By Chris Swanson
It had been 10 straight days, and no sign of elk. Ten long, excruciating, sweaty, brutal days was about all I could handle without seeing, or let alone hearing a bull. It was the second to the last day of early archery season in Washington state, and the September sun seemed to attack my shoulders with relentless heat as I sat on an open ridge gorging myself on huckleberries like a bear. I had heard grizzlies were few and far between in the wilderness area I had journeyed into, but that still didn’t make my nights alone in the backcountry any more comforting. I continued to glass across a deep and mysterious drainage that formed a perfect horseshoe, capped with rocks and wildflowers at its apex. It was a sight for the sorest of eyes, mine included. Now, I will be the first to tell a new hunter that it does not require a kill to have a successful hunt. In my mind, witnessing the breathtaking scenery and escaping from reality are a victory in their own right. But, this was my hardest season yet, and I began to lose sight of this very idea and frustration began to set in.
As the day wound down, I began to wonder what kind of elk paradise was down in the bottom of that formidable horseshoe drainage. It was a place I swore I would never venture, no matter how desperate I got. At least that’s what I thought! Just as I was gathering the contents of my Badlands pack and swinging it onto my shoulder, I heard what I had longed to hear for over a week. It was a chuckle from a bull in the bottom of the drainage, and he wasn’t alone. As I set my pack down, I saw the most beautiful sight I had seen all day, or all week for that matter. There were about 10 blonde hides working out of the timber into a small opening at the very bottom of the drainage. As soon as I could get my spotting scope setup and crawl behind it, I saw him. The bull was absolutely magnificent, and sporting what I would estimate at being a 350-360 class 6 point rack. I couldn’t believe my eyes. As the evening light began to fade, I began to lose sight of my potential trophy. I threw a couple cow calls off the edge of the ridge, and he cut me off with the most deep throated and raspy bugle I had heard in my 6 years of bow hunting elk. Unfortunately, he was in his bedroom, with his ladies, and did NOT want to come investigate my position. I decided to hike about a half mile back onto the opposite ridge where my good friend Gary and I rendezvoused. After hunting alone for the majority of the season, I welcomed the companionship. We decided to set up camp at this location to keep our scent from wandering down into the new found elk haven. It was that night in my tent that I decided I may have lost my sanity. We were going to drop off into that drainage and give every last bit of energy it would take to arrow that bull.
Morning came quickly, and the darkness seemed to taunt us as we quietly slipped down the mountain side. The vertical drop was near 1200 feet, an arduous task on rocky terrain in pure darkness. With my red lensed light guiding the way, we found the bottom. It was cool and elky, and the stench of a testosterone fueled rut hung in the air. We were in the right place. As the sun rose, we started to slip closer to where I had last seen the bull the night before. I didn’t have much chance of pulling him away from his cows, but I could perhaps setup and ambush or try a spot and stalk if I could locate him. The bottom of the drainage was absolutely not what I expected. It was open underneath the canopy of timber, much like a park with a stream and lush grass. As we pressed forward, I found a perfect ambush point. It was a large wallow adjacent to the stream and appeared to be heavily used. We decided that we would sit over the wallow and throw a few soft cow calls into the timber around us. It became apparent that the elk were already bedded for the day, and we were in for a long sit. The morning turned to day, and it was getting hot. “This big boy has to be hot”, I thought to myself, “He is going to have to hit this wallow at some point.”
As the day progressed, we stayed patient in our approach, because the last thing I wanted to see was this big boy get even the slightest clue we were in his house and disappear like elk so mysteriously do. Just as I was losing hope, I heard a cow mew up ahead of us. I cow called back, and things started getting busy. I could tell the elk where on their feet, because the vocalization and sound of limbs breaking was unlike anything I have heard. I called sparingly, just waiting for the big man to come take a dip. It was at this very instance that the last day of elk season would come to a screeching halt. We heard movement behind us about 50 yards. “Crap!” I thought, “We’re going to get busted!” As a slowly turned, it was not an elk I saw. It was Mr. Grizzly bear himself and he was not small. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I checked the wind, and it was in our favor. But, his presence must have alerted the elk because it sounded as if a freight train went up that same mountain face we scaled in the dark that morning. As the bear approached, it became apparent he didn’t know we were there. I then realized that he must have been coming to my cow calls, which was an eerie feeling when I realized he was indeed looking for a meal. We had no choice, we had to stand up from cover and make our presence known before he was at a distance that we could smell his breath. As I stood, he stopped. It was a stone cold kind of still, and he seemed to look right through me. Gary stood next, and then the bear stood last. There we were, all standing there looking at one another wondering what our next move would be. As I whistled and hawed at him, he held his ground. At a distance now of about 25 yards, he was too close for comfort. We backed out of the wallow area slowly, one step at a time with pistols drawn. Then, with a blink of an eye, I was flat on my back. I had tripped over what I thought was a branch, and bounced back to my feet in an instant. When I realized the bear was staying put, I decided to glance down quickly at what had tripped me up. Our jaws dropped. It was a woodland Caribou shed, fresh from the previous year. Now, you must know, that is an extremely rare find in Washington due to the extreme few remaining in the area. We grabbed the shed, clutched our bows, and got the heck out of there.
We managed to climb back out of the drainage throughout the evening, and I started reminiscing on my very “eventful” day. And then it hit me. I had regained the spark. This experience had illuminated the innate sense of connection with nature that had started to dwindle as a result of what I thought was an unsuccessful 2013 elk season. In actuality, this had turned into one of the most exhilarating and satisfying hunts I had ever been on, and the fact that I was able to share it with a close friend was priceless. No, I didn’t arrow a bull that September, but the events of that last afternoon and the extraordinary scenery will cling to my cache of hunting memories for as long as I live. That in my book is a measure of success itself.
-Badlands Pro Staff – Chris Swanson