December 14, 2011

Solo Elk

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“The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life, and the promise of future accomplishments.”     
~ Gustave Flaubert

As I sit here typing this, I really have a tough time even putting into words the solo elk experience.  It was an emotional roller coaster and similar to a picture not doing justice, this post in no way can give the true sense of what the entire experience was like.  After living it, I can tell you it was 10 times harder than I expected.

If someone asked me today to rank myself on a “mentally tough” scale of 1 to 10, I would give myself about a 7. Before this trip, it would’ve been an 11.  Going in to it I had no doubt mentally it would be a challenge, but in no way (and I’m not sure you can until you live it) did I fully understand, or realize, the impact that this type of hunting can have on you.  Those who’ve done it know exactly what I’m talking about, and those who haven’t, I hope someday you get to experience it.

The 1%.

Preparing for this trip there were some moments that I really questioned what I was doing.  Heading west from Ohio is one thing.  Going at it alone, is another.  Logistics, safety, communication, equipment…it all mattered, and for multiple reasons it all had to be right.  In the end 99% of everything worked.  1% didn’t.

With equipment being such a major part of the hunt I put a lot of focus on what I’m using.  10 miles deep is not a place you want something to fail.  My equipment cornerstones are below listed below.  By no means is this the end all be all list…just my system that I feel works solid after 6 trips into the mountains.

  • Backpack – Badlands Ox – This is the second year for the Ox.  Prior to, I was rocking a 4500. Both are without question fail not’s, however for me, the Ox seems to work better.  Like anything from Badlands this pack is solid.  Pockets galore and organized right, this pack is an outright performer in the backcountry.   Until the brains at Badlands come up with something better, I’m a believer.
  • Tent – Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 – New for me this year was my Seedhouse.  In years past I worked out of a Nemo GoGo, a 1 man bivy style tent.  The Nemo was great, but it was a bit small.  I couldn’t change in it. Couldn’t eat in it. I couldn’t sit up in it.  It was a crawl-in-at-last-light-after-changing-in-the-open kind of tent.  One or two nights in the rain and I quickly figured out I needed a change.   The result was the Seedhouse.  Not BA’s top of line, but a solid performer and for my budget, the perfect fit.  After spending many days and nights in the Seedhouse I’ll be hard pressed to go back to a bivy style tent.  In my opinion, the small amount of added weight is well worth the benefit of mobility under shelter.
  • Sleeping System – Mountain Hardware Phantom 15, Cabelas XPG Bivy Sack – Together they make a solid combination.  Some will say the bivy is a bit overkill, but the thought running through my mind was 10 miles deep, 12k feet equals crazy weather.  So, not only did it add a few degrees, but also insured I was going to be dry. With lows in the 28-32 degree range this combo seemed to be right for me.
  • Clothing – Under Armour – I know UA can be expensive, but in my opinion its worth its weight in gold.  I’ve had the same set of clothing for 6 years now and it’s still holding up.  In fact, most of the items I have are not even available for purchase anymore.  Because the temperatures can go from 28° to 80°, my goal is to be versatile and stick with a ton of layers.  I pretty much utilize the entire line with heat gear, cold gear, multiple quarter zips, and pants.  Whatever you pick, my best recommendation is not to skimp.  Your clothes are one of the most important items you have back there.  The good stuff may be expensive, but in the long run for both quality and safety, you get what you pay for.

***A side note that I am totally pumped for is the new Badlands clothing line set to release in 2012.  I’ve seen firsthand some of the goods and goods they are.  Just like the reliability and quality of their packs, the clothing line will be no different.  After 6 years of UA, I can pretty much bet I’ll be not only rocking the Badlands skull on the back, but also on the wear.  Stay tuned for more on this… 

  • SPOT Satellite Messenger – This little device is awesome.  I will not head back west without one.  As described, everything the SPOT was supposed to do, it did.  It worked to the T. For both my safety and my family’s peace of mind, this in my opinion is a must have.
  • Satellite Phone – This is the 1% that didn’t work.  Last year when I started heading to this particular country I needed a phone for communication to my packer.  Last year it worked fairly well; this year it was a total bomb.  As a renter you pay by the day so the mode of operation is to have it shipped to your house the day before you leave. The timeline is great for the pocketbook, however if the phone shows up and doesn’t work like it did for me this year, it has the potential to create some major, catastrophic problems.  Let me explain….

Taking an elk 10 miles in, alone, can create a few logistical challenges.  I don’t own horses, lamas, or mules, and I am my only mode of transportation.  To help with this I lined up a packer. Basically the plan was arrow a bull, find it, call the packer via satellite phone, break down the bull, packer shows and we’re packing out the elk.  Sounds like a solid plan, but when you have no Sat phone to communicate coordinates, communicating in/out about arrangements become a problem.

My solution to the mess was Pops.  If he saw the custom SPOT message that I set up (I killed a bull), then he would contact the packer and give him the coordinates.  Then, with no communication method back, I would wait, and wait, and wait, until he showed.  From talking to the packer before this trip he said it could be 2 days before he could get to me so I was a little leery of how this whole process was gonna go down.

The Hunt.

[Camp C] Each day my routine consisted of rising before daylight, checking in via the SPOT, and heading out on the hunt. I wouldn’t eat breakfast, just wake, depart, and work Wilderness Athlete bars and trail mix out of my pack. Depending upon where things took me, I would return to my tent around 11 or 12 to hit breakfast. Once at camp, I’d drop the bear bag and eat while picking apart my topo map. After my R&D I would totally pack up camp and head out to a new location, or re-hang the bear bag, gather firewood, and prep everything for the return to camp after dark.
After the evening hunt making my way back to camp is where I would often feel the weight of being alone.  Moving through the darkness I would try to stay focused on the positives while not staying focused on the reality of where I was, or who I was not with.  Arriving at camp I would drop the bear bag and start to boil water for my meal while keeping myself busy getting things ready for the next morning.

Once my meal was cooked I would light my fire.  I could only find a single type of wood that would burn consistently and it took 5 times as longer to gather wood, then it did to burn the wood.   Each night I would purposely wait until I was ready to eat before lighting it.  As it blazed, I sat alone on my log thinking about the day’s events.  When my meal was over so was the fire and I would re-hang the bear bag, check in via my SPOT, and dive in to the safety of my tent.

Nights were hard.  It was completely silent.  There are no crickets, no bugs.  With the exception of coyotes, bears, mountain lions, elk, and owls, I heard no background noise whatsoever.  If you hear something, it’s because something specific is moving.  As I lay there in complete silence listening to my pulse beat through my head against my sleeping bag, I would try not to overanalyze the situation.  During the night I would wake up 4-5 times and immediately start to take noise inventory trying not to look at my watch.  Needless to say, it was not only a little tough to fall asleep, but also to stay asleep.

During my time I saw one other person, a fly fisherman and he was on his way out, pushing hard to make the trailhead by dark.  At the time that I saw him I was very surprised and quickly realized he didn’t have time to talk. There were no bears or mountain lion sightings….just elk, mule deer, and me. Temperatures ranged from 28-65 degrees.  The first and the fourth day I had snow with little sticking to the ground.

In the end.

So after all this you’re probably wondering if I arrowed a bull.  The short answer….I didn’t.  I was 45 yards of 5 different bulls with no shots on any of them.  In the beginning the action was frequent and exciting.  By the end, it was less than stellar and I’d be lucky to get one bugle in the morning and one in the evening.

Like any good character building experience there are lessons to take away and learn from.  First and foremost, I will never, ever, ever, take my son and my wife for granted.  Thoughts of them, memories of our experiences, times we’ve shared flooded my mind.  I became obsessed with the last thing I said to them.  Being alone in that country puts a pretty solid perspective on life and what’s truly important.  A perspective that I’m pretty sure you can’t get from normal everyday life.

Secondly, I need to continue to develop my mental toughness.  As I mentioned earlier, this was by far the hardest part and one that until you live it, you just don’t know what to expect.   Next time I return I will be better mentally prepared.  This is an area where I feel I could improve and will be focusing hard on this in 2012.

Third, my first solo experience is one that I will never forget and one that I will not take for granted.  I’m thankful for the experience.  I’m thankful for the struggle.  I’m thankful for the perspective.  I’m thankful that no matter what seemed to be an obstacle, I found a way.

So what’s next in 2012?  To that I question I answer, I’m not sure.  What I do know is the life of a backcountry hunter does not stop.  I want to be elk hunting in 2012 so prep will continue.  As it does, I will stay focused on the lessons learned and more importantly on what my bow limb tells me…”Failure is not an Option.”  I will persevere.  I will push on. I will prevail.

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