Be Careful What You Wish For
It began with a single golden aspen leaf. My Dad gave it to me on his return from a Colorado mule deer hunt when I was nine years old. I was fascinated by that leaf, and by his stories of how they quiver and shake at the slightest breeze, making the trees look like they’re alive. I was held captive by his tales of the cold, crisp, thin air—the lonesome sound of a bull elk bugle—and by his description of the rugged and magnificent landscape. I was hooked.
I dreamed of hunting the western mountains for the next twenty plus years. I was recently married, and my wonderful wife Cassie encouraged me to pursue that dream. My favorite stories in Eastman’s were always DIY backpack hunts, and this is what I wanted—a true adventure. Mr. Webster defines adventure as “an exciting or remarkable experience”. During my hunt I would learn the true meaning of this word.
I enlisted my friend David and started planning an elk hunt. We settled on a bowhunt in a Colorado OTC unit on public land, and we would backpack in and stay with the elk. My friend Kevin Timm—owner of Seek Outside—was of tremendous help in planning our hunt.
We sweated through the dog days of a Tennessee summer, suffering in the humidity and heat, preparing our bodies for the hardship to come. The day finally arrived and we started a 26 hour endurance drive from Nashville, TN to Southwest Colorado. We arrived at the trail head late the next day and set up our first camp.
The next morning we packed our bags for six days in the backcountry and started climbing. We gained 1000 feet in that first morning and realized that while light is good, ultra-light is better. We were in some incredibly steep country with scattered meadows, parks, aspens flanking the lower slopes, and dark timber holding the high ground.
We made camp the first afternoon on a dry ridge amid a lot of bull sign, but none fresher than a couple of weeks. We were low on water so while David organized camp I dropped 500 feet elevation, filtered nine liters of water, and hunted my way back to camp. On the way I gave some lost cow calls in an elky area and had a very confused and lovesick forkhorn muley charge in and stop less than five yards away. He realized I was not the lonely cow he thought I was and bolted for parts unknown.
That evening David got a call from his wife that her mother had suffered a heart attack. David made the tough—but correct—decision to go home and be with his family. We packed out the next morning and I took him to town to start the journey back.
I needed a new plan. Honestly, the thought of going in alone was fearsome. My wife didn’t like that idea any better than I did, but this was my lifelong dream! I chose a new spot to pack into lower down and closer to water and where I expected the elk to be. Fortunately Kevin volunteered to pack into the new location and spend a night or two which eased my mind, and definitely eased my wife’s!
The spot we pitched the tent had my hopes up for hunting the area because it reeked of elk urine. After spending the night all our gear smelled like it too! Kevin had to leave early the next morning, so I ate breakfast and scouted my new area, but was soon distracted by bugling across the drainage. The bulls were not into the rut yet, so a vocal bull had my full attention. I decided to move my camp to go after him. Hit or miss I knew I would be spiked out in the new area for the rest of my hunt, so I took the expander panel out of my Seek Outside tent and did everything else I could to drop weight and then loaded more food and started out.
By this point in the trip I was firmly in the ultralight camp. I had dropped around ten pounds from my starting pack weight. In this country everything is magnified. If a hillside looks steep from a distance, when you’re standing on it you get chills up your spine. If you think it’ll take an hour to get there, it could take two or three. Effort, pain, tiredness, everything is magnified.
Several miles later I reached my destination and found a large park that sees few people, a very steep and deep rocky creek and then on the other side a series of meadows down low and above them a large timbered bench.
I set camp near the creek on the bench/meadow side. The first afternoon I was glassing the park across the creek when I heard bugling behind me from the meadows. I tried to circle closer and get the wind but was busted by an unseen raghorn and cow.
The next morning before daylight I awoke to elk crashing through the timber, leaving the meadow I was camped next to and heading up toward the huge timbered bench. I waited a while for light and for the wind to stabilize and started after them. I heard a bugle across the creek in the park and detoured that way. I glassed the park and up high I saw four bulls – a spike, a four point, a good five point, and a big 6×6. The six point was huge for a public land OTC unit. He had a very pale colored rack, really good fronts, and weak fifth and sixth points.
The bulls fed toward the creek from right to left 500 yards away and 500 feet higher on the mountain. I lost the big boy in some timber but the other three continued on toward the creek. They started down into the creek on a steep and treacherous trail I had not noticed. I realized they were crossing over to the bench side so I circled and tried to get ahead of them but they were silent and I couldn’t find them. I spent most of the day hunting the bench with no luck.
That afternoon I decided to go check out the creek crossing the three bulls had used that morning. There was a 60 yard stretch where trails came through, and the trails themselves were beaten deep into the hillside from untold numbers of hooves over the last few hundred years. It is a great pinch point because the creek cliffs out above the crossing and there is a falls not far below. Elk feeding in the park at night had only two options to get to thick timber, and this crossing was one of them. The area was torn up with sign. I resolved to hunt there the next morning.
Then it started raining. It didn’t stop for more than a day. Later that afternoon I was lying in my tent listening to the rain when I heard light chuckles from across the creek in the park.
There is no cover there, but it was extremely foggy so I took a chance on a stalk. I navigated the crossing but wound up pinned behind a small pine watching a big 5×5 and his seven cows at 150 yards with no way to get closer. It was a scene straight from the story books. The fog was thick as frosted glass one minute, then would wisp away, revealing the dark shape of the elk. Then another bank of fog would reach in and hide them. The bull was higher on a finger ridge, skylined in the fading light, overlooking his harem. It was an ethereal sight and something I’ll never forget.
I thought calling would only lead to spooking the herd due to the open terrain and iffy wind, so I waited for the fog to thicken and the light to fade and backed out. I navigated the difficult creek crossing and settled in for the night. I didn’t sleep much, knowing that the elk in that park only had two ways to get to bedding cover and I would be watching one of them in a few short hours.
The next morning I settled into a small copse of pines in the middle of the creek crossing trails at about 6:30. It was still raining, and there was a chill that went through everything I was wearing. I huddled, hugging my knees and shivering. I was so cold that I tore large chunks of matted pine duff from the ground and placed them atop my feet to add some insulation from the cold and wet.
I remember sitting there, refusing to move, smiling and laughing at the absurdity of it all. I thought “I’m sitting on a mountain side in Colorado in the pouring rain, freezing my tail off, and I’m doing it because this is my lifelong dream! Why can’t I dream of sitting on a beach?!” At the time it was hilarious…I guess you had to be there.
Around nine o’clock I heard a short growl across the creek, then the rattling of two bulls sparring. It was still too foggy to see but I got ready. I didn’t know if they would come from the lower trail or the upper so I sat on one foot with the other knee up so I could turn and draw fast.
About 20 minutes or so passed and I heard the click of hoof on stone. “Upper trail!” The bull looked like a dinosaur coming over the edge. He tilted his head back and laid his rack against his body to get through the thick pines. I drew. He was moving so fast he was through my first shooting lane before I knew it. I had one more chance but I had to stop him on the spot. As he entered the lane I gave him a nervous grunt and he anchored in his tracks. I held for 30 and the arrow was on its way. I heard a wet thump, the bull ran uphill, and I fell apart.
Time slows to a crawl when you’re waiting to check for blood. “Was the hit good? It looked good. Was it good? How am I going to get him out?” Thoughts flooded my mind as I sat and listened to the silence, punctuated only by the rain bouncing off my jacket, for 30 minutes before finding my arrow and taking up the blood trail. He covered 100 yards before going down. I hit him farther back than I intended but suspect I still got both lungs.
The bull was magnificent and huge. It was the big 6×6 I watched from a distance for so long the previous day.
A bull like this has to be paid for. You can either pay an outfitter big dollars to put you on one, or you can pay with pain and misery. I chose the latter. I now had a 700 pound bull down at least 3.5 miles from the nearest road and had to drop 2800 feet to get there.
The work started. It rained or poured the entire time I boned him out and shuttled meat back to camp. I stabbed my finger, wrapped it with duct tape, and kept boning. I shivered through 200 plus pounds of meat. When I went back for the hundred pound load of both shoulders, head, and antlers it was hailing and raining so hard the game trails had small rivers running down them. I was terribly afraid of slipping on the steep muddy hill and impaling myself on one of the tines.
I shuttled the meat and eventually camp to a trail junction a mile away. There Kevin, his son Owen, and friends Jef and David met me to help ferry the loads down the remaining 2.5 miles of trail. It was dark and scary steep. When the locals say—“Now on this last 3 tenths…if you fall to the left you’re done. Nobody will find you”—you perk up and step carefully. The trail was a foot wide and filled with loose rock. To the left was blackness that my headlamp couldn’t pierce. The hair stood on the back of my neck all the way down. I stumbled into the trailhead at 8:30 pm, punch drunk and beaten. I couldn’t have done it without Kevin, his family, and friends.
Adventure – “an exciting or remarkable experience”. During my trip I learned that backpack hunters can add a lot to this definition. I saw sunsets so beautiful it’s indescribable. I was so tired I knew I couldn’t go on, but I did. I hurt so bad I wanted to give up, but learned that eventually pain turns to numbness and you can push through it. Heading back up the hill for the last and heaviest load in the hail and pouring rain I questioned why it had to be so hard, and whether it was worth it. Then when I was close enough to see my bulls rack sticking up a huge smile broke over my face. This is the kind of adventure I wished for, and received.
– Originally printed in March/April 2013 issue of Eastmans’ Bowhunting Journal.
About the Author:
Nathan Coleman – I was born into a family with a lot of history in a very rural area of Middle Tennessee and as a child the outdoors was my babysitter and teacher. I’m 32, the youngest of three, and married my wonderful wife Cassie in 2012. To sum me up in one word……Hunter.
As iron sharpens iron I believe that hardship and challenge sharpen the hunter, and that is why the mountains of the West call to me so strongly.