An Outdoor Recreationalist's First Elk Hunt
(Words and Photos: Paxton Hall)
The stars were magnificent. I took a right onto a forest service road signed only for high clearance vehicles. I was so close. I guided my Subaru Crosstrek carefully up the heavily eroded dirt road. The last switchback led to the top of a ridge and then into a wide clearing. There was the khaki Crosstrek parked just where Taylor had marked it on Gaia. I let out a huge sigh of relief. After nearly 14 hours of driving through three states and the night I had made it. It was 5 am in Southeastern Idaho. I crawled into the back of the car next to the cooler, wriggled into a sleeping bag and immediately passed out.
Before this past August, I had never been hunting. Not that I had anything against it, though there are plenty of negative associations and stereotypes. I just hadn’t grown up around it and hadn’t fostered much of an interest in it over the past 27 years I’ve been around. That all changed when my best friend and primary mountain partner, Taylor Bentz, started waxing poetic about his newfound pursuit. I was skeptical at first. We started talking about these deeper elements that tend to get lost in the noise of the stereotypes. Themes like, conservation and a deep feeling of connection to the land. Hunters and Anglers contribute significantly to the funding of our public lands through their license and tag fees, and gun and ammo taxes. They move through a landscape to gain an understanding of it at an extremely intimate level; where the water is, where the food sources are, how wildlife moves through it and where human society is pushing into it. So often, in climbing or backpacking we are moving towards a singular objective. Climb that peak. Ski that line. Hike from A to B. It can be easy to completely lose track of the environments you actually move through in pursuit of your particular objective. In order to find a herd of elk you need to listen intently to the land and nature around you. The more we talked, the more my interest was piqued. So Taylor invited me out to join him on an elk hunt in southeast Idaho. It was just a few hours north from Park City where he lived, in August the start of elk season in that area.
I woke to the sound of Taylor knocking on the car window above my head. It was 6:50 am. I slept barely two hours. He was geared up to go scope out the surrounding hills with his binoculars, otherwise known as glassing. Sunrise and sunset were the ideal times of day with the least chance of haze and highest chance of activity. I needed more sleep for the long day ahead.
By 8 am we were driving back down to the clearing at the bottom of the forest service road I had taken a right on not more than three hours earlier. A tire pressure warning light came on in my car. The front left tire was at 19 PSI. Shoot. . .
As we dropped my car in the clearing to carpool in Taylor’s car, an older gentleman walked over from his truck camper parked nearby. His name was Mike. He was friendly and from California. We chatted about what we’d seen so far and mentioned the tire leak. He had a tire plugger kit he said. We could give it a shot if we wanted. Right then and there wasn’t the time. We needed to get going. We’d see how the tire looked when we got back. We were itching to get out there.
Elk hunting at the start of the season, I soon learned, involved long hours of primarily two things: hiking and glassing. At least, that’s how we approached it on this trip. We also didn’t know the land. We needed to earn our understanding of it. After miles and hours of mostly quiet hiking seeing only signs of long gone elk and deer we returned to check out my car. Shoot. . .
The front left tire was completely flat. It was already close to 5 pm. No point in dealing with it today. We hopped back in Taylor’s car to drive closer to the highest point in the area. The plan was to hike to the top, set up camp and glass all the surrounding hills at sunset and sunrise.
A few hours later we had topped out at 9,682 feet on a rather flat summit. Back in the Pacific Northwest you could very well be on a glacier at the elevation, but that wasn’t necessarily so further inland. We set up camp, a lightweight, single wall tent barely big enough for two and got to scoping out everything around us. We had 360 degrees of views to cover meticulously, searching for any sign of movement, any stray antler. For hours we scanned the hills. We saw cattle and other hunters on ATVs. At one point we started to hear a soft bleating sound. It grew steadily louder. Then, on the hill directly underneath us, an entire flock of sheep emerged. There must have been at least 50 of them with sheep dogs in tow. It was wild how loud they were as they grazed. Within twenty minutes they were gone. Also gone, whether they were even there to begin with or not, was any elk within 300 yards of us that heard the cacophony of sheep.
Sunrise came quickly the next day. It was cold, crisp and clear. Through our binoculars, and barely with the naked eye, we could see the Tetons, with the Grand standing tall nearly 130 miles away to the northeast. The purple and blue shaded layers of innumerable ridgelines were incredible. The whole sight almost unbelievable. What we did not see after another two hours of glassing was a single elk. We packed up and headed back to the car. On the drive back to my car we spotted a dusky grouse in a tree near the road. After a few arrows, a wild chase and almost losing the bird we emerged with something to show for all of our effort. Back at my car, after we established that no one was having any luck, Taylor field dressed the grouse while Mike and I gave the tire plug kit a shot. We put in the plug and with an old bike pump and plenty of effort, we managed to get the tire up to full pressure. To this day that plug is still solid.
After a quick jaunt to the nearest town to resupply on ice, food and beer, we headed over to a different area for another session of hiking and glassing. Once again, plenty of bushwhacking and year old signs of deer and elk, but nothing recent. Day two - strike two.
Day three saw more excitement as we pushed deeper into the new area. A mule deer encounter, a moose encounter, fresh tree rubs and a circling pair of turkey vultures all provided much needed evidence of the life that does exist within that national forest. But, still, no elk or even any recent signs of elk. After hours of searching and glassing, we decided to call it. There just weren’t any elk in that area. Wherever that herd was, they were likely bedded down and not going anywhere and we had no clue where that was. We drove back into town again to regroup and figure out the next area to check out. Unfortunately, that was my last full day in Idaho. I would spend the night, but planned to take off as early as I could the next morning to embark on the long drive back to Seattle. Taylor had set aside a few more days to be out and since he only lived a few hours south, he could tack on the drive home to his last day.
We decided to head south, to a completely different zone of the unit. We parked beneath a hill next to a power line and spent the evening searching. No luck. The rest of the night we spent emptying the cooler of beer, swapping stories and reliving our college days. I was disappointed we hadn’t even so much as seen a single elk. But, you know what, so much of why I believe we go outside has to do with the power of sharing those experiences with the people who matter to us. I explored an area and a landscape that was completely new to me and felt deeply connected to it at a level I haven’t experienced before. And hey, I didn’t come home completely empty handed after all.
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