A Day to Remember
There’s always something special about your first time. A first kiss, first car, and first house are all deeply imprinted in our memories. Try as we might, we can never recreate the anticipation, wonder, and emotions that only come when experiencing something for the first time. Hunting the West has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember.
As a lifelong resident of the east coast, the lure of the West aroused my longing for adventure and wild places. When I received an invite from my friend Elijah, a Utah transplant, to join him and two fellow Floridians on a DIY bow hunt for elk last fall, I jumped at the chance (after clearing it with my wife, of course).
I’m far from the first person to be drawn west. Having spent my entire life hunting woodlots parceled like a checkerboard, girdled with “No Trespassing” signs, the chance to feed my wanderlust in a seemingly borderless land was more than I could resist. For Mike, Jeff, and I, this would be our first time hunting the mountain time zone. Planning for a hunt of this magnitude was exciting.
We devoured every podcast and YouTube video about elk and backcountry hunting we could find (shout out to Hunting Editor Remi Warren). More than once, after reviewing our checking account, my wife questioned if the trip was here yet. As the summer waned towards September, our anticipation reached a fever pitch. It was clear that this trip was going to be a “first” that would leave an indelible mark in our lives.
Taking It All In
When the day we had all been waiting for finally arrived, also my birthday, three expectant hunters converged in the early morning hours at the Orlando International Airport from different corners of the state to embark on an adventure we had only dreamt about. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my 39th year of life.
Landing midday in Salt Lake City, we were met at the airport by Elijah. After brief stops to grab lunch and load our gear into a small U-Haul trailer, we started the trek into the mountains. As we drove past wind turbines, antelope, and open landscapes, the panorama through the windows of the four-wheel-drive Tacoma was more than my eye’s narrow lenses could take in all at once. Three hours later, we pulled into a trailhead I’d only viewed through a computer screen during e-scouting sessions.
Daybreak came both quickly and not quickly enough for our weary, yet eager group of hunters. We planned to hunt our way up a small, timbered, flat-bottomed drainage while calling and looking for fresh sign. Excitement came quickly with two encounters with spike bulls before lunch. After gaining 1,300 feet of elevation, our legs and lungs let us know that it was time to break for lunch. Refreshed by our brief respite, we spent the afternoon hunting above 10,000 feet, finding only dry scat and year-old rubs. It was clear that the fresh sign was down lower, so after waiting out a brief storm that rolled through, we pointed our direction back down the grade.
Bugles And Drums
While descending the high alpine timber, through intermittent rain showers, we entered a secluded bowl where one of our location bugles was finally answered by our target quarry, several hundred yards east. It’s amazing how a hunt can go from doldrums to frenzy in an instant. Within seconds, three eager hunters were staged, bow-in-hand, straining our senses in the direction of the foreign noise ahead while Elijah, the most experienced caller of our troupe, dropped back to continue the vocal ruse.
Just after we set up, the big bull was directly in front of Mike at the center of our skirmish line, ripping a bugle and raking a tree. In even less time than it took for him to cut the distance, the bull’s nostrils filled with our repugnant odor. He about-faced while Mike temporarily earned the nickname “Travis Barker” for the abuse he inflicted while drumming an innocent pine in the frenzy as the mature 5x5 ran away.
Our first close encounter with a rocky mountain bull elk left us shaken and exhilarated. We sat down for a short break to allow our heart rates to drop back into the green zone and think out our next steps. While recouping, a plan was put in place to hunt towards a north-facing slope a mile and half from camp for the balance of daylight. On our way there, we scrambled over two rocky spines, anxiously waited for looming thunder to pass, and learned firsthand what it means to be cliffed-out.
Shortly after cresting onto the target slope, we were met by a pungent odor I can best describe as akin to a wet barn animal. It didn’t take long for us to learn the source of this strong odor. A curious 3x3 bull trotted in from behind us to 30 yards, then quickly turned heel before any of us were able to get a bow drawn. Our second close encounter ended even faster than the first, leaving us looking dumbfounded, thinking “What just happened?!”
With an hour and a half of daylight remaining, we resumed our descent, only to be interrupted again 15 minutes later by another bugle 150 yards to our left. Another scramble found myself and Mike facing the presumed direction of the bull while Elijah and Jeff hung back to attempt to draw the bull in. During the wait, the wind briefly picked up, blowing over a dead pine tree that was close enough for me to momentarily question my sanity.
Before I was able to conclude that thought, the bull appeared below me on a path that would intersect within bow range. Scanning the hillside in front of him, I spotted a window through the pines directly below me that presented my only shot opportunity. As the bull approached, I drew back, and as he filled the opening, I split the difference between my 30 and 40-yard pins and released.
The only indication that the arrow found its mark was a momentary flinch before the bull continued his purposed march out of my sight and into Mike’s, who I could see to my left. I quietly cheered as I watched Mike draw his bow and loose an arrow, followed by the all too familiar “crack!” of a projectile hitting a tree. The sound spooked the bull back past me and out of sight. Still in the “zone” I get into when my entire focus is on a singular task, I nocked a second arrow and slipped in the direction my shot had flown seconds before. When I cleared the small opening, I found the bull was facing away at 40 yards with the look of a mortally wounded animal unsure of what was ailing it. Drawing back again, I whispered to the bull, “Just give me something.” As if hearing my plea, he turned back to look, providing the quartering away shot I needed to penetrate a second arrow.
With the bull out of sight again, I looked down to find the first arrow at my feet with the red tint I was praying for, confirming the arrow had found its mark. Returning the arrow to its quiver, the dam holding back my emotions began to breach. At that point, Mike walked up, and we excitedly recounted our versions of what just transpired which were repeated when Elijah and Jeff joined us. Cautiously excited, our foursome fanned out to begin tracking.
Recipe For A “First”
A mere 50 yards down the trail, we spotted the tawny hide of the elk laying on the mountain floor. After the bull was confirmed dead, we threw our caution to the wind and embraced the excitement as a band of brothers who had achieved something none of us were certain would actually happen.
In reflection, many ingredients made the trip and that day one that we’ll never forget: the generosity of a friend sharing the culmination of his four years of learning he had invested; the rugged terrain sculpted at the dawn of time with the wild creatures that call it home; the camaraderie and unselfishness of four kindred spirits experiencing life together; listening to the primal bugles of rutting elk while gazing at satellites arcing across the starry night sky; the satisfying feeling of exhaustion after packing out the spoils of a successful hunt; and much more that will live on in our memories.I only need to gaze at the mount of the beast on my wall that drew us to this incredible place for the memories to come flooding back. We were fellow sojourners in a raw and beautiful land whose paths briefly crossed on one memorable day. While the elk’s journey has come to an end, ours continues with a memory of an unforgettable first that will be carried and retold until ours reaches the same inevitable conclusion.