“OH MY GOD,” I said to Randy. “Here he comes.” We plunked to our knees right in the open meadow, crouching tight to the ground as if we could actually hide behind the little wisps of bunchgrass and the last scant aster blooms. We may as well have rolled up in a couple of punch buggies for how well hidden we were. But that didn’t stop the bull.

He left three cows skylined at the top of the slope and thundered down a chute between banks of neon aspens before sprinting into the meadow. At 100 yards or so, he slowed to a trot and then, at 50, to a fast walk. At 30 yards, he paused to scream and slobber in our faces. And then he kept coming—straight on.

I couldn’t risk drawing, so I just held my bow out in front of me and tried to disappear. It was preposterous. I felt like a hippo trying to hide behind a lamppost. Besides, I knew one of only two things could happen: The bull was either going to come to his senses before I could shoot, or he was going to trample us.

I almost welcomed the notion. Not of being trampled, but that the hunt was already as good as over. It meant there was no way I could blow the shot, and I wouldn’t have to explain a punched tag to the others. Because I wasn’t supposed to kill an elk on this trip.

September’s Stage

The only reason I had any chance was that the country was so steep. On the ride in, I remember looking uphill to my left and taking in a picture of early fall in the Rockies, and then looking downhill to my right and seeing certain death. Ahead, our train of horses threaded a rope of a trail lining the precipice of a sheer drop where giant boulders and smashed deadfall collected in a heap a hundred feet below. Randy, our wrangler, who was at the head of the train, turned to the group and said, “Don’t forget to fall on the high side.”

This was my first elk hunt. I didn’t even know what Randy meant by that exactly, but I knew that one of my main personality flaws is a tendency to forget things—and that the horse would have more say in which side I fell on than I would. “Don’t worry,” Randy shouted. “Your horse doesn’t want to die either.”

We rode 8 miles into Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest toward the Dark Canyon, where in 1899 John Plute killed his long-standing world-record elk and, after packing out the meat, went back for the antlers only because no one believed how big he said they were. Along a spring-fed seep threading a wide, grassy bowl, our tent camp was waiting for us—and all the elk we hoped to hunt were straight uphill from there.

bull elk in field
A trophy bull scans the landscape, with aspens glowing in the background. Donald M. Jones

I had a tag in my pocket, and I carried a bow as a backup, but my job on this trip was to buddy up with and help out the other hunters, who had first crack at any bull we encountered. We had more hunters than horses, too, which meant that after the initial ride in, I was on foot at lot.

Every morning was a brutal test. All the trails leading from camp had names like Ballbreaker and Cloudsplitter. The worst of them was the Devil’s Staircase, a miles-long ladder of merciless switchbacks. On the first morning, while the horses went out ahead, three of us hiked the Staircase. Halfway in, we were stopping every hundred steps to catch our breath and keep from throwing up. When we finally reached the top, daylight was spreading between the taller peaks, and one of the hunters, Stephen, who’d managed to get himself a horse that morning, was waiting for me. He reclined in his saddle while I finished choking and gasping. Finally, I managed to stand fully upright, and Stephen said, “Damn, man. That was a tough ride.” I wanted to kick him off his horse.

With all the hiking that day and the next, and the white noise of my own huffing and puffing droning in my ears, I had plenty of opportunity to wonder why I’d come all this way and submitted to such physical hell with little chance of getting an elk myself. It ate at me for a while. But by the third day, I found my stride enough to look up instead of at my feet, and I had a moment that sustained me for the rest of the trip.

At 20 yards, a bull elk bearing down on you is not just bigger than you can imagine but scarier too.

We’d just come over the brow of a high ridge, and the full expanse of the country we were hunting came into view—the tiny white squares of our wall tents in the grassy bowl far below and the high country towering above, where the elk were, in the tawny meadows and dark-timbered canyons. I took it all in and noticed how the color of the aspens changed from low to high. Aspens reproduce clonally, which means an entire slope of them is often one organism, uniform in color, but different from the next slope’s. The way this played out across the scene in front of me was with vast curtains of shimmering foliage rising in a progression of hues from green to gold. Here, mid-September isn’t one stage in fall’s march but several all at once.

It struck me that while we were hiking higher in elevation and closer to the elk, we were also hiking further into fall. It was such a nice thought that I didn’t mind hiking so much after that, and I even said to Randy, the wrangler, “I honestly don’t care whether I kill an elk on this trip.” And I meant it. “A dead bull won’t make this place any prettier.”

Turn and Shoot

On the second-to-last day, we left base camp and spiked closer to the elk. By this point, we were all exhausted. There were several good options for the evening’s hunt, including some fresh wallows nearby, each a short, flat hike away. Randy also knew a spot where he felt sure there’d be a bull, but it was a tough uphill trek. I volunteered to tag along on the latter, but I couldn’t get anyone to go with me. All the other hunters wanted to sit the wallows, and you couldn’t blame them. They’d done their share of hiking too and wanted a break from the steep terrain. It did mean, however, that I had a chance to hunt for myself.

It wasn’t much more than a whim when we bugled to the bull. We’d had a tough week of hunting with nothing to show for it. Every bull we’d called to at that point had hung up or skirted or utterly ignored us. “Let’s see what happens,” Randy said, and he sent out a short, screechy bugle, meant to be nonthreatening. The bull, who was at the top of hill, circling his three cows, paid no attention. Randy backed the bugle up with a couple of cow calls and suggested we cross the meadow to the opposite bank of timber. We weren’t halfway across when we spotted the bull flying over the crest of the hill, running toward us.

At 20 yards, a bull elk bearing down on you is not just bigger than you can imagine but scarier too. I hoped that Randy, who was crouched in a low ball beside me, couldn’t see that my whole body was quaking and that my bow was waving wildly in front of me. I’d assumed the bull would eventually spot us, but he was so close now I could see that his eyes were rolling back in his head.

He ain’t stopping, I thought. But just as I did, he stopped—and spun broadside. His eyes were no longer rolling, but he was still staring at me. I didn’t see how I could possibly get drawn on the bull, but no sooner did I wonder how than one of his cows chirped from the top of the slope, and he spun his head around and looked back up the hill.

For a trip on which I wasn’t supposed to kill an elk, suddenly it sure seemed like I was meant to kill this one. The bull bombed 40 yards downhill at the shot, lost his front legs, and dove into a heap.

We draped some of our hunting clothes over the field-dressed carcass to keep the bears away, then hiked to camp in the dark. At dawn, we rode back up with a couple of pack mules and arrived just in time for the sun to light up the curtains of aspens, fully golden this high up and this far into fall. Randy slung most of the game bags over the back of one mule and the rest, along with the head and antlers, over the other, and then he rode out in front of me along a serpentine trail into the expanse below.

After a bit, he stopped to let me catch up with him, and when I did, he said, “How do you feel now about the dead elk and how pretty this place is?”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 Issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories.