I’ve talked about elk hunting here a few times; so let’s explore a particular hunt I took about fifteen years ago, which still sticks in my mind as the worst day I’ve ever spent at my favorite pastime.
I do wonder sometimes what drives people like me to hunt elk. What mystery is about elk that makes us leave warm beds long before dawn to tramp high in icy mountains?
In the past, I’ve always concluded the experience was reason enough. It’s reason enough to be out in the early morning in the high country, to enjoy the company of trusted friends, and to thrill to the ringing bugle of a bull echoing through aspens shining gold in the autumn sunshine.
And then came one particular opening day that changed my thinking. It was a day when I quit my warm bed for a late-season cow hunt. This day started awful. Things got worse after that.
It was a frigid morning when we left my friend’s cabin in Eagle at five in the morning, and a nasty, driving, wet snow/rain mixture was spitting from the starless, leaden sky. During the half-hour drive out to Salt Creek, my hunting partner Karl and I speculated on the wisdom of climbing to the top of the plateau we intended to hunt. But drive out there we did, and when we dismounted from Karl’s truck, the weather had gotten worse. We stepped into the lee of the truck to plan our morning.
“I’ll stay to the west of that big outcrop,” I told Karl, pointing at a dimly seen stump of red shale sticking out of the sagebrush, “And you stay to the east. Meet back at the truck by four?”
“Okay,” Karl said.
“This weather stinks,” I grumbled. I was already soaked through.
“At least it’ll be quiet.” The early seasons in Colorado had been warm and dry; my September bear hunt had been rendered almost impossible by woods in which every footfall sounded like I’d stepped in a pile of dry cornflakes. Hoping that some snow would grace the late elk seasons, I’d bought a leftover late season cow tag. No wall-hanger trophy my goal this year, but rather a freezer full of elk steaks.
My hunting partner Karl had a bull tag. Karl went off into the heavy timber in search of a six-by-six, while I climbed to the top of the plateau to find a good place to glass for a freezer-filler.
It proved to be a grueling journey. Elk hunting is never a picnic, but this climb would be burned into my memory. Every scrub oak, every juniper I bumped sent a shower of wet snow down the back of my neck with uncanny accuracy. Open areas between the trees were covered with sagebrush, a neat trick pulled by nature to make sure that my wool pants got soaked through in between fresh loads of snow dropped on me from the trees. The wet increased the weight of my daypack by approximately forty pounds, and my rifle lay in my arms like an anvil. Nature seemed full of malign intent that morning.
After a half-hour struggle I finally gained a vantage point. I found a chunk of rock that looked less sharp-edged than the others, brushed off a couple of inches of slush, and sat down.
Glassing wasn’t very productive, but occasionally the sleet would slack off long enough for me to see a mile or so. During one of those lulls I was able to finally get a look into the high meadows on the mountainside on the other side of the Salt Creek drainage, and sure enough…
“Oh, crap,” I whispered to my private self, alone as I was on a lifeless, frigid, dripping mountainside.
It was the worst possible scenario. Across the drainage was a herd of cows, maybe twenty elk, dark shapes grazing contentedly a mile or so away. With a groan of frustration, I let my binoculars drop to the end of their cord.
There was nothing else for it; my own stubbornness and the mysterious drive for an elk drove me on. I picked my way carefully down the mountain, back down through the junipers and sage, down to Salt Creek. The road we had driven in on paralleled the creek, and I came out maybe a half-mile downstream from the truck. I still had to find a way across Salt Creek.
The only opportunity to cross was on a beaver dam that looked to have been built sometime during the Eisenhower Administration by some particularly careless and stupid beavers. I told myself, “Myself, if I fall into that water, I’ll die of hypothermia before I can get back to the truck.”
I looked at the water, swirling dark and frigid like liquid onyx, chunks of ice bobbing carelessly in the current. Overhead the sodden spruces nodded at me, go on, go on.
The elk wouldn’t wait forever. I stepped out on the beaver dam. The sticks shifted slightly under my weight; my entire digestive tract tightened reflexively. Trying with all my mental might to levitate most of my weight off the dam, I slowly picked my way across. When I gained the far bank, I let go the breath I’d been holding, blowing snow off the trees for a good twenty yards. Now all I had to do was to hike carefully up through a half-mile or so of dark timber to where the elk were, in that sodden meadow, on the other side of the wet and dripping trees.
The sleet picked up a little as I climbed, but the spruces protected me from some of it. I took my time climbing over down trees and scrambling through a few ancient piles of slashing left by malicious loggers. After an interminable time, I reached the edge of the meadow. I crept stealthily, oh so stealthily; I crept like smoke on the wind to the edge of the frigid meadow and peeked carefully around the bole of a big spruce, which promptly discharged another helping of wet snow down the back of my neck.
I dodged another volley of wet snow from the spruce and stuck my head out a little further, scanned from one end of the meadow to the other.
I fumbled with cold-numbed fingers for my binoculars, and carefully glassed the tree line all about. A dollop of snow splattered against the binocular objectives, forcing me to stop and clean them before resuming the search.
I double-checked the wind. It blew with near-gale force in my face, as it had been during the whole freezing, soaking, miserable stalk. The wind blew a pat of wet snow from another tree to hit me in the mouth. I glassed the tree line again.
Finally, I walked out into the meadow, sloshed my way through the accumulating sleet and slush to the spot I’d seen the elk feeding. No tracks. The sleet/slush/rain/wrath of God that was falling that morning had eliminated every trace.
I looked around the clearing. No clues offered themselves as to where the elk had gone, where they were at the moment, what they were doing, where they were going.
Well, there was nothing else to do, so I sloshed back down through the spruces, through the slash piles, over the down trees, to the beaver dam. Crossing carefully over the dam with my heart in my throat, I came at last to the road. I stood for a moment, looking up at the impassive monolith of the plateau I’d already climbed once that day. The wind and snow seemed to be getting colder.
“Enough’s enough,” I thought, and slogged on back up to Karl’s truck, to find him asleep in the warm truck cab.
I opened the door and gently shook Karl awake, only breaking one of his teeth and loosening three fillings in the process. “Oh, you’re back,” he belabored the obvious. “I gave up hours ago. Damn weather. You see anything?”
I filled him in on the entire miserable morning.
“Oh, you went after them clear up there?” he replied, his eyes wide with amazement. “You should have been up where I was. Just about a quarter of a mile from here, on that nice flat ground under the bluff. I walked right into a big gang of cows. I had three of them standing within fifty feet of me.”
I fought down the urge to do him an injury. “Let’s go back to the cabin and dry out.”
Later, when we went out again for the afternoon hunt, the rain/sleet/slush/snow had stopped, and while the sky was still overcast, the clouds had brightened some. With our hunting togs dried out, we were quite comfortable.
It seemed kind of dull, somehow. Something of the challenge was gone.
I still sometimes wonder what it is that drives us to hunt elk. There must be more to it than the meat in the freezer, the company of friends, and the scenery. There must be something deep, something primeval, something about the elk that speaks to us on a very basic level. There must be something that challenges us to voluntarily make the effort our ancestors had to make, if they were to survive.
After that wet, freezing day on Salt Creek, I think I may be a little closer to understanding the answer.
We’re probably a little bit crazy. But it’s a damn good kind of crazy.