The previous five days have delivered so many twists and turns; so many unexpected challenges, and surprising gifts. I didn’t think that I would start the final day of this hunting trip by waking up in the back of a truck, on the side of a road. But that’s exactly where we were.
Yesterday’s soaked, sloppy ground was now rock-hard from the night’s record-setting low temperatures. We stepped on frozen puddles, crashed through frosty underbrush, and dropped down to the low-lying creek on the opposite side of the road. Once again, we were hoping to cross a creek and hunt in the solace of lands hard to reach. But we were, once again, outmatched by the powerful waters that engulfed our every attempt to find or create safe passageway.
We climbed back to the opposite side of the road, and began gaining ground on a well-worn cattle trail. At this point we were going in completely blind – guided only by our GPS – and hoping that we could get into elk, even though we had never even seen a map, photos, or satellite view of this area.
We spotted a mule deer doe across the canyon from us, and a buck that was taking guard behind her. As a whitetail hunter, I soaked up the opportunity to study another species of deer in the wild. She was about 70 yards away and stood there for minutes staring at us, as we started back at her; something a whitetail deer would never do.
The hike continued and we setup to call at the edge of an isolated patch of dark timber. Soon after our calls echoed below, we hard movement headed our way. Alas, it was only more mule deer fleeing the timber. Apparently they weren’t interested in hanging around any rut-crazed elk, or at least humans pretending to be.
We decided to climb to the top of a nearby knob and upon reaching the summit all I could do was stand, turn in circles, and marvel at the gorgeous 360-degree view that extended as far as the eye could see. This vantage point provided the perfect opportunity to break out the binoculars and “let our eyes do the walking.” The terrain looked perfect, but there was no sign of elk. We fueled up on last pizza, which we grabbed before setting up last night’s roadside camp, and dropped off of the summit to dive deeper into the forest.
Some time later we found ourselves slipping through the shadows of a massive Aspen grove, when something caught my eye. I pulled up my binoculars and spotted just a sliver of an elk’s hide that protruded from behind a tree. Rudy grabbed Phil’s binoculars and confirmed, then exclaimed,
“That’s an elk! Let’s go!”
I dropped my pack and took off through the massive stands of aspen. The elk – now visibly a cow – was feeding on the top of a far ridge, about 450 yards away. Ground began to disappear beneath my feet as the aspen grove fell to a creek draw, which separated me from the elk. I wasn’t gaining ground quickly enough, so I kicked into high gear, gave caution to the wind, and moved at full speed.
Well, as speedily as you can move while ducking under, and throwing yourself over deadfalls. I quickly became choked by the steep, thick, and unrelenting terrain. I looked up, now realizing how far away that cow really was. When you’re in the mountains, “line of sight “distance and “on the ground” distance are two completely unrelated numbers. You can see Rudy in the photo below, and if your eyes are sharp you may be able to make out the small light-colored speck that is the elk. I was somewhere inbetween – out of sight – where the aspen grove fell away to a steep cut in the terrain.
My hopes of reaching her vanished as she fed out of sight. I climbed my way back to Rudy and Phil, and we mapped out the cow’s location – paying special attention to the direction that she was headed. Honestly, it was a perfect setup. That is, perfect for her. She was perched on a point that made an approach nearly impossible.
We decided to dive deeper into this unknown land, and after another hour we stopped to take a break and eat a snack. I was lying on my back, soaking up the sun, when I heard a commotion and looked to see Phil and Rudy also startle at the sight of a horse’s head rounding the corner, just feet from where we lay.
I think we rattled the horse just as much as he had startled us, but the now-visible rider quickly dismounted the beautiful beast and calmed everyone’s nerves. After a few brief moments of chit-chat with the man, he swept his jacket back to reveal a badge and a sidearm. He then stated that he was a DOW agent and would need to see all of our paperwork. Thankfully we were all legal and the visit continued in a friendly manner.
We had a few hours of daylight left, and were a few miles away from the truck. We decided to take a new route back to the truck and hunt some of the better looking spots along the way. No more encounters were to be had. It just wasn’t in the books.
As we neared the truck, and the end of our hunt, I stopped at the base of a few aspens (below) and reflected upon what this trip meant to me, and how lucky I was to have made it happen.
This idea of turning this dream into a reality was a direct result of a conversation that I had with my Grandpa before he passed away. He had always wanted to hunt elk, but never committed to making the time. The “everyday” days of his life turned to years, and before he knew it, decades had passed and he could no longer go on his dream hunt.
I carried his ashes with me throughout this trip, and buried them at the base of these trees. You made it to elk country after all, Grandpa.
The End or The Beginning?
This is the end of the day-by-day account of my first elk hunt, but it’s just the beginning of much more to come. In fact, I’m leaving today to try to fill my archery cow-elk tag in Kentucky.
I will be sharing more specific lessons that I learned through these elk hunts, and doing more in-depth gear reviews of some of the gear that you guys have been asking about. Then there’s whitetail hunting, and of course – planning for next year. Thank you for sharing this journey with me!
Gear of the Day
My Minox binoculars were outstanding on this trip. I love their light weight, durability, and weather-proofing. Never once did I find them to be fogged up, and although I wore them all day, everyday, they never put a strain on my neck or shoulders. Most importantly, they provide a sharp picture and didn’t fatigue my eyes on longer glassing sessions. It’s hard to beat the combination of price, quality, and the warranty that they provide. Look for a full review to come.