Each year my mind wanders from tenkara fly fishing to hunting. It gains intensity during September as small game season nears around the first of October. I usually sneak in an extended backpacking weekend of “Surf ‘N Turf” (mountain small game combined with tenkara trout) just prior to the start of the first big game season.
I hunt mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and elk during the rifle seasons in my home state, almost exclusively in federally designated wilderness. The wilderness I hunt most often is an area just a mile from my boyhood home that I’ve been frequenting most of my life. I refer to this central Colorado wilderness as my “Stomping Grounds”, and anyone who knows me well knows that I’ve done a lot of stomping there. The ground there is no worse for wear. On the other hand, my fifty-one-year-old legs, feet, heart, and lungs are a slightly slower and a bit more careful than they were 35 years ago when I flew up and down the peaks and valleys there for the first time.
Last year I successfully drew a third choice second season cow elk for the unit. The icing on the cake was that I hadn’t burned any preference points on the draw because you only lose your points if you draw your first choice! I was set, and I knew, pending weather conditions, exactly where I would base my backcountry camp and exactly how and where I would hunt.
Enter my good friend Eric Lynn. Eric is like a younger brother to me, and a frequent companion for backpacking, hunting, tenkara fly fishing, and winter camping. He’s a newly-hatched pack burro aficionado, having a couple of years of experience with burro-supported trips (hunting and otherwise) into the boonies with his animals. Eric owns a matched pair of formerly wild burros that were rounded up near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and eventually gentled and trained to pack by Colorado’s own legendary donkey guru, Curtis Imrie. This past fall alone, Eric’s burros have packed five elk out the Colorado backcountry, including the one this story is about.
As my elk hunt neared, Eric jumped at the chance to join me for several days of wilderness hunting, and I was more than happy to have him come along. Besides having a good friend in camp and on the mountain, I was really looking forward to missing out on the usual grind that elk hunting out of a backpack becomes after you squeeze the trigger. Having a more comfortable camp was in the cards as well, as each burro can haul around 125 pounds of gear into the boonies.
After meeting at the trailhead mid-morning of the first day, we sorted gear, loaded the burros, and headed up the trail. Five-and-a-half miles later we found ourselves at a big streamside meadow I had found many years before. The stream that rips down the valley above camp, and rushes through the meadow, is a truly wild creek born high on a thirteener, gushing right up out of cracks in the rock and plunging down the mountain into the valley below.
We nailed down our camp, which included an ultralight tipi, collapsible ultralight wood stove, a portable electric fence for the burro corral, and all of the gear our long eared friends had packed up the trail. By the time we had put in camp, gathered wood and water, and cared for the burros, we relaxed in camp instead of trying to hunt. Dining on burro-hauled smoked sausage, red beans and rice, and our favorite Scottish ale was a real treat, and we raised a toast to the donks more than once that first night. It would not be the last time we would do that over the weekend!
We arose early the next day, in the dark, to a 23-degree morning. I cranked the coffee water on my old MSR Whisperlite, lit the woodstove, and scurried back inside my down sleeping bag as fast as I could. A motionless Eric was either still fast asleep or in semi-conscious denial of the reality of a frosty emergence from his bed. Fifteen minutes later the temperature had risen inside the tipi from 23 degrees to 40. Simply tropical! Eric squirmed free of his cocoon and we whipped up breakfast while the stove glowed red. You can’t eat like that out of a backpack! We loaded daypacks, I grabbed my rifle, and we headed up to the ridge north of camp to glass the surrounding alpine mountains and ridges.
Hiking just a half-mile north of camp, we found ourselves in a perfect spot to glass the opposing ridge on the other side of the valley above our camp. This opposing ridge, really the southwest shoulder of a thirteen-thousand-foot peak, is about half below and half above timberline. Timberline at this latitude is at about 11,700 feet. After just a couple of minutes of glassing, Eric spotted what appeared to be 9-10 elk standing on a saddle at around 12,000 feet on the high ridge across the valley. They were over a mile away. Looking through my binoculars, it was hard to tell, but it looked like two bulls and 8 cows. We had a perfect day…cloudless, still, and sunny. We predicted that those elk would stay put, bed, and wait for us to make the hour-long stalk. We secretly hoped we were right.
From that point on, Eric and I were on a mission! We quickly snaked our way down through the old-growth timber on the near side of the valley, bashed through the willows along the creek, searched and finally found an ice-free jump across the frigid torrent, and scrambled hand-over-foot across the talus at the base of the opposing ridge. Above the talus rose even more, and steeper, black timber littered with even more talus. Once we were free of trees we were faced with even more climb up even more talus. We finally found ourselves with nothing but blue sky on the horizon above us, nearing the rounded crest of the ridge.
Our plan was to walk just under the crest of this treeless ridge northeast to a spot just above the saddle where we hoped the elk were either feeding or bedded. We made our way up the moonscape ridge, crawling on our hands and knees as we neared the high spot on the ridge that would put us in position above the elk. As we closed in on this spot, we jettisoned our daypacks. I took only my rifle and lightweight shooting sticks. The fact that Eric had ditched his pack (and his jacket) would later benefit me greatly.
Crawling on our hands and knees over too many rocks and too little tundra, we gently raised our heads enough to get a view of the saddle where we hoped the elk had stayed. There before us were ten elk, all bedded and sleeping in the mid-morning sun. Eric pulled a rangefinder out of his pocket, and whispered the distance at 275 yards. We settled in for the wait. At 275 yards, a bedded elk is a difficult target, even off shooting sticks. I would select my cow, and wait as long as it took for her to stand, even if it took all day. We had just knocked out an epic stalk and I wasn’t about to waste it.
After twenty minutes, the breeze shifted, wafting away from us and toward the elk. Eric had been lying next to me without his abandoned jacket, in the cold, at 12,200’ elevation. He was frozen. He’d finally had enough, and slithered back down to his pack to get his jacket. On his way back, a 4X5 bull spotted Eric’s blaze orange cap. As the bull stood and faced us, the rest of the elk instinctively did the same. Thanks to Eric’s cold bones, I now had the shot I wanted. I laid my rifle in the “X” of my shooting sticks, settled the crosshairs just behind the shoulder of my chosen cow, and began the familiar squeeze on my trigger. I watched that big cow crumple as my 165-grain projectile met its mark. I also remember looking at Eric immediately after the shot and thinking that what I had just accomplished, with his help, was right and good. That this is how backcountry elk hunting should feel. I was in my old Stomping Grounds, I had elk on the ground, and life was good.
In the three or so minutes it took to walk from our perch above the elk to the spot where my cow laid, it struck me just how far a 275-yard shot is. I felt very good about the fact that I had carefully tested all of those handload recipes all those years ago, and had finally arrived at the one I’ve used on a whole bunch of deer, elk, and antelope with complete confidence. Taking a big game animal, whether with a self-made bow or arrow, or with a handloaded rifle cartridge is an extremely rewarding experience.
Eric and I took some photos, and then carefully skinned the big cow so we could remove quarters, backstraps, tenderloins, and other valuable meat. We’re both fans of the gutless method of field-dressing big game, doing most of our meat fetching from outside the animal, instead of opening the paunch.
After caching the meat, we headed down the steep slope below the cow, and followed the creek back to camp where the burros were waiting. We saddled them, strapped down empty panniers, and headed back up the same long valley, following the creek most of the way, to a spot where we could cross. After the creek crossing we headed straight back up the slope to the saddle where 130 pounds of elk meat awaited. After removing the lower legs of the quarters, we bagged up meat, loaded it in the panniers, and got the burros pointed back downhill. While a snowstorm blew in on our backs, I was so very thankful to have panniers full of elk meat and to be headed downhill back to camp. I was also equally thankful to have that load on the backs of the burros and off of mine!
Eric and I finished up our hunt with an evening spent around the roaring wood stove, enjoying our camp in the high alpine boonies. I cannot remember sleeping as well as I did that night. The next morning, after loading our gear and meat on the burros, we then spent the rest of the day making our way back down the trail, eventually cutting our way through a downed aspen, and returning to our trucks at the trailhead.
I’ve been hunting in The Stomping Grounds for over 30 years. In all of those years, I can’t remember an elk hunt that came together as well as this one. Spending a successful hunt with a close and trusted friend, in good weather, with such capable pack stock, making a textbook stalk in a place where you’ve made so many memories in the past, is truly a gift. As backcountry hunters and anglers, we’ve all had those moments. Moments when we wish we could make time stand still so we could soak it in just a minute longer.
I didn’t kill a huge 6X6 bull this time around. I didn’t haul all of that meat out on my back, alone. However, I can tell you that this hunt, deep in my Stomping Grounds, was close enough to perfect for me.