Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Starry Nights, Crisp Mountain Meadows, Bugling Bulls
All The Necessary Ingredients For Enjoying A
Colorado Rocky Mountain High
Participating in a high country, muscle pulling, lung busting public lands do-it-yourself wilderness elk hunt is one of bow hunting’s great challenges. Colorado, the state harboring more elk than any other, is as good a place as any to attempt this daunting endeavor. Around 22 million acres [nearly 35 percent of the entire Colorado landscape] is public land and, in sharp contrast to most states, nonresident elk tags can be purchased over the counter. But even here, the elk don’t come easy. During the past five years, only about one bow hunter in ten has been successful in bagging an elk; a sobering statistic that becomes even more dismal when you consider that, in addition to public lands DIY hunts, the figure also includes professionally guided expeditions on private ranches.
So why do archery enthusiasts eagerly make their way to the Rocky Mountains to tackle a hunt that offers a ninety percent chance of failure? The answer can be summed up in a single word – Adventure. The lure of adventure was the very reason why Osage’s Greg Beaver and I jumped at the chance to join veteran elk enthusiasts Duane Kronus of Osage and Lake Mills’ Dave Thomas on a wilderness elk hunt to the back side of the Colorado Rockies. Although we knew the probabilities of bagging a bull were slim; we also knew that the chance for high adventure was a guarantee.
Following weeks of planning the time finally arrived to launch our September safari; an 1,100-mile road trip that terminated on a remote U.S. Forest Service trail head 8,500 feet above sea level on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. Packing a camp into rough, high elevation wilderness is always a formidable task. Ours proved especially challenging as recent heavy rainfalls had left trail systems in poor repair. But there was no turning back. Strapping our camp atop ATVs, we began the rugged 6-mile long, thousand-foot ascent to base camp. Greasy trails made for slow going and it was pitch dark by the time we had put the finishing touches on our camp. Completely exhausted, we hit the sleeping bags and called it a day.
A little sleep did wonders. By the time we rolled out at 4 am, everyone felt refreshed and eager to begin our hunt. Conditions were ideal. The ground was white with frost; the cloudless night sky spectacular as a million white hot stars shown overhead—their incredible brightness enhanced by a complete lack of the electric light pollution associated with civilization.
Thomas and I decided to conduct our first hunt along the high meadows of an adjacent mountain – elevation 10,800 feet. Saddling up the ATV, we began our steep trek up the dark winding trail. The ride was uneventful, at least for the first little bit. Ten minutes out, it suddenly began to sprinkle. The cold drizzle rapidly turned to steady rain. Steady rain became a downpour. That’s how fast the weather can turn in the mountains; from bright starlit night to monsoon rain in a matter of minutes.
Since our narrow boulder infested trail offered no safe place to turn around, our only choice was to continue up the mountain. The steep path proved grueling and treacherous. Progress was slow and painful; a never ending cycle of chewing through mud pits, jarring across boulders and plunging into bottomless ruts. By the time it ended, our extended punishment on the ATV made the mechanical bull seem like a kiddy ride. Things were about to get worse.
Miles ahead, we could see an intense lightning storm dancing among distant peaks. The lightning advanced at breakneck velocity and within minutes was flashing overhead. When we finally reached our high meadow destination, we lost no time in seeking refuge within the edge of the bordering forest. The deluge continued as the storm’s fury raged all around us; the ear splitting, retinal searing lightning strikes were a sight to behold. Suddenly, and as quickly as it had begun, the rain stopped as the incredible lightning show raced off toward the next set of mountains.
By now, daylight was fast approaching. To the east, I could see ragged orange-tinged holes in the breaking overcast. Things were looking up. The skies were clearing. Encouragement further escalated when the unexpected, shrill bugle of a bull elk sounded from beyond the dark meadow. A moment of silence and the bull screamed again. Sprouting an instant crop of goose bumps, I found myself immediately and completely immersed into what could only be described as my very own Colorado Rocky Mountain High. Our back country adventure had begun.
We never did catch up to that bugling bull, but we did find others. During eight days of relentless climbing, stalking, calling, and listening Thomas and I were treated to encounters with eleven different bulls. Each provided its own thrill; some more spectacular than others. One of the most memorable occurred as Thomas and I climbed our way to the summit of a steep ridgeline where we had previously heard a bull sound off above camp.
Although the morning air was crisp, things began warming considerably during the second hour of working our way to the top of the thick forest. Taking a seat atop a fallen log, we loosened our packs for a break. While I was digging out a snack, Thomas sounded a couple of bugles on his call. Moments later, and while we were both still fiddling with our gear, a slight movement caught my attention. Looking up, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Poised like a giant statue, a magnificent bull was standing in the middle of a small sunlit opening in the dark timber. Although the stunningly beautiful stag was within easy bow range, the animal was facing more or less head on. Unable to see the rival who had issued the challenge, the elk quickly grew suspicious. There was additional movement among the trees as his cows began appearing. But the bull had had enough. Protecting his interests, the elk quickly herded the cows downhill and out of sight. Although more than a week has passed since the incident occurred, I can still see that magnificently sculpted mountain monarch as clearly as if it happened just moments ago.
And so it went. One pulse quickening encounter after another until our time in the mountains was up. Although Thomas and I could have easily killed three separate bulls with muzzle-loading rifles [the season was open], the elk never presented a single shot for our bows. But even though none of our party filled their coolers with fresh meat, we did leave the mountains with a full pack of incredible memories. Memories of spectacular high country scenery, starry nights, campfire camaraderie and, of course, the majestic spine tingling scream of bugling bulls. We had savored the unique thrill of wilderness adventure. What more could any of us ask?