Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Elk Hunting and other Expressions of Incompetence

late afternoon

I've spent the last two weekends putting lots of energy and time into trying to get a clean shot at a cow elk. I picked Silver Creek, and that was the place to which I returned through the season. I expected to be competing with lots of hunters, and I knew that Silver Creek would keep most of them out. The trail starts with a nice steep slog up a trail carved out of a scree slope. It's more or less an hour of marching before you are into a place that would be likely to have elk.

I went up Silver from the furthest point that motor vehicles are allowed for the first time Saturday morning, October 19th. Opening day. It was just about 4 AM when I left my truck to start that slog. There was fresh snow. I saw the tracks of somebody who had been hiking with a dog, but those tracks were in the previous layer of snow. I was the first one up. I expected to see somebody else up there later in the morning, but for the first part of the morning at least the canyon was mine.

Turns out, I was the only one who hunted Silver during the entire season, unless there were people hunting down from the top. But I got 2/3 of the way up on a couple of occasions and never saw any tracks on the trail other than my own, rodents, a coyote or two, and one distinct set of bear tracks that were also in a previous layer of snow. Silver is the last major drainage in the south end of the game unit. The slope to the south was the divide between the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins.

I was hiking with a goofy 1970's era orange external frame pack. The pack mostly had things I would need to butcher a cow elk and pack her out. Knives, rope, snacks, water, my SPOT beacon, other odds and ends. Not much weight but awkward and bulky. Shouldering the rifle sling was not natural and easy with the pack on. I also had a pair of binoculars swinging around my neck. Sometimes they were joined by my GPS on a tether.

That first morning was demoralizing. It was chilly, and there was a clear sky with a huge Hunter's Moon. I felt like I was walking with a junk show on my back. The moon shone like a street light. There was new snow which should be a help, but it seemed to make the light level even higher. The elk were certainly able to move around easily all night, and could easily see me coming from quite a ways. And the snow made it easy for me to tell that I never crossed the path that an elk had walked since the snowfall on Thursday night and Friday. Just before dawn I found a place to sit where I could see for a fairly long way. But it was too cold to really just sit. I had to move around.

By the time I got back to my truck it was 10:30 and I was worked over. Taking all that junk off my back that had been hanging on me since 4 AM was heavenly. And then sitting down behind the wheel of my pickup, that was nice. I recall heaving a sigh after I started the truck and thinking about how clueless I really am as a hunter.

I didn't work up the energy to go again until Sunday afternoon, evening. It was a similar experience. A walk through a beautiful wild place that I had all to myself, watching the day fade into night. No new tracks, nobody had been in there other than me all weekend. Bright setting sun. Screeching hawk. Would have been nicer without all that stuff to carry, but nice.

All week I worked, and felt vaguely guilty that I didn't take a day off to go back up. I had lots of other stuff going on, and it was a productive week. But I didn't hunt. I was out late with friends Friday night, Saturday morning came and I felt an acute sense that I needed to do something a little more committed before I gave up the whole thing. But the laziness--so hard to overcome.

With a fair amount of effort, I got up off my ass around 1 PM and started putting together a kit to spend the night out. Get way up high, bivy, and be there in the middle of where they were. It was obvious, even to a clueless goof like myself, that they were still way up above where I'd been tramping around. It was a waste of time to go out unless I was going to get way up. And I felt that I needed to already be up there at dawn when they are moving.

So, the other hunts were exhausting, but this time I went with a sleeping bag, tent, pad, stove, extra clothing, more food. And of course a 10 lb rifle. I would haul all that up onto the ridge between Silver Creek and Starvation Creek. I really felt strongly that the ones in the area I was focusing on were probably in greatest number on the north-facing slope of Starvation Creek. It's a steep slope of dark timber. Getting up from the bottom on the Starvation Creek side is impractical. Too steep, too much down timber. And you just aren't going to sneak up on an elk from below. So from above. Early.

At about 3:30 pm I parked my truck in a familar place, hoisted a pack with actual weight (and no hip belt--if there was one on the pack in it's earlier life it had been removed) and left for the familiar slog up through the scree.


It was beautiful. I watched the end of a beautiful mid-autumn day up high where winter is everywhere. Ice on the beaver ponds, snow back in the woods. I've never actually seen a beaver in the wild. I've seen lots of what they do to the landscape, I have fished their ponds. But they've always been hidden away when I've been in their homes.

As I marched past the first major pond of many along Silver, I heard a plunk. Kind of sounded like what it would sound like if you dropped a rock the size of a cantaloupe into the water. I looked out and saw the disturbed water in the middle of the pond and knew the beaver had slapped to warn the surrounding area that there was an intruder. It's something they do.

When I came up to the next major pond I slowed down and did what I call my Elmer Fudd walk. Watching for sticks to avoid stepping on, trying to stay quiet. I saw the guy in the photo above and watched him for a while. Eventually he saw me and swam into the middle of his pond, and slapped. And then he was gone.

I marched up the Silver Creek Trail for about another 20 minutes until I saw the relatively mild slope to my right that I'd found by studying the topo maps at home. I left the trail and started bushwhacking up onto the ridge. I climbed about 700 vertical feet to the top of the divide between drainages. As I got closer to the top I started seeing some fresh tracks and fresh poop. I was actually getting up into where they were.

It was just getting dark so I hustled to set up my little camp. I was in the tent laying in my bag trying to read by 7:15 or so. Gusts of cold air quickly did away with any remnants of the relatively warm afternoon.

Faint in the wind at first, I heard sounds. Coyote howling in the night, or the elk talking to each other? As the air settled into windless night, the sounds became distinct. Elk were out there. They were exactly where I'd expected. North of me. Down the slope toward Starvation Creek. I figured they had to be at least 3/4 mile away from the way it sounded. Still down in the timber. But would they move during the night? Would they leave the timber to be over on my side of the ridge where the south-facing slope had more grass?

My hands got too cold to read. So I buttoned up the bag, and I think I was asleep by 8. I only have a 20° bag, but I had on lots of supplemental clothing including down booties. I was warm enough, but just barely.

cold camp

I woke up before dawn, especially since I was asleep so early. I started hearing the animals again just at the first light. I dreaded getting out of the bag. My bladder was full, and it was time to take advantage of where I was so early. But it took a pretty hard effort to get me up. I realized that I had neglected to bring a lighter, so my stove wasn't going to be making me any coffee.

I jumped out of the bag and pulled on my cold carhartts, boots and puffy as quickly as I could. I considered leaving camp set up and just going hunting, but then I would have to go back. And that would limit me. If I wound up far away following animals or sign of them, I might wish that I didn't need to go back. So I broke camp in less than 10 minutes, strapped it all onto my dinosaur pack, hoisted the whole thing onto my back and started heading north to see if there was a chance that I'd see some of those critters I'd heard all night.

Elmer Fudd walking is not nearly as relaxing as regular walking. You watch for every stick. You look for ways to walk around the patches of crusty snow and the most tangled blow downs. You do a kind of tai chi thing when you need to get over a high log. Soon I was needing to shove my way through a stand of dense evergreen. I knew that was a losing game. No way to be quiet when you have nylon scraping through branches.

I turned back to the south. Now I was going to hopefully see critters who made the tracks and poop I'd seen on my way up. I got to a place where I could see pretty far through the aspen, and I sat. Hoping that they had gone over to the south side and would be heading back soon to hide in the dark timber.

Cold. I listened. I scanned the furthest reaches of what I could see with the binoculars. Eventually I got too cold again, too cold for sitting. Elmer Fudd time.

I worked my way down the slope slowly. Stopping often to listen and watch. As I got close to Silver Creek again, I reached a curtain of dense evergreen. No way to continue without making some noise. If there were animals just below me who'd gone to drink, I'd have that much less chance to get a look at them.

dawn mountain
Mount Antora just at dawn

But I was right back at the trail anyway. And when I reached the trail I was in a dense enough bit of forest that there was snow. I stepped onto the trail, then lowered the pack to the ground and walked up canyon for half an hour or so. I was just at the beginning of a series of open parks. I was already tired, and I ached for a hot cup of coffee. And I had low confidence. There were sources of water and graze on the slope I'd just descended. They had no reason to be down where I was now. I saw no tracks. Would have been surprised if I had.

By then the blush was off the morning. I hiked up canyon for a ways, used my binoculars to scan the full circle. Then decided to just hunt my way down.

The familiar, routine walk back down Silver Creek Trail. Sun was lighting up the rock formations north of the trail where it terminates. So much beauty. The creaking pack I had grown to hate. The rifle, which it seemed was impossible to carry gracefully as it fought with the pack for position.

I arrive at my truck. I heave off the demon pack. Take out the stove, use the lighter that was safe in the cab of the truck all night to light it and start some water. Pull out the camp chair and set it in the crusty snow and think about the experience.

It's really about the experience. I can tell you with authority, beef is cheaper. After you buy a rifle, commit the time, put gas in a truck enough to 4-wheel up into the mountains several times, permits... If you bring home an elk every year, after 3 or 4 you might have paid for your rifle.

Some people are lifestyle hunters. They've done it all their lives and they have it down. They were taught the skills by fathers, uncles, grandfathers. Their rifle was perhaps a family possession handed down, they have traditions and knowledge, perhaps they have horses. Perhaps they even have been or currently are outfitters. For them it pays.

For schmucks like myself, if you don't enjoy the experience you're missing the point. It's not a good strategy for maximizing your food dollar. But it is a good excuse to have a more intense than usual experience in the natural world. You are tapped into your surroundings in a way that you probably never are on a normal recreational hike or bike ride. And you might just pick another day for a hike or bike ride when it's cold and windy.

But when you're hunting, you just have so many days and you have to go where your permit let's you hunt. If that time and place is cold and windy, it's probably better hunting. But it might be a little less pleasant than the day you'd pick. And if you don't feel like getting up and out there, you're just missing a day for which you paid to have the right to hunt.

On this bivy trip, comfort was definitely absent. Hard, laden hiking. Being way out there, far away from even a trail by myself was a little creepy. I ate a couple of energy bars, one for dinner and one for breakfast. No coffee.

But it felt like I was really doing it. I saw fresh sign and listened to those grand animals through the night and in the morning. I got skunked again, but by going in deep I got myself into a situation where I had a real chance for the first time.

That seems to be the point. It was hard and in many ways unpleasant. Uncomfortable at least. And if I had killed a cow up there, I would have had a huge pile of exhausting and painful work. A whole winter's worth of meat, but at a significant cost. But an experience. Intense.

I don't know about next year. We'll see. I have a buck deer tag for third season, starting this next Saturday. My game unit for that tag is far less rugged country than where I hunted elk. And you don't have to be at 11,000 feet to hunt deer, they can be found this time of year at almost any elevation in Colorado--mostly below 11K feet that is.

But it's going to be more tramping around rugged country on a day with weather that I don't get to choose. And I am going to be coming into it with hunt fatigue.

I suck at this, obviously. But I'm getting a few hard-won clues as I put myself into this. And I've got some good experience sucking at things I keep trying anyway; I have been working that angle as a mountain bike racer for almost two decades.

We'll see how the deer hunt goes. It will be what it will be, and that will be at least an experience.

To the extent that I have energy to actually do it anyway.

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