The canyon was much rougher than I thought it would be. What was supposed to be a quick and easy shortcut back to camp quickly turned into a nightmare experience in blow downs, dead-end trails and sheer rock walls that only lengthened our ordeal. With our energy sapped, we approached yet another of the countless stream crossings necessary to negotiate the vague path we hoped would take us where we needed to go.
As soon as I stepped from the dry edge of the stream bank to the rock a yard out into the flow, I knew it was the wrong thing to have done. But, I had reached the point of no return as there was no stopping my forward motion. The uneven face of the rock was grey and glistening with moisture and slick as a sheet of ice. Before I could completely process what was happening, my foot shot out from under me and I fell backward into the icy water.
The position in which I landed had me with head downstream, legs upstream and pants quickly filling with water as it flowed from my ankles to waist. My rifle was completely submerged and the metal frame of my pack wedged between some rocks, making it seemingly impossible for me to again get my feet under me. I’m sure I wasn’t actually in the water very long, but it felt like an eternity being wet and cold. Fortunately, Sam, one of my two hunting partners, was quick to act and helped me to my feet. It was a long, cold hike back to camp and I was hypothermic as I crawled into my down bag to try to regain some warmth.
It was the end of the rut in New Mexico and we had seen few elk, considering the miles we covered. The area in the northern part of the state my two novice companions and I were hunting is strikingly beautiful but not necessarily known for giant elk, which would likely explain how we were so easily able to draw limited permits. This was more of an opportunity hunt, though. Brad and Sam had never before hunted elk, let alone seen an elk, and I was trying to provide an opportunity for them to experience the thrill that elk hunting can be.
“I want you guys to understand how much work this is going to be and how slim our odds are,” I explained as we made pre-hunt plans in my living room. With enthusiastic nods of the head, they both assured me they understood what we were getting into. But, I could tell they really didn’t. They had read too many articles and seen too many videos that led them to believe massive bugling bulls were to be found around every other tree.
Brad and Sam were really no different from most other first time elk hunters I’ve known. Elk are big, majestic animals that, in many ways, epitomize the idea of wilderness for some. The excitement and anticipation of hunting such an animal overshadows the realities of the habitat they live in and the sheer work when dealing with an animal that size entails. Steep hillsides, thick timber, altitudes where air seems at a premium and frigid weather often combine to test one’s resolve. I was no different nearly twenty-five years earlier on my first elk hunt. As a young boy then, sleep refused to come that first night in camp as I lay in my bunk, dreaming of the possibilities opening morning would bring. I was only an observer on that trip but my excitement level could have made one believe I was the mightiest of hunters. My thoughts couldn’t help but be drawn back to that memory as I lay shivering in my sleeping bag.
Northern New Mexico was the scene then, too. Snow began falling that October day as soon as our group of five reached camp and continued to fall for nearly a week, dropping an amount rarely seen in the state so early in the year. Cold and exhaustion were constant companions. There was talk at one point of sending a helicopter to get us out because the deep snow made travel nearly impossible. Had it not been for the rickety cabin we were able to dry out in each evening, the situation truly could have taken a grim turn. We took a nice 6×6 bull on that trip but the cold and exhaustion I felt after helping to get the animal back to camp made me want to lay down in the snow and forever drift away in the warmth of sleep. Fortunately, I didn’t and the experience influenced the direction of my life for what I consider to be the better.
Beginning this most recent New Mexico elk hunt as novices, Brad and Sam had gained a new appreciation for the challenges of elk hunting by the last day of our trip. We found elk every day but they offered little more than fleeting glimpses through the trees. With just hours left to hunt, we hiked to a distant ridge and listened as a bull bugled and led his herd our direction. We couldn’t ask for a more perfect scenario as everything seemed to be in our favor.
“There’s the bull!” I whispered as we eased through a stand of pines. Not more than fifty yards away stood a respectable 6×6 that would have made a great first elk for either one of my friends. Amazingly, though, neither one of them could see it.
“He’s right there!” I hissed while pointing at the elk. Blank stares and bobbing heads told me the elk were invisible to them despite my pointing. How they were unable to see a bull elk standing broadside at fifty yards is still a wonder to me but they couldn’t and the bull finally had enough and crashed away. We turned the other direction and headed home empty handed.
Two weeks later, I found myself astride a horse on my way into the backcountry of Colorado. My friend Dennis and I had chosen this trip as an opportunity to experience the traditional horseback, tented camp wilderness elk hunt. Like the area I had hunted in New Mexico, this country produced the odd monster bull but was not typically known as a prime trophy area. We mainly wanted the experience as well as the meat for our freezers. The trip would be all the better should a trophy class animal cross our paths.
Every elk hunt I’ve ever been on seems to have been bitterly cold regardless of whether I was hunting low country or near timberline. Opening morning on this Colorado season was no exception as we wiped frost from our horses’ saddles while waiting for our guide. Camp was a busy place as many friends and past clients of the outfitter had come for this final hunt of the season. As the newcomers, Dennis and I were apprehensive that the crowded camp of hunters familiar with the area would lessen our chances of success.
“Keep your eyes open,” our guide instructed as we rode out. “We’ve killed bulls in the past just outside of camp.”
As instructed, I was on high alert with the hope of finding elk early. Richard, our outfitter, had explained that the elk in his area will often bugle on into November and we just might be able to locate some bulls that way. I was skeptical as I had never before seen elk bugle so late in the season, so it came as a surprise when, not five minutes out of camp, I heard what sounded like a distant bugle. Neither Dennis nor our guide reacted to it so I decided it had been my imagination.
The saddle can be a cold place to be so we dismounted a short time later to walk and warm ourselves up. We had only taken a few steps when, again, a bull bugled. This time I was certain it wasn’t my imagination and the three of us began scanning the hillside, looking for the source of the call. The elk seemed to be just over the top of the hill so we moved to gain some elevation for a better view.
Turning our horses east on an icy trail, we climbed just a few yards before I noticed something standing on the opposite hillside. After a double take, I realized it was two bulls staring our direction. The timber we were in was thick, which made it difficult for them to know for certain what we were.
“Bulls!” I whispered to draw our guide’s attention. As he pulled binoculars from his saddlebags, I removed my .300 Remington Ultra Mag. from its scabbard and readied for the 250-yard shot. The 6×6 crumpled at the shot and his companion wheeled and was over the top of the hill before Dennis could make the morning a doubleheader. It was fifteen minutes into opening morning and my hunt was over. The bull was not my largest, but was great for the area and allowed me to provide meat to a friend and a widow who desperately needed it. And, this hunt showed me that, rarely, there is the easy elk.–Brian Payne