Hunting Elk in the Sierra Madre range

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 9, 2008

By Ben Neary
Associated Press
SIERRA MADRE RANGE, Wyo. ó The guy ropes on our tent were frozen as hard as steel cables. We hadn’t seen the sun in days. Each night had brought more snow to the western slopes of Wyoming’s Sierra Madre Range.
My wife, Susie, and I welcomed the new snow every morning as a fresh canvas for elk tracks. It was our fifth day of hunting and we had only two days left. Things were taking on a no-nonsense, businesslike feel. We had no elk so far and were running out of time.
The wood stove inside the tent kept things warm that morning as Susie fried bacon and eggs in the Dutch oven on a cooking stove. She shoveled the food into plastic bowls on top of pieces of broken hardtack biscuits. A dash of hot sauce, and breakfast was served.
The new snow covered the two-track road as we drove north from camp in the predawn darkness. The truck churned and bucked in four-wheel-low range. I cradled my green plastic bowl of eggs between my knees. Susie sat next to me in the cab crowded with maps, boxes of ammo, binoculars and spare clothing.
Suddenly we saw two elk on the road, ghostly figures that seemed to float in the beams of the headlights. Their eyes reflected back as yellow-green dots. The elk soon wheeled back into the forest on the uphill side of the road, moving east toward the mountain peaks.
I pulled off the road and cut the engine. We had a few minutes before it would be light enough to shoot. We ate our food and chugged hot coffee. We forgot about our plans to look elsewhere; we would hunt here.
The two elk we had spooked had headed uphill into the thick, matted forest of spindly pine. But there were many other fresh tracks that crossed the road and headed down into a canyon that held a small creek.
Shouldering our packs and rifles, we headed down the canyon, following the fresh elk tracks. Soon, we split up. Susie stayed higher on the slope as we moved slowly along the side of the canyon.
The forest was thinner here. Barren aspens stood above sagebrush like spindly sentinels in the dim, blue light before the dawn. Dark clouds moved across the sky, their shapes constantly shifting under the incessant west wind.
Morning light shifts quickly in snow-covered mountains. One moment it was too dark to see and daylight seemed a shivering eternity away. And then, suddenly, it was light enough to shoot.
I watched the trees ahead of me carefully as my boots pushed through the snow about half a mile from the road. Then something triggered my attention.
It was the form of an animal, standing half-obscured in the brush perhaps 150 yards away. It was a cow elk ó what we had been hunting for all week.
I levered open my rifle quietly and loaded the cartridge that I had been carrying in my bare right hand. I looked for a tree to lean against to steady the rifle for a shot, but there was none. And I was standing in brush that wouldn’t allow me to sit or, better yet, lie down for a steadier position. I would have to take the shot offhand ó standing with no support ó or pass it up.
I carried a single-shot Ruger chambered for a .338 Magnum cartridge. It’s a heavy piece to carry all day but it holds steady when I need it to.
I put my left arm through the shooting sling. The crosshairs of the 4-power scope hung correctly on the elk’s chest as I willed myself to squeeze the trigger gently and not disturb the aim.
The abrupt roar of the rifle broke the stillness of the winter morning. The burning powder flashed orange in the low light. The recoil of the rifle carried it up and I lost my view of the elk. But I knew that I had shot well.
Three other elk ran out of the drainage below me, moving through the snow-covered sagebrush, back up the canyon toward the road. Susie was uphill from me and couldn’t shoot because I was between her and the animals.
I reloaded and moved forward into the aspens to look for my elk. Although I knew the shot had been good, there was still the familiar sense of relief when I saw it on the ground. I prodded the elk’s eye with the muzzle of the rifle and watched to make sure it didn’t twitch.
Susie was gracious in congratulating me. I knew she wanted her own elk and she had been hunting hard all week. But she was also truly happy that we had meat for the winter.