Endless snow, action, disappointments, and adventure on a Wyoming elk hunt
The story of most hunting trips can be seen as an abbreviated synopsis of life. Preparation and planning meet luck and Mother Nature head on and what often ensues is an emotional rollercoaster. There are times you are so close to achieving your goal that you think it’s in the bag and in a fleeting moment the chance is gone. In the greatest valleys of despair within a moment you can ascend to the greatest elation. The same thing for me in this dichotomy is that no matter the situation you have to keep trying and never accept failure. Chance favors the bold. Carpe diem!
Avo and I are longtime outdoorsmen from Southern California. We have hunted all over California for upland game (deer and pigs), but have always wanted to chase elk in the wilderness. We decided 2016 was the year and we planned and put in for tags in Wyoming. We were successful in drawing a general tag and then began the task of selecting an outfitter. We chose Shoal Creek Outfitters out of Jackson, WY. We booked a hunt with Riley Milward out of his Bondurant camp. However, soon after we booked it, my wife told me she was pregnant with our second child. I was elated, but immediately I started doing the math. “Wait, what’s the due date?”
It was early November and our hunt was scheduled for early October. My wife knew what this meant to me and, being the woman she is, she told me to go. Ironically, the same thing happened to Avo a month later. Together, we have a hunt booked while our wives will be eight and seven months pregnant respectively at the time. We’re definitely going for husband of the year awards. To make matters even more interesting, not long after we booked our hunt did we find out that there was a large wildfire—the Cliff Creek Fire—that threatened our outfitters selected hunt area.
The fire raged and wiped out all opportunity to hunt out of Riley’s Shoal Creek camp so he changed plans and moved us to his Pilgrim Creek camp out of Jackson. Only a few weeks to go and our plans were changing. But it didn’t matter; we were committed either way.
We drove up from LA in one day, spent the night in Jackson and headed to camp the next morning. Once we got set up in camp, we headed out by horseback for an afternoon hunt. We were introduced to our guide Randy Edgeington. Right away, he sized us up and made sure we were set on our tack for our mounts.
Pack trip in
This was our first significant time on horses ever so it was an adjustment. We were used to hunting on foot with packs. Riding through this country, it struck us almost immediately how gorgeous and how big this area was.There were huge creek drainages separated by ridges and large pine forests. We rode up a trail in a few miles and finally came to a ridgeline where we could glass. Within a few minutes, I spotted a bull, but it was still several miles away. Even at a few miles out I could make out antlers with my 10x binoculars; this is a good one! We were ready to saddle up and start riding after it, but our guide, Randy, knew better. It was already late in the afternoon and we had a few canyons to traverse with light fading. It wasn’t going to happen. We decide to head after him tomorrow.
That night, as we enjoyed a great meal in camp, we couldn’t wait to wake up and get after the elk we had spotted. It was the kind of excitement you had as a kid knowing you were going to go fishing or hunting with your dad the next day. Yet, as experienced hunters know and novices soon learn, nothing goes as planned. It wasn’t going to go that easy for us…this wasn’t a TV show.
We awoke to a light dusting of snow and a constant drizzle. We rode up to the drainage were we had spotted that bull and continued up the rest of that entire mountain all day. The horses struggled through many parts and we had to walk them on steep inclines to ensure they didn’t slip. We rode up and down to no avail except to be soaking wet from the constant rain. We decide to tie up for lunch and make a fire. We hid under a large pine for a few hours to wait for the rain and fog to pass and when it did we only had a few more hours of daylight.
We rode towards camp and positioned ourselves at the base of a pine grove where we had spotted the bull the night before. We opted to still hunt there with a break in the weather and wind in our favor, hoping he would feed in the same area, but he didn’t and we had to ride back to camp. With the number of grizzlies in the area, riding in the dark was not advised.
On day three, we woke up to 6” to 8” of some of the lightest powder snow I have ever seen. That gnar-pow you dream about as snowboarder, but we weren’t here to carve snow; we were here to carve quarters. The other folks elected to stay in camp that morning…not us. We saddled up in the dark and got to hammering up a new trail in a new area. The snow did not stop all day. The beauty was awe-inspiring, to begin with, then it began to punish you at every moment. Every tree branch you brushed by with your horse dumped a foot of snow on your saddle, your leg, your hood, your scabbard, your boot...nothing was safe. This pushed everything we had to the limits. There is definitely a difference between water resistant and waterproof. Sitting in a saddle of melting snow all day is not the best situation. We threw down another 10 hour day for nothing and started to feel the pressure.
Day four was eerily familiar: more fresh snow. We rode hard all morning, covering quite a few miles, hoping to cut a track or see some sign, but we did not. Randy suggested we ride back for lunch, throw the horses in the trailer and ride to another trailhead and see what we could see there. We trusted Randy implicitly and were fine with seeing what another area looked liked since over the last two days we hadn’t seen a single animal.
Not far away, we mounted up on a new trail and rode a few miles that led us through the willows and over the woods to some higher peaks to look back at our drainages from another angle. The area was void of life and we were beginning to think this was a waste of time to try this trail. Sun fading, we started back down toward the trailer. We must have been no more than a mile out from the trailer when I saw Randy freeze and stiffen up in the saddle. He started twirling his hand like an umpire does to signal a home run and I looked to the woods. Not more than 25 yards away was a massive bull that, at this point, had spooked and was starting to whirl around and run into the cover of the woods. We attempted to dismount as fast as possible, but by the time I had my rifle and racked one bullet in, I just saw the rear end of a bull crest a knoll and head into the woods. We pursued on foot feebly for a few hundred yards knowing it was almost hopeless. I can still see that bull whirling around and running. As Randy described it, his spread was three horses wide and, really, he was pretty damn close.
You know that famous scene from Ground Hog’s Day where Bill Murray wakes up and Sunny and Cher are singing, “I got you, babe” before the radio announcer interrupts and says, “OK, campers, rise and shine and don’t forget your booties cause it’s cold out there”? This was beginning to be our life as more snow fell all night long. Temperatures hovered in the 20s.
We rode up the same trail as yesterday morning and busted a bull and cows at dawn. They were right on the park line and we couldn't hunt them. Instead, we watched this 320” class bull push his cows further into the park. That was gut-wrenching...we rode on. There were moments where the snow stopped and we could glass and thought we could catch them feeding, but no. Just as quickly, more clouds would roll in from the west over the Tetons and barrage us again. At one point in total whiteout (and my clothes completely drenched), we built a fire under cover and regrouped.
Day five was winding down as we turned back for home to ride through the trees where the branches had been restocked with more snow to drop on us. Near dusk we cut tracks and went in hot pursuit of a bull. We went on foot, on horse over hills, through timber, you name it. With light fading, we mounted up and galloped, following the tracks until we lost them in a creek. Never did I picture myself when I signed up for a horseback hunt that I would be in a full trot hanging on for dear life as we ran down tracks; it was really something for the ages. Finally felt like we were hunting again and not getting our ass kicked for no good reason.
Day six rolled in and the feeling that this may not happen was starting to sink in for both of us. Time, money, effort ...all could be for not. That is hunting. There are no guarantees, but you at least want a chance. The snow had finally stopped, but all my boots were wet from the days before. I decided to wear my Xtra Tuffs with two pairs of wool socks, which ended up being both the best and the worst decision.
In that 20 degree morning, snow was still accumulating on tree branches as we rode. The snow sat and chilled my feet. I held tough for two hours until I told Avo and our guide, “I have to go back. I may lose a toe here. You guys go on."
Of course, they wouldn't let me go back alone so we all headed back to camp. Our guide Randy lent me spare boots and we ate lunch to come up with a new game plan. As we were eating lunch, the other group came back into camp. They had got a bull down. Avo and I looked at each other, shocked. We had wanted to go back up the trail where we were on the first day and, that morning, this group got one there on their first day out of camp.
We saddled up and followed the mule retrieval team up the trail. As we reach the top of the trail a mile out of camp, we came upon a big park and our guide said, "Elk."
Avo and I were getting pretty good at the dismount by then and the desperation of day six made us fly. I grabbed my rifle, scrambled to the side, threw my pack down, and hit the snow. There were two bulls: Could it really happen this picture perfect for us both? I lined up on the right. I looked and Avo was a bit in front of me and to my left so I got his attention and he looked down to see me prone and behind him. Avo scooted further to the left and we were both safe at 230 yards away. I lined up on the bull to the left; Avo lined up on the bull to the right. I flicked the safety off. "Are you on him? Are you on him? Are you on him? I’m going to go. Avo, I am going to go." No response. I can see that my bull is getting twitchy and I am taking no chances. My X-bolt 30-06 trigger breaks like glass and boom!
All hell breaks loose. I shot and my bull ran. I tried to put a second one in him as he fled into the timber. Meanwhile, I heard Avo running through his Weatherby faster than a bolt action has ever gone. His bull disappeared right behind mine and we both look at each other "Did you get him?"
We didn't know; they both moved like nothing happened. I was prone on a rest and felt good about my shot, but as every second passed, I began to doubt myself. Avo had shot kneeling and wasn't sure about his either.
Randy yelled, "Mount up, let's get after them and cut them off!" We reloaded and hopped on and trotted down the trail around the timber in the direction they had ran. Hoping to cut their tracks...five minutes down the trail and we hadn't cut any tracks. It started to look bleak in our minds We turned around and decided to head back to the scene of the crime.
The whole time we kept asking Randy, "Did we get them?" "Did you hear the hit?"
He kept our head in the game and said, “Don't worry, boys. There’s probably two down up here.”
We rode up to where they were and Randy instructs us to hold back about 10 yards so we don't get too many tracks in the area; he was going to look for blood. He walked around and shuffled through the snow with no emotion, shaking his head, kicking some snow. He… doesn't say a word for about 90 seconds; we were losing hope. Then, he turned around and said, "I'm just kidding. There is blood everywhere! Let's go get this son of a gun!"
We were in utter shock. But, sure enough, there is blood everywhere! If you hadn’t guessed it by now, Randy was quite a rally to hunt with, I can’t think of another guy who would decide to play us during the moment when we were at our absolute lowest point. We tracked another 50 yards and finally found the bull piled up next to some pine.
The feeling was so surreal. We had literally put ourselves through hell over the last six days, never stayed in camp and fought through the worst conditions you could imagine for elk hunting. The first time we actually had a shot opportunity, it happened so fast that we seriously doubted we were even able to capitalize on it.
The suspense Randy added onto the situation made it almost impossible to believe that we had connected. But there right in front of us was a solid 6x6 bull like the ones I had pictured in the months leading up to this hunt. He wasn’t the biggest bull ever, but for this to be the reward for persistence I could not have been more elated.
Now the real work began. It was time to break him down and pack him out. With grizzlies everywhere, we stayed vigilant with a combo of bear spray and Glock 10mm ready to roll as we processed the bull.
By day seven, I had filled my tag, but we still had a tag for Avo. The morning greeted us with the best weather day we had on the entire trip. It was a blue sky with 12” to 18" of snow on the ground. We mounted up and headed to the same spot and continued on that trail. We got to a vantage point to glass and the first thing we saw was two bulls running across a canyon that were scared from another hunter’s shot. We tried to cut their tracks, but to no avail, and decided to move on.
Around 1 p.m. we found a park where the snow was plowed by tracks. We started to look around and I spotted a cow on a hillside over a mile away. We knew there probably was more so I stayed with the horses as Randy and Avo tried to move in. Sure enough, there was a whole herd and in the timber, they could see antlers of a bull but didn’t have a shot. They were able to close the distance from 800 yards to 400 yards and proceeded to wait patiently with some cover between them for a shot at a bull. Suddenly, the herd got up and started filing out...a little puff of wind had blown their cover at 400 yards. I raced up on my horse, dragging the other two from a mile behind and we mounted up to follow this herd.
Randy led us up and over everything you can imagine, chasing the herd. We were jumping logs, climbing steep slopes, and leaning back to hang on the declines. We got another glimpse, but they never stopped moving in the timber and we chased again. Finally, we lost them in the multitude of tracks and thick timber. We were running out of time on the last day.
We grabbed a quick bite on a ridge and glassed more bulls that are out of range. The sun was starting to set and we were losing time. If we rode for home at this point we would probably just make camp at dark. Randy says screw that and we don’t head for home, but head for broke. Up hills, over logs, down canyons and we loop off trail in search of more bulls. I was doing everything I could to hang on for dear life as my horse did what it was bred to do.
We crested a ridge and spotted one at nearly 1,000 yards, but can't close the gap in time before it disappeared. By the time we got to where he was, it was time to pack it in. We started the long ride home. Riding down the trail towards camp and at dusk, we were approaching nearly the same area where I shot my bull the day before. I was in the back of our horse team and I see Avo bail off his horse like he was hit by lightning. He runs five yards, drops to his knee, and, “Crack!” He lets his 7mm Weatherby open up.
As we had come up to the same park, three bulls had run across the trail and were in the same park where I had shot mine the previous afternoon. There was a wall of timber between them and us, but Avo had found a small lane about 5’ wide and had shot at a bull as it moved through the gap. Randy blew the cow call and the last elk stopped and froze. He was no more than 50 yards away, standing in the gap and looking at Avo head on through the timber. Avo let one more fly from the 7mm Weatherby and it dropped where it stood. Nothing like being down to the wire.
We were hooting and hollering like we won the World Series! Avo had killed at the buzzer with another solid 6x6 bull even a bit bigger than mine. We were on Cloud Nine and may have been even walking above the 12” of snow at that point! Randy calmed us down and told us to be quiet.
He looked at us and said, “We just rang the dinner bell with those shots.” We are not more than a few hundred yards from the previous kill. He directed me to build a fire—”A big f#*%ing fire! NOW!”—We took a few pictures and got to work on our respective tasks. I cleared out some snow and started a fire while Avo and Randy started working on his bull. It was already dark and we were just getting started.
I kept the fire going while I stood and watched with the bear spray and 10mm. Randy was able to get Riley on the phone and he rode up with the pack mules to help out. It didn’t seem to take very long to break down the elk and load up the pack mules. Avo strapped on the pack with the meat and the antlers and we were trucking through the snow in the dark, headlamps on full blast.
As we got to camp, Riley and Randy spotted a grizzly by the horse corral and were able to scare it off. We got safely inside our electric fence and, finally, at that point had a moment to process what the heck had just happened in the last two hours.
This hunt had it all. Action, adventure, disappointment, adversity. It challenged us to our core. Every day was a struggle to mount up and keep going, knowing that the chances were low, but you couldn’t shoot them from camp either. Persistence paid off for both of us and we were able to be there together throughout the whole thing. The highs and lows along with the hope and reward of dedication and persistence. This is what keeps all of us going to the mountain. When you describe this kind of hunt to someone who doesn’t hunt, it sounds like the worst experience ever. They can’t fathom how much time and effort you put into this, but, to those reading this, you know what I am talking about. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.