Despite hardships, hunting Rockies worthwhile

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, March 2, 2014

I’ll be headed back to the Rocky Mountains in September to hunt elk.

This will be the third time I’ve gone, but the anticipation has not diminished. And while there are many parts of the trip that I look forward to immensely, each seems to have a negative side as well.

Take the ride into camp. We’ll saddle up at a place called Benchmark (which is nothing more than a corral at the edge of the wilderness) and start the long trip into the mountains to camp, 24 miles and nine hours away.

Highlights of the ride are stunning views of the mountains all around you, capped by the breathtaking panorama when you go over the top of the Continental Divide.

The downside is that after the first few hours, your body, which hasn’t been toughened to the saddle, begins to hurt in all kinds of places. By the time you come down that last steep descent that leads into camp, there’s hardly anything that doesn’t ache.

There are also those narrow spots on the trail no more than a few feet wide where you are squeezed between a mountain on one side and an almost sheer drop on the other.

“You might not want to look down here” your guide cheerfully calls out.

The early-morning trips from camp to your hunting areas are also memorable. After winding along trails that pass in and out of dense timber, there’s that moment when the veil of darkness is lifted and you can begin to see the spectacular country you’re traveling through—anything from thick forest to a rocky, barren lunar landscape.

Hearing the first bugling of a bull elk and anticipation of the day’s hunt makes you feel more alive than you’ve been in years. For that special moment, however, you’ve had to pay a price, which was getting out of your warm sleeping bag at 3:30 a.m. and stumbling around in a canvas tent getting dressed in the frigid pre-dawn darkness.

I love hunting solo, but at the same time doing so in what’s been called a “grizzly-rich environment” makes me a little nervous. The thought of bumping into a big bruin certainly tempers my enjoyment of a four-hour still-hunt back to camp alone.

I don’t like the idea of getting lost, either. Missing a rendezvous spot where the horses are tied and spending a night on the mountain with the wolves and cougars is another worry that comes to mind when your guide heads one way with your partner and you go another.

I find it refreshing to step away from our nanny society to a place where one makes his or her own decisions and then is forced to live with them. On the other hand, breaking a leg and facing the long ride out in a bouncing saddle certainly throws a little cold water on that feeling of independence.

And the weather is always a wild card, too. Late September in the mountains can be a delight, but baking heat, torrential rain, sleet and even an early-season snowstorm are all possible.

On a particularly nasty morning back home I would probably look out the window and skip the hunt, but this is not an option at elk camp. When the head wrangler comes into the cook tent and announces that it’s time to saddle up, you’re expected to go, no matter what the weather is doing.

So this trip, like the two previous ones, will be a mixed bag—there are special moments, the horses, the wild rivers, the sounds and the smells, but they are balanced by a 10-day loss of creature comforts, physical demands and the compromising of personal security.

But that’s the way it should be. Things (and memories) worth having aren’t supposed to come easily. If there hasn’t been a cost, then what is something really worth?

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net

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