Hunting the Kananaskis area of the Alberta Rockies allows for a true backcountry hunting experience mere hours from a major city. The mountains, scenery, and relative lack of hunters due to vehicle and ATV access restrictions make the hunt both beautiful and physically challenging. And because this area encompasses both Provincial and Wildland Parks there exists the extra challenge of ensuring you know where you can and cannot hunt.
My hunting buddy Darrell and I have a passion for elk and we were recently both successful in drawing for elk in the area. Darrell had the cow tag and I had a bull tag for a 6-point zone.
Opening day of bow season started at 4am. The steep hike lasted for 2 hours as we made our way into an area we thought would hold some elk. We had scouted the surrounding area but not this particular spot, so we managed to get lost and in the pre-dawn blackness and spent an hour trying to reorient ourselves. I finally resorted to pulling out my iPhone and using a GPS app with cached satellite maps to help us find our path into the area where we wanted to be. It wasn’t the start we were looking for!
As sun rose we began bugling and cow calling and our hunt immediately took a turn for the better. We quickly had some bulls responding and spent the rest of the morning trying to call them in, but could not entice them out of the timber. By mid-afternoon the temperature had climbed to 27 degrees Celsius and the elk had gone quiet. As evening approached and the temperatures slid, the elk began to respond to our bugles again but we could not get within bow range. That day we hiked 25 kms and saw some great bulls and drove home completely hooked on elk for the rest of the season.
Mid-September through mid-October saw Darrell and I heading out every weekend following the same routine. Wake up at 3:30am, hike in for a couple hours in the dark, and try to find elk. But they had disappeared. We tried the same area we’d been to opening day several more times and then moved on to other areas but it was the same result – no elk!
By late October, Darrell and I had progressed from being completely hooked to completely frustrated. How could opening day of elk season have been so exciting, then literally nothing for a month! Where had they gone? Why? Our morale was at an all time low. And rifle season had opened.
Snow finally arrived the last weekend of October and with it a little hope. Perhaps now the elk would reappear with the arrival of the snow, pushed out of whatever deep, dark sanctuary they’d holed up in for the past few weeks. Given our frustrations, we decided to try another area eight kilometres away that looked good on Google Earth, but an area neither of us had previously scouted.
Again, we awoke early and hiked in the dark and cold using our headlamps. It was -8 Celsius that morning and the snow was fresh so our hopes ran high. The hike in consisted of a narrow valley that forked into several other valleys, all surrounded by steep mountains so we hoped the terrain would funnel the elk into one of these valleys and into our sights. As dawn broke we encountered a pair of sheep hunters also hiking in. As we chatted and swapped stories we suddenly spotted some dark specks on the mountain slope 1500 feet above us. Our hearts raced as we grabbed our binos and began glassing…elk!!! We had found the herd! We quickly said goodbye to the sheep hunters, who wished us good luck as we raced off nearly tripping over ourselves.
The elk were grazing on the slope above the tree line, and we needed to develop a plan to get to them without being seen. They were feeding towards a ridge line and the sun was now rising. We had to act fast.
We glassed a small slide that provided a good approach and immediately began our ascent. As we approached the tree line the elk disappeared over the ridge. For the next several hours we continued hiking in the direction of the elk and discovered the ridge line was actually the rim of a large basin ringed with trees with the bottom of the basin open and clear of timber. The hike down into the basin was painstakingly slow due to the thigh high snow, steep slope and treed and tangled understory.
We inched our way down and popped out of the trees near the bottom. By now it was afternoon and the entire herd of elk was in view at the bottom of the basin, approximately 300 yards away. They had no idea we were there but there was no way to get any closer as the bottom of the basin was completely open.
As we glassed the herd my heart sank as the largest bull only had five points. However, Darrell found a beautiful big cow elk that presented a perfect broadside shot and he made a magnificent shot that dropped the cow within mere yards of being hit.
We hiked over to the cow elk and celebrated! She was a beautiful mature cow, the perfect cow to harvest.
By now we only had a few more hours of sunlight left so we made the decision to hike out of the basin while there was still some light, as neither of us knew the area very well and there were lots of cliffs to stumble off of in the dark. The snow and cold would keep the elk nice and cool overnight so we had no concerns with meat spoilage. When we got back to camp that night we called and enlisted my friend Mike to come help us pack the elk out so we could get it done in one trip.
The next morning we hiked back into the basin in the pre-dawn hours and as we dropped down and out of the trees, to our amazement the entire elk herd had returned! I quickly glassed the group and this time located a nice six point bull. I was shaking with excitement but also knew we had a cow elk to pack out. I turned to Darrell and asked “Should I shoot the bull?”
It was Sunday and Darrell advised he would not be able to help me pack out the bull on Monday as he had meetings at the office that he just could not miss. This was no cop out as Darrell has helped me pack out a moose before and I knew that if he said he couldn’t make it, it was for good reason. I also knew the three of us would be unable to pack out two elk that day. At the time Mike was between jobs though so he immediately volunteered to come back with me on Monday to pack out the bull. With that confirmation, I put my cross hairs on the bull and pulled the trigger.
At 300 yards my first shot was high and missed. I fired a second shot and this time the bull bucked but didn’t run so I fired a third shot. This one dropped him and the bull slid 200 yards down the snowy basin slope into a small stream. Bull down! I was ecstatic!!
After spending some time celebrating my bull we returned to Darrell’s cow and began the long process of deboning the elk. The three of each took equal loads and began the steep ascent out of the basin but shortly into the climb we began to notice Mike lagging behind and stopping frequently. We continued our ascent and Mike continued to lag well behind us. His knees were giving him some grief and he’d not been spending every weekend in elk country like we had so the load and effort were starting to overwhelm him.
When we reached the rim of the basin and began our descent, Mike’s body simply gave out. After a rest and some discussion we transferred his pack load to Darrell and I, and Mike carried the pack with our gun and food. It took every ounce of energy to get up off the ground with those loads! Slowly but surely we resumed our march. After an hour we finally reached the bottom of the mountain, Mike was completely exhausted so we rested a while before hiking the last few kilometers out to the truck.
As we unloaded our packs at the truck I knew Mike would be hard pressed to come back the next day to help me with the bull. I felt bad for him and appreciated that he’d come to help us but panic began to set in as I realized I might be hiking in alone tomorrow to pack out a bull elk, a daunting task to say the least. As we drove back to Calgary I began calling anyone and everyone I knew to see if they could take Monday off work to come and help but could not find anyone able to take the day off.
After dropping Mike and Darrell off I made my way home, thoroughly stressed over the prospect of packing a massive elk out myself and at home that evening I continued to rack my brain for options. Given the distance I had to hike I knew I could only take one load per day. If only I had a sherpa! Then a strange idea came to me.
I’d recently hired some labourers to help me with some yard work using Kijiji so what if I tried hiring a sherpa using Kijiji again?! I quickly posted an ad for a physically fit person to help me pack an elk out of the mountains for $20/hr plus I’d buy dinner. Within minutes of posting the ad I’d received five phone calls! After speaking with several “applicants” I chose a young man named Devin to join me and we made plans to meet at 5am the next morning. I was relieved, yet anxious. What if Devin doesn’t show up? What if he’s out of shape and he can’t pack a load? These pessimistic thoughts kept me up all night.
Monday morning I rose and drove to meet Devin. To my surprise he arrived on schedule and we introduced ourselves and hit it off right away. My stress rapidly began evaporating. He appeared to be in his late 20’s and eager to help and as we drove we got acquainted with each other. Devin worked as a painter and had a few days in between jobs and although he wasn’t a hunter he was intrigued by my elk story and excited to hike into the back country.
Devin and I began the long hike back into the basin and by this time I noticed I was feeling the effects of the effort of the previous two days. As we began the steeper portion of the ascent Devin shot past me and was at the top of the mountain in no time. Wow, perhaps he can carry me too I thought jokingly.
As we desceded into the basin we noticed a wolf pack had moved in and were feasting on the remains of Darrell’s cow elk but luckily hadn’t smelled my bull just 200 yards away lying in the small stream. The wolves watched us warily as we hiked into the basin and down to the bull. Devin was super excited to see the elk and the wolves and kept taking pictures with his iPhone as this was all so new to him. I cautioned him that we’d have to work fast as the wolves were now aware of the bull’s carcass and I knew the minute we left, the wolves would be on the remains. There was not going to be a second trip.
Devin and I worked quickly to debone the elk and remove the antlers. Amazingly, Devin got right into the entire process and worked side-by-side with me to debone the elk. All the while, the wolves just 200 yards away, watched us closely and waited for us to leave.
We loaded the packs to the point where we could barely stand up and the only thing keeping us standing was our hiking poles. Slowly, one foot after the other we began the long climb out of the basin for the last time. As we reached the rim we looked back to see the wolf pack move in on the remains of my bull.
It was a long, painful hike out but Devin’s energy and attitude kept us going and the three hour hike passed quickly as we talked about random topics and shared life stories. When we reached the truck and unloaded our packs more than physical load came off my shoulders, as the stress of having to potentially deal with the bull solo finally melted away. Devin beamed with a well-deserved sense of accomplishment. In the end a little creativity and a lot of trust in a complete stranger saved both me and my bull.
So if you’re ever stuck for help packing an animal out of the backcountry, remember my sherpa story. Help may only be a Kijiji posting away!