This is the story of my Rocky Mountain Elk hunt in the White River National Forest of Colorado. I’ll remember this trip forever, not just because it was with my Dad, but because of the way I felt when all was said and done.
By Eric Dinger
It was a normal June day at the office when I received a call from my friend, Josh Dahlke, the man behind the Scoutlook app, and host of the internet show The Hunger. Josh had booked a Colorado elk hunt and two of his four guys had backed out. He asked if I’d like to come along and bring a friend.
I don’t have a long bucket list, since I pretty much want to go everywhere and do everything, but hunting elk with my Dad had long been the one thing I could name. I’d always claimed I wanted to do so with my bow, but I was happy the opportunity had finally come. Given the hunt was to be largely a public land endeavor and the price to stay in the small private cabin adjoining the White River National Forest near Buford, Colorado was really palatable, I jumped at the chance. Getting my Dad to come along wasn’t hard, though he would have to leave for a week in the middle of harvest. For an ag man, that’s certainly not ideal timing. A bucket goes dry if the man carrying it waits for that mythical time.
For months I trained for what I expected to be a rigorous hunt. Hundreds of times, I carried my kids up and down the stairs in my house on the pack frame my friend Kevin loaned me. “ELK BODAY!” they’d cheer, precariously strapped to my thinning body. That’s boday, not body, and this boday had more than a couple pounds it could stand to lose. A few times we even alarmed a few locals as the two little people and I trekked up and down the hills at a park near our home.
Pulling a trailer fit to move most of our house, Dad swung down to Nebraska from Minnesota and picked me up for the drive 12 hours west to Buford, Colorado.
Arriving in camp brought the usual awe a flatlander feels when he finds himself among real hills. The mountains soared in the distance and the cool, thin air robbed us of our breathe as we unloaded what seemed like most of our worldly belongings into a tiny primitive cabin. We got in just enough scouting on Friday to be sure we had no idea what we’d gotten ourselves into. Josh, his friend Pete, and their cameraman, FaFa, arrived late that afternoon after a tough day of travel and our camp was set. Anxious, we tried to sleep a few hours.
The first morning of the hunt Dad and I headed up the tallest mountain in sight in hopes of getting the lay of the land and possibly spotting an elk. Dad had a knee replacement a few years back, but he’d trained too, and together we huffed and puffed our way through the dark mountain air. Like so many people told me, you’re just never ready for that first march through thin air. Arriving at the top we were struck by the vastness of the land from which we were hoping to cull an elk. It was equal parts intimidating and exhilarating.
Born and bred bird hunters, neither of us sit still all that well.
Within a few hours of sunrise, I felt I’d glassed every inch of visible terrain and took off to check-out the other side of the mountain. Later in the hunt Josh would perfectly summarize this curiosity by saying, “I just want to know what’s over the next hill.”
There it was in the distance, a mule deer. Or was it a small elk? My heart kicked to overdrive and my hands shook with adrenaline as I nervously glassed the horizon, laying eyes on a small cow elk cresting a hill some 350 yards across a ravine. Then came another, and another, and another as five cows crested the same hill and crossed from private land I couldn’t hunt, to public land in which I could. My bull tag burned as I yearned for what I hoped was pushing them. And there he was. As I brought the first bull I’d ever had into my scope my heart felt like it would explode. I wonder now if he could hear my short breath and pounding heart as he hung up on the private side of the fence, a cool 325 yards from where I stood. Resting my gun on a fence post I counted his antlers. 5 on each side. Antlers that seemed to soar into the horizon. He studied me, and I imagine came to the conclusion that no one shaking that bad could be a threat.
Finally, after what felt like a staring contest I just couldn’t let myself lose, the bull crossed the fence. I clicked my safety off, steadied my aim for what couldn’t have been more than two seconds as he turned broadside, and… off he ran, bounding into the public land vastness after his cows, my unsteady crosshairs trying to find their way to a place in front of him. He didn’t stop, and I couldn’t get on him, so I didn’t shoot. Shaking and sickened, I called down to Dad and told him I was going to cut behind them, try and get north of them so I could get the whipping south wind right and hopefully get a chance to see them again.
It was then I learned that trying to outpace a moving elk in the mountains is a considerably different endeavor than trying outfox a running South Dakota pheasant. I did what I said I was going to do, walking 400 yards to their east and a nearly a mile north of where I saw them. My lungs made me feel like a truck trying to go 80 on flat tires. After a couple hours of wishful walking, stalking, glassing, shaking, huffing, puffing, and praying, I returned to camp sure I’d blown the only chance I might get all week. I was encouraged that I’d seen elk, and discouraged that I may never see them again. But, I hadn’t blown them out with foolhardy crack shot, and I didn’t think I’d scared them off too bad.
Three more times I’d climb that same mountain over the next few days, each time hoping the same elk would travel the same path. And, each time other public land hunters had moved 100 yards closer to the spot I’d claimed for myself. It’s interesting how we convince ourselves the public land we’re hunting is somehow ours because we’re there, as if the other guys aren’t equal owners in the same parcel. As the week bore on and the miles piled up, my body and spirit weakened with the vision of the bull in my scope and thought he may never cross those hairs again.
The last day of the hunt, I set out to elk hunt bird hunter style. No one was seeing elk, but we knew they were there. Warm weather, high winds, and a bright, beautiful full moon made finding them during the day a near crapshoot. Couple the whims of the earth with the pressure from other earthlings, and the hope in camp was running thin. We were so outmatched, the question “where you going to hunt tomorrow” became one we all dreaded answering. “They’re in the aspens,” Josh and I agreed. So, I got the wind right and took off on what turned out to be a 4 mile hike through White River National Forest.
A few hours later, Dad picked me up on a road deep in the forest with some news that made my stomach sick. He’d been sitting about a half-mile south on the private land that surrounded our cabin. “The guys in your spot shot 4 or 5 times. I don’t know if they hit the bull or not, but I think I know where he went. They trespassed on the private ground off east and then left.” I don’t get mad very easily, but this was the kind of news I just wasn’t ready for.
Dad and I returned to where he’d been sitting and began to glass the area on the adjacent private land where he thought he’d seen the elk bed down. Just as we found him, the ranchers on the neighboring property rolled up in a side-by-side wondering if we were the people who had shot. “No,” said Dad, “some guys up top shot a few times and I think we can see the bull they shot at from here.” The ranchers wondered if he was wounded, though no one knew for sure. Certain now we knew where the bull was bedded, the group spent a few minutes debating whether or not an elk that could see us would stay put if it weren’t injured.
“You wanna try and see,” asked Rowdy, the talkative rancher. After spending 4 straight days chasing these mythical public land animals, Dad and I were sure he’d been hit. But, he looked to be healthy and hiding. Dad had seen him move from hiding spot to hiding spot, and no one knew for sure. So, I tenuously said, “I’ll go,” not knowing whether this was the kind of thing a rancher gets paid for, if they were truly curious, or if they were angels sent from the east to give this ragged hunter a last-ditch chance to put a stalk on a bull.
The wind was out of the north. The elk was north of where we stood. So, I rode about a half-mile to the east on the ranchers’ side-by-side. Together we began the hike up the east side of the mountain.
My thoughts swirled like the wind. I hoped he wasn’t injured. I wanted so badly to believe that other hunters wouldn’t just leave an injured elk. I wondered why they’d shot if they weren’t sure. I reminded myself time and again I didn’t know their situation. But, why would he just sit there? Why did they trespass? Were they headed out of the forest to try and get the rancher’s permission? What if the elk was injured and they showed up after I’ve put him out of his misery? I tried to remind myself how many times I’d seen whitetails do the same thing when they were surrounded.
It takes us Nebraskans a while to climb mountains, and my normally still mind used that time to create an emotional chaos. In the brief time I’d shared with these animals, in this place, I’d developed a deep respect for their dignity, their strength, and their undefeated ability to outwit me and all the experienced hunters in our camp. I was finally getting a real chance, and yet I felt a frustrated confusion of emotions.
The time had come. I knew I was getting close, yet strangely there was no shaking, no adrenaline. As I crested the mountain in just the right spot, with just the right wind, I came upon the bull at 9 yards. In a blink, I shot him in the neck, as he hurriedly wheeled to look at me. The exact bull I’d seen the first day of the hunt now lay peacefully, a mortal wound in his neck and a second wound near the bottom of his belly.
In my 36 years, I’ve learned expectations and reality are seldom in line. Preparing for this hunt I envisioned the work, I envisioned the mountains, and I envisioned smaller versions of the elk I’d seen on the training videos and TV shows I’d watched. This trip was about time with my Dad. It was about the two of us checking one off our bucket list. It was about being away. I tried to train my mind not to expect to shoot an elk, though the optimism would never fully bay. And when I did let myself go there, I expected to feel like I did when I shot a deer, shaking with the feeling of a fair hunt ending successfully.
Seeing the elk was wounded sent my mind in all directions. Knowing then it was the same elk I’d seen earlier in the week made me feel disappointed, mad, nervous, responsible, and countless other emotions as the seconds passed. The ranchers who had now joined me atop the mountain joyfully pointed out the unique brow tine on his left side, and looked at me quizzically as I sat down a few feet above where he lay. Arriving in Colorado, I wanted to kill my first elk and I wanted to do it right, of my own accord. As the week wore on I graduated to wanting kill this specific elk, the animal that had become the symbol of the reverence I’d gained. In that moment, doing so in that way, felt shallow.
As I sat above the massive animal, looking at the gut wound, I knew I had done the right thing. I wasn’t at all disappointed to put my tag on him. I just wanted better for him. Admittedly, that’s a complicated thing to comprehend, since I wanted to kill him. But, I’d gone toe-to-toe with him, and he almost surely would have won, but for the fact he was hurt. I know it’s strange, but even as I write I feel deeply sad for him.
Looking back I have two additional feelings.
I feel happy for several reasons. My kids spent many hours helping me train, and it has been rewarding to see them connect with the concept of meeting a goal. I feel happy because I got to spend the weekend preparing meat for the freezer – meat my family and friends will get to enjoy. I feel happy because I got what I came for in time with my Dad, in being away, in a sense of adventure. I’m happy I got an elk.
Reverence is the word to best describe the other feeling I have today. Hunting has always been a part of who I am, but elk hunting is a different experience than any I’ve had to date. The Rocky Mountain Elk, living wild on the public land you and I own, can provide a person all the mental and physical challenge they’re willing to accept. In getting beat I grew a meaningful connection to this animal, and his home range. In unraveling the story of this whole experience, I believe I grew a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a hunter.