Fall is by far my favorite season, for obvious reasons. And if I was king, I’d simply declare 12 months of October, then set up camp in one of my wildest kingdoms: Colorado’s high and mighty San Juan Mountains. During October 2012, I hiked out of this wild kingdom without an elk, despite having multiple close encounters with bulls and cows, including enjoying the company of a small elk herd rousting me awake in camp several nights running.
It was the second year I’d hunted this section of Colorado’s San Juan National Forest, and my first year of backpack camp (vs. car-camp) hunting. I found a place far enough from a road to find elk, but not as far as the outfitters/horse hunters who seemed to be around every bend in the adjacent wilderness area. Where I was going, you had to go on foot, and the San Juan Mountains are (to borrow the Backcountry Hunters & Angler’s tagline) made for “using the quads god gave you!”
Although only about a mile from the nearest road, the precipitous terrain, in between, gains over 1,500 feet, forcing would-be elk hunters to climb around (or straight up) nearly vertical cliffs and onto high ridges while negotiating a disorienting and exhausting maze of fallen timber separating aspen-clad benches that provide precious little in the way of flat tent terrain. But this is standard stuff in Colorado, which is why I refer to elk hunting here as “mountaineering with a gun.”
My routine during 2012 boiled down to hunting from dark-to-dark, followed by a quick, cold meal before promptly sliding into my down/mummy sleeping bag for ten (or so) hours, by default, to stay warm. During 2013 I refined this backpack hunting approach, adding a lightweight Kifaru ParaTipi (3 pounds, 8 ounces) and Parastove (3 pounds, 1ounce) to the mix. The stove allowed for a quick fire each morning and evening, taking the edge off a Spartan and chilly backcountry camp routine.
Thursday (Oct. 17) afternoon I set up base camp in a San Juan National Forest campground, then hiked and climbed through 1,500 feet to the location of my high camp (10,000 feet) on an aspen-clad bench not far from a spring and series of elk wallows. I was done by midafternoon and met David “Elkheart” Petersen at Steamworks Brewery in Durango for dinner. During 2011, I elk hunted with David, bagging a 5×4 bull, and he provided some parting advice via e-mail before I headed up to high camp Friday afternoon.
“Just got a report from a friend who hunted … where you are—it’s a big area. He said he saw lots of elk, including six bulls, but all real high in deep snow. Go figure. You’re really putting in a max effort and I hope you get a nice bull … That’s a sparse camp, indeed … With a good bag it should be fine—go to bed warm and have some fuel inside to light the stove before you crawl out in the morning. Best of luck in the morning, you deserve it!”
If you jump elk, you will know it: They make a tremendous amount of noise. In the confusion they’re as apt to run into you as away from you, but the first elk I jumped (Monday morning) knew which direction to go, and never gave me a glimpse. Later, I decided to take advantage of the day’s mild weather and hike down to base camp to resupply for the rest of the week, setting in motion a chain of events David Petersen referred to as my “6×6 karma” moment.
While stalking along an aspen bench blanketed with young, five-to-ten-foot pine trees, reducing visibility to thirty or forty feet, I jumped another elk, with a harem! For several seconds the bench was a swirling mass of green pine needles, thundering hooves, snapping branches, and hides of vanilla and rust flashing through the trees. After overcoming their initial confusion, the herd started moving away, en masse but single file, through a natural shooting lane 100 feet away. I doubt I’ll ever forget what transpired in the next few seconds:
From experience, I anticipate cows moving through the lane first, followed by the bull. The first cow passes through, then another cow, then several more and finally a bull. I can see the antlers (in particular, his lengthy brow tines), and he’s big. I simultaneously slip the safety off and shoulder my rifle, then fire. The bull walks (not runs) out of sight behind a group of thick pines. The cows scatter pell-mell.
Then the bull reappears, walking broadside, a hundred fifty feet away. I fire again! He stumbles, but regains his feet. I wait and watch. He walks another twenty-five feet, struggling to stay upright, then lays down with head still erect. Moments later his head is down, and after several labored, bellowing breaths, he’s quiet. It’s over in seconds.
After approaching the dead bull, I kneel down beside him, lay my arm across his broad shoulder and give thanks for the wild and free life he lived right up to his last breath. And I realize his life will now live on through my life, and I must not dishonor his death. Life from death — it’s how the world works, like it or not, and honoring the lives we take is a vital part of the process. I step back and take a moment to admire the broad rack and long (14-inch) brow tines on the 6×6 lying beside me while contemplating the daunting task of skinning, quartering and packing out perhaps 200 pounds of meat.
In “Racks: A Natural History of Antlers and the Animals that Wear Them,” David Petersen says, “An average mature bull will have six points total, a main-beam length around 48 inches, an inside spread of 30 inches or less and a Boone & Crockett total score in the neighborhood of 260 to 290.” But David will also tell you that of all the hunter-killed elk in a given year, only a very small percentage are 6-point or better. Later David tells me, “Not only is your bull one of the very few to come from this area in all seasons this year, it’s easily the biggest I’ve seen.”
Back home I take the head to a taxidermist for a European mount — no fur or glass eyes, just a cleaned white skull and antlers. He tells me the bull’s Boone & Crockett score is in the 305 to 308 range. As David knows better than anyone I know, taking a bull elk is no easy task, but the score is simply a number. It’s the memories of the hunt and being out there that counts. My memories of this hunt will be fueled for years to come by displaying this mount prominently in my home. And come October, I’ll hunt the San Juans once again — a heavenly realm where stately herd bulls rule, roaming far and wide in a wild kingdom with few equals.
David Lien is a former air force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Age-Old Quests: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking” and was recently recognized by Field & Stream magazine as a “Hero of Conservation.”