An Elk Hunter's Story
As the wheels of the 737 touched down on the runway in Denver, the sudden jolt and braking of the airplane brought me abruptly out of my dreams. For a second I thought that I was in imminent danger, then as reality hit me, I knew that I was here for a very good reason: elk.
This was the third year in a row I had made the flight from North Carolina to join my oldest brother in search of the elusive wapiti. My brother lives and works in the Denver area and has been hunting elk for several years. We hunt on our own on public lands and therefore do not show up at an outfitter's camp, eat, bag an elk, sit in the hot tub and then go home after a week. We hunt. We hunt hard. Very similar to our annual whitetail hunts back at our ancestral home in northeast Pennsylvania.
We grew up; albeit at different times, hunting hard and we do it no different out west. Only the hills are larger and the weather a bit more unforgiving. Sometimes.
My wife cannot draw a valid, reasonable connection between the amount of money I spend to go elk hunting and the amount of elk meat I bring to the table or antlers hanging in my den. What she doesn't understand is it's an adventure. It's hunting in the great Rocky Mountains. It's time spent with my oldest brother. She's a farmer's daughter so she understands hunting but not on the level that I live it. To her, hunting is just a time in November for two weeks that her dad and brother would get up a little earlier to do chores so there was time for hunting. It never occurred to her that not everyone has wild turkey for Thanksgiving. But she understands enough about me to know that if this is what keeps me from quitting my job and becoming a bum, then it's okay with her.
As I yanked one of two large bags off the carousel, I heard a familiar voice behind me. "Hope you brought warmer clothes than that." My brother, Roy, was standing behind me, grinning. We hugged and exchanged greetings and then went back to searching for my other bag and, most importantly, my rifle case. We finally spotted the long black case after I was certain it was half way to some baggage handlers' house. My occupation has somehow convinced me of the importance of keeping within an arm's reach of ones' weapon; a lesson I learn over and over again. Although I have never had a problem flying with it, I'm always nervous about letting it out of my sight.
We lugged my belongings to his Jeep talking excitedly about the upcoming hunt. The cold dry air was refreshing after being in the airplane and the terminal. I stopped suddenly and drew a deep breath, looking around.
"What's a matter?" My brother asked, no doubt wondering what I had forgotten.
"Nothing," I said smiling broadly "Just happy to be here."
"Oh, okay." He said smiling to himself. "There's my Jeep, Row 33. Almost forgot."
We drove, talking about work, and the kids, and hunting, and the weather. It was early November and the forecast was for a 'light snow', which usually meant six to eight inches of light snow. We decided to go to Sportsman's Warehouse on the way to pick up a couple of things I needed and to just generally look around. We had done this the last two years even though I always bring too much gear anyway.
After ogling the new toys there, we drove to his home in Aurora, avoiding any major traffic calamities. After catching up with my sister-in-law and taking a much-needed shower I was ready for our annual dinner out. We met my three nieces at a splendid steakhouse and microbrewery where we could talk and stuff ourselves with thick Angus steaks and fries and, of course, sample the special brews.
When we got home, my brother and I retired to his den and as I was sitting in a comfortable chair taking my shoes off, my brother entered carrying two short glasses dark with scotch. His with two ice cubes and mine with lots of ice and a touch of club soda. The Famous Grouse was warm going down and it was good after the brief dash from the car to the house in the growing cold. Scotch is always good when you have been cold and cold beer is always good when you have been splitting wood or hunting all day.
"So, do you think that we'll actually see an elk this year?" I asked jokingly.
"Probably not, but we'll see snow," Roy replied. "I have a good feeling about this year."
"No matter, this trip is great whether or not we get one."
"Well, we will have earned it when we do get one" was Roy's answer.
Roy had killed a cow elk several years earlier with a pistol, but hadn't connected since then. Now he was more concerned with me getting a shot at one. He was concerned that he wasn't being a good host compounded by the fact that I usually was able to put him into whitetails when he came home.
"Don't worry, it's the hunt, the companionship. The rest is just gravy," I tried to explain.
"No explanation is necessary."
"Well, I know you have had a long day. I'll let you hit the rack. We have a 9:30 range time tomorrow to make sure you can't blame your rifle. The trailer is packed and Tony is coming over about noon. We should be able to get there in time to set up camp before dark."
Tony is Roy's son-in-law. A good kid (only a few years younger than me, but he seems like a kid to me), a relatively new hunter. My brother has brought him up right, emphasizing the importance of ethical hunting. He has also learned to really hunt. Not just saying you're going hunting and ending up in a bar somewhere or staying in camp all day and wondering why the uncooperative animals haven't just walked up and presented themselves.
The trailer is a small U-haul type that's covered and carries our wall tent, cook stove, saws, axes, camp utensils and the various other stuff we drag into the mountains every year. I said we hunted hard; I never said we were uncomfortable.
Snow was falling in large wet flakes as we pulled into the spot that would be our elk camp for the next five days. The snow was the kind that you used to stick your tongue out and catch when you were a kid. We climbed out of the Cherokee and stretched just as Tony pulled in behind us. It is always wise to have two of everything essential when you're in the Rockies. For a flatlander, that is a rule. Vehicles are no different. We busily began the task of laying out the camp. After the tent went up, I went to gathering firewood with an ax and bow saw. Roy methodically set up the cook stove, the cooking gear, and the cots and other gear in the tent and Tony gathered rocks for a fire pit.
We worked with efficiency to the point where an outsider would think we were professional outfitters or had been doing this every week for the last ten years. It was almost magical the way we worked to put the camp together. Like a well-oiled machine. By the time we had rigged the food hoist, the fire I had built in the fire pit was blazing and had a nice bed of coals. The snow continued but was light and the temperature seemed pleasant, although it was the work that made it feel that way.
We sat down in our canvas chairs in front of the fire as if we had just played a quarter of football, or hiked up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I started to relax with the thought of the camp being established and now the hunting could begin. Tony produced some ice-cold bottles of Coors beer and we drank them in silence, taking long pulls with the bubbles hitting the back of our throats, tasting crisp and clean. The best beer of the day. It was the work that made it feel that way.
I realized a long time ago that too much of a good thing gets old. It was what convinced me that I had to work for a living. I mean really work, take the good with the bad. To make sacrifices and go without because, when you got to do something that you liked, it made it all that much better. I'm not sure that I wouldn't enjoy the life of an outfitter or a bush pilot, but I do know I wouldn't enjoy elk hunting as much. And I wouldn't have as much money to do the things I wanted to do.
Like when you have been at sea for two months and have that first tall glass of beer in port. The best you have ever had. It's because you went without and you had done something to earn it. The second or third never tastes as good. This was the first beer in elk camp. There wouldn't be a better one. At least not today.
After three days of hunting from daylight 'till dark we had seen one elk: the mount hanging on the wall of the Sportsman's Warehouse in Denver. My resolve was wearing, even though deep down I was still happy to be here. I was beginning to think that I was never going to get a chance at an elk. It would be another long session of explaining the unexplainable to my wife as she stood in the doorway wondering where the coolers packed with elk meat were. She has an uncanny ability to make myself doubt the virtues of hunting just for the sake of hunting. She, like me in my professional life, expects results.
There was about eight inches of unusually wet snow blanketing the mountains the next day. What a view with naked aspen and cedar trees along the sides of the valley I was watching. I was thinking about how maybe we should go down the mountain and get a hot shower and eat dinner in a restaurant; maybe we could refresh ourselves for our final day of hunting. Luckily I was in shape and had prepared for this hunt. The mountains are a killer when you can't catch your breath and the muscles in your legs and back are screaming. I still couldn't catch my breath, and my legs were only quietly complaining.
This was the spot where we had agreed to meet to figure out what we should do for the afternoon. I had grown impatient and made it here before my brother. This was a good spot, overlooking a small open field in a valley. It was maybe 250 yards from where I stood to the other side of the valley where the aspens started up the hillside, and the valley was about 500 yards long, sloping down hill.
Tony was in camp with a twisted ankle. He hoped that it would be good enough to hunt on the next day. The elk were still around, but we hadn't been able to locate any. We suspected they were herding up somewhere. I heard a scuffle from behind and above me, which I figured was my brother. An incident I'd had with a coyote while turkey hunting flashed through my head, and I couldn't help but look. I hadn't seen a grizzly yet, but had heard lots of stories. I looked. It was Roy, slipping through the cedars, approaching our rendezvous point.
I was looking back when my brother sighted me, and waved his hand, and started to speak. "There you are . . .."
I snapped my hand up in front of my chest, making a fist. The universal (at least for us) signal to freeze. I was facing the meadow, but my torso was bent around watching my brother approach. Luckily, out of the corner of my eye, down in the meadow to my right I caught movement. I strained my eyes trying to see without moving my head. Brown, more like tan. Elk! I gave him an expression, rolling my eyes that could only mean one thing. 'Over there, elk. Don't move.'
I slowly turned my head and could see three, four, five elk meandering into the clearing from down the hill. They were pawing at the snow, nibbling every couple of steps. I signaled to my brother to make his approach. He slithered into position beside me behind the boulder where my rifle was laying. Over the next several minutes we wiggled into shooting positions and mimed silent battle orders to each other.
Now we could see at least 15 elk wandering around the meadow. I spotted another one in the cedars on the opposite hill. I wondered what that one was doing. I thought for a second that it was probably the world record that would run away when I shot a 4 point. Didn't matter, I could only see a patch of his neck. I brought my thoughts back to the elk in the meadow. I was shaking but I wasn't cold. I was watching my breath and cursing myself for breathing so heavily. I was excited. The wind was blowing across the valley into our faces. Perfect.
My brother was on my left and when a nice, what looked like a 4x5, took the lead, I looked at him and he nodded just slightly as if to say 'I'll take that one'. I scanned to my right. Farther back in the herd, about below where the world record was hidden in the trees, there was a nice bull, not real huge but very symmetrical. When I saw him I knew this was the one I wanted.
Diagonally across the valley, I guessed him to be a touch over two hundred yards away. I figured he would bolt straight into the cedars, but I had decent tracking conditions. I was in a position to shoot and I shifted my eyes to my left to see if Roy was ready. He had the rifle in his shoulder and his chin resting on the comb of the stock waiting for me to look at him. He expressed that 'he was ready when I was' with much more patience than I would have had in his position. I said okay with my eyes and turned, settled into the stock and let out a breath. Time slowed. My bull was standing rigid, slightly quartering away and staring into the cedars. Should I wait for the big guy to come out to his challenge? The crosshairs settled on his shoulder, right at the joint of the blade and the leg. Should I wait? The crash of the .300 Win. Mag. against my shoulder and the ringing in my ears answered my question.
He went down as if someone had yanked his legs out from under him. He thrashed around a bit and I knew that I had broken him down. As I was chambering a fresh cartridge the crack-whump of my brother's 30-06 told me we had some work to do. I snapped my head around to see his bull crashing into the woods at the top of the meadow. Now we could talk.
"I think you hit him good," I exclaimed. It seemed like we were yelling now, after that long silence. Perhaps we were.
"Yeah. Holy shit, can you believe this?"
"This is awesome," I replied as I let out a breath and realized I was shaking uncontrollably. Adrenaline.
"Want to give him a minute?" I asked, pulling out a tin of Copenhagen, trying not to drop it in the snow with my cold, adrenaline clumsy fingers.
"Yeah, let's go look at yours."
We walked down into the valley laughing and excitedly replaying the events to each other as if we both weren't there to witness them. We approached my bull and I experienced a wave of emotion as I realized that I had finally consummated my marriage to elk hunting, and then the fact that we were 3/4 of a mile from camp with two rather large animals down, a couple of hours from sunset. We walked around the animal examining him and taking pictures. Then we talked some more and finally decided that we should go look for Roy's elk.
"Go ahead, I'll catch up in a second," I said. Roy knew that killing an animal was something that I took seriously and that I liked to have a couple of minutes alone with what I had just killed. Most people wouldn't understand, but my brother did. I knelt down in the snow next to that beautiful elk with my back to the hillside from which I had shot. Then I sat back in the snow and looked at the animal and thanked God for such an opportunity. I was dazed by the event and deeply moved. I couldn't believe it.
I finally realized then that I should go help Roy find his elk. I looked up to where I knew the elk had gone into the woods. Roy was there, kneeling on the ground. At first I thought he was in trouble. A spike of panic hit my stomach. Then I realized that he was aiming his rifle towards me. I didn't understand.
"What the f---?"
I instinctively grabbed for my rifle. Knowing that I couldn't shoot my brother even if he was shooting at me. What the Hell is going on? I heard the bullet hit, I looked down half expecting to see an entrance wound. I looked up again towards my brother. He was running now, then kneeling again, taking aim. It was like a nightmare where you can see everything happening but your mind won't work fast enough to do anything and your body works even slower. My mind processed the words he screamed as my eyes watched the second shot leave his rifle. I was moving at last, springing forward to take cover and grab my rifle. His words finally registered: "Watch out, GRIZZLY!"
Like going from single frame to play speed on a VCR, my world came back to me. I rolled over the elk and turned to face the hill just as I saw the bulk of a big male grizzly skidding to a stop about three feet from where the imprint of my butt in the snow. My brother had saved my life. He had already found his elk less than fifty yards into the trees, shot through both lungs. He had just crested the hill when he saw what I had earlier thought was a bull elk stalking less than ten yards behind me. I was so entranced by killing this elk that the bear was almost on top of me without my even being aware of it. A rookie mistake for me, a fatal one for the bear. The first 180 grain slug broke the grizzly's right shoulder and the second broke his neck. I was badly shaken by the whole event, and placed a 165 grain Nosler Partition neatly through the bear's skull for insurance.
I can't remember everything that happened after that, cutting, packing, and telling the story to the game officials (who, incidentally, believed us). I do remember one thing for sure though. The first beer that night was the best one in elk camp.
Authors Note: Although the characters in this story are real people, the events told here never actually happened. It's what we writers call fiction.
Copyright 2003, 2013 by T.W Batzel, Jr. All rights reserved.