Different elk camps have different stories

Alan Charles
Friday, January 11, 2019
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Photo by Alan Charles
Swans in the moonlight, shown above, were one memory bagged on a recent elk hunt.

We left camp at first light, and started climbing straight up the steep mountain through a series of snowcovered rock slides. My brother, Stephan, and I were hunting elk and big buck mule deer. We’d set up our wall tent above Elk Creek on the Rocky Mountain Front west of Augusta.  It was cold that morning, well below freezing, and gale force winds peppered our faces with snow pellets that stung like buckshot.

On the way up, we watched a bobcat hunting squirrels on a narrow, timbered bench. By noon, we had reached the base of the big rimrock cliffs where small grassy meadows provided feed for deer, elk and bighorn sheep.  We built a little fire to boil water, and I was just handing Stephan a cup of cider when we saw a group of deer coming down an avalanche chute above us maybe 150 yards away.

Doe, doe, fawn, another doe, and then, suddenly, there he was, a big mature mule deer buck, one of those old ones that spend their summers deep in the Scapegoat Wilderness. His antlers were heavy, wide, and dark, but dang it, he’d seen us or gotten our scent, because he was already bounding back up the steep slope. One last glimpse, and he was gone.  

We hunted the rest of the afternoon, finding a little pocket meadow speckled with elk tracks where we waited until dark, but no elk appeared. By then, the sky had cleared, and a huge full moon climbed out of the flatland prairies to the east. As we eased down off the mountain, we kept hearing a noise in the billowing wind gusts that we could not identify, sort of a wail or moan, not a wolf or coyote, maybe trees rubbing against each other, we just couldn’t tell.

Then I saw them in the moonlight, big white tundra swans, passing below us out onto the prairies toward Freezeout Lake.  It was absolutely an amazing sight, flight after flight of them, ghostlike shadows in the night, their calls fluting faintly back to us on the wind. So we got no elk or deer that day, but bagged quite a set of memorable moments.

At another elk camp, this time with my brother, David, and his 14-year-old daughter, Rachael, we hunted a ranch east of White Sulphur Springs. We made a long stalk in the morning, trying to get close to a herd of about 30 elk, and as we hiked through the high sage and scattered timber, we kept crossing the big, fresh tracks of a large mountain lion.  

By the time we got there, the elk had moved into thick timber and the wind was wrong for us to follow.  So we backed off and went back later in the afternoon. Shortly after we got into position, my brother made a good shot on a big cow elk.  While David and Rachael got the elk ready for retrieval, I hiked a mile back to get the truck and try to bring it closer.

I was able to drive within a half mile of the downed elk, and hiked back in with the sled to find David and his daughter dragging the whole elk down the mountainside. “OK, Rachael, I’ll spell you now,” I told her, and the young lady responded, “No, thanks, Uncle Alan, I’m going all the way.” Which she did, helping drag that elk the whole way to the truck.

So there you have it. Two elk hunts that some might say were unsuccessful, at least in terms of me getting a shot or filling a tag. But you and I know different, don’t we? Unsuccessful? I’ll probably never again get to look down at big tundra swans migrating like moon shadows below me.  And I’ll certainly never again get to watch my brother and his young daughter drag their first elk taken together down a mountainside.

Those are the kind of moments and memories that can make hunting a most rewarding experience, far beyond just a harvested animal, wall full of antlers, and freezer full of meat.