Ever since I can remember, my brother Travis and I talked about chasing elk in the Rockies. Years ago (late 80’s to early 90’s) our Uncle Jim had shot a Boone and Crockett monster in the Sangre de Cristo’s which further fueled our dreaming of a high mountain elk hunt. I remember the first time I saw the mounted beast when I was fourteen years old. It was hanging in a room with high ceilings and in order to fit the trophy on the wall it had to be hung pretty close to the floor. It seemed like you were standing next to T-Rex when you were next to it. I told myself that one day I would take a beast like that. As is so often the case, life happened and we never managed to get into the mountains to chase elk although we always talked about it. After moving to Arizona for work in 2006 the dream of hunting elk in Colorado seemed like a memory of something that never actually happened. After several years of trying and hoping I was finally able to transfer to our Denver office and just like that the dream of finally chasing elk through the mountains with my brother was all but reality. Every detail of our first hunting trip into the Rockies played through my head just like all the magazines and hunting shows told me it should be. Tall gray peaks topped with snow, flowing rivers and streams lined with wallows, aspen groves, and giant herd bulls in the cold early morning air, steam blowing from their mouths as they bugle across high meadows, perfect kill shots, and packs full of quarters and heavy racks. Little did I know it would be exactly like this……….only totally different.
We spent the spring and summer of 2011 with elk constantly on our minds. Travis and I talked on the phone like gossipy old women basically every day from late spring until the night we met in Colorado Springs to begin our quest to find the bulls we planned so long for. Our Uncle Jim had agreed to take us up into the Sangres that (our assumptions told us) he knew like the back of his hand. After grabbing a bite to eat we drove on to Cannon City to and arrived at Jim’s house around 10 p.m. Jim had a wall tent with all the bells and whistles, solid state toxic waste which he was passing for firewood (keep that description in mind), and his gear all lined up so we could roll out in the pre-dawn hours the next morning. After a few hours of sleep we were out the door and making our way through the local Carny-Mart to pick up some groceries. I distinctly remember Jim throwing a bag of “fun” sized candy bars in the cart and calling it “survival food” which seemed like an early morning joke that I didn’t think much about. We escaped with our supplies and within a few hours we pulled up to where camp would be setup. Everything was playing out just as I had imagined it, with the exception of the outhouse that was 100 yards upwind from our campsite that smelled like hot garbage in a truck stop restroom with a side of biscuits and gravy. Not what I expected, but whatever, we pressed on. Camp was set up fairly quickly and we got ready for an afternoon outing into the woods to actually pursue the elk we had been chasing in our imaginations for years.
After a rough jeep crawl up to somewhere between 10,000 and 10,500 ft, we dismounted and grabbed our gear. I fired up my GPS and set a waypoint where the jeep was parked, threw on my backpack, and grabbed my ultra lightweight Savage Model 10 Tactical (prior to going back to bowhunting) with the heavy target barrel. This rifle had proven extremely accurate and reliable, although I never noticed until that day it weighed as much as mid-sized sedan. To go along with the ever accurate GPS, Jim also handed us each what he referred to as a map. I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or if his printer was low on toner, but it sort of resembled the doodles of a blind man on an etch-a-sketch. Travis and I really weren’t concerned with the maps as Jim had been hunting those mountains for years and we didn’t plan on splitting up. Off we went, due thata way, into the dark timbers of the Sangre’s.
I wouldn’t be doing this story justice if I didn’t set the scene a bit for what we were about to endure. To do this you must get to know our guide, Uncle Jim. Jim is the kind of guy that would do anything for you, anything at all, but not without providing himself some comedy along the way at your expense. If you were riding a horse into the mountains with him, for example, you can count on the fact that you would be on some rabid creature that would probably throw you off into a river. When you surfaced and started breathing again, there would be Jim asking you if you needed to cool off. His sense of humor and stories always crack you up, but he tells them just like he is telling you about the weather. He is also a bit old fashioned, hence the “maps”, and seems to prefer to travel via his senses and memory of where meadows and streams were years ago. There really is no way to truly describe the character he is.
So there we were, heading into the dark timbers. It was pretty smooth traveling at first, but about 20 minutes into it we found ourselves stepping over quite a bit of downed timber. “It might get a bit hairy up here” Jim tells us as he seems to know where he is going. Moments later we were following Jim over piles of downed timber that would make squirrels turn around. There was a stretch of downed trees about 20 yards across and piled several high on top of one another. Over, under, over, under we went throw the giant pile of lumber, moving at the speed of smell as we climbed through what can only be described as walls of sharp and splintered wood. Halfway through Jim mentions that earlier in the spring there were 90 mph sustained winds in the area and he wasn’t sure what kind of damage it had caused. I imagine he was laughing to himself at the same time as he watched us drag our gear through that disaster area. After several minutes of climbing and crawling, and after leaving a substantial amount of mesh material from the outer pouches of my pack and skin from our arms, we were moving on to somewhere. After sneaking up on a few small meadows that Jim somehow knew the location of and finding some fresh sign but no elk, Jim decided we needed to head back towards the Jeep so we could get back before it was completely dark. We climbed up a few hundred feet and started back towards our starting point.
The good news for the trek back to the Jeep was that, due to our altitude gain, we managed to get above all the downed timber. However, we were now traversing a pretty steep and slick hillside, complete with snow that was anywhere from a few inches deep to knee deep if you found a soft spot. It seemed like we were moving at a decent pace although everything looked the same. We stumbled upon a large grassy meadow hidden among the very thick dark timber we spent almost the entire day in and it was full of fresh sign. Jim said he had never been to that meadow before as he was munching on a piece of fun sized “survival food”. That struck me as a bit strange since he had been leading the whole day and seemed like he knew exactly where he was. Maybe he wasn’t making a joke about the “survival food”. I set a waypoint on the GPS for the meadow and we moved on to try to make the Jeep by dark. It was starting to get really cold and the patchy snow was starting to get deeper on a more consistent basis as we pressed on. I looked at the GPS and it showed the Jeep less than 100 feet in front of us which was good news as the sun faded over the peaks. About that time the GPS waypoint for the Jeep jumped back the opposite direction about ¾ of a mile and down several hundred feet in elevation. Apparently, my high speed GPS unit had not acquired a good satellite signal when I marked the Jeep. No problem, at least we have the maps…….never mind. I told Jim about the GPS problem and without missing a beat he looked up, up as in towards the peaks, pointed and said “we need to go that way.” Now I was new to the area, but I was pretty sure we didn’t park above timberline in the tundra. Jim then decided to reassure us with a story of the previous years’ hunt when he and another guy got “turned around” and finally had to sleep in a hole at the base of a downed tree after they decided in the wee hours of the morning that they were lost. Lucky for us as Jim was talking we managed to steer our direction in what felt right and found a trail that led us back (about a mile) in the opposite direction and down to the Jeep.
As we rounded the last turn towards our camp after a long rough ride down the mountain we noticed flames in the general direction of our camp. Now I’m not talking weenie roaster flames, I’m talking Smokey Bear might beat you with a shovel if he saw you tending that fire kind of flames. While we were playing lost in the woods we had apparently acquired neighbors of the hillbilly sort, Arkansas to be exact. For the life of me I can’t remember his name, but when we got to our camp their ringleader came over and introduced himself. It was something really sophisticated like Buford, so we will go with that. Buford and his band of merry men were on a church retreat/elk hunt and had the bonfire blazing so they could see the pages of the good book as they sat around in their lawn chairs. I’m sure between the six of them there was almost a full set of teeth and at least one of them spoke English….sort of. After saying our hellos we retreated to the tent to get some sleep. Our sleeping setup seemed simple enough. Jim brought two large air mattresses that we pushed together side by side and slept across them perpendicular allowing all three of us to comfortably fit on them. As soon as I crawled into my almost brand new used once Big Agnes sleeping bag I was out in a comfortable sleep, dreaming of the elk we would find in the morning.
Somewhere around 4 a.m. on day 2 I awoke to hundreds of small gnomes wrecking the inside of my skull with pick axes and jackhammers. It felt like my head and part of my upper body was lying on a sidewalk, not an air mattress. I pried my throbbing eyes open and looked up at the ceiling of the tent to see Jim firing up a relic of a Coleman lantern that he must have borrowed out from the Western Museum of Mining prior to packing his gear. He was already chatting us up about something as he was trying to adjust the lantern to his liking. It was then that I looked around and noticed that the air mattress our upper bodies were on went flat during the night leaving our legs elevated about a foot or so above the rest of our bodies. I looked over and could tell by the look on Travis’ face that he also felt like he had been hit by a dump truck. I forced myself to sit up so some of the blood could flow out of my head down to the rest of my body. I gained coherency just in time to see the bottom half (where the fuel goes) of the lantern Jim was still messing with burst into flames and start pumping the tent full of smoke and fumes, instantly taking me back to the last time I was in a CS gas chamber. Travis and I moved out of the way and choked our way through the smoke and out the front of the tent just as the lantern began to erupt with burning fuel, now known as Coleman napalm, down through the smoke to somewhere….that somewhere being my slept in twice and not cheap sleeping bag. Jim managed to blow the flames out and gain control of the Coleman napalm cannon without missing a beat in the story he was telling us, like nothing out of the ordinary was going on. In the meantime my eyes felt like someone had poured diesel in them and my throat also had a nice burn to it thanks to the napalm fumes, or maybe from the toxic fumes my burning sleeping bag put off. We scratched this up as a freak incident that surely couldn’t be repeated or topped. Couldn’t be topped until we witnessed Jim’s camp coffee. If you have never had coffee hand crafted via pouring grounds in an old tube sock and soaking in boiling pot of water, you haven’t truly lived! Jim was pretty worn out from the previous day, so after sucking down a cup of piping hot caffeinated road tar, Travis and I gathered up our gear and took off to the high meadow I had tagged on my GPS the day before.
After enjoying another bumpy Jeep ride to the top of the trail, made more enjoyable by a nice headache caused by an inverted nights sleep and a chaser of toxic fumes, we crawled out of the Jeep and made our way up through the dark timber and to the meadow right before sunrise. Amazingly enough, the meadow was extremely easy to find, even in the dark, with the help of GPS with fully acquired satellites. Finally something was going right! The meadow appeared to be the perfect setup to see elk moving through and there was enough sign, fresh and old, to convince us that we were in the right spot. We spent some time glassing around and sent out a few calls hoping for a response. Nothing. We moved around the bottom edge of the meadow in the shadows to stay concealed. Once we got to the South edge of the meadow, we settled in and spent some more time glassing around the area. We spotted a nice big meadow that appeared to be several hundred feet directly above our camp. We glassed the general area for a few hours and decided to move down to the meadow we had spotted. After descending down towards camp, we hooked a hard right and went up several hundred steep and rocky feet to the other meadow. Again, lots of sign around and a picture perfect area, but no elk. We spent a considerable amount of time glassing this area as well but didn’t see much except some muleys and some merriam’s.
Early in the afternoon on day 2 an unseasonable heat crept in as did the wind. The rest of the day was spent just scouting around the area with no elk sightings. The heat and wind decided to stick around through day 3 as well and we continued to take long walks through the Sangre’s with our gear and rifles. There was a really nice looking stretch just below tree line on a peak to North of the meadow we discovered the first day that we decided to climb up to and check out. It was more of the same in a different area, lots of sign but no elk to be found. This trip that we had been planning for so long was nothing like we had expected at this point. No bugling bulls, no perfect shots, no packs full of meat. The only thing making the trip tolerable at this point was the company of my brother and my Uncle Jim and his non-stop supply of stories.
That evening at camp the wind died down which was a nice change. Travis and I decided to make the 45 minute drive into Westcliffe to grab a shower. When we returned to camp, Buford and the boys were sitting around a blazing bonfire enjoying an evening of praising JC. Travis and I sat on the tailgate of my pickup pondering where the elk might be hiding and laughing about everything that had happened so far. It was a beautiful night with almost no wind, clear skies, and a bright moon that lit up the peaks. Surely our luck was about to change we thought. We were right, it was about to change…
Not too long after crawling into our sleeping bags a cold front moved in and the tent immediately felt like a meat locker. Jim, snoozing in a lawn chair by the stove, woke up and decided to stoke the fire. He dug into the pile of wood and grabbed a few pieces of old dried up wooden posts he had cut up. Within a few minutes we were greeted with a billowing smoke from the stove that immediately set our lungs and eyes on fire. The old dry post must have been treated with creosote years back and now it had managed to severely stifle the stove pipe causing a nice backflow into the tent. Not to worry though, at the same time Mother Nature stepped in to help blow the smoke out with a steady breeze of about 40 miles per hour blowing right at the front of the tent. There was no choice but to unzip the window at the back of the tent and open one side of the front door to help ventilate the tent. More good news followed…. there was a nice stretch of coarse sand in front of the tent so when the wind gusted higher we were blasted in the face with tiny abrasive bullets. After getting over the general misery of our situation it was becoming damn funny. I tried many times to close my eyes in hopes of a second or two of sleep only to be greeted by another blast of sand to the face. I remember looking over at Travis after this happened a few times and breaking into hysterical and sleep deprived laughter. Buford and the boys had moved into their giant military tent prior to the wind and cold moving in, however they left their flimsy lawn chairs out by the bonfire they had extinguished, or so they thought. The wind managed to reignite their fire and their lawn chairs as they tumbled into the flames. Jim went over and summoned Buford, Cleatus, Sea Bass, and the others away from their fiddling contest so they could stomp out their chairs. I guess they ain’t used to that kinda wind in their parts.
Sunrise of day 4 rolled around after virtually no sleep and the wind died down a bit. One of us decided to look at the weather on our phones only to see a winter storm warning for the area, threatening to drop between 18 to 26 inches of snow along with high and dangerous winds. All the radio stations that could be picked up were talking about it as well. Jim decided it would be best to break camp and head down so we cleared the toxic tar from out lungs, washed the sand out of our eyes, and tore down camp with the intention of returning after the storm blew by. We rode out the remainder of day 4 and all of day 5 at Jim’s house in Cannon City. By this point the feeling of defeat was starting to creep in and it all seemed like a big letdown of a trip. The only silver lining was that we were able to wash the sand out from behind our eye lids and rinse away some of the toxic fumes we had been wallowing in the night before. When the storm was over there was about 20 inches of snow on the ground with some nice drifting.
The morning of day 6 was bone chilling cold, or as Jim called it “a bit crisp”. Translated a bit crisp is equal to about 8 degrees, not factoring in wind chill. We went back up through Westcliffe and blazed a trail a short distance up the road until we couldn’t go any further, grabbed our gear and took off down the Rainbow Trail. The hope was that we would be able to get eyes on some elk off of this lower altitude trail or maybe find some fresh sign in the snow. There was a fresh trail, hard packed and wide, stomped down in the snow near where our camp had been that went down to a stream below. Figures. We slowly hiked down the trail while plowing throw snow that was knee deep or more for a few miles with little to no sign of the ghosts we had waited so long to pursue. Right about the time we decided to pull the plug and head back I looked up above us about a thousand feet and spotted two giant muley bucks watching us from the edge of some thick timber. I couldn’t see their lips moving from where I was, but I imagine they were discussing our wise decision to post hole that far down the trail looking for elk that weren’t there. We slowly worked our way back to the Jeep and returned to Jim’s house. Travis and I hit the road and returned to my house. Just like that the trip we had talked about for so long was over and we walked away defeated.
Michelle greeted us at the door with an expression that resembled someone that had just walked passed a hobo trashcan fire and caught a whiff of burning garbage. Apparently there was still a hint of smoke upon us and our gear. After patching the sleeping bag that was wounded by Coleman napalm I hung it in my garage to air out. It only took about 6 months for the smoke and chemical smell to fade away from the fabric, although a deep breath into the bag can still pull up a slight hint of toxic gas. For a short period of time after our first elk adventure I felt defeated and generally bad about the whole thing. After all the talking, planning, studying and dreaming and after building a forecasted memory in my mind of how ever second of this epic trip would be I felt like our whole dream was shattered. It only took a couple of conversations and storytelling full of hysterical laughter with my brother, family, and friends to realize that this trip was actually a huge success. Although we didn’t triumphantly hike out with packs full of meat and racks, I learned more about elk hunting from my uncle over that week than I could with years of research and aimlessly stumbling into the mountains on my own. We have no hero photos of us standing proudly behind a downed bull, but I will never forget the stories Jim told while trekking through the downed timber and sitting around camp. And we have no trophies hanging on the wall (at least not from that trip), but I have a day pack that looks like I packed it full of meat and threw it in a room full of angry wolverines thanks to the unforgiving branches of the once standing trees we enjoyed climbing through on day 1. Every time I pick it up to head out on a hunt I think of our adventure and laugh to myself. Defeat happens, but any time spent in the field is a gift whether you tag out or not. I wouldn’t trade this trip and the time I spent with my brother and uncle for anything. However, if you have a nice Big Agnes sleeping bag that has never been set on fire, I have one with a lot of character that I would consider trading….