|This spectacular view greeted me each day.|
As my dad and brother will attest, I am always the slowest in getting ready when it comes to hunting in the morning. I don't know why as I am usually the guy up first and raring to go. I just always seem to take it slow as not to sweat of get too ahead of myself. The same thing happened on day one of my elk hunt. We were all up on time, but I misunderstood Eddy when he said we needed to leave by 5:45 AM. I thought he meant camp, but he meant leaving the truck and heading up the mountain. I didn't want to start the day off bad, so I quickly got dressed, downed a Clif bar and poured a cup of coffee for the road.
The drive to the trailhead was filled with us talking elk and us trying not to spill our coffee all over Eddy's truck as we encountered torn up dirt road. The very bumpy, riddled with divots road. I failed and added plenty of new color to my Sitka camo, although most of it made to it into my stomach. Gabe was heading down into the canyon and Eddy and I were headed up the mountain. We said our 'Good luck's to one another and made our way across the meadow and into the forest. We crossed by some free range cattle at a stones throw and hit the edge of the forest. Five minutes into our trek we bumped our first herd of elk. The spooked and took off down the hill. Eddy turned back to look at me with wide eyes as if to say 'Aw crap!'
Knowing we were later than we had wanted to be we quickened our pace. I heard a noise, looked up and watched two cows run right across our path in down the hill about 75 yards ahead of us. To see my first elk on a hunt was exhilarating! It was also a bummer to see them running away so early on, but we pushed on deeper into the wooded mountainside. As we stopped to listen we heard it. Actually, we heard two. Two of the most glorious bugles you have ever heard in your life. Being my first time ever hearing a bull elk bugle, other than television, I stood there in awe. I was one big smile and Eddy knew it. We just nodded to one another and headed for the calls.
As we neared a clearing, Eddy put the brakes on and held his hand out for me to stop. His demeanor was firm and cautious as if to say, 'Do NOT make any sudden movements and make no sound'. On the far side of the steep meadow were elk cows moving into the protection of the aspens and spruce. We patiently waited for them to disappear from our sight and made our move. We hugged the edge of the clearing and stayed low. The stalk was on, or so we thought. As we neared the last spot we saw them, the other cows we hadn't seen spotted us. They all spooked and took the herd bull with them. We weren't into the hunt longer than a half hour and we had already busted up three herds of elk! What a start!
Although we had spooked three herds, there was still a bull bugling down in the canyon and he refused to quit. His vocalization energized us. That was our cue to suck it up and hustle! Eddy would cow call, he would bugle back. We would move closer and repeat. Then, another bugle ripped from across the canyon and our bull bugled back. The challenge was on!
This is where my meddle would be tested. In planning, Eddy had mentioned the steep terrain, but I had forgotten that he also mentioned deadfalls. Deadfalls are fallen trees that block your way and you either have to climb over them, walk them like a balance beam, or walk around them. They aren't just trees, they are like giant roadblocks. There were so many that walking around them was not an option. Eddy took off like an Olympic gymnast and was down the first set of deadfalls in no time. I followed suit. This wasn't that bad, a little rough, but not bad. Then it escalated. We found ourselves listening for the bugles and hopping from tree to tree and walking them tot he other side. One of them was a bit hairy for me, so I opted to climb over and around to get to where Eddy was standing. Big mistake! I hefted my leg of the trunk and slipped. What I haven't mentioned is that these trees aren't completely smooth by any means. No, they have broken branches sticking out and they hone in on your posterior when you fall. I took a tree branch to my right cheek with enough force to rip through my pants and base layer as I careened over the edge. As I tried to right myself by grabbing the tree, I caught another sharp branch and took a small chunk out of my hand. This is all happening as Eddy is standing on terra firma watching me make a fool of myself. I walked around the deadfall to where he was standing as he just smiled. From now on I would be walking those trees like a gymnast.
|Deadfalls were going to be a challenge throughout the hunt.|
We practically ran down the hill to a bench where Eddy let out a cow call. Right away the bull answered from a lower bench. We hustled again and made it down to another bench. This ascending and descending stuff is hard as hell! I was sucking wind going DOWNHILL due to the deadfalls and altitude. Meanwhile, Eddy, who is a bigger guy, is scaling the mountains like nobody's business. Kudos to the mountain goat, but damn! By this time we knew the bull was moving to another mountain and had crossed a stream to get there. If he was heading across then then that would be our destination as well.
We made our way down only to be confronted with eight foot willows. In case you have never encountered a willow patch, they suck when you have to walk through them. Add in a backpack and a bow and it sucks even more. You just have to take your time and be cautious. My biggest fear was spooking a mother bear and her cubs! You read so many stories where that happens and I didn't want to be a statistic, so I was on my guard.
Once through the willows, we hiked up a steep part of the mountain. This is where the mountain kicked my ass. Eddy was already up on a bench waiting when I hiked up thirty feet and had to stop. I was drained and sucking wind. Over the next few minutes I managed to make it up to where Eddy was and we sat down on a log to catch our breath. Out came Eddy's cow call to see if our bull would answer. "Mew...Mew" and nothing. No answer. Then I heard a noise and pointed to our left. 'Did you hear that?' Eddy pushed me forward and told me to move up, get hidden and wait. He moved 40 yards behind me and started cow calling. Crash, crack, rustle, crack. The bull was moving in our direction! I was going to get my shot at a bull. Now, never hearing a bull elk move through the forest, I didn't know what to expect. What I didn't expect was two black ears, a shiny black coat and 175 lbs. of black bear coming in on a string! By the time I spotted it the bear was at 60 yards and broadside!
|The bear came through right about dead center of this photo.|
I turned to Eddy and harshly whispered, 'BEAR!' He cut the distance to my location in no time and grabbed my bow and had me get his release out of his pack. We stared at the bear and it had the most beautiful shiny, black coat I had ever seen on a bear. Eddy hadn't brought his bow, but he had brought his bear tag. Time to change tactics and go after this bear! Eddy moved in closer and followed him over a hill. I lost sight of him and that's when the bear spray came out. I was not about to be bear food if I could help it. If I was, well, I was going to have a sharp sting of cayenne pepper as a marinade.
Arrow still nocked, Eddy came back a few minutes later and explained that the bear had stayed about 60 yards ahead of him and had disappeared from view. What an exciting morning we were having and it was just nearing 10:00 AM.
We walked toward the trailhead and heard bulls bugling from atop the far mountain and across another stream. It was getting hotter and we were already a few miles deep into the forest. It was time to start heading out. We rested in the shade of some spruce trees, ate a snack, re-hydrated and shed some clothing. It was warming up rapidly. We cut a trail and hiked down it to the stream and then crossed up another trail. When we looked at the GPS we knew we had quite a hike ahead of us to get out of the canyon and back to camp. For the next three and a half hours we hiked up and down some steep grades. It was exhausting to say the least. The highlight of our hike was running into a cowboy named Murphy and his cattle dog. Great conversation and such a nice, mild-mannered gentleman. It was a pleasure getting to chat with him. We'd have stayed there chatting with him if we weren't getting so hungry. We needed to get back to camp.
|On our way back to camp.|
By the time we made it back to camp at 1:45 PM, we were spent. We had hiked more than six miles of dense, arduous terrain. This elk hunting is no joke! Gabe was already back at camp and, like us, hadn't had any luck getting a shot off.
We replenished our lost nutrients with some vitamin powder mixed with water. For lunch we devoured some Hawaiian sheep and pig sausage from a friend of Eddy's. It was different, but quite delicious. As there was a second piece that no one wanted, I staked my claim and enjoyed every last bite. With our bellies full and bodies fatigued, Eddy and I decided to crash for the afternoon. It was getting hot and I wasn't about to push myself too hard on the first day. Some would argue I already had, but I was feeling no signs of altitude sickness. I was feeling the effects of warm meat in my belly and a tired body. We slept for a couple hours and then I helped Eddy clean up camp and talk about options for Day Two of the hunt. Our plan was to stick together and hunt as a team with Gabe to maximize our chances. Hopes were high when we turned in for the evening, but what we would encounter the next day would have made the greatest of athletes despair.