An encounter with a rutting bull elk at several paces is an experience that stays with you. My first was almost a decade ago, an etched memory which fuels my remaining desire to harvest one with a bow.
As is true for many of us, life was straightforward in my early twenties. I lived in a rental with a couple of buddies and worked as a door-to-door salesman for a local Colorado-based dairy. Earnings were spent on the the basic essentials, and whatever little extra money remained went towards outdoor recreation. Since Denver is within driving distance of countless outdoor opportunities, most of the excursions took place within the millions of acres of federal land we own as U.S. citizens.
In September of 2008, I connected with Justin Leep, a high school friend who was guiding elk hunts in the Medicine Bow — Routte National Forest. His lodge was in Steamboat and after a last minute client cancellation, invited me to join him on a personal bow hunt.
I left work early one sunny Thursday afternoon, loaded up the Isuzu and made the approximate 3 hr drive from Denver to Steamboat. Arriving at the lodge around 3 o’clock left room for a night hunt. Justin walked me through the multi level lodge-pole building nestled into the side of the mountain. “Nice digs Leep” I said. It had a modern rustic feel to it, with pamphlets and images of successful hunts strewn throughout. A bear skull sitting on an end table caught my attention. It had a hunk of metal in the forehead. “See that broad head?” Leep said, pointing to the triangular shaped piece of steel embedded into the bone. “There have been a few issues with problem-bears”, this one I learned, had been reported & chased off numerous times before its final human encounter. It got aggressive and charged up onto the second story deck of the lodge, when one of guides flew an arrow into his head. The bear was aprehended and euthanized by firearm moments later. Everything went on record with the Division of Wildlife and they documented the details, acknowledging the bruin as one of several problem bears in the area.
We stashed my bags in his room and headed out with our bows to shoot a few practice arrows at the life-sized foam elk outside the lodge. This allows bow hunters to get a better feel for the size of the animals, and they can visualize the “kill zone”. Guides can then determine an effective maximum range for their clients when the opportunity presents itself in the field. We determined mine to be around 40 yards.
We laced our hunting boots and headed out the back door into the National Forest. Each step we toed into the soft, pine covered incline released the sweet and musty smell of nitrogen-rich earth. We took short steps, one after another. Justin was testing my lungs. There was a brief encounter with a bedded mule deer buck at 25 yards, but no elk. Facebook had recently caught on, and Lum (Leep) teased me to take one of the many “Drew profile shots” he’d seen online. We saw dusky grouse, laughed and caught up a bit and headed back down to get some dinner in town before the early morning departure for the morning hunt.
3:45 a.m. came all too fast as I stumbled through the mental fog, fighting the urge to hit snooze before remembering the day’s plan. We donned our clothes, threw together some sack lunches and jumped in the truck. My lunch consisted of 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a Nature’s Valley granola bar and a package of rolaids, which are said to help with altitude. One full bladder of my camelback (1.25 litres) was what I took for water. Leep had the same.
We parked along a fire road in the inky darkness and located our headlamps prior to shutting off the truck. We loaded our packs, hopped the guard rail and began our steep decent into the scrub oaks, covered with clothes- snagging branches. Dew had settled on mostly everything, and had my front-half soaked to my underwear. Uncomfortable yes, but I was mostly preoccupied with moving quietly, which triggered a paranoia of surprising a black bear feeding on berries. At the bottom was a creek flowing through a grass-filled valley. The bank was covered with little protruding nodes of earth, so we hopped and stretched to stand on whatever looked solid. Playing guessing games with your footing in the dark of morning isn’t much fun, nor is stepping into a grass-covered-void and…“umph”… floundering face first into a clump of wet dirt. We crossed the creek and gained back in altitude what we gave up in the previous hour. With solid ground once again under our feet, we began our ascent into the timbers. Shadows now uncovered the hillside in the dim early light.
We moved slowly, but straight up. For 4 or 5 hours we pressed on, frequently checking the wind by squirting a puff of talc into the air to see where it blew. The strategy for our hunt was to time the thermals so that the wind would always be in our faces. When the early morning sun rises, the cool air atop the mountain rushes down the drainages into the valleys. Similarly, but in reverse manner, the afternoon hunt was to be done downhill, as the warm air from the valley rushes up the drainage. An elks best defense is it’s nose, the slightest whiff of human will send them running.
We summited a little after 1:00 p.m. The sun was high and we had shed several layers. Almost all of my water was gone. I tore into my PB&J’s like a kid in a halloween sack. It seemed like two bites and a quick swig of water and lunch was over. We quietly discussed our plan, and maintained our strategy of hunting down for the afternoon. After taking an hour to nap in the sunshine, we loaded our things and returned to the mission.
Justin gave a bugle call, which drew a faint response in the distance. “Be ready”, Leep said. The animal sounded like miles away, but Leep’s one of the best hunters I know, so I just tried to do exactly like he did, while scanning ahead for movement. We heard some twigs breaking as a couple of brown patches of fur flashed through the lodgepole pines — a few cow elk had moved in towards us. Justin “mewed” with a cow call, and settled the ladies down. Everything was quiet and still for a moment, while we held our position, straining to see movement through the fallen pine not probably 20 yards in front of us. From the silence erupted an ear splitting bugle, ripping through the forest with the volume and pitch of a storm siren. It built intensity as the giant rolled his neck to undulate his vocal presence. Then he started towards us, trotting like a heavy horse, breaking off branches with heavy clodden thuds. Justin, now wide eyed, pointed towards all this and mouthed “bull…knock…arrow…now”.
The bugle is used to either locate mates or confront challengers who might dare mess with a bull’s claim on his harem of cows. Since we were the ones who made that noise, we were perceived as one or the other. Either way, my heart was racing. My knees and hands shook violently, my breathing was quick and shallow. We couldn’t see this bull, but from the direction of his footsteps we knew where the shot opportunity would come — as soon as he cleared the fallen pine. I quietly knocked an arrow and came to full draw. Justin did the same. We waited for the bull to come into view, but he didn’t come. Instead we heard a few snorts, and the hooves of several elk thunder off into the distance. Just like that, it was over. “Dammit!” said Lum, “Wind shifted.” There was nothing we could do about it, a quick swirl of the wind had ended our encounter.
We continued hunting our way down the mountain, but it felt in vain. The chance had come and gone. I was strangely okay with it. A Rocky Mountain bull elk averages 600 lbs. Quartering the animals and lashing each quarter to your back is method for packing them out. Each quarter weighs up to 100 lbs. The muscles in my legs were burning, and we were both out of water. Even though there was the creek at the bottom, killing that elk would have meant climbing back up the other side with 100 extra pounds on each of our backs, and then coming back down, across, and up for the second, and possibly third load. This would have taken us well into the night by headlamp.
As we climbed back over the guard rail. I took a pause to catch my breath and take in the scenery. The day comprised of what would be a life-changing experience, one I met with open arms and absorbed into my identity. Marriage was one of those moments, so was having kids. This was definitely one of those moments.
Since that trip, if I were to add up all the money & time exhausted towards the pursuit of these animals, it wouldn’t make sense to most folks. For the fellow hunters who do understand though, it’s nothing new. It started with a good pair of boots, some wool layers, and binoculars. Then came things like The Baffle Bugle and Primos instructional DVD’s. There have been new bows, rifles, optics, packs, stoves, tents, and any other pieces of gear that might give a hunter the edge. This doesn’t include fuel, airfare, lodging, or license fees. In the state of Colorado alone, hunters & anglers contribute directly to more than 2.8 billion dollars in annual revenue, and 6.1 billion in additional effects statewide, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.
To some people, hunting is disgusting, archaic, and unnecessary. To me, not only is it a passion, but it’s conservation. Ethical hunters are caretakers of the land. Our dollars go directly toward wildlife research, land management, and herd development. There was a television ad that aired not too long ago in Denver that showcased the many different crowds enjoying the multi-use land we all own together, and the tag line as I remember, closed with… “hug a hunter” — no kidding.