Colorado - On Friday, August 25, 2017 my twin brother Jonny and I finally arrived at the elk hunting grounds the afternoon before opening day of the Colorado archery elk season. Thanks to our handheld GPS, we had maneuvered through many winding dirt roads until at last we found the desired destination: Public land in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. To our dismay, there were already a great number of other vehicles strewn across the expanse of the parking area. It looked as if we wouldn’t be alone for the next week.
We made camp at the base of the mountains about 1.75 miles down the main trail from the truck. Several deadfall had fallen in such a manner that a perfect rectangular opening had been left untouched; the perfect location for base camp. There was also a small stream a stone’s throw away from which drinking water could be taken. Once camp was set up we picked our way up the mountain’s steep terrain toward timberline for the evening’s scouting mission in preparation for the hunt the following day.
The first few days in the Rockies had been intimidating to say the least. Hardly any elk were in the immediate area and no bugles pierced the silence. The elk country was rough; rough enough for both of us to question whether or not God created the mountain side with some kind of hidden treadmill under its depths since the steep hikes were longer and tougher than planned. Trust me; don’t rely on any map for the layout of the terrain. No matter how hard you study your maps, what may appear as a tranquil meadow may actually turn out to be a rock face; a mile may actually be 4 miles. Although you may question my reasoning, the simple fact is that mountains are shape shifters. Another hypothesis for all this nonsense had been that our low-elevation Michigan bodies were to blame. This was an idea that was quickly dismissed as every towering rock outcropping put our muscles to the test, the thick timbered mountain side acted as a wooden labyrinth for us to navigate through, and crystal clear streams calmly carved down the mountain, all the while supplying us with “gas” to keep us going on our way. One realizes how small he or she really is in this amazing world that God created.
Our first ever elk sighting had been on our slow hike up to timberline early Saturday morning: Opening day. Half-way up the mountain, Jonny stopped me in my tracks, whispering about hearing something ahead of us on the game trail we were following. We stopped for a minute to listen, but decided to keep moving higher up the mountain. Funny thing is, I looked down to find half of an arrow, snapped years ago, lying on the forest floor. I picked it up and examined it. Perhaps it had been lodged in an elk’s shoulder or had fractured on a rock from a bad shot before it found its final resting place. I set it back where it had lain and became lost in thought. Not two steps later, a cow elk bounded off from behind a pine tree 20 yards away up the trail. So Jonny had heard something.
For any elk hunters out there, I would definitely recommend spending the extra money on a small game license for shooting grouse. Talk about some delicious mountain chicken! Shooting at grouse will hone in your shooting skills and help to double check that your bow pins are still sighted in. And did I mention you get to eat them? How might you find them you ask? You will know when you find them! More often than not, you will flush them up. They are incredibly hard to spot due to their perfectly patterned plumage. If you scare one, you will hear a loud thundering of wing beats that sounds identical to a chopper taking off. On Saturday evening, we scared two that landed in nearby trees. Although a failure to shoot them ended in frustration, it resulted in the sighting of a gorgeous porcupine! One of the grouse Jonny shot at spiraled down to the ground and landed next to the prickly creature, giving away its rarely seen appearance. What are the odds! The third porcupine we both have ever seen in our lives!
Sunday flew by. It was a lazy day for us to recuperate from the hard hikes the days prior and reflect on the incredible beauty of the surrounding country. How great is our God! We also loaded up on some colorful brook trout from a nearby stream that flowed by camp. Another delicious meal, straight from the mountains themselves!
To brighten our moods, we heard our first bugles early Monday morning! Boy does that get your heart pumping! We quickly scaled the mountain side before light, up numerous rock faces, to where we assumed we would be at the same elevation as the bugling bulls. I’ll tell you what; you begin to realize something odd when scaling mountains; rock faces move in the dark. I don’t know how they do it. Every elk hunter can agree that at some point in their hunting career this annoying phenomenon is experienced. As soon as the sun peeks over the pines, rock faces drop into place as if all is normal. We have yet to pattern their movements. Exhausted, we stopped and listened intently for a bugle, only to hear the bulls below us at the bottom of a deep rock face we were above. The loud crashing of the bulls below us in the thick timber kindled our frustration. Back down we went, over the same rock faces. And wouldn’t you know, we dropped down the mountain too low and missed the bulls moving through. We were upset at first, but we marked the area on our GPS and planned on returning to the area that evening and redeeming ourselves for the mishap.
A few hours before dark, we set- up above the area where we ran into elk that morning and bugled every so often, in hopes of getting a response. Nothing. The sun was starting to set so we began to hunt our way down to camp with the last remaining rays of light. Just a short ways down, a satellite bull jumped up out of nowhere and began to circle around us. Jonny actually got to full draw on him at 30 yards. I ended up calling Jonny off since we were unsure if it had the amount of antler points we were considering a shooter for this trip. After it had moved off, Jonny let out another bugle to draw him in for a better look. To our surprise, a cow and a beautiful herd bull appeared above us on a ridge not 40 yards away, surveying the area below for the source of the commotion. Unfortunately, we had no shots and the pair wandered off after not laying eyes on the elk they had heard below them that happened to be us. Finally some good action!
The next morning, we scaled the mountain well before light as was our regular routine. We ended up near timberline as the sun began to warm the face of the mountain, all the while we listened for bugles. Nothing. We continued our trek along the mountain to a few semi-steep meadows where we had discovered plenty of elk sign a few days prior and where we had run into the elk the night before. Sure enough, way off in the distance an elk scream shattered the cold morning air!
We snuck closer to the source, approaching a long meadow running up and down the mountain; numerous groves of pine trees spread throughout it. A herd bull lumbered through the deep timber beneath the meadow, while a satellite bull descended from the top. I crept in between the two, quietly darting from pine tree grove to pine tree grove for a closer shot. In the meantime, I had Jonny 60 yards below me bugling and slowly inching down the mountain in order to draw the satellite bull down the meadow and in turn, past me for a shot.
The satellite followed the script to perfection and meandered down the meadow, halting only feet before stepping into a shooting lane! I quickly ranged the shooting lane and raised my bow for the shot.
The bull stepped out into the opening as I drew, but caught my movement when I was drawing! That unexpected eye-contact froze me at mid-draw, unsure of my next move. Shaking like a leaf, I somehow pulled my bow to full-draw, all the while under the satellite's curious eye. I zeroed my 50 yard pin behind his shoulder and let it fly! The bull ducked, twisted, and raced off down the meadow. A thick cloud of dust followed him into the safety of the timber as he disappeared out of sight. It could have been said that racing gates had been opened because that thing had run off like a racehorse on steroids!
Unsure of the shot placement, I replayed the shot over and over in my head. All I could remember was a thwacking sound that was either the impact of the arrow with the bull or with a rock beneath his belly. It had all happened as if in a blink of the eye but I had a slight inclination that I had possibly hit him low or even worse; missed completely. I re-ranged the shot to be 60 yards instead of 50. I think all hunters can agree that no matter how good of a shot you think was executed, there will always be those doubts that flood your thoughts to the point that you feel sick to your stomach. These doubts swarmed my mind as Jonny and I discovered no blood trail. The only good thing that was found was the rear half of the arrow, its end covered in blood. There was still hope. The smartest option we came up with was to give the bull some time in case of a bad shot and talk it over breakfast. Not much of a breakfast was eaten though due to a dramatic loss of appetite from all the uncertainty regarding the fate of the shot.
We couldn’t take it any longer and so after a good hour we proceeded to trek down the meadow to the edge of the timber where I last saw the bull enter and searched the area. Before we could make much of a search, a herd of elk began descending the mountain right in front of us! We dropped to the ground and prepared Jonny for any possible shots. This herd’s herd bull began bugling back and forth with the other herd bull we had crossed paths earlier that morning. A calf crossed through a sliver of an opening in the timber about 50 yards away that we were watching and was soon followed by a cow, the herd bull bugling right on their tail! The herd bull never revealed himself, but stuck to the thickest parts of the timber as it pushed his herd towards the rival herd down the mountain from us. After the elk had moved off, Jonny and I returned to the sight of the shot to get a better idea of where my bull could have run off to. We replayed the situation, and found that we may have been searching just too far down the mountain. We split up, Jonny angling higher and myself staying lower. In due time, Jonny glanced a belly and whistled me over to my bull! He was a beautiful, extremely symmetrical 6x6 and had run about 200 yards! Turns out, the Muzzy broadhead struck him right behind the shoulder! The bull had ducked enough to compensate for the 10 yards I had aimed too low!
As all big game hunters know, now the real work would begin. It took the two of us, twenty-one year old greenhorns, 2 1/2 hours to quarter him up and hang the meat. The bull had died in the one and only flat and clear location in the timber which helped us a lot! We each loaded our backpacks with the smaller cuts of meat and started the first pack out which was about 2 miles to the truck. After reaching the truck, we made a detour to camp to switch out backpacks with pack frames for the final, much larger pack outs. We returned to the carcass a few hours later, I loading the rack and hide while Jonny packed a hind quarter. We had only taken a few steps when we glanced a large cinnamon furred black bear boar at 40 yards, waiting patiently for us to move off. For most people, I’m sure their first sighting of a bear had been a safe distance away or perhaps through binoculars. Never had I imagined that I would see my first bear sitting on his haunches a mere 40 yards away! Shocked, we didn’t know what to think of it. We soon took action and began yelling and waving our arms in the air, attempting to intimidate the bear. That thing was fearless. I guess "Hey bear!!!" and "Get outta here!!!" wasn't in his vocabulary since his only reaction was to shuffle a few yards back and watch us make our escape. He did growl and huff at us as
After a heart-pounding and adrenaline-filled hike down the mountain to the truck, we decided to return to camp for the night. It was getting too close to dark to deal with the final pack-out what with a hungry bear lurking around at night. Not to mention those rock faces would be a problem too. Neither one of us got much sleep Tuesday night. Part of it was the anticipation of whether or not any of the meat would be touched, part of it was the fact that we each had dream upon dream of bear attacks, and of people telling us the meat was untouched or that it was indeed devoured. Honestly most of it was probably from the cold because of the shortage of gear that had been abandoned at the carcass due to the special guest appearance of the bear.
Finally dawn did actually arrive. It had been thought between the two of us that it might have been cancelled as it seemed to be so late in appearing. We took our time preparing for the morning and began the steep hike to the mountain top to call out to family and friends; the only place where we could get cell phone reception.
Once all were informed of the various quandaries, it was time to set out and make our way to the crime scene. Yelling, banging rocks together, and snapping branches, we made our way to the elk carcass. Upon our arrival, we found the carcass to be untouched by any bears. Trailcam pictures revealed the bear simply sniffing the carcass and leaving, yet it also revealed pictures of not only that boar, but also a sow and cub passing through at about the time in which we would have shown up for the third and final pack-out the night prior. A wave of relief swept over both of us as we eagerly packed up the remaining meat and gear onto our pack frames. Looking over our shoulders, we saw the remains of the carcass one last time. A bittersweet, and yet not so bittersweet moment.
We had hiked only 60 yards or so down the mountain before an approaching snapping of twigs alerted us and grabbed our attention. The same black bear lumbered up onto a fallen pine tree 10 yards away; an air of excitement about it as if our loud entrance to the carcass had actually acted as a dinner bell rather than deterrence. Once again it seemed that our yelling only made the bear more and more discouraged as it's growling and chomping of its teeth proved. Rightfully so, since this time, the yelling was a lot more stern and desperate for us two men; each of us with roughly 60 pounds of elk meat on our packs, armed only with a buck knife, a hatchet, and rocks. We were basically defenseless.
Eventually the bear did actually move off, growling to himself, I am sure, of how complicated humans are with their vocabulary and understanding. All he had done the day before was sit patiently waiting for us to take our share of the kill and then guard it from any other suspecting mountain dwellers. But that morning when he came to see us off, we had treated him as a low ranked animal... like...a grouse or something. Oh well, maybe the hardest work involved in any big game hunt: the pack out.
We are proud to have not only succeeded in shooting an elk, but to have done it on our own, without a guide. Not only that, we managed to pull it off on public land where hunting pressure had pushed these elk to some thick, unforgiving parts of the mountains. Carrying an elk rack down steep grades, thick timber, and over giant deadfalls really helps one appreciate how those giant bulls weave through it all with ease; and without getting their antlers stuck!
Just one more pack out of base camp remained, incomparable to the previous three. It didn’t bother us though; we were going to be on flat ground for the most part. This was just the home stretch. The last time we had to be a prisoner to our packs!