October 1st, 2012
Back from my last week in the mountains. I didn't harvest an elk, but had many close encounters and an incredible time in the process. High alpine elk hunting over steep, isolated, public land was probably too aggressive for my first hunt, but I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much any other way.
I spent the first few days alone and then a couple with Bryan Huskey. However, we spent much of our time "together" separated for long periods, divided by the vast landscape and spooky elk. But this way we covered more ground, with less footsteps to be heard. The demanding terrain was exhausting, even seeming to stiffen and tire the local elk. Some days were quiet; silence I have never experienced before. You could hear every branch crack, bird song or wing flutter. When you are alone in a place like that you begin to realize how noisy people are. On other days the mountains echoed with blood-curdling bull elk bugles. All day and all night.
The waxing full moon lit the entire valley till morning. One evening I didn’t even need a headlamp to walk the hour and a half back to my camp. Within moments of my return a bull moose stumbled through camp, making the awful vomiting noise that is their bugle. He called in two other bull moose and they thrashed in the aspens for hours.
I set off an hour before sunrise, some days locating elk moments after leaving camp. Early morning squeaks and yawning bugles provided my path in the dark. Other days took a few hours to find signs of life. After learning from Bryan, I became very aware of the ebb and flow of wind in the mountains. Like clockwork, the thermals would drop around 6 to 6:30 p.m., continuing for an hour after sunrise. Then they would rise up the hillsides until evening returned. Camping in the valley bottom, we had to move on the elk before the wind soured the air above us. Knowing it would change around 8:30 a.m., we would hurry up to the ridge line, widely arcing around the herds to perch high above during the day. It was amazing to see them pick up the scent from my footsteps hours later if I had taken a bad route that day. But if I played the wind correctly and stayed quietly out of sight, they never noticed me. This was our daily routine, climbing from 8,300 feet to more than 10,000 feet multiple times a day as the elk bounced back and forth over the ridge to neighboring drainages.
It took me awhile to figure out a procedure for the final stalk, because the situation was so dynamic. Due to the rut, all my action came as close calls with big, dominant herd bulls. They were so preoccupied with keeping their cows together and fighting off other bulls, less vigilant when it came to watching out for hunters. More interested in wallowing in mud, thrashing trees with their prized antlers and generally being obnoxious. The cows were always looking, listening and calling on a sixth sense to keep the herds safe. I tried to sit and wait for them to come my way, but even when I was silent with the wind in my favor, my attempts were easily foiled by the lead cow's sense of danger. I called to the bulls, urging them to bugle, and often was received, inspiring them to respond for as long as an hour. Bot not a single brute charged in as one had last season. Instead, most encounters ended with the herds slowly moving away. At this stage in the rut many of the herd bulls were much too tired and wouldn't defend their cows unless they absolutely felt the need to. This meant a change in strategy: getting their attention and then penetrating a distance that led them to take action.
It was a lot to be aware of, and my first bull came to me sooner than I expected — so quietly that I didn't even know he was there until we were staring at each other from 30 yards. He was a timber bull, dark in the face and body, with black antlers painted by sap and bark. We stood frozen for about 10 seconds before he turned his massive rack and walked away. I’ll never forget that.
The next encounter came two days later. In the early morning twilight I found a bull and called to him for an hour. I cautiously moved in this time, eventually he bit. His antlers banged against the trees as he crashed towards me. Out of breathe, and on a steep grade with my pack on, I had nowhere to go. I stood behind two young pines and tried to stay calm. He came straight downhill to me. This bull was larger with a light mane and greater "bone colored" antlers. He came to within 15 yards, I drew my bow and held it, trying to be still and quiet but shaking badly from nerves. A 700-pound animal that close is an intense thing. He just kept coming between me and the trees, either side where open spaces and I could have taken an easy shot. I jostled with my bow for a second, losing strength and pulled back again quickly. The bull became aware something was up, threw his head back and begin to take in air from every direction. Knowing the gig was probably up I tried to slide out and catch him off guard, but with the slightest movement he turned and bolted. My closest and best chance all over in an instant.
Over the last 36 hours I engaged a few smaller bulls, all of which caught my wind and never came within 50 or 60 yards. I was so exhausted, out of food and mentally extinguished that on the last night of the season I walked down to my Nissan at 5 p.m. It was over.
My time out there was like nothing I have ever experienced. Immersed in the wild, and not as an observer. It’s so much different than going on a hike or backpacking trip. A much more connected and intense outdoor experience than anything fishing has to offer. No maps, no trails, no talking. No destination. Just a lot of miles and a lot of listening and looking. Time flew by. I wish I had taken more photos. Golden Eagles were always overhead, a bear woke me from a cat nap with some "time to hit the road" huffs, and I spent a sunset watching a troop of bright white “specks” — Rocky Mountain Goats — crossing a massive rock face. Four deflated Mylar balloons were the only trash I found over the week. Please don't buy any "Happy Birthday Bobby" balloons for me this year.