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7E Chronicles: Looking back on the hunt

Elk Hunting
Glassing in my rock recliner.
Last month I went on my first elk hunt, looking for bull elk in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area outside of Flagstaff, Arizona.  It was an amazing experience that didn't go as anticipated from the day I got drawn.  And even though I didn't punch my tag it was still one of the best hunts I've ever been on.

After living in Arizona for 13 years I finally put in for elk this year, expecting nothing more than earning a preference point.  Two weeks after the draw a coworker asked if I was pulled, but I was so resigned to the notion that it was a preference point year that I hadn't even checked.  Sure enough...I drew a tag! For bull elk!!  I was happier than a kid on Christmas morning and immediately shifted into planning and preparation mode.

Yay hunting!
I put in for the Peaks Hunt Area because I've hiked there and knew that I could manage a solo hunt if I defied odds and was drawn.  But I'd never hiked it with the intent to hunt, so my first plan was to spend 1-2 weekends a month in the mountains learning the lay of the land.  That went as planned for a couple months...then fire season hit and access to the national forest land around the peaks was completely closed to all access.  So much for all the scouting trips I planned!  Instead, I spent tons of time on Gaia GPS, Google Earth, and Garmin Earthmate doing as much electronic scouting as possible.

Since I couldn't spend my time walking the woods, I focused my energy on getting my gear set up properly.  The original plan was a backpacking hunt that traversed the mountains going wherever necessary to get on elk.  So I planned to be as light as possible, taking into account the exertion of hiking the wilderness area and the temperature swings of Flagstaff in the fall.  Then as I talked to people who have hunted the peaks frequently, I learned that there is zero reliable water and not really even unreliable water.  I could cache water around the mountain, but that'd defeat the purpose of being mobile and going where the elk went.  Then I though maybe I could just carry two days of water and do a night at base camp followed by a night on the mountain, then back to base camp...and so on...but on later scouting trips I couldn't find a single usable area of ground flat enough to sleep on.  So much for being hyper-mobile!  Instead, finding a good location for a base camp became the focus.

But I stayed mobile-phone, constantly referring to my Gaia GPS Hunt Maps
The nice part of base camping was that I didn't have to be as extremely selective about what gear made the trip with me.  But with typical Arizona October weather being sunny and cool, with the chance of being cold, I was more concerned with gear to pimp my base camp than with anything else.  I was set up with some great Under Armour Ridge Reaper hunting gear, with my main focus being warm, protected from mountain breezes, and comfortable while covering miles.  I was focused on average weather and temperatures and looking closely at extended forecasts.  Then two weeks before my hunt a Pacific hurricane arose.  The weekend before my hunt the forecast shifted from sun every day to rain every day.  I had to make an emergency purchase of legit rain gear shipped overnight so it could arrive before departure.

As the week went on, the forecast became a mix of steady rain and sunny days.  When I got to the mountain for my scout/setup day, the weather was sunny but a bit windy.  Opening day was a beautiful day on the mountain...but after that it got crazy.  Day 2 brought hours of rain and howling wind.  That day the forecast for day 3 and beyond changed multiple times.  Before diner, the forecast was up to 6" of snow Saturday night with a total of 12" inches by Monday morning; after dinner the forecast was a couple inches of snow Saturday night with rain thereafter; by bedtime, the forecast was no snow, light rain overnight, with sun Sunday.  So, naturally, we woke up to 5" of powder Sunday morning.  After that, the forecast was constantly changing, as was the weather.  I was packing gear for any conditions ranging from 50s and sunny, to freezing with rain and wind.

Speaking of base camp and weather, I had an old dome tent with a vestibule.  The rain fly left a gap of a couple inches all around and there was a weird exhaust vent thing at the top that can't be closed.  Despite having an insulated Sea to Summit sleeping pad, a 25 degree sleeping bag, a Sea to Summit +25 degree bag liner, and a Costco down quilt, it was COLD.  I slept two uncomfortable nights in the tent before abandoning it for the back of the car when the rain came and the wind howled.  At 6'5" tall, the back was a snug fit; and wasn't ideal in general since the rear seats don't fold completely flat or flush.  Luckily, I had a couple yoga mats and Sportsman's Warehouse was close enough to buy a foam pad so I was able to pad the ridge jutting into my hip.  The wind was so strong that on most nights the car was regularly shaken by gusts coming down the mountain.

Wind-proofing my camp, guy lines everywhere...even on my RTIC.
The wind and rain also kept me from cooking in camp as planned...so much for the Coleman stove and RTIC cooler full of food...I simply couldn't stand outside in the elements cooking, nor could I bear to eat dehydrated backpacking meals three times a day for ten days (even the delicious Mountain House meals hit a tipping point).  So instead of cutting myself off from society for the entire trip, I ended up driving into Flagstaff several times for dinner at Cracker Barrel.  I've never been happier for an entree with three hot sides in a restaurant with a fireplace.  Days on the mountain were so chilly that even after driving there in a heated car, eating a hot meal in a heated restaurant, and driving back in the heated car, I'd still be chilly.

As a final surprise, two days before leaving a hunting friend forwarded me an email from AZDGF about the Peaks Hunt Area boundaries being different from prior years.  At first I didn't pay much attention as I had gotten all my boundary data right from the AZDGF website in the months after getting my tag; but as I looked closer I realized that the map in the email was different than the data published most of the year on their website...the unit's size was reduced by probably 2/3!  Luckily, it didn't affect much of my planning because I was going to hunt the mountain and not the flats around, but I had hoped to have those areas as a backup.

Enough lead up, now it's time to talk hunting.

Even with the forest closures I was able to make several scouting trips in the spring and early fall.  After talking to other hunters and listening to folks like Randy Newberg and Cory Jacobson, I had a general idea of the terrain I was looking for:  drainages with open forest for glassing, aspen blow-downs, and north facing slopes. After a few scouting trips, I found no glassing area, but plenty of blow-downs and north facing slopes...and tons of sign that elk had previously ran rampant in those woods.  So I quickly honed in on a choice section of the mountain and in early September I hung a trail cam.  When I checked the cam on my scouting day I was ecstatic to see it captured a solid 6x6 with cows on two occasions, and a smaller solo bull once.  Seeing my instincts pay off like that was a huge confidence boost!

And I needed a confidence boost..after every scouting trip my buddies asked if I had seen elk and each time I responded, with growing sheepishness, that I hadn't.  No sightings, no sounds, no fresh sign, no sheds, no nothin'.  I was starting to think that despite being a life-long east-coast deer hunter, I would be a failure as an elk hunter...even though the mountains of the San Francisco Peaks were thickly wooded just like the deer woods back home.

I spent opening day covering miles, mostly on-trail, in hopes of seeing an elk in a high-mountain clearing or catching the sound of a bugle through the ridges.  It was a beautiful day that got off to an exciting start when I noticed a note in the trail register that someone had spotted a mountain lion the day before.  As I hiked Abineau trail toward avalanche chutes ranging from 10,000'-11,000' the elevation started kicking my butt, but seeing a set of fresh elk tracks boosted my energy.  I made it to the avalanche and found a patch of sun to sit in and glass for a few minutes as I caught my breath.  The sun was in my eyes, though, and glassing was futile.  So after a snack I hit the trail again going down waterline trail towards Bear Jaw Trail.  I completed the loop without hearing or seeing any elk.  After a quick meal in camp I headed off trail up to where my camera had been hunt in hopes to catch the big guy coming down for a meal of his own.

Day two started with me misjudging the distance to a field I planned to hunt so I arrived after sunrise.  Regardless, I took a seat and hoped to catch a late-comer to breakfast...I figured since there was no moon the elk might be a little foggy-headed in the morning and would come grab a late bite of grass before heading back into the barren forest.  It wasn't 10 minutes until I heard a bugle!  Soon followed by a second!  Quickly followed by me realizing that it was actually a hunter...I was alone on opening day, but had company for the weekend.  Around 7:30 I was joined by my hunting companion for the weekend--a buddy who has elk hunted as long as I've deer hunted stopped in for a few days on his way to a deer and elk hunt in Idaho.  I figured that with his elk hunting knowledge in terrain where I could leverage my white-tail hunting knowledge, we'd be unstoppable.

Hunting in my rain gear:  Columbia OutDry Extreme jacket and Under Armour Ridge Reaper Gore-Tex pants.
We quickly found fresh sign in the aspen blow-down and had high hopes for a quickly punched tag.  But the sign didn't materialize in elk and instead we just ended up with a mile hike up the steep ridge side until finding a tree to eat lunch under.  As we started eating, the sky started to drop freezing rain.  That soon turned into just rain that stuck with us for the next couple hours as we carefully worked out way down the mountain side, slippery with wet aspen leaves and bark.  I lost my route through the dead aspens, though, and a .75 mile hike took the better part of two hours.  By the time we got to our afternoon hunt destination it was nearly sunset and we were as drenched in sweat as we would have been in rain.  The rain started to let up, but the wind started in its place.  Another day ended without an animal sighting.

Dinner time forecast - lots of snow
bed time forecast - zero accumulation
This was the night of the mutating forecast.  We decided to plan for snow--leaving camp about 30 minutes before sunrise so that by the time we hiked into the unit it would be light enough to make out tracks in the snow.  Despite the changing forecast, the plan worked and we woke up to snow.  Our hike was perfectly timed, too, and just as we got to the unit boundary the sky was light enough to make out tracks...after following them for a couple hundred yards our hopes were confirmed by snowless-branches--a big, solo bull meandering through the snow.  We followed the tracks into an old clearing scattered with snow-covered downed trees, etched with lines from elk hooves.  Occasionally we'd see markings from antlers where the bull had stopped to nose into the snow looking for a snack.  Every time the snow showed sign of being raked with antlers my heart beat faster and faster.  As we pushed further into the clearing we found a recently used bed that smelled like elk.  I'd heard people talk about smelling elk, but didn't realize how strong of a scent they'd leave behind.  It was thrilling to experience such a primal sensation as smelling my quarry.

I could smell elk from this point.  
Unfortunately, that was as close as we ever got to a bull.  As we tracked the elk through the clearing, his tracks crossed with another set.  I still think we picked up the wrong set and followed a cow from that point on, because by the time we got back to a point where antlers should have brushed snow off trees there was still snow.  But at that point, we had gone too far to turn around and had our fingers crossed that the tracks would still lead us to a bull.  As we climbed the ridge we found several more elk beds in the snow.  Some of them looked like the elk had left in a hurry--I sort of think they heard the crunching in the snow as we hiked and got out just ahead of us.

We topped out on a bench of the ridge that had a view that made the entire hunt worthwhile:  Humphrey's peak, covered in snow and yellow aspens.  After a coffee break with a view, we made our way towards Waterline Trail, but quickly found more tracks--including more branches indicating antlers passed--and followed them instead.  We were on those tracks for a couple miles through thick woods and more downed trees (the theme of the hunt) as they meandered across then down the mountain, but never caught up and eventually lost the tracks as we descended into melting snow.  For the rest of the day we were basically back in rain due to all the snow melt dripping down on us and slush underfoot.

Staying warm in my Under Armour Ridge Reaper raider pants, raider jacket, wool base layer and gore-tex wind shell
The next day we returned to the same general area and pushed through the woods in hopes to find one of the bulls from the day before.  We got onto tracks quickly and found several areas where elk had pawed up the snow to get to grass underneath.  We continued up the mountain a ways without luck and decided to change tactics, heading back downhill a different way.  We got onto tracks again before long and followed them as we descended.  Once we dropped back into the pines around 9,000' I heard "stop...Jason, get your gun ready."  I popped into action and unlatched my gun (apparently operating my Kifaru gun carrier for the first time went off without a hitch) and started scanning.  Hell if I could see anything!  But after a second I saw the slightest movement and spotted the elk.  Then to my left another stood up out of nowhere!  I quickly got my gun on it and was ready to shoot, but I couldn't see anything in front of the shoulders and had to hold off the trigger.  Both elk bolted soon after, without ever showing me whether they had antlers or not.  That was the only elk sighting of the trip.  For such huge animals it was amazing how well hidden they were among the trees; I hadn't seen them at all and it took me half the time we were stopped to finally see the first elk no more than 100 yards away.


Monday came and went with nothing more than beautiful scenery seen, and come Tuesday I was hunting alone again.  I decided to follow tracks in the same area we had tracked the elk on Saturday and eventually push my way into an avalanche chute we had seen to determine if it might hold elk habitat or at least allow me to glass for a while.  I followed tracks for about half way to the chute, but they petered out in the melting snow.  As I approached the avalanche chute the woods became thicker with downed trees and saplings shooting up to take their place.

Not elk.





Before long I saw tracks in the snow and was thrilled!  Then I had the quickest cycle through emotions and reactions ever.  My first thought was "elk tracks again, yea!" then I processed for a second, "wait, these tracks have pads...not hooves...oh crap, maybe it's that mountain lion someone saw!" then I processed for another second "wait, the claws are out, a mountain lion wouldn't travel like that.  Yea, just looks like a bear."  "Wait, a bear! Crap!" then I processed for a second and realized that Arizona just has black bears, same as I run into on the farm in Virginia and there wasn't any reason to be more worried here than there."  All the same, I veered off his trail and cut to the chute another way.  It turned out to lack elk habitat or a glassing vantage, so I enjoyed the view for a minute then kept climbing.



Here's where things got vexing and a bit frustrating.  Everyone talks about how elk stay at high elevation.  People I know who hunted that unit before told me to expect elk above 10,000' feet, so I busted my but to climb 2,000' elevation, off trail through blown downs in the snow to get to the Waterline Trail at a bit over 10,000' feet...only to find bare, virgin snow along the mile of Waterline I hiked.  No elk crossing it, no elk walking it; and really no tracks after about 9,500'.  So I stopped for lunch in the sun then headed back down into the action for a miserable descent down slippery slopes.  I caught the bear tracks again on the way down and wasn't thrilled we were occupying the same space so frequently.

Also not elk.
After the excitement with the bear tracks on Tuesday the rest of the hunt consisted of enjoying scenery, hating the wind, and making another trip to town for Cracker Barrel meals and blister treatment from REI (boot wasn't tightened enough one day and my insole chaffed my heel).  Oh, but I did finally realize that a few of the trees that were "horned" so oddly around the mountain weren't horned...they were scratched up
by a mountain lion and I was just chilling right in his territory.

I still don't know how to hunt elk in the peaks.  It seems like a game of luck as much as anything.  But it was an amazing trip in the woods and even though I'd hiked the peaks many times, being there for over a week allowed me to experience and enjoy the wilderness in new ways.  While tagging out would have been great, just getting to see the peaks covered in snow with the golden aspen leaves in contrast will stay with me forever.








Lunch and afternoon tea, my favorite time of day.


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