I have spent many days in elk camp. My fascination with the species and where they live started long ago when I was a young man. In fact, the draw of the dark timber and the thrill of chasing bugling elk was strong enough to provide me with the energy to drive across the country with as little pit stops as possible. In fact, I have made the torturous drive multiple times.
Just like with many things in life, the first time is the most exciting. With a truck and trailer full of archery supplies, clothes, food and of course, way too many elk calls our band of hopeful hunters headed west. With a summer full of topo map knowledge in our brains, we set foot on the mountain to follow the contour lines in our heads to where we were certain the elk lived. After a week of hunter-sets and elk calling sessions, we packed our empty trailer full of all we brought with us and headed home with nothing to show for it but sore legs and aching lungs.
The next time would be different, we were certain of that. With another year’s worth of planning, reading maps, calling local agencies and searching elk hunting reports we again loaded up and headed west. With the certainty of new ground to hunt and high expectations we charged the mountains full of vigor. This time, we saw elk. We heard elk. We even hunted the elk and came very close to sealing the deal. But again, we headed back to our homes with nothing more than landscape pictures, a sack full of dirty hunting clothes and a quiver of unused arrows.
This is the story of my elk hunting career. Throw in a few rifle hunts, one successful late-season migratory cow elk and another unsuccessful bow hunt and you've got it - weeks in the Rocky Mountain high country chasing the elusive elk and a pile of unused tags.
But all the time out west was not wasted. I still longed to be high on top of world with elk bugling and cows calling in the wide open spaces. I dreamed of the hunt. I visualized the shot. I could feel the elk’s massive antler in my hand as I lifted his head to witness his grandeur. I could smell the high altitude air and feel the lack of oxygen burning my lungs. I dreamed during the day and fell asleep hearing him bugle at night.
The years went by, but I still dreamed. And then it happened.
On a very cool and crisp morning in the Rockies, I walked the base of a shadowy mountain in search of the creature calling into the dawn’s still air. He was there, on the side of that mountain, but I couldn't find him in the scattered junipers and pines. His cows were walking quartering away up the hill into the dark timber. But he was not. As a sat to catch my breath and glass the hillside canyon, he bugled off my left side. I swung my binocular in his direction and his antlers filled my lens.
I adjusted into position, sat still to control my breath, and released the shot. The report of my rifled filled the canyon.
After many years, hours of practice at the range and weeks in the mountains I finally touched the antlers of the bull elk in my dreams. On a hillside far away from my West Virginia home, I stopped and gave thanks.