Slowly but surely, the sun was beginning to work its way lower and lower toward the western horizon. Its evening rays lit the frozen, snow covered landscape in a pinkish orange glow, interrupted only by the dark green branches of scattered Junipers. Each boot step across this frozen terrain gave a satisfying crunch and on occasion a slip as hurried steps found the sticky, slick mud beneath the snow. The footsteps, however, came to an abrupt end at the edge of a 150ft cliff. And that’s where I stood with another guide, both of us looking down to the bottom in the dying Colorado light.
“Well…Shit..”, I muttered, peering down the incline.
“He’s right down there at the bottom!”, yelled one of my hunters from the truck. “I hung my hat right where he’s at!”
Far below, I could see a bright fluorescent orange sock hat hanging gingerly in a patch of junipers. And I knew somewhere underneath those trees was my hunter’s dead Elk. Getting down there by foot wasn’t the problem. Nor was getting back up, for that matter. The issue? Getting back up with the Elk in tow.
“…said that Elk had a really long tail. And he goes That’s because it was my horse!”
Laughter erupted around the long dinner table at the punchline of one of many horribly inappropriate jokes for the evening. Silverware clanked while the mix of 25 hunters and guides told bad jokes, tall tales, and BS stories around the table. I, however, happily sat in silence, chewing my food and trying to listen to just one story or joke amongst the clamor of the dining room. I practically live for dumb stories. And whether it’s telling stories around the campfire with friends, at a bar over a beer, or with guests down in the Everglades, at the end of the day it’s always ME telling the stories. And I’ve heard my tales once or twice. So I enjoy listening.
It’d been a fairly long day. I’d woken up around 11am after a full night of driving through a blizzard. I made my way out to do a little spotting in the afternoon but to no real avail. Hunter’s that were out all day (not the ones I drove with the night before) had seen some Elk, but all too far away to make moves on. Good news? They were at least -seeing- Elk. The poor weather we’d had at R R Ranch last year meant that almost no Elk were moving at all. And by poor weather, I mean great weather. 65 and sunny is fantastic for us. But Elk?
Elk are horrible creatures. Originally from the ice planet Hoth, Elk are unsatisfied with any weather above -60 degrees. Comfortable weather for us means that Elk sit high up in the mountains in a vain attempt to get as close as they can to their home planet and stay cool. When horrible weather rolls in (blizzards), Elk get confused as to where they are and venture down from the mountains in search of Tauntauns to prey on. Naturally they use their canine teeth (seriously, google “Elk Canines”) to pull an unsuspecting Tauntaun to the ground where they will trample and later gorge themselves on these Snow Lizards in an order to get enough nutrients to survive the eternal winter. Varying reports say that a mature bull will sometimes use his antlers to actually fight Wampa’s off their kills. They are, indeed, the terror of the snow plains.
At least back home they are. Here they just eat grass and stuff.
But the good news for us this year was that the lovely blizzard had coated the entire landscape with about 8 inches of that white nightmare you northerners call “snow”. This is exactly what the Elk need to get them to move, and the forecast remained cold for the rest of the week, so spirits were high around the dinner table that we may have a very successful hunt this year.
The next morning started around 4 am. I groggily put on almost every article of clothing I brought with me, and got ready to hunt. There was, of course, a minor problem with me hunting this day: My rifle was still in Denver. Since the planes weren’t flying thanks to the blizzard, my checked bag (rifle) was still sitting somewhere in Denver Airport. It felt a little odd going hunting without a gun, but at the end of the day, the hunt really isn’t for me. It’s for my hunters. So with that in mind, I stepped out into the cold to see what the day had in store for us.
Mornings for the guides are generally controlled chaos. We try and gather our hunters, make sure everything good to go, and with all our T’s dotted and i’s crossed, we head out in the ranch trucks. Where we planned to hunt this year was about a 40 minute drive across the ranch in a pickup. So with the trucks filled to the brim with hunters and gear, they took off. Myself, however, along with three other guides, Nick, Aaron, and Cody, couldn’t fit into the available trucks. So we got the next best thing; The Can Am.
These things are a redneck’s dream come true. They’re essentially a four wheel drive golf cart on steroids. Topping out at 60mph in 4×4 high, it even comes with built in Oh-Shit handles for all passengers that look like joysticks in the center of the vehicle. Bottom line, the thing just looks like too much fun. Especially now that the roads were becoming muddy nightmares. The only problem? It was horribly cold outside and there certainly isn’t any heat in the Can Am. Thank god for windshields.
No one really stepped up and said they wanted to drive the thing, so I took advantage of their reluctancy and hopped into the driver’s seat.
Now, a wise old man that I used to work with named Stoney once told me “If it ain’t yers…Drive it like you stole it”. And I’ve taken that advice to heart over the years.
Ripping down the muddy back roads in the Can Am was exciting to say the least. Since the trucks had already made massive ruts, and the Can Am is about 1/2 as wide as a truck, that meant we spent 90% of the time tilted at a 45 degree angle as we tore down the road. But eventually, and after several moments that made the other guides grab their handles, we arrived on top of a barren hill called The Kitchen. It’s called that because apparently when Roosavelt came out for a mountain lion hunt, the camp’s kitchen was on this hill. At least that’s what I’m told. But today, it would be our observation post to glass over everything (including our hunters). It was still horribly cold, but we were at least greeted with an awesome sunrise.
As the fog cleared, we began spotting out Elk. Some looked like they were getting close to a few hunters, others going the wrong direction. We’d occasionally radio in to the trucks, and try to coordinate who’s where and what’s going on. But eventually we all heard it…
A far off rifle shot echoed through the valley, immediately followed by a second, and then third. Moments later another from a different location. Then another. Soon more from other directions. Elk were moving, and lead was getting slung by our hunters before we even had a chance to do anything. The morning progressed and things gradually got more and more chaotic. Elk were down, several of them. And we had to coordinate the logistics of getting them gutted, dragged, loaded, tracked, etc. Meanwhile keeping our eyes on other groups that were making their way toward other hunters. It wasn’t long before Cody, Aaron, Nick and I all got split up and were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. By mid afternoon we’d switched between trucks and the Can Am so many times that we all had bits and pieces of gear in every vehicle out there. Hunters continued to shoot and down Elk over the course of the day and by one point I found myself back on the kitchen in a truck with two hunters. We sat there glassing and listening to radio chatter while other guides and hunters picked up downed animals. Suddenly I looked to my right and saw them. Elk. Within range.
I bailed out of the truck and grabbed one of my hunters (who was half asleep). With my binoculars I could see the group. 8 of them, running right toward us. One spike…six cows…And right in the middle was a shooter Bull. Definitely not the biggest bull in the world, but nice enough and pretty tall antler wise. The problem was that they were moving in on us fast. Like…REALLY fast. We had only moments to react. I positioned my hunter with his shooting sticks, and got ready. Unfortunately the Elk turned just before getting to the base of The Kitchen. Only about 80 yards down the hill the herd turned to skirt around the Junipers at the base. There was an opening in the trees though, and I could see them jogging through in a line. I knelt down in the mud and whispered to my hunter as I watched through my binoculars.
“The first three are cows…The fourth one…That’s the Bull we want…Just wait for it”, I quietly told him. He was lined up, rifle shouldered, and waiting.
“There’s one…two”, I whispered as they crossed our only opening for a clear shot. “…Three…This next one…this is him…”
And nothing. No shot rang out next to my head. Nothing.
I quickly stood back up and tried to reposition my hunter, but it was no use. The small group had managed to skirt around the backside of The Kitchen through the junipers and were already on their way off the property. We’d missed that chance.
In my hunter’s defense, he never saw the Bull. Plus the opening he had for a shot was very narrow and the animal was jogging. I certainly don’t blame him for not taking the shot. With how many Elk we’d been seeing, I was sure he’d be getting another chance.
Later on in the afternoon we’d heard that one of our hunters had downed a bull in a “difficult” spot. Just how difficult wasn’t exactly clear, so another hunter and I drove down to where the bull had been shot. Once there I met with the hunter who’d shot the bull and he described to me where it was. It was here that I walked to the edge of a giant cliff only to look down and see his fluorescent orange hat hanging in a tree.
I know many of you reading this are saying “Well…Just quarter up the animal like everyone else does”. And that thought definitely went through our head. The only issue is that the ranch prefers we get all animals back whole. In fact, over the years the ranch has been running, they’ve only had to quarter up one animal. So we weren’t going to do that. But we couldn’t exactly get a truck down to this bull. So we came up with a game plan. Commence Operation Tug of War.
A daring plan to say the least, Operation Tug of War was fairly simple at its core. The plan was to somehow get the Can Am to the bottom of this cliff, hook a strap to the Bull, and drag him out. Perfect. Sounds like a plan. First, we’ve gotta get that Can Am down there. How Jason managed to drive it down into the bottom of this canyon is classified information for Operation Tug of War. It will remain a mystery much like Machu Picchu or The Great Pyramids. But drive it down there he did and once there, we managed to hook a frozen tow strap to the back of the vehicle and the other end to the Bull. Now the tricky part.
We’re about 700lbs heavier than before, and the path taken down certainly wasn’t about to work on the way up. Our only option was the closest thing to a hill we could find. The slope was at about 75 degrees up, and about 60 yards to the top. But it as the best bet we had. After a lenghty discussion about how we wanted our funerals to be conducted, we set about performing the final stages of Operation Tug of War…
“FLOOR IT!”, I yelled as Jason put pedal to the metal and the Can Am roared toward the base of the hill, Elk in tow. Clutching onto the convenient Oh-Shit handle, I watched the speedometer as we gained speed. 25…30…35mph as we neared the base of the hill. I looked back to see Cody with a weird half-scared, half-excited grin on his face. Behind him, the Bull was acting like a snow plow while getting showered in the mud from the back tires. Then we hit the hill.
The engine began to roar even louder under the sudden strain, and we began to slow as we climbed.
For those of you who’ve ever ridden a roller coaster, and had to suffer through the painfully slow climb toward the top, it was something like that. And just like every roller coaster goer’s worst nightmare, we suddenly stopped.
We were now staring straight up into the evening sky. Completely stuck.
“Well…That’s as far as she’s gettin'”, said Jason as he practically stood on the brake. Operation Tug of War was threatening to be a complete failure. At least, until, we got another idea.
I bailed out of the vehicle and onto the near vertical slope, immediately falling into the mud and snow. On my hands and knees, I crawled/slipped my way to the top of the hill. That’s where I parked my truck. In the bed of the truck was a good 90 feet of tow strap. I unspooled it, hooked one end to the hitch, then tossed the other end down the hill. Cody was now crawling with the steel cable of the Can Am’s winch up the hill toward the truck. When he reached the end of the tow strap, he hooked the winch to it. It was then that the final stages of Operation Tug of War (AKA Pray this works) commenced. F250 in 4-low, tow strap hooked to the hitch, strap over the lip of the precipice and hooked to the winch, winch to the Can Am, Can Am in 4-Low, Can Am to the tow strap, and tow strap to the Elk, I yelled at Jason to hold on. Or at least something along those lines coupled with a string of expletives.
It was a spectacle to behold indeed, but my hunters watched as Operation Tug of War was executed flawlessly. The truck pulled the Can Am up and over the lip, followed closely by the Elk. Figures my GoPro was dead at the time.
The day had been a total blur. I lost count as to how many Elk I’d seen, gutted, dragged, whatever. We slowly drove down the muddy road and back to the lodge with Elk, hunters, and guides safely in tow while the sun dipped behind the mountains. And it was then that I realized something. I’d been working. ALL day. Since 4 am. But there hadn’t been a single moment during that day that I felt like I was AT work. Not once did I question anything I had to do, or feel the urge to complain. Or anything. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like fun. I was having fun with my hunters and other guides. I was excited to see them successful and even more excited to see THEM excited. It was an indescribable feeling and for the first time in my life I realized what work -should- be. It shouldn’t be “work”, it should be something you passionately enjoy. Of course I had to work hard. But that’s just part of it. And part of the fun. I love working with animals of course, and I love being in the field. Not in some office. But one of the main reasons I got into Wildlife to begin with (as do most others) was that I didn’t want to deal with people. Well I’ve sorta come full circle now. I actually kind of enjoy working with people, but with the right kind of people. People who are passionate about the same things I’m passionate about. People who get legitimately excited over things that you’re showing them or helping them with. That’s what made this day special and pretty eye opening. And that’s my goal for any future jobs I have. I believe it’s possible to have a job that you’re so passionate about, that it never feels like work.
It wasn’t until we arrived at the cleaning shed that we tallied up the days harvest. We succeeded in taking thirteen Elk in a single day. A record for the ranch and definitely a sight to see. Our hunters were pleased beyond all belief and dinner that night had very few old jokes and tales. Instead it was story after story about the day everyone had just experienced. It’s days like this one that make stories. The stories that get told over and over around the campfire, over a beer, or at the lodge dinner table years down the road. I can only hope to one day get to sit silently again and listen to the jokes and stories, except the ones I helped create. And with any luck, continue to make new ones for others in years to come.