Elk have always been there for me. They took part in my first bowkill. They sang to me on my honeymoon. Elk taught me the sorrow of losing an animal. They got me through a midlife crisis and helped me fight my way back from cancer. Several milestones in my life have been defined by encounters with elk. The first one took place more than twenty years ago in the mountains above Los Alamos, New Mexico on my first big hunting adventure away from home. The most recent one took place just a couple years ago while filming for SHE’s Beyond the Lodge on Outdoor Channel.
MILESTONE ONE – First BowkillMy cousin called in a huge five-by-five to less than ten yards. I reacted with precision, drawing my bow and releasing the arrow in one fluid motion. Okay, that is not actually what happened. I stood there, frozen, staring at the bull as he came closer. My cousin was crouched on the ground before me trying to become invisible. I stood there, unable to move, unable to lift my bow, unable to think. I stood there as the bull came to within ten yards, got a whiff of us and whirled, quickly disappearing over the top of the mountain. My cousin threatened to take my bow away from me. Not much can fully prepare a young Midwestern whitetail hunter for that first up-close encounter with elk in the wild.
When the next opportunity to draw my bow finally came, I reacted differently. Instead of freezing, I sort of went nuts.
It was a foggy morning when we encountered the elk herd. A member of our hunting party shot a cow. His arrow passed completely through the elk and she only ran about 150 yards. The elk crashed down the side of the mountain, coming to rest upside down at the base of a tree. Unfortunately because of the fog he had not noticed the yearling. The arrow had passed through the adult elk and hit the yearling in the hip. It disappeared into the fog. We decided to take care of the cow and then launch a full out search for the yearling.
While the guys went to take care of field dressing and quartering the cow elk, I made my way back to the truck. It was my intention to gather drinks, cameras and snacks and head back to help. The fog was still thick enough that I missed the truck, circling well below it before I realized my mistake and finally found it. After depositing my bow in the back, I grabbed cameras, water and for some reason, stuffed my pockets full of vanilla wafers. It must have been our only food.
I was careful to follow a straight line back to where they guys were working on the elk. The fog was still thick with visibility to about 30 or 40 yards. About half way there I noticed movement. As I closed the distance I realized the moving blob was that yearling elk. It was not mortally wounded, but had separated from the herd. Panic gripped me. I decided to try to shoot the elk but my bow was back at the truck. I raced back to the truck, threw the cameras into the back and jerked all the vanilla wafers out of my pockets. I have no idea why. It looked like a vanilla wafer box had exploded, spewing little round cookies all over the bed of the truck. I grabbed my bow and went into stealth mode.
That yearling probably weighed two hundred pounds. It was as big as the bucks back home. As I closed the distance I realized I was about to get my first bow shot at a big game animal. We had no range finders in those days. It was foggy. My heart was out of control and so was my shooting.
I had four arrows in my quiver. The first arrow flew a foot over the elk. The second arrow nicked its ear. After getting my composure I took the third shot. The now seriously wounded elk slowly started to walk down the mountain, away from my hunting party and into the thickening fog. I followed, keeping the elk in sight as it continued down the mountain. Just as I was about to get really stressed out over how far away this elk was taking me, it finally laid down. I sat, watching and waiting, not sure what to do. Finally I heard my uncle’s voice in the distance calling my name. They were looking for me. I snuck away from the elk and in the direction of their voices. When we reunited they were surprised at my reason for straying into the fog. The story ends well, with my first bowkill and my first elk milestone.
MILESTONE TWO – Lost ElkMilestone number two taught me a sad lesson. Stan and I were elk hunting on private property near Chama, New Mexico. We had only been married a few weeks so this was sort of a honeymoon. One morning high on the mountain the bulls were especially vocal. We set up to intercept one bull as he made his way toward a bedding area. The bull worked his way in my direction, coming to the cow calls being made by our guide.
When the bull got to within twenty yards I shot. The angle of the shot was steep with the bull well below me. He was so close all my pins were in the kill zone as he turned broadside. The arrow passed through the elk. He ran about forty yards and stopped, hanging his head as blood streamed from his nose. The guide decided we should give the bull some time so we slipped out of there. Later I found out he thought it best that I not hear the bull die! I guess he thought he was practicing some form of chivalry. It is nice to be treated like a lady, but let’s just say that what I have to say about his reason for leaving that bull isn’t very ladylike.
We returned to the bull’s location an hour later only to find him standing. He started walking at a fairly fast pace down the mountain. All I can figure is the shot was a little too high and only caught the top of one lung. They say a bull can live with a hit like that. We never did find the elk. For a month I jumped every time the phone rang, hoping they were calling to tell me they had found the elk or seen him alive. That fall I sat in my tree stand with a heavy heart. It was the first animal I had ever lost. Deer would walk by within range and I didn’t even raise my bow. It took quite awhile to regain my confidence.
MILESTONE THREE – On Our OwnMilestone number three came about as a result of a midlife crisis. Well, it really wasn’t a crisis, maybe just a reckoning. After several years of elk hunting I began to wonder if I could do it myself. After all those times following a guide or someone else around the mountains, I wondered if I could do it on my own. My good friend and fellow outdoor writer, Lisa Price was just crazy enough to go with me on this adventure and we soon named the excursion “The Thelma and Louise Elk Bowhunt.” Could we get ourselves into the mountains, get on elk and not drive off a cliff?For months prior to the hunt I studied maps, planned our hunt and practiced navigating familiar terrain with my new GPS unit. We headed to Platoro, Colorado with high hopes. We checked into our cabin at 10,000 feet and got our gear sorted out. I showed Lisa a pinch point at the back of a meadow on the topo map that I thought might be a good place to start.
On our first venture we followed a gravel road to a high plateau, parked the rental vehicle and bailed off into the mountain. We walked along the edge of the meadow, working our way deeper into the mountain. After about a mile we found the pinch point I had marked on the map. The place just felt like elk. Rubbed pine trees hinted at bulls that had been there before us. The altitude meter read 11,000 feet.
I offered up my best elk bugling rendition and waited. Much to our surprise a cow elk burst out of the timber about a hundred yards away and came straight at us. Behind her was a legal bull with four points on one side. Lisa quickly got ready and I tried to convince the bull to leave his cow and come to me. My cow calls had him thinking, but he wasn’t going to leave a sure thing. She kept him out of bow range and then finally took him away from us.
Lisa and I were so excited. We had done it. We had found our way into the mountain and had a close encounter with a bull all on our own. No guides, just us. It was pretty cool. A freak early season storm dumped eight inches of snow on our area overnight. Hunting came to a halt for a couple days. No one in the other cabins made it out to hunt either. When the snow stopped we went to another location further down the mountain that was only about 9,000 feet. I marked the truck on the GPS and we headed in, following a hiking trail. Before long we cut across an elk track in the snow and decided to follow it. The elk took us higher and higher. We found a beaver pond nestled below a cliff where a herd of elk were bedded. We could see a big bull and a couple satellite bulls among a big herd of cows.
There was no way to get above the bull or approach down wind. We would have to wait him out. We spent the afternoon watching the herd and making plans to intercept them as they came to the beaver pond before dark. Unfortunately right at prime time a couple of hikers ruined our plans and busted the herd. So much for hunting public ground near hiking trails. We never got an elk on that trip. But neither did most of the hunters in the other cabins. In fact, with the exception of one guy, Lisa and I were the only ones to get on bulls, and we did it all by ourselves. We had stepped outside our comfort zone. And we did confront and conquer the uncertainty that comes with facing the unknown. Another milestone.
MILESTONE FOUR – Another Reason To FightThe most recent elk milestone helped me fight through the toughest battle of my life. In the fall of 2007 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had to cancel my elk hunt. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation took their toll. There were a few times when I wondered if I would elk hunt again. Most of the time I was determined to elk hunt again.
Two years later I still hadn’t quite recovered fully from the treatments. Every blood test showed I was still anemic. The side effects of some of the medication I was taking made me light headed with bouts of weakness. None of these problems helped with my pre hunt conditioning. I had two elk hunts planned for filming for SHE’s Beyond the Lodge on Outdoor Channel. Would I make it?
As my much anticipated elk hunts drew near I ignored the problems and focused on returning to the mountains. The first elk hunt was at Three Forks Ranch in Colorado. Fortunately the altitude was not bad and the guide was able to take us part of the way into the higher places using ATVs. Kandi Kisky and I both got elk with our TC rifles.
The next hunt in west central New Mexico with Trophy Ridge Outfitters was the one I worried about most. It was in unfamiliar territory and I wasn’t sure how much hiking would be needed to get to within muzzleloader range.
My guide Audrey McQueen, nine-time national elk calling champion and fellow SHE Team member had several options for us to try. On the first hunt we hiked quite a bit, enough that I began to doubt my ability. Audrey switched tactics and set up to hunt from a ground blind near a water hole. It really lifted my spirits because we came close to tagging a monster bull. As the hunt progressed I quickly started regaining strength. Each hike got easier and my confidence returned. On the last day Audrey spotted a bull, a really big bull. He didn’t get that big by being stupid. The bull was bedded near the top of a mountain and we were at the bottom of it.
I made up my mind right then and there that I would get to the top of that mountain. It took us over an hour. Everybody helped carry my gear. Audrey pulled me up some of the steeper parts. It was painstakingly slow progress, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I focused on one step at a time and on not quitting.
We got to within one hundred yards of the bull. He was magnificent. A huge monster bull, estimated to score over 350. I was going to have to shoot across a steep canyon. We set up, got ready and felt the wind swirl and hit our back. Busted! The bull bolted over the top of the mountain and disappeared.
Everyone was so disappointed. We had worked so hard for over an hour to get within range and in a split second it was over. We sat on top of the mountain dejected. Part of me was sad over not getting the bull, but most of me was elated over having climbed to the top of a mountain. I was chasing elk again, challenging my limits, facing uncertainty, stepping outside my comfort zone and regaining confidence. I had battled back from cancer and climbed back into the mountains. It was yet another milestone in my life defined by encounters with elk.