October had been a long month of lots of long work days so my soul really needed to get into the mountains. We decided to check out an area I was thinking of hunting next year. Even though it was technically 2nd rifle season yesterday, Alex decided that he wasn’t ready to take down an elk with a rifle yet (good for him, I’m always proud of him when he makes thoughtful and/or tough decisions) and I have no or low interest in rifle hunting elk (though this trip may have changed my mind, more to come), we decided to leave the rifles at home.
The area we were looking at was a 2 hour drive away, so we woke at 3am and was on the road by 3:45am with a quick stop at the 24 hours McDonalds – practically a tradition for me at this point for all 3am and earlier wake up calls. Driving over Berthoud pass was quite icy and it was lightly snowing. I wasn’t thrilled about the ice, but the snow had me excited.
We arrived at the TH around 6am. The plan was to hike up on an established trail and then veer off whenever we felt like there might be a good area to scout. The canyon I ultimately wanted to check out (which spoiler alert: we didn’t make it), had two ways in. One was up the canyon itself on an un-manaintained trail. I had read that this trail was incredibly steep with a lot of deadfall, but short. The way we decided to go in was a longer trail, but completely clear and maintained.
It has been awhile since I’ve been hiking in the high-country and I could feel it. The trail begins, and for the most part, stays going up with some short reprieves here and there. We hiked in the dark for about an hour and slowly the sun started coming out and we saw a pile of poop. I checked the map and there appeared to be a small clearing to our left so we quickly hopped off to check. There wasn’t much to see as the clearing was actually a clearing of a lot of large boulders. We hopped back on the trail and headed up.
The snow quietly fell all morning and we never saw another soul until we were literally back at the car. All I really heard about 2nd rifle season was that it was crowded EVERYWHERE. Even places you hike in. So I was really not keen on hunting rifle season thinking I might get shot. But this area? Either there was nothing in here or no one really wants to just hike up and up and up for miles on end. I’m not sure.
Anyway, as we were going up and I was dying from the altitude and general lack of exercising, we saw a small clearing with what looked like tracks in the snow (thanks snow!). I checked the map and saw another clearing not too far – but this one looked green with a small creek running through and it looked promising to me. At this point I hadn’t realized how much I had actually taken to off trail hiking. While we were on trail I was getting rather bored thinking “we are NOT going to see anything on here” but I knew I needed to take this trail to access more remote areas. Once we hopped off the trail it felt invigorating. Like this is what I was meant to do! It feels like I’m going back to roots that are generations and generations old of hunting and tracking and wandering, but not lost. I had read about people describing hunting this way – that it was primal, part of our ancestors, and that it was natural. I felt like I was slowly beginning to understand that.
As we ventured towards the meadow we found prints in the snow and on the fringes of the meadow we found what appeared to be fairly fresh bedding and poop (!!) (though hard to tell with deep freezes I’m sure they were getting each night). But then we stumbled on a blood trail, and the way the snow had accumulated from this morning made me think it was fairly fresh too – e.g. a day or two old. I was pretty excited to find this blood trail as it felt validating to think someone or something thought this area was a place to hunt and I started following it but realized Alex had stopped. I turned around and asked him what was wrong and as he looked up I could see him welling up.
“This makes me really sad . . . like I know this is what happens, but seeing it here makes it so real. I don’t know if I’m cut out to hunt.” I felt very proud of him and he continued “I feel like a hypocrite though, because I eat meat.” I told him that he’s probably thought more about his meat in this moment than 99% of non-hunters who eat meat have (I always exclude vegans because I have mad respect for them. They live what they preach). He said that he thinks he could hunt if I’m with him, but that he probably couldn’t do it solo.
I have thought a lot about what it means to kill an animal and eat it. I never found the act of eating meat a morally wrong action, even as a vegetarian. Even though I joined the animal rights movement for a bit, I never felt like I truly belong. Like I was a hypocrite because I wanted to eat meat and I wanted to hunt but I didn’t know how to and I was terrified of guns. But even though I can shoot a gun now, could I really kill a living being? It’s a thought I struggle with a lot, but it’s one I think is good for me to struggle with. To me, it’s taking on the responsibility and not passing it off to someone else. I eat meat. I love meat. I highly doubt I will stop eating meat. With hunting I can take an animal that has lived it’s life. While I laugh at myself for wanting a trophy bull, I want that trophy bull because he has had a full life. He’s given life to many other elk and lived through some tough times. He has a unique and incredible story. I read about old bulls that are taken and these bulls have an assortment of broken things – jaws, ribs, legs. He’s survived, but how will his life end? Gored to death by another elk? Eaten by a predator? Freeze to death over the winter? Peacefully pass away in his sleep? Who knows. But this elk has lived and has lived a much more natural, rich life than most animals will. I am okay with being the one to end it.*
(*caveat, a “trophy” bull would be my ultimate goal, but until then I’ll take any legal elk. Also, I’ve thought about what I would do with a rack of antlers and the answer was pretty easy for me – chop it up and give the pieces to my dogs. They LOVE elk antlers and a tiny piece will be $20 at the local feed store. They always say you can’t eat antlers, but my dogs can!)
Any who, we follow this trail and muse how it’s good practice for us. We find where we think it starts, though there’s a lot of tracks around so it’s hard to tell. We find where we think it ends – in an oval shaped piece of ice under a tree. But there’s no carcass and we wonder if she was injured – by hunter or predator, who knows – was able to bed for a bit, and then took off in the cover of darkness when the snow would’ve been more hard packed and there would be no footprints.
At this point we were half way to the lake/canyon I wanted to check out. But honestly, I like to employ a training technique I learned from dog training – always end a session on a good note. I like to do the same thing for my outdoor endeavors so I’m more inclined to always return. We could’ve hiked another 2-3 miles and another 1-2k elevation gain, but I was pretty pooped from not having been active in 1.5 months and I was super pumped about what we had already found. Plus it gives me time to chew on the new information I learned this hike and to plan ahead and plan for more next time. So with that, we decided to turn around.
It was a pretty quick hike down the 3.5 miles 2k elevation gain and we mused at things that we could see now in the daylight. I also used to have a habit of going hard on the way to the top and then being rather miserable coming down. This time, with enough energy and pep, we stopped to take pictures and enjoy the hike down. I forgot to mention, at the TH there were two cars parked. I imagine they were at one of the lakes (there are like 5), camping. So there were definitely other people, but none that we ran into. It was magical.
Almost forgot also, as we were driving away, we saw, of course, a bull moose. Someone just give me a tag please, these guys are everywhere.