For the many weeks that led up to Elk Camp, our plans got more and more complex. After researching countless previous testimonials, reading page after page of ungulate ecology, and studying topo maps of various detail, we finally had a plan.
1. To hike in as far and as high in the mountains as possible.
2. To get off the beaten path and explore the deepest and darkest woods man has ever seen.
3. To stay there as long as necessary to hunt and harvest an abundance of meat.
Many skeptics on the jobsite doubted our integrity.
"You'll never make it!" they said.
While still others encouraged us, "Go get after it!"
On the Friday before the opening of Third Season, my hunting partner and I had left Carbondale and headed toward the Gunnison Valley, over Kebler Pass. When we arrived in Crested Butte, we found our two Irish Boys waiting for us at the bar, fresh from Chicago.
When we told them our plan, JL took a long, slow swig of ale, as if digesting the seemily outrageous scheme we had just presented to him "You're going to do what?! You'll die, dudes!"
"Nah," Scott reassurred him. "We've got it all figured out."
Fortunately for us, JL had found an excellent location for Elk Camp. Up near Ohio Pass, a side road flattens out in the middle of the aspen forests. In fact, they were the tallest aspen trees I've ever seen, and they went on for miles in every direction. It felt like a spiritual place.
After we set up camp, Scott brought out the Mojo Stick, which he tied to a tree to watch over our camp, and bring us all good harvest in the days to come. A blessing was then done by our resident Chaplain and concluded with a toast of Wild Turkey bourbon.
While relegating around the campfire, we started to put together our packs for the morning expedition. The only rule I set was to be completely prepared to spend at least three nights out in the wilderness. I had brought my 65 Liter backpack, the largest I own, into which I stuffed the warmest technical clothing and sleeping bag needed for a frigid night above 10,000 feet in November. Much water was not necessary, for I knew that we would never be far from water when high in the rockies. The most valuable item in the pack, however, were vials of Aquamira purification, to make any of the mountain stream and river water drinkable. We had a variety of basic dried food, and I brought along the Jet Boil for optimal boiling of water for all backcountry cooking. I added a first aid kid, three forms of fire starting, maps, compass, gps, two way radios, camera, knives, tools, game bags, rope and other miscellaneous items and I was all set. Lastly, my hand-me-down .30-06 rifle was strapped to the outside of the pack.
I couldn't sleep much at all that night. I thought it was very similiar to the anticipation I've felt before an early spring mountaineering attempt. Like those cold mornings, we woke before dawn. Because the pack was all set, I put on all my clothes and wandered into Jack and JL's tent for some fresh coffee. Like good backcountry travellers, we then informed our friends of our plan. We had decided to start off at the Swampy Pass trailhead and pack in along the trail thru the border into the West Elk Wilderness. Upon reaching swampy pass, we would explore the basin south of the Anthracite Range. We did not plan to return the first night. We told our friends that if we missed the second night, do not worry, but after the third night, things may not be going well.
We said our goodbyes for our friends as they sped of on their new 4-wheeler. Throughout the rest of the trip, I found myself constantly thinking for their safety, and wondering how their hunt was going, while on our own.
At the start of the hike, we were overtaken by a pair of Oklahoma boys on horseback. We exchanged plans, and they said "we're on radio channel 2, holler if you need help". I appreciated the comradarie and let their horses pass.
The sun had started to rise quickly. Out to the southwest, the dominate rock formation known as "The Castles" came into view. For the entire hunt, this amazing formation formed the backdrop of our trip, always in sight and an excellent navigation tool.
From the start of the hike, the chances were slim that we would see any
wildlife. It was unseasonably warm at low elevation. Since we didn't plan on shooting anything that morning anyways, we moved quickly along the hiker's trail, stopping many times to adjust our backpacks or have a snack and safety meeting. The weight in my pack was not nearly as much as the recod 60 lbs I carried into Rocky Mountain National park to climb the Spearhead a few years ago, but it was still a lot to carry for the ten miles we had done by the end of the day.
At mile marker four, we reached the boundary of the West Elk Wilderness. Other than the two Okies we encountered at the trailhead, we would not see another human being for the entire time in the wilderness. I was happy for this feeling of independence, which mean we were left to survive with everything we had and everything God has given us in our surroundings.
By mile six, we had reached Swampy Pass, marked by a wooden sign. This moment in time marked the end of our planned route. Now we had some decisions to make. Instinct would tell us to look for a steep, shady slope with heavy evergreen growth. We started to follow a game trail up a hill north of Swampy Pass, heading toward the Anthracite Range, but then stopped.
"It is too sunny here!" I shouted, "all this vegetation is burnt". We were on an open slope with short shrubs.
"We need a north-facing slope," Scott suggested. He was referring to one facet of information that is shared by both snowsliders and hunters: that the north face is the coldest and darkest, creating an ideal climate for both light fluffy powder in winter and old bull elk the rest of the time.
Together, we identified a large rolling knoll not too far across the valley to the south. It looked only a few miles away, but we would be heading directly through a dense evergreen forest through the bottom of the valley. Our goal was to be on top of it by sunset.
Once we got off the trail and into the timber, signs of wildlife sprouted up everywhere. Near a stream, we saw dozens of hoof prints on the muddy banks, as if a stampede had come crashing through here days ago. However, the mud was frozen solid as we climbed up the mountain. We also hiked through some bedding areas, where the old rotten timber of downed trees had nearly disentragrated into soft beds of sawdust. As we climbed higher and higher (the GPS read 10,800 at the top), so did the frequency and amount of droppings in the grass.
Scott speared a fist size pile with his hiking pole. "That's a bull. And he's not far," the master hunter before me said. This is when I started to get the feeling of anxiety that would control my mind for the next 15 hours. At any given moment, it was possible for us to come upon an unsuspecting Wapiti, where the element of surprise between two vastly different mammals would become crucial. I did not know if I was quite ready for it.
(I have seen elk up close only once before, in a hot summer at Rocky Mountain National Park. We had been hiking down from a climb on Lumpy Ridge, when my friend ahead of me stopped in his tracks. Two big bulls were standing ten yards from us, gnawing voraciously at lush greeen leaves. They all but ignored us then, but when I took one step too close, one left the food and swept his large antlers around and stared me down, before turning away and crashing through the woods at high speed.)
When Scott and I reached a small alpine pond near sunset, I knew we should set up camp near the water supply before it got too dark. We scrambled across the slope to find a small flat ledge of grass, surrounded by a few downed trees that would provide back support and firewood. Finally, after 12 hours of hiking, the heavy backpacks dropped to the ground.
"I don't want to wear that thing again for at least a day," I said. We both knew that the hunt was going to take place right here on the mountain side, within a few miles from camp. After establishing the bivouc, we had about 1/2 hour to go before dusk. I planned to return to the pond we saw earlier, to replenish water, and we used the opportunity to hunt with rifles in hand until the sun went down...
(TO BE CONTINUED)