My Elk Hunt
* This post is not about the ethics of hunting. Though I do have a lot to say about that, it’ll have to wait as this is simply an account of my experience as best as I could record.
In 2015, my new father-in-law Norm invited me on an elk hunt in Colorado along with my brothers-in-law, Ben and Stephen. The idea of the experience excited me, but in the aftermath of our wedding, and then pregnancy and birth of Wesley, it remained an abstraction until just a month or two before when I began preparing in earnest.
Thanks to gifts from Christmas I already had some of the gear I needed, but I had to fill in the gaps - in particular, I had to get my paperwork in order for the hunting license, as well as to buy a rifle. I needed a cooler big enough - 150 quarts - for any meat I brought back, and a way to store it frozen when I got it home.
Being October in Colorado, I had to prepare for a range of weather scenarios, so I rounded up lots of gear for camping, survival in the wilderness, and more. Water filtration kits, packable food, fire and signal making, warm and cold weather clothing, emergency blankets, several pairs of boots, fresh underwear and warm socks, emergency tools, two tents, a sleeping bag and mat, and anything I owned in camo. Knives in all sizes, axes and a machete. Every working camera I have was pulled out, batteries organized and charged, lenses cleaned and wrapped or bagged. Four camera bags and two backpacks, options for every scenario. Since I was going to drive out, I could afford to be overprepared.
Stephanie’s mom decided to come out and stay the week while I was away, which made the weeklong separation easier on all of us. I had to arrive in Nucla, CO by noon on Friday, so on Thursday morning I watched Stephanie, Connie, and Wes head out for an early meeting and then I hit the road. I drove straight through to Moab, UT - about 10 hours - where I was tired and close enough to stop for the night. I woke up early and drove the short hop into Colorado, killed a few hours around Naturita, then bought my out-of-state hunting license and headed over to the Garvey ranch at about noon.
There I met the wonderful Garveys, Dustin and Heather, who ran the family outfitting business, along with his parents and uncles who still helped out on every hunt, and her family who’d come down from Vancouver to look after their kids while we were away. There were also several other groups of hunters and guides who’d be basing out of Lower Camp, while we staged from Upper Camp. Line of sight, Upper Camp is about 20 miles from their home, but the drive up was much longer and the roads too rough for my little Honda, so as soon as Norm, Ben, and Stephen arrived we piled into two trucks and headed out.
We made a brief stop just outside of town at a shooting range to sight in our rifles. Being the first time my rifle had ever been fired, I was glad we stopped - after going through half my ammo trying to get dialed in, we determined that the scope was busted and couldn’t be adjusted at all. I was shooting decent groupings, they just weren’t where I wanted them to be. Thankfully, Norm had brought a backup rifle, his old trusty Remington Woodsmaster 30.06, and he generously offered it to me for the hunt. As annoyed as I was, this was a fortunate change of gear - the semi-automatic action would come in handy in the coming days.
The other rifles were sighted in and we headed to camp, another 70 or 80 minutes up the mountain. Camp consisted of four-man canvas tents for the hunters and guides - each equipped with a wood stove and cots - as well as a mess tent for cooking and dining, a trailer with a shower, Dustin and Heather’s trailer, and a couple outhouses. This was far more luxury than I expected. In all, there were four hunters at Upper Camp, and there would be an expert guide for each hunter. We had five days of hunting ahead of us, with no guarantees but every effort taken to give us the best experience possible.
We awoke at 5 and had breakfast with the whole gang. The weather was looking good for the week. I paired up with Dave, 55 years old and a lifelong hunter who’d done it all. At 5:30 we left, and by 6 hit the trail at Upper Bench. He told me to chamber a round and be sure it was on safety, and then we quietly made our way down to Middle Bench by daybreak. Immediately, we heard bugling, the call of a bull elk, and saw several groups of elk females (cows) down in a steep gully below. We had five days of hunting ahead of us, so we were in no hurry, but still the bugling was like a siren song and it immediately sucked us in.
We began climbing across and down the ridge, hoping to spot the bugling bull. Eventually, we setup far above the gully with a clear view of the cows, perfectly backlit against a sunny patch of green on the upper edge of the deep Aspen Grove running down the length of the gully. We could still hear the bull, somewhere close, though the echoes made it hard to be sure. I propped myself up against the steep incline, at the edge of a cluster of Pines looking sharply down below on the sunny lawn. We were about 500 yards away, but thanks to the steep decline I was at an effective range of 340 yards - still, the farthest shot with any weapon I had ever prepared to take.
After an hour of watching the cows graze, speculating about what to do next, and admiring the regular bugling we were fairly certain the bull was somewhere nearby, perhaps in the Aspen copse just below the patch of grass we were watching so intently. We were committed, and had plenty of time. At around 9am, the bull finally showed, exactly where we were hoping. In spite of my anticipation, I was almost stunned to see him finally - a confirmed 6x6, 300-320 points, more than enough to qualify even this early in the week - and to face what was to come next. I was excited, and nervous.
I quietly asked Dave for his advice. He gave me an unambiguous go to shoot. I began to focus, aimed just over the bull’s shoulder to account for the range, controlled my breathing and pulse, and after what felt like an hour of meditation I pulled the trigger and click… nothing.
The action on the rifle wasn’t fully racked forward - in my care to quietly chamber a round earlier that morning, I hadn’t entirely engaged the bolt. I ripped my gloves off and quickly cleared up the problem, but now my heart racing.
Again, I slowed my breathing, and this time I shot and missed. I took a follow-up shot right away, but as he was now going up hill, I missed narrowly again. He might have been gone, but instead he came back down and around a few yards away,and I took two quick shots, believing both to be hits.
The bull stumbled hard coming back down into the gully and we lost sight of him, sure he was mortally hit and perhaps already layed down. My rifle empty, I was unprepared to reload so I fumbled in my bag for a minute for more bullets just in case. We quickly relocated 10 yards to adjust my field of view.
Dave and I waited an hour to make sure he didn’t bolt up or down range but saw nothing. Across the gully we had watched the same cows our bull had been with climb out, and further down the gully we saw a large group of cows do the same, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen in either group. Thus, Dave hatched a plan: he sent me to follow the ridge we were on toward an old road. I was to hike out the road to a rock outcrop down range, overlooking the gully where I could see up down the whole way. He would wait until he saw me setup, then he’d climb down and drive the bull, if he was alive, toward me where I should have a clear view.
The best-laid plans of mice and men…
I got terribly lost about 3/4 of the way - repeatedly stuck in scrub brush above my head, at times crawling and sliding where I could. It was clear at that pace I wasn’t going to make it to the target - I couldn’t find a trail anywhere, and could no longer see where Dave was posted, or my ultimate goal.
Beginning to worry, I ended up climbing down into the gully to be safe - the first time in my life I had felt I was truly lost in the woods, a horrible feeling. So many moments that morning I thought was stuck, exhausted, hurt. Not prone to panic, I calmed down for my own safety and determined what to do.
Climbing with great difficulty down into the gully, I began a slog back toward where I had first spotted my elk, hoping to intercept Dave or, at least, be in a visible and identifiable place where he’d be sure to see me. The gully was way thicker with growth than I expected, and the hike took a lot out of me, but at least I had a reasonable plan and destination I knew how to find.
Finally, I made it back to the green grass where I had scoped the bull, but there was no sign of Dave and no elk. I scanned the ridges above me with my binoculars, but couldn’t see any sign of him. It was still early in the day, and I had decided this would be my new base camp until something changed, so I stripped my outer layers off, unpacked and got my wits about me. I had an apple and some water, took stock of the gear I had with me, and waited. After an hour I still couldn’t see Dave or any signs of others.
Digging out an emergency whistle, I swallowed my pride and took a deep breath and let her rip - three short blasts signalling an emergency. I wasn’t sure if it qualified as one yet, but what the heck. I was embarrassed, but more concerned with survival - Stephanie and Wesley were all that was on my mind.
After no response, and still feeling a little silly, I eventually fired one rifle shot into ground, figuring if Dave would surely hear it and find me. Sure enough, 10 minutes later Dave came down from a trail, along with three other men from another hunting party, and we began to coordinate our next steps.
We began looking for any sign of my elk - Dave and I were sure I had landed two shots… one in the body, wich stopped him, and one in a rear leg which resulted in his stumble, so we were initially mystified at the lack of any trace. We persisted, heads down, looking for even the faintest sign.
After a few minutes of retracing the bull’s path, and with the skilled assistance of the other two hunters and guide, we finally found blood - just a drop, but enough to mark the beginnings of a trail. We tracked the bull for another hour or so, jumping from one drop of blood to another every 10-50 feet. It was a very faint trail, with nowhere the amount of blood we expected. Eventually, I found a piece of a leg bone still wet with blood, which motivated us to keep tracking. The bull was clearly injured, though perhaps not enough to expect him to succomb to his injuries. These are huge, tough animals known to survive a lot. We had to assume he could make some distance, but at the same time with a major injury to a hind leg, he seemed unable to use the many opportunities he’d had to climb out of the gully.
As a group, we decided Dave and I should climb up onto the other side and let the other party push down gully while we watched from overhead. If nothing else, it’d let the other men head in the direction they came, since they’d already burned hours of their first hunting day helping us.
It was a grueling climb, the hardest of the day. I was already beat and sore, and as there was no trail we were practically belly-crawling up a steep hillside covered in thick brush. Exhausted at the top, we were further than ever from home. We couldn’t see a thing, either.
We rested up and then made the disheartening decision to head back without the bull, wounded but perhaps long gone, or maybe laying out there suffering. Our first plan was to follow the ridge we were on around the gully, staying more or less level, but we quickly found ourselves back down in gully. At least from there Dave knew where to head, so we went back up otherside. It was broad day, warm out, we were both tired and dismotivated. The climb was 10x harder than before.
That hike back was the hardest I’d ever endured. We had to stop frequently for breath due to altitude, about 9000ft at the lowest point. With water running low and the sun steadily creeping towards horizon, I silently worried that neither Dave nor I was in good enough condition for this.
We kept each other going. When I was down to 6 ounces of water and completely parched, Dave gave me an apple - the best I’ve ever eaten.
Dave and I made it back to the truck just as muscle fatigue was starting to get unbearable for me, while he was beginning to suffer with one of his knees getting worse by the step. We were a mess. Had I know how difficult that hike back was I may have just quit and demanded a horse or helicopter come get me. We hit the road 20 minutes before sundown, celebrating by sharing a warm bottle of Gatorade I found under the seat.
Dave was intent on finding our injured bull and while skeptical that it was even possible without choppers and satellites, we hatched a plan that was supposed to be less exhausting than the previous day.
We set out before dawn and drove to the head of an old road, where we loaded our gear on a small single-seater ATV. I held precariously on back and we ripped down the trail in the dark until we hit the end of the line and left the quad there. We hiked along another old trail several miles as the sun came up - a cake walk compared to our trails the day before - until we reached Middle Bench and the gully, with the old road I had been looking for the day before just in front of us.
We continued on the road, following the ridge down the gully and eventually we climbed down into a meadow at the bottom end of the gully, maybe a mile and a half from where I had shot the bull, just in front of a cattle fence that effectively cut off any further passage by large animals, assuming they didn’t just go up the hill and around the fence.
Dave left me there to set up an ambush, while he went back up onto the ridge and hiked up to where we had lost the bull’s trail the day before. The plan was for him to drop back into the gully above the bull, and head down towards me, forcing the bull towards me where I was waiting. This all assumed he was still stuck in the gully due to his injured back leg, and not 10 miles away by now.
About two hours later Dave came hiking back to me with quite a story. He found the bull and instead of spooking him into fleeing towards me, the elk charged him. They were no more than 10 feet apart when the bull stumbled and fell on his rear legs, clearly injured and allowing Dave a very narrow escape with his life by dashing behind thick cover. Now we knew the bull was alive, hurt, and dangerous, and seemingly stuck in the gully or one of the shallower washes, unable to climb further out as we had suspected. Now we surely couldn’t quit - the animal was hurt and we were responsible for dealing with it.
We climbed back out the way Dave had left earlier, and followed the ridge to just above where he had last been seen, at the top of the wash Dave had thought him to be hiding in. Dave went around and back down into the gully to try to flush him further up the wash towards me, while I was to wait in ambush just above the wash. At this point I had at best 10 yards of visibility so this was close quarters and we knew the bull was aggressive and dangerous. I had the only rifle.
After 30 minutes I hadn’t seen Dave come back up so I started working my way down in the wash. If the bull was coming I’d have maybe a few seconds to get a shot offhand, as the scope would do me little good at that range. I got to a position about halfway down the wash and stopped to listen and wait for Dave, thinking I had already gone as far as I could go without ruining the plan. As I was mentally preparing and scouting the scene around me, I looked up to the right and a little motion caught my eye - sure enough, I saw an antler sticking out from a bush no more than 10 yards directly above me. He began to stir, clearly sensing me there and in a split second I aimed and placed two bullets through the bush to where I thought his head would be. I saw him slump down so I yelled “I got him!” Seeing a little more movement and not wanting to take any risks, I quickly fired once more into the same spot. He was down, and not moving. Dave popped out of the bush a few seconds later, having heard the entire exchange from nearby as he had circled around looking for me.
We climbed up and there he was. He was enormous, beautiful, and smelled exactly like… elk. The stink of musk and game and testosterone, I suppose. I was surprisingly calm, not for a moment unhinged or uncomfortable except for a few fleeting concerns that he may still be alive and dangerous to us. A few minutes of rest and relief and congratulations and we decided our next steps.
We dragged the bull - slowly at first, heavy and awkward - down to where I had fired from, where there was some shade and, most thankfully, a lone pine tree which we’d need. We shed our gear and got setup, and then over the course of several hours I followed Dave’s every command as he cleaned and dressed the bull with my amateur assistance. We removed the lower legs and discarded them as decoys for later scavengers to fixate on. His hide was removed in two large sections, and each upper leg was removed and hung in the Pine tree. We removed his two backstraps and hung them, and then the filets, several huge neck roasts, and other parts. Because we were too weak and too far from anywhere to carry the meat back ourselves, each piece of meat to be saved had to be hung out of the way of bears and coyotes, and shaded from the sun, to survive until the morning unspoiled. Thankfully, the wash we were in would also have good shade through middday, so the chances were good. Finally, we removed the head, where we found that the fatal shot had entered perfectly through one nostril and into the brain, the quickest and most painless possible kill shot. The skin from the head had to be removed, leaving antlers attached to the skull, and both were hung in the tree.
Finally we were done, but it was getting late and we were a long way from anywhere. We dragged the carcass and other remains as far away as we could to keep any scavengers from our tree, then hiked down to the creek at the bottom of the gully to scrub all the blood off that we could. By this point it was getting late quick, we were low on water and Dave’s knee was acting up. We drank half the remaining water, ate an apple and Snickers bar for energy, then hiked straight up the wash and onto the ridge heading towards the trail we came in on. We were exhausted, but exhilaration mixed with a largely unspoken concern about timing kept us moving. I brought GPS and had been recording our trail the whole day, so I at least was confident in knowing where we were and how far we had to go. We calculated our return time and figured we wouldn’t be back to camp until 8:30, well after dark, and Dave managed to get a text message to Dustin updating him on our day and our plan. I was tired but figured as long as we found our trail home before dark, so we weren’t slogging through brush blindly at night, we’d be ok. We picked up the trail about 20 minutes before sun went down behind the distant mountains of Utah, leaving us a good 2 hours of twilight to walk in. About halfway back Dave’s knee took a turn for the worse and he could no longer lift his leg, having to drag it over even the smallest obstacles, but he never faltered or showed anything but his friendly confidence. Without that attitude I don’t even want to consider how we would have made it out that night.
Reaching the ATV was one of the biggest reliefs I’ve ever had - we drank most of the remaining water, rested a minute, then got ready. As much as the ATV represented the final leg in this adventure, I had also been dreading it all evening. The ride down that morning had been exhausting as I spent the whole way just barely holding on with a heavy backpack pulling me down and no seat to easily ride. This time we’d be going uphill - even harder on me since I was hanging off the back. We strapped all of the gear to the front of the ATV and took off in the dark, up a treacherous trail, thankful for the full moon to supplement the meager headlights. The trip up thankfully turned out far less tiring than the ride down had been, and we eventually found his truck. Again we relaxed a few minutes and then loaded the ATV in the truck bed, stowed our gear, painfully climbed into the cab of the truck and shared a big sigh. I dug around and found more Gatorade and a water under the seat and we shared that wonderful bounty in a toast.
We drove to camp with not much on our minds but how good a shower and meal would be, how much fun we had together, and how glad we were to have found the bull in the end. We made it back just before 8:30. Dave is the man.
We pulled in and a festive atmosphere was waiting. Stephen had also thought to have gotten an elk, and were going back in the morning to try to find him and bring him back.
We woke up at the same time, and gathered as usual for breakfast and chitchat. I knew Dave was spent and was planning on heading out with another group that day, and that Dustin was going to go retrieve my elk meat on horseback, but I was unclear whether I was going or not. As sore as I was, a horseback ride seemed tolerable - at least I wouldn’t be walking - and I was curious to see Dustin’s quiet capability at work. To see him is to know he has spent the bulk of his life doing what I had struggled with the past two days - if we were on foot I’d no doubt fail to keep up, but maybe on horseback I’d just be along for the ride. To some relief, however, Dustin made it clear I wasn’t expected to go along - that he’d be heading out to get his horses, and then out to get the meat, alone. Thankfully he did, as not long after he set out he detoured to pick up another elk, taken by hunters at Lower Camp, which meant he’d be leading the horses back on foot. I would definitely have been dead weight on that hike.
Dustin had an incredibly long day, and made it back to camp near dark, leaving us no time to drive the meat down the mountain to the processor. The meat and the hide was hung on poles near camp, with the weather more than cool enough to preserve it for another day.
That night at 2am or so I awoke to the nearby howl of a hungry coyote. The Garveys’ dogs were up too, letting the coyote know what was up. I quietly got half dressed and rifle ready in case I had to go chase the coyote off, but he eventually quieted down and I went back to sleep.
I didn’t keep much in the way of notes or records for the following days, but I spent much of it reading and taking short walks. The evenings got longer as more of our hunters came back to camp with stories of their successes, and our suppers blended into card games and, by the final evening, bacchanalia of bourbon and bullshitting.
By Wednesday, everyone in our party had gotten an elk, but we hadn’t yet delivered Ben’s to the meat processor down the mountain. We packed up, dropped off his meat, and when we were told it could be ready in an hour, we changed plans and decided to all head home that evening, rather than waiting for the next morning.
I went to get my car at the Garvey house, and then we returned to the processor. I had a 150 quart cooler with me, and to my shock my meat order just barely fit in it. We had to pack the frozen cape in a separate box with dry ice, and fit the rack in sideways. I hit the road, smelling strongly of elk, and ready to see Stephanie and Wesley for what felt then like it had been months.
|Cut of meat||# of Packs|
|Ground elk (80/20)||58|
|Pike’s Peak roast||3|
|Inventory of cuts from processor|
My drive home took me a different route, and by the time I hit Flagstaff around midnight I was beat, so I grabbed a cheap motel, showered and slept for a few hours. Before dawn I was wide awake and eager to see my loves, so I hauled ass west, making it home before 2pm to an empty house. I quickly transferred the meat to our new freezer, taking inventory just as wife and child got home. I hung the antlers up on the garage wall and we had a lazy afternoon. That evening I marinated two elk steaks and roasted some veggies, and we enjoyed the quiet all together again.