A Remarkable Experience: Part 1
There are so many reasons I love living in Colorado. I’m surrounded by mountains, lakes and rivers, so much of which is open to public use. There’s never a shortage of places to explore or sights to see; but the abundance of wildlife in Colorado is without a doubt the best my home state has to offer. Residents and non-residents alike, so long as they have any sense of adventure at all, can attest to the quality, and quantity of animals that roam the mountains, valleys, sage flats and prairies. However, as a born and raised ‘Coloradan’ I occasionally feel as though I’ve become complacent, considering that I’ve had countless encounters with most wildlife in the state (Mountain Lions and Mountain Goats still elude me….). I first became aware of this years ago when I was visiting Missouri and a local was astounded at the sight of a Bald Eagle. I thought to myself, “I see Bald Eagles all the time. Missouri isn’t that far away. Are Bald Eagles not as common as I think they are?” I realized that my experiences have molded my perception. I’ve become so accustomed to seeing so much so often that I risk losing that sense of awe that makes my experiences exceptional. Since ‘doing less’ to appreciate rare encounters is out of the question, I have to regularly remind myself that what I get to experience is special, even if it’s the 10,000th mule deer I’ve seen in my lifetime.
There is however one animal that will never cease to amaze me, even if i see 100,000 of them before I leave this all behind. It’s not a coyote, a fox, or even a bear that I’m enthralled by. Moose get me excited just because I haven’t seen that many of them, and they make me nervous when I do…. I enjoy seeing all forms of wildlife when I’m out and about, especially those that I rarely see; but there’s something about elk that I just can’t get enough of.
I’ve seen thousands of elk, but I firmly believe that the rush I experience when seeing one hasn’t dwindled over the years. They are simply magnificent, and I don’t mean that in a corny, I need to oversell it kind of way. They’re massive, intelligent, interesting creatures that socialize and interact with one another in a way that’s unique. They’re incredibly rugged and resilient, and as a hunter I admire them as much as I am enamored with the opportunity to pursue them. This year I was fortunate enough to draw a tag that would allow me to do just that.
It’s not very often that I have the chance to hunt elk in a way that makes success likely. Due to all the aforementioned characteristics of elk, they’re very difficult to hunt. It often takes days to simply locate them, days to pattern them, and the slightest mistake can prevent a hunter from bringing home a couple hundred pounds of healthy, delicious meat. Hunters throughout the country spend several days, or even weeks each year chasing elk, and many go home without seeing a single one. As a teacher and high school football coach my falls are usually consumed by various obligations. My lack of time to hunt in the fall is often insurmountable, and my elk hunts usually end without the satisfaction that I’m after. This year however was different because I drew a tag for December, which allowed me to spend eight days pursuing Colorado’s greatest game animal.
“Late Season” hunts exist for two reasons: to slightly decrease the size of elk herds so that they don’t overpopulate areas which would lead to starvation and “winter kill,” and to provide hunters with an opportunity to feed their families and friends with the meat that would otherwise be scavenged by crows and coyotes. The tags are very limited because the purpose is to appropriately and effectively manage herds, which also means that a relatively low number of people get the opportunity. The moment I knew I had drawn the tag I was ecstatic because I haven’t had a meaningful opportunity to hunt elk in over four years! So as soon as I could, I packed up my gear and headed to northwestern Colorado.
My tag was good for an area that I was unfamiliar with, but I have a close friend that knew the area well. I was given vague directions as to where elk had been seen earlier in the week. I didn’t know exactly where I was going but the tip was all I had to go on. I forced myself to be optimistic and left my house at 4:30 A.M.
I had hoped to get to the area in time to see the sunrise but the road conditions were atrocious. At one point I even hit black ice on the interstate! Regardless, I made it to my destination without too much trouble. As I approached the final turn that would take me public land, I was forced to stop in the middle of the highway. Elk got in my way! It was a great sign, one that boosted my confidence as I made my way onto dirt roads.
With GPS in hand I navigated my way up a valley. A fresh snow from the day before prompted me to stop often to glass for trails along the hillsides. I had no idea where the elk were, and I was clueless as to exactly where I was supposed to go. So I kept driving, stopping, and glassing, all the while returning to my GPS so that I knew where I could and could not hunt. I made my way deep into the valley. I eventually decided that I had gone far enough and decided to explore some side roads.
More often than not, those who have late season tags spend the vast majority of the time in their vehicles. December in Colorado is cold, it’s difficult to hike in deep snow, and the elk are often forced to come out of hiding which allows many hunters to find elk from their vehicles without being noticed. I have never been fond of “road hunting” because it diminishes what I find to be important about the pursuit of animals. However, it was my first day of many days to come and I knew that I would be better off covering ground in search of sign that would alert me to the elks’ whereabouts. I began to find elk tracks which meant that it was time to do a little less driving and a lot more glassing. I would scan one hillside, then another, then another, until finally something caught my eye. I had found elk grazing a hillside about a half mile away. My GPS confirmed that they were on public land, so I got out of my truck and attempted to get closer without being detected. I made my way to a small hill to try to make a plan, but I immediately noticed that they were on the move. I ran back to my truck, determined where they were headed, and recognized that roads to the north would allow me to find them again. As I closed in on where I thought they might have gone I spotted them… but they spotted me as well. They immediately took off and I gave chase. I did not plan on having an opportunity to take a shot, but I wanted to get an idea as to where they were headed. I drove to the top of a ridge where I had last seen them and got out of my truck. I located their tracks, followed them for 15 minutes, then glassed into a valley where they were headed. I was unable to find them moving across the valley floor, but I did find something better. As I glassed the valley I came across a herd of 16 (that were visible) on a sage covered hillside. I again returned to my GPS to determine if they were on public land. It was difficult to tell because they were at least a mile away. There was private in the area, but the only way I was going to be able to accurately determine if they on public land was to get closer. I didn’t want to drive through the valley because I was certain I would be seen, so I got my pack out and started in towards them.
It’s often difficult to accurately assess terrain from afar. For example, what may look like a hillside can actually be a sage flat, and what looks like a flat valley floor could be riddled with folds and dense foliage. It’s also difficult to determine distance and your relationship to landmarks that you had previously looked at from above. As I made my way into the valley I was trying to stay hidden and quiet. Elk have the uncanny ability to see hunters from long distances and when you get closer their ability to hear the slightest noise and sense of smell will prompt them to leave an area abruptly. Walking slowly and cautiously also takes a tole because it’s easy to become disoriented and uncertain as to where you are or where you should be going. I kept thinking, “one more hill and I should see the elk.” Each time I slowly climbed to the top of a hill, I would glass to make sure the elk were still there and that I was still heading in the right direction. The first couple of times I found the elk and confidently moved forward. Then, I lost them. I began second guessing myself. Sometimes I believed that I was heading in the right direction. Then I would doubt my sense of direction and believe that I was just looking at the wrong sage covered hill. I was confused but I kept pressing forward. I eventually made my way to a hill covered in sagebrush and I believed it to be the one that the elk were on. Still, I felt that the hill was not steep enough and that I was in the wrong spot. I had my GPS with me and I had marked a waypoint from above, a guess as to where I thought the elk were. I was in the right spot, but determined that I had either scared the elk, or I was standing in a random field of sagebrush. I glassed and glassed, and ultimately determined that I had blown another chance. I started walking across the field unhindered by the thought of scaring off elk, but something caught my eye. The “field” as I’m calling it was a slightly sloped field of sage brush covered in snow and nothing more at first glance. Three colors dominated the clearing that lay between the pinyon pine on either side. The silvery gray-green of the sagebrush leaves, the greyish-brown of the sagebrush bark, and the white of the snow; but I noticed a fourth color tucked away 200 yards from me. I dropped to the ground to glass before realizing that I could not see past the sagebrush in front of me. With binoculars in hand I slowly stood up, just high enough to take a look at the abnormality. Sure enough, I could see the ears of a cow elk. I dropped back to my knees with my heart thumping inside my chest. I had an opportunity if I could just figure out how to take a steady shot. Shooting from a standing position greatly decreases the chance of a successful shot. I knew I had a better chance of waiting for her to stand up. I could stay seated, position my elbows on my knees, and make a comfortable shot if I waited. However that’s easier said than done when adrenaline starts kicking in and you start doubting yourself. I found myself thinking about the possibility of her standing up and running if she caught my scent. If that happened I wouldn’t get a chance to take a shot and I’d regret my decision to be patient. So I made the decision to creep forward. I thought that if I was able to get a little closer I might be able to position myself at an angle where I could see past the brush while staying seated. Unfortunately I had headed into the valley with such urgency that I had not brought gloves. With my gun secure on my back I crawled on my hands and knees through the snow. The snow bit at my fingers and I stopped frequently to warm my hands and look for the cow. She remained where she laid so I continued forward. I decided to use the butt of my gun as a crutch to save my hands from the cold until finally, I placed by knee right into a cactus buried in the snow. I winced in pain but recovered quickly. I decided at that point to sit and wait. At that exact moment I saw the cow stand up. I quickly set up and put my crosshairs on her. I was all but ready to take the shot when I noticed something else: two distinct patches of brown fur on either side of her. I looked closer and discovered that she had two calves. For a non-hunter the thought of shooting a cow with calves is completely out of the question and would probably be deemed as wrong. Many hunters also forego doing so, but to many its not considered unethical. Shooting calves is also acceptable in many hunting circles. Many may not understand it, but it does happen frequently. The meat is utilized all the same, and as I was told later that day (by a game warden) calves will likely survive without the cow. I had honestly never given it much thought; but as I sat there with a clear shot, I couldn’t pull the trigger. I’m not sure if it was because I thought the calves wouldn’t make it, because I didn’t want to leave the calves to fend for themselves, or if it was simply because I thought I would find another opportunity regardless, I didn’t pull the trigger. I sat and watched the cow in my crosshairs for what seemed to be three or four minutes. I could tell she was sniffing the air and knew something was nearby. I finally made the decision not to shoot and it was then that I noticed the calves and cow staring at something to my right. I swiveled through the snow to see what they were looking at, and spotted two more cows. I adjusted to take a shot but before I could, they bolted away.
When all the elk had left the area I stood up and began walking back to my truck. When I got to the top of the hill that I had first descended from, I took a moment to look back at where I had been. Besides realizing that I had greatly underestimated the length of the hike, I also realized that I had just walked away from elk. Tucked in the sagebrush, the same sagebrush that I was just in, were three more elk that I hadn’t noticed. I continued glassing throughout the valley and that’s when I saw something remarkable. Everywhere I looked, all throughout the valley, there were elk. A group of seven here, a group of twelve there, twenty below the ridge, they were everywhere! It was a little disheartening because there was not enough time left in the day to go back down there, but I accepted that it wasn’t going to happen on that day and I was somewhat content with that. As the sun went down I looked back on day one. I had seen a ton of elk, I had an opportunity, I passed on an opportunity, but I had high hopes. Most of all, I had realized that I was about to have a very special elk hunting experience.