Truthfully I didn’t know what to expect but I was embarking on an adventure. Butterfly’s danced in my stomach as I pointed the truck West. It would remain pointed in that direction for the next 24 hours. I was alone and doing something I had never done before. As simple and dull as it may sound I was going to cross the mighty Mississippi River and not complete my journey in St. Louis. This was a big step for me. I had never seen the Rocky Mountains nor had I ever hunted elk. I was turning a dream into reality and it was a bit scary. Could I even drive all night or would I have to stop? What is it like to drive in the mountains? Would there be snow? Would I get lost? How is cell reception? Will my truck break down? These were all the silly and trivial things that raced through my mind, even before the real adventure had begun!
The long commute gave me plenty of time to daydream and wonder what the next week would hold for me. I admittedly was surprised when I finally crossed the line into Colorado and saw just how flat and uninteresting it was. Intrigued but impatient, I leaned into the gas pedal a little more until I finally saw what I was looking for. They jutted up from nowhere and went on forever. They were snowcapped and intimidating even though it took me another two hours to reach them. But sure as the sun comes up the Rocky Mountains were finally within view. I no longer had to read about them and live vicariously through pictures. I was writing my own book now and my imagination raced in parallel with my truck engine.
The roads became steep and curvy but I kept it between the lines and finally arrived at my temporary destination. A ranch with a lodge that would serve as the meeting point before our group packed in the following day. My companions were late. I began to wonder if they had even made the trip, though I knew they were en route. But being in a strange place, far from home, and alone makes one wonder about things they have no rational business questioning.
Everyone woke the following morning with eager anticipation, amplified by the four inches of snow that had unexpectedly fell during the night. I hadn’t ridden a horse in many years and worried how my equine escort would treat me? I had carefully weighed my bags and labeled each one so that the outfitter could evenly pack my equipment but were my measurements accurate enough? Would they re-weigh each bag and tell me I was off by a pound? Would the equipment I had gathered over the past year perform as I expected and keep me alive and aid in making the trip a memorable one? Was I in good enough shape or would I be confined to hunting the less than fruitful valley floors while the elk taunted me from above? All my worries and doubts disappeared as I hopped in the saddle and gently squeezed the ribs of my ride for the next several hours. Many writers have ventured to capture the essence of a pack train slowly making its way towards a remote elk camp. These writings have captivated me for years but none can replace seeing it with your own eyes, breathing the mountain air, and hearing the silence of the solitude and a simpler way of life.
The wall tent we eventually arrived at might as well been the Taj Mahal as far as I was concerned. It would be the first I had inhabited and was everything and more than what I had envisioned. With a wood stove in the corner, 4 cots, a couple tables, a propane fueled stovetop, two lanterns, and two benches it was a five star resort as far as backcountry hunting goes. Each member of the party quickly claimed his small piece of personal space and set to exploring camp. What was ahead no one knew, but when the outfitter told us he would see us in a few days and led his train back down the mountain we realized we were in for something special. That was it. See ya, good luck, don’t die was about all the direction we received. I remember thinking to myself, that’s it? Now what?
Our new home seemed as if it sat right on an imaginary line on that valley floor. The mountains climbed steeply on both sides and if you looked down the valley the grass was green and the snow had melted. If you looked up the valley the dark timber was packed with snow and gave the appearance that you were passing through a wall of deadfalls and pine boughs. Perhaps that’s why our site had been chosen, it was a gateway for the elk. They would hide in the timber and come out to feed on the grasses, or so we hoped.
Glassing that evening in preparation for the opener the next day finally gave me the real world perspective on why so many mountain hunters stress the importance of good optics. Seeing an elk in the wild that night put me on such a high, I barely remember the hike back to camp. Back at our canvas castle, while the fire in the decrepit wood stove snapped and popped, we drew straws to determine who would get to hunt where we had seen the elk. Given we were a group of four, that seemed the simplest and fairest method. With escalated hopes the cots were filled and my wapiti fever built by the minute as I tried to drift off to sleep.
I woke the following morning and prepared to carry a rifle for the first time with elk as my quarry. That feeling ranks very near the top of the list of hunting experiences in my life. There was a hint of pandemonium in the tent as adrenaline and hot coffee fueled our excitement and optimism. It was still too dark to see when I left the tent but the early morning light was coming quickly. I felt a heightened awareness with a sense of mystery and freedom mixed in as I trudged down the valley towards what I hoped to be my destiny with a bull. The air was beyond crisp and certainly the cleanest I had ever breathed. I had not drawn what appeared to be the prime spot but I was the closest otherwise. I wished my partner good luck and located a good perch partway up the mountainside staring in the direction I expected to see elk. I had underestimated the awkward position I’d settled on and slid ten feet down the mountain in excitement when I saw my first bull. If I had not been so hysterical I would have probably been embarrassed.
The bull was a long way off but heading in my direction. Frantically I tried to position myself as best I could for a shot in the event he continued his current path. The intensity of what I was feeling was almost too much to take but this was exactly what I had been preparing and longing for. I rode the high as best I could, holding on to the knife’s edge of control. The bull didn’t make it to me though, he fell to my partner, and although I was disappointed to not have the chance that morning, I was elated for my friend. We had done exactly what we’d planned to do and I would taste wild elk for the first time. Most of the day was spent learning that tending to a dead elk was a far cry from dealing with a whitetail.
The next several days were spent trying to outwit the elk that called our little valley home. It was a constant game of cat and mouse and the mouse was clearly winning. Many fruitless ascents were made and I was definitely earning my stripes as an elk hunter. In retrospect though those days allowed me to really gain an appreciation for what I was doing. Climbing trail less mountains, seeing and smelling live sage for the first time, getting lost in the white and gold jungles of aspens, finding out what “dark timber” really meant, all these sights, smells and sounds were integral ingredients to this Western adventure.
People say the stars are brighter in the mountains, they are absolutely right. Never had I gazed into the night sky with such awe. The sunrises and sunsets were as if a curtain was being raised and lowered in the valley. You could see the warmth coming in the morning and the chill again returning in the evening. Each night was filled with a camaraderie that has created friendships that cannot be broken. It was these moments that have filled my mind well after the actual event. It’s these “trophies” that will bring me back again.
The fourth day was my day. I’m not sure if it was all my previous efforts, the extra cup of coffee that morning, skill, or good old dumb luck. The motionlessness of the frosty mountainside was interrupted with a flash of tan. I was in such shock that I assumed I was seeing things but the tan turned to a dark brown neck and a legal set of antlers in my binoculars. The gun was solid on my shooting sticks and the view from my scope quickly came into focus. It wasn’t my eyes playing tricks. He was still present through my scope. He stood on the slope, front legs slightly higher than his rear, facing to my right nearly broadside, chest thick and wide. The crosshairs guided themselves and then it was done. My first elk had fallen. I had joined the ranks of the chosen few and solidified myself as a mountain hunter in my own personal record book. My feelings at that moment were nothing less than pure adrenaline fueled excitement. A high that cannot be bought, sold or bottled. As I gave thanks to God and the animal that would now feed my family, I was higher than any drug could equal. I would find out later that very same day another member of the group had killed the largest bull of the trip.
The mood in camp, while it had always been positive, was elevated to another level that evening and over the remainder of the trip. Luckily we had another full day before our planned pack out. With the pressure of killing an elk gone the full camp experience was realized. We split wood for the sake of splitting wood and knowing it would be ready for the next group whether it be later that season or the following year. We warmed water and removed the layers of grime, filth, and blood that had attached themselves to our bodies during the hunt. We constructed a fire pit and made use of an old metal grate that had been left behind and grilled pure, fresh, red, elk meat over hot coals. We gorged our depleted stomachs with the finest fare that no money could buy. The sun was bright overhead and the sky was the bluest blue I had ever seen. Life could not have been better over that last day.
The pack out was of course bittersweet. The horsepower was a welcome relief to tired and sore legs and we laughed and joked and talked the entire way out. The breeze traveling down the valley was causing the aspens limbs, pine boughs, and sagebrush to gently sway almost as if it was waving goodbye. I would be leaving my new love and addiction behind but I would be back again.
I pointed the truck East, a little heavier on its suspension than during the long trip West. The adventure had been more than expected and something I will always keep with me. I was now an elk hunter.