Hunting for something else

Column by Hal Walter

Outdoor life – November 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Through the black timber I could see the golden sunlight reflecting off antlers taller and wider than any I’d ever seen. I crouched and blew twice on the call, trying to imitate a cow elk.

The big bull bugled from about 30 meters away. Then he turned and started toward me, walking quickly and turning his head from side to side in a futile attempt to squeeze his massive rack between the trees.

But no path was quite wide enough and twigs and branches snapped from trunks at his approach. I lifted the Hawken to my shoulder and tried to find a place to thread a bullet through the trees as the huge animal rushed closer and closer. I had trouble getting the rifle seated properly in the crook of my shoulder because of my backpack strap. There was only one clearing between the trunks and I would have to wait until he was almost on top of me, leading the shot to arrive precisely as he stepped into the clearing.

The only real chance a Central Colorado resident has at living off the land — even in a partial sense — is by hunting big game. Sure, at some of the lower elevations there is gardening. But it’s rather marginal.

Beyond that, the only sensible and legal way to put a large quantity of food in the larder is by hunting a deer or an elk during one of the half-dozen or so seasons held for each of those species from late September to mid-November.

Fishing is out of the question — the possession limit is barely enough for a meal. Likewise small game and birds. In Alaska, people who subsist on wildlife put huge amounts of these types of critters away for the winter months. But here we have possession limits that keep us from doing this. Hunting is predominantly for sport, not subsistence.

I eat meat, therefore I hunt. So it irks me that the hunting scene in Colorado has few provisions for a rural hunter-gatherer like myself. The seasons, rules and regulations seem set up more for the industrial-tourism racket than the local hunter interested in the spiritual connection of what nature can provide. A subsistence hunter should have the entire fall to put an animal in the freezer, but that’s not how it works.

It’s a big game, all right. This year, having grown tired of competing with sport hunters who come up from the cities and from out of state for the regular rifle seasons, I applied for and received an antlered elk license for the muzzleloading season. Muzzle-loading licenses can only be acquired through a drawing. The one I received said it was good statewide, which meant it was good statewide except in the 30 or so management units where it wasn’t.

I would have to use a primitive weapon, a caplock rifle akin to what was used in the Civil War, an event with a body count we haven’t been able to approach despite modern automatic weapons. Some of the management units where my statewide license would be good had antler-point restrictions — any elk taken in these areas would have to have four or more points, or a brow tine at least five inches long.

Since I knew no elk would ever stand still long enough for me to measure its brow tine, I selected my own home turf, the east flank of the Sangre de Cristo range, big game unit 86, where any bull elk with an antler at least five inches long would be legal for the freezer.

Hunting in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristos, if you really hunt, is no minor physical undertaking. It requires hours and hours of walking at high altitudes, logging long miles and huge vertical gains while carrying at least 20 pounds of gear, not the least of which is the eight-pound caplock soot-burner.

I spent my first night and day out beneath Marble Mountain where I heard elk bugle and saw plenty of sign but not hide nor hair. The next day I headed up the Gibson drainage and saw nothing. Then I spent a full day at the headwaters of Middle Colony Creek in the shadow of Humboldt Peak. I saw elk only from afar but on the walk home I proved to be a curiosity to a number of bulls who answered my bugle in the darkness along the Rainbow Trail.

I returned there the next morning and they were all gone. Elk can and do range 50 or more miles in the course of a night. That day ended in an icy rainstorm that sent me scurrying back to my truck before nightfall.

The next day found me in the Swift Creek Drainage. I left the trailhead, peeling off clothes in the glorious autumn warmth, only to be greeted by a soaking whiteout blizzard a couple of hours later on the ridge between Swift and Short Creek. I heard elk bugling but the snow was falling so heavily that I never found their tracks.

As I headed back down the trail at twilight I heard thunder behind me. Soon it was followed by flashes and then it was upon me. First the blinding purple light then the nerve-rending boom. Then they were simultaneous. A muzzleloading rifle has a barrel like a giant crowbar, a big lightning rod. A moving target is harder to hit, so I splashed at high speed back to my truck through the trail-turned-ditch.

“Does it really taste that good?” a friend asked. What’s not understood is that the quest for meat often affords other rewards besides the culinary.

Hunting makes a person get off the trails, the routes put in place to keep those people without an imagination out of the actual forest. But what the hunter finds is that there are lots of trails that aren’t on any maps — elk trails and abandoned people trails. Some are both. I found one such path, the old Lakes of the Clouds route, one day. I thought I was following a game trail until I found the battered remains of an old sign nailed to a tree. Another unbeaten path leads to a mine hole of unknown depth or purpose. Others are vacated wagon roads that lead to fields of stumps or to nothing at all. Wilderness area indeed.

Getting off the trail affords you sights that few others will ever see. There’s nothing as strangely soothing as watching from a high ridge on a fall evening as the shadows of the sharp Sangre de Cristo peaks, like giant dark teeth, march across the Wet Mountain Valley, eating it leisurely, consuming it in darkness.

Hunting in this way helps to repair those senses that are destroyed by our modern lives and our love-hate relationships with little plastic boxes — the television, telephone, radio, computer and fax. Soon you know again the sound of a pine squirrel chewing on a cone. You remember how a bounding deer sounds different than an elk crashing through the timber. You start to follow your nose to elk beds and wallows.

The Hawken, despite the 100-grain charge and the huge .54-caliber bullet it was driving, sounded just like a child’s cap gun when it went off, and the greasy cloud of smoke hung there as the elk thundered away. At the last split second, as I had calculated the bull stepping into the small opening, he had sensed something. As the hammer was falling, the butt of the gun was slipping slightly off my backpack strap, and the bull was spinning on his heels. As the bullet was flying he was already gone. I heard a big crash as he took out an entire tree in his flight.

How can someone miss a whole elk from 13 paces? I don’t know, but I truly believe some animals have magical powers that even we don’t know about. I searched the rest of the day, more than four hours, for some sign to the contrary. The elk had run over snow but there was no blood trail. He had joined some cows and ran downhill at an angle, but he could not be found there, lifeless, as I imagined I would find him.

I returned the next day and searched the area again. In one last futile gesture I headed downhill at a 45-degree angle, the way I would have run if I were an elk. As I walked along I caught a whiff of elk scent and for a moment I thought I would find the animal piled up dead beneath a spruce. But then I heard a twig snap. I looked uphill and saw the shape of a huge bull with towering antlers, standing broadside, protected as always by the trees.

He watched me for a while, and then he trotted away.

Hal Walter lives in the shadow of the Sangres, and during the off-season, he hunts for magazine-writing assignments.