The Lion, the Wolf, and the Moose – Part 5
If you haven’t read parts 1-4, you can find them here.
I started my first afternoon of Rosie hunting disappointed. As I took my first look with my binoculars, I spotted an ATV down where I was planning on hunting. Bundles of fog were quickly blowing east across the landscape, and sometimes they would roll in so thick that I couldn’t see anything but my immediate surroundings.
Instead of hiking in towards the ATV, I decided to drive over to another area where I knew my friend Trevor was hunting. As I was walking down the road in search of Trevor, I took this picture to show what a typical Western Washington forest looks like; it’s so thick that in a lot of places you can’t walk through it.
I quickly ran into some big elk rubs. This is my favorite type of elk sign to find.
If you are uncertain about whether or not something is an actual elk rub, lean in a little closer and look for hair.
Get your nose really close and take a big whiff – if it smells strongly of fresh sap, it’s probably a fresh rub.
This time of year, though, I wasn’t going to be finding any fresh rubs. Bull elk start to rub (or “rake”) their antlers on trees and large bushes to remove velvet from their antlers in the summer. They continue to rake trees to show themselves off through the mating season that occurs from late August into October.
During the late archery season that takes place in the end of November, I wouldn’t expect to see any rut-like activity from bulls. BUT, when you find a rub they probably haven’t gone too far. True coastal Roosevelt elk don’t migrate nearly as far as their Rocky Mountain relatives (they really don’t migrate at all).
I didn’t end up seeing much else that first afternoon other than lots of hunters. And I never found Trevor until after dark when we finally met up at the trucks.
The next day, Trevor and I hiked in to hunt together. In the morning we hiked into a reliable area where we have seen elk nearly every time we have been in there. We left the trucks in the dark and headed up to a prominent ridge to glass from, but the elk were nowhere to be found. Once again we were dealing with lots and lots of fog and not a lot of visibility. That’s hunting the coast.
Here’s one of many useful tips for Rosie hunting that my friend Trevor taught me: Sometimes it might be foggy down low but clear up high, or vice versa. While it might seem like a day to throw in the towel, it might be the perfect day to hunt somewhere else. Don’t stay at home.
On this morning we were down at sea level, so we decided to drive elsewhere for the evening hunt.
We hiked in to another reliable area again to find fog blasting through from the west, so we could see for brief periods and then we couldn’t.
We were hiking out in the evening when we barely caught a glimpse of some elk that were walking up the road we were on, and they were walking directly towards us. We quickly hid off of the road in the bushes and dropped our packs in anticipation of the elk continuing up the road towards us.
Unfortunately, before they made it to us on the road, they turned off of the road and dipped down a steep hill through a clear cut. They weren’t spooked by us, but they just happened to decide to leave the road before they got close enough for a shot. Trevor snuck down the road towards them and tried to sneak into archery range from above. In the photo below, you can see Trevor on the road on the left. The elk are at the bottom of the hill on the right, not very visible in the photo but you get the point; from my point of view, it looked like the elk were really close to Trevor. Some of them started to bed down, some were casually feeding.
Really, though, they were out of bow range when they caught our scent or something spooked them, and they took off into the timber. It was definitely a bummer, but I found some prime consolation chanterelles that day and they made for an excellent addition to dinner.
At the end of day two, I knew that the next day would be my last day to hunt. If I was lucky enough to get an elk, it might take a day or two to pack the meat out.
If you absolutely have to be back from a hunting trip on time for work (or something else), you need to account for at least an extra day to pack meat out depending on how far you are, who you have to help you, etc.
For my last day, I decided to break off and hunt alone so that Trevor could hunt with another friend. In the late hunt, when you can’t call for the elk, I haven’t found there to be much of an advantage to hunting with a group of friends (other than good company).
I knew this last day would be really crowded because it was the day after thanksgiving (aka black Friday) so everyone was off of work and more than ready to ditch (or bring) their family to go elk hunting. In anticipation of the crowds, and because it was my last day, I decided to commit to the “Hail Mary”. I decided to “send it”. I wanted to go “hard in the paint”. It was “the bottom of the 9th”. It was overtime. And I figured I may as well be really tired for the long drive home.
I decided to go back to where I had seen the ATV on day 1, but this time I was going to just put my head down and hike in reaaaaaallllly far for the day.
I left hunting camp and friends behind and I drove in to the trailhead in the dark. Last year, at this exact same spot, when we got back from a long hunt my friend Nate’s car was stuck in the snow and my truck battery had died. This year, when I parked and got out of my truck at the exact same parking spot, my tire was hissing.
This parking spot HAS to be cursed; I also found an entire set of brand new arrows in a really nice quiver someone had dropped there. Fortunately I was able to find them in the internet world and mail it all back to them. But this parking spot is for sure cursed.
After being gone for two full weeks of camping, I contemplated putting the spare on and just heading home. With one day before work, I could get my tire fixed and have a day at home to unpack, process the bull I had harvested, and maybe even find time to relax. I also knew that by the time I put the spare tire on, I probably would lose my early start advantage that I had over the weekend crowd.
But, you only live once, and I was already there, so I decided to press on. I swapped my tired out in the dark and rushed to get my gear together. Now I was starting my Hail Mary late.
My plan for the day was to hike down a huge clear cut and cross a decently sized river using my fishing waders. After I was across, I would hike about 6-7 miles out to an area where I figured I would be the only hunter. I at least knew there would be less hunting pressure way out there away from the nearest drivable road.
I immediately spotted elk across the river so I made my way down quickly. On my way down, I was rushing and I foolishly bumped one group of elk that were right below me. Before I even made it to the river I ran into some of the thickest, nastiest vegetation I have ever experienced. I took a slightly different route than I have before because I followed the elk that I had spooked for a little ways. It was a huge mistake. I was literally crawling and climbing through thorny bushes and downed trees to try to get through. Eventually my only option left was to climb across some tall, slippery, downed logs, so I had to back track to find a better route.
Despite recent rain, the river was crossable with waders without a problem. Once I was across, I stuffed my waders into a garbage bag, took a waypoint with ONX so I could find them again, and started hiking up towards the elk I had seen on the other side of the river.
I immediately ran into several groups of hunters where the elk had been – between my flat tire and getting stuck crawling through the rainforest, I got there too late. I was surprised to run into people so early in the morning. I hate that type of hunting. Never mind the elk, I just wanted to be alone and not have to worry about human competition on my last day. So, I put my head down and told myself I wasn’t even going to stop to look for elk until I made it way out there, 5 more miles or so. I couldn’t resist so I did stop to look for elk, but I hiked fast and didn’t look long. It’s amazing how much ground you can cover if you hike fast and keep up the pace – a couple of guys with bicycles said they were heading the same way and I never saw them again. As I finally approached the area I wanted to hunt, there were tracks and scat everywhere. I felt like a mouse following a trail of crumbs, except the crumbs were elk turds scattered on the road.
I was finally alone. No human tracks, no bicycle tracks. Just elk tracks and silence. I would pass though clear cuts and then dense, beautiful coastal forests.
Finally, as I popped out of a large stand of trees, I spotted a group of elk that were hanging out mid-day in the open.
In my experience I’ve noticed that if you hike far enough to where the elk are less-pressured, they seem to hang out in the open more during the day.
In this particular area, I have never been there when they AREN’T out in the open – the perfect place to go when you really want to make it count.
This particular time, the elk were hanging out in the open and they were also right below the road I was walking on. In the photo below, they were straight across in the open clear cuts.
The thing is that I had to either drop down, cross a creek, and approach the elk from below, or I could follow the road I was on for two miles around the top of the drainage down the next ridge they were on to approach them from above.
On the coast, it’s almost always better to stay on the roads and trails when you can. Short distances through the forest can take hours or even all day.
I’ve made that mistake before. You think you can make it through to a road that is just out of sight. Hours later you are soaking wet, forcing your way through thorny vines that are way over your head, wishing you had just walked around on the road.
At this point it was late morning and I had hiked for 5 miles and hadn’t had a single bite to eat. Not even breakfast. My plan was to just get away from all of the people and stop for a late breakfast when I got there. But now there were elk. And they were in the open. And they were in the perfect spot – JUST below the road where I might be able to sneak up on them from above. I really didn’t want to have another hunter pass me on a bicycle or something and beat me there, so I decided to press on for the last 2 miles, eating while I walked.
When I passed through the last patch of timber before the elk, I found myself about 100 yards away from the closest cow, so I stopped to take this picture – the red arrow shows where the elk are. It was a group of nine and one was lagging behind as they fed horizontally across the slope away from me.
This is where rifle hunting easily ends – 100 yards is an easy shot. But this is where archery hunting begins.
My heart was pounding as I crept down the road (remember, no vehicles are allowed out here). I knew it was the perfect situation. The wind was steadily blowing in my face so I knew they wouldn’t smell me. I could hug the left side of the road to stay out of sight, so I knew that if I was quiet enough, I would at least get close.
I really took my time. I was kneeling but really I was at a crawl. When I got far enough down the road that I thought they were probably below me, I crept towards the edge of the road. As I was looking down the hill, the only elk I could see was off to my left, so I hadn’t made it far enough down the road to be directly above the herd. I used my rangefinder to range it at 60 yards. This is my maximum range if shooting conditions are right (no brush, not a steep slope, animal is broadside, etc.) and only if I have been practicing a lot.
Since I had been out hunting for two weeks without shooting my bow much, and I already had harvested one elk, and I was REALLY far from the truck by myself, I decided to risk spooking the elk to get much closer. This is a decision that’s tough to make. I know that at 60 yards my odds of making an ethical shot are very good. Getting closer than 60 yards when it is dead quiet, and there are dozens of big ears listening, is very difficult. I knocked an arrow.
I slowly backed out from the edge of the road and scooted down the road a little further until I thought I would finally be above them. As I crept to the edge of the road and looked down, I could see that an elk had bedded down right there, but I could only see its rump. I ranged it again, this time at 40 yards. It was bedded down facing to the right, away from the other elk. But I didn’t have a clear shot at its vitals. I knew, though, that if it heard anything, it would stand up and turn around to face the other elk. If that happened, I knew that at that moment I would have a brief window of time to get a clear, ethical shot.
So, I attached my release to my bow string and continued to creep forward very carefully. Once your release is attached to your string, you really don’t want to fall. Your hand is essentially attached to your bow, so if you fall, things could end poorly.
As I got closer to the elk, I went exponentially slower. I took one carefully placed step, then a quiet breath to calm myself down. Another step, another breath. I tried to consciously slow my heart rate.
After about ten yards of this, I snapped a twig. Though my step was carefully placed, there are twigs everywhere and eventually one will pop. The elk stood up and quickly turned around to get eyes on the other elk just as I thought it would. It wanted to know where they were to see if it was one of them that had popped a twig. It didn’t expect noise from above. As it stood up, I drew back.
Here I was, 30 yards away from a still, broadside elk that was looking the other direction. This is the PERFECT opportunity. So I took it. In the Hail Mary metaphor, this is the quarterback letting go of the ball. I still didn’t know what would happen next.
In most of my previous archery hunts, my adrenaline is pumping and everything happens SO fast that the details never really soak in. This time, though, was very different. Since I had taken the time to calm myself down and approach the elk so slowly, it’s almost like everything happened in slow motion.
The dead silence was broken as my arrow made the classic “thwung” noise that it makes. The sound of my arrow hissing through the air seemed louder than it ever has been because it was so incredibly dead silent out there. I watched my arrow hit the elk right in the perfect spot and continue onward like the elk wasn’t there. Because I was uphill of the elk, I could see the arrow exit from the other side of the elk’s body and continue flying, appearing to still be at full speed.
This is when, as a responsible hunter, you have to continue to stay calm and pay very close attention to what happens next. There is no celebration after you make a shot at an animal.
There is continued silence and undivided attention. You are looking for blood on the body as the animal flees. Is it a lot of blood? Where exactly did the arrow hit? If the animal turns, is there blood on the other side? How is the animal reacting? Where is it going? These are all things that are essential to look for after you make a shot.
In this case, all of the elk took off across the slope, down into a small ravine out of sight, and then immediately popped back out into sight on the other side, heading uphill. When they got to the top of the other side of the ravine, they all stopped and looked back. They were staring towards me, but there intense stare was broken by occasional glances at each other as if they were wondering what to do next.
I lifted my binoculars and carefully looked for any sign of blood on one of them. This was going to be my last chance to get eyes on the one I had shot. I was looking for any evidence that might help me with a successful tracking job (if needed) and harvest.
But there was no blood; no sign of a successful shot. My heart sank. Had I just imagined a good shot?
One cow turned and trotted away into the distance and the others followed. I continued to watch eagerly with my binoculars for any sign of injury, but found none.
I sank into a sadness and fear that no one can fully understand unless they’ve had an experience like this. But I also kept telling myself that I KNEW it was a good shot. My gut was telling me it was a good shot.
I crept forward a few steps and looked down into the small ravine that the elk had gone through, and there it was, down on the ground with its head down. It had gone down so quickly that I didn’t suspect it could be right there below me. I thought it was dead for sure, but wasn’t close enough to tell with 100% certainty.
I still wasn’t celebrating. I backed out of the area quietly and got far away to make sure that if it hadn’t died yet, it had time to die as peacefully as possible.
Hunting can be an emotional roller coaster. At this point I was pretty sure the elk was down for good, but there is always a paranoia related to losing an animal and it never goes away until you are up close and certain.
I struggled to eat lunch while I waited for a half hour or so (I would wait longer if I wasn’t as confident that it had died quickly). As I laid there in the old dirt road, I was appreciative of the beautiful sunny weather. One week earlier, I was hunting in single digit temperatures. Now I was laying in the warm sun with my boots off.
It started to sink in that I was really far, across a river, by myself. I knew this was a possibility and was prepared, but this is when I started to realize how much work I had gotten myself into. I already had a blister forming on one of my heels, so I taped it up and got my boots back on. I called Olivia to let her know where I was and what had happened. I had already marked my location on ONX so I sent it to her and a couple hunting friends. Knowing I might be out late, alone, working with knives and such, I wanted to make sure someone knew where I was. A week prior I had dealt with a mountain lion at night, but at that time I had a gun and a friend with me. So the thought definitely crossed my mind.
At this point I felt like I had given ample time for the animal to pass, so I walked back down the road and again and very quietly approached the area. I checked the wind direction constantly to make sure I was downwind of the elk – that way it wouldn’t startle and run off if it was still alive and it smelled me. When I got to where I could see the elk go down before, it was gone. I knew for sure I was looking right where I had seen it, but it was gone.
As I said before, hunting can be an emotional rollercoaster.
I am going to stop right here and add a little side note to address anyone reading this that is concerned about the ethics of big game hunting or hunting at all.
I’ve never really shared details from my hunting trips like this except for with my hunting partners and with Olivia when I get home. It’s not that I believe anything we do as hunters is unethical and worth hiding. It’s that a lot of non-hunters don’t understand why we do what we do. A detailed description about an animal’s death feels like a touchy subject when it shouldn’t be.
Members from my own close family, like my mom, will openly admit that they didn’t initially understand why I started hunting so much. Initially, they really didn’t even want to hear about it.
I think a lot of people who don’t hunt don’t understand because they are never exposed to it in any sort of detail, or maybe they’ve been exposed to it by an unethical or unsportsmanlike hunter. They are simply never given the opportunity to learn about it and appreciate the skill, the passion, and the mindset that a conservation-oriented hunter has.
I realize that details regarding an animals death can be bothersome or even hurtful for people to look at or hear about. But, if your someone who is offended by hunting, hear me out.
We appreciate and respect every wild food meal more than anyone could possibly appreciate the meat they pick up from the grocery store. We earn it by working very hard for it. We even risk our own safety (to an extent) to acquire it. We also earn it by funding conservation through the licenses, tags, and other fees we pay to be able to hunt and fish.
Hunting and fishing licenses and tag sales are the number one source of funding for wildlife conservation. Period.
Number two is from gun and ammo sales.
If you don’t believe that us humans should eat meat, that’s one thing. But if you are buying meat from the store and eating it in restaurants, you probably have no idea where it came from, how the animal was treated, or how it was killed. And this is another reason why I believe hunting is ethical – we harvest animals that are unsuspecting of their death and have been left alone to live their lives until then. An arrow through their heart is a much more peaceful way to go than ‘most any other death out there in what we hunters call nature.
So, if you take issue with hunting, consider what you are doing with your life to help with the conservation of wildlife and redirect your concerns to the mass-produced meat you can find in any grocery store.
We are sharing the intimate details of our hunting, fishing, and foraging experiences with those of you that aren’t our family for two main reasons: One, to reach out to non-hunters to help them understand where we are really coming from and hopefully inspire them to get their own wild foods. And two, to help fellow outdoorspeople improve their skills by sharing knowledge and experiences with each other.
Anyway, on with the story.
Fortunately, it had just rolled a couple of times down the steep hill and was right there, just in a hard spot to see.
This is when I knew it was dead for sure. It wasn’t bedded down like it was sleeping. It was piled up against what appeared to be the only log that could have stopped it from tumbling the rest of the way down the steep hill.
When animals are badly/mortally wounded, you often see them try to get up but they can’t. As they are losing blood rapidly, they want to get up and walk away but it’s not physically possible, so they struggle and can fall, roll, or slide down a steep hill to their final resting place. It’s a very sad sight to see, but it’s part of it.
The shot I had made was nearly perfect. When I shot, it was quartered just slightly away from me, facing to the left. I wish the arrow had hit just a little bit more forward towards its front leg, but it worked.
This Roosevelet elk was big. She was slightly larger then the Rocky Mountain bull I had harvested a week earlier.
I looked up from the elk and I could see where my truck was parked wayyyyyyyyyyyyyy out in the distance.
This was when it REALLY sunk in. I had a lot of work to do. I had a 600 pound animal to process and carry out 7 miles and across a river by myself.
I got to work on the sunny slope and things went smoothly. I tied the elk off to a stump uphill to make sure it wouldn’t slide down the hill further as I worked. When I got halfway through, I learned that flipping an elk over alone is very tough. I am not super strong by any means, but it’s a task that I could see being very challenging or even impossible for some hunters, especially for someone older.
After a couple hours of skinning, cutting, and quartering the elk, I started shuttling quarters up to the road. Imagine hiking up a hill much steeper than a staircase with 100 pounds on your back, then add small sticks scattered about everywhere so that they are often a foot or two off of the ground and require stepping over. It was only a couple hundred yards, but it was extremely difficult and would have been downright dangerous without trekking poles.
After four trips up to the road, I decided to start by leapfrogging the elk, one half at a time, down the road as far as I could get it that afternoon. I have never attempted carrying half of an elk at a time, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It was doable on an open dirt road, but it was quite uncomfortable and it felt unhealthy for my hips.
When it was just about dark I had successfully shuttled the meat two miles closer to the truck. I found a tall tree with strong, open limbs and I got to work hanging three quarters of the elk.
At this point I was having a really tough time. It was dark, I was 5 miles from my truck without a tent or any sleeping gear at all, and I had just had a mountain lion encounter a week prior.
I’ve never really been afraid of the critters out in the woods, even when it’s been dark and I’ve been hunting alone. I still wasn’t terrified or anything like that, but it was enough of a worry that I wasn’t having fun any more. I also knew that I had a tremendous hike ahead of me with meat on my back and I still had to cross a river.
It definitely wasn’t fun anymore, and hunting should be fun. I have always told myself that. While I was out there that night, burning my hands with rope to try to hang the meat high enough in the tree, worrying about my long hike back to the truck, I realized that I need to readjust my thinking and my plans for future hunts. I need to hunt with a buddy or at least have one hunting close by, otherwise I won’t be hunting so far out by myself.
Anyway, to end a long story quickly- I was rescued. Headlights appeared and I got a free ride out in a truck, all the way down to the river where all I had to do was cross the river and climb a steep hill to the truck. I didn’t even have to hike in the next day for the meat because they took all of the that out for me too. I just gave them some gas money in exchange for what was the best gift I have ever been given in my life, period. Like I said before, this was private timber company land where the public can’t drive the roads – you have to walk in and walk out. I just got really, really lucky.