I returned to Boulder on Sunday evening, a mere 48 hours after leaving for my long-awaited and much talked about Colorado elk hunt, and still with 3 days left to go in the season.
I’m fine, just emotionally deflated. More on that later. Here, I’ll just recap the events.
On Friday evening Noel and I hiked in 5 miles from Buffalo Peak Trailhead on snow-free trails and camped at 11,000 feet in a cozy spruce grove atop an ancient terminal moraine in Meadow Creek. It snowed an inch overnight, which is ideal: not enough to inhibit our movement, but enough to find and follow fresh tracks. This would be our most reliable tactic for finding elk, since using calls would have limited effect with the fall rut already past.
From inside my Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid, I barely noticed the weather outside. For less than a pound, no other shelter design is as storm-worthy as a mid tarp. Noel’s A-frame did not withstand as well the heavy snow, and he was forced to re-pitch it in the middle of the night.
At first light on Saturday morning, we were glassing a secluded valley with such well worn elk trails that they are visible in satellite imagery. While climbing by headlamp from our camp to our lookout spot, we crossed fresh tracks from one elk that must have moved through within a few hours of us. But we saw nothing in this valley by 9 AM, so we jumped a 12,000-foot pass into the larger South Willow Creek drainage.
The middle of the day is generally not fruitful, as the elk are bedded down after gorging themselves all night, but rather than waste the time we contoured the valley’s sub-alpine forests, looking for fresh tracks in the new snow and glassing each spruce patch before moving to the next. Nothing. When we reached the opposite side, we dropped halfway down the valley and contoured back. Same results, nothing.
I had been optimistic about South Willow Creek, where there is excellent habitat and where I had seen elk last year, including two dead ones taken by another party. While I could not say with complete certainty that there were no elk in the valley this year, it felt empty: we saw old droppings, old tracks in mud and old snow, and old tree raking, but no fresh sign. Elk move — seasonally, weekly, and daily — and it felt like they had moved out.
For an evening play, we considered setting up at the fringe of a sub-alpine meadow, but decided instead to exit South Willow Creek entirely and put ourselves in better position for tomorrow. Based on the lack of recent sign during our thorough scout of the valley, we put the meadow’s odds at very slim to none.
A storm system arrived from the north overnight, ushered in by gusty winds that made us thankful we hadn’t camped amongst beetle-kill pines. The snow arrived as we were having breakfast and coffee above a marshy creek, our morning play. Our patience with the lack of activity eventually ran out, and we began meandering through the woods hoping to intersect fresh tracks before the elk bedded down for the day and the new snowfall covered their tracks.
As the snow piled up and wind howled, we almost laughed at our odds: no elk would be out in this weather. Instead, by now they would be nestled up in thick timber and would emerge again only only after the storm blew through tonight. During a multi-day storm, they would have to feed during it, but this one would be short enough to wait out.
Around this time I received word that a simmering issue back home needed to be addressed. I knew it wasn’t resolved when I left on Friday, but I was hoping it wouldn’t disrupt the hunt. Faced with this, and with the impending departure of Noel, who had to return to work on Monday morning, I decided to call it quits, too. We intersected a half-dozen mule deer while hiking back to our cars, but saw no signs of elk.
At least so far, I’m struggling to move beyond this failure and disappointment. There are a few other seasons left still; hopefully one becomes an option.