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Elk hunting had been a dream hunt of mine for a number of years and in 2011 I finally got my chance. I would be driving out to Colorado with 3 other guys and would be purchasing an over the counter archery tag myself, one other guy would also bowhunt and the other 2 had muzzleloader tags.
I spent the few months leading up to the trip preparing my body as well as my bow for the hunt. Running and cardio training would turn out to be a life saver for this flat lander in those elevations. I shot my bow daily, and was prepared for a shot all the way out to the 90 yard mark…I was ready, but had no idea what I was ready for.
Camp was set, and that first evening we cooked elk steaks on a grill, a kind of pre-celebratory meal for the days ahead of us. We woke the next morning and made our first trek into the Colorado wilderness in the last hours of darkness before the sun would begin to rise. As my boots hit the mountain, my lungs were filled with the freshness of the mountain air. I was in awe of my surroundings as the sun slowly became a back light for the aspen soaked ridge that we were standing in, awaiting the first bugle of a love sick bull elk. I had seen this picture in so many magazine articles and on television, and for the first time in my life was experiencing it first hand. It is a picture that will be forever imprinted in my mind.
We spent the first couple of days listening, and finding elevated points to glass from, trying to locate fresh sign or the first herd of elk. It was clear after the 3rd day that the elk seemed to either be pressured, or just preferred the other side of the canyon from where we were sitting. They would be visible across the deep canyon just grazing the mountain side. There were 6 or 7 cows and at least 2 bulls that we had spotted, and the itch to get to them was driving me to make a plan.
That night, myself and one of the other guys in camp made a decision. We were going to find a way down the side of the mountain, across the canyon and on to the side of the canyon where we kept seeing and hearing these elk. I packed a backpack with a few extra sandwiches, as well as another layer of clothes in my main pack. Our camp was just over 9000 feet sea level, and the bottom of the canyon was around 6000. I had downloaded the area map to my smart phone, and knew where we had to go to get out, anticipating that we were going to have a hard time climbing out where we were descending from. We also knew that there was another hunting party camped at the trail head where we were planning to come out.
It was a bit sketchy, and I was quickly having second thoughts when he and I began our descent into the canyon, but the drive inside me for a chance to put an arrow into an elk pushed me deeper, and I ignored the warning in the back of my mind. I had never seen or experienced the kind of terrain that I was hiking through, and every step was carefully calculated, and we made our way to the bottom of what is called Hells Canyon…before the trek was over we would find out why the name was so fitting.
We made it to the bottom, and it was by chance that we found a camp site that had been used for almost 4 decades according to the date carved on a tree next to the site. It was a leveled out site, having been dug out just a hundred yards or so from the river that ran through the bottom of the canyon. In the camp we found where someone had just recently dropped enough gear for at least a week or so of hunting in the back country. Everything but food was underneath a big blue tarp weighted down by rocks around the edges keeping the gear from the elements. We were blown away by the find, and knew that someone would be hunting this area in the days to come.