USA: BOWHUNT: Wyoming Archery Elk Hunt 2018

WMU05

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Day 1 - Travel

We were up at 5:00 on the morning of September 1st. Derek had arrived around 9:30 the evening before, and after a fitful night sleep (a theme that would continue for the next two weeks), we were ready to hit the road. We had packed most of our gear the night before, so after throwing in what was left, we were on the road at 5:30 CDT.


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While we didn't need the trailer to haul gear out, if we were lucky enough to shoot two elk, it was going to be our meat wagon for the return trip.

The morning drive across Illinois and Iowa was a rainy affair, but leaving early on a Saturday meant no traffic, so we made good time. The rain finally broke somewhere west of Des Moines, and before long, we were making our afternoon run across beautiful flat Nebraska.

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Our destination for the night was Sydney. I'd booked us a room at the Hampton Inn, which happens to be right across the street from Cabela's. Upon our arrival, Derek picked up his bear spray (mine had been previously purchased) and I grabbed a new archery target. Storms were starting to build as we left the store, so we quickly got checked-in to our room and walked across the street to a bar for dinner just as the game kicked off. As a lifelong Notre Dame fan travelling with a lifelong Michigan fan, I enjoyed the food and first half of the game immensely. We were tired though, and Derek was losing interest in the game, so we decided to head back to the room and crash, catching the end from bed. As we left the restaurant I looked up and grinned...this had to be a good omen.

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We fell asleep as the game ended. The trip was off to a marvelous start.
 

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Day 2 - More Travel

We didn't have as far to go on day two, so we slept ‘til 5:30 and took advantage of the free hotel breakfast before hitting the road around 6:15.

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Our destination for the second evening was Dubois, WY.

I had driven across all of Nebraska the day before and got us through Cheyenne that morning before Derek took over for the remainder of the day's drive.

*A little side note about driving...I develop serious anxiety with heights when driving at highway speed. It's the only time heights really bother me. Walking or slower speeds are fine. But put me behind the wheel at 70+ mph going over tall bridges, up the mountains, etc...and I sweat like crazy and feel like I’m going to pass out. So, when we made the decision to drive instead of fly, I informed Derek that he'd have to be willing to do all the driving once we started our western ascent. He said he didn't mind, after laughing at me for a few minutes, so we had a deal.

The topography finally began to change as we moved west toward Laramie...and the antelope parade began.

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WMU05

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Around lunchtime we hit Rawlins, which was our final stop along I-80. From there we headed north on 287 across some beautiful, and barren, country.

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We made a stop in Lander for lunch, and by mid-afternoon we rolled into Dubois.

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It felt good to be back in the mountains, and to have a few hours of relaxation before the real adventure began the following morning. We checked-in to the hotel and then strolled through town to pick up a few things for the families back home. We quickly ran out of sites to see in town and went back to the hotel and asked if we could set our target up in the backyard for a shooting session. Our host obliged, "as long as you don't shoot the cats" which allowed us to get one final tune-up in before heading to camp.

The other side benefit of this hotel is that the Wind River is literally out the back door. We'd packed fly-rods on the trip, just in case, and as an official trout junkie, I couldn't help but wet a line before evening subsided.

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And wouldn't you know it, I even managed to land a small Brown just as we were getting ready to call it quits.

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Things were going my way!

Excitement really began to build as we made final gear arrangements that evening and called our wives and kids one last time before falling off the grid for a week. We had a 1.5-hour drive to base camp the following morning, but knew we'd lose reception the minute we pulled out of town.

I laid down around 10:00 and stared at the ceiling. Sleep came eventually.
 
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Day 3 - Pack-in Day

Around midnight a group of tourists strolled into the hotel room next to us. They must have had an exciting day, because they made a damn racket getting back into their rooms. Apparently, sleep was light, because we both woke up and struggled falling back asleep. After tossing and turning for the next few hours, 4:45 finally rolled around and we were out of bed.

We showered for the last time before leaving modern plumbing for eight days and quickly dressed. We wore hunting clothes for the pack-in day to keep our bags under the 35 lb. maximum for the mules. Actually, Derek packed in two bags and had plenty of weight to spare (which I utilized to stow a couple good bottles of booze for the week). I on the other hand had all of my gear in one duffel, with no room to spare.

The truck was loaded and we were ready to hit the road at 5:30.

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We were scheduled to arrive at base camp by 7:30, so our departure gave us plenty of time to make the 60-mile journey from Dubois, up and over the Togwotee pass, and through the Grand Teton National Park Moran ranger station to the outfitter's headquarters.

The morning was a brisk 27 degrees and we were giddy with anticipation as the first light began to filter in over the mountains.

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As daylight arrived, the Tetons showed themselves in front of us. While I've seen them before, I'm always amazed by the suddenness in which they protrude from the valley floor, seemingly skipping the foothill phase.

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We passed through an open park entrance before the rangers were even up for the day and made our turn North. Just before jumping onto the dirt road for the last 5 miles into base camp we caught movement off to the right and stopped to watch as a herd of 15-20 cows and spikes and one nice looking 6 pt. bull meandered back into the trees. (Look closely, there's elk in there)

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It was becoming more real by the minute.

We pulled into a bustling base camp at 7:00 sharp and found a seat in the cook tent as a cowboy world came to life around us. The first archery hunt out of base camp had started two days before, so there were already guys on the mountain when we arrived. The outfitter was also still running horseback rides through the park, so along with hunters and guides, there were wranglers, cooks, horses, tents and gear everywhere. It was quite the operation humming along there in the middle of the mountains.

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WMU05

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We hung out in the cook tent for a while, drinking coffee and introducing ourselves to our guides Sam and Heath. They were anxious to hit the mountain as well, leaving a summer of trail riding behind for some real adventure. Heath was the outfitter's son, and he owned the pack-in camp we would be hunting out of. He was going to be guiding the other hunter in camp, who was a return client following up a successful 2016 archery hunt. Sam was our man for the week. The two looked to be our age (mid 30’s) and initially came across as reserved yet tough, just as you'd suspect guys who work and live in the mountains to be. However, before long, the jokes and ridiculing that come with being confined with the same people for months on end revealed itself. We were going to have a good time!

The other hunter in camp, Shawn, arrived about an hour late after making a wrong turn coming into the park. His hunting partner had suffered a burst appendix less than a week before their departure, so he had made the drive from northern California solo. He and Heath were immediately giving each other grief like old friends, and another hour quickly passed before we got all of the final paperwork complete and loaded back into the truck for the drive to the trailhead.

We headed back east, halfway to Dubois actually, before turning south off the highway onto the forest service road.

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The head packer had been at the trailhead for an hour when we arrived and had many of the mules ready to roll. We unloaded our gear onto the tarp as directed, tried to help where we could, but mostly stayed out of the way while a well-oiled operation went to work around us.

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After two hours of packing, weighing gear, re-packing, re-weighing...and a brewsky break, we were finally told to saddle up.

It was go time!

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The modern world, or what was left of it after our journey so far, disappeared behind us as our horses strolled out onto the service road and crossed a gate into the wilderness.

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Each step up to this point left an impression, but this, riding into the first big meadow with postcard views in every direction, this meant our adventure had really begun. I was slack-jawed, and turned to Derek with a shit-eating grin...we were really doing this. The three-hour ride in felt like it was worth the price of admission itself. The scenery was stunning, exactly like I'd always pictured elk country to be.

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WMU05

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A little over half-way to camp, Heath slowed his horse and pointed up the hillside to our left. There in a small opening just out of the tree line stood a 5 pt. bull, just staring at our caravan as we passed by. He watched us for a full minute before turning and walking back into the timber. It was getting better by the minute.


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Before long, we looked across the drainage we were riding down and could see the first signs of camp on the opposite hillside. We crossed over through the willows and pulled into our home base for the next seven days.

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We dismounted, stretched (this would be the least amount of riding we'd do until the day we packed out) and picked out our humble abode for the week.

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The two wranglers (Mark and Cody) and two guides went to work unpacking the gear and taking care of the horses and stock while us three hunters situated our gear and got a feel for the layout of camp.

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We soon met our cook for the week, Clem (short for Clementine), who had been in camp on her own for the last two days after being packed in by the wranglers with most of the food for the week. She was a half Cheyenne Indian, half Irish woman with an equally interesting personality. She was friendly, asked lots of questions, had lots of stories from years in elk camps, and come to find out later, liked to drink. We quickly learned that she had been left in camp with no bear spray, no gun, no dog, an electric fence that only worked during the day (because they forgot the car battery) and a healthy fear of bears built up by multiple encounters over the years. For some reason the guides thought this was hilarious as she described sleeping with the only weapon in camp, a splitting maul, for two nights. She didn't.

Our last task before relaxing for the remainder of the evening was to shoot our bows to make sure nothing had bounced out of alignment on the ride in. There was a target in camp and we set it up at 40 yards for a quick practice session.
 

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Everything was still on the money (we would repeat this every day we were in camp with available daylight, just to be safe). However, my first shot blew through the target peeling a vane off one of the five arrows I had packed in. I didn't plan on needing more than one, but I quickly decided to cut my practice distance down to 30 yards so I could shoot for the top corner of the target, where the foam was still dense and untouched. For the most part this worked out well.

We had steaks (a little over-cooked) and mashed potatoes that night in the cook tent and quickly moved out to the fire pit for the evening. You could feel the anticipation in the air as Heath and Sam went through a handful of tips and other advice for us before we got on the mountain for our first morning of hunting. Most of it was the basics...but we'd come to learn through the week that many outfitting clients don't possess even rudimentary hunting skills...stay quiet, watch where you step, only move when the guide moves, etc. They then stressed the importance of only taking a shot we were comfortable with. They preferred broadside or quartering away only, inside of 40-45 yards. Drawing blood on a bull would be the end of the hunt, so they wanted us to make a shot count. They wouldn't care if we passed on a shot. There was lots of country and lots of elk. "We'll just go find another one." I was reassured by this conversation, as I had heard stories in the past of guides pressing hunters to take shots they weren't comfortable with, seemingly with the desire to keep their outfits shot percentage up. Our styles were going to mesh nicely.

We stayed up till nearly 10 o'clock as the cowboy crew sat around the fire and regaled us with stories from the back-country, with bear encounters being the focus of most tales. Derek and I later talked about whether this were intentional, in an effort to put a good jump into a couple of new elk hunters, or if it just so happened that most of the best mountain stories involved bear encounters. We decided it was a little of both.

While there was a wood stove/heater in our tent, we elected not to light it on this first night in fear of overheating. Instead, we put on our base layers for the next morning, along with a thin stocking hat, and crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. I'm pretty sure initial sleep came quick, but it was intermittent, as we awaited the coffee call on our first ever morning of elk hunting.
 

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Day 4 - We're Finally Elk Hunting

For the fourth night in a row, I woke up nearly every hour during the night. At 3:45 I could no longer resist the urge to pee, so I quickly made a run out of the tent and lit the stove fire upon return before crawling back into my bag for a little more rest. Our fears from the night before were confirmed as the temperature inside quickly soared past comfortable. We were awake for good and the call for coffee came not long after at 4:15. We put on our out layers and laced up our boots before strolling over to the cook tent for cowboy coffee, French toast and bacon. This was probably my second favorite meal of the week. There wasn’t much conversation during our morning routine, on really any morning for that matter. Everyone was just ready to start hunting.

We put our rain gear in our horses’ saddle bags, hung our packs off the left side of the saddle horn and encased our bows in the scabbards on the right side of the horses. At 5:50 we were leaving camp, Sam, then me, then Derek, heading east towards the mountain on the opposite side of the creek bottom. As we started to ascend the first bit of light was starting to make its presence felt, and as we were about to leave a meadow and head into some timber, Sam pulled up and started to glass farther uphill to our left. I pulled up my bino’s and could make out a small bull about 100 yards from our location. Sam whispered that there were two, but that they were both small rag horns. We kept riding. As we approached a high ridge which was our initial destination for the morning, two spikes came into view on the skyline.

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We continued up to the left of the two spikes and crossed over the ridge behind them. The curious buggers actually followed us for a while, and one of us probably could have got off and shot one given their apparent lack of concern. (Look closely, they're in both pics)

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By this point I was pretty jacked up. It was just after daylight and we'd already seen four bulls, albeit nothing worth pursuing. Shortly after leaving the spikes behind we heard our first bugle.

We rode across some more open meadow around the top of this mountain and dropped off into some timber where we tied up the horses a little before 8:00. From here we started off in the direction we heard the bugle on foot.

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Sam started to bugle periodically and we got that first bull to answer once or twice. We thought he was below us and on the opposite end of a meadow, but before we could get there we busted three cows in the timber and the game was up. The cows ran off in the direction of the bull and we didn't hear him again.

From 8:00-10:00 we walked a long loop, locating three other bugles along the way. None were very aggressive or bugled more than two or three times in response to Sam's calling. We got in one pretty good climb during the morning and I was happy with my ability to stay right on the heels of the mountain goat in a cowboy hat in front of me. I'll say this now to get it out of the way...the ability of a man in Wranglers jeans, cotton socks and cowboy boots with spurs to glide around the mountain like a gazelle would be hard to fathom if I didn't witness it myself.

The last bull of the morning that we struck up was likely within 200-300 yards of us at one point. In fact, Derek and I each got setup on opposite sides of a saddle that we thought he'd come over while Sam moved back and got a little more aggressive with the calling. I ranged a number of trees out in front of me and then just crouched in anticipation, scanning for a hint of tan moving through the timber. It never came. It was all thrilling none the less.

We moved up past a couple of active wallows and found some good cover and wind at the top of a meadow to watch for a while as we took a late morning break. We sat until around 11:30, but nothing made an appearance below us.

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Around noon we packed up and hiked our way back to our horses where we sat and ate lunch, contemplating the plan for the rest of the day. Since the elk had been quiet since about 9:30, we decided to drop down and take a big reconnaissance ride around the back side of the mountain we were on, looking for elk or any fresh sign. We rode through a big past burn and out on some ridges that offered spectacularly big views of the surrounding country.

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We rode until around 4:00 and pulled back into camp tired and a little saddle sore after our first full day chasing wapiti. We had some good action early in the day and experienced some breathtaking views during our afternoon ride. I chalked it up as a glorious success.

We shot our bows again that afternoon and then took some time to get our gear ready for the next day. Having everything laid out and/or packed before going to bed gave me a lot of peace of mind that I was not missing anything when we rode out in the mornings. It also made the morning routine more relaxing.

Dinner that night was a pork shoulder with fried potatoes and onions. Classic mountain/country food. I quickly realized I was going to eat more carbs in a week on this trip than I'd had in a month leading up to it! Oh well, at least I was going to burn them off.

I had a couple of beers by the fire that night (Coors Banquet of course) which were my first drinks of anything but water in quite a few days. I was very leery of altitude sickness before the trip and maintained a strict diet, but had decided that my preparation had paid off with no symptoms showing after the first two full days at elevation. I was also hoping the beer would help induce a little deeper sleep than I'd been having. At 10:00 I hit the sack to find out.
 

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Day 5 - Shit Gets Real

The beer the night before didn't really work. I was still up a few times during the night. And this morning, wake-up call was 30 minutes earlier. Up at 3:30, breakfast of cinnamon rolls, eggs and sausage at 4:00, on the trail at 5:00. I was still tired as we pulled out of camp. We rode South following the creek-bottom. The plan was to give the mountain we were on the day before a rest and check out a couple drainage's in the opposite direction.

30 to 40 minutes into the ride we were crossing the creek-bottom when Sam pulled his horse up in front of me. Every bottom was filled with willows and they were nearly up to the shoulders of our horses in this particular spot. When we stopped I could hear something rustling 50 yards or so in front of us and could just make out some movement of willow bushes in the dim moonlight. I remember thinking to myself "what the...", and didn't finish the thought before I was interrupted by Sam turning around and whispering..."we got a bear".

Whatever tiredness I was still carrying immediately evaporated. I don't know if I've ever been more clear-headed. I watched as Sam turned his horse perpendicular to the movement in front of us and drew his sidearm from its' chest holster. I slowly lifted the Velcro strap off the top of the bear spray on my left hip, withdrew the canister from its' holster, and slid the plastic safety clip off. I put the spray in my right hand and got a good grip on the reigns and saddle horn with my left. And then we sat. I could still hear the rustling in front of us, but couldn't determine if it was moving in any particular direction for the first 30-60 seconds. Eventually, and thankfully, it started to move away from us, out of the willows and onto the hillside in front of us. We stayed motionless. Once on the hillside it moved off to our right in an effort to get downwind of us. Once it did, it apparently determined we weren't food, and moved on. I'm sure I was breathing throughout the encounter (which probably only lasted a couple minutes max), but I wasn't aware of it until I heard myself exhale when Sam slowly guided his horse forward and out of the bottom. He put his gun back in place not long after we turned in the opposite direction of the bear and put some distance between us. I rode with my bear spray out, safety off, for a good 15 additional minutes. I was never happier to see daylight than when it finally arrived that morning.

Back on the mountain, we turned up a heavily timbered ridge line and began our roughest stretch of riding for the week. The grade was pretty steep, with quite a few switchbacks and dead-fall everywhere. The guys had been in the area over the summer and cut this trail for the first time. It was still rough. The horses handled it with aplomb however and by 8:30 we finally made it up and over to the next ridge where we tied up to stretch and do some glassing. It had been a long 3.5-hour ride.

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Sam let out a few bugles with no response and we were soon back in the saddle. We had seen a lone cow on the ride up, and not much elk sign, so it appeared this drainage was a bust. We went back up to the top and finally ran into a lot of fresh tracks, droppings and urine spots in the ground. A herd had certainly been in the area recently. We rode over some fairly flat ground on top and past a well-used wallow before finally hearing a distant bugle in front of us. We reached the next ridge line by about 9:30, tied the horses up a hundred yards back and moved to take up spotting positions over a wide bottom and across to the next ridge. Here was our view.

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We sat for a good 30 minutes without hearing another bugle, and eventually decided to kick back for a nap. After the morning we'd had, I was ready for a break. So were my companions.

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Around 11:00 we were awoken by the sound of a bugling elk. We initially thought it had come from behind us, back near the wallow we had passed, and we started to move in that direction. We hadn't gone far when we heard it again, then again...and we could now definitely tell that it was coming from the opposite ridge we'd been watching. We moved back to our nap location and started to glass the hillside. Before long, we started to pick up movement of tan spots coming over the opposite side near the highest point in the center/left of the above photo. Before long there were dozens of elk spreading out on the hillside in front of us. Some came down a couple hundred yards, while some stayed near the top. In all we counted around 40 elk, with at least one big herd bull, a number of smaller bulls, and the rest spikes and cows. They were loud, with a lot of bugling over the next hour as the herd slowly worked its way across the face from our left to right. Sam believed the herd we were following ran into a herd over the ridge and they all came back together, with bulls screaming their heads off trying to keep their cows separated. They all moved back near the top of the ridge by early afternoon and then disappeared into a narrow patch of thick timber.

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We were contemplating our next move at this point when we looked up and saw Heath and Shawn, along with wrangler Cody who had joined them for the day, moving along the hillside directly behind the herd. We later found out they had been chasing the other herd from the opposite direction when they ran into the ones we were after. They had been surrounded by elk all morning and at one point had the biggest bull inside 100 yards. We watched, unable to give direction, as they approached the edge of the strip of timber the herd had entered...and then as the herd busted out the opposite side. Their hunt was over, but it looked like ours had just begun.

The elk moved along the rim circling in our direction. We quickly jumped into action and walked/ran up the ridge to a saddle where Sam thought the herd would have to cross over. We caught our breaths and struggled to decide just where to setup as the wind was less than optimal. It didn't matter. After 30 minutes, it was obvious the elk weren't coming to the party. We made our way back down to our horses, and then rode up and over, dropping down into the top of the draw where we met up with the others coming off the opposite ridge. We swapped stories and learned the herd had come halfway around the rim before dropping off the opposite side. Of course.

We rode down the valley together, stopping along the way for water and to make plans for an evening hunt sitting a couple of lower meadows up and over the next mountain in front of us. It was just a couple hours of riding to get there!

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It was about 4:30 by the time we reached the logging road over the next ridge, where we split with Heath, Shawn and Cody. They went left. We went right, and put a mile or two between us before we disembarked and spread out in a saddle near the top of a meadow. I found a comfortable, well-hidden spot and kicked back for the evening, enjoying the cooler air. (While temps were 25-35 degrees each morning, mid-afternoons were pushing 75-80 most days).


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Our sit lasted from 5:00-6:30, and other than a lone muley doe, was uneventful. On the other hand, the other crew had a bull and cows come off the mountain and cross the logging road right in front of them before they ever made it to their intended destination. Instead, they side-hilled for half a mile chasing the herd in an attempt to turn them back towards our direction. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful.

It was a beautiful evening as we made our way back to camp. I was last in line as we made the last turn on the logging road around the hillside and dropped down to cross the creek bottom about a half mile out. We looked up ahead, and there in the water, like a welcoming party, were three bull moose.

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They never moved as we rode up and past them at less than 100 yards. One of the three was big!

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We continued on, and as we made the last turn into camp, I turned back and snapped one last photo of the three amigos as daylight faded. It was another image for the memory bank.

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We arrived back to camp at 8:00, where a dinner of hamburger steak with grilled onions and peppers was waiting. We sat down in our gear and I had trouble eating a full plate after downing a couple of protein bars during the day. I was also exhausted. It had been a long day, and the many nights of restless sleep were starting to catch up with me. There would be no campfire for me on this night. Derek went to find out the wake-up time for the following morning as I climbed into my sleeping bag. It was 9:00...and I was out.
 

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Day 6 - Back on Tripod

We were up at 3:30 again for our third day of hunting. I had finally slept sound. I don't think I had moved for 6 hours straight. I felt like a new man. Apparently, all it took was a bear encounter.

A breakfast of pancakes and bacon was ready at 4:00 and we were in the saddle shortly after 5:00. Our route was to be the same as the first morning, only earlier, with the plan to get to the top before daylight. I was just happy to be riding in the opposite direction of the previous morning’s excitement!

We almost made it to where we had first seen the spikes two days before when a deep bugle erupted up on the ridge in front of us. We eased forward 100 yards or so to get around a clump of trees to where we could see up to the ridge top. He bugled again. Sam jumped down as we approached the edge while Derek and I stayed in the saddle. I was lucky to be second in line as I could glass up to the top with limited obstruction. The bull looked big (Sam guessed a 310"-315" 6x7) and was working along the top with a dozen cows. We were in a terrible position to make a move, with the elk above us and only open meadow between. We waited until they all disappeared over the ridge and then made our move. Sam believed the herd would work over and then down a favorite draw before bedding in some thick timber for the day. We dropped down first, and then rode over and down a number of thick timbered draws to get to where we thought they were headed. Not long before we arrived, we heard the bull bugle again, still on top, and much further over. The lead cow had kept him high, and was moving around the opposite side of the mountain. There was no catching up to them.

Our fortunes quickly changed however as a bull, likely hearing our approach, bugled in the bottom of the draw we had stopped in. The bull was less than 200 yards away, so we hastily jumped down, tied up our horses, grabbed our bows, and moved forward into position. I veered right as Derek veered left. The bull was down the mountain in front of us, but also down the drainage to our left. As we moved forward, we swung towards him as Sam started in on an aggressive calling sequence. The bull answered and after a few moments I could hear sticks breaking out in front of us. I was crouched in a spot with good cover with two different lanes out to 30 yards in front of me. It felt like the epitome of archery elk hunting...thick timber, a screaming bull, and a close encounter about to occur. Except it didn't. While the bull stayed vocal for 5 to 10 minutes, he never closed the distance between us. We moved forward again in an attempt to get in his grill, but this only resulted in him moving slightly further away before bugling again, now on the other side of the narrow bottom. Sam thought the game was up at this point and we made our way back to our horses.

Come to find out, Derek did have a spike work in behind him at less than 20 yards while we were separated, which added a little extra excitement to the encounter for him. Later in the week, after a few more experiences, and hindsight being 20/20, we wished we'd been more aggressive with this bull, trying to close the distance ourselves given his unwillingness to commit. Live and learn.

We got back on our horses and decided to make our way up and over in the general direction that we thought the early morning herd had headed. Around 10:30, as we rode up the left side of the meadow in the below photo, we looked across just in time to see an elk step out of the timber on the opposite side. He stood broadside for a minute and we were able to determine he was a small 5 pt., which either of us would have been happy to kill. As we sat wondering what to do, the damn thing all of a sudden turned and started trotting down towards us. A mad scramble ensued with Sam shouting a whispered "get your guns", obviously losing track of the season. We were already down and pulling out our bows. We threw the lead ropes to Sam and moved down, across and up a narrow 50-yard depression in the meadow to a very thin line of trees between us and the now quickly approaching bull. This was my ambush location.

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The bull started to turn to his right and moved to our left up the meadow in an attempt to get our wind, which was now blowing from right to left uphill. I turned and motioned to Sam to cow call (he couldn't see the bull at this point because of the topography), then turned back to setup for a shot uphill, assuming the bull was going to cross above me. However, when Sam called, the bulled turned left and came back downhill before stopping and staring at me head on. I had no shot straight out at this point because of how I had setup, and I didn't dare move with so little cover around. Given this, I just sat there motionless as the bull stood at 30 yards, staring at the green dot behind the Charlie Brown pine tree. I didn't have a shot because of the angle, but assumed Derek (who was off to my right and completely hidden from the bull) was about to send an arrow on its way. The stare-down lasted for a good 30-60 seconds before the bull realized the cow elk he was after were really just horses hiding in the trees behind me. He turned and trotted back across the meadow unscathed. I immediately jumped up and asked Derek what the hell he was waiting for. It turns out, his angle was nowhere near as good as I assumed, with a hard quartering towards shot the only opportunity. Oh well, that’s hunting. We were still stoked.

The encounters of the morning had us buzzing with energy as we got back on the horses. We gave Sam some shit for telling us to get our guns, and rode off up the mountain. Before long we stopped for lunch over a deep and wide draw, hoping to hear an elk bugle while we took a break. I found napping difficult given the good night sleep I'd gotten, the excitement from the morning, and the squirrel that was eating nuts in the pine tree above me and dropping the scraps on my head.

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The afternoon was the exact opposite of the morning when it came to elk action. We rode a lot of beautiful country, stopping periodically to bugle, without ever eliciting a response.

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At one point we did ride up on and jump a small 5 pt. out of his bed at less than 75 yards. It was frustrating, and you could tell it was for Sam as well, as the elk were being darn quiet. In fact, we didn't hear a bugle after about 9:30.

We rolled back into camp around 4:30 without another encounter on the day. Heath and Shawn were already back and we learned that Shawn had a 320" bull at 50 yards that morning, but due to poor use of ground concealment, spooked him before he was ever able to draw. Sam and Heath had some private discussion time and worked on some different calls in their tent while Derek and I shot our bows and then crashed for a quick nap before dinner. That evening, before a Thanksgiving style turkey dinner, we had some visitors in camp. Our friends from the night before showed back up, this time less than 100 yards from our tents!

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Of course, we weren't moose hunting, and if we were, I'm sure they would have been 5 miles away, but we got within 50 yards of the things using a few trees for cover, and probably could have closed another 20 before taking a chip shot right outside of camp. It was a pretty darn cool experience.

We sat by the fire for a bit before bed and I was just starting to sense the first bit of anxiety in Sam and Heath at the lack of shot opportunities. We were now halfway through the hunt and none of us had drawn our bows. I couldn’t have cared less. I was having the time of my life. I headed to the tent sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 and finally felt like I was into somewhat of a sleep routine. I went to sleep full of anticipation for the second half of the hunt.
 

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Day 7 - The Longest Day

Wake-up was moved forward 30 minutes, so the call for coffee came at 3:00 AM. We had settled into a pretty efficient morning routine, and were in the cook tent for coffee at 3:15 with a breakfast of biscuits and gravy served at 3:30. It wasn't good, but we stuffed down some calories and geared up for the day.

Both guides and all three hunters were going to ride out together. We were going to hunt some country southwest of camp and the plan was to glass from up high once we got out there and then split up to hunt. We pulled out at 4:30, heading west straight up the hillside behind camp. We rode until we got up top and then turned south. Sometime along the way, in the middle of a rather open meadow, we came across a group of four cows in the dark. They were within 100 yards or so, but didn't seem to mind our presence as we stopped briefly to glass them and then continued on.

As light started to bleed into the day, we started to bugle down into the draws that we were riding along the top of...with each one being a silent reservoir of pines. We finally topped out on an open ridge where we could see for miles. It was 7:00, and we were ready to get off the horses and stretch. The break was short lived however. We soon glassed two good bulls running a handful of cows up and down a distant ridge line (the one below with two small openings in the pines, the first long and narrow, the bottom more oval in shape). Both looked like 300"+ bulls to the guides and we were excited when Heath told Sam to head out with Derek and I to "go kill 'em".

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Our path kept us on top as we continued to ride up the ridge we were on, with the plan to make a horseshoe turn to the right and come down on them from the top. They appeared to be moving up however, so time was of the essence. It took us a good hour to get over to the top side of that ridge, and shortly before arriving we had two spikes and a group of 8-10 cows bust out from some timber in front of us before heading off the other side.

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Sam started to bugle as we approached the high side of the ridge but received no response. We began to fear that the elk we bumped were the ones we glassed, and that we just didn't see the bulls as they evacuated. We rode further up country thinking they may have beat us to the top, and even though it looked extremely "elky", with a ton of fresh sign, we still couldn't get a response.

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We eventually decided to ride back down the ridge, towards the location that we initially glassed the elk at first light. We were in one of the two openings from the first picture above when we finally struck a bugle...below us. They had continued moving down, and were now down in some thicker timber below us. We rode back up hill to find a shady spot to tie up the horses and set out on foot. We made our way down to the last bit of open meadow on the ridge and setup 50 or so yards apart.

It sounded like the elk had dropped off the right side of the ridge, so Derek and I were on top with Sam down off the left side behind us. The first bugle Sam let out after settling into our ambush position elicited an immediate chuckle from down the ridge. The bull sounded close, maybe 150 yards away. My heart rate increased. Silence ensued, and it was almost more anxiety inducing than a screaming bull. I could picture him sneaking in at any moment, and was just waiting for that first flash of tan across the meadow.

Sam had decided he was going to slow play this bull. After having no luck taking the aggressive approach over the last couple of days, he wanted to try appealing to his curiosity instead of an apparently not yet present desire to fight. It didn't work. We sat from 10:00-11:30, with Sam bugling three times during our wait. We never heard another bugle from down below. At about 11:15, I did spot a lone spike sneaking across the topside of the meadow above me, but that was the last sighting of the morning.

After our 90-minute play, we slowly crept further down the ridge into the timber to see if we could get close enough to fire one of the bulls up, assuming they were still close. Sam bugled a couple of times along the way with no response. We found a small opening where we could see down the ridge and across the valley over to the next hillside. Here we had lunch and chatted about the week to date. Sam hadn't been really talkative up to this point (as I imagine of most cowboys), but opened up as I probed him about past experience with early season hunts. He admitted the lack of response to calling was getting frustrating, but that you just never know during the early season when the switch is going to flip and the bulls are going to fire up. As we sat and ate, we eventually heard a lone bugle far across the opposite mountain. We decided to hike back up to our horses, and if he continued to bugle, go after him.

We got back up to our steeds without hearing another peep from our opposite mountain bull, so we opted to take a rest here for a couple of hours, watching a small pond just below us and glassing back towards the country we had rode in on in the morning…

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...and napping.

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Derek and I were up and chatting when at 3:00 the bull that we had first setup on that morning bugled down the ridge. He sounded like he was in damn near the same spot as earlier, which didn't make a ton of sense given how far down we had went before pulling out. Either way, we jokingly talked about leaving Sam sleeping and taking our bows and going to kill him, but ultimately decided to wake him up by loudly talking about doing just that. Sam decided we’d saddle up and ride most of the way down before tying up for the final approach on foot. As we rode down, Sam was able to get the bull to respond a number of times, and we may have even had two going at one point. It felt like we were riding too far, when we heard a bugle that was way too close for comfort. We immediately bailed off the right side into a small opening and rode down a hundred yards or so where we jumped off and tied up.

Derek and I crossed the meadow into the edge of the timber and I moved back up the hillside towards the top of the ridge, with Derek and Sam down below me. The bull bugled again as we setup (I breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn't busted him), and he was close. Other than having the 5 pt at 30 yards the day before, this was the most excited I'd been during an encounter. The bull was fired up, and we were right up in his shit. He let out another bugle and his location didn't appear to have changed, so I moved up the hillside another 10-15 yards to get a better vantage point, along with a second shooting lane. At this point, I could hear sticks breaking from his walking. He was inside of 75 yards…and he was coming.

Sam bugled one or two more times without a response, but I could still hear movement above me when I looked down to see Derek and Sam making a move across a small opening. Almost simultaneously, either from hearing or seeing the movement of my partners, or from a wind switch, I heard the bull bust. I dropped my head. Given the scarcity of encounters to date, I couldn't help but feel like this was our one chance to get a shot at a good bull.

We walked up the ridge to look at where the elk had been and found ourselves in a thick, stinky, elk hole. There were three or four fresh beds with piss in them and a couple of fresh rubs that had obviously been made by a bull with a very tall rack. We had ridden within 100 yards of this bull and his cows...no wonder he was irritated! We made our way back to our horses and at 4:30 started to hunt our way back towards camp for the evening.

As usual, we rode some beautiful new country on the way back, staying low and calling up into each draw we crossed along the way. Early in the ride we spotted a lone cow on a hillside, but were unable to provoke a bugle from any potential partners in the area. Shortly after, we bumped a cow moose and calf out of a willow bottom and watched as they disappeared into the timber up the other side. The creek bottoms were turning more and more yellow by the day, and with the afternoon sun, the colors were stunning.

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About halfway back to camp, we were riding up on a fairly large beaver pond when Sam gave the halt sign. There were a couple elk up ahead in the water and we quickly determined they were two spikes out for an evening bath. We sat there in the wide open for a few minutes watching the show before riding closer, at which point these two fools finalized realized they had company and fled for the hills.

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We rode on, and less than a half mile later, I looked across the wide bottom to our right and spotted an elk in a small opening in the timber at the bottom of the tree line. I jumped off my horse and whipped out my binos to get a better look. (I couldn't see shit trying to glass from the horse). The elk was a 5 pt. bull, waist deep in a wallow, having a grand ol’ time throwing water and mud all over himself. It was cool to see, but we were caught out in the open with our pants down and had to quickly decide what to do. Sam said to get back on the horses and we'd keep riding, hoping he'd stay occupied as we rode past his line of sight. We could then cross over the bottom and sneak our way back to him. Our plan worked for all of about 10 seconds as the bull looked up and saw us. Unlike the bull from the day before, this guy had no illusions of our horses being elk and quickly loped up the hill into the timber. We rode on.

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We continued to call, but never struck up a bugle on our evening ride...and the 5 point in the wallow was our last elk sighting of the day. However, the animal encounters were not entirely over. About a mile out from camp, as we rode up and over the last hill, the smaller two of the three moose we had seen the two previous nights made an appearance. And apparently, they were intent on leading the way back to camp. For a good half mile, they let us ride within 50-yards or so numerous times before trotting ahead, staying on the same trail as us along the way.

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Eventually, the two moose bailed on us and we rode into camp right around 7:30, 15 hours after we'd left. I put a note in my journal on this night that my ass was surprisingly not sore, which must have meant I was finally broke in! We sat down for a dinner of roast beef at 8:00 and then talked around the dinner table for a bit before heading to our tents. Heath and Shawn hadn't seen much of anything, so the guides were racking their brains for options going into the final two days of the hunt. By this point, I was feeling like my training had really paid off, and was ready to stay for another week if necessary.

We hit the sack at 9:30, still full of optimism. The elk were there, we just had to find the right one.
 

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Day 8 - Emotions Run High

The cook slept in, and blamed a malfunctioning alarm clock, so the call for coffee came 15 minutes later than planned. The western omelets were ready just after 4:00 and we were packed up and rolling out of camp at 5:00. Our destination was back up Tripod. This was Sam's home territory within the outfitter's range. While there was a lot of country to hunt, Sam knew this mountain like the back of his hand, and had killed a lot of bulls on it. Given that, we hunted it every other day, with a rest day in between. Sam was confident up there, and therefore, so were we.

Clouds had moved in on our ride up which stretched out the darkness later than normal. I'm not sure if it had an impact on the elk, but they were completely silent. It was the first morning that we'd gotten well past daylight without seeing or hearing an elk. We stopped briefly to call a number of times before we reached the edge of a fairly large meadow at 7:30. Sam bugled twice and we waited a few minutes before proceeding without a response. We didn't make it 50 yards into the open when we looked to the left and saw a 5 pt. standing at the edge of the timber staring at us. We stopped. He turned around and left. We eased forward as Sam mumbled something about "silent bastards" and were then greeted by a bugle out in front of us and down slightly to the right. Finally.

The bull sounded 300 or so yards away so we moved over into the timber on the right side of the meadow and found a spot to tie up the horses. After gearing up we moved into a finger of the meadow that protruded out the downhill side and tucked in behind a dirt mound created by an uprooted tree. Sam called a few times and eventually the elk bugled once more, from what sounded like the same position. Sam made the call at this point to swing down mountain, and down wind, and get after him.

We dropped down into the timber and made haste side-hilling it in an attempt to come up below the bull. I was starting to feel like we were going too far without stopping to call and locate the bull again about the time Sam abruptly came to a standstill. There was a very small meadow up and to our left that had Sam and Derek's (I was third in line) attention. I couldn't see a thing from my vantage point, but Derek slowly turned around with eyes as big as ping-pong balls and mouthed "big bull". We stood motionless for 30 seconds or so before Derek dropped his head...followed by Sam slamming his bugle to the ground and uttering a string of expletives that would've made a sailor blush.

Apparently, the bull had decided to make the same move we did. He had swung lower and was working to get downwind of our original location when we met in the middle. Unfortunately, he saw us before we saw him, and it was game over. He gave a good show standing broadside at 80 yards, but we were in a no-win position. Sam guessed him to be 340".

Our first and only real sulking of the trip took place over the following 15 or so minutes. We sat down for a drink while Sam lamented the lack of bugling and his mis-calculation on the giant bull he'd just run us into. He was shocked that a bull of that caliber was being so passive. We didn't know any better, so after a few minutes said "let's go get the horses and find another one". This brought Sam out of his funk and we quickly hiked back up the mountain.

Soon after we re-started our ride it started to rain. It was kind of fitting for the mood. We stopped to put our rain gear on and in mid-change, looked up to see a cow step out of the timber 30 yards behind Derek as he sat with one leg in his pants. We all just smiled. This helped lighten the mood, with Sam saying he would have laughed his ass off it would have been a bull. Oddly enough, with all the elk we saw, this was the only cow either of us had in bow range all week. We could have shot one if we wanted, as WY archery tags are good for any elk. However, Sam and Heath said we'd had to pack it out on our own if we did, as they weren’t about to turn their outfit into a meat camp.

We rode from 8:00-10:00 in a light rain without seeing another elk and only hearing one or two distant bugles. We were still pretty high up, and after the rain stopped decided to head the rest of the way up to the crest to take a look at the country on the backside. I do pretty good with heights, other than when driving, but I had to look away shortly after popping out onto this narrow ridge on the backside of the mountain top. It was a long damn way down, and the trail we took along the summit was probably the narrowest of the week.

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I was thankful for a steady steed as we worked along the top for a few hundred yards, taking in the expanse below.

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The ridge-line we took off the backside was pretty steep, so Sam instructed us to get off the horses and lead them down the first couple hundred yards until the grade became a little less severe. I was happy to get off and walk, and just prayed the beast didn't slip and come crashing down on top of me.

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We made it down safely and proceeded on our way. It was lunchtime, and pretty hot, so Sam suggested we shake things up by heading straight back to camp for a late lunch and nap, followed by an evening hunt down the logging road we'd sat three evening's prior. We were up for a change, and were interested in hunting until dark anyway, so quickly agreed. We made our way back to camp, and for the first time all week I noticed the Aspens were starting to show some yellow. It was fall in the mountains.

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We rolled into camp around 2:00, ate our lunch, and kicked back in our cots for a snooze.
 
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WMU05

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We spent some leisure time in camp after the nap, waiting for the temps to drop before we started out for the evening. The logging road we were targeting was close, and we'd be hunting within 15 minutes of leaving.

The plan seemed a little "un-conventional" at first, as Sam wanted one of us to nock an arrow and walk out in front of the other two and the horses as we made our way down the road. I told Derek he could go first, so he disembarked and moved out in front as we ascended out of the creek-bottom and started down along the mountainside. The idea was that if an elk heard us and the horses walking, and came down to the road to investigate, as some had done to Heath and Shawn three days earlier, the hunter in front would likely have 2-3 seconds to take a shot before we were busted. I was a little skeptical, but rode with my rangefinder out, thinking that I'd tell Derek the distance to shoot in the short window Sam thought we'd have to pull off a shot. Derek led us approximately 3 miles out over the next hour, and as I had expected, we didn't see a thing. At the end of his walk, we stopped at the edge of a big meadow for a few minutes while Sam let out a few bugles. We received no response. It was time to head back, and I was up.

I nocked an arrow, put my quiver in the bow scabbard on the horse (I don't really like shooting with my quiver on if I don't have to) and moved out in front.

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My turn started right about 7:00, and wouldn't you know it, 10-15 minutes into it, shortly after Sam had let out a bugle or two, we got a response. The bugle was from my left, maybe 300 yards down below us. The bull bugled again as I bailed off the road 50-yards down into the timber. After his next bugle, as it sounded like it came from the same location, I decided that I was going to keep moving on him. Sam was still up on the road, so with each bugle, I moved another 20-30 yards forward. In a matter of minutes, I was at the edge of a meadow, with a thin row of trees 20 or so yards in front of me, and then another 80 yards of opening across to the next timber line. I slowed my approach as I could see a tan body through the tree line across and down the meadow from me. He wasn't moving, but was really fired up, alternating between bugles and chuckles as Sam continued to keep him going from up top. I cautiously moved across the first 20-yard opening, trying to keep some cover between the two of us, alternating between my binoculars, rangefinder and wind-check as I proceeded. I made it up to the first narrow tree line and stopped to catch my breath.

I now had a clear view of the bull around some cover and could see that he was in a wallow, destroying the earth around him between his screams. He looked like a real solid 6x6. It was beyond awesome. The problem for me was that I was out of room to maneuver. I had closed to within 75-80 yards, but now had to hope the bull would finally have enough of Sam’s antagonizing and head up towards him. I watched him put on a show for a few minutes and then held my breath as he climbed out of the wallow...and then walked away. He bugled once more as he dropped down in the opposite direction as if to say "yeah, I'm' still here, come and get me".

I stood up and made my way back up to the road. As I approached, Sam gave me the thumbs up sign with a questioning look on his face, probably because I was beaming from ear to ear. I shook my head no and quickly relayed the proceedings to him and Derek (who had stayed up on the road after I bailed out of sight so quickly, not knowing where I was). It was an epic encounter, and I was starting to feel like my elk hunt was complete. 10-15 minutes later, we got another bugle.

It was again off to the left, and we had circled around the mountain somewhat by this point so we thought we may have cut off the same bull. The distance off the road sounded similar, but this time the elevation was essentially on the same plane. Derek jumped down and grabbed his bow and we both moved into the timber in tandem. We stopped 50 yards in as the bull bugled again. I told him I was going after him like the last one so we split up with me heading off to the left and slightly up hill and Derek going right and downhill. We put just enough distance between us to be out of sight and then started to move forward towards the bull. There was enough dead fall around that I could keep tabs on Derek, by his not so silent sneak, as we stalked.

Similar to 30 minutes prior, the bull did not sound like he was moving, so I continued to gain ground, constantly checking the wind and moving slightly more up-hill as I approached to keep my scent moving away from the bugles. It was pretty thick, with no openings in sight, which gave us great cover to move in on the bull. As I got to within what I thought was 100 yards, I heard another bugle further up the mountain. The second bull was quite a bit further up, but the thought of going after him and killing both bulls flashed through my mind for a second...and then I came to my senses and continued on towards the bull in front of me.

I eventually got to a spot where I could see a slight rise of about 20 feet just 30-40 yards in front of me, perpendicular to my position. I crouched down to look up and just then he bugled...and it was loud! Then I saw him...and he was close! Like right on the edge of the rise, inside 50 yards close. He had no idea I was there, with Sam now some 200 yards behind us keeping up his consistent calling.

I crouched for a minute as the bull turned and started to move towards me and the edge of the rise. I quickly decided to stand given the dense cover I was in and drew my bow as the bull disappeared behind a thick pine that was between us. He had two options as he dropped down, either go to his right and come around the pine on the trail I was on, putting him at around 10 yards when he'd finally come into view, or go left around the pine and cross broadside 20-30 yards in front of me. Initially, he chose neither. Instead, he stopped, and I listened, as he tore into a helpless small tree at the top of the rise. I let down my bow as he spent a minute taking out his aggression. On one hand, I remember standing there thinking how damn cool it all was, and on the other, going into what I call robot mode…repeating in my mind the only things I needed to do; "Stop him, take your time, pick a spot, follow through". I was excited beyond words, but not nervous, and not shaking. I had prepared for that moment.

When the raking stopped, I heard a step and re-drew my bow. After a couple more steps, his head appeared behind the pine to my right. He was taking the leftward route. Two steps later and he was perfectly broadside, angled slightly downhill on the last bit of rise before it leveled out. I let out a low whistle and he stopped and looked in my direction. I never once got a good look at his rack. All I could see was every bow-hunters dream, a bull elk frozen within a sight picture. As I settled in, my top three pins were all within his vitals behind the shoulder. I put the 30-yard pin mid-body, slightly back from the front leg, and triggered an explosion.

He was dead before the arrow got there. It hit with a solid thud, and quickly disappeared, followed immediately by a bright red splotch as the bull tore through the timber to my right and down the mountain. I instinctively ran after him for 20-30 yards hoping to get a clear view of his path. It was too thick however, and darkness was quickly approaching as he crashed out of sight. I stopped and within seconds there was silence. Then I lost it. Two years’ worth of planning, and running, and pack-training, and weekend mornings away from my family to shoot and ride horses all hit me at once. For a moment I stood there alone, in complete silence, on a mountainside so far away from my everyday life that it didn't seem real, and visibly started to shake as my eyes welled up. I was hit by an emotional tsunami that I had no control over.

Within seconds, I could hear Derek approaching. I raised my arms as he walked up and gave him a man-hug only hunting buddies could appreciate. Turns out he had been close, slightly downhill from me. He needed the bull to keep coming another ten yards or so to get in range. Instead, he heard me whistle, he heard a bow release, and he heard a thud...followed by the bull’s crashing exit from the scene. I stood there alternating between whispering "two years’ worth of work" and "I can't believe that just happened" over and over again when we heard a crash just downhill from us, followed by two raspy drawn out breaths. Our faces lit up, and I either high-fived or hugged him again.

It was just after 8:00 and getting pretty dark as we started to wonder where the hell Sam was. Derek told me to stay put as we had a bead on the bull from our location, and he'd walk back towards the road to find him. He didn't make it 30 yards before I could hear Sam coming from the opposite direction. I made my way over and they were already talking when I approached and nearly tackled Sam. The joy in that moment is impossible to put into words. We had worked hard all week, and here we were on the fifth night of a six-day hunt with the ultimate prize for our efforts. Sam relayed that after we moved into the woods he quickly lost sight of us and decided to just stay back and keep calling until something happened. When he heard the bull tear off down the mountain, followed by a second one (me), his suspicion was that we'd spooked him. When the crashing stopped, he was thrilled to realize what had occurred.

Given how little light was left, we quickly wrapped up a recap of the events and spread out about 20 yards (me on the left, Sam in the middle, Derek on the right) and moved towards where we heard the bull go down. We didn't make it 50 yards before a large shape materialized on the hillside. The sight took my breath away, and I struggled to get out "here he is" before turning back to stare in disbelief at what was laying in front of me.

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I hadn't moved as Derek and Sam approached, slapping my back as they walked around me to the bull. Sam pulled the rack up to get a look and said he was a 5x6. I was having trouble seeing through the water in my eyes again so I was glad he said it out loud. Derek later said I just kept mumbling "I can't believe this happened" until Sam finally looked at me and said "well, put your hands on him!". I bent down and gave a quick, wholly insufficient, thought of thanks for the animal and the experience...as I held the heavy antlers of a bull elk for the first time. We all shook hands again as the reality of the situation started to sink in. Since it was dark, and I had nothing but a bow without arrows, a can of bear spray and a knife on my belt (everything else was on the horses) we decided walk out to our rides and make the 15-minute trek back to camp for help.

The raw emotions I felt as we walked back to the logging road and horses are impossible to put into words. As we mounted up and headed back, I pulled my horse to the rear and left some distance as I rode along with just my thoughts and the billions of stars over my head. I thought of my dad, my life-long hunting partner, and my six-year-old son, my hopefully next life-long hunting partner...wishing that both were there for the moment. I thought of my grandpa, who passed away 18 months ago at the age of 96, and was there for many of my first hunting memories and successes. The moment felt so much bigger than me. So many people played a part in creating the hunter I am, and during that 15-minute ride I wanted to reach out and share it with all of them.

We rode into camp after dark and I think the rest of the crew was shocked to learn that we had a dead bull on the mountain. Sam later said he was confident in our evening excursion leading to an encounter, and seemed offended that I may have thought otherwise, but I don't think anyone else thought we were going to come back looking for help. Dinner was ready so we decided to eat while Cody and Mark caught and geared up their horses and a couple mules. I also pulled out a bottle of good single barrel bourbon I'd packed in for just such an occasion. While I'm not a lover of brown booze, it's the customary celebratory drink in my hunting family, so that's what came along. After one round I handed the bottle to Sam and said "thanks again".

At 9:30, Cody, Mark, Sam, Derek and I, and two mules, rode out of camp. We were soon back to the spot we had marked on the logging road and proceeded to take the entire caravan into the timber. Being grizzly country after all, the more commotion we made the better. Even with GPS coordinates, it took us a few minutes to locate the bull in the dark. I'd been lugging a dslr camera in my pack all week for just such a moment, and I handed it to Derek to get some shots before we started to take the bull apart. Unfortunately, I didn't tell him, and he didn't realize, that the camera did not auto focus. I also failed to check his work before stowing the camera away, and only later realized every photo was blurry, almost beyond recognition. With some serious editing, I was able to partially salvage one.

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Sam prefers the gutless method for quartering elk and went to work in speedy fashion. I held hoofs out as he cut away the quarters and Mark went to work cutting off the lower legs after we had them removed from the body. Cody stood guard with his .44 and Derek assisted back and forth as we finished side one by removing the most beautiful back-strap I'd ever laid eyes on. We flipped him over and repeated the process on side two before reaching in and pulling the tenderloins out. All that was left was the head, which Sam made quick work of after finding the joint in the spinal column. I had decided on a euro mount unless I shot a real giant (I don't really have room for a shoulder mount anyway) so not having to cape him out expedited the process. Within 45 minutes all that was left was a carcass and we were loading meat into canvas bags and strapping them to the mules.

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At 11:00, exactly 90 minutes after we'd left, we rolled back into camp. It really was a miracle how close to camp I killed the bull. We had hunted up to a four-hour ride away on some days, and then we finally got one on the ground it was damn near within walking distance of camp…unreal. It was late, and everyone was hunting in the morning, so we placed the meat inside the cook tent, protected by an electric fence, for the night. Cody and Mark would get it up on the meat poll the following day.

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I placed my notched tag, which goes with the meat in Wyoming, not the antlers, in one of the canvas bags, did one more round of handshakes, and headed for the tent. It was roughly midnight when I laid down, and I had no idea how I was going to fall asleep. I think I was afraid I'd wake up and it all would have just been a dream. Thankfully, the physical and emotional output from the day took its toll and I drifted off...smiling.
 

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Day 9 - Pain

Clem slept in…again, so the wake-up call came 15 minutes late at 3:45. Missing her alarm this time was self-induced, and we laughed when we realized what happened.

The night before, when we got back from packing my bull off the mountain, Heath came up to me and whispered "you can't leave whiskey out in the cook tent". I looked at him quizzically, and said I had given the bottle to Sam as a thank you. He just looked at me again and said "you can't leave it out". I still didn't get his meaning, so I walked past him into the cook tent where that bottle of bourbon was left on the table. It was still there, but another third of it was gone. I smiled as I put two and two together...Clem liked whiskey.

Everyone was a little groggy, working on less than four hours of sleep, as we had our 4:15 breakfast. I was riding lighter today, along for the experience, looking to soak in one last full day on the mountain, and hopefully witness another bull kill. We rode out of camp right about 5:00, headed north. Our destination, Two Ocean mountain.

The morning before Heath and Shawn had hunted in this area and Heath was finally able to pull another bull into range for Shawn. Unfortunately, Shawn pulled his 30-yard shot hard left and buried his arrow into the bull's shoulder. They watched him run up and over a ridge with nearly the entire shaft sticking out. They spent the rest of the day searching, after only finding light blood for 100 yards or so up the trail. The mood back in camp had been pretty mellow during the prior afternoon, until I went and changed our situation.

Shawn's hunt was done, as Heath and he, along with Cody and Mark, would ride back to spend the day searching for his bull. However, they had seen a lot of fresh sign in the area, along with a good 6 pt. bull after Shawn had hit his, so we headed out an hour or two ahead of them to hunt the country before they started their search. It ended up being a fruitless endeavor for the search crew, which they knew was the likely outcome given the hit…but they had no choice except to search.

Our action for the day started early, as a bull fired off a bugle to our left less than 30 minutes out of camp. We stopped and waited, and a few minutes later he fired off again. He had moved quite a way since his first scream, and was obviously quickly working in downwind of us. We still had over an hour until shooting light, and a long way to ride, so we left this bull for another crew on another day.

As we started to climb up out of the bottom into a fairly open valley, the first light of day allowed us to spot a group of shapes up and to our left. A look through the binos revealed a group of 5 bulls, 3 rag horns and two spikes. We kept riding up and to our right to get the horses behind a clump of pines for cover. Just as we neared our hiding spot, another bull crested the ridge directly in front of us. He was a small 5x5, but plenty big enough for Derek. It was only 6:30, and we had 6 bulls strung out on the mountain within a few hundred yards of us. I started to think it was going to be a short morning.

Derek jumped off his horse first and attempted to move out and up on the single bull to the right, which was also the closest. Sam started to hit a few bugles on the tube and I watched our six as I could still see two spikes from the original group up and to our left. The action petered out rather quickly as none of the bulls bugled, and all of them kind of just faded away into the closest timber. We were pretty sure all of them had made us out well enough before we got behind the trees, which kept them from making any stupid mistakes.

There were some big flat meadows up on top of this mountain and we wanted to be up there at first light, which was now, so we jumped back on the horses and continued our ride. Sam let out a couple bugles as we started to top out and just over the first rise we rode up on two other bow-hunters. I felt bad for the guys as we waved and rode on past. They had to have hiked 4-5 miles from the nearest road to get up on top of the mountain that early, then they heard a bugle approaching, only to be followed by three hunter topped horses. Oh well, that's public ground.

Not a quarter mile past our only human encounter of the week, we rode around a point of timber into a large meadow where two 5 pt. bulls were sparring not 150 yards away. Sam jerked his horse to the right, out of sight, and we did the same. We jumped down, Derek grabbed his bow, and we moved off to the right into the trees for some cover. Sam let out a series of bugles, but again, we got no response. We soon realized one or both of the bulls must have seen Sam before he was able to duck into cover. We got back on the trail and headed across an immense high mountain meadow. We had already seen 8 bulls, and the sun was just breaking the horizon.

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We hit the timber on the far side a short while later and started to call into what looked like prime elk habitat. We stopped and glassed for a bit as we had a wide view back behind us, down to the right. We soon spotted movement and watched three more small bulls in the distance heading up a meadow into some dark timber. That made 11 bulls. We rode forward and had one of the sparring pair (who had obviously busted across the big meadow in front of us) sneak in behind us after a few more bugles, just as we entered a small opening. We were once again caught with no options as he quickly turned and headed back to safety.

Shortly after our last elk encounter, as we were riding across a meadow, I decided to take my puffy coat off as the sun was starting to warm the air. I pulled my right arm out, and just as I went to remove the left, a breeze caught it, causing it to flap in the air. Now, I had taken a jacket off while riding a number of times during the week with no issue. But for some reason, on this morning, my flapping coat put the fear of God in Cassidy, the giant black horse I was riding…and she bolted.

Cassidy peeled out of line to the right of Sam and took a beeline towards the edge of the meadow. We were hauling ass as I held on for dear life with my right hand, my coat flapping in the wind off my left arm, yelling "whoa, whoa!" at an animal that had no intention of stopping until the terror on her back was gone. As we approached the timberline Cassidy made a hard-right turn to circle back towards the others. I went left. It was an uncontrolled ejection. I landed on my ride side, shoulder and hip mostly, but also shoved my rangefinder, which was strapped alongside my bino harness, into my ribs. I bounced and hit the second time on my rear and head, coming to a rest with one final half-roll onto my stomach. I had the wind knocked out of me (which I'd had plenty of experience with playing high school sports) but otherwise initially felt like everything was responding correctly. I rolled onto my back and gave Derek and Sam a thumbs up while I waited for my ability to take a deep breath to return. Once Derek saw the thumbs up, or maybe a moment before, he started to laugh his ass off. Hey, what are friends for?

I got up and walked back to Cassidy who was just standing with the other two horses, giving me a look of "don't ever do that again". She jumped as I picked my coat up and stuffed it in the pack hanging off the left side of the saddle horn. I climbed back up, seemingly no worse for the wear.

We continued to ride and covered some real beautiful country, at maybe the highest elevation we'd been all week.

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Though we rode through the area Heath directed us to, and saw some sign, we never saw another elk or heard a bugle on the morning. The only animal encounter was another big bull moose, which we were surprised to learn spent time this high up. In that same general vicinity, we also found a large broken off moose horn, which had to have been split in one heck of a fight. We tried to put the horn in my empty bow-scabbard, but Cassidy had been acting jumpy as hell since our rodeo moment and twice started to trot/jump after we strapped it in. I told Sam to "get that damn thing out of there" and we rode down the mountain without incident as Sam carried the horn. I was now starting to tighten up.

As we turned back towards camp, we crossed over the bottom and up to a saddle bordering a prior burn where Shawn had killed a bull two years prior. There was water there, so Sam called a few times and we settled in for lunch and our mid-day rest. I was tired, but was afraid of what I'd feel like after falling asleep. I crashed anyway. Here Sam and I are both sleeping, with my camo for the day doing its job.

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After a couple hours with no action, we decided to saddle up and head back towards camp. I stretched out as best I could (my ribs were starting to get sore with deep breaths or certain movements) and got back on the horse. Sam told Derek we'd do another evening hunt, and could either go up Tripod on the way back or get to camp and hit the logging road again in the evening. We had some time to decide, so hit the trail in the afternoon heat.

Cassidy continued to be extremely jumpy, so I had taken my pack off the saddle horn and wore it for the afternoon ride. I figured the less she had bouncing around on her the better. I was wrong. It didn’t matter. Shortly into our afternoon ride, while moving across a small sagebrush flat, a large fly or bee of some kind buzzed around my head. I dared not wave my arm, but it didn't matter. I watched in horror as the bug made a bee-line for Cassidy's ears. In an instant, we were off again. Sam reached out and nearly caught her lead rope as we sailed by on his left side. This time I had both hands free and put everything I had into pulling back on the reigns. After 50 yards or so, she started to ease up, which caused my weight to shift back forward in the saddle. This apparently loosened the reigns just enough to encourage her to continue on. As she accelerated a second time I began to lose my balance (which is shitty to begin with) and looked for a spot to make a controlled landing. Thankfully my ass hit an open spot in the sage, only scraping my left elbow/forearm on the way down.

This time I was pissed. After Sam got back with Cassidy (she kept going this time instead of circling back) I told him there wasn't a chance in hell I'd get back on that fucking horse and that I'd walk back. He told me it was 8 miles. I dropped my head. To his credit, Sam was also pissed. The first time was partially or mostly my fault, the second was Cassidy just being a bitch. Sam thought for a minute then asked me to hold his horse while he jumped on Cassidy and proceeded to demonstrate his cowboy bona fides. The best description I can give is that for the next five minutes he gave her an ass kicking. He intentionally spooked her by slapping his hat or waving his arm, she'd spook and jump or go to run, he’d lay into the reigns and spur her in the shoulder, she'd stop...rinse and repeat. Sam was swearing and sweating and Cassidy was giving it right back for a couple minutes...then she wore down. Finally, he was able to slap his hat without her moving. Her current anxiety was broken. Sam said he'd tie Cassidy's lead rope to his saddle so she couldn't go further than 6 feet the rest of the way back. I reluctantly climbed back in the saddle.

I was now really sore, and we still had a 2-hour ride ahead of us. At this point I told Derek and Sam I was done, after getting back to camp I'd work on packing and dinner* as they went out for the evening. Nobody tried to persuade me otherwise. Thankfully, the ride back was uneventful and I could feel a very different demeanor in Cassidy after Sam had his way with her. However, I was still more tense than when we'd run into the bear and was never so happy to see camp as I was when we pulled back in that afternoon.

*That morning before heading out I told Clem I would donate the two tenderloins from my elk to the camp for dinner that evening, under one condition...she couldn't put them anywhere near a frying pan. She immediately and nonchalantly responded "then you can cook them". While this was in no way my intent, I do all of the cooking in my house, and was more than happy to tackle elk tenderloin over an open fire.

My mood had mellowed on the ride back, thankful that I wasn't seriously injured as I chalked it up to being just another part of the adventure. I could tell every time Derek re-imagined one of the two ejections, because he’d start to giggle behind me. Back in camp, everyone got a good laugh out of my misfortune. However, I could sense Sam and Heath giving each other a look of relief that there were no serious injuries.

We had a couple hours to kill before Derek and Sam went back out, so we sat around for a few beers and listened to the other crew's story of an uneventful search. I finally started to relax.

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I also took my bull out and got a few pictures with the head in the daylight.

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WMU05

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Before long, Derek and Sam were riding out and I took the time to pack some gear and then went to work trimming and prepping the tenderloins for dinner. Beside the bourbon, I'd also packed in a good bottle of Cab (what can I say, I tried to plan for everything
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).

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After the meat was ready, I got a good fire going and sat alone for a bit, writing in my journal and thinking again about the week…and how lucky I was. It had felt like we'd been gone for weeks, a good sign that I'd really broken away from everyday life.

Since the only wood to burn was pine, I got a good hot bed of coals built up by dark so that I could cook with little to no smoke on the meat. As dark settled in without a sign of Sam and Derek, I began to get hopeful that he'd pulled off a little last-minute magic. When they finally pulled in 15 minutes later, with a smile on Derek's face, I was certain of it.

However, it was not to be. He'd had a great encounter with the bigger 6 pt. from the wallow the night before. He’d had a couple cows with him, and was down near the bottom in and around the willows. Sam stayed up high while Derek dropped down and tried to make it happen. At one point he could see the bull's rack over a bunch of willows not 40 yards away. He thought he had him, but their dance never put the bull in the open within bow range. He worked till the last minute, finally giving up with a grin as shooting light disappeared, knowing he'd given it his all. His consolation prized was on the fire.

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I've cooked some great meals in my life, and eaten at some outstanding Michelin star restaurants, but I don't think I've ever eaten a finer piece of red meat than that elk tenderloin, cooked medium rare over an open fire. Surprisingly, I guess in my mind, Sam and Heath appreciatively poured themselves wine with Derek and I and we ate in near silence, savoring the delicacy. It was culinary bliss. The only downside was that the eight of us ate both tenderloins...there was none going home with me.

Sam, Heath, Derek and I sat up in the cook tent until 11:00 that night, long after the others had crashed. We talked about the week, and about life. We were four guys of the same age, with very different life experiences. We had some similarities however, and the one that mattered most this week was that we'd all grown up chasing and killing critters. It was our bond as hunters, and we enjoyed sharing it with each other.

Derek and I lingered that night, knowing that going to bed meant waking up to packing out. Our hunt was over. It was everything we'd hoped it would be...and more. As I laid in my cot that night, after taking Ibuprofen for the pain, I thought back to the first evening in camp. As we sat around the fire that night, Heath said something that will always stick with me. He said, in preparing us mentally for the week, that in their experience, "bowhunters have the best stories, but the fewest trophies". I laid there with a smirk, thinking..."I got both".
 

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Day 10 - Pack Out

Pack out day did not mean sleep-in day. We were up at 4:00. These guys were going to have one afternoon and evening at base camp, sleeping in real beds for a night, before packing in four more bowhunters the following day...and they wanted to make the most of it.

I packed what was left of my gear in the dark and had a rather leisurely morning, helping out where I could as the crew went to work. Sam caped my bull and Cody went to retrieve the meat from the meat pole while Derek and I helped Heath load mules. The antlers went on last, and with that, we were ready to ride.

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Derek and I tipped Clem, Cody and Mark before we left camp. Clem was staying behind, taking an evening off before the next crew arrived...this time with a gun. We thanked her for the cooking and hospitality during the week and I thanked Mark and Cody for all of the work getting horses ready for us each day, and for a night of packing out meat.

We were all riding out together, and the mule trains were ready for the road right about 7:00, just as the sun began to show.

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The ride out was uneventful. I wasn't on Cassidy (we each had two horses we alternated during the week), so was a little less anxious for the last three hours in the saddle. Once we arrived back to the trail-head, around 10:30, the gang made quick work of unloading the mules and packing up the trucks and trailers. Before parting ways, Derek and I grabbed Sam for a photo, tipped him, and thanked him profusely for the experience and effort he provided.

I'd hunt with Sam again in a heartbeat.

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After loading the meat and gear into the truck, we had about an hour’s drive into Jackson Hole where we dropped the meat off for processing and started to re-adjust to the civilized world. Cell service re-appeared during the drive, and while re-connecting didn't sound very appealing, letting family and friends know that we made it out safely, and sharing our success, made for a rather enjoyable ride. I booked us a hotel for the night on the drive in, and was given a discount when I told the lady we'd killed an elk and were coming into town for the night to have it processed...only in the mountains. We only had one delay on the drive, as a line of tourists were stopped to allow a small herd of bison to cross the road. This kind of traffic jam I could deal with.

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We made straight for the butcher upon getting to town and unloaded the quarters for processing.

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Derek and I agreed ahead of time to split the meat if we only had one kill, so we took our time giving detailed instructions on how we wanted the elk cut, making sure nothing was lost in translation.

From there we grabbed lunch where our camo garb attracted some attention, and we spent most of the time between bites sharing stories of our week with interested patrons. Then it was the hotel...and showers! We got back into the truck afterwards to make a run for more coolers and were horrified by the smell inside. Apparently, the shower had cleansed our nasal passages, which were no longer immune to the mix of smoke, grease, sweat and livestock that had become our odor.

That evening we walked over to Snake River Brewing, and had an "it’s a small world" experience as one of my sister's friends and old roommates served us beer on the house. We watched football, shared stories, laughed, ate and drank until we were ready to drop...which wasn't very late. Back at the hotel, after probably one too many beers, sleep came quick.
 
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Days 11/12 - Homeward Bound

We slept in, at least by mountain standards, and didn't roll out of bed until 7:00. We showered, re-packed our gear for the ride home, and walked a few blocks for breakfast. After breakfast, we figured we’d mill around town for a while, grabbing a few things for our families back home, as our meat likely wasn't going to be ready until close to noon. However, shortly after entering the first store, around 9:30, the butcher called to tell us it was finished. It was time to go!

We grabbed the truck and made one stop at a liquor store for some more mountain “souvenirs” and ice before heading over for the meat. They rolled a full rack of trays out upon our arrival, and boy was it a sight. There was around 175 lbs. of vacuum sealed, frozen solid, organic goodness. We loaded up the coolers with our prize.

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At 10:30 we were on the road. We headed south out of Jackson to Hoback Junction, then east to Pinedale before we turned back south to pick-up 80 for the long haul east. The two-day trip home was uneventful, as we did 12 hours the day we left Jackson and the final 10 the following day.

As we drove between Jackson and Pinedale, I took one last shot of the mountains as we put them in rear-view mirror.

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Our adventure had ended. It was epic, everything we'd hoped it would be and more. It's hard for something to live up to the expectations when there is so much time and build-up leading to it, but this trip did. As we settled in for the ride home, and were already beginning to re-live parts of the week, Derek uttered a perfect three-word synopsis of our experience.

"We are blessed"

I couldn't have put it any better.
 

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