Book Review – “The Book of Yaak” by Rick Bass
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All the time spent on the road lately has given me a chance to finish up some books. One of those was The Book of Yaak. Written by Rick Bass (see my review of his Last of the Grizzlies from a couple months ago), it’s a passionate plea to save the last remaining roadless areas of one of the most remote valleys in the Lower 48 – to designate those last cores of wildness as wilderness. With corporate timber interests pressing in from every side, the book is a series of essays that pleads the valley’s case of uniqueness and of specialness.

From the 100 or so residents that call the place home to the conglomerate of animal and plant species that merge in the little corner of Montana, British Columbia, and Idaho, the author envelops all their voices in a case for wilderness designation. It’s a superb read and I enjoyed knowing of the specific place names that were used as my spring black bear hunt encroached into some far corners of the Yaak.

My second Rick Bass book to date, but surely not my last. Rick has a sensibleness that tries to connect the stakes of socioeconomic interests with environmental protection. An attitude and angle that not all will share, but an interesting and thought-provoking perspective none-the-less.

Elk Meat
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I snapped a picture of this sign in a Colorado meat market that we visited for the vaunted ‘Smokehouse Club’ – sort of a legendary post-hunt meal.

By my calculations, we did the hunt for just over $1,000 apiece. $620 in licenses, $200 apiece for the hired horsepower, and the remainder being dominated mostly by gasoline. Even if you just take the price of elk burger ($10.99), consider that farmed elk are basically cows with antlers. Let’s not kid ourselves. The legitimate market price for our wild elk is surely something appreciably higher. Undoubtedly, it’s nutritionally healthier too. By my calculations, even a half bull’s worth of just burger would easily cover the 1K price tag of the hunt door-to-door. Considering that we didn’t bring home just burger — my total breakdown for my half of the meat ended up being about 20 pounds burger, 15 pounds stew/kabob meat, 60 pounds of steaks, 20 pounds of roast, and 10 pounds of other miscellaneous cuts such as flank and brisket and filet — elk hunting is actually profitable, by a long shot!!!

At least that’s what I’ll tell my wife.

2014 OTC/DIY Archery Elk Hunt – Day 6, 7, and Drive Out
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That night we pondered long and hard our next move. Lug meat ourselves and hope to have it out 72 hours from now – it was definitely feasible but it raised the all-important question of – will the meat still be good? Run out to town and try to rent horses or find someone to pack our meat for us – again, definitely feasible but if we came up empty we would put ourselves further behind the 8-ball and virtually guarantee that we lose the meat. Then again, if successful in that venture, we’d be out of the mountains soon and headed back East with heavy coolers. Decisions, decisions.

Option B won out. At dawn, we packed camp after double-checking that our meat bags were hung properly in the best ventilated and shaded spot available. 9 miles and 3 hours later we strolled into the parking lot and bummed a ride in a pickup truck bed down to the dude ranch about 5 miles further towards town. A very helpful lady was able to make some phone calls and get us hooked up with an outfitter armed with 1 horse and 2 mules. He would meet us at 5 PM the following evening at the top of the switchbacks. That was all well and good, but we still had to get back in to the meat and antlers and move everything 2-2.5 miles further to the top of the switchbacks. On our hike out that morning, the reason for absent horse/human traffic was obvious – treacherous deadfall EVERYWHERE! It would be a grueling push to our finish line, but we’d have horsepower from there.

(The elevation profile of the total pack-out suggests that we did do something right…kill up, pack down!)

Long story short, we did the rough hours of effort calculation and figured we better make tracks back in that evening. We made it 4-5 miles deep before darkness and ominous storm clouds stopped our progress. After a long night of rain interspersed with lightning, we woke soaked and gloomy but with one mission in mind. Hike the remaining 4 miles to the meat cache and shuttle those 2 loads down to our rendezvous point by 5 PM. 9 hours later, we arrived at said point at 4:45 PM. We heard the clip-clop of hooves just 15 minutes later. We were on time and he was on time. 6 miles later, we were packing the Nissan for the long haul back East. We drove 2 hours to find a hotel and a much-needed shower and rest. Refreshed the next morning, we tackled the 24-hour through drive back to Columbus, OH, and reunited with our families – 2 days ahead of schedule I might add.

We had a lot of miles to absorb the events of the last 7 days. We were admittedly confident going into the trip that we would get into elk and likely have adequate opportunity to fill our 2 tags. Were we expecting the kind of elk hunting we had experienced? By no means. The action – both in terms of quantity of bulls encountered and quality of bulls encountered – surpassed our wildest expectations. 2012 was definitely not an outlier, no anomaly there. 4 for 4 was backed up with 2 for 2. Heck, in 2 true days of hunting, we had taken 3 shots, Pete had passed up 1 cow, I had passed up 1 bull and multiple opportunities at cows. We had turned our nose up at other bulls – simply waiting for them to bypass us. Over-the-counter DIY elk hunting on Colorado’s public lands. We had proof of concept and validity of strategy. We also had plenty of time to re-evaluate certain aspects of our strategy, such as, is the “kill a bull first, figure it out later” strategy really a strategy at all – or is it just fool-hardy? We’re both leaning towards the latter. Plenty of other observations were made, so I won’t let all the cats out of the bag just yet as I’ll follow up the blow-by-blow recount with gear reviews, some things we learned, and maybe a few other tidbits.

(Sorry for the lack of pictures from the last 2+ days of our adventure, but the weather was abominable – just drenching wet for a solid 48 hours. )

2014 OTC/DIY Archery Elk Hunt – Day 5
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About 2 hours of daylight, we were back at Pete’s bull. The first task was an attempt to remove the antlers from the rest of the skull. It worked, almost! So close to success, but the wire saw snapped. As we were getting ready to load packs for the uphill ascent, I said something to the effect of “I’d be mad at myself if we didn’t at least make one more loop in hopes of smelling him dead.” Honestly, it wasn’t an easy decision as we knew the meat had long since spoiled, but decided it was a day without a deadline so we dropped the negligible elevation to where we thought he was most likely to be laying.

Miracle of miracles, we found him. It was definitely bittersweet, but we had finally solved the mystery.

From shot to his final location was probably 250 yards as the crow flies, but given what we knew about the blood trail and understanding the lay of the terrain, the mortally-wounded elk traveled a minimum of 400-450 yards. When we rolled him over, this seemed even more implausible!

Right there on the crease, slightly quartering forwards and 2/3 up into both lungs was the cut left by my Slick Trick. I have no explanation for the wild goose chase other than to say – ELK ARE TOUGH!!! We both decided we couldn’t have done anything different and I went to work removing the skull for the pack-out. Given the bull’s state of decomposition, that was no pleasant task. I wouldn’t get to enjoy the meat, but I would have some 5×5 antlers to remember this trip by – a small but tangible consolation prize that once more solidified our 100% success rate of DIY archery elk tags in over-the-counter Colorado.

Now with packs loaded and only the grunt of hard work between us and a trip back East, the hunt became a mental and physical grind. Shuttling loads of meat through the mountains with nothing but the ticking clock of meat spoilage as a scorekeeper.

We leaned into our packs all day long until we had shuttled the last load of meat down to the marked trail. We were ahead of schedule, but we had also discovered that something was out of place with the marked trail. It had NO sign of human or horse activity on it. The realization that we might be screwed started to creep into our minds. Nothing to do now but sleep through the night and start improvising a new plan in the morning.

2014 OTC/DIY Archery Elk Hunt – Day 4
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Knowing that the next morning involved a search-and-recovery, we weren’t too keen to make sure our stopwatch’s alarm was properly set – not that we needed one. We had bulls bugling within 150-200 yards of camp from 5 AM onwards, and we decided to make a quick play on them at twilight before the sun would give us full light in resuming the search for my bull.

We pursued the elk herd for about 30 minutes before their climbing and our chasing led to a high country meadow framed by a deep canyon below and a steep mountainside above. They were nearly pinned down and I dropped back to start cow calling. It quickly became apparent that just being another cow was going to get us nowhere as there were plenty of other cows in the herd and they were being very vocal. Using the bugle and arming myself with “antlers” to start wailing on the nearest beetle-killed pine, I took on the role of challenging bull. It worked. Within seconds, a bugle arched over the ridge and was drawing a bead on my location. Realizing the situation, I dove downhill and pulled in behind Pete’s location to draw the bull on a better line. Somehow, the plan worked. Pete sent a perfect uphill arrow 40 yards to the big bull, and we watched as the bull bailed off the edge and down into the deep canyon below with his last gasp.

We back-slapped, high-fived, and took some quick pictures before hiking back down the ridge to resume the search for my bull as it was now an hour after sunrise. It almost seemed like disrespecting the unbelievable hunt that had just occurred, but we both had discussed it the night before. My tag was cut – recovery or no recovery. All the signs added up to a dead bull – the sound of lungs popping, the angle of the shot, the bubbles in the blood. No part of the equation suggested anything otherwise, it was just a matter of finding the bull. We’d give the recovery a solid 3 hours of effort before turning back to Pete’s bull for butchering. It wouldn’t be long before the rising sun would be glaring down in the deep cut where his bull now lay, so we really had 2 clocks working against us at this point.

(I just have to point out our camo patterns…lol! We love being those granola boys with the bows and then rolling back through the trailhead parking lot a week later under a heavy pack-load of meat.)

We spent about an hour around the 15-20 yard blood trail looking for that next spot of blood, but we never found it. We then starting running 25-yard wide transects up the mountain, around the mountain, and back down again. Eyes to the ground and to the side. Nose to the air hoping for a whiff of rutted-up bull. Ears to the wind expecting a raven to short-circuit the haystack search at any moment. Here’s a picture of the thick spruce regeneration that we forced to search in. Even 10 yards away, an elk could remain undetected. Just about the worst area on the entire mountain for this to be happening.

Around 11 AM, we knew that the other bull was now top priority, and we re-climbed the mountain, drew our knives, and start butchering. To quote some words we heard later on in the hunt, we “made the bears and coyotes mad!” We took everything. Neck, shanks, rib-roll, heart, everything. Pete joked that there wasn’t enough meat to stick your knife in when we got done with him. You’d have thought the elk was laying 1/4 mile below a 2-lane road except we knew the truth – we were 10-12 miles back! Ugh, reality…

We finished our task, hung the meat in the shade, and went back down to resume the search for my bull which we knew by now was probably spoiled. One time for just one or two seconds we both got a whiff of something foul. However, the wind was shifty and gusting and we couldn’t pin down a definite source direction. Now I was the one on the roller coaster. On one hand, we were packing meat off my buddy’s great bull, but on the other, I knew my hunt was done with but without a bull in hand. Elk hunting mostly sucks and is basically one giant roller coaster, don’t ever let someone tell you anything different.

After a couple more hours of discouraging and fruitless searching, we had a topo map brainstorming session. How exactly are we going to get this bull off the mountain? There were 2 obvious choices, and after much debate, we opted for Plan A. Haul meat straight up, through one saddle, through another saddle, run the ridgetop, through a final saddle, and descend 2 miles to a marked trail. We figured it was roughly 5 miles total one-way, but we would also be double-hauling loads which meant 2 days sounded like a reasonable goal. From there, we would still be 8-9 miles from the trailhead, but bumming a ride out on some horses and or hiring an outfitter to complete our pack-job should be just a formality at that point.

The rest of that day was spent packing one load about 2 miles up to a timberline campsite. Threatening storms kept us in camp the last few hours of daylight, but we were able to finally unwind and process the events of the last several days over heaping portions of campfire-roasted elk sirloins.

Infolinks 2013