Stories from the trail

Stories from the trail

September 2012

On this particular hunt there were four of us archery elk hunting in Colorado (Jon ,Brett, Toby , and myself). This was a Flat Tops Wilderness hunt so we used an outfitter to get us nine miles in, which included an elevation gain of 2100 feet. This is a horseback ride that takes about five hours. The outfitter (Bruce) and his wrangler (Greg) just love to pack us in for this hunt because we make it as easy as possible for them by just being seasoned and organized, and believe me that goes a long way towards a good and memorable experience with the riding horses and pack animals. When we show up at the trail head we have our bags packed and weighed out evenly. We use heavy military canvas bags, called fliers bags, to pack all our supplies and equipment. All this is done before we leave Pennsylvania. Each person uses two bags and we get together to divide things like food and camping gear. These fliers bags slide right into panniers and are somewhat waterproof and are very durable. I’ve taken my set on at least eight hunts now and they are holding up fine. Even on years that there are only two of us, two bags each full of gear is plenty for the ten or twelve day hunt that we plan for. Another reason Bruce and Greg like outfitting for us is, once we reach our destination they just unload our gear and leave because we set up our own camp with our own gear. Then they leave until they hear from us to come pack out elk meat. Now this being a true wilderness hunt, there is no cell service for miles. So the “lucky” hunter gets to walk about halfway down the mountain to a spot that gets one bar of cell service that comes and goes in spurts. Sometimes it takes awhile, but eventually you can get a text message out. Then you get to walk back up the steep, narrow, rocky horse trail to camp. Since we don’t get to our campsite till early afternoon, we set up camp, have a good supper and rest for the days ahead.                                                                                                      The following morning we split up to spend the morning scouting the area. Jon and I have hunted this unit several times before and this was Toby and Brett’s first time, so I took a walk with Brett and Jon took a walk with Toby. It was an uneventful first day spent walking areas where we usually find elk. The following morning we took partners to start hunting as two teams. Hands down our favorite tactic for hunting elk is the caller/shooter set-up, where the caller hangs back forty or sixty yards and tries to draw the elk by the shooter on his up wind side. Jon and I headed south at first light to a meadow we had luck in on previous hunts. As it started getting daylight we could see elk moving out of the meadow about a mile or so farther to our south. There was no way for us to head them off before they got to their bedding area so we took note on where they entered the timber and continued on a scouting loop back towards camp. One disadvantage of being a nonresident hunter is you always need to give up some hunting time to scout, even if you are familiar with the unit you are hunting. Some years we have spent over three quarters of a hunt looking for elk and only actually hunting the last couple of days. That’s why we like to set aside ten or twelve days for a DIY hunt. Besides that we love our time in the Rocky Mountains as much as we love to elk hunt.                         Our first three days of this hunt were pretty much the same with Brett and Toby having about the same luck. Our routine got to be, get up early, go to a spot and call, listen and react accordingly. When the elk would outmaneuver us and make it to their bedding area we would head back to camp, have a good lunch, take a nap, take a shower, then head out for the evening hunt around three o’clock. On the fourth morning the action was starting to pick up a little. The bulls were starting to bugle more and the cows were hanging around a little longer in the morning. As Jon and I arrived at camp we were met by a horseback rider and her dog. We were all a little surprised to see her, after all we were nine miles into the wilderness. She asked for directions to the local fast food joint, laughed and rode off. We all just laughed about it and went back to the business of elk hunting. There was a real feeling of anticipation around camp that day at lunch as we sat around and compared notes of sightings, and bulls that bugled, in response to our calls. I think Brett and Toby were withholding some information because they were in a little more of a hurry to leave camp that afternoon. I guess they left around two o’clock.                                                                                                                   Jon and I still had to get dressed and painted yet. Jon and I are regular elk hunting partners and have been on many elk hunts together and hunt Pennsylvania game in all seasons. We hunt together because we hunt alike, to put it simply. There are many other factors involved, but that’s the nut shell version. Choose hunting partners wisely. After, a few days in the wilderness we like to turn everything into a competition. Now it was time for our face paint battle for the day. As we skillfully applied color to our faces and necks like we’ve done so many times, a dog runs by. Then a saddle horse with no rider. Before we could completely understand what just happened, we heard the cries for help come from about a hundred yards away.                                                                                                                                    The small meadow we were camping in had a marshy area that drained into the small creek where we got our water supply. Elk love these seep areas because they are always greener and more lush than other areas. There are many of these places in this unit where the elk frequent. As this rider (Sena) approached the seep, her horse got nervous and leaped forward in an attempt to clear the swampy spot, and Sena was thrown off. When she hit the ground she landed on a rock and hurt her back. We located her and tried to help her up, but when we did she cried out in pain so we stopped to let her rest a while. In this time, we caught her horse and tried to catch her dog (Bud) but he didn’t want anything to do with us. After several more failed attempts at getting Sena to her feet and maybe even back in the saddle we were convinced that she couldn’t even walk, so riding a horse nine miles was out of the question.                                                                                                                                                                                                         It’s been about an hour now since the accident and Sena’s back pain seemed to be worsening and it starts to rain. Yes rain, like it wasn’t bad enough. We gave Sena a jacket she had tied to her horse and went back to camp to get a tarp for shelter and a blanket. As we talked while gathering items to make Sena more comfortable, we came to the conclusion that she was in no condition for us to move her. As I began building a shelter, Jon began making phone calls. We had a satellite phone on this trip because there were some things going on at home Toby had to keep in touch with. Not really knowing who to call, Jon called Bruce first and got the number for the local search and rescue team. It took a little while to get in touch with Bruce because of poor reception. Then he had the same problem with the Ranger station. After being on the phone with them for nearly a half hour, they finally understood where we were with GPS coordinates. Technology is your friend.                                                                                                                                 Their plan was to run ATV’s up the trail to the wilderness boundary, then continue on foot with enough manpower to carry a woman out on a stretcher. In Colorado designated wilderness areas are footprints only. Wheels or any motors or engines are strictly prohibited. Once search and rescue were on their way we asked Sena who we could contact for her and she gave us the number to her cabin where her husband John could be reached. We tried to reach John numerous times without success, until Sena realized that she wasn’t expected back until almost dark and that John was likely outside away from the phone.                                                                                                                                       Now its been about four hours since the accident and two hours of rain and Sena has been laying motionless on the ground getting colder, stiffer and in more pain. Jon tries several times until he’s able to get in contact with the Ranger station again to get an update on the rescue mission. A half hour passes till the Rangers call back and say the rescuers have just left the ATV’s at the wilderness boundary and are continuing on foot. The trail only gets worse at the boundary and they are still four miles out. At that time they ask Jon if there is any way we can start to move her down the mountain and answers “at this point I think she is in too much pain for the rescuers to carry her down the mountain safely in the dark and rain”. After, a long pause the voice on the other end said “I’ll get back to you” and hung up.                                                                                                                                                                                                          After about another hour the Ranger called and said the rescue attempt by ground has been aborted. The report was that they were having trouble navigating the trail with the empty stretcher and that carrying a person with a back injury was out of the question. By now the rain had stopped but it was starting to get foggy and soon would be getting dark. The Ranger asked about the weather and if there was any place nearby to land a helicopter. Jon answered, with a reassuring sigh of relief, absolutely. That changed the rescue from ground to air. Fouling the wilderness was the last thing any of us wanted to do, but it was understood by all that it was our last option. When the emergency helicopter service was contacted about the rescue, they weren’t even sure if they could get off the ground due to changing weather conditions in the area. Ten minutes later the Ranger called back to say the helicopter is on the way and would take about twenty minutes to get there, but they were flying through some bad weather and may not be able to land. They talked about the weather and the possibility that Sena may have to spend the night on the mountain. The Ranger asked if we had room for Sena and the two crew members on the helicopter if they were able to land but not take off. Of course, we could make it through the night.                                                               The first thing Brett and Toby see when they get close to camp was a horse and a dog. They looked at each other wondering who the company could be at this time of day, in forty-five minutes it would be dark. They found Jon on the satellite phone with the Ranger and me holding a tarp over a lady laying on the ground. Jon was telling them the story when we heard the helicopter coming in the distance. When it got to our position and landed, they were up a hill about one hundred fifty yards away. The helicopter was black and gold colored and just by chance the Pittsburg Steelers were playing the Denver Broncos so when the crew exited the cab we told them that we were Steeler fans too. They just laughed and got right to work.                                                                                                                                         From their position on the hill they could see where Sena was waiting. They ask us to carry the stretcher down and the EMT carried some other gear, and the pilot stayed in the helicopter, after all someone needs to fly them back. While the EMT was assessing Sena, the weather took a turn for the worse. It got really foggy again and the wind was gusting and swirling unpredictably (as it always does on an elk hunt). The EMT looked toward the hill with a look of gloom and said ” we might be stuck here for the night “. But with determination he gave Sena a shot for pain and we loaded her onto the stretcher and strapped her down. As we carried her towards the helicopter (and I remember this very well) Sena’s mood began to get a little more bubbly as the medication does its job. When we get her loaded, the pilot looks around at the wind and fog and reluctantly begins takeoff procedure. The EMT says thanks to us and tells us that he didn’t want to tell us that the Steelers lost to the Broncos before we helped carry Sena up the hill. We all get a good laugh and just as the pilot begins to say its no use, Mother Nature lifts the rain and fog. Sena looks at us, smiles, says thank you and waves goodbye. The clearing in the sky lasts long enough for the helicopter to lift off, but the wind gave them and us a bit of a thrill, for a moment then they were gone. At some point during all the phone activity, Jon got a hold of Sena’s husband John and explained to him where we were and he said he was on his way.         As night falls the rain picks up again and as we were sitting in our tents having our supper we heard a rider coming up the trail. We go out to meet this man on a mule, who looked like he just rode out of a Louis L’Amour novel, in the rain and show him where Sena’s horse and dog are. As we’re trying to get the horse and dog gathered up for him he asks about Sena and Jon looks at him and says “she’s gone”. Well John slowly stops what he was doing and just pauses for a moment. I think we all saw the same thought that went through John’s head and Jon speaks up right away and says “no, no, what I meant was that they took her away in a helicopter”. And with that he disappeared down the dark trail with a horse and dog in tow. We were in the elk for another week but none of us were able to get the job done for one reason or another. Always remember, Mother Nature loves elk and sometimes she loves us too. We didn’t bring home any elk but we came away with good memories and two great friends. True story.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Happy Hunting                                                                                                                                                                                   The Nonresident Hunter                                                                                                                                        


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