It all began innocently enough, with a boy in Southern Indiana watching Jeremiah Johnson on a cold winter’s day. However, twenty-three years later, attempting to make a Colorado mountain elk hunt a reality was getting more difficult by the day. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
I started from scratch. I didn’t start hunting until I was an adult and even then, it was Indiana and Kentucky white tail. I didn’t even own a rifle when I moved to Colorado last year. All I had was a desire to go hunt elk in the mountains and hours of time in the car spent listening to Randy Newberg’s podcasts.
Over the last year I collected all the gear I would need. I began scouting using OnX maps online and a paper topo map of the Game Management Unit I planned to hunt that I picked up at Bass Pro Shop. I thought, with a few suggestions from a new friend, that I had a pretty solid game plan. Between having a third rifle season bull tag and a fourth rifle season cow tag, I was planning on being successful in bringing home some meat. However, bringing meat home wasn’t going to be a requirement of having a great hunt. I was just happy I was going to be out there doing it after dreaming about it for all those years.
The first thing to go wrong was my friend telling me he was not going with me for third season. So, I was elk hunting for the first time on my own. At this point, I decided I would just go for half the season, see what I could get into or learn and hang on until he got up there for fourth season. Then, the night before I was to leave, he texted me new GPS coordinates and told me his buddies had just tagged out in this other location where there were a ton of elk and very few other hunters around. He asked me to go grab their campsite and hold it down for him. I reluctantly agreed.
It was a four-and-a-half-hour drive to northwest Colorado. I really enjoyed the drive through new country, listening to country music and a couple podcasts. It was without incident up until the last mile and a half where I got stuck in some nasty mud, on the side of a mountain. I had no cell service, but I had my Garmin InReach and I sent a text to my friend and my wife. I started up the mountain to hike the last mile and a half and try to reach the guys at camp, but I could not find them. I tried the truck again, but I just made it worse. So, I decided to hike back down the mountain towards one of the ranches I saw on the drive in.
After walking a couple miles, I came to the first ranch. I reluctantly climbed the fence and walked the half-mile driveway to the house. I yelled from the drive since I didn’t expect that they get too many drop-ins, but no one was home. I walked out and continued on. After a couple more miles, I came within sight of a house that had a truck in the drive and dogs running around outside. No sooner than I noticed this, a hunter in a side-by-side drove by and I filled him in on my predicament. His name was Dave and he drove me to the house, where he knew the owner, Jack, and Jack let me come inside to warm up and call AAA.
The man at AAA said he could get someone out to me. Jack had to go to work, so I thanked him, and Dave drove me the five miles back to my truck. Not long after, the two guys I was supposed to meet, Bercerra and Julio, came down to see what was going on. I was blocking the road, so they had an incentive to help me get unstuck. I used my Garmin to text with my wife and have her call AAA and check on the status. The guy who they were going to send to help me flat out refused to go, so Bercerra, Julio and I began trying to dig me out.
It took almost three hours to dig me out, put the snow chains on the rear tires and get started trying to get me out. Thanks to Bercerra guiding me, I was able to get away from the ledge and up against the mountain on the other side of the road where there was a nice rut. Bercerra guided me as I drove in reverse about a quarter mile down the mountain until I got to a spot where I could get turned around. From there, I followed the guys down the muddy two-track and texted my wife who told me that AAA had called Search and Rescue. I had her call them back to cancel, assuring them that I was okay, and I was going to town to get a shower to wash the mud off of me.
I tried to regroup that night and planned to head up to my Plan A spot the next morning. I had a warm dinner, got an okay night’s sleep and got up before dawn to head to the campground. When I got to the campground, I immediately slid off the road and had to have a couple of nearby hunters pull me out. I then found the first available campsite and began setting up. After a couple of hours, I was ready to hit the woods. However, as I was getting ready I had a chat with a hunter from Mississippi who had tagged out. He told me the elk were all heading down onto private land. I thanked him for the head’s up, but set out for the woods anyhow.
Six hours of walking around in six- to eight-inches of snow and I saw mule deer sign and small game sign, but I did not see one piece of elk sign. I gave up for the day and went back to my tent to read my Bible and try to regain my composure. After some soul searching and contemplation, I thought the right thing to do was to go home, regroup and then come back for fourth season where I could hook up with my friend, so that’s what I planned to do. The next morning when I tore down camp, the campground that was full the day before was almost empty. I thought for sure that was a sign I was doing the right thing.
Of all the mistakes and all the bad luck, that was my biggest mistake. I should have stayed there, at least a couple more days. I should have continued exploring the area, especially since I was going to have the area to myself. But if I’m being honest, after being stranded on the side of a mountain alone and not knowing how I was going to get down for the better part of the day, I think I was ready for the safety of having other people around.
During the three days I was home, I poured over OnX looking for places to go on public land at lower elevation where elk might be. I thought I had a spot found that had water, lower elevation and food, but I forgot to look for cover. The place I had picked, which I couldn’t really tell by the satellite view, was all sage brush. Ignorantly and excitedly, I packed up the truck again and headed up to northwest Colorado.
When I was driving into the BLM land, I knew I had screwed up. Mule deer were everywhere and I saw a lot of pronghorn, but it didn’t look good for elk. I drove from hilltop to hilltop, stopping, getting out and glassing everywhere I could. In that territory, an elk herd would be easy to see. There were none.
My friend, who all year I had thought I would be able to rely on, decided to go to the spot where I had gotten stuck and the road where he knew I had no interest in attempting again. So, I was on my own again. Perhaps the first mistake I’d made is assuming he would make the same decisions I would. He has meat in the freezer from last year and he shot a 6x6 bull during first rifle season. If the shoe was on the other foot, my priority would be to help the new hunter, not pursue a cow for myself when I have two elk in the freezer already. This is not to say he owes me anything, he does not; but I apparently did not make it clear to him that I needed his help. If I would have been more up front about expectations, he could have set me straight and I could have dealt with it beforehand, rather than on the fly.
Now I’ve spent the entire afternoon glassing this sagebrush area and there’s no elk to be found for miles. Once again, I feel defeated and demoralized. I feel like I can’t catch a break. I looked at OnX and couldn’t find any other place to go other than the places I’ve already been. In hindsight, I would go back to the campground that I had left a few days prior, but the non-stop bad luck and bonehead mistakes wore me down. I decided to make my way home again. Though the bad luck would continue as my truck was hit by a large mule deer on the way out and then I met one of Wyoming’s finest on I-80 just west of Laramie.
I learned a lot over that week. I learned that although solitude is important, it’s much better to suffer with a friend or family member. I learned to not let doubt influence my decision making too much, and to have confidence in the abilities I know I have already, such as orienteering. Most importantly, I’ve learned that I have even more to learn than I already knew I did.
Elk hunting is hard for anyone, let alone someone who has never done it before and is striking off on their own. In spite of everything, I’m more determined than ever to do it again next year but do it better. I knew I was going to learn a few lessons. I expected different lessons, but nonetheless, I gained a lot from the experience and I’m excited to start thinking about next year.