The Lion, the Wolf, and the Moose – Part 3
If you haven’t read parts 1 or 2, you can find them here.
The next day, we decided to head straight to our plan A area – we had to put chains on the truck just to drive in. I use the heavy duty v-bar style chains which I highly recommend for this type of trip. They’re great for packed-down, icy dirt roads.
For most of day 3, we didn’t see much in the way of big game – a small group of elk with a couple of really young bulls, a couple of deer, and that was it. Our plan A zone looked great in terms of habitat, but we just couldn’t spot much for elk.
It seemed like the area we discovered on the way in was better than our Plan A, so we headed back towards camp with the intention of looking for the group of elk that we had seen on our first day on the way into town.
Before we made it there, we spotted the same huge herd of elk that we had gone after the night before. They had moved up and over the top of a mountain and then down and across the next drainage, and they were feeding across an open ridge on the other side. It was afternoon, so I knew we would have to hurry if we were going to have a chance before it got dark.
We parked at a creepy abandoned mine and started our way up towards the elk. As we headed up the hill we saw a truck coming our way with an ATV in the back. We were far enough up the hill that we knew if we hurried we would at least be on the road in the way when he headed in on his ATV. We hoped maybe he would be courteous and turn around if we were already walking in. With our packs on, we pretty much ran up the hill to stay ahead of him.
As we got closer to the elk, the ATV never appeared. When we got to a point where we were about 1000 yards away, Scott opted to stay behind and let me go ahead alone – the less movement the better. At this point the elk were towards the top of the patch of sagebrush, hidden behind the tree in the foreground of the photo below.
I decided to go to the right through the timber across the small drainage from the elk. After a long, careful stalk, I got to a point where I could see elk feeding across the opposite hill through a small window through the timber (you might see elk if you zoom wayyyyyyyy in on the photo below).
I set up my pack and laid down in the snow, prone. I used my rangefinder and noted that elk that were at the bottom of the hill were 200 yards away, and at the top of the hill they were 300.
As the elk fed across and to the right, I found I didn’t have time to get a good look at them before they disappeared from the opening in the timber. There were so many and they were moving fast enough that while I was lying there, several smaller bulls walked across my window before I could get a good look, let alone a good shot.
Meanwhile, about 40 yards to my right I heard a cow call and noticed that elk were filing across in a line right next to me. The herd was so big that they had wrapped around the drainage that I was looking across, and the front of the herd was now within archery range. I stayed still and kept my eyes on a swivel, knowing that one of the bigger bulls could step out in the window across from me, or directly to my right, at any time.
After several minutes of heart pounding excitement, a bull stepped into the opening across at the bottom of my window and stopped – 200 yards away. I knew that I would only have a matter of seconds before he continued on, so I quickly put my crosshairs on him, waited a second to make sure I was stable, and took a shot.
It’s always so surreal when everything is so quiet that you can hear the slightest of noises – even footsteps from the elk walking above me – and then your gun goes off right next to your face. This time it was even more shocking because my rifle scope hit my face. I’ve never been “scoped” before, but I think because I was on such a steep slope, and was in an awkward position where I could be ready to swing to my right if a bull stepped out nearby, or maybe just because I was so focused on making a good shot. I don’t know what happened but I immediately knew I got scoped.
I was very confident that I had made a great shot. The bull didn’t move but I could tell he was in shock, so I shot again. And again. And one more time. Four times. Scott was down in the bottom of the canyon wondering if I was just making hasty shots and missing – the type of shots that my grandmother might imagine me taking. Nope, I was just making sure that that elk died right there and died quickly. And it did. I shot until I watched it fall and slide down the hill out of my view.
I’ve never taken so many shots at an animal, but it stood there in shock and gave me the opportunity so I took it until I couldn’t anymore. I wasn’t carelessly flinging bullets. I was taking my time in between each pull of the trigger to make sure I was steady and getting an ethical shot in each time.
There are too many stories of hunters thinking they’ve made a good shot and then never finding the elk. If you get another chance to make a good shot, take it (carefully), because elk are big animals and you don’t want to be walking through the woods in the dark tracking an animal if you can avoid it. More importantly you don’t want to wound and lose an animal, causing prolonged suffering.
After some time I headed down and across the drainage and found that the bull hadn’t gone anywhere. He slid down the hill a little ways and stopped. This was what I walked up to, and I was so happy to see it. I was happy because I knew that that elk had died a quick death, and I knew that we were going to have that organic, free range, amazing meat for another year.
To take the life of something so majestic can almost feel wrong. Elk are so incredibly beautiful. When you see them up close you get the chance to truly appreciate the beauty of their impressive mass, sleek antlers, and thick fur.
The emotions I feel when I first walk up to an animal that I have killed are deep sorrow, responsibility, and gratitude. I am SO sorry for what I have done, accept responsibility for what I did, and feel incredibly grateful for being able to harvest such incredible meat.
Scott made his way up to me and we quickly got started on what would become a long night of work ahead of us. Scott tied the bull’s antlers to a live sage brush bush uphill to make sure the elk wouldn’t slide down the hill while we were processing it – a good reason to bring extra p-cord.
As we started quartering the elk, it got dark. In this area, there are wolves, black bears, mountain lions, wolverines, small cats, and very rarely (legend has it) grizzly bears. Of all of the predators, none of them have ever concerned me too much besides grizzly bears – they terrify me.
Regardless, I let Scott know that my rifle was going to stay loaded and I set it down near by with the safety on. When we got about halfway done with the elk I told Scott I was going to take some layers off and drink some water. As we stopped and I looked up, something was right there looking back at us. It’s eyes were glowing in the shine of my headlamp, and they weren’t small.
As I said “is that a wolf?”, it made a sound, but I couldn’t hear it very well because I was talking. Scott immediately said “no, it’s a cat. It hissed” or something like that. From the size and spacing of its eyes, I knew it had to be a mountain lion.
I grabbed my rifle, Scott plugged his years, and I shot hight into the air and yelled, “YAWWWW, GIT OUT OF HERE, YAWWWWW, GIT!” as loud as I could. I probably looked crazed, but I was completely serious. It started to run off, but I decided to shoot again for good measure – unfortunately Scott had unplugged his ears (sorry, Scott).
It was out of there, fast. I don’t think it had realized we were humans when it first walked up and hissed at us. Scott asked if I had any more bullets. I did. Three more bullets. From now on, I am bringing more bullets.
As I continued butchering the elk, Scott built a raging sage brush fire in the snow and stood guard. At that point we really didn’t think it (or anything else) would come near us again, but I picked up the pace and finished up with the elk.
We opted not to shuttle the meat down one quarter at a time because we didn’t want to leave meat at the carcass for any ballsy predators, and we definitely didn’t want to come back to meet those predators. So we both took a quarter (plus backstraps, etc.) of the elk on our back and we each loaded a dry bag with another quarter. We tied rope to the quarters we had in the drybags and carefully slid them down the snowy hill while we made our way down.
If you’ve never carried an elk out of the woods, it’s probably hard to imagine how difficult this was. I’ll try and paint the picture: We each had about 80-100 pounds of meat (and bones for stocks and broths) plus all of our hiking gear, plus my rifle, all on our backs. Carrying that much weight on flat ground with good footing is difficult Try it while also trying to guide a huge bag of meat down a super steep snowy hill at a controlled fall, in the dark, when a lion was just hissing at you.
When we got down into the bottom of the canyon and into the timber we decided that sliding half of the meat out the rest of the way wasn’t an option, so we would hang half of the meat in a tree and come back for it the next day. This is what I usually do, though this time it was incredibly difficult. There weren’t any good trees with good branches to hang the meat, and it was super steep and slippery. Imagine two monkeys trying to hang a giant bag of bananas on a snowy hill, because that’s probably how we looked. To say the least, it was a struggle that took us way longer than it should have.
I have always used parachute cord and it has always worked well, but I will never use it again unless I bring appropriate pulleys. This was one of the major lessons I took out of this hunt: I need to come up with a better system for hanging meat with pulleys that will make it quick and easy.
Despite the struggle, we finally got the elk hung up in a tree and started the trek out to the truck. It wasn’t too far, but this packout was the hardest I have ever done. I think it was just mentally exhausting having a mountain lion come in and hiss at us. It turned the whole night into a stressful rush and rushing in turn made everything harder and take longer.
The next day, we hiked back in for the second half of the elk and it felt like such an easy packout. Yes, we were packing heat. Lot’s of heat. Just in case. We scoured the area around the carcass for tracks but there were so many elk tracks and the snow had melted a bit, so we never found the lion’s tracks.
I took this photo from the carcass looking across at the timber where I had taken the shot from. It looks thick, but one of those small windows through the trees is where I was lying.
When we got to the meat, we were very pleased to see it still hanging in the tree, untouched.
Hanging meat is just like hanging food when you are camping to keep it away from bears. It should be high enough that an animal can’t reach it from the ground, far enough away from the trunk of the tree that a bear can’t get it from there, and low enough from the branch it’s hanging from that they can’t climb out on the branch to get to it. In this case it was plenty high (though it looks low in the photo due to the slope of the hill), but it was closer to the trunk than I would like, probably about two feet out. Either way it worked and we didn’t want to stick around any longer that night than we already had.
My new Kifaru pack was awesome for this packout. I was able to hike in with just water, my first aid kit, and my down jacket, and hike out with a whole quarter.
I recently upgraded from a regular backpacking backpack, so I found it sort of satisfying watching Scott struggle with fitting a whole elk quarter into the inside of his pack and then have to figure out what to do with the rest of his stuff. Sorry again, Scott.
All in all, Scott really got to experience the true Rocky Mountain elk hunting experience. In just three full days we had seen beautiful country, tons of wildlife, and had harvested a bull.
With two weeks off from work, though, and another elk tag in my pocket, the adventure was just getting started. I was excited to sign off on this hunt with hot springs that night and some trout fishing in one of my favorite rivers the next day.
You can find part 4 here.