A Bowhunter's Week-Long Solo Quest for Elk in the Colorado Rockies

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The first thing that popped into my head** when I realized I was alone in the wilderness, 5 miles from the road, and had lost my GPS was the voice of F&S Rifles Editor David Petzal. Dave believes that a large part of hunting is acquiring certain skills, and the last thing he wants when out in the woods is more technology. "If you do get lost," he told me once, "shut up and die like a man, don't ruin it for everyone else." I was in a Colorado Wilderness area during the last week of the archery elk season on a solo backpack hunt. For the past two years I'd hunted the area with outfitter Terry Commander in the Gunnison National Forest. This year I'd booked the same trip with 5 friends. Same week, same place. But bad luck had thrown a wrench into our plans and everyone had canceled on me. Since I am obsessed with hunting elk with a bow, I decided to go it alone. I live in Brooklyn, NY and was born and raised near Albany, hunting whitetails and ducks. I have always been fond of backpacking and camping -- every year my friends/family and I set up a tent camp upstate during the deer season - and I've killed elk with my bow, but a solo backpack hunt in the Rocky Mountains was definitely out of my comfort zone.
Greg Gatto
The Beginning: Traveling through JFK was the easiest I've ever experienced (with bowhunting gear) and as I sat in the Salt Lake City airport awaiting my connection to Grand Junction I got the usual anxiety that all hunters feel when they travel. Will my gear arrive? Will the ramp apes have smashed it into a million pieces? I always find this to be one of the most stressful things about hunting in far away places. I was met at the airport by my friend and outfitter (from the past two years) Terry Commander. Terry is an absolute saint and had volunteered to pick me up from the airport and let me use her house as a staging area for the trip so I wouldn't have to spend a couple hundred bucks on a rental car that would sit at the trailhead for a week. Once at her place I organized my gear and shot my bow to make sure that everything was in working order.Greg Gatto
Everything I would need for the next 5 days would have to be on my back and weight would be an issue. I know there are plenty of guys out there that do this type of hunting all the time and have whittled their gear down to true ultra light status, but being that this was my first attempt at a solo hunt, I opted for a few more "just-in-case" items. I was using a Mystery Ranch Crew Cab backpack and organized my gear into 3 different "load cells," one for my tent, sleeping bag, and down jacket; one for my food; and one for my clothing. All in all, my pack with my bow strapped to the outside weighed 65 pounds. It was going to be a long four-mile hike the next morning!Greg Gatto
My plan was to gain the top of a ridge and travel along it, blowing location bugles to find out where the elk were. The climb was extremely difficult as there weren't any trails and the ferns were chest high due to the wet summer that came to Colorado this year. Those ferns obscured all kinds of deadfall and rocks and at times it seemed as if I were hiking blindfolded up a slope full of basketballs. Tuesday, 9/22: I hiked with my heavy pack. A muddy trail and steady incline made for very slow going. I came across a large cinnamon colored bear halfway up the trail and fortunately for me he was on the other side of the stream and approximately 50 yds away. Once at camp I pitched my tent, organized my gear, and headed out to chase the elk. **Video: Greg films a large bear across the river.
** [bonnier-video='a:3:{s:4:"code";s:32:"tzOHMwYzpu6us8mVRlk7GutZJQZ1FjwM";s:6:"player";s:32:"68b1f64df44a4a958a6e90b699baadbf";s:7:"options";a:6:{s:5:"adset";s:0:"";s:5:"width";i:450;s:6:"height";i:412;s:8:"autoplay";b:0;s:4:"loop";b:0;s:4:"mute";b:0;}}']
Greg Gatto
Once, as I made my way out along the edge of a ridge, I lost my footing and fell down the slope, stopping just 20 yards from this cliff! In the mad scramble to gain my footing and climb away from the edge I must have lost my GPS. With Dave Petzal laughing in my head I decided to bushwhack down to the creek (more like a controlled fall than a hike), and head to camp before dark to regroup.Greg Gatto
Wednesday, 9/23: I awoke before sunup and cooked a quick breakfast before heading out for the day. My menu for the week consisted of some homemade concoctions and freeze-dried Mountain House meals. I would have to hang my food in a tree 100+ yds from my tent so I wouldn't attract any bears (hopefully). For breakfasts I placed 2 packets of instant Kashi Whole Grain Hot Cereal and 1 scoop of vanilla protein powder into 1 quart Ziploc bags. To this I added dried cranberries and raisins and all that would be necessary was for me to add a cup of boiling water. Cleanup would only require me licking my spoon. I was purifying my water from the nearby stream and using a SteriPen (shown) to kill the bacteria. Video: Greg starts a fire at camp with a Vaseline-soaked cotton ball. [bonnier-video='a:3:{s:4:"code";s:32:"VxOHMwYzqYmpfefcgjyUv3WQmn0ppk53";s:6:"player";s:32:"68b1f64df44a4a958a6e90b699baadbf";s:7:"options";a:6:{s:5:"adset";s:0:"";s:5:"width";i:450;s:6:"height";i:412;s:8:"autoplay";b:0;s:4:"loop";b:0;s:4:"mute";b:0;}}']Greg Gatto
I hiked into the canyon from the bottom and after 1.5 miles would begin my climb up the canyon wall. My goal was to reach an aspen bench 1500' above me before the thermals shifted. The hike in took longer than anticipated as I frequently lost the trail. At 11 a.m. I tried chasing a bugling bull that was running a few cows around but they were ahead of me and moving uphill, not to mention they weren't the least bit interested in my sexiest cow impression. Video: Greg recaps his progress over lunch [bonnier-video='a:3:{s:4:"code";s:32:"xpOHMwYzrTDIQg1SyN4VC4LW9YlPcOdr";s:6:"player";s:32:"68b1f64df44a4a958a6e90b699baadbf";s:7:"options";a:6:{s:5:"adset";s:0:"";s:5:"width";i:450;s:6:"height";i:412;s:8:"autoplay";b:0;s:4:"loop";b:0;s:4:"mute";b:0;}}']Greg Gatto
In the evening I hiked along to a spot where I had spotted some cows earlier, but nothing was bugling and the elk were not responding to my calls. I did happen across some mountain lion tracks that gave me goose bumps...Greg Gatto
...and with the bear sighting and the lion sign, I was comforted knowing I had a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum on my belt at ALL times. I got back to camp, cooked dinner and headed to bed.Greg Gatto
Thursday, 9/24: The Milky Way was clearly visible when I unzipped my tent fly on Thursday. It was very difficult to drag my sore body out of my sleeping bag and into the cold, but I had to hurry and cook up some hot oatmeal before I hit the trail. There was an eerie silence this morning as I headed toward my pre-planned spot. I was going to hike up to an Aspen bench on the north side of the canyon, and as always it was a race against both time and my physical exhaustion to reach elevation before the thermals shifted uphill. I was creeping up a very steep and narrow finger ridge toward a bugling bull no more than 100 yds above me. There was a deep gulley to my left and the sun was already hitting the other side when I noticed a couple of cows feeding over in the sun. The bull was above me on my side so I decided to slowly pick my way from bush to bush to try to close the distance. I didn't call to the bull as he was regularly giving up his location. Those of you that have spent much time in the mountains know that the WORST time for swirling wind is right before the thermals switch from downhill to uphill. The faintest breath of wind was felt on my right cheek and an instant later I saw 3 cows across the gulley staring directly at me. They thundered off and the bull disappeared...never to be seen. It is nearly impossible to be quiet in this country as there is a constant tangle of chest-high ferns, oak brush, and rocks…your only hope is to have the wind in your favor.Greg Gatto
I kept sneaking along through the aspen benches when I heard a bull growling in a hollow below me. The thermals were now blowing steadily uphill so I let out a cow chirp and the bull responded immediately. I crept to the edge of the bench overlooking the hollow and started my calling sequence. He was interested but not coming any closer so I had to try to put a sneak on him. Just as I was about to move I heard a bugle from above me (ugh, bad wind) and looked over my shoulder to see a 6 pt bull and 3 cows. They were on their way to me and would cut my scent any second. I got ready to draw my bow, but at 75 yds the jig was up and they thundered off. Back to my sneak on the growling bull….I moved as quickly as possible to close the distance but at about 100 yds from the patch of cover in which the bull was bedded, the terrain opened up into a very sparsely treed, grassy bench. I had to hide behind the last remaining bush as I let out a bugle and the bull got up immediately to come check me out. He stopped on the other side of the grassy clearing and looked around for the "intruder" but would come no further…hung up at 60 yds. My self-imposed limit is 50 yds on elk and I decided not to loose an arrow. That was the last action I had for the morning.Greg Gatto
In the evening I tried another drainage and had a bugling bull high above me but the terrain made it impossible for me to get up after him as there was a cliff that went all the way down to the creek. I planned to return to the same spot (where I encountered the bulls) the next morning to hopefully close the deal.Greg Gatto
Crunch time! I stumbled along the creek bottom to get to the spot where the bulls were the day before but nothing was bugling yet. The topography in this drainage is basically a giant V so without any bugles you have to choose a side to climb in the dark because you need to gain elevation before mid-morning. I chose the North side and up I went. At times the oak brush is a hindrance, but other times, when the terrain is so steep the brush can help you pull your way to the next bench…this is how I proceeded for the next 1.5 hours. I let out a location bugle and nothing responded. I tried again and again, and on the fourth bugle I had a response but on the other side of the canyon. I was already more than halfway up this side of the mountain so I kept climbing and throwing out the occasional bugle or cow chirps to see if anything was happening on my side. At this point another bull (also on the other side) was getting fired up as my spirits were sinking fast….then I heard it. A loud groaning bugle from the bottom of the drainage! This was my chance! I hustled down the hillside as fast as I could to try to meet him down there giving exciting cow calls the entire way. He was responsive! Life is full of learning experiences and I was on a collision course with one of those experiences right at this moment. Here is what I learned: do not run down a 45 degree slope that has waist high ferns obscuring your view of the underlying surface and obstacles. Freefall is an interesting feeling when you least expect it, and I am very fortunate that I didn't land on my broadheads when I somersaulted into a patch of oak brush. I did a quick mental checklist to make sure everything was in working order and then proceeded to head for the bottom. The bull and his harem had started up the other side and ducked into a patch of dark timber not too far from where I was.Greg Gatto
I decided to hold off (the wind was rising up the mountainside) and eat some lunch while I tried to mentally regroup. I was running out of time and had to make something happen so I formulated a plan to stalk in on this bull and shoot him in his bedroom. I would need to go in a circular route to get above the bull and drop down in from above as if I were planning a mule deer stalk. This stalk took almost 2 hours and during that time I was scrambling through brush so high that the elk trails were like tunnels. Again I was a little freaked out when I cam across mountain lion scat and tracks, but at least it was daylight. When I got to be about 100 yards from where I determined the elk to be the fickle wind shifted ever so slightly and the elk exploded out the other side of the timber like a herd of cattle. A lot has been said about mental toughness, and I learned much on this subject during my time alone. When you are alone, tired and discouraged your mind will start to work on you…and not in a good way. It was hard fighting back the urge to quit. But after all, one of the reasons I decided to go on this trip was to challenge myself, to step outside of my comfort zone and see that of which I was really capable. After a bit of arguing with myself I decided to not give up the hard earned elevation, and planned to side-hill the entire way back to camp for the evening hunt. This would take me through some timber and some aspen groves along the way, and maybe I could get lucky.Greg Gatto
I am not going to lie to you; I am very disappointed that I did not score on an elk. However, for me this trip was a success. I did something I had never done before, on my own, and had an amazing experience along the way. I spent 5 days in the most beautiful country imaginable, and had opportunities at elk. I also have some ideas on how I can alter my physical fitness regimen to benefit me when I return next year. And speaking of next year…only 51 weeks to go! Video: Greg sums up his trip on the last night at camp. [bonnier-video='a:3:{s:4:"code";s:32:"5vOHMwYzooKXaE6WpDvuT_kCXQIOaAm5";s:6:"player";s:32:"68b1f64df44a4a958a6e90b699baadbf";s:7:"options";a:6:{s:5:"adset";s:0:"";s:5:"width";i:450;s:6:"height";i:412;s:8:"autoplay";b:0;s:4:"loop";b:0;s:4:"mute";b:0;}}']Greg Gatto