Last Saturday I shot and killed, and then — with the help of my hunting partner, Noel — field dressed and packed out a cow elk from Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. It was my first-ever successful hunt, and the emotional and physical effort was about as significant as I expected.
Next week I will share a lesson-filled “notes for next time” post like I have done here and here. But first I want to capture the story. Like my Run Rabbit Run 100 race report, I won’t apologize for writing a long post about a big experience.
Warning: This post contains two graphic images.
After two unsuccessful First Season Rifle hunts in the Gore Range (report from 2014), Noel and I changed our strategy this year. We chose GMU 29, which encompasses the Indian Peaks Wilderness and the foothills west of Boulder, so that pre-season scouting would be more convenient. And we chose Second Season Rifle, for which both elk and deer tags are available, so that we would have more options and better odds.
On our scouting trips — which probably should have been longer and more frequent — we found areas with extensive sign (e.g. high-use game trails, raked saplings, fresh droppings) and we identified various ways to the hunt the unit depending on the conditions and time of day (e.g. timing of the first winter storm, dawn versus mid-day). Noel spooked a bull elk in thick timber and I heard bugling from a few camps, but only our trail camera — installed by Noel at a 10,400-foot pond — positively confirmed where they had been. We last checked the camera on Thursday; it had not captured any action in two weeks.
We theorized that the game were still high in their summer ranges. The weather would not have pushed them down yet: so far this year, October has been a continuation of September — it has been abnormally warm and dry, and the high country is still snow-free. Moreover, hunting pressure during earlier seasons would have encouraged them to remain in these less accessible regions. A first-hand account from Gear Junkie’s Sean McCoy of his First Season experience in GMU 371 — the topography of which is similar to our GMU 29 — confirmed our suspicions.
But without concrete proof of their recent whereabouts, our most promising plan for opening day was to get high and scan with our binoculars. After all, you can’t shoot one until you find one, and searching for them in thick timber is generally unproductive.
Noel suggested that we start at unnamed 12,000-foot peak above the Fourth of July Campground that was surrounded by alpine and sub-alpine terrain. It was not all visible from a single vantage point, but we could split up and scan the areas below from various lookouts.
Rather than camp nearby on Friday night, we stayed on the Front Range and got a very early start instead. Noel picked me up at 3 AM; we left the trailhead by headlamp at 4:30 AM; and by daybreak we were in position.
I was not terribly confident in our plan, even though it was our best one. In past hunts, elk have proven elusive, and we had only one piece of definitive information about their whereabouts: they were not hanging out near our trail camera. Plus, it was opening day, and I wasn’t feeling that lucky.
Noel and I agreed to split up and to check in at 8 AM on our two-way radios. I parked myself southeast of the summit at 11,600 feet, overlooking a shallow alpine draw sandwiched by two gentle ridgelines. I took a few photos, put on my Sierra Designs Elite DriDown Parka, loaded three rounds into my magazine, grabbed a turkey sandwich from my food bag, and started glassing.
Within a few minutes, a bull elk appeared on the skyline of the left ridge, nearly 800 yards away, grazing peacefully in the morning sun and calm air. Another bull became visible, too. This was exciting, but it did not help me: my hunting license was for a cow only, and I feared that I was simply looking at a “bachelor party” of sub-trophy bulls, with no nearby herd of cows.
But then I saw a cow elk emerge from the krumholtz spruce, and soon another three of four just behind her. The hunt was on.
I grabbed my rifle, binoculars, Primos Hoochie Mama Cow Call, and radio. Everything else I left at my lookout — the risk of a long return trip seemed outweighed by the benefits of being light and mobile. Already my heart was racing as I jogged down into the draw so that I could get out of view and into the krumholtz. I noticed that the herd was moving away from me, too, though I wasn’t sure if they had seen me or if they were naturally moving that way.
I reached the ridge, descended slightly to the other side, and hugged a line of krumholtz as I moved towards where I had last seen the herd. As I worked my way slowly and quietly around a crest knob, the herd came into view again, maybe 50 yards away. They were all grazing, and clearly not aware of me or on alert. Clusters of krumholtz to my left and right afforded me coverage, but it also gave me a narrow alley of visibility.
To minimize the risk of being seen or heard, I dropped to my belly and removed my hat, binoculars, and cow call. Then I crawled closer for a clear shot. The easiest target was a bull, and I actually had to wait for him to move out of the way to reveal the cows.
A more veteran hunter may have patiently scanned the entire herd before picking their animal. Instead, I took aim at the healthiest cow I could see that was also favorably positioned, something between a full broadside and quarter-away. I was thankful that I had a short shot and that I was in the prone position, since my crosshairs were much jumpier than they are at the shooting range.
Before pulling the trigger, I had the same feeling I get before, say, skiing over the lip of a really steep slope. It’s not a decision I could take back — I would be fully committed.
The cow jumped and ran right, out of view. The whole herd went in the same direction, before trotting back to their original places — I don’t think they knew what was going on, or where the shot had come from. If I had a second tag, or if Noel had been with me, it would have been another easy opportunity.
Before the herd trotted off the ridge into the krumholtz, a few elk looked back to where they had initially run. I understood why when I rounded the corner and saw a downed cow, about 20 yards from where I had shot her. Within 60 seconds there was no movement.
It seemed unlikely that the cow would get back up even if I approached her, but I didn’t want to chance it. Conveniently, I had to retrieve my backpack anyway.
On the hike over, I tried calling Noel on the radio. Surely he would have heard the shot and would be trying to contact me, too. But I couldn’t reach him: either he was not on the radio, or my low-quality units were being overwhelmed by calls from Front Range sources. I regret not having invested in a better radio like the Motorola Talkabout MS350R.
Then I recalled having heard a shot just before mine. I thought it was further down valley, but perhaps it was Noel’s, and the blast had carried oddly through the mountains. If he was preoccupied by his own kill, he would not be trying to reach me.
Noel and I still had not connected by the time I returned to the cow. And I was increasingly convinced that he had shot an elk, too, which meant that I was on my own. F—, it was going to be a long day. I sent a custom message, “Brown is down,” with my SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger. (Read my long-term review of the Gen3.) I also turned on my cell phone, which had service; I called Noel and my wife Amanda, but didn’t reach either.
There was no sense in waiting. The temperature was climbing and the sun was strong on this south-facing slope. I had already stripped down to my Ibex Hooded Indie and Sierra Designs Silicone Trail Pants, which is remarkable for 11,000 feet in October.
The cow laid on her left side, with her right side up. There was some blood on her coat, but no obvious puncture. I should have looked harder, but I didn’t have the mental faculty to recall that the entry wound would be on her right side. She was definitely dead, so I was a bit freaked by the gurgling of blood in her lungs.
Prior to this elk, the extent of my butchering experience was whole chickens from the grocery store, which, mind you, are already defeathered and gutted. I was about to discover if watching online videos of the “gutless method” like this one, this one, and this one had adequately prepared me to butcher a 500-lb animal.
Since I’m known to be squeamish around blood and to pass out easily, I was especially concerned about this aspect of the hunting experience. But as I made my first cut from the rear quarter knee joint, along the belly, and down to the front shoulder knee joint, I recalled what my friend Jeremy Humphrey had told me: that butchering an animal seems to channel the inner caveman, making it feel much more natural than you would ever think. I was oddly comfortable with it all.
I had caped the cow’s right side and removed both right quarters when Noel finally arrived. He had heard my shot but did not associate it with me, and he couldn’t get through on the radio either. I was delighted to see him: not only did I now have help with the monstrous effort of field dressing and packing out the meat, but it meant that we didn’t have two downed elk.
As our game bags filled with quarters, backstraps, tenderloins, the brisket, and rib and neck meat, we dropped them in the shade of a nearby krumholtz stand. We flipped her over and repeated the process. We found the mushroomed bullet on the outside of her chest cavity, thankfully just short of the left quarter — we had already lost some of the right front quarter and right rib meat due to being bloodshot.
We chose to debone the quarters. It adds time to the field dressing, but it reduces the pack-out effort. It may ultimately save time, too, if reduces the number of round-trips.
The field dressing took about 3 hours. Obviously, we’re not going to post a how-to video anytime soon.
Before we started making big trips back to the car, we wanted to better shade the meat. So we made three 15-minute carries to the north side of the ridge and cached everything in another krumholtz cluster. Even though we were at 11,000 feet, the task was relatively easy: from the carcass, it was just a 300-yard walk through tundra to an established trail. Based on these shorter trips, we determined that we could make the full pack-out in just two round-trips.
A cow elk will yield about 150 pounds of meat, trimmed and deboned. Noel and I also had about 35 pounds of gear and food each, including our rifles. The math doesn’t lie, but it seemed abstract until I shouldered the first load.
My pack weighed 69 pounds for the first carry: 59 pounds of meat and 10 pounds of gear. Noel’s weighed 67: 45 pounds of meat and 22 pounds of gear. These are exact, not exaggerated, weights: I had a hanging scale in the car.
It took us 2 hours and 15 minutes to descend 3.5 miles and 1,200 vertical feet to the trailhead. We took a half-hour break and hiked back up, reaching our cache by headlamp at 7 PM. We had been awake for 17 hours straight and moving for almost 15. We were both worked, but reinvigorated by having just one trip to go — and by a 100-mg dose of caffeine each.
Our loads on the second trip were less back-breaking: I had 60 pounds with 35 pounds of meat and 25 pounds of gear; Noel had 52 pounds, with 32 pounds of meat and 20 pounds of gear. Just before 10 PM we reached the car.
Our total meat yield was 171 pounds. There is no better meat: it’s organic, grass-fed, free-range, and humanely treated. It will feed my family — and some lucky friends — for the next year.
Noel carried it down with a Kifaru Bikini Frame + Highcamp 7000 bag, while I was testing a prototype backpack that I’ve been developing with Sierra Designs. It is fully featured, weighs just 2.5 pounds, and carried the first 70-pound load well enough that I stuck with it for the second trip, even though I had another Bikini + Highcamp pack in the car. A limited release of this pack is planned for Spring 2016.
For a few hours on Sunday morning, Noel and I trimmed off excess fat and cleaned the meat of any dirt and hair. We set aside the tenderloins and backstraps, which are the prime steaks, and a football-sized roast from the rear quarters, and prepared everything else to be dropped off on Monday morning at Arapahoe Meats.
Hopefully, Noel and I need to make another drop-off soon — he still has an unfilled elk tag.