Pushed To The Limit: Backcountry Elk Hunting
June 14, 2011
As Peggie and I rolled across the plains of western Kansas, my mind drifted. September 2010 was upon us, and we were headed for the Wyoming high country, where I was about to begin my 30th consecutive season of bowhunting elk. Wrapping my mind around this fact, I found myself awed by the influence this pursuit has had upon my life.
As my mind flashed across all the decades of hunts, countless recollections, both good and bad, roused my emotions. These outings had formed much of the person I'd become today, at age 52. There were no regrets; I'd lived large and spent the enthusiasm of my youth in high, wild places. Seemingly endless days without structure, spent going it alone in awesome places, had blessed me with life-changing, spiritual experiences. Nature had been a friend and foe to me, but always a mentor. I'd learned much from her, and for this, a thankful spirit welled up inside me.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
After 20 years of mule packing into the mountains, this era of my life had finally come to an end. A couple years ago, my best mule died from natural causes. This left me with only one four-legged helper, and it just so happened this mule and I had a love/hate relationship for many years — we loved to hate each other! That being the case, I decided to sell it and go back to my backpacking roots. Inside, I quietly wondered if my old body still had what it takes to tackle elk country in such a manner. Only time would tell.
As Peggie and I made our way into the mountain foothills near Thermopolis, Wyo., everything was new to us. I'd never hunted here before, and I'd been told I'd be up against a stiff challenge in this unit, where numerous issues conspired against the do-it-yourself, nonresident hunter. For example, a large percentage of the unit was private land and/or wilderness area, neither of which I could hunt. There was also a shortage of public access leading into the few areas I could legally hunt. This was going to be a tough egg to crack!
The season didn't open for a week, so Peg and I found a nice campsite near a low-country lake. Deciding we would base out of this location for a few days while we explored the nearby mountains, we set about establishing a nice camp. As evening of our first day was upon us, we enjoyed a campfire as a beautiful Indian-summer evening settled in around us. Roasting wieners as coyotes howled in the distance, the glassy-smooth surface of the lake reflected a beautiful moonrise. In my earlier years of elk hunting, I'd not taken the time to treasure moments like this, but now things were different. Though I hated to admit it, I was beginning to enjoy the "loafing" part of a trip more than the hunting itself. It's funny how time changes things.
Sunrise the following morning found me sampling the trout fishing in the nearby lake. My hunting license included a fishing license, so I decided to be frugal and partake of all the resources at my disposal. By the time Peg crawled out of her sleeping bag, I'd already landed two 18-inch cutthroats — supper was set for the evening! After a bacon and egg breakfast, it was time to begin the job of researching potential access points to my hunting area. I grabbed my maps, jumped in the truck and we were off!
After a few days exploring back roads, I determined the best place to access the backcountry area I was interested in exploring. I also made arrangements with an outfitter who would pack my elk out if the need arose. With all this accomplished, Peg and I packed our camp into the truck and began the convoluted, 80-mile journey by road to a new campsite we'd found — which, by the way, was only about 10 air miles from our former campsite! Placing our new camp in pine and aspen country, it was time for me to get down to business. The season opened in two days, and I hadn't started scouting. Spending the evening loading my backpack with gear, I was pleased to find myself looking forward to shouldering a load that would allow me to live and hunt remote country self sufficiently. Tomorrow, I would find out if my excitement level would survive a gut-wrenching climb to timberline!
As Peg dropped me off at my point of departure, I wondered what the days ahead would hold. Would I still be able to take the rigors of a solo backpack bowhunt in rugged alpine country? Could I sustain this kind of effort for two weeks? Deep inside, I fretted about the answers. Secretly, I knew the passion that had driven me to excel at this type of hunting was ebbing. These next few weeks would go a long way toward answering some deep-rooted questions about my backcountry elk-hunting future. It was time to stop speculating and burn boot leather.
As the trail wound upward into the high country, sweat began to trickle down the small of my back, as lungs and legs burned. In a few hours, I attained the summit of a long, winding ridge that I would follow to a hoped campsite. A screaming wind made the traverse unpleasant, if not dangerous; at times gusts would almost take me off my feet. As the gale forced tears from my eyes, I paused to survey God's great Creation laid out far below me. It had always been moments like this that had driven me.
Reaching my destination, I dropped off the downwind side of the ridge, making my way to the upper reaches of timber. A nice campsite availed itself, with a water source nearby, and I soon had my meager camp set. Grabbing optics, I headed uphill again. Within minutes of scanning the area, elk were in focus — and some nice bulls at that! I felt that old adrenaline rush that came in the face of inevitable action. Yes, this dog would still hunt.
READY, SET, HUNT!
Rising as the eastern sky gave its first hint of the day to come, I made my way into the drainage where my quarry awaited. Approaching the area where the elk were located, I used the cold morning thermals to my advantage. Approaching the elk's location from below, I slipped forward, soon finding myself looking at a large-antlered bull about 100 yards away. Things had happened fast, but now it was time to shift into a lower gear. It was clear the rut was in full swing, and the harem master was busy running from cow to cow. I would have my work cut out for me trying to cherry pick this alpha male from amongst his throng.
An hour later, as I climbed back toward the high ridge where my camp lay, I was bummed. Fickle winds had doomed my stalk, blowing the herd out of the area. Nevertheless, I was feeling good about my chances. These next two weeks were going to be fun.
As days slid by, I had no problem finding elk, mature bulls included. However, I noticed I didn't seem to have the "edge" that had always driven me to push to my limits and beyond. Each day, the slopes seemed to be getting steeper, the air thinner, the nights colder and the ground harder. Slowly but surely, I was wearing down instead of ramping up. Clearly, it was time for a break. I found myself dreaming of a hot meal, a hot shower and a little female companionship. Once my mind turned in this direction, I knew I might as well head for the truck — which I promptly did!
REFRESHED AND RECHARGED
With a couple of days of R&R under my belt, the distant mountains looked a whole lot flatter. I was starting to get my mountain legs and lungs, and mentally, I was stoked to get back into the fray. Loading my pack with food and basics, I hit the trail again. This time, I intended for a big bull to hit the ground soon.
Reaching my old campsite, I was thrilled to hear a bull bugling nearby; grabbing my Mathews, I headed that way. Hurrying ahead, I soon found myself on the outskirts of a full-blown rutting fracas. Certain something good was going to happen in short order, I knocked an arrow. In less than a minute, I found myself at full draw on a nice 6x6 that had quickly appeared from behind a nearby deadfall. Snap judging the bull at 40 yards, I sent a Muzzy on its way — right over his back. Just like that, I'd blown another golden opportunity.
For the next few days, I hunted like a man possessed. Close calls and bad decisions seemed to be the order of my days. I was getting mentally whipped! To make matters worse, I made a bad shot on a bull, hitting him high in the shoulder. I was beaten, and I knew it. With a couple days of hunting time left, I packed off the mountain and called it quits.
As I reflected on the outing while driving home, I knew I was sliding into a new level of maturity as an outdoorsman. An unfilled tag didn't hold the same brutal sting it used to; its "shame" would not own me any longer. Yep, my definition of success was certainly changing big time!