Renowned elk hunter David Petersen describes, in his book “A Man Made of Elk,” a bugling bull as “an otherworldly music … like a calamitous crescendo of bluesy high notes blown on a saxophone, proclaiming a wildness we can only imagine.” Although I’ve been privileged to hunt and hear many bugling bulls over the years, each time seems like the first. A majestic bull elk with his head lifted skyward, antlers tipped toward the ground, cold breath steaming to the heavens — a cry of power and strength, of rut and kingship, an awe-inspiring expression of the wild.
During Oct. 2011, I set up elk hunting camp in the wilds of southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, little more than a few miles from David Petersen’s hand-built cabin, hoping to encounter one of these bugling, Rocky Mountain monarchs. I was privileged to enjoy David’s company in camp Friday evening (Oct. 14), before first rife season opened, and then spent a morning (Oct. 18) hunting with him, after covering a lot of vertical terrain and encountering multiple mule deer and other hunters, but no elk.
Although popular hunting magazines often display colorful photographs of huge bulls standing in open meadows presenting easy targets, the reality in Colorado’s high-elevation, lung-busting backcountry is far different. Elk always have the home-field advantage, but I couldn’t have had a better hunting partner to help tilt the odds in my favor. David’s fellow hunter-writer-conservationist, John Nichols explains why the odds had shifted.
“David Petersen is a careful man in the forest. He moves unobtrusively … Bears have walked right by him unawares,” John Nichols says. “Elk have approached so close he could have reached out and touched their muzzles or antlers.”
Big Game & Backcountry
Matt Kenna, Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) vice chair, hunts elk in the San Juan Mountains, too, and wrote about some of his experiences in the 2008 Southwest Colorado Hunter Resource Guide. Matt says (in part), “I sought out a … spot that fulfilled my requirements … I found what I was looking for near the headwaters of the south fork of Hermosa Creek: timberline elevation without established trails, in wild country, so I could have a solitary hunting experience.”
Matt knows from years of elk hunting and other outdoors experiences that Colorado is one of the best states for hunters, hikers, backpackers, climbers, campers, anglers and other outdoorsmen and women because of its superabundance of outdoor amenities, including: 345 roadless areas, 43 wilderness areas, 42 state parks, 54 14,000-foot peaks, 584 13,000-foot peaks, 24.5 million acres of public land, 25 national parks/monuments/forests, over 300 state wildlife areas and eight national wildlife refuges.
Colorado’s expansive backcountry helps sustain nearly 300,000 elk and 600,000 mule deer — more than any other state. As a result, Colorado is one of the only states that sells over-the-counter elk tags to nonresidents. Outdoor News contributor Ron C. Hustvedt says, “No other state has more Rocky Mountain elk than Colorado, home to about 40 percent of the entire continental population. It is the best place to go for the opportunity to bring home an elk, with plenty of trophy opportunities.”
Elk thrive in high, wild country like the San Juan Mountains — home to more land above 10,000 feet in elevation than any other mountainous region in the lower 48 states, which makes hunting them no easy task, and they benefit immensely from Colorado’s spacious and far-flung wilderness areas (3.7 million acres) and roadless areas (4.4 million acres). In the San Juans alone, there are 1.3 million acres of designated wilderness and roadless areas — one of the largest tracts of high-elevation wildlands left in the United States.
On average, about 25 percent of hunters in southwest Colorado harvest an elk each fall. The success rate for deer is near 50 percent. While it’s difficult to predict success rates, “hunters who are willing to hunt hard and walk well off established roads should have a successful hunt,” said Scott Wait, senior terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) southwest region. “Hunters driving roads in their pickups and all-terrain vehicles have less chance of seeing deer or elk.”
According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Elk Hunting Q&A, “90 percent of the elk taken are found in 10 percent of the available habitat, and that habitat is usually at least a one-hour hike from the nearest road. Look for that place of solitude that hunters won’t likely venture into, a place with water and thick timber pockets close to grassy, south-facing slopes several miles from roads.” These are places found in abundance in Colorado’s backcountry.
After several days of dawn- ’til-dusk hunting without success, Monday (Oct. 17) evening I drove over to David Petersen’s cabin to discuss our hunting strategy for the morning. We planned to meet before sunup, then walk and stalk into a regenerating burn area where we could watch the surrounding ridges for elk feeding or heading to their bedding areas. David knew the area well and was confident we’d see elk.
With the first hints of dawn illuminating the eastern horizon, we quietly entered the regenerating aspens. After finding a good location to survey the surrounding ridges, we sat, watched, and listened for half an hour — with David about 50 feet away, monitoring the opposing ridgeline — before a bull headed our way. David saw him coming, and I heard it, but expected he’d skirt around to either side of us. Instead, he nearly ran us over, then he veered hard left toward David’s ridge (after getting to within about 75 feet), where I shot him at 75 yards, broadside.
My first shot slowed the bull down, but you don’t stop shooting while an elk still has its feet. It took a couple more to finish the job, and then silence, accompanied by the “storm of conflicting emotions” Edward Abby described as being at the heart of the hunt. David and I patiently waited for several minutes before heading over to the downed bull. As we approached, David gave the elk a gentle poke. Nothing. Its eye had already glassed over. Dead.
Like David wrote in his book “Racks,” “I remember being simultaneously elated and saddened when I approached the suddenly stilled form — an emotional conflict I have since come to know well and which I often hear thoughtful hunters echo. As big-game hunter Bruce Barcott wrote, “The two minutes . . . that elapsed between the time we spotted the deer and when I pulled the trigger . . . were among the most intense, primal, and profound moments I’ve ever spent in the outdoors. I can’t explain those feelings. But I can’t deny them either.”
Wild Game Feed
A week later, I showed a friend photos from the hunt and told her, “I had the privilege of seeing this elk alive, and he was a truly majestic animal.” We continued talking, and she eventually asked why I wasn’t smiling in any of the photos. “Killing an animal isn’t something to be happy or smile about,” I explained. “It’s an extremely solemn, reverent act that demands showing the utmost dignity and respect to the animal killed.” As Edward Abbey wrote, “The killing … must be done in the spirit of respect, reverence, gratitude.” She understood.
So does my friend, Lori Shepard. On Oct. 29, Lori hosted a wild game feed (dinner) at her house in Denver. We had 15 people packed into Lori’s small house, which made for close quarters. Elbow-to-elbow, we feasted on elk meatloaf (the crowd favorite), elk roast and tenderloins, and ruffed grouse from Minnesota (wrapped in bacon) cooked on the grill, along with some token veggies and other sides thrown in for good measure.
During the evening, Lori shared an appropriate quote with her guests, from David Petersen’s book “A Man Made of Elk”: “I would beg to be made a deer or elk or anything wild — born free, living as instinct demands, and eventually dying swiftly by well-placed arrow or bullet launched by one who cares about me and my world and isn’t merely killing for money, and in the end my flesh gratefully, respectfully and knowingly consumed.”
“The hunter-naturalist-conservationist,” David adds, “. . . approaches hunting not as just another form of competition for bragging rights or, worse yet, as a way to bolster his insecure maleness, but as an invaluable learning experience, a pilgrimage.” On that late-autumn day in Colorado, we consummated my elk hunting pilgrimage by joining together to partake in a feast to celebrate life. This elk lived a wild and free life right up to the end, and died so that its body could nourish other life — our lives.
“I slew you; my bearing must not shame
your quitting life. My conduct forever
onward must become your death.”
— William Faulkner
David Lien is a former Air Force officer, chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and author of “Age-Old Quests: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking.”