Backcountry Archery Hunt – Day 1 Scout

 

I uncharacteristically took my time getting ready to head off to set up camp for a short archery deer hunt on Friday morning. Awakening at my usual time of 4:30, I did my journaling, walked the dogs with my wife, Pam, and then made myself breakfast. Just before 7:00 I was on the road to the Roosevelt National Forest.

As I pulled into the huge parking lot my Subaru Forester was the only vehicle. I took advantage of the toilet, strapped my Mathews Switchback bow to my backpack and hit the trail. I had supplies for three nights, but for some reason I wasn’t itching to hunt like I typically am. The season started tomorrow morning.

Walking the two and a half miles back to where I would set up camp I took in the scenery with two different views of the big mountain where the elk like to play. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t more excited for the hunt. I was unsuccessful in drawing an elk tag for the second year in a row for this area. Since I am running a 40 mile mountain trail race in one week I didn’t want to pack deep in to the area where I’ll hunt elk (9 miles one way) so I am hunting deer on this trip. There are far more elk high in this area ranging from 9500’ in elevation to 11,500’. The last two years I’ve hunted deer lower, but it is warm there and tends to have more people milling about in the areas. This would hopefully be quieter and a little more remote.

After an hour I arrived at the area I had surveyed on the map for decent camping. I didn’t have water at my site but a five minute walk farther down the trail gave me access to fresh water. I went about pitching my tent and found the spot ideal. I was far enough off the trail that no hikers would notice my camp, but if you knew where to look you could see it from the trail. While in timber, 99% of hikers never look more than a few feet in front of them, so I was confident my biggest concern would be errant bears in the area. Even though I was seven miles as the crow flies from where this incident happened earlier this year and the culprit had been dispatched of.

After filtering enough water for this day and the next morning I went back and took a few shots with my bow at a stump to make sure nothing got knocked out of whack on the hike in. I found a suitable dried out stump that would stop my designated practice broadhead but not damage it. I was walking about eating some Fritos Scoops when I set up the stump. Needing a small aiming point I wedged a Scoop into the stump and walked about 25 yards away. As I surveyed the target, a camp robber came flying onto the stump. The Clark’s Nutcracker proceeded to steal my Frito and fly away! I had to laugh out loud at how these birds will find a camp within minutes knowing that people mean easy food. They are noisy birds and make a regular racket in the forest. Fortunately, I brought along a two inch orange dot for this very purpose. After shooting a bit, my long shot at 35 yards landed just a few inches to the right.IMG_4504

By now it was mid morning and I gathered my pack, some food and other items to hike to where I’d be hunting for a little scouting. I was forced to make my camp outside of a specific perimeter which meant my area for the morning hunt would be a 2 1/2 to 3 mile hike from where I slept. I wanted to do a dry run and check the area again. After an hour’s walk I was at treeline and sitting in a spot where I had seen three mule deer bucks a week ago, one a very nice 4×4 and quite large. But it was now midday and nothing was about that I could see. Not a worry, because tomorrow was when I wanted to see game.  I headed back toward my camp but this time headed over the mountain and bushwhacked versus the road I had come up on.

That is what separates this kind of trip from a trail backpacking trip. While backpacking, the trail is not always easy but it is always a trail. Scouting to hunt and hunting involve miles across backcountry; off trail and in rough country. Areas can be steep, so steep you can reach out and touch the mountain in front of you. Deadfall typically is everywhere and makes it difficult to walk a straight line. On this trip, my clothes were constantly sticky with sap from limber pines and got on everything. Once above tree line, steps have to be chosen carefully so rocks don’t dislodge and trap a leg or worse. Backpacking is tiring, but predictable. Backcountry hunting is hard work and exhausting and mentally draining at times. But the physical nature is much more intense than trail backpacking; at least in my opinion.

I soon was in an area where I had written a post from a week ago. I sat for a while, now late afternoon, and after glassing an area that I knew contained elk, and hoping to also see deer, nothing seemed about. Hmmm…maybe everything moved to a different area. Large game animals move about in patterns and don’t always just stick to one area, hence the challenge of hunting them. It was approaching 5:30 and I decided to begin moving back to camp to make myself some dinner before dark.

I stood up, donned my pack and began to slowly walk. I hadn’t moved much when I heard animals. Only elk make so much noise. There was some gentle mewing which sounded like a calf or cow. I turned my attention down the mountain where it seemed like the elk were at. Then I heard what sounded like antlers banging into branches and clacking about. I was positioned in a very small opening with none of the Limber Pines or Englemann Spruce right by me. I caught movement to my right and saw antlers flash and elk moving toward me. I quickly crouched down to make myself invisible or at least as small as possible! Pulling my camera out I hoped to capture the unfolding scene. The elk were moving and feeding at the same time, heads down, intent on ingesting calories. One bull was on his way to where he would cross right in front of me. He finally cleared a tree where he saw me and stopped on a dime. Guess what? I was not invisible! Thus began the staredown as I pressed the shutter on my camera. I was operating on the fly, not being able to make adjustments, just trying to get as many shots of him as possible. He had five points on his right beam and four on his left, the top point on that side not splitting like the right did and he qualified as a “raghorn”.

As we had our little staredown another bull was on a path where he would walk right into me. But he, too, saw things were not as they should be on this stroll to their feeding

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Bull #2 – I’m not sure if the camera had trouble focusing or my hands were shaking too much!

ground. He now was directly off to my right and I gently turned the camera toward him to snap off some shots.

Meanwhile three more bulls were milling about behind bull #1, two were small raghorns and another was still in the velvet with small spikes that split up high and he was probably a one and a half year old, mabye two and a half.

After a few minutes they decided I was out of the ordinary enough to warrant heading back to where they came from. Bull #2 actually wheeled a bit and was more spooked than bull #1. Likely, he had caught my scent.

After they left I heard two barks and decided the exciting event of the last few minutes was now just a memory. I sort of sat there, gathered myself and allowed my adrenaline to settle back down. Again I heard some gentle mewing and knocking of antlers below me. I slowly proceeded ahead and was able to look down into a large park, about 400 yards long running up the mountain in an east/west fashion. Down below were the five elk, they had not fled the area but merely circled lower to get to their feeding ground. I now recognized the different racks and viewed them through the binoculars. As I checked them out, more bulls now came into view. One had an either broken or misformed right main branch, another seemed to be a nicer 5×5 and a two more small bulls. This group of four headed into a slightly different area. So near as I could tell I had nine bulls within a few hundred yards of me. I was literally surrounded by elk, which is an incredible experience in the wild. It is one thing to see the elk bugle at Rocky Mountain National Park but to have a 15-20 yard encounter with a bull elk is someting different altogether. It is a treat, an experience to treasure, and something that doesn’t happen when you walk on designated hiking trails. Below is a slideshow of Bull #1.

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With the wind blowing up the mountain I was happy the elk were not disturbed. I would not be hunting them tomorrow but somebody might be (however, I doubted this) and I felt it prudent to sneak out of there without them getting bumped out of the area.

While finishing up watching them (it is difficult to break away from such magnificence!) I heard a few snorts. My mind was so intent on the elk that I didn’t weigh its significance. While elk will bellow, bugle, mew, bark and are very vocal, they do not snort. Deer snort. As I looked up I saw a small mule deer buck bounding back across the large meadow toward the dark timber. I am sure he did not see or hear me, but he may have been bothered by all of the bulls. I watched as he bounded lightly across the grassy meadow in the evening light. So…this would be an okay area for deer as well. However, I was already set on spending the morning up higher.

I made my way straight down the mountain, mentally making a note how much easier it is to drop down in a line 856 vertical feet in the distance of six tenths of a mile. Hiking back up that way is much, much slower, especially off trail!

I arrived in camp at dusk, having just enough light to heat water for dinner. I donned my headlamp to go filter water. This is my least favorite part of the backcountry hunting solo experience; doing all the camp chores in the dark. The best hunting is at first and last light, often meaning 16 hours away from camp if one is covering ground looking for game. Naps help but I never am able to sleep for more than 20 minutes during the day. This is where having a buddy along would be a lot of fun. Instead, I crawled in my tent and never even opened my book on my phone. I shot a satellite text to Pam that I was safe for the night and made sure the alarm was set for 4:00am. It was before 9:00 as I fell asleep after an adventurous first day.

 

Timberline in August – 2017.08.18

  • Friday, 18 August 2017
  • Niwot Ridge Biosphere Reserve, Roosevelt NF, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1324
  • Elevation – 11,016’
  • Blue skies, warm temperatures, high friendly clouds
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A Limber Pine lives a hard life at 11,000′

As I look to my left and north I see Niwot Mountain, 11,471’ high. A saddle runs southwest of the peak to another peak that is unnamed, yet is higher than Niwot standing 11,557’ above sea level. Running southeast of the saddle is a drainage that becomes Fourmile Creek and I am sitting on the south side of the drainage looking down into it. As the crow flies, the peak of Niwot Mountain is .7 of a mile away on a 26 degree bearing. That perplexes me because it seems that it should be slightly northwest, but later as I look at a map I see I was tricked by the terrain.

I first made my way to this mountain in the fall of 1991, coming from the southeast, miles away and walking largely off trail. In recent weeks I have re-familiarized myself with the area, one day running completely around the mountain. Today, I have come two and a half miles on trail and then another mile or so up and a thousand feet higher. Surprisingly, the direct ascent up the mountain was not too difficult, but it was necessary to take frequent breaks in order to allow my breathing to catch up to my pace.

I’m here in the area looking for a place to camp next weekend and waiting for game to start moving about. The wind blows upon my back, but also swirls as the minutes pass. The mountain, mostly bathed in sunlight, occasionally becomes shrouded in cloud cover; big, puffy white clouds pose no threat to me as I flirt with the treeline and tundra.

I realize that my left forearm and my pants are sticky with pine resin. I battle the residue on my arm and then grab some dirt, form a fine dust and rub it over the annoying spot. Problem resolved! Back on August 1st I had glassed (used binoculars from a distance) the mountain from two miles away and saw 14 elk grazing on the mountainside. As I sit on the ground the musky smell of elk permeates the area as it mixes with the scent of pine. I regret not having my tree guide with me as I look at the different fir trees. I do know, however, that my very pokey next door neighbor is a juniper. Aspen shoots no more than a foot high grace the hillside along with willows that are knee high, a favorite food for elk and especially moose. A few Engelmann Spruce stand tall and upright but are outumbered by the dominant scrubby and bent Limber Pines. I walk over to get some close up photos for positive identification later (I was initially wrong on the spruce and pine). The Limber Pine has needles in clusters of five. The Engelmann needles grow individually directly off the branches. There is so much I do not know about the flora of Colorado. Each year I try to learn more, but I think I forget more than I learn. Below are close ups of the Engelmann Spruce, left, and Limber Pine, right.

I’m enjoying this time just at treeline, where the high alpine forest turns to tundra. The breeze changes and I’m overwhelmed by a pungent whiff of elk. The tundra holds delicate grasses and plants. The elk have come high to feed on the most tender of plants that contain the highest nutrients. Close by is a pine branch

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A limb bears scars from a bull elk

that has been battered by a bull elk, who are just weeks away from the magical time of year when they will begin to bugle, establishing dominance in the herd and the right to breed the cows of their harem.

Wildflowers still bloom here. Yellow sedum grows by me as well as blue harebell. A raucous Gray Jay screams out at 33 minutes into the hour. They are abundant here and rather noisy at times. White yarrow also dots the landscape.

I observe a tiny sparrow alight on a branch fifteen yards away. Through the binoculars I see the wind ruffle his feathers and hairdo, creating a tiny mohawk courtesy of the local stylist, Mother Nature. He is there for maybe a minute before flying away. Big fat flies buzz around my knees but don’t really bother me.

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The summit of Niwot Mountain

The hour begins to tick down quietly. The afternoon drawing longer, shadows creating a different canvas across the vast, large drainage. It’s peaceful here this afternoon, a welcome break from the many violent storms and rain that have been prevalent over the past weeks. White billowy clouds pass easily overhead, no threat at this time to change the current serene landscape high in the tundra.

Bald Mountain 2017.08.11

  • Friday, 11 August 2017
  • Bald Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1017
  • Elevation – 9,031’
  • Warm, sunshine, clouds, and inversion below
Weather

Storm clouds move in from the top right as an inversion dominates the scene in the lower left.

After a long hiatus from sitting still for an hour, I am back. Spring came, the world outside came alive and I needed to be moving. I’ve spent much of my time this summer on the move, covering many miles in the mountains, running, hiking, backpacking. In a few weeks the activity will become a dichotomy. On Labor Day weekend I will be running a one day mountain trail race called the Grand Traverse, 40 miles of high country running from Crested Butte to Aspen. During the month of September I will also be spending a number of nights in the backcountry pursuing Mule Deer and Elk during the archery season. Hunting is a part of me and has been for most of my life. There are many opinions on it, but it is where I found my first connections to the wilderness. It involves immense amounts of time not moving, being still, listening and tuned in to creatures that move at a very slow pace, slower than the human race and in turn completely tuned in to their surroundings. I think I’ll share the experience of being outside, vulnerable and alone during those times in September. So I invite you to stay tuned for that. It will not be a story of a harvest as much as a story of the experience of pursuing something elusive.

This morning, however, I am sitting on Bald Mountain facing east looking at Sugarloaf Mountain. I drove up out of a cloudy, foggy Boulder and rose above the inversion. This is a strange area. In all directions I can see residences of people that live in the hills above Boulder. To them, I am sure they feel like they are “getting away” from the city. But in short order, one crosses many different roads in this area. It is busy with campers, hikers, locals, transients and a weird existence where they all come together. I don’t find much comfort here because man has imposed so much of himself into this area that it doesn’t seem wild, only weird. Behind the mountain to the southwest is a huge scar from a wildfire that was caused by an out of town transient visitor last summer that had to have a campfire. Many are drawn to this area because Colorado has become a land of milk and honey, or, weed and edibles.

But I am literally above all of this. It feels great to sit back directly on the damp ground. My butt gets a little wet, but today it’s sunny and summertime. I’ll dry out quickly. The breeze is soft, the sun warm. Insects buzz about, birds chirp and grasshoppers flutter and buzz about like dying helicopters. An insect I cannot identify goes ‘tick, tick’. A cacophony of flying bugs creates a chorus of music here in this meadow atop the mountain.

The hillside is gorgeous. Tall grasses tickle my arms. Mountain Mahogany lies off to my left and slightly uphill. Butterflies flit about, one being an American Lady, who upon

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American Lady

inspection of a photo, later reveals that it has been battered about here on the mountain. There are various wildflowers including dwarf lupine and asters. Berries are also close by and reminds me that the bears of the mountains are entering into hyperphagia, a period where they consume up to 20,000 calories a day in preparation to fatten up before hibernation in the winter. As berries ripen they will feast on them and be happier than Yogi Bear at a pick-a-nic!

Sinister clouds begin to form behind me to the west, rolling in from the Continental Divide. It is the monsoon season and while on the front range we do not experience the deluges like they do in the deeper San Juan mountains, we have had some heavy rains in the previous days. An inversion remains below me in the Boulder Valley and I sit in sunshine between the threatening high clouds above and the oppression of higher humidity below. Cooler air blows up from the valley below me.

It’s now 10:59 and I realize that everything is moving quickly and I have not stopped enough in the past months to see all that is happening around me! Summer is fleeting and it leaves a sad pit in my heart. There is now immense calm on the mountainside and it seems a storm is imminent. Voices carry up to me from below, either hikers, locals or campers. Tiny raindrops begin to dot my pants at 11:04.

As I finish out my hour I’m thankful for the time here. It is a new place and one I wanted to check out. Yet, I doubt that I will come back here anytime soon. The views are fantastic, but there is too much actiivty for my liking. Perhaps I’ll bring a friend back for a winter hike, but in summer, the high country calls to me more. I desire places where the air is thinner, the weather a bit more unpredictable and the solitude easier to find.

A Journal Entry

Thursday, August 10th, 2017 – 5:10am

The pen feels especially good in my hand these days. The ink flows easily to the paper and is smooth compared to the scratchiness of the fountain pen. The Bic Ultra Round Stic Grip, a "cheap" pen bought in a multi pack does a better job. For more than a year I have been forcing the issue with the fountain pen, a gift from Wilson, my father-in-law. Sentimental reasons contribute to my attachment of the the pen as well as nostalgia and a connection to the "old ways" of doing things.

I would take the fountain pen apart, clean it, allow it to dry and the load a new cartridge into it. The pen never was happy with this particular paper from this journal, an exact replica of the journal I received from Wilson during Christmas of 2015. For a time I had a journal with paper that had a sheen and the ink moved more freely along those pages.

I glance now at the blue and silver Cross pen, picking it up, its touch cool to my thumb and forefinger, the surface temperature also the same as the room temperature which has cooled from the night air. I uncap it to write and I am pleased as ink flows, but by the fifth word it ceases to finish the task. I give it chance upon chance, a shake, a twist, a squeeze of the cartridge, taking it apart and putting it back together again. At times it has made an outright mess of my journal, a big blue blob masquerading as a Rorschach ink spot.

We hold on to imperfect things in our lives. Giving perhaps so many second chances we lose track of the times we pardon. Perhaps these become boundaries and the pen burns us repeatedly. I don't know. I'm a big believer in second chances even if they become exponential. I want to see the pen succeed, but sometimes the "cheap one" performs better and might win the job in the long run.