When It’s In Your Blood: A solo elk trip in rough country proves to be the ultimate test
Jeff Bruce, Idaho, 2015
I should have known that on a year when I’d just taken a new job with part of the busy season landing in September, I would draw an archery elk tag. That’s just the way things go, and it created a problem - little time for preparation and planning. Instead, it was somewhat of a “grab this, borrow that, slap things together and go” hunt. I knew it would be a challenging hunt and that I’d really have to put in some overtime to make this thing happen.
Of course, true passions never die. Priorities would shift into hunting mode and work would be left entirely out of my mind. I crave that wild feeling, being deep in the mountains and having it all to myself, watching elk that haven’t been pressured. The wilderness just sets you free.
I had an idea where I wanted to go just by looking at maps. There was this inaccessible timber pocket that looked very good. It had just enough dark timber, with obvious feeding areas close by, surrounded by extremely steep, impassable terrain. The question was whether or not I could get there. Could I find a camping spot close by and actually pack an elk through the massive amount of blowdowns that seemed to guard this hidden elk sanctuary? Lastly, could I do it alone?
Horses Lost and Found
I started with two horses and three mules on a pack trip with just feed to get supplies in place. The plan was to assess the main trail, find a campsite close to my honey hole, get in, drop the goods, and get out.
It didn’t start as flawlessly as I had hoped. One horse was injured prior to getting started and had to be left at the closest town with a friend. It slowed the day’s adventure a bit, but we quickly got back on track.
I took two friends on this feed run to enjoy the high country, and as we stopped for a lunch break, we noticed a random horse with only a halter walking down the trail. I knew someone somewhere probably wasn’t too happy about that. I took the horse and tied him on my back mule, just in case we encountered the owner.
A few more miles passed and we started to crawl out of a large basin. Out of nowhere, I heard an odd-sounding howl. It spooked me a little, but upon gathering my senses, I realized it was the owner of the horse hollering after spotting his mount at the back of our string. There were two men tracking that horse down and they let us know how grateful they were for bringing him back.
We retreated to their camp for a visit and were told the trail was blown shut from their camp on out, but we might make it to a close mountain lake. We went for it and reached the lake just in time to set up a temporary camp. We landed a nice rainbow to complement dinner.
With feed in place, we returned to civilization the next morning. The excitement was starting to sink in as the hunting gear was packed up at home. I couldn’t keep my mind off of the task ahead. I knew the blown-in section of trail would have to be opened up to really get into some great bulls. I purchased a new sharp saddle saw and ax to help prepare for the battle of driving deeper into the wilderness.
Finally, it was time for the ten-day solo mission, with a goal of taking a big bull elk in some very remote country. Mules were loaded and miles of trail were burned.
Upon reaching the camp with the wayward horse, I caught up with my new friends. They said they spent some time opening the trail to try to get farther in themselves, but had little luck hunting the area because of weather. We said our goodbyes and they wished me luck. I made it to camp with plenty of daylight, enabling me to relax and daydream about the next day’s hunt.
I spent most of the next day exploring the blown-in trail, looking for routes and appreciating the work that the men had done. It was still going to be far from easy, especially with a pack string.
I hiked for four miles through blow down before I could finally get a glimpse of the area I thought would be so good. The timbered basin was still a ways off in the distance. I’d have to move camp closer to access it.
I descended into bugle range and heard several bulls answer. I knew they’d be there.
A Better Place
The next day, I pulled camp and relocated four miles deeper on a very large lake surrounded by massive peaks. I knew I was very alone at this point. No one would figure out the trail I weaved to get here. I almost felt half crazy for what I was trying to accomplish.
The evening was spent stretching out cramping muscles and hooking into one of the largest rainbows I’ve tangled with. Unfortunately, it eventually broke the line.
I sat by the waters of the lake as the sun set and felt the true excitement of the scene unfolding around me. The fading sun set the peaks aglow in a multitude of warm colors. The feeling was indescribable; one of peace that comes from pure solitude. It was proof that elk wasn’t the only reason I was here.
I spent the next morning locating a dandy bull. He worked his cows out in the open on a big grassy face looming out of the timber. His rack lit up in the early morning sunlight and I felt an instant smile on my face as that image burned itself into my mind, never to be forgotten.
Below the herd, the canyon fell away quickly and it was just a matter of time before the elk headed that direction to bed in deep timber. I moved into action, dropping into the trees and seeking out their beds.
I waited until sticks were popping, letting me know the herd was close, and then I let out a bugle. The bull was right there and on top of me in minutes. He came to 20 yards and stopped behind a bush. I was at full draw, calm and ready to kill. I could see his rack, with long curled points rubbed white at the tips.
I needed one more step, and he started to take it, but he hit my wind. Just like that, he was gone. That wind hadn’t been there all morning! I was devastated, but knew unfortunate luck is part of the game. That was one lucky elk, too!
I dropped elevation and came to a sharp ridge. As I crossed over, I stumbled upon two more bulls bugling at each other. I descended on them, but decided to just listen and not disturb their assault upon one another. The bugles went back and forth, echoing off the canyon walls.
I was enjoying the moment and stretching out my tired legs once again when I realized one bugle was getting closer. This elk was on my same trail! Moments later, he came into view and I couldn’t believe what was taking place. He fed, bugled at the other bull, and just slowly came into range, with no idea I was there.
At 30 yards, I sized him up and drew, but he didn’t stop until 15. He caught my silhouette and stared, but the arrow was on its way and right on mark. The bull jumped, unaware of his misfortune, and crumpled moments later.
The pack out was “eventful” to say the least and involved a mule breaking loose from a tied position, a dropped elk rack, and desperation for water that had me drinking from a questionable source. Luckily, all’s well that ends well.
I thoroughly enjoyed the sight of that elk rack glowing by the campfire during that final night. The solitude was savored and the satisfaction went deep, but I knew sleep would come very fast and my celebratory whisky sips would be few.
What I’ve noticed with years of elk hunting memories is that you always forget the struggle, the pain in the legs, the burn in your chest, the lack of sleep, the mule’s explosion into a wreck, or the anxiety of a long pack after nightfall. The extreme difficulty just drifts from memory, leaving behind only what made the trip an unforgettable, life-fulfilling experience.
After a few weeks, it’s all you can do to keep yourself from trying to run back into the woods to do it all over again. When it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood.