igˈzôsCHən: 1) a state of extreme physical or mental fatigue, 2) the action or state of using something up or of being used up completely
This story is about Day 4 of the hunt, or as Jerud calls it, “the lowest day”. Whether you choose to interpret that figuratively or literally, you’re right.
Some of you that have been following this story since the beginning are probably just ready to hear how we killed a bull. That’s coming soon, I promise!
Today’s story is important to tell, because it is the type of story that’s typically left out in the magazines and television shows. To those of you that are new to elk hunting, I urge you to pay extra attention. Expect days like the one told in this story to happen on your hunt, and know that when you’re in the low moments, you need to keep pushing through – no matter what.
I quickly crawl out of my sleeping bag, lace up my boots, and retrieve today’s food bag out of the tree. We’re on the trail within minutes of waking. It’s a swift, quiet hike.
We pass through the area we hunted yesterday and keep moving to the north. The sun is still low on the horizon as we reach our destination – a creek bottom at 8,300’. In a matter of minutes we begin cutting tracks and finding game trails that funnel into the creek bottom from all directions.
We try to work our way east, but the mountainous terrain imposes its will over us – forcing us to choose between crossing icy waters or scaling out of the ravine that covers us in shadows. We choose to climb. Two feet aren’t adequate for some sections of the ascent, so we grab at roots and rocks as loose earth rolls swiftly beneath our boots.
The first relatively flat spot we encounter is a well-traveled bench that’s littered with bull droppings. We setup and call; apparently for no good reason. Level ground quickly disappears as we move forward and are thrust into nature’s obstacle course. No matter where we look, or where we want to go, we’re forced to shimmy over, duck under, slip, crawl, fall, trip, climb or drop.
We’re seeing elk sign – some fresh, some not – and there’s no sign of hunters, but something doesn’t feel right. I silently question what we’re doing – not only in this moment, but for the last few days. I had such high hopes for this trip, and although we’ve had some fringe encounters, I’m beginning to doubt that we have a legitimate shot at killing elk in here.
There’s a difference between hunting and simply hiking around the woods with a weapon. I’m afraid we’re doing the latter.
Our best guess is that elk are bedded above us by now, but we can’t make an approach because thermals are still falling in the coolness of the dark timber. We stay low, in this hell-hole, attempting to follow a tributary creek that will lead us towards the area where we bumped the bull yesterday.
Finally, we emerge. It’s 1:00pm. We stop, eat, look over maps, and wait on the winds to shift.
Now time to make our move, we proceed within 200 yards of yesterday’s bedded bull – this time approaching from the other direction, and with wind in our favor. The area looks good. Really good. Jerud sends me up to be the shooter. He calls from behind – starting slowly, and eventually working up to replicate the sound of numerous cows and a worked-up bull.
We’ve given it a good effort, and exercised patience, but I finally send the signal (three cow chirps) that the gig is up.
Jerud and I regroup to make a plan for this evening. We should pull a 180 – returning back through the hell-hole – to find a spot to setup over the trails that run down our side of the drainage (thick timber), into the creek bottom (reliable water), and over onto the opposing face (open, grassy feed). The elk are clearly making this voyage. But when are they doing it?
I know that is what we should do, but I don’t want to do it.
“Will climbing back through that mess be worth it? Will the elk even show? I bet they’re only traveling through there at night. I wonder if…”
Jerud interrupts my thoughts. “I guess we should head back,” he says. Just like that we’re on the move. I curse under my breath for at least half of the trip back.
As the clock strikes 5:00, I find myself sitting on a log – waiting in ambush until dark, or until I hear something worth pursuing.
The next couple of hours crawl by. My mind is running wild. I feel like, as Jerud said earlier in the day, “I’m on a non-stop series of 10 minute roller coaster rides of highs and lows.” My feelings fluctuate between, “This is the greatest thing ever!,” and then fall to, “What in the world am I even doing out here? I should be at home, with my wife and kids.”
Elk hunting isn’t nearly as romantic as most make it out to be. Especially when the elk aren’t vocal. Sometimes it feels like elk are little more than a figment of my imagination. “Going deep” and living in the wilderness also isn’t always as glorious as some dream. The silence and solitude of the backcountry is refreshing, but sometimes it is haunting.
The sound of a bugle erupts and shakes me out of my funk. I glance at my watch; it’s already 7:00. The bull is hundreds of yards off, and there’s but minutes of daylight left. I can’t make a move.
Now dark, Jerud and I hike a half-mile through the forest to intersect the horse trail, then climb another mile on the trail back to camp.
We’re exhausted. Physically, the more than 10 hours we’ve spent navigating a steep mountainside that’s covered in deadfall has taken a toll on us. Mentally, we’re down – missing our families and struggling with the lack of elk activity. To make matters worse, I feel like we have exhausted (in the sense of “used up”) the area we’ve been hunting. I just don’t think we’ll kill anything in there.
Tomorrow has to be different.