Editor's Note: This essay appears with permission from Extreme Elk Magazine in its entirety and as originally published in the Summer 2012 issue. To subscribe to Extreme Elk, click here.
As the headlights fade against the trees, the inky blackness of pre-dawn surrounds us. We casually finish listening to the song on the radio, but I can feel the apprehension of the coming morning. My hunting partner, Ryan, and I face a three hour uphill climb in the dark; some on trail but most of it off. The song ends and in silence we crack the cab doors and step into the darkness.
The air has a slight chill, a welcome relief from the heat we’ve experienced since opening day. It is mid-September and we’re hoping the approaching cold front will excite the bulls. Knowing an inversion is still in effect, I strip to my bottom layer anticipating warmer temperatures up-slope. Shouldering packs and adjusting our headlamps, we start up the indistinct trail.
Two hours later we leave the trail and thrash through blow down and head-high alder to a small stream. Unsure of where we’ll camp at the end of the day, we top-off our water supply from the small trickle in the rocks. We leave the creek bottom and the blow down and alder thicket while the mountainside steepens. Lodgepole stands give way to patches of subalpine fir and waist-high huckleberry brush. Slowly the eastern sky lightens.
We clamber into a massive boulder field that pitches sharply upwards; our last major obstacle to the ridge-line. Daylight arrives before we reach the top and we hurry upward. Cresting, we drop our packs and glass the small basin below and the ridges jutting up in toothy rows toward the far horizon. Listening for sounds of elk, we continue hiking, stopping often to glass the timber and brush-choked draws below.
We ease into a wet, timbered pocket while making a few seductive cow sounds, listening for a response. The area is devoid of any fresh sign and we decide to hike over the mountain and look into an untouched drainage to the North. At over four thousand feet above the trailhead, we drop our packs, dig into lunch, and stare into the fresh bowl below. A bull sounds off from his bed a thousand feet below. The wind gusts and swirls with fast approaching weather.
In minutes the rain drives us from the saddle. Seeking shelter, we drop onto the leeward slope, into the basin and closer to the bugling bull. We stay high and move away from his dark pocket of timber, not wanting him to catch an errant breeze wafting our scent. Finding a large spruce with low-hanging limbs, we shake out our bivy bags and crawl inside to wait out the unsettled afternoon.
At six o’clock, the wind is still erratic with no indication of settling for an evening hunt. We decide to move camp in order to keep our scent away from the elk below when, or if, the wind begins to pull down slope. With darkness looming, we throw our bags on the ground once again. A bugle drifts out of the timber somewhere in the distance. Another bull softly answers close by.
Dinner is spent slurping down freeze-dry in silence, listening, and wondering what tomorrow will bring. I can tell Ryan is anxious to get into some elk, and with bellies contently full, we chat about tomorrow’s strategy. Jokingly, I declare that we will simply call the big bull into 10 yards and slip an arrow into him just after first light. We both chuckle at my hopeful plan and begin arranging our bags amongst the humps of bear grass.
Awaking in the blackness of morning, I check the time and fire up the stove for morning java. The thermals haven’t changed all night and the breeze is still pushing up. The basin below is quiet as the sky lightens and shapes in the timber gain sharpness. Knowing elk are in the area, we quietly load up camp, ease downhill, and call a few times. A squirrel chatters in the distance but the elk remain silent.
A game trail leads us to an opening broken with small folds of exposed bedrock. We halt and bugle a few times, then listen intently for a response. As we deliberate our next move, a small rock clatters nearby. Then, dark brown elk legs materialize from the rocky fold in front of us. Partially hidden behind tree limbs, a medium-size five point bull is sauntering toward us. Freezing, I hiss at Ryan to quickly nock an arrow. The bull stops and stares directly at us. Standing in the open we know we’re busted. Unsure of what he sees, the bull whirls and disappears into the forest below.
Slightly dejected, we refocus and press forward on high alert. Minutes later a bugle rips out of the dark timber from the basin 300 yards below. Ryan and I silently slip our packs to the ground and pull our face masks down. With bow and decoy in hand, we head into the tangle of brush toward our quarry. A faint game trail leads us toward the vocal bull.
The trail widens and becomes more defined with hoof-churned black dirt. It leads us silently towards the steady bugles ahead. We carefully close the distance to less than seventy yards as the barn yard smell of elk drifts into our nostrils. Before splitting up, I clip the decoy to a bush and indicate to Ryan where I plan to set up. He moves to my right and slips forward to cover the downwind side of the setup. I quickly realize my shooting opportunities will be limited. The thick wall of brush between me and the bull will make shots very close.
After bending a few pieces of brush out of my primary shooting lane, I blow a soft mew and Ryan, 20 yards away, responds instantaneously with the same. The bull below us erupts with a deep-throated bellow. Directly below Ryan, cows start talking and another bull begins thrashing his antlers against an alpine fir, adding to the clamor. Several minutes of silence pass. Knowing we have the bull’s attention I fight the urge to call again. His silence indicates that he is listening for us. Soon he will begin searching.
A flash of antler through the dense foliage is the first movement I see. The musky scent of rutting bull saturates the air. Quickly, dark tines appear above the brush, rocking, moving toward my position. The bull emerges into the opening between us and I slowly draw my bow. With a purposeful stride he rapidly closes the distance to eleven yards. He hesitates momentarily to sniff the trail separating us. I pick a spot and seconds later my arrow disappears into his chest. He whirls and I watch the brush part as he plows recklessly back down the hill.
Immediately the brush springs back in place and all I can hear is my heart thumping in my ears. Seconds later, breaking limbs and a dull, hollow thud signal he is down. I give Ryan a thumbs-up and wave him over to my position. Looking a little confused, he asks if I got a shot. It turns out Ryan could not see the elk as it approached nor hear me shoot. We excitedly rehash the events, discuss shot placement, and decide to retrieve our packs before following the blood trail. Chattering the whole way, we return thirty minutes later.
The blood is plentiful and the trail short. We find him forty yards away, his sudden dash of flight unsuccessful. The terrain is gentle, allowing for effortless butchering, and the dry cold front minimizes the insects that had been abundant this season. With the quarters cooling in the chilly air, I reorganize my pack, stuffing a bag of meat into the assortment of camping gear. Ryan does the same.
Weaving our way upwards along old game trails, we reach the saddle that we were driven from the day before. Returning to the truck will be a simple back-track, except our return trip will be laden with heavier packs. Four hours, a boulder field, miles of blow down, and copious switchbacks later, the truck materializes as we round the last corner.
Returning home, I make a few phone calls and plan the next day of meat packing. My wife, Kris, and good friend, Ben, are both excited to help even though they both know what is in store. The plan is to meet at 8 a.m. with lunch, water, and backpacks.
The sky is dark and the air is chilly as we start hiking, yet everyone is stripped down to their base layer. Instead of retracing our steps from yesterday, we decide it would be best to approach the downed elk from another route. There is a lot of unknown ground between the truck and the meat cache. Elk trails weave back and forth as we climb upwards through the basin. Small springs trickle out of every fold of the lush green mountain side. There are freshly used wallows scattered along the few flat benches leading to the kill site. The small herd of elk has been using the area extensively in the past few sweltering weeks.
As we near the cached elk quarters, a small but very fresh grizzly track in the mud compels me to check my bear spray accessibility. News of a local bear mauling the day before has been a main topic of conversation throughout the hike. Everyone is a little jittery as we near the kill site. Uncertain if a bear is nearby, we make some added noise before approaching. The meat is undisturbed and cold to the touch. The chilly air temperature has everyone adding layers soon after dropping their backpacks.
With almost three hundred pounds of meat spit between us, we all struggle to our feet and retreat along the elk trails that weave throughout the basin. Our main path fades into thickets of brush and chest high blow down. We plow blindly through the dense undergrowth and stumble upon other trampled paths leading downward. Exhausted from fighting for traction and balance on the steep canyon slope, we stagger and collapse onto the hiking trail that leads back to the truck.
Everyone is spent, but we force ourselves back onto our feet after a needed break. The hike turns monotonous and minutes start to feel like hours. I start to notice the straps digging at my shoulders, the hotspots on my feet, and aching muscles. The rugged, off-trail hiking has beaten me up, but my mind had been distracted by unstable footing and route-finding in an endless sea of brush.
The truck comes into view and a sense of accomplishment overrides the physical fatigue. My wife and I drop our packs on the tailgate and watch my friends emerge from the forest behind us. The evening air is starting to chill once again. As bags of meat are piled in the truck bed, I reflect on the exhausting endeavor and why it is so satisfying. Months of preparation, the anxiousness of hunting vast, unbroken ground, miles of hiking physically unforgiving terrain, adrenaline spiked encounters with dark-antlered bulls mere feet away, the unfiltered pain and mental drudgery of meat hauling; these are all necessary components of the experience. They are needed in order for the hunt to feel real and rewarding. The undertaking is extensive but the satisfaction in the end overwhelms it all. Looking around our small group relaxing at the pickup, the shining smiles on our faces confirm it.
BIO: Josh Boyd grew up in the mountains of western Montana where he has been hunting elk for over 25 years. He successfully punched his first elk tag at the age of 13 and has been addicted ever since. Josh has numerous public-land archery bulls to his credit as well as P&Y qualifying antelope, black bears, mule deer, and whitetail deer. Josh lives in Northwest Montana where his career with the U.S. Forest Service specializes in hydrology and watershed restoration.