Elk of the Animas

You go in by train, and start walking. Mostly up.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I met Rambo where you'd expect to meet him: at 11,000 feet on a 45-degree pitch in America's toughest elk country -- the toughest elk country serviced by train, that is. Actually, I met two Rambos, Leland and Nathan -- father and son. They came to our elk call with stony, tight-lipped faces. We were on their turf, and when you cross onto Rambo turf, you risk a steep price.

But I am ahead of myself. This bizarre story of Rambos and railroads began on an elk hunt the previous fall, on an outcropping of rock at 12,000 feet from which we could look down a vertical half mile to a swift-flowing river, while a bull serenaded us with hormonal wails.

Shy of a parachute, we couldn't reach the elk. We listened to his screams and watched the flicker of rapids below. Then we heard a whistle reverberate off the mountains and marveled as a coal-fired locomotive, belching smoke and pulling a line of cars, chugged up the canyon. My partner and I looked at each other, possessed by the same thought: Next year we would attack this raw country from the train and hunt that bull from the bottom up.

The country is Colorado's San Juan Mountains; the river is the Animas; the train is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge; and my partner was Wayne Carlton, the man who, 19 years ago, conceived of calling elk with a turkey diaphragm.

The railroad was key; the railroad would be our pack-train. Inaugurated in July of 1882 as a link between the mining town of Silverton and the railhead of Durango, the narrow-gauge now carries only tourists, 200,000 each year. The train makes two scheduled flag stops on its route along the Animas, at Elk Park and Needleton, and would make an unscheduled stop, we learned, with the conductor's blessing.

So we picked an appropriate campsite from a map and signed up at the gym, for no matter where we camped, we would face horrific climbs each day. Early in September the next year, we heaved our gear into the boxcar at Silverton. There is an adage that says sportsmen will fill with gear the space allotted to them. We came close. Chairs, tables, a wall tent, cookstove, heat stove, showers -- our theory was that if we could use it, we would take it. I bought a ticket and boarded. Wayne; our friend Ben Freeman, a mule trainer from Arizona who had volunteered to be our cook and wrangler; and six mules headed south toward the trailhead of Molas Creek, which would take them down to the Animas canyon.

Up, Always Up
Trains run on schedules. Mules don't. I arrived first, the train crew helped me unload, and soon I stood alone on the tracks, next to a heap of duffel. Twenty minutes later the crew trotted down the line, eyes wide and ears perked. We moved the dunnage to camp, pitched the tents, corralled the stock, filtered water, fired the stove, poured a dram of comfort, and pondered the land around us, all of which went up.

Mountain hunting doctrine is predicated on air movement. When temperatures fall or remain stable -- in the evening, during the night, and early in the morning -- cold air, which is heavier than warm air, settles in valleys. Consequently, air currents are downslope. As temperatures rise with the sun, however, current direction shifts. Cold air is warmed and rises, and drafts are upslope. Air, therefore, determines the direction in which you should hunt: uphill early in the morning and downhill through the day. We had no choice. Everything was uphill. We needed to gain as much altitude as possible before the currents changed, so we were up at 4 a.m. and climbing by 5. And still climbing at 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. The higher we got, the elkier it looked. We hit a fresh wallow, found beds and droppings, and occasionally smelled the dirty-sock scent of elk. But no one was talking. When we hit rimrock, we turned south, paralleling the river 2,000 feet below us.

Unless you have humped that extreme country, you cannot apprecia the ordeal of traveling through it. At 10,000 feet the air contains 65 percent of the oxygen at sea level, which is like breathing with one finger up your nose. There are crotch-grabbing blowdowns to hurdle in the timber and ankle-breaking scree to negotiate in chutes and slides. When you get through that, you inevitably come to rimrock, which forces you to retrace your route and climb some more before you can go down. It beats you up worse than a journeyman pug in a bar brawl.

By midafternoon we were pretty beat up. We had eaten our sandwiches and guzzled our water. We were ready to go home, when a bull responded to Wayne's call.

His was a controlled, tentative bugle, like a singer warming up. Because we could coax from him only that one scream, we crept forward and spotted, in an opening dotted with brush and trees, a spruce waving in the still air. Hidden by the underbrush, the bull beat up on the tree. Between us lay 500 yards of open ground.

We crawled to an outcropping of rock and set up. "If he comes," said Wayne, lifting a cow call to his mouth, "he'll walk around that rock in front of you. Get ready." I was ready, but the bull didn't play the game. He abandoned his tree and came toward us, but instead of skirting the rock, he cut downhill, then contoured north. We moved toward him, cow-called, bugled, broke limbs, did all those seductive elk-things, but the bull was mute. Frustrated and exhausted, we climbed up the ridge on the edge of the drainage to the south and bugled.

A bugle came back, followed by the sound of breaking branches and stomping feet. Unfortunately, the sound was behind us. We spun to see the indifferent bull of moments ago now bearing down in a rage. As I tried to nock an arrow, he cut upslope and the draft told him who we were. Eyes wide, he bolted. We were sucked dry, yet still faced an agonizing two-hour scramble down the flank of the mountain, then 3 miles back to camp via the tracks. We arrived irritated and despondent.

And that was only the first day.

More Misery
The second day, we retraced the first half of our route but saw nothing, at least not on our side. During a sandwich break, Wayne spotted on the opposite slope of the Animas a bull and several cows. We fixed their position on the map and punched the coordinates into our GPS.

We went after those elk on day three, climbing a stiff 1,200 feet. We found the bull downslope of where we had spotted him, but he was as recalcitrant as his neighbor across the tracks. We circled his position and in the process discovered at 10,500 feet a bog of several acres. This was a municipal pool of elk wallows. We watched it for an hour, then set out -- up again -- for the location we had punched into our GPS. Maybe the bull would return there to feed. Playing the updraft, we worked well above the location. And there they were, at least one of them -- a cow, placidly grazing.

But we couldn't move. A 70-foot drop stifled our approach. We turned our gaze again to the other side of the river, a mile and a half away, the side we had walked for two days. And north of where we had hunted we spotted a bull and two cows, grazing on grass that was -- yes! -- greener on the other side. Talk of elk tactics often centers on the trappings of the hunt, the ephemera: cow calls versus bugles, the efficacy of scents, tree stand placed over wallows versus a careful stalk. Real elk hunters know, however, that on rugged public land the tactical adversary is the country. It wears on you until the act of hunting becomes a triumph of will. Perhaps that is as it should be. Killing an elk should not turn on scent in a bottle. Killing an elk should be reverential, and reverence demands some suffering.

A Run-in With Rambo
We were suffering, enough so that the next day we decided to take the mules. They needed to earn their keep. We left camp in the dirty gray light of dawn. As we passed through a stand of quakies, Wayne saw movement in a park high above us. We pulled up, tied the mules, and took out binoculars. A small herd of elk grazed in grass 1,000 feet over our heads.

For two hours we climbed. When we reached the park, the elk had moved, but we could feel and smell their presence. We slowly contoured the slope, calling every few hundred yards. And in a shadowy stand of spruce, littered with tracks and the still-warm droppings of elk, redolent with their musky scent, we called in the Rambos.

Neither looked like their cinematic namesake -- Leland, the father, was tall and rail-thin. Nathan, the son, was 15 and wore a cheery expression only a teenager can muster after such a climb. The elk, they said, had passed. The bull was a small one, and we were all of a mind to pass on small bulls in such tough country. Conversation lulled, then Leland said, "I've never suckered in on a caller before. You're good."

Wayne gave them a demonstration, then handed Nathan a couple of his calls. That won them over. Leland grinned and admitted he was not pleased to see us. "Never run into hunters up here. Hunted here for five years, and never met anyone high like this. You boys did some climbing."

"So did you," we answered. We shook hands, and the Rambos told us their tale, a story of perseverance and of a heartwarming family bond.

Every weekend of the bow season, the Rambos descend Molas trail on Friday afternoon -- on mountain bikes. They pedal down the tracks -- light camping gear and bows strapped behind them -- pitch their camp, eat a spartan meal, and sleep. They are up long before first light, spend an exhausting day in the mountains, and return to camp for a bowl of soup long after dark. Does it work? "We've taken a couple of elk," said Leland, emphasizing the plural, for theirs is a team effort. "Got a 6-pointer two years ago. He fell 60 feet over rimrock and broke off most of his points. We had to climb back up there at 2 a.m., build a bonfire so we could see, and bone him out. Had to do that to catch the train. Didn't want to pack him out on bikes." As Leland spoke, Nathan beamed.

We parted with backslaps and good wishes. They had a special claim on these elk -- we all felt that, although no one said as much. In the morning we broke down our tents and flagged down the train and left those rugged mountains to the Rambos, who pedaled by an hour before the train arrived. They would be back the following weekend. And the one after that. And after that. Hollywood doesn't know the meaning of Rambo tough.the dirty gray light of dawn. As we passed through a stand of quakies, Wayne saw movement in a park high above us. We pulled up, tied the mules, and took out binoculars. A small herd of elk grazed in grass 1,000 feet over our heads.

For two hours we climbed. When we reached the park, the elk had moved, but we could feel and smell their presence. We slowly contoured the slope, calling every few hundred yards. And in a shadowy stand of spruce, littered with tracks and the still-warm droppings of elk, redolent with their musky scent, we called in the Rambos.

Neither looked like their cinematic namesake -- Leland, the father, was tall and rail-thin. Nathan, the son, was 15 and wore a cheery expression only a teenager can muster after such a climb. The elk, they said, had passed. The bull was a small one, and we were all of a mind to pass on small bulls in such tough country. Conversation lulled, then Leland said, "I've never suckered in on a caller before. You're good."

Wayne gave them a demonstration, then handed Nathan a couple of his calls. That won them over. Leland grinned and admitted he was not pleased to see us. "Never run into hunters up here. Hunted here for five years, and never met anyone high like this. You boys did some climbing."

"So did you," we answered. We shook hands, and the Rambos told us their tale, a story of perseverance and of a heartwarming family bond.

Every weekend of the bow season, the Rambos descend Molas trail on Friday afternoon -- on mountain bikes. They pedal down the tracks -- light camping gear and bows strapped behind them -- pitch their camp, eat a spartan meal, and sleep. They are up long before first light, spend an exhausting day in the mountains, and return to camp for a bowl of soup long after dark. Does it work? "We've taken a couple of elk," said Leland, emphasizing the plural, for theirs is a team effort. "Got a 6-pointer two years ago. He fell 60 feet over rimrock and broke off most of his points. We had to climb back up there at 2 a.m., build a bonfire so we could see, and bone him out. Had to do that to catch the train. Didn't want to pack him out on bikes." As Leland spoke, Nathan beamed.

We parted with backslaps and good wishes. They had a special claim on these elk -- we all felt that, although no one said as much. In the morning we broke down our tents and flagged down the train and left those rugged mountains to the Rambos, who pedaled by an hour before the train arrived. They would be back the following weekend. And the one after that. And after that. Hollywood doesn't know the meaning of Rambo tough.