19 Oct

Burris Elk Hunt 2009

Steven K. Ledin,

I checked zero on the "Devil Gun" at a range on the way to camp. No issues. Good to go.

I kind of hoped that I'd get a gentle knock on my cabin door by a cute little maid when it was time to wake from my feather bed. She would put a cup of good coffee on my bed stand with a coy smile and offer her best wishes for a good hunt while she clicked on the morning news. With a twirl of her skirt, and a turn of her perfumed ankle she would be gone, leaving me with, "Your breakfast will be ready at your leisure, Sir."

Instead I was led to a dilapidated 100 year old trapper's cabin with no running water, and a "bathroom" that consisted of a two hole privy outside with a finicky propane heater and wood slat walls that fit so loosely they looked like horizontal prison bars.

The twisted stairway leading to the cabin's upper level must've been designed by Salvidor Dali, with its queer illogical angles and abysses and precariousness. I drunkenly climbed them until the whole scene came into view. There were three green cots about four feet apart under a half wood, half tin roof in a room about the size of a prison cell with plastic sheeting for a window and a single electric light bulb hanging from a strained fixture that must've come from Edison's junk drawer. A sleeping bag was later thoughtfully provided. Three of us snorers slept in this room, another four downstairs, and three or four more in a tent outside. It is a prerequisite to be able to snore obnoxiously before being invited to any hunting camp, apparently.

My hunting companions were a few folks from Burris, who sponsored this hunt, and a couple of Joes like me. International flair was represented by a large distributor from Germany, and another from France.

We were with Trout Creek Elk Hunts, not too far away from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in the great Rocky Mountains. Brad and Brenda Carnahan are the owners and operators of this operation based on the Knott ranch, with a total of almost 9000 huntable acres. Brad has lived the elk hunting life forever. He's as skilled and tough and physical as you would suppose a person in his profession would be in this 10,000 foot elevation.

There were no posers or pretend people present.

The first morning of any hunt is usually the hardest, mostly because you don't know what to expect, exactly, and therefore you don't know exactly how to dress and what to bring.

It was in the 20s when we woke up before 6.

When sled dogs in the Iditarod race leave their starting areas, they don't do so on a bed of white snow. The snow is brown because the dogs know they will be exerting themselves and have no need to carry around extra weight in waste. So they relieve themselves first. Smart humans do the same. If you are slow to wake in hunting camp, just gather the gumption to drop trou over a frozen wooden slat in a windy privy when your testes are so cold they retreat into your belly, and the sleet pushed in by 40 mph winds smacks and settles on your goose-pimpled thighs and builds up and coats your legs until it looks like you're wearing goat hair pants. Icy baby wipes make your sphincter tingle and your eyes water. There are no books or magazines in this dark box with a temperature approaching absolute zero. There is no electricity, so your slobber drips down whatever flashlight you clench between your chattering teeth. (In most cases it was an excellent Streamlight Keymate…highly recommended!)

Breakfast was a granola bar or fruit with a pot of coffee split between a gaggle of hunters in various states of dress. Make a sandwich or two from stark ingredients and smoosh them into whatever room you have left in your backpack. You'll be gone all day, so you better have everything you need. Lots of water. You must stay hydrated, you must stay hydrated, you must stay hydrated.

I was scared and apprehensive like I always am when I have to perform, and I know what I expected. I've been taking this hunt very seriously, but I still knew that I would fail miserably to automatically assume peer level of these acclimated, mountain goat-like iron muscled and weather balloon-lunged indigenous guides and elk hunting practitioners.

I carried my old fleece backpack, repaired several times over with dental floss, filled with all my emergency equipment and two one liter bota bags. I like bota bags because they're soft and flexible, but mainly because you can squeeze the air out so the water doesn't slosh around and make alarming noises. Quiet is so key. My sticks were Bog-Pods, the best I have used so far. My soft case during local transportation was a Kolpin Rhino. I used the excellent new Bushnell Legend 1200 ARC rangefinder. I keep my ammo in an Uncle Mike's Open Buttstock Shell Carrier.

The first day was freaking brutal. A couple of miles up a damn fine angle, carrying my pack and gun and shooting sticks. Then it got steeper. And went on forever. I was soaked from the inside out like I took a shower in my clothes. The guys leading me were monitoring my breathing (more like gasping) constantly, and taking it as easy on me as they could afford. For a long while I could only go ten or twenty yards at a time. My legs wouldn't work as designed anymore. I actually cried out a couple times, "Mama, make it stop…!", but to no avail. I hope nobody heard me. I was spent. I can walk for days on level ground, but this was ridiculous. When we reached the summit I was okay again. We glassed for hours and saw lots of cow elk, but no bulls. My tag was for either sex, but antlers are kinda nice. I removed some clothing (which any smart person would've done first) and sat and stewed in my soaked base layers until I dried out as much as possible. When my shakes became severe enough I added another layer, then another, and so on until I was comfortable.

I took a siesta from about 11 to 1 like all the big game animals do out there, and it was the first time I ever fell asleep in the woods on purpose. Falling asleep in a tree stand doesn't count. Upon waking I looked over golden aspens and emerald pines on the mountainside across from me and felt like I was in a Northern Woods Corona commercial, where you throw your cell phone over a snowy cliff. There wasn't any cell phone service available out there anyway, and it was days until I was able to talk to My Shirley. My days were long, and we spent up to 16 hours a day in the mountains.

Most of the guys had killed their elk by the third day, but I passed on a smaller bull and had no other shots. I had the area to myself one day around 11 AM, and Brad and then Brian, one of my hosts (and now friend) thought it would be a good idea for me to sit on a patch of mountain until nightfall. The following is an excerpt from my notebook:

"This sucks. I'm freezing on a mountainside by myself. It's 12:30 PM and the snow is blowing sideways from all directions at once. I started getting dizzy so I drank some more water and had a sandwich and some jerky. I have never worked so hard for an animal in my whole life. Boot camp was harder, physically, but not by a lot. Quite a few guys have killed their animals, and I wish it was as easy for me as it was for some of them. My legs are particularly spent. Steep, steep, steep. Rocky footing. I'm glassing a few mountain sides and valleys and I have hours to go. I'm frozen and whipped. 2:50PM. I saw six cows running towards me. I got my camera ready, and two came within ten paces of me. Very exciting! They saw me and bolted before I could get a picture."

Since I've been lost in states, countries, and continents, it was no surprise to me when coming back down the mountain that evening I got a bit turned around. Call me Magellan. Couldn't have been more simple, but everything looks different in the dark, and as an added bonus, it was raining again. Classic. I had a radio, and a couple of the guys set me straight. My old Browning boots took a powder that night. They probably would've lasted a few more years on level ground, but the soles started coming off both of them. I would use duct tape to hold them together as long as possible, then toss the old friends away.

On one of the last days, Brad was going to take charge of me. He told me the night before that I had better massage my thighs, because I was going to get the full experience. Oh, joy. I massaged my thighs from the inside with some Crown Royal and ibuprofen.

Woke up with a headache, but not from booze. The altitude sickness really blasted one guy for a day and a half. You could see it in his eyes. My batteries were drained. I was pretty well used up. I asked Brad if we could just do two "downs" instead of an "up and a down", but he said no. I had learned by now to start my climbs with just the minimum of clothing so I didn't sweat so much.

Brad saw some animals on an opposite mountain side before sunrise. I don't know how he saw them because I couldn't even see my boots. He said, "Here's the deal. If we go after them and you shoot one, I won't make you go back up the mountain." I was game, and the path was treacherous. By the time we got within 600 yards the dawn was breaking. We took a breather and glassed. My 10×42 Euro Diamonds were superb performers, and we saw a nice bull clearly in the distance. We started after him, but then Brad froze. A lone cow was watching us from a couple hundred yards away. Caught us cold. We were static for many minutes until the cow decided nothing was amiss, and went away. We then heard a bugle from behind some aspens from an animal we hadn't noticed. He came out slowly and majestically. His giant black head reared back with a piercing bugle, and the smoke billowing from his nose and mouth was surreal. I wasn't winded, and I had a tree close by to use as a rest. Brad called 280 yards. My second yardage line was 275 yards on my 2-12×40 Six-X, and I rested the gun, took a couple of breaths, and the trigger on my Weatherby broke cleanly. A 180 grain Winchester Power Point at 2950 fps destroyed two lungs. He trotted a few yards, then let his back end fall, then his front, and it was over. A nice mature 6×5 elk and one of God's most magnificent animals. I thanked the powers that be for the opportunity to take this animal, and we went to work getting this mammoth creature into a freezer.

He was on a pretty steep hill, and Brad took his antlers and pulled him down into a ravine where we could get an ATV. His billy goat of a son, Tate, was there also, and they both climbed back up the mountain side on their way to the ranch. True to his word, I didn't have to, so I waited until they came back. I had already gutted the animal, like I do most of my game. Brad said that out of over 100 elk taken, I was the only client who ever asked to clean his own animal.

More surrealism. Brad brought his three sons back with him. He dug holes in the ground for the rear tires on his ATV so as to lower the machine, and we muscled the beast on top and strapped him on with cinch straps. I sat on top of the elk trying to avoid getting an antler up my butt, and his three young kids were hanging on the front luggage rack. Later on his tired rottweiler hopped on, also. So on this ATV we had two adults, three kids, an elk and a rottweiler. Weird, man. Unforgettable and funny.

On the way to the airport we stopped and picked up a 50 pound box of frozen elk meat and I checked it in as luggage.

I had backstraps for dinner last week with mushrooms and onions, and burgers last Saturday. The meat is outstanding.

My thanks to the whole Burris crowd for the invite, fabulous folks one and all. Also to Brad for his exceptional prowess and patience with me, and his lovely wife Brenda whose cooking was a delight! They head up a family of kids who would make any parents proud. I enjoyed the company of some first class hunters, had some laughs, and some aches. Guys, please excuse any poetic license.

I have never been on such a physically demanding hunt. I completely enjoyed it. I lost some inches in some places and put it on as muscle in some others. I feel as fit and strong as I have in years. I am so blessed for these opportunities.

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