Back some years ago I noticed that the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest was sometimes undersubscribed for a couple of cow elk hunts (that is to say, in the lottery for a permit to hunt elk, more cow elk tags were occasionally available than applicants, guaranteeing all those who chose that hunt a permit). The bull elk hunts for that unit all feature long odds on drawing, as it is home to a large herd of elk and only a few hunters are allowed each season, resulting in a very good experience and a good chance at a big bull. In order to give as many people a chance at hunting the unit as possible, you can only draw one bull and one cow elk tag per lifetime.
I had not yet been on a solo elk hunt and was looking for meat to fill my freezer, so I put in for one of those undersubscribed hunts. I duly drew and made a couple of scouting trips to Northern New Mexico. On one of those trips I looked off the road at a sort of basin formed between a mountain and a line of small hills to observe what looked like hundreds of animals a few thousand yards off. A quick check with the binos established that it was elk- hundreds at least. I parked the truck around the corner a ways and hustled back with my binoculars, keeping below the hills until I could sneak up over one opposite the main body of the herd. Trying to divide it into mental thirds, I counted nearly two hundred animals in one third as they drifted up into the timber and out of the morning sun. The air was actually fairly loud with all the vocalizations from the bulls, cows, and calves. In my mind's eye, the sight remains particularly amazing and defies adequate description. Lying in the warm sun smelling dust and elk and grass and a little sage and watching all of those elk eat and tussle and circulate; it struck me as a small taste of what the nineteenth century explorers must have treasured about the west. Mind, too, that this was no national park or herd whose numbers are inflated by winter feeding, these are elk who are hunted each fall and make their own way each winter.
Four months later, I pulled into the campground (all car camping on the Valle Vidal must be done in the two campgrounds) the night before the season and, amongst the wall tents, trailers, and horses of the other hunters pitched my little two-man tent while setting some stew to warm on the Coleman stove. It began to snow right as I began pitching the tent and by the time I had finished it was dark and there was a half inch of snow on the concrete picnic table. I ate my stew huddled in my jacket and crawled off to an early bed. Because my sleeping bag wasn't terribly heavy duty, I wrapped it in a tarp and wore thermals to sleep in. Despite that, I woke in the dark, shivering. Moving around a bit, I was also feeling closed in and, turning on my flashlight to check the time, discovered that it was 11:30 and that the heavy snow had compressed my tent to within a foot or so of my nose, crushing the fly to the vent. I knocked the snow off from the inside, which helped me to warm up a bit, and went back to sleep. Of course, since it was the night before opening day, I was awake only a couple of hours later, then to discovery that the wind had come up strongly and was blowing snow under the fly of the tent, through the vent, and on to me, where it was not melting at all. Hooray for the tarp! Finally, about 4 in the morning, I'd had all I could take and shivered into my clothes and cold boots. My truck had a shell on the back, to I crawled in there and fired up the lantern and stove, which quickly warmed things up. A bowl of oatmeal and some cocoa, stash the lantern and stove, and I was off down the road in the blowing snow to a ridge I planned on hiking, the better to spy for elk in the lee once the sun came up.
I never made it to that spot, though, as my headlights showed the tracks of a large bunch of elk crossing the road in a wide draw, heading uphill. The tracks were, necessarily, very fresh, so I abandoned theory for observation, parked the truck, and waited for shooting light. Once I had it, I started up the shady side of the draw, trying to work my way through the snow covered blowdowns and spruce fairly quickly, while watching ahead in case the elk decided to bed in there, as well as down in the draw and over on the wind-blown open side in case they were feeding. An hour's walk brought no more than the discovery of where two coyotes had stood up out of the snow and began their own morning's hunt, though I could still see elk tracks down in the sage in the bottom of the draw. After another bit, I saw a pair of cow elk standing on the far lip of the draw, butts toward me. I found a nice sturdy spruce and leaned against it as I considered the shot. One of the cows obligingly took nearly a half turn, presenting something closer to a broadside, but the range was right at three hundred yards and a decent wind was still blowing up the draw. As opening morning had barely gotten started, I decided to let the elk get out of sight, then try to catch up to them once again at a bit closer range for a better shot.
The scene of "elk butt disappearing over the edge of the ridge" was repeated a couple of more times as I followed the elk ever higher. My heart rate had gone up at the first sighting of those two cows and it never really came down between the exertion of trying to walk quickly uphill and the tension of trying to move while out-observing a large but unknown number of eyes. One of the things that I treasure about hunting is that when I am following game in this sort of situation, I find myself concentrating on a couple of different levels, from the important yet small (where to put your feet, avoiding making other noise, moving smoothly and slowly) to the obvious (remembering not to look just straight ahead, scanning all around for any bit of elk) to the sheer excitement of pursuit (bull? cow? will I see them first? what will happen?) to many other things, like a sore knee, or keeping an eye on my backtrail so I don't get turned around, to how far it might be back to the truck if I have to pack out. Not to say that we don't think of all sorts of things at once in many different situations, but I never find myself doing it so easily, nor time passing so easily, as when hunting elk or deer.
Finally, I cautiously crested a ridge (head and shoulders only) to see bedded elk a half mile up the mountainside, hanging out in sunny patches while the six-point herd bull wandered amongst his twenty or thirty cows to make sure all was well. I dropped back under the lip and angled up country to get level with them. After a quick thirty-minute trudge, I guessed I was at the right level and eased over the top behind a brushy spruce. Quietly, slowly, and I hoped smoothly stepping along, I moved until I suddenly spotted a bright eye and buff rump only fifty yards ahead. Freezing and looking slightly off to the side (for I am convinced that animals can feel your observation if it is too intent) I watched until I could discern a four point satellite bull. He was hanging around the edge of the herd, hoping to catch some cow off on her own and in estrus in order to leave his mark on the world. Folly of youth! Still, I was about busted and disaster loomed for my morning. Worse, beyond and a little off from him a spike bull also rested. After a few minutes, still not looking right at the young bulls, I edged back in my own tracks. At any moment I expected them to break from their beds and tear through the herd, sending elk everywhere and ending the morning's attempt at this bunch. For some reason, they did not, and I found myself once again below the crest of the ridge and circling quietly upward.
Very shortly, another potential disaster appeared in the form of another hunter, this one on horseback and angling up toward me. We met below the ridge and compared notes- did he have a bull or a cow tag? Bull. Plans? To follow the line he had established. I told him about the nice six-point and the herd of cows, explaining I had a cow tag and my plan to circle above. He said that he'd go back a bit and get his partner, then they'd ride over and look for the bull. Not thrilled, I bid him good luck and continued up a bit further, now pushing myself because the potential for the faster horse hunters to ride right through "my" elk before I could get where I wanted to be loomed large. Turning over the ridge once again, I pussy-footed along through the soft snow and scanned for bedded elk. About to drop over another edge, I looked to my left only to see a medium large cow all by herself, up and eating moss of the base of a large conifer only a hundred yards off. Worried about the horse hunters and preferring a standing elk to one in her bed, a found an offhand stance, slipped off the safety, and drew a bead. Her ribs presented a huge target area and hubris raised its head. Liking the instant result of neck shots, being presented with the back of that area as she picked moss, and feeling pretty steady, I put the cross hairs at the base of her skull, got heavy on the trigger, and drove the bullet above her head and between her ears. The cow jumped back, uncertain where the shot had come from. To my right and in front of me I could hear elk getting up just over the edge of the slope. I quickly chambered another cartridge, settled the crosshairs a third the way up just behind my cow's front leg, and broke a good shot. She staggered and nearly beat my follow up to the ground. Meanwhile, the rattle and bang of the rest of the herd took off down the hill. By the time I had made my way to the cow, she was well gone. I set aside rifle and unloaded pack and began the process of field dressing and quartering. When the first quarter was in my pack it was a bit after one in the afternoon.
I took off down the mountain, happy, watching lowering clouds, and concentrating on swinging along at a good pace. It took just short of an hour to get to the truck. A drink of water, get the packboard for the next load, put the quarter in an open cooler in the truck shell, then back up the mountain. An hour's hard work (not loaded, but all up hill) brought me back to the carcass, where a pair of Clark's Nutcrackers were making themselves free of a hindquarter rather than pursuing the fat intestines and other offal they were welcome to. Now three in the afternoon, with snow starting to fall more seriously, I realized a few thing. One, that four trips (traditional and reasonable for packing out an elk, one trip for one quarter plus other random cuts with the forequarters) would make my last trip well after dark. Two, despite the fact that I was stripped to wool pants, gaiters, and undershirt and was sweating quite freely; it was getting cold as the snow began falling again and faster. Three, I really didn't feel like another very frigid night in an inadequate sleeping bag and a snowy wet tent. Four, if I got home tonight, I could cut meat over the next two days, save two days leave, and perhaps use those days off for something else. Having so reasoned, I loaded a hind and a forequarter on my packboard, covered the remaining quarter and meat with my blaze vest, then creakily swung the load on my back.
Heavy pack loads are interesting. If you have a good pack and have it adjusted well, nothing really hurts. It doesn't feel good, but there isn't any pinching or real discomfort. On the other hand, your stride is shortened and uphill suddenly becomes a lot of work. A long step to avoid a rock or small obstacle isn't wise and doesn't always work. Thus it was no huge surprise, although a seriously depressing event, when I caught my toe going down the steep slope to the broad wash where all this started and slid fifteen feet down the grade on my nose.
Another thing about a heavy pack is that you don't jump right up after something like that to check yourself over. Too much bears you down and with an external frame pack, most of it is dragging your head downhill. Instead, I cussed a moment or three, then carefully worked my feet back directly downhill and below my head. Then it was just a matter or rising to knees and feet, careful not to overbalance backwards, and unzip my trousers to unpack the snow that had gathered in the front part of the waistband. Suffering nothing more than some mud and snow on my person it was down to the truck, another big drink of water, a candy bar, then the trudge back up to the carcass as the light continued to fade under the falling snow. As I was loading the last quarter, liver, and other bits of meat I heard a chirp in the dusk. Looking up, a bunch of elk, perhaps the same I had followed all morning, were filtering their way back up the ridge to timber. Down the hill again, through the increasing snow, to the truck. Back to the campground to bundle tent and covered gear into a messy clump to be piled in the back of the truck among the coolers and quarters, then a change of pants and shirt for dry clothes and off down the road. I hit the highway as the snow tried to overcome my wiper blades and followed a plow up and down the long grades between Questa and Arroyo Hondo. Once there, the snow slacked and the plow turned back while I continued south, drinking Diet Coke, munching cookies and replaying the day, listening while the signal lasted to the smoky-voiced English DJ doing a late night show for KTAO. I was home by two that morning with the hunt cut short but successful and, even more, satisfying. I've been on several solo hunts for elk since then. All have been very good, successful or not. For the next year friends and I ate very well on the elk and I will never forget a morning of near-constant low grade adrenaline, focus warring with wide-ranging observation, and the sight of buffy elk butts cresting one more snow covered ridge.
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