Satan's Taint; Overcoming the Colorado Grind
It was two in the morning when we finally arrived in elk country. We had just driven nearly thirty hours from the east coast to Colorado. We hopped out of the truck and were greeted by the sight of our breath. The drive had us worn down and ready for sleep, but with the prospect of a bull bugling in the morning, sleep would be hard to achieve. Chris took five minutes to set up his hammock and tarp. I quickly erected my tarp and tossed my iso-mat under it. Jake formed a tarp, iso-mat, sleeping bag burrito and called it good. We all slept with our side-arms at close reach. As I shut my eyes, I thought about how lucky I was to have the freedom and flexibility to go on a hunt like this in such short notice, and how lucky I was to have two friends along for the ride.
My alarm vibrated on my chest at five in the morning, a mere three hours had elapsed since I closed my eyes. The temperature had plummeted even further. My tarp was sparkling in the moonlight from the frost. We each ate a quick MRE and got our bags in order. Our ignorance to the challenges of hunting at elevation would soon show. We were immediately out of breath and physically exerted. It was a combination of packing more than fifty pounds of gear, lack of sleep, and lack of oxygen. After a few minutes Jake plopped down on a downed logged. “Go on without me,” he said. Chris and I were out of breath, so we couldn’t laugh at him.
As Chris convinced Jake that his heart wasn’t going to explode, I looked at my GPS. I have a habit of checking my position on the topographical map every time I stop. We were a mere one hundred yards or so from the road, but to my surprise we were on the wrong finger. We had stopped one finger to soon the night before, and in our rush to get in the woods this morning, I didn’t do a thorough map recon.
It wasn’t even an hour into the first morning of the first day of our hunt. The sun wasn’t even up. We had one guy who thought he was having a heart attack, two guys whose lungs felt like they were going to explode, and we weren’t even in the right spot. I quickly realized that hunting Colorado was going to be a grind, but I failed to predict the extent of that grind.
I let the guys know we had to walk back to the truck and drive to the next finger. After some well-mannered complaining and finger pointing we made the short walk, then the short drive to the correct finger. All three of us gutted a few pounds from our bags before we set off for our second attempt to insert into our hunting grounds.
Luckily the road was on top of the finger, so it would be a mostly downhill walk. After a mile and a half, we found what would be our base camp. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would never actually spend a night at this base camp. Our plan was to walk the down the finger, hunting the draw all the way to where it met the valley and stream below. This gave us about two miles of terrain to play with and find an elk. We took off with what we thought were the essentials; food, water, tarps, warming layers, spotting scopes, camera gear, side arms, binos, etc.… We pretty much took everything besides the tent.
We walked the finger down for a few hundred yards then broke off into the valley to investigate some aspen. We found some rubs and limited sign. After walking the hillside on the military crest of the finger for a few hundred yards, we realized we had way too much gear on our backs to hunt. We broke back up to the top of the finger to ground our excess gear. This gear stash was about three quarters of a mile away from our base camp, but it was also close to a thousand feet of elevation lower. The rest of the day was spent worker further and further down the draw. We experienced all four seasons that day, and we experienced them multiple times. It would rain until you put your rain jacket on. Then it would turn into a bright sunny sixty-degree day. Once you decided to shed some layers and dry out it would snow. Snow would be followed by rain. Followed by sun. Followed by the occasional hail. It was incredible how fast the weather could change.
We decided to make our way back to the gear stash with our tail in between our legs. We had walked down another mile into the draw and another thousand feet in elevation. Once we got back to our gear the sun was setting and we were spent. We decided to make do at the gear stash for the night. Chris put up his hammock and Jake and I shared a tarp. It was a cold, wet night. Luckily, I woke up to still wet boots. At least they hadn’t frozen.
Day two went exactly like day one. We walked. We called. We sat. We breathed heavy. We got our asses handed to us by the weather and terrain. Once again, we arrived at our gear stash wet, cold, hungry, and tired. We made the call again to just spend the night at the gear stash instead of making the additional climb to the base camp. We started heating up our MREs and coming up with a game plan for the next day. Chris and I were in the middle of discussing an elaborate plan to push into the next draw and work our way down to the valley. Jake broke in “Guys. This place sucks, it’s like Satan’s Taint. Hell, its worse than Satan’s Taint. I don’t know anything about elk hunting but I do know deer and turkey, and for deer and turkey you don’t hunt where there are no deer and turkey. We need to move spots to somewhere with elk.” And with that we officially began to refer to the steep fingers and deep draws of GMU 74 as Satan’s Taint. We all agreed that we would head up to the base camp first thing in the morning, break down, head to the truck, find service, and come up with a new plan.
The next morning was clear and beautiful. The best day so far. We were committed to our move, but in the back of our head we were all wondering if we were just wasting a day. A good day at that. We hadn’t seen another hunter yet, so we were surprised by the amount of trucks and tents as we made our way out on the dirt road. We were torn on whether to leave after talking to a few hunters. None were successful, none had had any encounters, but one group reported hearing scores of elk bugling up and down the valley last night. We decided to stick to the plan and go find service, so we could come up with an exact location.
We generally knew we were going to head north east to the White River National Forrest. It was supposed to hold the most elk in the state. We stopped at a small restaurant in hopes of grabbing a beer and a burger while scanning maps. Unfortunately, the place only served random vegetable personal pizzas and no beer, or sweet tea for that matter. It was still better than MREs, but the fact that we couldn’t even find a burger joint was really killing our confidence in our abilities in Colorado.
We did some quick Googling to get a general area. Then we pulled out the satellite imagery and topographical maps. We decided to head to a spot a short drive from Aspen and give it another go. It was a far drive, so we wouldn’t be hunting that day. The sun had set when we finally reached a gas station with a rest area across the street. We pulled out our bags and started packing for the next day’s hunt. As we were refining our packs we got some more discouraging news. Some local hunters approached us to see if we were having any luck, they informed us they had been hunting every day this season to no avail. They did however tip us off to a difficult to reach spot where they had seen elk the previous season. They didn’t have the desire to make the trek, so they let us in on their spot. In hindsight I really wish we never bumped into those guys, because their tip would nearly cost me my life.
The spot was nearly impossible to reach while staying on public land because of its proximity to a mountain range and private land. The only “easy” way in was a fifteen-mile hike that made the spot only accessible to horse hunters. They however showed us a route that required us to skirt the private land while crossing a deep ravine and scaling the side of the mountain. We have always been up for a challenge. The grass is greener on the other side effect took hold. Our optimism was back up with the prospects of an elk Mecca in the valley on the other side of the mountain range.
Due to the rugged terrain we would be traversing we decided to only take the bare minimum gear and we would leave at first light, not before. After a restless night spent in the truck, trying to sleep over Jake’s snoring, we made our way to where we would set off on foot. The terrain was more gnarly than we had anticipated. The private land continued to push us higher and higher, into steeper and steeper terrain. At one point we were traversing a section where to our left was a seventy-degree incline up hill, to our right was a nearly straight drop. I heard a loud crash from behind me. I snapped my head back to see a branch had knocked Chris’ water bottle out of his pack. The three of us watched that water bottle fall, roll, and tumble until we couldn’t see it anymore, but we could continue to hear it falling down the mountain. That’s when it hit us that we were flirting with some serious danger. Not willing to waste another precious day, we pressed on.
Finally, after six hours of hiking, climbing, and crawling we managed to get around the mountain top and into some more forgiving terrain. We were greeted by good sign. Rubs and tracks were plentiful. Optimism was back up, but we realized that a pack out would be no joke and couldn’t be made in the dark. We found a wallow and hunted it was several hours, calling periodically to no avail. Eventually we worked our way further back in the valley where we found some beautiful elk country. We decided to glass a nearby field and wait for the elk to start moving. We saw nothing and heard nothing. We had a serious debate about our ability to get back to the truck that night. The temperatures were dropping rapidly, and we hadn’t come prepared to spend the night. We decided that there was an easier route out and we would be able to manage it.
As the sun was setting we started off down the mountain. We were greeted by the first elk bugle of the entire hunt. At this point we had spent in excess of seventy hours in the woods and had yet to lay eyes on an elk. It was too dark to make a move, so we continued our trek down the mountain. As we were moving in the darkness the terrain opened up into a flat field. We bee lined it straight across the field. We cut our lights because the natural light from the moon was enough to see in the open field. As we reached the end of the field there was some thick vegetation. I was acting as the navigation and point man, forging the path for the guys, while also navigating. This can be dangerous and is normally avoided for good reason. The brush was thick enough that I had to put some weight into breaking through. Finally, I pushed through the last of it and went to take a step into the now undeveloped area. I briefly glanced down to see where my foot placement was only to realize that my foot would not find its mark on land, instead it would step over into a one-hundred-foot sheer drop. I immediately retracted that step and told the guys to freeze, after peering over the edge a few times we decided to walk the field until we were around it. After a long, dark, grueling hike we made it off the mountain and into the truck. We were beat.
At this point we were running out of time to get an elk on the ground. We decided we would not be heading back up the mountain in the same route. Instead we would head to a nearby trail head and walk the bottom of the valley out and hunt the draws up looking for elk. We logged another day to no avail. In fact, I don’t even recall seeing a bird that day.
At this point we had two days left and we were running out of ideas. So we stuck to the plan and continued hunting the draws, working up one normally took most of the day. The draw we went in today had a dead end, without doing some mountaineering we couldn’t go any higher. We decided to head back closer to the truck and spot the higher elevation. We crossed a stream and found a spot to sit where there were a few rubs. Time passed as we fought off sleep. With an hour of daylight remaining we heard a faint noise from the other side of the valley. Chris pulled the bugle tube to his mouth and let a call rip. To our surprise it answered.
Just like that elk hunting went from miserable to awesome. We took off in a jog down the valley, across the stream, and into the woods on the other side. We had closed around five hundred yards. We sat still and tried to listen over our labored breathing. Sure, enough we heard a bugle a few hundred yards up and across the mountain. We were off. We continued to cut the distance in half, then call. Once the call sounded like it was within one hundred yards Chris stayed back as Jake and I found a good spot to set up an ambush. Chris let out a bugle and immediately an answer came from up the hill. Then it sounded like a freight train breaking through the aspen to our left.
“There he is.” Jake could see the bull and was trying to talk me on. My heart was throbbing through my chest as I followed Jake’s finger out into the woods. “See him?” He asked, I could only see the bull’s shoulder and back, I couldn’t see his head. From Jake's perspective he had a clear line of sight and assured me it was a legal bull. I pointed my range finder and pressed the button, twenty-five yards. I hit it again, same result. I knew this was wrong, my range finder must be picking up some interference. I estimated he forty yards. With my heart still pounding, I drew back my bow, took a long deep breath, and let my arrow fly.
We didn’t find my arrow, and we only picked up a trace amount of blood where I shot the elk. We decided to give him forty minutes before starting to track. It was a short, but nerve wrecking job tracking that bull. My arrow hadn’t completely passed through so the blood started off spotty at best. Luckily after twenty yards we found my arrow and the blood picked up drastically. As we continued to track Jake saw him first. He only went around seventy yards from where I shot him. Without saying a word, the three of us took a knee and placed one hand on his chest. We had a long moment of silence. We had only been in this terrain for a week and we were being humbled. This beautiful, rugged animal calls this mountain home.
Killing an animal is always bitter sweet. Its sweet because you can provide clean sustenance to your family, help with conservation, and get the gratification of your arduous work coming to fruition. But its bitter because you respect these animals so much. We gained a tremendous amount of respect for elk and elk hunters over our long week. We were in awe as to how big they were, and yet they could disappear into the mountain.
As we prepared the bull for our hike back to the truck we were greeted with dozens of bugles up and down the valley. We were in absolute awe as to the amount of elk in the valley, and yet we were only able to find one. Ever since that night, we have been counting down the days until we can pursue those rugged and elusive animals again, just not in Satan’s Taint.