The Lion, the Wolf, and the Moose – Part 1
When I was visiting with family this fall my grandmother said something like, “your grandfather doesn’t like to kill things” and I immediately thought “Well, if I enjoyed killing things, that would make me a psychopath”. What she meant, really, was that my grandad wasn’t interested in hanging out while I was turning elk quarters into steaks, roasts, burgers and brats.
A lot of people who don’t hunt or haven’t been around the culture of hunting think of hunters as psychopaths – people with no conscience who like to drive around shooting animals for fun. I know that’s not what my grandmother meant, but as someone who entered hunting through my own experiences and not through family tradition, I am constantly reanalyzing the decision I make every year to head out in the woods to try to kill big game. I always end up redeciding whether or not it’s truly the best way to bring meat to the table, and for some reason this year it was a frequent thought. At one point a mountain lion forced me to think so incredibly literally about it – am I just out here interfering? Is this worth it?
As funny as it would be to most people, if I could have gone back in time and imagined the perfect vacation, this would have been it. I was somehow able to finagle two weeks off from work and I had two elk tags burning a hole in my pocket. Little did I know that some major adventures would be had – all of the highs and lows that make a journey memorable and moving. To me, this is what hunting is all about. Not killing things, but the adventure, the challenge, and the companionship, all with the hope (but not expectation) of harvesting our favorite type of meat.
This hunting trip turned into such an adventure. There was so much that I learned and that I thought would be worth sharing, that I decided to break it up into several posts – here’s part 1.
This year I was fortunate enough to draw a highly coveted late rifle elk tag. For those of you unfamiliar with the ins and outs of hunting tags, this was like winning a raffle for a really good elk hunt. In this case, the odds for drawing the tag were about 15%. If you think about it, every year you have a 15% chance to win. You could go for years, or even an entire lifetime, without drawing a tag like this. So when you draw one, you go.
My plan was to hunt for a Rocky Mountain bull for two weeks, and if I was lucky enough to harvest a bull in the first week I would head to the coast to visit family and try my luck at getting a Roosevelt elk with my bow.
I left work on a Friday with my friend and coworker Scott. He has experience hunting, but this would be his first elk hunt. I was excited to be able to bring along someone who was super stoked to be there. It was also great knowing that he’s an outdoor enthusiast who is in great shape, and he has lots of experience in the backcountry.
Our trip began with lots of white-knuckle driving through several snow storms. We pulled over in the middle of nowhere about halfway through our long drive and woke up to a wind swept high mountain desert after being snow-blasted all night.
We knew this trip would be cold. Lows were in the single digits and highs were in the 30s and 40s. I spent some time before the trip putting together a wood stove setup for our camper. This deserves another post because I think it’s an idea worth looking into for anyone hunting/camping out of their truck or van. The heat from the super powerful little stove kept me dry and very, very warm.
After about 6 more hours of driving in the morning, we arrived into the first town at the border of our hunting unit where we made a quick stop for wiper fluid. While Scott was in the store, I spotted the first herd of elk through my binoculars – I had a hard time believing my eyes.
We drove up into the hills to get a little closer, went for a short walk, and within the first hour of being in our hunting unit we were looking at a huge herd of elk with several decent looking bulls.
As we continued watching, elk were pouring out of a patch of timber in a single file line. As they fed across the slope in front of us, another hunter showed up and headed off in their direction foot.
We were excited to see elk so quickly, but we decided to head down the road to leave those ones for the other hunter. We immediately ran into another group of elk – this time a bachelor group of four bulls. Daylight was slipping away and they were too high up to go after that night, so we pulled over and camped nearby for the first night.
On day two, I planned to do a 12-mile loop in which we would hike up one ridge, gaining 4000 feet in elevation, wrap around a drainage, and come back down another ridge – the ridge where we had seen the four bulls the night before. In the morning we saw two bulls head uphill at a quick pace, so we headed up the ridge after them.
We soon crossed two fresh sets of elk tracks in the snow and followed them up the ridge until we ran into another, larger, single set of tracks. They were headed in the direction we wanted to go, so we followed.
As you get more experience following animals around in the woods you learn to gather every bit of information you can from any sign you find. In this case, the large bull was walking at a steady speed, but wasn’t stopping much to feed. He was on the move, but he wasn’t running so I knew he wasn’t spooked.
As we crested over a hill, I knew the bull was nearby. The tracks were super fresh. We slowed down in anticipation of seeing him just on the other side, but as we came over the hill all we could see was a lone mule deer doe in the distance. The doe spotted us and took off, and at the same time we heard crashing through the brush down below in the bottom of the drainage.
Out came a moose. A huge bull moose. We had been following moose tracks. He ran out and across the other side of the drainage, stopping a few times to look back and check us out.
It was our first full day of hunting, and I am sure at this point Scott was questioning my knowledge and hunting ability – and to be fair I was questioning myself. I’ve spent enough time in the sagebrush to not really expect to see moose, so when we saw big, fresh bull tracks, I assumed they were from an elk and didn’t look any closer.
The rest of our first whole day was uneventful. After about 3200 feet of elevation gain, post-holing through snow was making my legs cramp up and we weren’t going to have time to finish our loop. We headed back down to camp a little discouraged compared to day one, but I knew we’d learn from our mistakes and adapt our strategy. We continued to glass on our way down but didn’t spot anything. Not even a moose.
That night, I happily discovered that I could heat up my elk burrito over my new wood stove setup – no propane stove needed. Every hunting season Olivia and I pre-assemble burritos in bulk and freeze them – they make for a super easy and filling main course that doesn’t require any dishwashing at all. We load them with ground elk chorizo, spanish rice, beans, peppers, onions, and lots of cheese – and they always turn out crispy on the outside.
Feeling encouraged by what we had seen on our first day, I spent my first evening in pain while my legs cramped in all sorts of weird ways. After a lot of stretching, I buried myself into my sleeping bag and wondered what to do on day 2.
Little did I know, the next day we’d be following wolf tracks, and the night after that I would be fending off a hissing mountain lion in the dark.
You can find part 2 here!