We expected to have an adventure while on an elk hunt in Colorado, but were not prepared to deal with a four-day rainstorm of biblical proportions that wiped out many bridges and roads way down below our tent.
We had a great time, though it was tough. We had no idea so many people were worried about our safety.
And amazingly, we called in a couple bull elk between the storms, had some wonderful fly fishing for native brook trout, and enjoyed many breathtaking views from our hikes up to timberline between the periodical bouts of rain, all the while after elk.
After leaving our base camp in Laramie, Wyoming, we had no cell phone or internet access even before crossing the Colorado border on the dirt road leading to the trailhead of our adventure.
The two-hour drive was slow, pulling a trailer with five horses to pack our gear back in the mountains. We spotted elk, moose, pronghorn antelope, and buffalo on the drive in, under bluebird skies. Little did we know, things were going to dramatically change.
One of our bow hunters was experiencing altitude sickness and had to hold back a day to catch his breath, so to speak, but was going to ride in on the seven-mile trail the next day, and promised us T-bone steaks to grill.
What a joke that was! That evening, the rains began and it was impossible for the horse trailer to even leave the ranch in Wyoming because the foothills down at 8,500 feet were beginning to flood. We wouldn't see them for a week. Roads and bridges were washed out.
But we didn't know that. We had no radio. No contact with the outside world. All we knew was that it seemed to be raining most all the time, day and night. And we had to deal with it the best we could in a wall tent with no floor that had a few leaks. So "drip management" became our mantra.
A couple plastic tarps down, good air mattresses, and a number of butane bottles for our two burners to take some of the dampness out of our clothes, heat water for coffee, and our dehydrated foods, and Gerry and I were set to hunt elk.
When we arrived up at elevation (our camp was at 9600 feet) there was a group of traditional bowhunters (shooting only long bows and recurves, no compound bows) from the Fort Collins area also hunting wapiti. One, named Jim, had a camp next to ours and used five lamas as pack animals. But on Wednesday, he stuck his head in our tent and said, he had had enough of "rain in the Rain-wahs," and his tent was leaking.
We wished him well, and were much appreciative as he left us some food. Little did any of us know that him and his son Mark and his hunting buddy Steve were jumping from the frying pan into the fire. He would be driving into his worst nightmare with his lamas in a trailer along the washed out, impassable roads as he tried to get back home to Fort Collins, nestled in the flood-wracked Front Range of the Colorado mountains.
But the evening before, Gerry and I had gotten into elk. Boy, did we ever! We had carried our rainsuits in our packs, climbed a nameless mountain, and worked down into a hidden drainage.
We were astounded by the elk sign, massive rubs on trees from the bulls working their antlers, fresh droppings every few feet, and constant evidence of fresh browsing on the greening plants. Gerry said “ ... dark timber." And instantly we heard our first bull bugle, a long high-pitched whistle that starts with a roar, haunting and loud.
We looked at each other with adrenaline-stoked eyes. Yes! We found them!
Along the way we were very cautious for "sound management." Even the zippers on our rain gear were carefully managed to minimize alert sounds to the elk's super-keen hearing. Of course our stalk to the bottom of the drainage was coming from upwind so that scent-management was a non-issue.
When the elk bugled, I hauled out my bugle (a two-foot long rubber tube with a diaphram-like turkey call mounted in one end) and screamed back at him with a challenge. He immediately answered. Thumbs up!
We had been so careful and quiet. You should have seen the look in Gerry's eyes when I picked up a large dead pine log and started smashing dead branches, the understory of a pine tree and bugling back at the elk! I wanted the big bull elk to think that another bull was raking his massive horns, getting ready to fight.
It almost worked too well! The big herd bull roared and whistled and came in on the run, crashing through brush like a train, up the mountainside and circling us to get down-wind so that he could scent-check us.
A trophy-class mule deer buck came bounding down the mountain, expecting to witness a fight too. His eyes were even bigger than Gerry's when he ran up to me, a man with a log in his hands, his bow on a limb, in the middle of the Rawah Wilderness, just before dark! The big buck was just out of velvet. His massive rack with the split G-2s was still orange.
Oak Duke writes a column appearing Sunday on the Outdoors page of the Spectator.