Chain up, it is about to get wild around here. The final weekend of the season and my last chance to fill my cow tag, proved to be one action packed epic adventure up on the Mountain again. That place never leaves you feeling lackluster or bored. Fourteen inches of fresh fluffy snow packed down to about eight inches of thick heavy snow by the time Tristan and I were driving the steep winding road into that gorgeous country. It started to get slick and more than slightly sketchy, before we were even halfway to the top. We were prepared for it and donned our warm gear before pulling out the chains and setting ourselves up for a successful drive through a winter wonderland. The sound of ringing chains crunching through frozen snow brings a whole new reality to winter.
The pace slows considerably once the chains are on and the final journey to the top was a study in patience. When you are surrounded by snow crusted wild beauty the study becomes more of a vacation. We arrived and said our hellos to the Mountain Man and his wife. Our friend Bill was also up that weekend seeking to fill his bull tag and The Mountain Man had his bull tag left as well. Three tags remained and we had two days left to fill them. Excitement was in the air and we knew the potential adventure that awaited us. We also knew of the potential storm brewing and threatening the Mountain with biting cold temperatures, below zero wind chills and large snowfall. These challenges don’t stop the hunts at this elk camp. We simply drag out the wool, warmers and heavy waterproof gear. Suit up boys. That evening found us on a quick trek into the heart of the elk habitat. We were losing daylight quickly but were unwilling to pass up the chance at catching our quarry unaware. We found some elk sign in the snow but never laid eyes on the beasts themselves.
Before long the skies were black and the trip back to camp was full of shadows. I love how the nighttime is illuminated with a surreal blue hue whenever there is snow on the ground. The evening hours were spent in camaraderie and planning. Alarms were set for 5 AM. Sleep was sweet and the smell of the Mountain Man’s coffee rousted us with vigor. Our tummies accepted the steaming energy gladly as we geared up for the cold. Even when you know that there is a storm brewing, there is always that sense of uncertainty at what you’re going to be facing out in the elements. After getting as prepared as possible, I grabbed my pack and the lever action 45-70 and headed out into the snowy darkness. We knew where the elk had been frequenting and made a beeline to the access point for that area. We were there…we were ready but it was still very dark and the looming storm was making it impossible for the sun to break day. We waited for the light and the trees waited with us.
Sitting there in the dark was peaceful and calm but it was misleading. Suddenly, like a dense fog, the snow rolled in and began falling so thick we could not see the hills in front of us. Then the wind began blowing and the swirling snow concealed the woods from us, surrounding us in a whirlwind of white. Glances were cast about the group through shrouded faces clad in hoods and caps that suddenly seemed thin and feeble. Moral seemed to dim but as soon as it sunk it was lifted again when enough light broke through the storm to allow us to advance. We still felt that our odds were slim of seeing any game in this whiteout but we were already out there and we were not going back now. We slowly worked our way along an old logging road that climbed its way via switchbacks to the top of some beautiful mountain country. The snow level changed dramatically as we rose in elevation going from a few inches to many in puffy drifted mounds of white. The trees were coated and burdened down by the heavy load. The branches succumbed to the weight and allowed their tips to brush the ground, mingling into the snowdrifts, no longer retaining their liberty.
We saw tracks. The elk were there it was only a matter of finding them. The snow kept falling hard but it lightened up just enough to give us glimpses of hillsides a little farther away. We came around a corner and there they were. We could see a few head were feeding on the wild grasses poking through the snow about 800 yards away. There was a draw and some timber between us and the herd. Bill and I decided to try to stalk up close enough for a shot. We trudged down through the drifts quietly and with watchful eyes. There was no telling how many might be in the trees ahead of us. The closer we got the slower we went. As we inched our way through the thick timber, we bumped four mule deer sending them bouncing down the hill in front of us. We hoped we hadn’t spooked the elk but only time would tell. Finally we were close enough to them to hear some cows calling. The chitchat between cows alerted us to the fact that there were quite a few head around us. We played cat and mouse with them for quite awhile. They never winded us and would just feed along ahead of us, not showing themselves. We followed the mews as stealthily as possible. We came to an opening in the timber that allowed us a view of the ridge top over 250 yards away. Suddenly, ghosting through the pines was the form of an elk. It was hard to make out at that distance through the snowy haze but once our eyes made out what we were looking at we realized it was many elk working their way up the ridgeline. As soon as one left the opening another replaced it. We stood there in awe at the sheer numbers of them. We were unsure of the distance and wanted to make an ethical shot so we took our time watching and calculating. Finally, I decided to hold at the top of a large cows back just above the shoulder. I knelt down on one knee and squeezed off the shot. I forgot how much of a gun the 45-70 is and had not compensated for the punch by leaning forward at all. The momentum from sending that bullet off into my quarry knocked me backwards into the soft snow. I laughed as I quickly righted myself and put the crosshairs back on the ridgeline. Bill said, “You got her! Nice shot!” with a smile in his voice. We could see that I had spined her and knew she would not be able to go far but she had stumbled behind some trees. We decided to close the distance and put the kill shot in her quickly. We had left Tristan and the Mountain Man back at the point where we had first spotted the elk and from there they could not see what had transpired. They heard the shots and knew about where we were. They met us at the ridgeline and the site of my first notched elk tag in the history of my many elk hunting years. I didn’t even go up to her for a few minutes as we recounted the events that transpired to Tristan and the Mountain Man. I think I was in shock. I had been on so many successful elk hunts with others but this time it was actually me. That elk laying down the hill piled up in the snow, was mine. I was happy. She was a big cow and would provide a lot of lean organic protein for us as well as our friends. We spent a lot of time just enjoying the moment. High fives, pictures and gutting, all amid recounting the events over and over again, ended up taking about an hour. By the time we were done it had sunk in that I had my elk. This was something I had been wanting for years and to finally have it come to fruition was a wonderful feeling. I was so thankful to the Mountain Man, Tristan and Bill for including me in their adventures and helping to make my dream come true. To be Continued…