I’ve spent years imaging the moment I would knock an arrow, draw my bow, and settle my pin on the tan hair covering the vitals of a mature bull elk. I hoped and prayed for an opportunity over the past four seasons as I hunted diligently with my father and my husband. Each season my skills grew as I learned tough lessons about elk hunting in the backcountry. All the highs and lows I experienced over the years prepared me for what I would face during this hunt.
This year, my husband Grant, my brother Jake, and I began our journey into the Colorado wilderness on Sept. 22, 2019. While my dad couldn’t join us, due to an ACL injury, we drew on our memories and the vast knowledge of the area he passed down to us, which he acquired over 25 years of hunting here. It had been 12 years since I hunted this Wilderness Area with my dad, and an additional 6 since my older brother made the trip. Growing up, my dad took us elk hunting here for two weeks; it was like a rite of passage in our family. My husband Grant is also a very skilled elk hunter, so I knew I had the odds stacked in my favor.
We had planned and prepared all year tuning our bodies and our bows for this one week. Our anticipation for the adventure before us grew as we weaved our way up the winding dirt roads leading into the backcountry. The road came to an abrupt stop at the edge of a steep bank overlooking a beautiful creek bottom and endless miles of mountains, trickled with light green and gold patches of aspen trees. Here we stopped to pack up our horse, Joe. Then we spent the first afternoon hiking toward camp, which was a challenge in and of itself. We didn’t make it seven miles to timberline camp as we had planned, so we decided to set up a temporary camp for the night.
The following morning, we tore down the tent and loaded our packs in preparation for the next 3-mile leg of the hike to our timberline camp at 11,900 feet. This is when the trail turned steep. By mid-morning, we were relieved to break the crest of the mountain. Even though it had been 12 years, I recognized the place as if it were yesterday. The only difference was the harsh beetle kill that now covered the landscape. I was overwhelmed with memories and thought about how different my life had been the last time I took looked across that mountainside.
We quickly assembled our tent and aired up our sleeping pads. Jake took care of Joe as Grant and I organized our gear. We found water in the spring a couple hundred yards above camp. This was our only source of water, and we used a filter to make sure it was safe to drink. I got to work boiling water to prepare our freeze-dried meals for lunch and decided cooking isn’t so bad when this is all it entails.
After lunch, we ventured to a spot we call “The Pass.” Elk have traveled this high mountain trail for years, crossing the continental divide to our side of the mountain. When I was only 13 years old, I watched over my dad’s shoulder as he took an elk with his muzzleloader here. I have also heard numerous stories that originated at this special hunting spot. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much activity that evening besides the curious chipmunks and native birds, but the view was absolutely breathtaking. It seemed like we could see for 100 miles. I inhaled the fresh mountain air, thankful to be disconnected from technology and the daily stresses of life.
In the dead of night, we woke to a symphony of elk bugling and realized we were in the heart of the activity. Not 100 yards from camp, we heard multiple bulls bugling back and forth on either side of us. I noticed the temperature had dropped considerably as a chill ran down my spine. Curled up tightly in our sleeping bags, we whispered to each other with excitement as we discussed what adventures the next day might hold.