A visit to the land of the giants bear and elk
ELK CALL Gary Beason of Kremmling, Colorado sounds an elk bugle to challenge any bull elk in the area to respond and give away its location. Mountains in the distance are part of the Flat Top Wilderness in the White River National Forest. Photo by Otha Barham / The Meridian Star.
By Otha Barham / The Meridian Star
Oct. 18, 2002
Many readers know about the dynamism of the western mountains that draws me back there almost every fall. My excuse this year was a black powder hunt for bull elk and black bear. Friend David Hawkins of Forest was my hunting partner, and we confirmed the hunter success percentages by scoring zeros on both species. Only one in five hunters bags an elk in Colorado, and bull hunters are far less successful. I dont know the odds on bear, but they too must be long.
So why, you might ask, would I and thousands of others trek there in the face of near certain failure? The answer is that bagging game is not the whole measure of success. We didn't bring home meat, but to describe a stay in the Rockies as a failure would be to overlook a host of natures favors.
The hunt itself provided ample reason to delight. We found bear sign everywhere that kept us searching the rocky mountainsides by day and listening closely to the sounds around our tents at night. The nocturnal bruins managed to elude us, probably peering down from cozy caves as we scoured the aspen thickets, spruce and fir stands and stream side berry brakes.
I located one big bear's favorite lookout. He/she had pawed out three large "beds" in the soil on a steep slope that provided a good view of the mountain in all directions. There was a screen of low fir saplings that camouflaged the beds but were thin enough for the bear to peer through. The first several inches of soil in the area was not actually soil, but dry fir and spruce needles, so that the beds were lined with a spongy, soft material that was comfortable to lie in. Among the needles was plenty of bear hair.
The huge bear beds were so deep that I could sit at ground level and rest my feet in the bottom of them, much like sitting on a bench. For hours I waited for the bear to return. My patience was fueled by the number of times the bruin had performed its required biological functions around the beds. There was so much evidence that I surmised that this was its exclusive choice for such duties.
A question just occurred to me as I write this. What if instead of the three big beds having been made by just one bear for variety, the beds were in fact made by three big bears that liked each other's company and traveled and loafed together? And what if they had returned together to their beds? And what if they were unhappy to find me there? You see, the .50 Knight muzzle loader fires just one time and then it takes a lot of doing to reload, which could be quite tedious in the face of two charging bears. Such occurrence would have been exciting, no?
There had been plenty of elk in our chosen area 15 years ago when I last hunted it, but too many hunters were about on this trip for us to be successful calling in a bull, though we were hunting the middle of the rut. My guess is that the Colorado Division of Wildlife was liberal in drawing black powder licenses throughout the state because they want to remove many thousands of elk due to a population explosion.
My close friend, Gary Beason, who lives in the area, took us to one of his special elk spots on the last day of our hunt. The thin air of 9,500 feet elevation made going slow for me, but Gary bugled in a bull within minutes of our setting up. Somehow, David managed to miss the bull, a beautiful, mature specimen with mahogany colored, ivory tipped antlers, at 70 yards or so. Missing is uncharacteristic of David, a lifelong hunter and competition-winning shooter. But the elements, fate, the sight of a beautiful trophy the size of a horse and dozens of other things can cause a miss by any hunter who walks.
An emergency at home had us leaving the woods and missing the final day of the season, just as we had begun to taste success. But we brought back plenty in the form of memories of shared experiences and stunning vistas from the land where elk tease you with their throaty screams as they elude you, and where bears let you visit their beds only when they are not at home.