Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Erik's First Elk Hunting Adventure in the Zirkel Wilderness

Fresh rub on tree from rutting bull elk, seen on the last day of the hunt
This and other photos by Ben Pena

I returned from my first elk hunt a week ago, in the Frank Zirkel Wilderness in Colorado.

There was a last minute change of plans, as my normal hunting partner in these types of adventures, Rita Juran, was unable to go on the hunt. She was able to recruit another one of her fellow Minneapolis firefighters, Ben Pena, to go on the hunt. It worked out very well as Ben is a very experienced hunter and many grades above yours truly when it comes to navigation/orienteering in the Rockies. It was his first elk hunt, but he has spent lots of time in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming hunting mule deer, as well as helping a hunting buddy scout for elk there. His skills with USGS maps, GPS, and compass, and using these tools to match to physical features in sight of you was a huge help to hunting. Ben also had a constant awareness of how differing directions of slopes have a huge effect on weather and amount of sunlight and thereby the vegetation, as well the usual direction of storms and wind hitting mountain sides, which greatly affects the amount of deadfall. Mentally adjusting to the terrain as a midwestern deer hunter used to being in what is generally flat terrain with dense woods and some open fields was a huge challenge.

We started by hiking in on the Swamp Park Trail, to the South Fork Mad creek canyon, where we camped. It was over three hours, and a good section of it rugged uphill hiking. For the next day and a half, we hunted the woods and meadows near there, as well as climbing up a steep canyon open hillside to glass down into the canyon. We saw elk sign, including where bulls had rubbed trees, but they appeared to be a couple weeks old. While camped there and hunting we saw mule deer, blue grouse, and black bears. One night returning from hunting, we walked right up on a large boar, who took off quickly. Normally we saw the bears climbing up and down a steep open ridge presumably heading and returning from feasting on the numerous berries and other vegetation close to the creek. Seeing the bears was great for me, because I had never seen them out hunting, even though they are numerous in Minnesota. That open section of canyon hillside allowed for easy observation of their comings and goings.

This open ridge allowed for frequent bear sightings at distances of 800-900 yards

We quickly concluded that the elk had to be higher up, as the weather was warm and the sign was old, and we had heard no bugling of bulls or mewing of cows. We later talked to a party that years before had killed a good bull in those very meadows at the same time of the season, but they weren't there this year.

We relocated to a spot nearly a thousand feet higher, so we were at 8,700 feet instead of 7,800. On the way we met a group of hunters from Kansas who had a large camp and horses. They said they had seen some elk and but that the elk were not bugling as much they normally were at this time of year. We heard this from another party later in the hunt a well. While none of us are trained elk biologists, the most common belief was that there is massive amounts of green grass around this year due to the snowy winter and wet summer, combined with the relatively warm weather we were experiencing, made the elk less active. Elk have thick skin and seek cool places, and eat green grass. In the normally dry climate of the Rockies this forces elk to seek small pockets of moist areas in late summer and early fall. This year, green grass is abundant.

Ben dissented slightly, he thought the elk were more cautious due to the hunting pressure, which was significant for elk, even though from the point of view of whitetail deer hunting, hunters were few. Even though we were in a wilderness area inaccessible to motorized transportation, the area was used by elk hunters and some others. Mostly people were traveling on horseback.

After relocating, we did see more elk sign on a steep hill covered by dark, thick timber that plateaued to a meadow and pond at the top. We found an elk skeleton and skin, evidence of a kill by a bowhunter early in the season. We also finally heard an elk bugling after dark, an encouraging sign. The next morning we intended to hunt the same pond, but navigating through the thick timber and deadfalls in the moonlight and minimal use of headlamps, we ended up a couple hundred yards to the left on a steep hillside of pines, aspens, and green grass. We missed our spot but were also in good elk habitat, but saw nor heard elk that morning on that hill and some ridges further away. We spotted another elk camp with horses, who we talked to later in the trip, a group of hunters from Iowa.

Even though we hadn't seen any elk yet, we decided our camp was in a good spot and that afternoon and evening, Ben, using his great endurance and navigational skills, and went on a "re-supply" mission. He walked all the way to our previous camp where we had hung some dried food, and then to the truck. He returned after dark, at 11 pm, after about 7 hours of walking. Other than an encounter with a bear that quickly took off running, no mishaps.

In the next morning's moonlight, during one of the many moments we took to stop and listen and look at openings in the dense woods, we experienced one of the bigger thrills of the trip. Above us, we saw an animal that was as big as a deer and a similar color, but running lower to the ground, with the soft pitter-patter of paws skipping across the boulders for maybe five seconds...a cougar.

Later that morning, we finally encountered an elk. We were working a ridge line slowly and quietly, and heard a bugle of a bull in front of us, but we weren't sure of the distance. Ben thought a half a mile, I thought a third of a mile, but it turned out to be much closer. We approached as quietly as we could, making a few cow calls. We walked slowly, taking each step with great care, but our caution was not enough. Suddenly, there was the motion of a large animal running away from us, snapping large branches and twigs, brief glimpses of antlers, and the brief view of a hind quarter disappearing over a high point...we had spooked the bull. My heart pounded and I shook with nervousness and excitement, but he was gone.

During a later more reasoned moment, we concluded the swirling winds of the ridgeline had brought our scent to the elk, which sends them packing a long distance.

We were hopeful we would start seeing more elk, and that night we planned and prepared for going much deeper into the backcountry to some distant meadows with our entire camp on our backs. We could hunt and then set up camp wherever we ended up, hopefully near an elk kill. Then we could travel back or start packing out a kill the following day and start heading for home.

It began to rain that night at dinner, but it was what my daughters refer to as "pitter-patter rain", and it was raining when we woke up at 3 am. We concluded it would soon pass, but we were wrong. At 5 am, we were ready to take our tent down after packing all the rest of our gear and eating our standard breakfast of coffee, muesli, powdered milk, and a couple slices of pre-cooked bacon. The rain had now increased in intensity, and we decided to head for our tent and re-sort our gear in the packs so that what needed to stay dry would be packed separately from what could get wet. From that point on, we were stuck in the tent for a full twelve hours, just keeping our essentials dry. I watched the clouds thicken and the rain intensify, at several points visibility went down to a mere two or three hundred yards. You could not see across the canyon and the entire sky and surroundings were gray. I wrote several times in my journal about the rain, more than once about the rain appearing to finally break, but then showers would re-develop over the mountains to the north. However, finally the showers with each wave were less intense and there were very brief glimpses of sunshine. At 5:30 that afternoon, when the sky was finally breaking, we went out to hunt nearby. During the hunt we endured a last shower, but as sunset approached the sky was finally blue. We saw no elk but hoped the next day would bring an increase in elk activity as the temps had cooled.

In the pre-dawn, we packed up our tent and food and began the day's hunt. We found a good area not far from an area where we had hunted before, with a grassy meadow below a steep aspen ridge, and heard a bugle in the direction we were travelling, some distance off. Then we heard the boom of a muzzleloader not that far away. Shortly after we met the hunters from Iowa, who told us that shot had been just emptying a gun, but one of them had shot at a cow an hour earlier, but missed. They had experienced less elk activity than in years past, and had killed nothing this year, which was uncommon. They were packing up and leaving that day but gave us a few points of where to go. We headed in the direction of where they suggested and found a remote meadow and low-lying wet areas surrounding it. There we saw excellent sign of the bull, including the tree the rutting bull had stripped of bark with its antlers (above), very fresh tracks, and scat. We called, but to no avail.

After finishing working that area, we walked up high, hoping to use the higher ridges to cross about a mile and a half of ground and reach a trail that would take us back, while doing some hunting on the way. As it turned out, it was a much tougher route than anticipated, and involved climbing up several hundred feet in elevation, then walking down and up a steep canyon with tons of deadfall, thereafter another steep ascent and descent. We were getting concerned about reaching the trail before dark, but suddenly, there it was. At this point we had walked twelve hours with short breaks for rest and snacks, carrying about fifty pounds on our backs as well as carrying our bows in our hands. After the demoralizing feeling I'd had just minutes earlier, when I'd given up on hunting, now all of a sudden, on the trail, I would be willing to shoot an elk again. It would involve many hours of work to bone and pack out. In the back of my mind, I thought, there'd be delicious fresh meat, we'd make a fire, and camp out near the boned-out meat and pack it out in the morning.

Trudging through steep dark timber...

Joy at reaching the Luna lake trail !

As we walked the trail with a spring in our step relieved that we wouldn't be stuck outside at night not sure where we were, Ben, a few steps ahead of me, suddenly saw elk about a hundred yards in front of us. We quickened our pace and started cow calling, hoping to draw them to us and cover our approach. One cow went in a different direction than the others, and looped around behind us, into a draw that we had just walked through. Ben saw her and advised me to get ready to shoot as she walked into the opening. My "training" as a hunter kicked in, I knocked an arrow, and as she walked broadside into the clearing, she stopped and I aimed and released the arrow.

It was a clean miss, (or "non-hit" as the positive psychology people want you to say) hitting a downed tree in front of her. She heard the noise of the arrow, and quickly trotted off. I had made a common mistake that hunters make in terrain like that where you at one moment are in thick, gnarly timber, where small openings create the effect of over-estimating distance. Conversely, once you come upon an open draw, and look at a large animal, you underestimate distance. We hadn't had time to get out our rangefinders, it had happened so fast. I thought the cow was 40 yards away, at the limit of my range, but it measured 60 yards away when measured on the rangefinder. Ben was impressed with the fact that I didn't skip a beat and drew and released an arrow with fifty pounds of gear on my back after walking a grueling 12 hours. Had I been less tired, or more experienced at elk hunting, I would have walked closer to the draw to cut the distance while she approached, or let her pass and stalked. My movements would have been hidden by the small aspens and pines at the edge of the draw.

The first arrow released on a cow elk fell short

The hunt was a "non-sucess" in terms of putting meat on the table, but was a great adventure and huge learning experience and deepened my commitment to both elk hunting and protecting backcountry. Being in wilderness is not only a challenge, it is a relief. A relief from noise, a relief from the pressures of everyday life, a relief from cell phones, a relief from the omnipresent media. Wilderness hunting teaches you don't need that much sometimes, simple meals will do, along with a dry place in the tent to sleep.


  1. Thanks for sharing the tale, Erik. I especially love the cougar encounter!

  2. Sounds like a good trip. Great read.

  3. Thanks Aaron. Tovar, on the cougar sighting, the downdraft from higher elevations that happens after the sun goes behind the canyon wall until an hour or two after the sun rises was really working for us, as the cougar was above us and couldn't pick up our scent.

  4. As an outdoorsman I found this very entertaining, especially the part about the cougar! Check me out next time you're shopping for mens outdoor apparel as I make custom outdoor clothes perfect for exploring canyons like that.