Trip Report: Late Season Elk Camp

Elk Camp
Here's how this story goes: A group of friends and family rendezvous annually in southwest Montana for a week-long late-season elk hunt. What started as a small gathering in a single wall tent has turned into an elaborate camping adventure centered in some of the most beautiful elk country I've ever seen. I joined the camp for a few days this winter, tagged along with a camera, and learned first-hand it's the camaraderie of camp, not necessarily the hunting, that brings them back year after year.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
The camp tent looked more like an airplane hangar than a place to sleep. Rather than arrange separate areas for cooking and sleeping, they assembled the tents next to one another to create one large living space.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Inside the tent, the sleeping area was on one end, and the kitchen on the opposite. Three evenly spaced wood stoves heated the unit, and if someone felt a "nature call" coming on, there was an outhouse nearby. The hard part was working up the nerve to endure the freezing sting of the coldest toilet seat on earth.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Deadfall surrounded the outskirts of camp. Granted, chopping wood is work that subtracts from the time you could be hunting, but it's a necessary chore, and a primed wood stove beating on cold toes is my idea of heaven.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Signs that the big boys had come-and-gone were around every corner. Some rubs were older than others, and some were on trees as round as a five-gallon bucket. Every time I saw one I could only dream about what the area looks and sounds like during the late September rut.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
The dense forests and expansive landscapes make topographical maps indispensable. Technology is only as good as the person carrying it, and if you forget to plot a landmark for camp or bring extra batteries for a GPS, you are in for a sobering experience. Fortunately, nearly everyone knew the area like the back of their hand and I never found myself in such a predicament.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
At the end of the day, when our legs were tired from chasing ghosts through the snow-covered hills, it was nice to sit and glass the meadows. While it was a fun way to hunt, the elk were wise to the game by this time of year and the action suffered. The appearance of fresh tracks in the morning, however, showed us elk were still in the area.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Card games are a staple of any self-respecting hunting camp, and when dinner was finished and the dishes clean, the dining table turned into a poker table. Empty Crown Royal velvet satchels carried everyone's chips--or quarters in this case. High stakes games are for Las Vegas. Out here, a dollar is a hefty raise.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
For the first few days, temperatures hovered in the single digits and sometimes the best way to stay warm was to work from the inside out. My solution came in the form of a pack stove. A few spoonfuls of cheap coffee, some snow packed into a kettle, a few clicks of the gas igniter, and presto--a warm energy drink fit for a king.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Aside from a warm beverage, a hot spring pool close to camp provided welcome relief after those long, cold days of hiking through the snow. There is nothing like sipping a stiff drink during a warm soak after supper--a nightly ritual for some campers. Just remember to dry your trunks near the wood stove before you go to bed. Otherwise, the single-digit temperatures make it tough to squeeze into them the next day.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
The amount of falling snow certainly made guns and scopes susceptible to rust. Oiling down barrels and bolts and wiping binocular and scope lenses at the end of the day was a necessity.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Success! A hunter harvested this cow on the third day of the adventure. While other elk encounters occurred throughout the remainder of the week, this cow was the first and last elk harvested the entire trip. Missed shot opportunities, blocked shooting lanes, and anything else that can prevent a clean shot shadowed the camp.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Fortunately, the cow didn't expire far from the meat pole, so rather than quarter and carry the animal, a few guys employed a dog-sled approach. Many hands make light work, and while there were some lungs working for air at the end of the trail, the errand was otherwise quick and painless.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
The elk musher and her team certainly left a mark on the landscape. That evening another dusting of snow fell on the area and covered the tracks. In the days that followed, flurries continued to pass by and buried any remaining sign.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Another day ends with an evening of cards. Think the ace of diamonds and 10 of clubs is enough to win the pot? Think again. Night after night I watched my stacks of quarters diminish until I lost the rolls I brought to camp. By the end of the week, I even managed to work my way into debt by a few bucks.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
After a snowfall, we scouted for any sign we could find. One morning, after searching and searching, we didn't see a fresh track, an elk, or another person for that matter. The only sign of life was this owl perched on a national forest sign. I wondered if his hunting trip was going any better.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
While elk were the number one priority, a few hunters in the group also carried deer tags. When they needed a break, they drove to lower elevations and walked the foothills. Most of the time only small groups of does appeared, but occasionally a small buck walked into a window. We walked into a deer bedding area one afternoon and as each deer stood up, we prepared for a shot. Unfortunately, there weren't any bucks in this party, but the scene certainly got our adrenaline going.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Even though there were pickup trucks and ATVs at our disposal, much of the area covered was restricted to foot or horseback travel only.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
Old sign littered some basins. Someone would occasionally cut a set of fresh tracks that trotted off into either a bedding area or another meadow. A camp rule is to follow fresh tracks because there's a chance of either walking into a bedding area, or pushing a herd towards other hunters. This particular trail worked through a dense patch of timber, and then off to parts unknown. The fading sun didn't give us enough time to see what we'd find at the end.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
There was one wood stove in each of the three tents that helped evenly heat the area. For the most part, they slowly burned through the night, but adding a fresh log every few hours kept the temperature perfect for sleeping.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
While there were many hills to climb, there was also a fair share of meadows. We didn't see much activity in these areas, but walking the perimeter we'd sometimes cross fresh tracks, and then chase was on. Other times there wasn't a sign of life and it was like walking over a snowy desert.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
As the week goes by and the food supply dwindles, it's time to get creative. Case in point--the deer, bear, onion burgers cooked over an outside flame. I can honestly say they were some of the best patties I've ever had. I ate three.Ben Romans
Elk Camp
The last night in camp was a celebration of sorts. A warm fire outside, a small-stakes poker game going on inside, and a last-ditch group effort to consume the remaining rations of the camp's bottled spirits marked the evening. The next morning, coincidentally the last day of the rifle season, someone spotted 75 to 100 elk making their way across a snow-covered mountainside a few miles away. Knowing there wasn't enough daylight to make one more stalk and pack up camp was like rubbing salt in a wound.Ben Romans

Sometimes it's more about the lessons learned and friends made at camp than it is the hunt. Ben Romans joined a rag-tag group of late-season elk hunters in Montana and got schooled in stalking, poker, and keeping your shorts from freezing.