The Wilderness Hunter

exploring colorado in all seasons


Get comfortable, because this is going to be a long winded post!

The blackpowder hunting season here in Colorado has become my favorite. Not because I have had any better success, but because of the traditional feel of it. I hunt with a traditional cap and ball Hawken style .50 caliber rifle, no optics (not even binoculars) wearing a wool sweater and canvas pants or kilt; as close as one can get to the “old days”. For this year, I drew a buck deer tag for GMU 500. For the uninitiated, that means I’m hunting Bambi’s dad near Boreas Pass, between Como and Breckenridge. I have hunted this area before, and know where the deer and elk like to hang out. Unfortunately, I chose to start my hunt four days after the opening weekend; which was September 11th, I started on September 15th. What this means is that the animals will have already had a few days of hunting pressure (not including the archery hunters that started much earlier), and will have scattered also. There were a few other factors to consider as well; phase of the moon, weather patterns, availability of water and food. If the moon is anywhere from full to half, the deer and elk move around more in the night, making it harder for hunters to locate them. This is also compounded when the weather is fair, if there is rain or snow, they move to the lower elevations and the thicker cover to protect themselves. When it is dry, like the area has been of late, the animals move to where there is water and green stuff to eat.

Wednesday afternoon I had camp set up and was ready to hunt that evening. I had hunted this area before , so I knew theoretically where the deer would be, since I had seen them before. I found my spot and waited, watching, until the sun sunk behind the mountains see neither hair nor hide of a deer. So I headed back to camp for the customary “first-day-of-the-hunt” whisky. I was planning on shooting some star trail shots when the moon  when down, but that proved to be closer to morning than I originally planned. I abandoned that effort in favor of sleep since I knew I would be up before the sun the following morning to hunt.

Thursday morning I was up at five and in my chosen spot by half past. By six thirty I heard heavy footfalls that could only be made by elk; and elk it was, two cows and one of the biggest bulls I had ever had the pleasure of seeing in the flesh. They passed by me without stopping or even noticing my presence, only about thirty yards away! If only I had a tag for elk, my hunt would have ended that morning. So ends the only action for the Thursday morning hunt, and with it I planned to take a fairly long walk with the camera, since mid-day hunting sucks. I ended up hiking three miles out to a stand of bristlecone pines, whose bare twisting silver trunks always fascinate me, and make for awesome photo subjects. While I was in a great area for fall Aspen colors, I was surprisingly not near many Aspen groves; pines and spruce dominate the landscape. I was back to camp in the late afternoon for a short rest and something to eat before the evening hunt. Although after burning so much energy during the day, leaving the comfort of my camp chair was less than appealing. Besides, it was a beautiful evening to sit and enjoy just being outside; the elk were bulging like crazy, and continued to do so until after the sun went down. My camera has HD video capability, which I never thought I would really use all that much, but I decided to try to capture the ambiance of the evening with it. This was the night I also chose to take a long exposure, but waiting for the half moon to go down was out of the question. I say A long exposure because it was an hour and a half! The moonlight kinda washed out some of the stars, but overall it came out pretty cool. A few points about long exposures with the 7D versus my old Rebel; first, the live view with the 7D makes it soooo much easier to focus the scene! I was fairly well guessing with the Rebel. Second it the noise I got with the Rebel during an hour long exposure (due to the sensor getting hot) was non-existent with the 7D. I also should have used a wider aperture, that way the star streaks would have been broader and brighter, but enough of that.

Friday morning’s early hunt at the same locale yielded another close encounter with elk, and later, a close encounter with two very young spike bucks and one four point buck that was just too young to be a shooter. Although the minimum size for a legal buck in Colorado is four points, the shot was sketchy, at best. I was standing on top of a hill looking slightly down at them, with the four-pointer facing me straight on, and one of the spikes behind. He was also standing enough below the crest of the hill that I could not get a decent shot at his vitals. So many things calculated in a fraction of a second; still amazes me to think that my mind worked all that out so quick! Friday mid-day was time to collect fire wood (which I was very low on from the night before), and take a drive around to get some photos of the fall color. I am very much a “morning-evening” hunter that I usually don’t bother with the time in between; the animals want a rest and so do I! My sometimes boss and friend has a cabin down in the valley below my camp, and with all the beetle-killed trees, he had no shortage of firewood available. So on my way down to poach *ahem* borrow some firewood from him, I stopped along the way to record the changing Aspens. By the time it was time for the evening hunt, I was getting tired of getting skunked and almost gave up the rifle hunting altogether, and stick with the camera, but my sense go the better of me (knowing Murphy’s law inflicts those of  Celtic descent ten fold) I went fully loaded with photo and hunting gear to a place I knew the animals to be. This involved a climb to near the top of Red Mountain (13,229) to about 12,500 feet, and a three mile hike laterally to cross Hoosier ridge on the northern flanks of Mount Silverheels. I had eyeballed the area previously knowing if was good hunting ground, but was daunted by the thought of coming back should I shoot something! With the growing desperation that drives the hunter, I headed out at three for the previously described area. I was in place at five settled in for some action. And action I got; too bad it was all elk, and not a single deer to be seen. This is where the photo-hunting took over, and my first wildlife photography experience other than photographing birds. I also put the HD video feature to good use here and caught some cool video of real wild elk (not those half-tame Rocky Mountain National Park elk). It started when I heard a  lot of bugling and crashing around in the thick timber across the small valley I was situated to overlook. I didn’t actually see the bulls fighting (that would have made for some awesome video), but I could hear them crashing together. Then I see this young spike bull emerge from the timber in the valley floor, then a cow, then another cow, and another. Next out comes one of the largest bulls I have had the pleasure of laying eyes on! He came out of the timber, bugled, sniffed round the grass a moment, bugled again, charged back into the timber with a crash. Much more ruckus took place and he emerged again and stood on a small rise above his harem, looking very kingly, literally king of the forest! Stood in a thicket of stubby willows and bugled again, then proceeded the thrash the hell out of said willows with his magnificent antlers. He then came down from his overlook to join the harem and browse for a small bite to eat. Suddenly all the elk looked back into the woods the came from, and then took off up the steep valley wall across from my vantage point, covering ground that would have taken me at least  forty-five minutes to cover. They stopped above tree line to browse the short vegetation there before leisurely making their way over the ridge, and out of my view. I wanted so much to follow them, but the sun was nearly down and I had a fair distance to travel, and I didn’t relish making it in the dark with no trail to follow. I got back to camp, made some quick dinner, and promptly passed out on the cot, visions of elk still in my head.

Saturday morning rolled around, and I made no effort to get up too early to hunt. The hunt was nearly gone from me, but when I was up and moving, I decided to make one last trip up the hill, going light, taking only rifle, bag, and powderhorn. Another hunter, the first one I had seen in all my time here, had made it to the same spot I had hunted the week past. Somewhat discouraged after only a half hour of watching, I turned back to the same spot I had seen the deer the day before. And there standing before me, not thirty five yards away, was the neck and back of a mule deer. When he raised his head and looked at me, I almost forgot what I was there for. Staring at me was a gorgeous six point buck with a nice twenty inch spread in the antlers. Hands shaking, I raised the rifle, cocked the hammer and took aim. The hammer came down, and nothing happened; the deer stared at me still. Cocked the hammer again and pulled the trigger; the percussion cap snapped, but still no fire. My deer took off, leaving me fumbling for another cap. Now, let me explain something about deer versus elk. If this had happened with an elk, said elk would have been in the next county in a wink. Deer will run away a few yards and stare at you, then go a bit further, look back again. With my deer now about seventy five yards off, stopped looking back, me finally with another cap on the rifle. Took aim again, and BOOM! Finally the damn thing fired! Though through the smoke I could see already I pulled the shot to the right, evident by the large track of dirt freshly tilled by a .50 caliber bullet. The deer took off again, leaving me indecisively trying to pursue, and pour powder into the measure and pour it into the rifle, and stuff a bullet in, and ram it down, and put a fresh cap on, and not lose sight of the deer. He stopped just outside of some stunted pines up the hill from me giving me one last shot before disappearing like a ghost. After traipsing around looking for sign of my deer on the hard dry ground, or sign of a possible hit, I gave up and headed back to camp to pack up and head home. I was feeling contented, slightly disappointed, and worn out as I packed up camp. I found what I came for though; solitude in the wilderness, great photos, and best of all, to feel the thrill of the hunt. On the way home I stopped here and there to make some last clicks of  the fall colors, which were at their very peak! And now, here are the photos, the videos will be posted soon…

Hunting on my mind

For big game hunters in Colorado, it’s the time of year when we enter our applications for the coming year’s hunt. This for me is always agonizing, thinking so hard about where to go and getting psyched up in April, when the seasons won’t start for another 5 months! Previous years have all passed in the same manner, and the seemingly never-ending wait through the summer until fall finally approaches once more, summer’s sticky heat gives way to cool dry smell of autumn approaching, the smell of dry grasses, and sleepy trees readying themselves for a long Colorado winter. There is something about it that sings to my soul, a connection with the ancient tradition that is the hunt. It’s difficult to explain, unless you have been there. I often find it easier to express myself better through writing than through speech, it gives me time to plan what I am going to say, how to say it, and keep it all coherent. These days living such a closed off sterile plastic world, we tend to cut ourselves off from anything that requires us to get our hands dirty. I have heard camping described as “pretending to be homeless”, and hunting as “barbaric”, but I believe both to be so much more. This is where my website gets its name, I am always hunting, whether with the camera or rifle, hunting for that special feeling I get when out in the wilderness.

From a spiritual perspective (for me at least),  camping and hunting strip away the distractions of modern life, and in this simplicity, we are more prone to feel natural world rather than just see it. The Buddhist monks know this best, living with the barest of necessity brings one spiritual insight. Out there during the hunt, your senses are tuned, you focus on your surroundings with them; seeing movement, hearing a rustling of grass or a breaking of a twig, feeling the breeze and the ground under your feet, the smell of life in the trees, even tasting it on the air, and that elusive sixth sense of feeling the energy surrounding you, bringing back the animal instincts that are inside all of us. Or more simply, communing with nature. This is my church; feeling embraced and surrounded by all these things gives me comfort and happiness, more so than can be described here. Gralloch is old Scots term meaning to remove the offal from an animal. Long before Christianity reached the Isles, it became custom to say a quick prayer of thanksgiving when butchering an animal, either wild or homegrown. This became known as the Gralloch prayer, and was an intensly personal moment for the hunter, and a great many cultures hold a similar ritual; for American Indians, the heart is the seat of the soul, and is buried or burned to allow the spirit of the animal to escape its earthly body. In Germany, this is a time meant to contemplate the complex mixture of elation and sadness that comes with killing any animal. A downed deer is laid on its right side, with a small branch of fir or oak—known as Der letzte Biss (“the last bite”)—placed in its mouth as a mark of respect. A second branch is placed on the deer to show that the hunter has assumed ownership of the dead animal. Hunters who follow all the appropriate rules and traditions of the hunt are presented with a shooter’s branch, which is worn in the left side of the hatband until sunset on the day of the kill. I could fill a book with examples of customs such as these that dispel the notion that hunters are a bunch of bloodthirsty barbarians.

From a pragmatic stand point however, hunting is more than just going out “to shoot something.” Conservation is the name of the game when it comes down to it. The Colorado Division of Wildlife receives no state tax revenue. All hunting and fishing license fees are deposited in a game cash fund, but the state Legislature has final authority over Division spending. The CDOW brings in more money in one year than the ski resorts combined, not alone indirect boost to the state’s economy, an estimated boost of 3 billion dollars annually. The late 1890’s were a time of careless slaughter, when commercial hunting was actually the business of killing, and the massive expansion of cattle ranches, and the fencing off the frontier caused the near extinction of the buffalo. Most of the natural predators of these animals were killed as well, throwing the natural cycle out of balance. Later, when early hunting regulations were in place, another problem made it’s appearance, one that can be seen today in Rocky Mountain National Park. The elk populations exploded to the point where the habitat could no longer support them. The animals started getting sick, and would die of starvation in the summer, not to mention the numbers that die during the harsh winter months. Since hunting is not allowed in National Parks, and no wolves exist in the park, and the mountain lion populations are controlled to protect the visitors, there are no natural predators to keep the populations in check. To me this is more cruel than a quick death of a hunter’s arrow or bullet.

So here I sit thinking hard about it once again, reminiscing in the ritual of preparation. Gathering the equipment, tent, stove, sleeping bag, cot, camp cookware, food, lantern, firewood, rifle, bullets, hunting pack, clothes, boots, knives,  licenses. Then the drive and the subsequent search for the “perfect” campsite (this curse I came by as a matter of genetics). Pitching the tent and the smell of autumn mountain air and canvas, the warmth of the sun on my skin as I mentally prepare for the next frosty morn that will begin the hunt again…

Here’s some incidental clicks of the camera from the last couple years’ hunting trips.