We wound our way through the darkness, and parked just shy of a gate in a fenceline. John whispered, “There is a blind just up this hill to our left that will put you in a really nice spot. Behind you is Rabbit Ears pass. I’d expect we’ll see elk coming through here this morning.”
We slipped out of the truck. As I was still acclimating to the elevation (I believe we were around 9500 feet above sea level), John offered to carry my rifle for me. We started walking at an angle to the hillside. Hailing from the mostly flat lands of Ohio, this hill looked enormous to me, and I didn’t honestly think I would be able to make it, but I decided to just keep my head down, and try to step in Jack’s footsteps in the snow, which was a little deeper through here. After a few minutes, I started to breathe a bit heavy. Jack simply stopped and admired the day while I caught my breath and caught up with him. Then we moved on. Eventually, I glimpsed the little roof of the blind, and found my excitement all over again!
As I settled into the blind, I looked over the terrain as Jack spoke. To my left, the valley went downhill about 500 yards. In front of me was a much larger hill that rose from the valley, covered in lots of forested area. To my right, the valley rose up and quickly leveled off. John said the elk would most likely come up from the left as they went to higher grounds for the day, but to keep an eye out to the right, as they sometimes shared the dirt road that was a path for them. Jack then reconnoitered the area, leaning on the blind. The winds were just enough to bring a good chill with them. The sun began to just start glowing from behind the mountains, and I got a much better view of the area.
Down to the left toward the end of the valley were aspens and pines. 100 yards up from that was where the hill across from us really started, and the dense pines as well. Coming closer toward us, there was an open area with a couple of groupings of pines. Beyond that, the forest grew dense all the way to the top of the hill, easily three times the height of the one we were atop. I waited anxiously, with that feeling that today was the day.
Jack continued to scan the horizons. Before the sun crested, he spotted movement down to the left behind the trees at the end of the trail. I looked, but was unable to see them. He stuck his head in the blind and whispered that they would be coming toward us, that the group seemed to be gathering down in the valley, but not moving up just yet. I kept craning my neck beyond the confines of my hood, hat, and balaclava, and 10 minutes later, I saw the shadows moving in the trees. I was so excited! I took the safety off the rifle, and made sure I was sighted in to the area to the left where the clearing in the trees was on the opposite hill.
A few minutes after the sun cleared the mountain ridge, the herd started their march to the highlands. Leading them was a nice sized cow. I started trying to take aim at her. The cows were hugging the tree line, a little farther than I had anticipated. The lead cow walked past the two small groups of trees in the clearing and paused for just a second to look over her shoulder. Just as I felt like I had a good tight grip and steady aim, she turned forward and walked into the woods! “Dangit!” I whispered to Jack. She was a beaut!
“Don’t worry about her. You can’t imagine how many more are heading up that hill,” he said reassuringly.
Another 20-30 cows wandered up the hill. We watched a couple of spikes in the march. Pretty soon, they paused. There were 15 good cows on the clearing now. I picked out the largest I could see, and started taking a bead on her. Suddenly Jack whispered, “Don’t take her. There is a bull coming. Wait for him.”
I trusted his guidance completely. A couple minutes later, Jack said, “Here he comes. Get ready.”
I got a solid grip on the rifle. “Should I take the shot?”
“Does it feel good?”
“It feels perfect!”
I drew on the target area of the bull clearly in my scope, and I pulled the trigger with my brain simultaneously shrieking, “You did it!!” As I watched in the scope, at the moment I shot, I was sure I had aimed a little high – my shot was closer to behind his shoulder blade, I prayed it would be alright. I continued to watch in my scope. The bull jumped, and he quickly flipped around. I lost sight of him in the optics just as it looked like he was going to run for it. We both looked back to the clearing, and did not see any elk lying on the snow. The rest of the herd looked a little disoriented, but soon they were reconvening for their single file march to higher ground.
“Did I hit him? Did I hit him?”
Jack peered through his binoculars. He stared everywhere in the area. “I’m not seeing him, Betsy. That doesn’t mean you missed him though.” He pulled out his cellphone and called John, who was nearby on the low end of the valley. “John did you see that bull in the herd below us?” John replied that he had seen that bull going up with the others. “Did you see that bull come back out after the shot?” John said no, he had not seen any other bull.
The herd of cows continued their march. This had to be a herd of two or three hundred elk! Jack then said, “Go ahead and put your safety on. What we’re going to do is wait for the rest of the heard to finish going up in the woods and get settled. That way we won’t spook them going down to look for your bull. If you didn’t get him, there’s still plenty of good hunting to do.”
Thus began the longest wait in my life. Okay, it wasn’t as long as getting through labor, but oh the tension…did I hit that elk or not? That was the first bull I had seen. As it would turn out, it would be one of a couple bulls I saw all week. I felt so certain that although my shot was high, I had hit him. I hoped this would not be a case of a long endurance chase. I texted my husband that I thought I had taken a bull! I type about how excited I was to find out but I had to wait!!! Ralph wrote back, “Call me as soon as you know something!”
The elk parade completed their plodding through the clearing. When the white rumps were well into the forest, Jack said, “Let’s go look for that bull!” Off we went, me trying to descend the long scrub-covered hill of our perch, following Jack. Jack made sure I was doing well, and went a little farther in front of me.
We finally hit the dirt path, and Jack paused and stared through his binoculars once more. All I could see was scrub and snow. I started to wonder if my shot was actually higher than I thought. I started to wonder if I had pulled the shot. I wondered a number of negative things, but still tried to maintain a glimmer of a hope. Another hill to descend was in front of us. As this one was steeper, I tried to follow Jack’s steps as best as I could, but my crummy knees were talking back to me. I slowed down, picking my way carefully past some older scrub bushes. Jack scampered ahead of me, and stopped and stared into his binoculars once more. As I caught up, I asked the simple question: “Anything?” He replied, “Not yet.” My heart sank just a tiny bit more. Jack resumed his trot down the hill about 25 yards and stopped. Again, the binoculars were up to his face. I caught up, and again interrogated him with my single word question: “Anything?”
Jack looked down at my expectant face, tossing the elk call around in his mouth, the binoculars a couple inches away from his face. Then he broke into a great big smile, and said, “Dead elk!” My jaw dropped, and I began jumping with excitement! I gave Jack a big hug, and thanked him. “Let’s go take a look at him!” Jack said.
Jack scaled the rest of the yardage in no time. I took a little longer! But when I reached where the elk lay, Jack said, “Look at this. I didn’t notice it before. Did you?” He pointed to the bull’s head. There was a very nice 6-point antler on the right side of his head. On the left, there was one large brow tine. “No, I did not notice that at all. When I was aiming, I only saw he had antlers.” Jack said, “Well he is a beaut! You did a terrific job. It looks like after he jumped, he simply slid down the hill to this ditch. Excellent shot!” Jack estimated his weight to be about 700 lbs. Jack examined the brow tine closely, and figured out that the bull must have broken it off when he was in velvet. We then repositioned the elk so that I could get some bragging-rights photos of my first hunting success!
I could not stop smiling. I could not believe that I had a good clean shot at this beautiful animal that was going to provide meat for my family for months to come. Jack took pictures with the ranch camera as well as my cell phone. I teased him and said that a career with “Glamour Shots” might be in his future!
While Jack got the equipment out to start field dressing the bull, I sat down in the snow, examining my harvest more closely. He truly was a beautiful animal. I quickly said a prayer of Thanksgiving to God. I was honored to be able to take this magnificent animal home. Then I called my husband with the great news!
While I watched Jack complete dressing out the front end of the elk, Guide John arrived in a buggy along with Marsha and Deb! In my excited victory, I gave a war whoop to the girls. I shared the story of the bull with the gals, while John and Jack finished with the animal.
This was an experience I will never forget. I can’t wait to do it again! Anne and the whole crew took excellent care of us, and provided me with an awesome, memorable step outside my comfort zone.