An Improbable Elk Hunt

By Susan Casey If you had asked me a year ago, "So, when's the elk hunt?-¿ I would have been certain the question was meant for someone else. Because the two key words in that sentence-"elk and hunt-"meant nothing to me, and when combined spoke of blood and guns, and those were things I didn't spend much time with. I'd seen an elk once, but that encounter took place on Main Street in Banff; it was a tourist-addled nuisance cow looking for handouts of Cheetos and hardly a majestic ambassador of the species. Hunting wasn't part of my upbringing, at least not the type that results in homemade jerky. As for rifles, I'd never held one. But then at a cocktail party last June, hunting entered my life in an unexpected way. It happened during a conversation with Sid Evans, this magazine's editor-in-chief. As the crowd milled around us and the canap¿¿s were passed, I described my new infatuation with spearfishing. Stalking dinner felt surprisingly satisfying, I told Sid, and of course he understood. What was it like to go after something bigger, I asked. Did you have the same primal feeling, but amplified? This idea interested both of us and within minutes the gauntlet went down: Could Field & Stream take a hunting know-nothing, a gun ignoramus-"in other words, someone like me-"and send her on one of the toughest hunts in North America? Specifically: If the correct efforts were made, the appropriate expertise recruited, could a person go from never having laid eyes on a .300 Win. Mag. cartridge to making a 300-yard shot on an elk? In a matter of months? The next morning Sid e-mailed to see whether I was serious or "was that just the beer talking?-¿ Elk hunts are brutal, he cautioned. The Rocky Mountain elk fires on all sensory cylinders-"smell, hearing, vision-"and has an almost eerie knack for staying one step ahead of its pursuers. Elk hang out at high altitudes, in crags and gullies and dark folds of timber, in steep and slippery places where humans fumble around at a disadvantage. Elk hunting would be a commitment. A large one. I would need to learn every nuance of the animal from scratch. The hunt would require peak fitness levels, so that running around at high altitudes was, literally, no sweat. I would need to become a very good shot in a very short time. The magazine would understand if I wasn't up for it, he wrote. "After all, I realize that you haven't killed so much as a squirrel." "I'm in,-¿ I e-mailed back. "How soon can I go?-¿ My enthusiasm came from a mix of curiosity and guilt-"I eat meat but know nothing about what it means to kill for it. I love animals, but I also know that sentimentalizing nature is wrong. Dying, killing, becoming prey-"these things are all part of the game, and to ignore them trivializes life. Bluntly put, the modern relationship to the wild is a fake one. For many, meat is a section at the grocery store. And at Safeway there are no big brown eyes to consider, no blood. Hunting struck me as a more honest approach, and a necessary one if the goal is to understand the true nature of, well, nature. If this seems like an improbably heavy philosophical reason for going on an elk hunt, consider that I was an improbable elk hunter, and on the day I agreed to become one, the improbable stuff was only beginning.John Johnston
"We have a fairly limited amount of time to turn you into a killing machine,-¿ David Petzal said as we drove to Camp Fire, a private men's shooting club in Chappaqua, N.Y. It was a warm Friday in July, and Dave, a laconic man with a salt-and-pepper beard who has been this magazine's resident rifle expert for 25 years, was taking me to his off-site office for a lesson. That morning I shot my first target, a cardboard bighorn ram, with a .22 at 100 yards, firing prone, and then kneeling, and then offhand (for purposes of humility). Dave has a slow and deliberate way of speaking and a way with language that is dryly hilarious, and he delivered instructions in a courtly drawl. As he moved through the basics; the importance of inhaling, exhaling, and then squeezing-"not pulling-"the trigger; of relaxing, focusing, and keeping steady hands; we both noticed that mine were shaking. A lot. "Do you drink coffee?-¿ "I'm afraid so. The stronger, the better.-¿ He looked at me and shook his head. "Caffeine is not your friend. How much do you weigh?-¿ "I don't know. About 105 pounds.-¿ "Think of yourself as 105 pounds of inert matter. With a trigger finger.-¿ The .22 felt light, the gun equivalent of training wheels, and it fired with an insubstantial pop, but Dave was testing a beast of a weapon, a synthetic-stocked .338, and its booming recoil was a reminder of what lay in store. My serious gun, the elk-dispatching one, was a magnificent Dakota Arms .300 Win. Mag. rifle borrowed from its owner, Paulette Kok, a friend of Dave's. Its stock, handcrafted from a blank of English walnut, had been shortened to 121?2 inches. The Dakota was elegant and lethal and sat imposingly on the rack. To be honest, it frightened me. Slam that bolt! harder! abuse it!-¿ I was lying on my stomach, shooting the .22 at a fluorescent orange gopher. When hit, the steel target made a bright pinging noise that I liked. Dave felt I wasn't being authoritative enough with the action. He wanted to hear it snap open and shut smartly and see bullet casings flip into the air. "Use your palm,-¿ he told me. "Stop grabbing the bolt with your fingers.-¿ By now, my third lesson, we had ranged farther afield, driving another 60 miles north to Tamarack, a manicured hunting club in New York's Dutchess County. On this range I could practice 300-yard shots by climbing a hill and grazing the top of a cornfield. It seemed impossibly far. "You should be able to make it,-¿ Dave said firmly. "The mistake people make is not trusting their rifles. These things are deadly accurate from a long way off.-¿ For the time being, 75 yards was challenge enough. Today I would warm up with the .22 and then move to the bigger gun. After a 30-minute session of small-caliber gopher abuse, Dave handed me three .300 cartridges, threw his pack down, and put on earmuffs. The Dakota had a heft and a certainty about it, and as I lay prone, pressing my cheek along the stock and adjusting the scope, I almost felt comfortable. Breathe, exhale. Squeeze. BOOM! The gunshot felt smooth, a profound bass explosion with a silky kickback and unspeakable power. My legs jerked in a spasmodic froglike gesture. It wasn't a very pretty demonstration of form, but I had managed to hit the target in a reasonable spot, and Dave seemed to have faith. "You flinched,-¿ he said. "But I'll take it. You're 105 pounds of what?-¿ "Inert matter.-¿ As the summer passed, Saturdays at Tamarack became routine. It made for a long day-"two hours on the train, another hour in Dave's truck, two hours on the range, and then back again-"but I was seeing results. My hunt was set: October 20 in western Colorado, a state with a healthy population of 30,000 elk. Over the weeks I shot and shot and shot and began to rend paper in a more consistent manner. Perhaps I had become a little cocky, or perhaps I was simply being careless on the day I split my forehead open with thJohn Johnston
I suppose it was inevitable that eventually, when talking about the elk hunt, I'd hit a raw nerve in someone. But I didn't expect the most hostile response to come from my own brother, no stranger to a good hamburger. On Labor Day weekend I'd arrived at the family cottage in Ontario's lake country with a bandaged forehead and stories about learning to shoot. This didn't sit well with my brother; our conversation started out testily and deteriorated from there. "I just don't believe in hunting,-¿ he said, crossing his arms and glaring. I'd heard this line before, and often from meat eaters, not all of whom recognized the irony. My question to them was always the same: Would it be a problem if I bought elk steaks at the store? For that matter, what about ground beef? Commercial meat producers feed hundreds of animals per day through machines with names like the Belly Ripper, the Hide Puller, and the Tail Cutter, and though the slaughterhouse cows are intended to be dead by the time they meet these grisly renderings, often they are not. To eat meat and then denounce the elk hunt was hypocritical, but there was no budging him. The argument ended bitterly as he and his wife left, packing up their DVD of nature photographs from a recent hiking vacation. "I hope that elk's scream haunts you for the rest of your life,-¿ my brother had said as he'd left. Those words echoed in my head. Such furious anger from someone I loved caught me off guard. It seemed unfair and misplaced. Killing is the most profound act imaginable, but in centuries past, it wasn't optional if you wanted to survive. And even now, while others do the dirty work, out of sight and mind and conscience, that predator DNA ticks on inside us. What I was proposing to do here was perform the necessary act of getting my own food, rather than subcontract that task to a middleman. Back in New York, I e-mailed Dave about the family dustup, and when I arrived at the train station that Saturday, he greeted me with a wry smile. "So now you're seeing the other side of big-game hunting,-¿ he said. As we drove north to Tamarack, he described an altercation he'd had once in the -Johannesburg airport. "I had just checked my guns back out from the police and some middle-aged lady marched up to me with smoke coming out of her ears and said: -¿You're going hunting, aren't you?' "-¿Yes ma'am, I am.' "-¿What are you hunting?' "-¿Eland.' "-¿What's an eland?' "-¿It's the largest of the antelopes and it's a beautiful silvery gray with gentle brown eyes and heavy spiral horns,' I said and then lied: -¿There are hardly any left and so I'm going to kill one for myself before they're all gone.'-¿ He paused. "And as she turned beet red, I said, -¿That's what you wanted to hear, isn't it? Now kindly go away.'-¿ I knew that Dave was trying to teach me more about hunting than the mere mechanics of shooting. He'd described how it feels when the animal goes down, what it means to actually end a life. During these conversations I'd felt bluff and full of adrenaline, untroubled by potential remorse for the elk. But Dave, with his decades of experience, was more sanguine: "Any of three things will happen when the moment comes,-¿ he told me. "One, you'll pull the trigger. Two, you'll get buck fever and freeze. Three, you'll decide you're unwilling to shoot. Not from panic, but from a conscious choice.-¿ The date was September 10. Summer was sliding by, hunting season was around the corner, and even the trees had a brisk fall energy. I picked up my rifle. Lying prone, I emptied the magazine and killed the paper elk three times. "Very nice,-¿ Dave said and turned to fire off a few rounds himself. He was testing a gun that he appeared to like. It was black and sort of cruel looking with none of the warm woodiness of the others I'd seen, but something about the way it shot pleased him, and at that moment I realized that rifles, like highJohn Johnston
Smith Fork Ranch sits like a jewel in the West Elk Wilderness, 100 miles southwest of Aspen. This is country that can only be described as nature showing off: white-topped mountains towering on the eastern horizon, verdant valleys to the west, pi¿¿on-studded mesas to the south, lush rivers swirling through all of it, and canopies of aspen turned alchemically to gold. The ranch's buildings-"several log structures, a barn, a riding ring, and four -one-bedroom log cabins-"were so in tune with their surroundings that they might as well have sprouted from the ground. In 1974 Smith Fork's owners, Marley and Linda Hodgson, restored a venerable but fading guest ranch, enlisting local artisans for every part of the job, right down to the light fixtures. The result is a five-star retreat that's deeply rustic, but the sort of rustic that involves a choice between 15 different kinds of single malt Scotch. On the evening I arrived I sat with the Hodgsons in the ranch library, nursing a glass of tequila and looking at the head of a -soulful-seeming 6x6 bull elk. A fire roared beneath him. Though tomorrow would be spent horse packing to Smith Fork's 10,000-foot camp in the West Elks, I was thinking about how much I wanted to stay right where I was, shooting at elk from the porch perhaps, when the door opened and two men in cowboy hats came in: my guides. Levi Kempf, 26, was fresh faced and blond with a shy smile. A seasoned hunting guide, he also ran the ranch's flyfishing programs. Chuck Gunther, 41, Smith Fork's head wrangler, was the kind of authentic cowboy that casting directors dream of. He had deep-set eyes, dark hair, and a lavish mustache, topped off by an imposing black Stetson and a black bandanna at his throat. Over dinner they explained that Saturday was the first day of Colorado's second rifle season. There are four such seasons in a year, each a weeklong opportunity to fill a tag. For weather reasons the second and third ones tended to be the most popular, and both men mentioned that tomorrow, Friday, would be a frenzy of hunters jockeying into position for the opening bell. On the way up the mountain I'd see all kinds, Chuck explained, from do-it-yourselfers whose gear was patched together with duct tape to experts whose deployment was less a sporting endeavor than a military campaign. I could feel myself becoming hyper with excitement and wanted to go back to my room to repack my gear for the seventh or eighth time. "Make sure to keep your hunter-safety card and permit accessible at all times,-¿ Chuck advised, explaining that the local game warden was a zealot with an uncanny knack for showing up when least expected. He was even known to have set up roadblocks for illicit elk, the way others might to ensnare drunk drivers. I immediately nicknamed him "The Enforcer.-¿ "One time he asked to see my fishing permit twice in the same day, on the same stretch of river,-¿ Levi said. "We will meet him.-¿ Morning was perfect: bright skies and crystalline cold. Gun? Check. Bullets? Check. Extra set of long underpants? Check. Check, check, check. Check to make sure your headlamp is working and your binoculars are clean and the blaze-orange vest and hat are tucked securely in the duffel. Check to make sure you have enough contact lens solution. Because there were no convenience stores or handy supply depots where we were going. I looked out the window of Smith Fork's horse trailer as it rolled down the dirt road toward the trailhead, kicking up clouds of dust. As we approached the gateway to the higher elevations, the players began to emerge. There was a battalion of trucks and a circus of ATVs, men in camo-and-orange-bedecked everything, tents with chimneys in them, women or-ga-niz-ing provisions and tending fires and shaking out tarps. There were Winnebagos and dogs and mules, and horses being coaxed out of trailers. The whole place thrummed with the energy of a major sporting event. ThisJohn Johnston
The high camp stood tucked in a snowy slash of pine, three white canvas tents and a matching outhouse. Though I had been told to expect snow at this altitude, the sight of the drift-covered tents was disconcerting. My legs shook from the long ride and Ute's shenanigans, but there was no time to think about it because less than an hour of daylight remained to scout our surroundings. A sharp bluff rose behind the tents, one that I hoped we wouldn't have to climb. Levi immediately charged up it. I followed; 10,000 feet and I could feel every one of them. At the top, the canyon rolled westward in the rich light, and on the far horizon we could see the mysterious edges of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, America's deepest gorge. Our vantage point was a small promontory from which you could look down on all of it, into the folds of mountains and hillsides and drainage cuts. Directly be-low us several game trails merged-"a three-way elk intersection. "They'll run by here if they're driven higher by hunters below us,-¿ Levi said. It was a beautiful setup, made more so by the fact that less than 600 yards away three groups of elk stood foraging on the top of a rise, looking as peaceful as an Audubon painting. In the foreground, a 6-point bull grazed in profile. He was bigger than I'd expected, more Clydesdale than pony, and his pale buff coloring gave him an almost ghostly appearance. I kept my binoculars trained on him for every last drop of daylight, as the shadows dissolved and the coyote echoes began. There is no sleeping in on an elk hunt, especially not on opening day. The wakeup call comes mercilessly in the frosty predawn, and when Levi rattled the side of my tent, it sounded like gunshots. All over the mountain, come sunrise, the game was on. Chuck was uncharacteristically silent during breakfast, eating his eggs and staring at the wall of the mess tent. Afterward, Levi and I headed to our promontory. "What's up with Chuck?-¿ I asked. "He's on a mission.-¿ "What's that?-¿ "To find the horses.-¿ I stared at him. During the night, apparently, the entire four-legged crew had made a break for it, one trampling down the fence, the others following. This wasn't good, nine elk-size animals running around the mountain on opening day without so much as an orange bandanna between them, and I instantly envisioned Ute as the ringleader. "Will we get them back?-¿ I asked. "I think it's kind of an all-or-nothing deal.-¿ Dawn was in full swing by the time Levi and I reached our spot, so there was enough light to see the spooked herd of elk cantering below us, white rumps flashing through the pines as they charged up a 45-degree pitch. Levi whipped out his binoculars, but in a second the animals were gone. "Hmm, I don't think there were any bulls in that group.-¿ Looking in the direction of the vanished herd, he added, "Those elk were definitely spooked by something.-¿ BOOM! The gunshot came from a ridge to our right. Silhouetted against the sky, a tiny orange-clad figure raised his rifle. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Levi and I looked at each other. Someone was a very bad shot. We hunkered down behind a pair of aspens, and I settled onto the frozen ground with the Dakota braced against my knee. We sat in that crusty patch of snow, sat and waited, sat and then sat some more, glassing the valley. Nothing seemed to be stirring, not birds or bugs or mice or any signs of life at all. By now the fleeing herd would be three valleys away and counting. Was that it? I wondered. Were they already gone, scared out of the canyon? It felt intensely frustrating; all we could do was sit and wait and hope that some hapless elk in this 176,000-acre wilderness blundered into our 300-yard shooting zone. Before arriving here I'd read that the odds of success on a first elk hunt were approximately 16 percent. The statistic had seemed unduly pessimistic to me, especially since I'dJohn Johnston
Forging into Lunch Creek was easier said than done. As Levi and I moved closer to the bottom of the drainage, the hillside became steeper and the brush became a wall and any sort of viable passage became nonexistent. There was no getting down there. And furthermore, there was no way to get a 700-pound animal back out. "No wonder those bulls are big,-¿ Levi said, looking over a cliff at the jagged rocks below. After scouting the neighboring surroundings we decided to head back to the promontory. We weren't the only ones who'd been there lately: all around our observation post the grass was tamped into elk-shaped depressions, and we stepped around mounds of fresh scat piled defiantly beside them. Levi examined several sets of hoofprints crisscrossing in the mud. "These were made sometime in the last hour,-¿ he said, shaking his head. Though I'd expected a clever adversary, I was beginning to realize that an elk at the top of its game was nothing short of a phantom. Levi understood this; he had recently bagged his first bull. Though the elk had been taken on Saddle Mountain, only 3 miles from the ranch, the effort that had gone into the hunt had been anything but small. "I scoped him out for a month,-¿ he said, describing how every morning he had observed the animal's habits through a telescope. "Then, one week before hunting season, I went up there and cut a trail.-¿ Saddle Mountain was avoided by hunters and favored by elk due to a head-high carpet of brush. Levi, who was willing to make a Herculean effort, bushwhacked his way to the money spot and waited. Sure enough, the bull returned and was promptly dropped with a double lung shot. The elk had been traveling with half a dozen cows, and the animals ran in panicked circles as it lay on the ground. As he approached the downed bull, Levi noticed that one cow in particular just stood there and bawled. The memory of the distraught cow seemed to bother him. "I wasn't that excited,-¿ he said, frowning. "When I saw how big it was, I just wondered how the hell I was going to get it down.-¿ He'd radioed Chuck, who came up with his sister, and the three of them field dressed and quartered the elk using a pair of axes. Then, they packed it out. The entire process took almost 12 hours from the time Levi had pulled the trigger. But after that, all winter, mealtimes were a jubilee of elk. In the nearby town of Hotch-kiss, a venison processor called Homestead Market rented out meat lockers. Levi got himself one and filled it. There were elk steaks and elk burgers and elk jerky, elk fajitas, elk tacos, elk in scrambled eggs, and elk meatballs sprinkled into spaghetti sauce. There was a bonanza of meat. Elk hunting can be described in two simple words: up, down. When you aren't climbing, you're descending. When you're not standing up, hauling your gear, you're sitting down, looking up the mountain, down the valley, scanning the landscape for hints of mo-tion. There are days when luck swoops down on you and days-"weeks-"of throwing up your hands in frustration. There is no comfort zone on an elk hunt, no middle ground, only extremes. Levi and I began to frequent a small thicket below the promontory. This lookout held even more promise, he felt, because it offered a view of three hillsides within 300 yards. Should an elk appear on any of them, I'd have a shot. There was only one problem with the spot: to get there we had to make our way down a mile-long, 50-degree pitch of snow and ice, usually in the dark. It was a slow, arduous descent followed by a slow, painful climb out, but after one morning in this new location we'd seen several cows and come face-to-face with a massive mule deer buck that strolled within 10 yards of us before catching our scent and -rocketing off. The object of the hunt, however, remained elusive. In the last light of the third day, I watched a camprobber jay swan-diving from the top of a spruce tree while Levi dozed.John Johnston