horse showed us the program.
The rest of the evenings events were a tribal celebration among men, where freshly butchered backstrap steaks were grilled over a large “White Man’s fire”, and bottle after bottle of whiskey was uncorked, passed around many times, and emptied.

The feast.

Stories were told.  Some as old as tales of The Corps of Discovery and their journeys through the mountains in 1806, where “10 pounds of meat per man,” were the daily duties of the hunting party.  Others were of new history made that weekend, by modern day Americans deep in the heart of the Elk Mountains  What connected us with the great explorers of the past was the feeling of going out and earning our food, then celebrating and savoring the feast that same night.

The feast that night marked the few times of relaxation during the hunt.  There was still work to be done, in going back for the rest of the meat.  However, that night, after the whiskey had run dry and the fire extinguished, snow had started falling.  As we led “Baby” along the trail we had endured two nights earlier, the entire landscape was changed by a half foot of white powder snow.  It continued to fall all day, sometimes so hard that I could barely make out the man and his horse ahead of me, save for the blaze orange coat he was wearing.

Heading back up for a 6 mile hike in a snowstorm.

Shortly, we encountered our Oklahoma boys that we had met a few days earlier.  Just like that morning, they were mounted on their horses and trotting along the trail.  When we told them our situation, they were shocked.

“You killed a bull?!”  one said.  “Wow, man.  You should have come talked to us, we’da helped you haul it out.”
I laughed to myself, knowing well that my partner wouldn’t have wanted to split the meat with these dudes.
“Nah…” he said, “We just got this horse, in and out in one trip,” he said.

“Well, we’ve been riding up and down for days, haven’t seen a thing.” the other mounted hunter said.

Now I know I’m new to this whole hunting thing, but I knew damn well why they hadn’t had any success.

“You need to get off the trail,” I told them.  “Get in deep.  The darkest nastiest woods you can find.”

“Hmm, I don’t know what to do, other than just ride around. Have some fun.” the Sooner smirked.

“Well, good luck,” I waved as they rode off. 

Have some fun. I guess that’s what its all about.  I hope they succeed.  I sure did.

“Baby” and I after a job well done.

Book Review: “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose

Monday, December 29th, 2008

The following is a review I wrote on about the book, “Undaunted Courage”, by Stephen E. Ambrose.

While the main purpose of this book is a biography of Meriwether Lewis, the author includes all of the influential characters, events, and setting of the early 19th century United States, starting with the third President, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s vision of America is a country stretching from sea-to-sea.  It is as if Jefferson had an almost divine image of America.  This is a special land, entirely different from the Old World in Europe, which is precisely why it was so important for the United States to lay claim to the continent, and effectively remove the presence of British, French, or Spanish military forces.

If Jefferson were alive today, I think he would not be pleased with the United States’ military presence in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.  Jefferson’s Republicans would likely have held an isolationist view of our sovereign nation even up to today.  Americans do not belong in the Middle East today any more than British and French forces belonged in North America in 1903.

I was surprised to learn that Jefferson had originally thought that American Indians could be “civilized”, and become active citizens of the United States, whereas African Americans could never fully “assimilate” in Jefferson’s views.  Throughout the journeys of the Corps of Discovery, Lewis and Clark presented each tribe with a special speech, to inform them that they “have a new father”, and invited their chiefs to visit Washington and meet Jefferson.

This story predates the Trail of Tears and other stories of American genocide against Indians.  However, one quote from the book puts an interesting perspective on the attitude of Americans’: “How can an Indian tribe lay claim to thousands of acres of land that they ride across twice per year?”  Although Jefferson intended confine American settlers to the land east of the Mississippi, and allow the Indians to keep all land west of it, history has shown that no executive power was able to stop the progress of American Pioneers.

The stories of Lewis’s activities had a familiar feeling to me.  For example, while preparing for the expedition, Lewis contracted a boat builder to construct a large “keelboat” to travel up the Missouri river.  The contractor was very slow, constantly drunk, and failed to show up many mornings.  It reminded me of contractors that I’ve dealt with in my business, who have no sense of the urgency required by the customer.

As an outdoorsman, I was captivated by the adventures encounted by the party in the wilderness, all documented with great detail and passion by the author.  I have traveled through the rugged rocky mountains, armed with the most sophisticated technology of the 21st century.  Even now, it is no easy endeavor.  However, this party of soldiers made their way up the rockies, navigating by compass and sextant, hunting with muzzleloader, camping without shelter, and sewing clothing from buffalo hides.  Lewis was in his late 20′s, the same age as I am now, and he was co-captain to a group of 30 or so army privates, and navigator in a wilderness that no white man had ever been in before.  These feats alone are truly amazing!

In addition, the author makes sure to mention the importance of Sacajawea during the trip.  The majority of the party was made up of young adult men: American soldiers trained in hunting and survival.  However, in the group was this teenage Indian girl, who spoke no English whatsoever, and had her baby with her the entire journey!  How did she feel to have traveled for two years with this expedition?

I strongly recommend this book to readers who have a thirst for history of early United States, and also for those who have a keen interest in wilderness exploration and survival.  Many of the hunting and survival skills practiced by Lewis’s hired hunter, George Drouillard, can still be applied by today’s big game hunter and survivalist.

This amazing book has turned me onto further reading about the politics of Jefferson and James Madison, and how the “original Republican party” was meant to shape this country’s future.  I look forward to learning more.

Undaunted Courage (cover)

Bull Down (part two)

Friday, November 21st, 2008


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.

I like my spam well done

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.

Dawn in Sherwood forest

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.

We had crossed this boulder field in the middle of the night.  This was the first time we saw how large it was.

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.

Bull Down!

“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…


“Bull Down” — Area 54 Elk Hunt, Gunnison National Forest (part one)

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008


For the many weeks that led up to Elk Camp, our plans got more and more complex.  After researching countless previous testimonials, reading page after page of ungulate ecology, and studying topo maps of various detail, we finally had a plan.

1.  To hike in as far and as high in the mountains as possible.
2.  To get off the beaten path and explore the deepest and darkest woods man has ever seen.
3.  To stay there as long as necessary to hunt and harvest an abundance of meat.

Many skeptics on the jobsite doubted our integrity.

“You’ll never make it!” they said.

While still others encouraged us, “Go get after it!”

On the Friday before the opening of Third Season, my hunting partner and I had left Carbondale and headed toward the Gunnison Valley, over Kebler Pass.  When we arrived in Crested Butte, we found our two Irish Boys waiting for us at the bar, fresh from Chicago.

When we told them our plan, JL took a long, slow swig of ale, as if digesting the seemily outrageous scheme we had just presented to him “You’re going to do what?!  You’ll die, dudes!”

“Nah,” Scott reassurred him.  “We’ve got it all figured out.”

Fortunately for us, JL had found an excellent location for Elk Camp.  Up near Ohio Pass, a side road flattens out in the middle of the aspen forests.  In fact, they were the tallest aspen trees I’ve ever seen, and they went on for miles in every direction.  It felt like a spiritual place.

After we set up camp, Scott brought out the Mojo Stick, which he tied to a tree to watch over our camp, and bring us all good harvest in the days to come.  A blessing was then done by our resident Chaplain and concluded with a toast of Wild Turkey bourbon.

While relegating around the campfire, we started to put together our packs for the morning expedition.  The only rule I set was to be completely prepared to spend at least three nights out in the wilderness.  I had brought my 65 Liter backpack, the largest I own, into which I stuffed the warmest technical clothing and sleeping bag needed for a frigid night above 10,000 feet in November.  Much water was not necessary, for I knew that we would never be far from water when high in the rockies.  The most valuable item in the pack, however, were vials of Aquamira purification, to make any of the mountain stream and river water drinkable.  We had a variety of basic dried food, and I brought along the Jet Boil for optimal boiling of water for all backcountry cooking.  I added a first aid kid, three forms of fire starting, maps, compass, gps, two way radios, camera, knives, tools, game bags, rope and other miscellaneous items and I was all set.  Lastly, my hand-me-down .30-06 rifle was strapped to the outside of the pack.


I couldn’t sleep much at all that night.  I thought it was very similiar to the anticipation I’ve felt before an early spring mountaineering attempt.  Like those cold mornings, we woke before dawn.  Because the pack was all set, I put on all my clothes and wandered into Jack and JL’s tent for some fresh coffee.  Like good backcountry travellers, we then informed our friends of our plan.  We had decided to start off at the Swampy Pass trailhead and pack in along the trail thru the border into the West Elk Wilderness.  Upon reaching swampy pass, we would explore the basin south of the Anthracite Range.  We did not plan to return the first night.  We told our friends that if we missed the second night, do not worry, but after the third night, things may not be going well.

We said our goodbyes for our friends as they sped of on their new 4-wheeler.  Throughout the rest of the trip, I found myself constantly thinking for their safety, and wondering how their hunt was going, while on our own.

At the start of the hike, we were overtaken by a pair of Oklahoma boys on horseback.  We exchanged plans, and they said “we’re on radio channel 2, holler if you need help”.  I appreciated the comradarie and let their horses pass.

Starting up the trail at dawns first light.The sun had started to rise quickly.  Out to the southwest, the dominate rock formation known as “The Castles” came into view.  For the entire hunt, this amazing formation formed the backdrop of our trip, always in sight and an excellent navigation tool.

From the start of the hike, the chances were slim that we would see any A close up of the awesome formation, \wildlife.  It was unseasonably warm at low elevation.  Since we didn’t plan on shooting anything that morning anyways, we moved quickly along the hiker’s trail, stopping many times to adjust our backpacks or have a snack and safety meeting. The weight in my pack was not nearly as much as the recod 60 lbs I carried into Rocky Mountain National park to climb the Spearhead a few years ago, but it was still a lot to carry for the ten miles we had done by the end of the day.

At mile marker four, we reached the boundary of the West Elk Wilderness.  Other than the two Okies we encountered at the trailhead, we would not see another human being for the entire time in the wilderness.  I was happy for this feeling of independence, which mean we were left to survive with everything we had and everything God has given us in our surroundings.

Reaching the wilderness boundary

This is what the 4+ miles of trail looked like.

By mile six, we had reached Swampy Pass, marked by a wooden sign.  This moment in time marked the end of our planned route.  Now we had some decisions to make.  Instinct would tell us to look for a steep, shady slope with heavy evergreen growth.  We started to follow a game trail up a hill north of Swampy Pass, heading toward the Anthracite Range, but then stopped.

“It is too sunny here!”  I shouted, “all this vegetation is burnt”.  We were on an open slope with short shrubs.

“We need a north-facing slope,” Scott suggested.  He was referring to one facet of information that is shared by both snowsliders and hunters: that the north face is the coldest and darkest, creating an ideal climate for both light fluffy powder in winter and old bull elk the rest of the time.

View of \'the knoll\' from Swampy PassTogether, we identified a large rolling knoll not too far across the valley to the south.  It looked only a few miles away, but we would be heading directly through a dense evergreen forest through the bottom of the valley.  Our goal was to be on top of it by sunset.

Once we got off the trail and into the timber, signs of wildlife sprouted up Bushwacking through the dense foresteverywhere.  Near a stream, we saw dozens of hoof prints on the muddy banks, as if a stampede had come crashing through here days ago.  However, the mud was frozen solid as we climbed up the mountain.  We also hiked through some bedding areas, where the old rotten timber of downed trees had nearly disentragrated into soft beds of sawdust.  As we climbed higher and higher (the GPS read 10,800 at the top), so did the frequency and amount of droppings in the grass.

An elk wallow and tracks

Scott speared a fist size pile with his hiking pole.  “That’s a bull.  And he’s not far,”  the master hunter before me said.  This is when I started to get the feeling of anxiety that would control my mind for the next 15 hours.  At any given moment, it was possible for us to come upon an unsuspecting Wapiti, where the element of surprise between two vastly different mammals would become crucial.  I did not know if I was quite ready for it.

(I have seen elk up close only once before, in a hot summer at Rocky Mountain National Park.  We had been hiking down from a climb on Lumpy Ridge, when my friend ahead of me stopped in his tracks.  Two big bulls were standing ten yards from us, gnawing voraciously at lush greeen leaves.  They all but ignored us then, but when I took one step too close, one left the food and swept his large antlers around and stared me down, before turning away and crashing through the woods at high speed.)

When Scott and I reached a small alpine pond near sunset, I knew we should set up camp near the water supply before it got too dark.  We scrambled across the slope to find a small flat ledge of grass, surrounded by a few downed trees that would provide back support and firewood.  Finally, after 12 hours of hiking, the heavy backpacks dropped to the ground.

“I don’t want to wear that thing again for at least a day,” I said.  We both knew that the hunt was going to take place right here on the mountain side, within a few miles from camp.   After establishing the bivouc, we had about 1/2 hour to go before dusk.   I planned to return to the pond we saw earlier, to replenish water, and we used the opportunity to hunt with rifles in hand until the sun went down…


Equipment Trial Run

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

As I have told many, I have not just been spending the low-key fall months in Colorado by watching football and waxing my snowboards.  Instead have been been preparing for a week long primal hunt in the mountains, known to many as “Elk Camp”.  I’ve spent hours reading as much information as I can about the ecology of the Wapiti, and twice as much about the topography of the West Elk Mountains, near Gunnison, CO.

In addition to the literary education, I’ve also been working on the “hunting master checklist” as produced by our venerable party leader.  I’ve gathered up most of my equipment from my other gear ensembles:  camping and backpacking, climbing, snowboarding, and mountaineering.  Last Saturday, I felt ready for a “trial run”, and accompanied my friend Scott on a morning hunt for a doe in the steep terrain up Avalanche Creek, south of Carbondale.

We had planned to get out as early as possible and climb to a vantage point to set up and glass before dawn.  I spent the previous night packing, and tried to turn in early. Much like the restless nights before many spring mountaineering missions I’ve done, I was too anxious to get much sleep.  I awoke at 3:30 AM and shortly after, Scott had arrived and we were on the road.

It was the middle of the night, but the full moon lit up the entire sky.   We did not drive far, for the convienence of living in Carbondale is that you are less than 20 minutes away from a dirt road and trail head in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.  We parked the truck at a quarter to five and got the packs ready.

“Check your GPS,” Scott said, “What time is sunrise?”

I turned on my new Garmin E-Trex and laughed.  “7:20″.  We had at least two hours to hike about a quarter mile to the first vantage point.  We started up the dirt road, but did not follow it far, before turning left, into the scrub oak and sage brush, and bushwacking straight up the south flank of Mt. Sopris.

For this trial run, I had my 65 liter backpacker’s pack from REI.  I had used it many times before to pack trad climbing nuts and cams, and rope, as well as full camp gear into Rocky Mountain National Park to attempt the big alpine climbs like the Petit Grepon and the Sharkstooth.  I had weighed that pack to almost 70 lbs. on one of those past trips.  On today’s adventure, I guessed that same packed weighed no more than 20 lbs.  However, the purpose of such a large pack when Elk hunting is the intent that you will be packing out much, much heavier than you packed in. (try at least 100 lbs. heavier)

Inside my pack (or person), I had survival essentials:  three forms of flame (matches, butane lighter, flint & steel), 100 ft. of cord, two emergency blankets, first aid kit, map, compass, head lamp, GPS, extra batteries, multi-tool, folding knife.  I also had toilet paper and cat-hole shovel (which came in handy very early in the morning!).  In addition to my basic clothing, I was wearing insulated coveralls, and insulated carhart vest, a fleece “blaze” orange vest, Mountain Hardware softshell, hat and gloves.  Lastly was a large buck knife exclusively reserved for skinning a deer (should my partner have been so lucky to shoot one).  I also had a blatter of water, and my camera and binoculars easily accessible while wearing the pack.  For sustenance, I had some trail mix, two Clif bars, and a few packets of green tea, along with my Jet Boil.  (I did not carry my rifle, for I did not have a hunting tag for this season and didn’t want to have to do any explaining should we run into a kindly DOW Officer)

Within 1/2 hour, we had climbed up about 800 vertical feet to a very large “bench” on the slope.  This was to be our first glassing (or spotting) area.    Scott set up the tripod and affixed his new spotting scope, while i took out the binoculars.  I checked the time.  We still hade over an hour before sunrise, but i took a peek through the binoculars anyways.  The moon cast little shadow, and after a few seconds of scanning, realized the attempt was futile, so I took a seat in the cold darkness and waited.

6:51 AM, waiting in the cold blackness.

In Colorado, it is coldest just before dawn.  While we had both worked up our body heat while making the strenuous hike in multiple layers, sitting still for more than ten minutes had made me feel colder than ever.   This is when the Jet Boil proved to be worth the extra weight in the pack.  I fired it up, and within a few minutes, I was sipping hot tea, feeling much more comfortable and warm, as we sat in silence, scanning for any movement.  (although we were not totally bored, as we pointed the spotting scope to the full moon and each took a turn checking out the topography of the celestial body, only to be partially blinded for a few moments after.

It was a strange silence, other than the rushingwater of the creek, far below.  However, just before dawn, the birds started to wake up.  One by one, they would announce their presence, chirping and cawing, as if to call the sun up.

When light finally started to creep in, I was getting anxious to see a deer, or any large wildlife.

“They should have been moving around for food much earlier than this,”  Scott said, sounding discouraged.

We did not see any deer that morning, but it was not long before we saw other humans.

Actually, in the early morning light, you can pick out “blaze orange” without even looking for it.  However, by the time these guys rolled up in their trucks, we were high above them, perched and ready for the hunters to pressure the deer up the hill, and right for us.

The first guy parked his truck and walked back down the road a bit (away from us).  Then he crossed the small Bulldog Creek and sat down under a large evergreen tree next to the water.  He was less than 50 yards from his truck.

“What’s this guy doing?”  Scott laughed.  I had no idea.  Did he know something we did not know?  Was a whole train of mule deer about to cross the road right in front of him, allowing him to pick off an easy kill and be home in time for Church?

Not long after, the hunter’s “secret spot” was spoiled by a white half ton pickup truck lumbering its way up the road.  I had to laugh!  Another hunter popped out and started stalking the tall sage brush near the road.  Neither person made an attempt to climb the steep hill that we had climbed earlier.

After glassing for a while in light, we saw no signs of deer.  So we packed up and headed farther up hill, tracking as we went along.  The most obvious sign to look for is feces.  Although we found a few traces, nothing appeared to be very fresh.  Shockingly, we encountered a few very large piles of dung, which could only be attributed to a local black bear.  “This is definitely his territory,”  Scott said.

From our second vantage point, we took the optics out again.  This time, I could look far to the southeast and see the snowcapped mountains of the 13ers and 14ers in the core of the Elk Range.  Down below, the two hunters were now standing in the middle of the road and talking to each other!  I did not want to be so preoccupied with the comedy scene to miss any movement in the brush, so I strained my eyes through binoculars for any sign of a deer.

Sadly, we returned to the vehicle not having seen any deer.  It was an incredibly frustrating experience.  I did leave the day feeling very confident in my equipment setup.  Unlike the casual day hunt for deer, an elk hunt has been told to be a truly epic experience, and a much more committing adventure.  I figure we will be hiking at least 5 miles and 3,000 vertical feet a day, to look for elk in the deepest woods and the highest peaks.    Returning to camp empty handed one night just means we’ll be hiking a little bit farther and higher the next morning.

(for more about big game hunting, I recommend Jay Houston’s website, “Elk Camp“)

Because of the low morning light, I don’t have many photos.  However, quickly after the morning adventure, I drove down to Denver.   Here are a few photos of the drive.

The scene while travelling eastbound when exiting Glenwood Canyon.  The mountains in the distance comprise the northern tip of the Sawatch Range, and the Holy Cross Wilderness