Running With Elk

I went back into the woods for another try at elk hunting (did the same three weeks ago), but this time I had a heavy burden on my mind. I can’t share with you what the burden was, and that’s not my point anyway. This long post is a story of the best elk hunt I’ve ever had in 13 years of hunting the species, even though we were unsuccessful.

Arrow in Tree

So suffice it to say that something important to me wasn’t going my way, and that was on my mind when I shot to the Colorado Rocky Mountains with two of my children, Micah and Lydia, my fellow Jeub family bow hunters. We were determined to (1) have fun and (2) bring home some elk. We had prepared for months for this time.

But that burden was really dragging me down. Last time we were giddy talking about how we were gonna get dem elk. This time I drove most of the way scowl faced and down. “Gee, Dad,” Lydia said to me, “You’re being a real downer.”

“Come on, Mr. Grumpies,” Micah cheered me on. “Don’t be so glum.”

I trudged along. They had fun even though I was down in the dumps. We set up the tent and the rest of camp, hung our hunting clothes on a clothes line, and crawled into our sleeping bags at a good hour. I forgot to pray, something we usually do together tucked into our sleeping bags in our tent, right before going to sleep.

Day I

We were up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning. We had our day packs ready from the night before. We have a pretty smooth morning ritual when bow hunting:

  • Start the hot water on the camp stove
  • Get our hunting clothes on
  • Oatmeal and cold sausage for breakfast
  • Make Camp Coffee (that’s a cool recipe I’ll have to share with you sometime)
  • Gear up with day packs and bow
  • Hit the trail

The walk takes 90 minutes. It’s quite a walk in the dark, but there was a full moon to light the way. I was in better shape than I was three weeks ago, so I kept up with my teens. I still had the burden on my mind, but it was nice to think it through as we walked the mountain trail.

We arrived to our hunting spot shortly before the sun came up. The three of us covered an open valley, eyesight from each other with perhaps 300 yards between us. Micah began bugling, and three bulls came walking out of the woods. Micah forgot to turn on his radio, so Lydia and I talked with each other about the elk. “Micah, do you have your radio on???” Obviously not. The elk took about 30 minutes to moozie on over to Micah and surprise the daylights out of him. Micah turned on the biggest of the three, 20 yards, and Lydia and I thought he was going to pop it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a legal bull (they need four points on one antler to be harvested), but it was a 3×3.

One thing about bow hunting that is quite different from rifle hunting: you get to experience the elk “in their element.” Micah played with the elk. He bugled, broke sticks, stomped on the ground — did everything we have read before about how to lure elk in — and the elk took the bait. It was like playing with kittens, tempting them to come in a play. They left, came back, never sure of Micah, but not quite spooked enough to run. I was up on the side of a mountain watching, laughing, enjoying the thought that the elk so desperately wanted Micah to be another bull.

Then, from 50 yards to my left, two other spikes came out to join the fun. They, too, ran down to meet Micah. They walked down wind from him. Another reality of bow hunting that is different from rifle hunting: your scent matters a LOT more. Elk have nostrils the size of your forehead, and once they catch a whiff of you, they’re gone. They did with Micah, and they bolted — right toward Lydia. She, too, played with them by whistling. They paused, wanting Lydia to be a cow, but ran off when they realized she was not.

“I feel like I’m in the middle of a bachelor party,” Micah said on the radio, now turned on. “A bunch of young guys and no girls!”

“Wasn’t that a legal bull?” I asked. It was too far away from Lydia and I to tell for sure.

“No, it was a 3×3,” Micah returned. “You have no idea how many times I counted his antlers, praying he’d grow a fourth point.”

What an exciting morning. Unfortunately, Lydia’s cell phone fell from her pocket when we walked in, so she and Micah made the hike back to camp to try to find it. She eventually found it, but the two took naps back at the tent before making the 2.5 mile trek back for the late afternoon. I got a chance to hunt most of the afternoon by myself.

I still had the burden on my mind, but the experience with the spike bulls relaxed me quite a bit. It sure is fun to see these huge animals play in the forest. A reality of hunting that most hunters come to realize is that there are many, many more moments of solitude than exciting experiences with elk like that morning. I’ve grown to love that. And the rest of that first day — walking a little, munching on jerky, taking in the wild — I can’t explain how edifying it was. I spent some amplified moments in prayer, and solutions to my burden began to take shape.

God “speaks” to me, but never audibly. I sort of doubt those who claim he does, but only because I have never heard him this way. I suspect “speaking” with God is a metaphor, and I prefer “walking” with God. When I feel close to him, I like to say I’m walking with him, like a grandson walking with a grandfather. I pray and do the talking, he listens to my problems and troubles. Not hasty to give advice, nor pretending to solve anything with a quick fix, just listening. As I walked through the hills of aspens, I rolled my thoughts in my head. Perhaps the best moments during the day were when there weren’t any elk.

Micah and Lydia eventually returned, and we sat in the field as the sun went down. We heard some bugling to the south of us, but the sun beat us to any action. We walked back to the camp in the dark. The same full moon poked over the horizon on the way back. So beautiful.

We thought we had a pretty exciting day elk hunting. We crawled into our sleeping bags and thanked God for the fun. We never would have dreamed what came the next day.

Day II

I’m much more of a doer in life. “I tried” is something I avoid saying. To me, it sounds like a lousy excuse for failure. In work and even in play, I measure the time spent in the accomplishment I bring home. But one exception is hunting. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if no elk come around. I’ll enjoy my time with myself, my kids, and my God.

We woke again at 4:00 am and hit the trail and positioned ourselves before sunrise. Right as the sun came up, we heard bugling, much more than the day before. Rather than try to bugle the elk to us, we decided to enter the woods and go after the elk. Lydia stuck to the field.

Not 20 yards into the woods, I spooked another spike. Good grief, are there ANY legal elk around here? Yes, that was a prayer. I walked past the spike, spooking him a bit, and in another 20 yards I saw four elk — two spikes and two cows. I pulled my range finder up — 50 yards to one of the cows — and I aimed, shot, missed. Gah! The elk looked around, not knowing what to think. I cocked another arrow, and shot again — missed. The cows ran away from me, but stood more curious. I ranged at 80 yards — my lowest sited pin, I call it my Hail Mary pin — and shot again. Missed.

They finally ran off, and I realized why I was missing. I was shooting uphill, and I didn’t adjust correctly. I retrieved two of my three arrows and would have kept looking for the third, but I saw another elk about 200 yards away at the other end of the clearing. I ran to try to meet her.

In fact, they were three cows and another spike. I tried to sneak up on them, but they got spooked and ran off. I found a log to sit, unpacked a little snack from my day pack, and radioed Lydia and Micah of all the news. Micah wasn’t answering, but Lydia reported that she saw two cows spook out of the woods into the clearing. I took out a granola bar and started my “second breakfast,” only to be startled by steps behind me. Five huge cows were walking single file through the field that the other elk were in.

That could have been a 10 yard shot…if I was ready. I tried to move quickly — picked up my bow, turned, pulled back — but they were quicker. I saw only their large behinds bouncing away from me. Gah!

I sat back down, shoved the rest of my granola bar in my mouth, and started to pack back up. I blew on my bull call, just for the heck of it. This time I was ready: a cow walked out of the woods. Range: 30 yards. She stared at me. I froze. She walked behind a tree. I pulled back. She walked out from the tree. I fired.

THUMP!

I hit the darn tree! Gahhhh!

I decided to run after this cow. I rose, and I saw another elk from across the valley, about 100 yards away. I radioed, “The elk are everywhere!” The bugling filled the forest all around me.

Lydia radioed back, “I can hear bugling everywhere along the mountainside!”

Micah finally radioed back, “Dad! Lydia! I ran with a herd of about 50 elk for about a mile!” Micah is into parkour, a gymnastic/military thing that I never took much interest in. “I was jumping over the logs faster than the elk and were keeping up with them!” He was huffing and puffing through his story, so excited. He explained how he pulled back on two cows and one 5×5. Missed them all, and lost all but one arrow. He didn’t have a range finder, so at least he had the excuse of not knowing how far the elk really were. “I’m getting one of those range finders!” he’s saying now.

There is one thing I enjoy more than the joy of hunting: seeing my kids enjoy the joy of hunting. We were having a ball!

But I was determined to go after this cow I missed. I ruined the arrow, but had one more. I never found the cow, but heard a bugle very close to me while doing so. This was the most exciting experiences with elk in my 13 years of hunting the species. I bugled, he returned, and I caught sight of him. A huge legal bull, I saw come out of the woods about 400 yards across a field of aspens, beating the ground with his large hoofs, begging me to come and fight him. I was incredibly blessed to have a ridge to walk to him (elk typically don’t look up trees or cliffs). It was a tough walk, stopping now and then to blow on my bugle as I made the journey to meet him.

I got within 10 yards of this monster. It was heavily wooded. He was bugling deep and loud — man, was he ticked at me! — and I let one more return to him. I picked up a branch and beat the ground. I pulled back on my bow, held the 60 pounds for as long as my arm could stand it, waiting for him to walk out. All I needed was him to take a few steps around the brush that was between us, but he never did. He chickened out and began walking away. Quickly, too, and some cows followed. I never did get a chance to shoot at him.

I was deep in the forest by now, considered running after him, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to run with them like 16-year-old Micah. I decided to work my way back to the kids. About 100 yards into my walk back, a dozen cows were spooked from my radioing. (Note to self: when there’s a big bull in the rut threatening to fight you, chances are good that there are more than just a few cows around.) Among them was one bull — a big 6×6 — walking quickly along a hillside. I had one chance to shoot, not enough time to pull my range finder up, and figured 50 yards. I fired, missed. The elk bolted. The range finder measured 75.

Don’t misunderstand my mood. I was having an absolute blast! This was the most fun I had ever had hunting elk. Rifle hunting is totally different — elk are extremely frightened by high powered rifles firing at them — but arrows don’t seem to shake them up too much. You get to run with them and experience them in their environment. It’s a thrill, and this was the best in all my years hunting.

But I kept missing. I wasn’t angry with God, but still frustrated. I couldn’t have asked for more opportunity, but in my frustration I raised my bow above my head and shook it. “Dear God!” I cried, “why won’t you help me get an elk?”

I kid you not — and don’t judge me, now, I’m dead serious — I swear, I heard him laugh at me, and in his grandfatherly voice say, “How many chances do I have to give you?”

God Does Talk

That was the end of our hunt, essentially. I returned to meet the kids. We were very hungry, and we started to dream about getting back to camp early and making bacon cheeseburgers over the fire. We flew back to camp, talking elk all the way. You would have thought we shot something! We checked the weather, a storm was moving in, so we decided to cut off our trip by a day and head home. Besides, we had only four working arrows between the three of us.

And we were exhausted. Micah and Lydia slept most of the 4.5-hour ride home. I rolled the opportunities in my head. Perhaps…

  • I shouldn’t have made that last bugle at the big bull.
  • I should have spent the two seconds to measure the range when I saw that 6×6.
  • I could have taken time before the hunt to calculate how to shoot up hill.
  • I should have been in better shape to chase the elk like Micah did, maybe take up parkour.
  • We definitely should have had more arrows.

For two days in a row, we were in the middle of dozens — perhaps hundreds — of elk. You’d think we would have filled our tags, but we missed every time. This is our second year into archery, and we’re discovering that there is a lot more to it that we thought.

As I drove, the real world began to return to me. My burden returned to my mind. It was forgotten for a while, which was lovely. Those were the the two most exciting hunting days of my life. Opportunity all around us, but we kept missing. This is our second year bow hunting, and we naively thought we were prepared. There is more to this than we thought.

God was helping me make an obvious connection. I was missing a target in life, and I had my burden to carry, realizing that my situation was more complicated that I originally thought. I was learning something profound and it was changing me: When hardship or trial comes your way, what other choice do you have than keep pressing on, making the best of the opportunities God opens up for you? You’re getting better every time you try, so trying is worth something after all. God is running with you, hoping you succeed, but when you don’t, he’s still with you for the next shot.

Another successful elk hunt, as always.

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
I just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
“Son,” he said “Grab your things,
I’ve come to take you home.”

— Peter Gabriel, “Solsbury Hill”

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  • Doug Tjaden

    What an incredible story… May God continue to speak to you Chris.