Gray’s Sporting Journal
He stood on a jut of rock at a public overlook, surveying the cockscomb peaks of Colorado’s Ucompahgre Wilderness. I was tired, bruised, and elkless, having decided a leisurely drive up to the nearest pass was a good way to lick my wounds and study the mountains out of which I’d recently stumbled. At first glance, the guy struck me as just another leaf peeper. But the binoculars on his chest harness, a felt packer hat, and worn cowboy boots marked him as local. He definitely was not sightseeing.
“Been huntin’?” he asked, still holding the binocs to his eyes.
“Trying,” I said. “Too damn hot.”
It had been nearly 90 degrees every day during the last week of Colorado’s archery season, and I’d just spent five nights sweating on top of my sleeping bag at 10,000 feet. But the truth is, regardless of the heat and despite my best efforts, I hadn’t had the experience to really thrive on a solo backcountry elk hunt. The man standing on the rock struck me as someone who did.
Sixty years old, with a slight potbelly hung on an otherwise wiry frame, he spoke slowly and continued to glass while recounting stories of the many elk, bear, and deer he’d “took” off the mountain.
“I can go five days with a thirty-five-pound pack,” he said flatly, claiming to live on tuna fish and string cheese in the backcountry. He carried no tent or tarp, just a sleeping bag and bivvy, and drank from seeps and streams along the way. Until a few years ago, he said he’d never even heard of a water filter, proving once again that the best piece of kit any sportsman can own is his knowledge.
“Yep,” he said, raising the binoculars again. “You gotta lighten that load.”
Unburdening myself is exactly what I’d had in mind. But during the past year, my dream of a solo wilderness elk hunt had gone from objective to obsession. It wasn’t enough to build my own bow for the trip. I had to tear out my entire garage floor in order to pour a precisely level concrete slab, on which to build the perfectly square workbench, from whence the ultimate longbow would arise. I didn’t just casually get in shape. I ran stadium stairs, jogged, lifted weights, and hiked endless miles toting a backpack stuffed with full bags of potting soil. I recalibrated my diet, lost 20 pounds, had complete bloodwork, an electrocardiogram, lung test, stress test, hernia check, and other ignominious proddings. I got MRIs of both knees and underwent physical therapy for arthritis in both wrists. I dehydrated my own food, re-tooled camping equipment, and created spreadsheets of gear measured in ounces. I bought a new GPS, rented a satellite phone, brushed up orienteering skills, and pitched my tarp in the backyard against a mountain chain of hypothetical elements. All with the aim of killing an elk, or at least not getting myself killed in the process.
On departure day, I flew from Atlanta to Grand Junction, where I rented a 4WD truck and pointed it south past Montrose, rolling across the Uncompahgre National Forest boundary at dusk. Another 10 or 15 miles up-canyon, I forded a broad creek at night in a full-body clench, but by 10:30 p.m. lay reclined beside a fire deep in Southwest Colorado. Work, money, and other worldly cares drained away like a mountain creek under the stars.
At first light, I found myself scrambling along the margins of a burn area bristling with fire-hardened blowdowns.
The next day I began my initial ascent into the high country, and at about the 10th switchback met two men from a party of five hunting out of a drop camp farther up the mountain. They had not seen or heard an elk all week. “It’s the heat,” one said. So I climbed another 800 vertical feet or so, then bushwhacked toward a ridge to stay out of their way. It was approaching evening, and as I pitched my tarp in the only available flat spot, I heard a cow elk call. Only it wasn’t an elk; it was yet another hunter, signaling to me from his shadowy hide across the meadow.
When we finally converged, I apologized and told him I had to camp right then and right there. Because I was tuckered out, being from Georgia. He said he understood, being from Wisconsin.
At first light, I found myself scrambling along the margins of a burn area bristling with fire-hardened blowdowns. But that was where I saw the only elk of my trip, a spike nosing among the petrified snags like Br’er Rabbit in his briar patch. Spikes are not legal, so I cow-called just for effect. He looked up, reckoned the mewing to be the same ruse he’d heard a thousand times before, and in two crashes was gone.
That high on the mountain, the only source of water was 500 vertical feet back down the trail, so after three days of navigating the burn, avoiding the drop camp, scratching for water, and hearing no more than a hot wind riffling through the aspens, I decided to try another area. It took me a couple of hours to hike out, and when I got back to the truck, I collapsed face-first into a stashed bag of Fritos, washed down with the best lukewarm O’Doul’s any man ever tasted.
On the drive out, I stopped to reconnoiter another trailhead, when a local outfitter pulled alongside in his truck. He hung one sinewy forearm out the window, a black Stetson shading his broad grin. After four weeks in camp, he was headed to town in search of cold beer and cowgirls. When I asked him if he had any advice for a guy in search of elk, he laughed and said, “Yeah, go where you least want to go,” then drove off.
Translation: north-facing black timber.
The new area promised plenty of that, but it was too late to start another hike. So I headed for a shower and a bed in town, where I demolished a burrito platter and then bought some more Moleskin at the pharmacy. The next morning I made the trailhead early and hiked up to a pass some three miles in. By afternoon I was camped in the saddle of a ridge that fell off to the north in dense spruce and fir, and to the south in golden aspens rising from a carpet of bracken ferns.
Again, water was scarce, and the only level ground was in the middle of a game trail. I bivvied there anyway, hoping not to get trampled by a sleepwalking ungulate. And then for three more days I hunted hard, climbing toward grassy parks at 11,000 feet, slipping through the timber along whaleback ridges, perching for hours atop conglomerate outcroppings to stare intently through the aspen glades. Despite such promising country, my closest encounter came at 4 a.m. on the last morning, when a cow and a calf chirped past my camp in darkness. I could follow their twangy calls as they traversed the hillside below me, but could only lie there in blackness and listen.
When a bull bugled 30 minutes later, I shot out of my bag, scrambled for my boots and bow, and headed up the mountain. Before I could gain ground, he sounded off a quarter mile farther on, and my well-practiced bugles went unanswered. So I reversed course and hunted down past camp, zigging and zagging across the ridge crest from black timber on one side to aspens on the other. I waded through dense colonies of Jurassic ferns so trampled down in places that it looked like gorillas had been living there. But all the sign was old. The elk were moving at night. And eventually I conceded that if I ever did kill a bull out on that ridge, he would travel straight downhill, and I’d never get him out of the canyon. Neither would a horse packer. So I hiked back to camp, breathed in the high country one last time, and called it a hunt. With the unending heat, an approaching Super Moon, and two days left on my vacation, I decided to get in the truck and explore some other areas.
That’s how I wound up standing on a rock with the local fellow. He knew the futility of hunting elk in such heat. But still he was out there, studying the mountains.
“A cow and a calf just crossed that knoll,” he said, pointing to a clearing in the scrub oak below.
We stared out at the grand spires of the Uncompahgre to the east, watched the sun dip behind the Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels areas to the west. I was still in my camo, but not for much longer.
“I think I’m going to turn this into a fishing trip,” I said, reaching for some sort of humility that was neither necessary nor even acknowledged. Instead, the man raised his binoculars to scan along the stern face of a wilderness he knew so well, and calmly began:
“I took a bear . . .” ✦