You know the Scouts motto: Always Be Prepared. It’s something to remember for every mountain outing. Although, it took on new meaning for me last weekend while I was up ...
I didn’t go anywhere this weekend. After the adventures of the previous weekend, I decided I’d stick around at home. The subfreezing temperatures of the week didn’t persuade me to leave the comforts of my pajamas, either.
Prior to writing Fresh Air Fort Collins you’d never see me out in the snow. I swear to god I’m half lizard because I am constantly cold, and when I’m cold, I’m miserable. All throughout my hiking seasons, the beginning of winter would bring a deep disappointment along with the first cold front. It signaled the end of my mountain escapes until the snow melted in April (ish). I could count on a significant case of the winter blues starting when I tucked my hiking boots into the back of the shoe closet.
But this year is different. Fresh Air is creating a “no excuses” mentality for this winter, and considering how many layers I was taking off while hiking in knee-deep snow on the hunt, I’m going to plenty warm enough. Hiking in the snow was magical. There is a silent serenity unlike any other time I’ve been on the trial.
So, this is the first year I’m not calling the hiking season over and continuing all year long. I’m really looking forward to it, too.
Did you brave the first cold week in the Colorado outdoors? Where did you go? What did you do?
It’s called hunting, not catching.
Many people just think of the kill when it comes to hunting, but only those who’ve strapped on a pack and laced up their boots to climb those mountains know that it’s so much more than that. And often times, there is no kill. Instead, there are hours and hours spent honing in on game on challenging terrain, second guessing many decisions, and hours spent bird watching while sitting silently in the middle of the woods deep in thought and finding parallels between the act of hunting and the hurdles of every day life.
We spent weeks preparing for this hunt. Hours spent studying maps and exploring our GMU, months of endurance training, and a decent amount of cash getting gear. But as it happens, you can’t really prepare that much in hunting. It’s a life lesson that’s been exceptionally hard for me to learn and it takes trips like this to drill it into my head.
What happens, happens. There is no control.
Before our first day of hunting I had us narrowed down to a successful harvest location from last years’ stats. Each time I went out to scout I’d only see little sign here and there expecting the elk to move down farther as the hunt grew closer, although the hunters that I chatted with always came out empty handed. We drove into Clark on Thursday afternoon geared up and ready to go.
If there’s one thing to say about this hunting trip, it’s that we didn’t waste a single minute of hunting time. Not one. From sunrise to sunset, we were there – rifle in Bill’s hands and binoculars on my eyes. We made the most of every second available to us.
We hiked in to an aspen grove on the other side of Lester Creek and sat for hours listening to the sound of silence.
We hiked out after hunting hours closed, right into a beautiful sunset over Pearl Lake. If hunting isn’t mostly hiking and bird watching, it’s mostly sitting and watching the sunrise and sunset each day. These are magical moments that are often missed being busy with other things in life. Before this trip I can’t recall the last time I was on a mountain watching the sunrise since I’m always on the trail late in the afternoon.
The next morning one of the wildlife managers knocked on our cabin door as we were getting ready to go out. They make their rounds to make sure everyone is doing what they should, but not only that, they truly are helpful as they honestly want you to be successful. That’s the whole point of wildlife management – you have a tag for a reason. Elk management through hunting helps to maintain healthy herds, and the surrounding ranchers are happy because there are fewer elk eating their hay.
After our afternoon without any sign of elk, the game warden stuck around the cabin to chat with us about different areas that we should check out and circled some spots on maps for reference. It was so nice to get that inside knowledge right off the bat, especially since we were considering calling the hunt planners for suggestions on alternate areas.
With new areas that we would have never thought to explore, we headed up to the high country. This year was lean for harvests and the elk were still high in their summering areas, despite it being the last week of the hunting season when they should be lower. Apparently a lot of people came home empty handed in all of the seasons so far this year, so we knew the rest of the weekend was going to be insanely difficult.
We drove up Sand Mountain in the Elkhead Mountain Range, going over 10,000 feet in elevation on rutted snow-covered roads that brought us too close to the edge of cliffs. There were moments we slowly creeped the truck along, holding our breath and white knuckling the “oh shit” handles the whole way, scraping the side of our windows on trees and bushes that tried to push us over the edge.
It was scary as shit.
After getting to the trailhead, we packed up our gear and hiked miles up and down the mountainside in knee-deep snow. “Good lord, I can tell we’re at 10,000 feet. My lungs are burning,” I told Bill as I heaved for oxygen. It was funny considering I spend most of my mountain time in the subalpine areas. Thanks, asthma! But, once again, we didn’t see anything. So as the day grew longer, we went lower to the base of Meaden Peak for the evening.
I’m always over-prepared, I thought to myself that morning. I don’t need to pack an extra pair of socks. I’m an idiot. I knew better. ALWAYS PACK AN EXTRA PAIR OF SOCKS. If you’re hiking multiple miles in different areas, and in snow no less, you’re going to need to change your damn socks so you don’t get frostbite from hiking with wet feet. Thankfully we didn’t hike in that far and I was able to hang out in the truck after accepting this fact when my feet went numb, all while Bill sat in the trees. I heard two shots and nearly jumped out. Without cell service and other hunters around, I had no idea if Bill actually got an elk. I had no idea if he was out there tracking on his own, and no idea if he needed help in the dark. It was nerve-wracking sitting there waiting, fogging up the windows of the truck with anxious breathing. I let out a deep sigh as I saw his headlamp come around the bend in the road. Needless to say, we’re getting walkie talkies or something to communicate when we’re in the backcountry. And again, no elk in sight. There were more hunters that we talked to on the drive down that didn’t have any luck either.
We finished our second day of hunting with beer and pizza warming up by the fireplace at Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse and came up with Plan D. Despite harrowing moments on the road that morning, I was loving this experience. I was pushing my physical limits in the gorgeous backcountry with my best friend for life. This was pure joy.
The next morning we drove near the border of Three Forks Ranch which the game warden called an “elk factory” since they have guided hunting trips on their land that guarantees a harvest. Often times elk like to hang out on private land boarders.
Two cows ran across the road as we drove closer to our location. I yelped from the passenger seat, “ELK! TWO OF THEM!” We were on the right track now! We passed hunting drop camps along side the road, and a few who had their quarters hanging in trees. It was a pretty saturated area with a lot of competition. This area wasn’t going to be any easier to hunt.
Just before the sun rose we walked across the crisp frozen ground with frosted vegetation crunching under our boots. We heard a loud buck bawl coming from the brush that echoed around us. We had seen more animals in the few short hours in this area than the whole trip so far. Because it was so saturated, we decided to hike down to the Middle Fork River before it connected to Tennessee Creek and come up the backside. The sun was just starting to shine on the golden frosted ground giving it a sparkle as if the field had been sprinkled with diamonds. It was amazingly beautiful. I had to stop to admire it a few times. iPhone photos do not do it justice.
We hiked down to the river, grabbing the climbing rope tied between the trees to keep people from falling in, and essentially used it as a rappelling rope climbing backward down the sloped trail. It was steep getting down and the trail along the river eventually ended. Snacking under the trees we decided that we could probably climb up the side of the ravine.
This was the most challenging climb I’ve done. Ever. Scrambling up, Spiderman crawling on my hands and knees to keep a low center of gravity, and grasping onto branches, roots, and rocks to keep me on the side of the earth, we finally got on a game trail and made the grueling climb up to the top. It was INSANE. I lost footing once and slid down a bit. It was one of those climbs where you feel accomplished at the end because you survived.
However, it was worth it because it brought us to the backside of the area and farther away from hunters. While we were at the top glassing, we watched every hunter hiking out away from us. Although, no more sign of elk. Since we saw cows, we knew bulls wouldn’t be around after the rut, so we moved to Plan E for the evening moving over to Whiskey Park.
I was exhausted, and not just physically from scaling ravines, but mentally. When you hear stories about other hunts and the physical endurance it takes to make it through days and days of multi-mile double hikes, the mental endurance needed is often completely neglected from the conversation. At this point in the hunt, failure wears on you. I’m not a quitter. At all. In fact, I loath giving up and pride myself on my mental endurance. But I really had to dig deep from this day forward to keep the mental momentum going. Bill hit the wall just as we parked at the next trailhead.
We hiked around for a bit coming across fresh bear tracks and a bare bobcat skull, but no elk sign. There have been so many solo hikes where I’ve been on extreme alert with a side of bearanoia, always thinking that I may be in danger from wildlife. The reality realized from this hunt and hiking across miles looking for any sign of animals proved how infrequent encounters truly are. It’s not until you go looking that you find how vast the wilderness is, and how timid Colorado wildlife is.
We decided to set up at Circle Bar Basin near a creek for the rest of daylight, which is not that much lower. Here we found hides and hooves from a recent successful hunt, so once again, we felt like we were on the right track.
Nothing developed as we sat there for hours. We decided that it was promising enough to return the next morning.
This was our last morning hunting; we were packed up and ready to drive back into Fort Collins even though we were still heading out to the spot from the night before. It took so much to suck it up and keep going, and again, not physically, although my body was depleted. It’s all mental games at the end of a challenging hunt.
It was at this point that I realized hunting is so much like life – you can prepare yourself all you want, you can study, you can push as hard as you can for victory, but ultimately, the key to success is being in the right place at the right time. You can’t force or control it. It just happens. I’m not the most patient person (understatement of the year, here), and this admission has always been a tough one for me to swallow. So many times in my business life do I push so hard for those goals, essentially scaling mountain sides in effort to only wear myself down mentally to the point of burn out. This hunting experience has helped to adjust that perspective on the definition of success and how it shows up.
We sat there at 6am on separate sides of the hill glassing. We were far enough away from each other that we couldn’t communicate. I situated myself on a log and watched the sunrise and Gray Jays fly about. Why are we here? We’re too close to the road. We’re not seeing anything. We should have gone down to the creek to look for sign. We should have climbed higher… all of these thoughts kept running through my head. But, I still sat and watched. It takes just as much physical and mental endurance to sit still in one space in the freezing morning temperatures as it does to scale a ravine. I became aware that sitting in one spot for so long makes you notice the smallest details of your surroundings. I could see every sliver of frost on the ground ferns around me.
By 8am I saw the obnoxious glow of hunter orange from Bill’s hat coming towards me.
“Did you see anything?” He asked.
“Nope. Nothing.” I sighed.
“I saw a herd of six come through the trees behind me. I would have almost missed them if it weren’t for a small mew. They had a calf and a young bull, but I couldn’t see how many spikes he had. They were too far away and it just wasn’t a good shot. They walked into the woods,” he explained somewhat defeated. It’s hard to not take a shot when you’ve worked so hard to have the chance, but in the end it’s the best decision. If you’re not sure you can make a clean, confident shot – don’t pull the trigger.
“Why don’t we go take the truck up the road where they walked and see if the bulls are a bit higher,” I recommend. My heart jumped. This was an opportunity. We still had time. WE WERE IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME. We drove up a forest service road that hunters hadn’t been on in weeks. There were virtually no bootprints and snow-covered tire tracks. This was as far out of the way as we could possibly go in this area. We hopped out and started walking up the road.
“OH MY GOD! THESE ARE FRESH AS HELL!” I tried not to whisper-yell. There were fresh elk tracks leading us up the mountain side. We followed each one, step by step, pausing to listen every few moments. This was a roller coaster experience that you only see in the movies. It was mental whiplash. At one moment we were accepting defeat, and now we had a viable last chance. I’ve never felt more like an excitable tracking hound with explosive energy trying to burst from my chest than in this moment. I felt like running up the mountain.
We carefully tracked up the game trail through the dense forest with snow crunching under our steps, finding more and more fresh tracks. We saw scat and yellow snow. They were just there the night before and earlier that morning while we were down below. We finally made it to the top of the slope to their bedding area and an elk highway – tracks were everywhere. We found them!!! But, at this point, they were moving up higher on the peak – if we were going to follow, we’d never catch up and we’d also have to consider the hike back on the steep terrain if we did have to field dress. Then? We were short on time. After walking the area and hiding out in the trees for a bit, we had to call off the hunt.
We were so close. If we had one more day to hunt, we would have come home with antlers and meat for the freezer.
On the ride down the road we talked about the things that we might do differently next year, and how we learned so much about this area in such a short amount of time.
“You’re going to get a tag next year and we’re getting you a rifle,” Bill smiled. “It’s going to double our chances.”
I absolutely will.
What an amazing, exhausting adventure with one of the most challenging, scary backcountry hikes I’ve done in my life, and some unmistakable life lessons that paralleled the experience of this trip. This was one ultimate memorable outdoor expedition that I will never forget, and I can’t wait to do it again.
I’m an elk hunter for life.
With the weekend behind us, our hunt is over and as of today, elk hunting season has closed. What an amazing, exhausting experience with one of the most challenging, scary backcountry hikes I’ve done in my life, and some unmistakable life lessons that paralleled the experience of this trip.
I cannot wait to write about it and share one of the most memorable outdoor expeditions that I will never forget.