The Big Decision
At 46 years old and having been bow hunting since age 16 in my home state of Washington, I always have loved the high country and chasing animals up there with my bow. I have always read the stories and looked at the pictures of the lucky hunters who pursued the big early season bucks in the Colorado high country as I’m sure many of you have. I always chose the early deer and elk season in my home state during that time of year and let Colorado be a dream.
Fast forward to 2011 and I have a Utah limited entry archery elk tag in my pocket after building points for 11 years. Not being a big internet talk forum kind of guy I go on a hunting forum looking for anyone to help me as just another avenue of research and don’t expect much. I had an area researched but wanted to exhaust every place that I could get information on the unit. I get a response from a guy who knows the unit well and is offering very specific information that I did not have. Enter Rick Mair into my life, I ended up killing a 320 type of bull on that hunt based on his information and had an absolute ball that season. Since that trip we have become close friends and have hunted together and have built a friendship that will last a lifetime.
Last year Rick texts me that there was an open spot available on an Idaho deer hunt with David Long and some of his friends and that he was picked to go on the hunt. He goes and has an awesome hunt, the lucky dog! He gets back from it and tells me that they have opened up some new spots and that he wants me to be his partner for the next years hunt. I couldn’t say yes fast enough and felt grateful for the opportunity. Davids name and big mulies have gone together for a long time, I’m not telling anyone reading this anything they don’t already know. I have always hunted hard and done extremely well on deer and elk but here is someone who is taking it to a whole different level not just with hunting but with fitness as well. At the time I had no idea just how much my life was about to change.
It must have been about 2 weeks after becoming a part of the Idaho hunt that David throws out a we should all do the Moab 55k ultra in February. This is around the first of November. I have always ran before the season, you know the 2 mile that’s gonna keep me from getting too sore this year type of running but a 55k? I didn’t even know how far that was exactly and didn’t think I ever would need or care too. I had heard about ultras but that was it, turned my brain off to them because only crazy people do that right? Well, Rick and I start talking and before you know it we are signed up to do it and we are clueless as to how to train for it other than to just start running. Did I mention this training is going to happen in the dead of winter near Chicago and that I am the heaviest I have ever been in my life? But in my head I’m thinking if this is what David Long does and I’ve seen the animals he’s killed then why not give it a shot? Worst case scenario I get in better shape and get to spend a weekend in Moab. Long story short Rick and I busted ass, did about everything wrong we could, learned a ton and got in way better shape and ran a 34 mile race in the mountains of Utah. One of the toughest most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
Making The Dream A Reality
I made the switch to a paleo diet and continued to run as well as getting a trainer at the gym to help me build the right muscles to prevent injury, enter Julia Voyles into my life. I told her my about my recent crazy journey and that I had weaknesses and needed help, not to build bulk but to have endurance and prevent injury. She basically rebuilt me from the ground up and I have not had any injuries and have ran many runs since, getting stronger with each one. Many thanks to her and her knowledge of how to make me a better stronger runner. Because of my new found love of running and especially mountain running I have several big runs planned for next summer including a 100 miler mainly due to David’s persuasive influence. I am in full time training mode now for next year and can’t wait to test myself.
In February of this year I drew a great Wyoming elk tag and set my sights on drawing a Colorado archery deer tag. I was in shape and it was time to chase my dream! Rick has a friend who mentioned that he knew an area he used to hunt that would fit the bill of the kind of hunt I was looking for so I cashed in my points and drew out and the hunt was finally on! I went through all my high country backpacking gear and updated it to the best I could find as well as sold all my old camo which was way to big now and bought new, I was now down almost 40 lbs and in arguably the best shape of my life running 30 plus miles a week and hitting the gym the days I wasn’t running as well as shooting my bow. I was ready to put all this hard work to the test and chase those high mountain mulies on their terms in the most beautiful country in the world.
I have packed and re packed my backpack multiple times and have it down to 39 lbs for a week with everything needed minus water, with the pack on my back it puts my weight at exactly what I weighed with no pack when I started all this. That really hit home with me and just reinforces my commitment to keep training hard. After a summer of anticipation its finally time to get on the plane and head to Colorado. Due to a crazy work schedule it was much needed and I honestly went into the hunt with a couple goals that would make it a success and neither one had to do with killing a buck. I wanted to see one of those high mountain monsters in that beautiful country and I wanted to challenge myself to see how all the training and hard work would payoff on my own in the backcountry at 10k plus feet.
The Hunt Begins
I finally am able to board a plane to Colorado on Thursday morning, 2 days before the opener. Anticipation is high, I haven’t looked this forward to a hunting trip in a while. I land and I can finally relax, all of my gear shows up at baggage claim. I get the rental car and hit the road looking forward to the point in the drive where my phone says no service. Driving through the mountains my mind wanders back to other hunts and all the great camaraderie that I experienced on them. Not this hunt, going solo to put myself to the test and see how I hold up. Finally to the trailhead about an hour and half before dark. I quickly change into my camo, load up my pack and head up the trail, no way am I going to be able to sleep in the suv when I could have been part way up the mountain. I am a couple miles in and feeling great but its getting dark so I decide to make camp. I find a fairly open and flat area in the rocks and make camp. Not a cloud in the sky and I am tired from a long day of traveling. I fall right to sleep and about 1am I wake up to some of the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard right above me. Even in my groggy state I realize that I am out in the open in a tent with a metal frame next to my bow with a metal riser. I put my rain gear and boots on in record time and haul ass to the first big group of trees I can find as lightning is hitting all over the valley. I curl into a ball and stay on the balls of my feet for over an hour. It’s interesting all the thoughts a guy has when you think you could possibly die. This country was giving me my first test only hours after arriving in it. After an hour the storm passes and I stand up and go back to bed, cold and wet but alive and well, welcome to the Colorado high country.
I wake up at 5 and break camp and continue up the trail in awe of being in the place I have wanted to go for so long. Now to just see a deer to complete the picture. I am stopping and glassing every little spot that resembles a deer, all of them being everything but a deer. As I walk through a small opening I look way up the mountain and in the middle of a grassy basin I see the unmistakable summer red glow of an early season deer in the sun. Binoculars confirm it and my pack is unloaded to get the spotting scope out, bingo it’s a good buck. I watch him for a while and decide to change angles, 2 more good bucks then more feed into view. Soon I am looking at 9 bucks with the best being a solid 190 type of buck. I watch them for an hour and decide to move up the hill 400 yards and set up camp, they are 2000 yards away at least. Only way up is straight up through the rocks, I pick and claw my way up to the base of a small water fall and follow it into the trees and find a perfect spot for my hilleberg atko. After setting up camp and eating I spend the rest of the day watching the bucks from a hidden vantage point and make a plan for the morning.
I wake up at 3:45 and am so excited to go that I don’t want to stop to eat but force myself to have an epic bar and some nuts and quick cup of instant coffee. The moon is out bright and in the trees climbing I use a small flashlight to get through it all. I need to cross a creek that is between me and the ridge I want to be on, I ease over to the edge of the gulley it is in and it is washed out bad from years of spring runoff. Its literally 40′ straight down, damn, not part of the plan. I continue up the draw along the treeline and find a well worn deer trail and follow it, they have found the best way across up where the 2 creeks are split so the draws are not so deep. I’m now across and things get really vertical, literally almost straight up. The new boots I bought 6 months ago for this season are working awesome and the training is paying off, I am climbing faster and longer than I ever have before and at high elevation. Daylight is coming, I need to get up the hill to my chosen spot quickly. Letting my guard down I cruise up the trail and literally walk into and doe at probably 10 yards. She jumps out of her bed and just stares, I am sure its the first person she has seen in a while. She walks over the hill and works her way down and away from where the bucks are supposed to be. Disaster averted, now back to the plan. I ease into a small patch of trees and crawl to a good vantage point at the perfect time. Wind is perfect, this just might work out! I get out my binos and glass the area of where I expect the bucks to be and nothing. This is a pretty wide open basin so if they are there it would be obvious. They have to be close right? I ease over the ridge to my left to see if they fed into it and nothing. I decide to have a bite to eat and re evaluate what to do next. I see a small buck and doe that are silhouetted on the next ridge over to my left. I have not been into or even been able to glass that valley. I figure it will be an hour and a half hike through this valley and the other side to be able to look in. I did it in 45 minutes, once again the training is changing my hunt. As I peak over the top what comes into view is probably the coolest mountain basin I have ever seen. Overwhelming at first but then I quickly start to focus the task at hand and start glassing everything. Right away I spot a buck feeding about 3/4 of a mile away. Out comes the spotting scope and that reveals several more bucks bedded around him. There is a reason they are where they are, they have a commanding view of the whole basin and above them is loose rock, no way to stalk them. It seems as though each little draw has bucks in it and they run all the way up into that last patch of green in the rocks. I have counted at least 15 bucks so far with no way to get to them. I just decide to kick back and be patient, who knows what could happen. After an hour I turn and look up the ridge I am on and see someone walking the ridge on top 600 yards away. I put he spotting scope on them assuming its a hunter and see that its a hiker working his way across the mountain top headed towards the ridge that surrounds the basin, this could get interesting. Sure enough 30 min later all of the bucks spook, assuming they winded the guy and all run up into the rocks. I now have 25 good bucks walking single file through the rocks over towards a big cliff and that’s when I see him. There are some great bucks in this group, he stands out as the monarch of the group. He has a huge 4 point main frame with deep symmetrical tines a wide spread and cheaters on both G3’s. He is what I came to see, pushing the magical 200″ mark and living in this country, in my mind he is the ultimate mule deer buck. I watch him and the group pick their way through the rocks and then down the ridgeline of the cliff until they find a way down and they all cross down onto the next unhuntable rock face and then they spread out into smaller groups and move away from each other. That view of all those big bucks together will forever be burned into my memory. I keep a close eye on the big guy and he works his way away from all the other deer and up to the top of the ridge. He is also the only hard horned deer I have seen on the trip. As he gets to the top he takes his time going over giving me time to take pictures through my phoneskope. The next valley he drops into is full of a 6 to 8′ tall canopy of brush, there is a reason he has gotten so big, all the other deer are still in view and are either feeding or bedded down. I wait and watch them until early afternoon and realizing they aren’t going anywhere soon I decide to head back to camp, make dinner and be back in the morning but come in down lower so as not to be exposed if I need to try and make stalk. On the way back I stop at the headwaters of a small creek and using my water filter load up on water again, I have stuff scattered everywhere to find it in my pack and out of the corner of my eye I see a deer behind me on the hill feeding unaware of me sitting in the middle of this grassy open valley. I glass it up and its a small 3 point so I get low and watch for others and soon a doe feeds out but nothing else. I carry on getting water and then work my way back to camp. What a great day, I spend that evening glassing across the valley across from me and watching a really good buck that was high up on the ridge where all the bucks were earlier that day. No way to hunt him where he is at now but maybe something will change over night. I eat a big meal of dehydrated teriyaki chicken and rice and rehydrate with wilderness athlete hydrate and recover while glassing and making a plan for the morning.
Day Number Two
I sleep in a little later today wanting to stay a little lower and glass as I work my way across the valleys looking for bucks that may have moved in overnight. After a quick cup of coffee and an epic bar I am off headed vertical again. The moon is so bright that I don’t even need to use a light to climb up the game trails. After an hour of climbing its now getting light out so I find a good vantage point and begin to glass. I spot a couple small bucks and does up on the hill above me but no big bucks. I continue to sidehill into the next valley and see a lone doe feeding. The next valley is where all the bucks were the day before so anticipation is high. I decide to go low into the valley 800 yards down the ridge from where I crossed over it the day before so I wouldn’t be so exposed if I found a buck that was in a stalkable location. As I round the last corner there is a small meadow in front of me and I see the unmistakable color of a bull elk feeding in front of me 100 yards away. Had I had an elk tag in my pocket he was in a perfect position for a stalk, his head buried in the grass eating he was oblivious to me.
After 10 minutes of watching them the wind swirls and the cows to my left go on high alert and decide they need to find some new country without that smell in it. Instead of heading down to the timber they trot out to my right and proceed to head straight up and through the valley I want to glass, little did I know at the time but that was going to help and not hurt me. I work my way around the corner to get a view of the whole valley to be able to watch the elk as well as glass for bucks. Its amazing how fast those elk covered ground and they were just walking along. They covered a mile in no time and were nearing where all the bucks were the day before. I see a couple bucks feeding up there but thats it. I have 2 bucks on the opposite ridge near the top but they are in a location that is unapproachable so I can only watch. I decide to scan up the ridge I am on and see a buck working his way up out of a small draw followed by several more. They are on the move due to the elk going through the valley, the bucks look like they are headed for the valley I just came from and are going to use the exact trail that I came over on yesterday and had I gone high today I would have been on that trail now, go figure. I duck back behind the ridge out of sight and head straight up the mountain for 100 yards and peak over next to a bush for cover and see them headed over the saddle into the next valley. I get a good look at all 7 bucks and 6 are shooters with the 7th just being a small 2 point. As the last buck feeds out of sight I stay on the left side of the ridge and the stalk is on. At this point the wind is in my face so I start to work my way slowly up the mountain, I have all the time I need to make this happen, the bucks will bed soon and I want to come in high on them so I need the thermals to change anyways. As I work my way up the ridge it is all loose small rock under my feet, my boots are earning there keep right now, its about 20 yards down to a cliff that drops another 100 feet. Let’s just say I am more focused on covering the next 150 yards safely than I am worried about killing a buck. It takes me 30 minutes to cover that distance with a couple butt puckering slides down the hill mixed in. After getting past that I ease up until I can see the first bedded buck. They are still 250 yards out but look content so I back off the ridge and begin to drop low so there is no way they will see me. About that time I look up high and see another buck emerging 250 yards above them and working his way over the ridge to the same valley they are in. Great, I am in plain sight of him but he is feeding and not really looking around. I continue to ease along trying to be very quiet and not kick any rocks down the hill. I constantly am watching the new buck and now he has 7 new friends, several of them really nice bucks and I am in full view of all of them. They are all feeding so I let them get slightly past me so their heads and bodies are all facing to the right feeding and slowly continue the stalk stopping whenever one of the bucks would lift their head. Its working but I am definitely taking a chance of being busted but at this point I am willing to take the risk.
There is a small bush 100 yards above me that I have already picked out as the spot to drop my pack and make the final approach. The adrenaline is starting to flow knowing that this is going to happen. I lose sight of the upper bucks as I cover those last 100 yards and all of my focus is on the bucks that I know are bedded on the other side of the ridge. The thermals have switched and now the wind is blowing up the hill. I make it to the bush, remove my pack and binos and hang my rangefinder around my neck. I take a drink of water and start my final approach figuring the closest shooter buck will be about 40 yards below me when I get around the hill on the trail. This is one of my absolute favorite feelings of being a bowhunter, when you know you have done everything right and its all coming together. That feeling is what really drives my passion for hunting with a bow. Sometimes it happens so fast you don’t get to enjoy it but this time I have lots of time to relish the moment and feeling and have learned to appreciate it more the older I get. As I ease around the corner I just know the shot is just seconds away, I look down into the draw and its empty! No way did they see, hear, or smell me and I didn’t see them leave the valley, I take a minute to collect my thoughts and make a plan. As I look up the valley on the right side about 250 yards above me are the 8 bucks that fed over the top earlier, I hadn’t seen them for 20 minutes and quite frankly hadn’t even thought about them during my stalk. Now there they were bedded down and watching my every move but not spooking.
There is one small part of the valley in front of me that I cannot see due to the roll of the ridge in front of me and I am hoping the bucks I am after have fed into it. I slowly crawl my way around the hill in full view of the upper bucks and spot the back end of a deer in the draw. Yes, they must have just gotten up and fed around the corner since I last saw them and were still unaware of me. I crawl a little closer and range the buck at 71 yards. He is the only buck I can see so I make the decision to shoot him, I have zero cover and this whole setup is not going to last long. I move another 4 feet closer for a better shot angle and catch movement to my left. I had already decided that all the bucks were shooters besides the 2 point and I saw tall horns on this buck. I range him at 53 yards, he is not as big as the 165 class 4 point at 70 yards but I liked my odds a lot better of getting a fatal arrow in the closer buck. The wind had picked up a bit which also helped me make the decision. The buck is facing me and then he turns to my left and is broadside. I draw and stand up settle my 50 yard pin on him and before I know it the arrow is on its way followed by the unmistakable sound that an arrow makes when it hits an animal. All of the bucks bolt and instantly he is wobbly and walks about 50 yards and beds down. At that point the emotions hit me and I sit down and watch him. All of his buddies are 50 yards above him looking at me and above them all the other bucks are now up and watching me as well. After a few minutes the 6 bucks with him walk down to him and stand around him, I had never seen anything like that before. They wait around him for 10 minutes and then walk up the hill meeting up with the other bucks and they all work their way over the top of the mountain. My buck gets up and tries to walk and falls down going end over end down the steep hill for 150 yards trashing the velvet on his horns. It all worked out, to be honest I was wondering the past couple days how in the world I was going to ever get close enough to a buck in this country to get an arrow in one. It seemed as though they were always in such a place that no stalk was possible. They are so visible on those big open slopes but with noisy rocks above them and 400 yards of open below them they had all the advantages. But they made a mistake and I capitalized on it! Time to go get my pack, send a text to my wife that I had a buck down on the satellite phone and work my way down to him. It’s only been 10 minutes since he died and I have not seen any big flies the whole trip and by the time I get to him they are everywhere, how does the word get out so fast? Things are warming up so I need to get pictures taken and get him boned out and off the mountain to a cool area at camp. He is a really nice buck, not a giant by any means but I am damn happy with him. A lot of effort and planning went into this trip, more effort than I have ever put in before to get ready for a hunt. It was a different kind of satisfaction this time, the size of the buck is not that important, it was fulfilling a dream and taking him on his terms in his world knowing that the only way I made this happen was by making a life style change, there is no way I would have been able to do this hunt and enjoy it like I did had I not been in this kind of shape.
I get him broke down and into my pack in about an hour and a half and go to put the pack on. It must be 80 plus pounds so after finally getting to my feet the descent to camp starts. This is when my new boots shine, they were expensive but so worth it. The walk back to camp is slow and extremely steep, I take each step carefully and feel my feet heating up knowing that I will have blisters by the end of the hike. An hour and half later I make it to camp and get the meat bags hung up in the shade and change into some fresh dry clothes and just enjoy the moment. My feet are blister free which makes me super happy knowing the pack out that is coming tomorrow, my boots did their job. I had packed in a small baggie full of seasonings just for a night like tonite. Fresh tenderloin cooked over an open fire with a million dollar view, it doesn’t get any better than that.
I relax and rehydrate for the rest of the day trying to decide if I want to make 2 trips to get everything out or just do it in one. I go to sleep early and wake up early as well deciding to pack everything up and just see how it all fits in the pack and then to see how heavy it really is. The morning is overcast and feels like rain, I cant fit all the meat in my pack so I decide to carry 2 meat bags and my bow and with everything else in my pack decide that one heavy slow trip out is better than 2 trips. I put on my rain gear load everything up and start the slow painful trip out. The trail is about 400 yards below me and if I were to make the trek down I know that I have to gain it back when the trail climbs back up so I decide to just sidehill my way the mile and a half along game trails until I intersect the main trail. It was so steep and slippery and riddled with blown down trees that I could make it only 100 yards maximum before having to sit down and rest. It took me over 2 1/2 hours to cover the mile and a half but I had all day, I just didn’t want to fall down and hurt myself. I finally make it to the main trail and take off my pack and have something to eat. the hardest part is over, its all pretty much downhill form here. Just a few more miles to go now.
After another hour and a half I make it to the trailhead and the comfort of my vehicle. I load up and head to town feeling an awesome sense of accomplishment. I miss the high country almost immediately and cannot wait to go back. As I write this I leave for my elk hunt in 5 days and and cannot wait to strap my backpack on and head to the high country of Wyoming. As always I have to thank my wife Brenda for putting up with my crazy obsession and supporting me all along the way. Thanks to Rick for responding to that forum question, it has changed both of our lives and thanks to David for all of the help and for inspiring myself and countless other hunters by pushing the limits of what is possible both in the back country and through your ultra running.