Wednesday, November 24, 2010

fourth season

The fourth season of elk hunting in Colorado is the harbinger of the real world's fourth season: only for the bold, the foolhardy, and those who've forgotten what it was like last time.

The grimace here is because the feral cats got into the rubbish bag, smearing leftover lasagna over everything. One of the boys left the tent open one morning upon which the cats got in and broke open the box of Sun Chips in their hunger. Cats eating chips ? When we came in, they panicked and leapt up to the roof, hanging there upside down with their claws dug into the mesh. That's a new indignity for this tent.

We picked fourth season since that was when leftover licenses were available. The hardest part of big-game hunting is navigating the Byzantine castle of regulations and finding a place to hunt. Thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, the game belongs to the public, but the laws of trespass still apply: shoot a public beast on private property and it will be very painful, fines, confiscations and jail time may result. Colorado doesn't have a posting law, which means private property need not be posted as such. Instead, buy a probably outdated BLM map at a large scale 1:100 000, overlay it with the topo map at a much smaller scale 1:24 000, and determine your legality. The BLM map shows public lands managed by the BLM, National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, lands managed by the state, and private lands. Then, overlay that with the map of summer elk habitat, winter habitat, and migration routes; check the long-range forecast for the next year to determine snowfall and precipitation patterns, take your best guess; then enter the lottery to get a license for the selected area. Simple ay ? Or, do what we did: get a leftover tag, scout the area by Google Earth, and hope that Luck will be a lady and not a beldame. Real elk hunters spend 51 weeks of the year researching and scouting for one weeks' hunting, dilettantes like us just blunder into the woods regardless. Finding the creatures actually out in the hills is not simple.

On the first morning, we ditched the car, a rented Jeep Commander SUV, and postholed out into the snows an hour before sunrise. The area we'd planned to hunt was six miles up a 4wd road under two feet of snow, unreachable, so we had to improvise. A herd of five cow elk appeared on the edge of a far ridge, browsing slowly up the hill below the sundogs. Upon investigation there was a thirty-foot wide river, half frozen, at the bottom of a gorge between us and them. There's that Lost Creek again. When writing about remote secret fishing locations it's generally understood that Lost Creek and Lost Lake may or may not be their real names: though there are so many of both, it might even be true. I'm not sure what the equivalent convention is for hunting locations - let's just say we were up in the Lost Creek drainage and call it close.

We roved around the drainage for a while, contouring along the cliffs in a foot or so of snow, but saw no more beasts. There were plenty of tracks, elk yellow holes in the snow, and so forth, but no actual incarnations of wapiti. Back at the SUV we concluded that stood for Stupid Useless Vehicle: no low-range 4wd, no traction from the silly urban tires, we remained in the ditch. Courteous fellow hunters with a proper truck pulled out us city slickers and were kind enough not to laugh.

Back in camp my minivan wouldn't start. People look at you funny when you go hunting in a minivan. I lived up to our city slicker reputation by forgetting to pack towropes, shovel or chains, all of which were safely home in the garage: and driving up with the old balding back tires. The van helped by deciding this was a fine time for the battery to give up and the headlights to blow. Complete collapse of stout party, in fact.

In the far corner of camp is an elk rack. The unfortunate creature is strung up by the legs, skinned, to hang and cool before processing. At least so I am told. The camp is nearly impossible to find as the sign fell down after thirty years. Our hostess told us she's trying to get permission from the neighbours to put it up again.

After two more days of rising long before dawn and hunting hard to no effect, Ian sat disconsolately down in the snow and said, "I'd like to see a little gun action here".

On the last evening we found the elk highway across Lost Creek, the only crossing for five miles either side. The trail had cut down through the snow to mud over the island, then the herds split up again across the hills. We'd planned to sneak in the dark the last morning and ambush them but snow stopped play. It started as rain about 1am, to lay down a nice layer of ice, followed by 6-8" of fresh snow: that was in camp, the hunt area was another 1000ft higher. We got up at 4:30am, crunched disconsolately through the mess, knocked the worst of it off the tent and went back to bed. Even if we'd gotten in to the hunting area we would not have emerged again. I wasn't certain if the minivan was going to make it up the muddy icy snow-covered hill out of camp, but it clambered out quite easily. The road back to town was fortunately half ploughed, unfortunately it was the wrong half. We drove on the left, swerving wildly into a foot of slush and ice whenever another car appeared oncoming. The van didn't have enough clearance for this and surfed happily from side to side. Home again safely with the white fading slowly from my knuckles, in good time to dry and sew up the tent again.

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