BY JAY VAN MATRE
Jay Van Matre is a husband, father, business owner and an avid outdoorsman and conservationist from Lanark, Illinois.
This journey started 14 months ago. As many life changing circumstances start with a gentle nudge in one direction or another, this event was no different. While working on a project in my insurance office one day, I was listening to the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. He was interviewing the hilarious comedian, Bert Kreisher. As happens when one podcast ends, another begins in the queue. It happened to be an interview with archer and Under Armour hunting athlete Cameron Hanes. The interview sparked a fire in me that would ultimately burst into an obsession.
Prior to hearing that podcast I had very limited knowledge of elk, their habitat, or the pursuit of hunting such a creature. I had no idea how massive and unique these creatures were. My hunting experience was limited to squirrel, turkeys, pheasant, and whitetail deer – you know, your standard northwest Illinois fair. This podcast, however, intrigued me to no end. Cameron talked about training all year long so he would be a more proficient hunter in the mountains each fall. He explained that one animal would provide all the meat his entire family of four needed for the year, and that Elk meat is among the most delicious and protein rich meat on the planet. Joe and Cam described Elk as being mountain athletes, the size of a horse, with giant tree like antlers growing from their heads. This single podcast awoke something inside of me. I was redirected toward a new goal, one I had never even considered prior to that day. An overwhelming urge grew inside me to leave the soft comforts of my bed, the fridge full of easy meals, and the love and familiarity of my wife and kids. A primal call stirred in me, drawing me to the unforgiving landscape of the mountains, in search of an animal the likes of which I’d never even seen in the wild. An animal three times my weight with spikesprotruding from it’s brow. Antlers designed for fighting, slashing, and proving it’s dominance. The trip West was unavoidable.
Little did I know there are several ways to go after an Elk. The hunter must first decide what type of camp best suites him before really dialing in the preparations. There are guided lodge camps. These hunts are like staying in a comfortable resort location with a hired guide to lead you to the hunt. These can be on foot or horseback. I knew right away this was not for me. Guides cater to your every need and sometimes even make you meals on the mountain, complete with table cloths and condiments. This is not the type of “rugged” adventure I sought after. What’s more, the cost of one of these trips can be in the $10,000.00 range. There are Base camps where you drive to the end of a trail head, make a camp and take off each morning before sunrise for your intended hunting area. Then, after the sun goes down and legal shooting light is gone, you make your way back to base camp, have dinner and pass out in your camper or tent. This was also not quite the level of adventure I was looking for. Finally, there’s the true backpacking, back country Elk hunt. This is where you leave your vehicle and don’t return for several days, carrying everything you need on your back. This was the adventure I sought after. I began making lists, editing and re-editing the items required. I watched every video, listened to every podcast, and read every article I could get my hands on. My research had begun.
I started saving for the trip, along with researching and collecting the many specialty items listed above and required for such a journey. I committed to walking the golf course whenever I played (so long as it wasn’t a tournament), co-founded a bicycle riding group called “Jane’s Boys” (we started on the Jane Adams Trail), went on several biking journeys, and generally tried to increase my activity level. All in an attempt to get my legs and lungs ready for the mountains. I dehydrated a week’s worth of meals for ease of transport through my journey, and even camped with my mountain gear a few times to test it all out before going into the back country. And finally, after over a year of preparation, on September 13th, 2018, I left sunny Lanark, Illinois for the Rocky Mountains on a quest to bring home my very first Elk.
After a lot of painstaking study and comparison shopping I ended up buying an Alps Mountaineering frame backpack. It’s a huge pack with all the space you’d ever need for any adventure, but when empty, it folds down into a nice, compact size. This wasn’t the lightest or most tech savvy pack on the market but the price was right and I knew it would serve me well. The pack came complete with a load shelf on the bottom which can be deployed to help haul meat back to your cooler upon a successful hunt and places for water bladders to help keep the hunter hydrated in the mid day sun. I loved the versatility of this pack and knew I’d never need anything larger.
One of the biggest challenges with this type of hunt is the wide range of weather you sometimes have in the mountains. In September, daytime temperature will likely be in the 80s, but at night can dip into the 20s. So I packed a merino wool base-layer which is like long johns but with the amazing advantages of merino wool. This fabric, from the merino sheep, is antimicrobial so you can wear it for weeks on end and it will never stink. The natural antimicrobial tendencies in the wool actually kill the odor causing bacteria that would otherwise cause your clothing, and in turn, the hunter to smell. In addition to the odor advantages of this fabric, it also wicks moisture away when wet, warms up when it’s cold and helps to cool you down when you get warm. I know this sounds too good to be true, but it is truly an amazing fabric. Added to the base layer, I packed a pair of socks and undies for every two days in the field, a light pair of camo pants and matching half zip pullover, and finally a winter camo hooded coat with matching insulated pants. For really cold morning I had a beanie and gloves. Half of the items were being worn every waking moment. So the amount of real estate this clothing system took up in my pack was minimal. The only addition to that was a small/lightweight rain suit that I never had to get out of the pack. The rain suite weighs about a pound and shrinks down to the size of a pint glass.
Food and water:
In an attempt to make my pack as light weight as possible I decided to dehydrate all my meals and supplement the dehydrated items with some high calorie, high energy additions. I packed 8 freezer bags with daily rations. One bag per day. Each bag included about 3000 calories worth of nutrients.
Breakfast: two packages of oatmeal and instant coffee
Mid morning snack: chocolate/peanut-butter protein bar
Lunch: two packets of ramen and 5oz of beef jerky
Mid afternoon snack: trail mix & water with electrolyte pack
Dinner: dehydrated chicken, rice and veggies or mac and cheese with beef jerky
Obviously these meals weren’t fancy but after a long day of hiking up some of the most unforgiving terrain I’d ever seen, these simple meals seemed like the greatest treat of my life.
I took a small camp stove, metal coffee cup and 20oz cooking can with me that all nestled together in a lightweight little package. This entire system with 8 days of food weighed only 18 pounds. As for the water, I packed two 64oz water bladders and a Sawyer gravity fed water filtration system. All I had to do was run stream water from one bag to the other with the inline filter between the two and voila, clean fresh water for drinking and cooking. Add to that a lightweight titanium backpacking spoon and you have all the nutrients and energy you need to sustain yourself for days on end, and all the cooking equipment needed to prepare “gourmet” backpacking meals.
This bag is one that all hunters hope and pray they get to pull out on every hunt. The Kill Kit has my game bags for preserving the meat, a replaceable blade skinning/butchering knife, and extra blades. Also some first aid items, spare bow parts and a few small tools in case something gets out of alignment in the field.
Shelter and comfort:
I purchased a small, two-man backpacking tent from Alps Outdoors. The item was listed on Amazon as weighing only 3.5 pounds, but when I received the tent, it was actually just shy of 5 pounds. A little false advertising, but still pretty lightweight when you consider that’s less than 2.5 pounds per person. However, this dwelling was intended for just me. As each individual comes with his or her own challenges, being 6’4” tall means that I am limited to which tents are even an option. I decided on this two person tent and slept diagonally inside. Plenty of room. I added to that a tarp just big enough to go under the tent. The tarp added an additional layer of insulation, as well as an extra waterproof barrier from rain or runoff. Inside the tent I had a small blowup 2” air mattress that packed down to the size of a 20oz bottle of soda. For warmth, a 35-degree sleeping bag and 2 small fleece blankets. One I rolled up and used as a pillow, and the other for additional warmth when needed.
Other than a few odds and ends like a toothbrush, scent free deodorant, some para cord, a camera, collapsible fishing rig (just in case), and a small lighter, that was everything in the pack. Strapped on the outside was my bow, and trekking poles for when the terrain got really dicey, and of course, on my hip, a .357 magnum for bears and cougars.
Sept. 13, 2018
Departed home at midnight, after a full day of work, followed by some precious moments with my wife and kids. I finished packing up the SUV and headed west. My goal was to get past the halfway point which was Lexington, Nebraska. From there I’d have only 7 hours left of the 15 plus hour journey.
Sept. 14, 2018
Pulled into the campgrounds at 7pm. Prior to my journey I had called the owners and asked if they allowed tent camping. I told him I was headed to Colorado from Illinois and needed a cheap place to stay. The owner said “as long you aren’t planning to use any electricity there’s no charge, just find an open spot and have at it.”
When I arrived I thought I was in the wrong place. The “campground” was actually the grass parking lot of the Dawson County Fairgrounds. With no fair or events going on, the lot was completely empty. So I called the owner to confirm I was in the right location. He assured me this was the spot and said if I wanted to take a shower in the morning he’d come into town and unlock the bath shelter. I told him he didn’t need to make a special trip on my account. He said “Nonsense, I wanna come meet the elk hunter,”.
What a nice guy. We talked for about 30 minutes and he insisted on not taking a dime for my stay. He kept asking me, “so you’re doing this alone? No one with you? And this is your first time hunting in the mountains?” His repetition of this line of questioning made me start to question my own logic for a moment. He left and I parked right in the middle of the huge open lot. I cooked one of my dehydrated meals, called home to check in with the family, and had a cozy little camp that night …party of one. In the morning I cleaned, packed and left. Lexington treated me well.
Sept 15, 2018
I arrived in Steamboat Springs at 3pm mountain time and checked into the Wildlife Parks and Forestry office. There I picked up a map, paid for my hunting/fishing license, elk tag, and picked the brain of a young, red haired game warden who was excited to tell the flat lander from Illinois all about the best Elk hunting areas their portion of Colorado had to offer. He talked me into an area of public land in the Routt National Forest just west of Clark Colorado. The area had a trail head that led to off road camping, a nice picturesque stream that ran between two mountains, and a valley that faced the west, perfect for watching the sunset from either mountain top.
I arrived just in time to pitch my tent and have dinner before nightfall. Just as the sun was setting I saw a local man who was taking his dogs for an evening walk. Paul was his name. He lived a few miles away and his dogs enjoyed drinking from the stream I was camped on that first night. Paul asked where I was from and if I’d ever been out there before. I told him this was my first elk hunting trip. He then told me that he’s always wanted to hike up the south side of the mountain. As he pointed up that huge side of the mountain he shot me a “look” that I took to mean, “that’s the spot, that’s where you’ll find the elk.” Later I’d realize that gleam in his eye meant something altogether different. He continued to tell me there was a horse trail at the end of the trail head. “Just follow that till it ends, then look for an animal trail to take you to the top. You’ll see what I mean when you get there.” Then he left.
I now had a plan for my first day’s hunt. It was all working out. I laid my head down early that night, for the next day I would become an elk hunter.
Sunday, Sept 16th, 2018
I awoke to a cold I hadn’t felt in months. It was 30 degrees, and boy was I glad to have the extra fleece blankets. I remember at one point I almost left them at home, and thinking to myself “eh, the fleece isn’t that heavy. Just bring ’em. If you don’t need them you can leave them in the car.”
I had oatmeal and coffee as the sun arose over the mountain top. The sun warming me like a hug from the heavens. The day was upon me and it was time to hunt. My journey led me South, to the bottom of the mountain where Paul said I’d find a horse trail. Plain as day, there was the trail. I started the long journey up. The trail zig zagged back and forth. I couldn’t help but wonder if a bear awaited behind the next bush or if a cougar was scoping me out from a nearby tree. It’s amazing how your mind will wander through areas of fear as you travel new paths. I’d have been more likely struck down by lightening than be attacked by any of those elusive creatures. About an hour into my hike I spotted my first animals. 5 Mule deer darted out from in front of me. They put about thirty more yards of distance between us and then turned back to catch a second glimpse of me. Interesting creatures, Mule deer. It’s amazing there are any left. Evolution, creation, or adaptation (you pick) has developed in them an instinct to look back after they start to run away. Curious as all get out. This curiosity leaves a perfect broadside shot at a consistent forty to fifty yards, from what I’ve seen. Not a slam dunk if you’re wheeling a bow and arrow, but definitely a done deal if you have a gun in hand. My climb continued, and then the trail started to angle down, winding around and to the left. All of a sudden the horse trail spit me out onto the trail head I walked down to get to the south end of the mountain. “PAUL!!!” I shouted and shook my fist in the air. That son of a gun. He was messing with me the whole time. I couldn’t help but think about Paul heading home the night before, with his dogs, chuckling to himself about the flatlander from Illinois he just duped with sinister directions. Half the day was gone and I hadn’t made any ground on any animals except for those curious dumb Mule deer, for which I didn’t even have a tag. In frustration, I turned around and started straight back up the mountain. In hindsight, this was not the most brilliant thing to do. The path straight skyward was riddled with deadfall. Seems that in recent years this area of Colorado has been plagued with a beetle kill that destroys evergreen trees. The dead trees rot and fall every-which-way on the mountain. Imagine Plinko sticks with sharp burs sticking out in every direction, but the size of giant trees. This makes topping an already difficult mountain peak even more challenging. That day I only made it about halfway up the mountain and had to head back down. My legs were giving out, I was running out of daylight, and I had to believe there was a better way.
First day hunting fail.
Monday, Sept 17, 2018
With my legs completely shot from the failed attempt of scaling the south side of the mountain, I awoke with a new plan of action. There was a trail running along the stream that divided the two mountains. My new plan of action was to hike the trail and look for drainages or pathways where the elk would go from one mountain, over the stream, and up the other mountain.
I hiked a little over 2 miles to the end of this mountain junction. The bubbling brook adding a soundtrack for the all day sit ahead. All along the trail I saw elk sign, along with one single snake that made me jump a little more than I’d care to admit.
A few hours went by and I decided to make my way back about 50 yards to the previous drainage I saw. Then again, a few hours later I made another move, and so on and so on, till I was about half a mile from my original sit at the end of the trail. At this point there’s only 10-15 minutes of daylight left when I heard my first bugles of the trip. Two elk talking to one another. However, this moment was bittersweet. It was amazing to finally hear elk in the wild, but they were coming from the end of the trail; where I was sitting just a few short hours ago. Where, if I had been patient and just waited, I would have likely had a shot at one or possibly a choice of two bulls.
Tuesday, Sept 18th, 2018
I spent the entire day on the neighboring mountain, glassing for elk and resting my legs from the past two day’s frustrating attempts at hunting these behemoths. I kept asking myself, “How can animals so freakin’ huge disappear?” I kept calling them “the ghosts of the rockies”.
Finally, at 6:41p.m. I saw my first elk in the wild. He was a 4×4 bull, and he was on a mission. I watched as he ran from one group of evergreens, about 8800 feet, to a patch of timber, about 8600 feet. He made his downward jaunt in about 30 seconds, over dead-fall, all without missing a step. That same journey would have taken me 30 minutes. My jaw almost hit the ground. What an athlete!!! This 4×4 bull elkwas chasing a Mule deer away from the area. It was comical to say the least. That night I went to bed with a new mission. I was going to hike to the area I last saw that 4×4 and then make my way up to the 9000 foot summit. In the middle of the night I was awoken 4-5 times by another bull elk bugling with everything he had. I thought to myself, “Tomorrow is the day!”.
Wednesday, Sept 1th, 2018
I hiked to the top of the mountain, tracked the spot I last saw Mr. 4×4, and hunted hard all day, but didn’t see a single animal except for a huge Mule deer buck. He ran from me and like the others, turned back giving me a perfect broadside shot. So I shot him, but not with an arrow, with the small video camera I had attached to the stabilizer of my bow. This deer had to have had a 200-inch set of antlers. (I can’t wait to get back there with a Mule Deer tag).
Thursday, Sept 20 th, 2018
I knew this day would be my last opportunity. Even though my tag was good through Sunday the 23rd, my family was counting on me to make it back before the weekend. My 6 year old son’s traveling soccer team was going to their first overnight tournament and I needed to be back home Friday by noon so we could leave together. Even though it was only Thursday morning, I knew if I got an animal at 9000 feet it would take me the better part of 16 hours to field dress, quarter, and hike all the meat back to my vehicle. It would take me 4-5 trips, 3+ hours per trip. So I gave myself until 4:30pm that day to hunt, knowing that if I got an animal after that time I’d be risking not making it back for the soccer tournament and letting down the three people who mean the most to me.
I hunted harder that day than I ever had. I hiked every area I thought might harbor an elk, marking on my gps the “hot spots” and “Elk Havens.” On the gps I had days worth of elk sign I was referencing, a bedding area here, elk poop there, etc etc. I was busy playing the wind, positioning myself so the wind was in my face as I approached each area. The minutes became hours and the sun slowly made its way westward. The witching hour of this hunt was approaching. 4:30 came and went as I decided to squeeze out another 30 minutes in hopes it would be the needed minutes to put meat in the coolers. Finally, as my watch struck 5pm I decided it was time to make my way down the mountain, to the car and leave this rugged heavenly landscape till next year’s season. I took off my pack, strapped my bow to the pack, and grabbed my trekking poles to help with the long descent off the 9000 foot mountain top. With my pack and bow on my back I navigated down the mountain. The deadfall determined my path as I zig zagged back and forth, down off the peak. At about 8700 feet I navigated around a group of evergreens. I could see a clear, dead-fall-free path to the left of these evergreens so I hooked a left past the trees. That’s when we saw each other. In the grass by these trees was a full grown mature bull looking right at me. He stood as I was froze, looking at him, he at me. I was froze, wishing I had my bow in my hand and not these worthless trekking poles. He was about 40 yards away and he was massive! I remained frozen. There was nothing I could do but stand and watch. There was no chance in setting down the trekking poles, taking my backpack off, unstrapping my bow, nocking an arrow, ranging the bull with my range finder, and getting a shot off before he would leave. So I remained motionless, watching. He let out a kind of bark, as if to say “I see you.” He turned and ran away, digging his hooves in the dirt as he pushed off, kicking up dust and making the type of commotion you’d expect from a 700-pound mountain athlete. He plowed through the evergreens. He was gone and I was busted. And just like that, the hunt was officially over, but not without a close encounter to keep me dreaming of next year.
The entire ride home I played each and every scenario over and over in my mind. If I had done this or not done that… I kept looking in my rearview mirror at the empty coolers I was bringing home to the family. The ride was filled with mixed emotions, but waiting for me was my loving family, a weekend soccer tournament, and midwest whitetail season only 10 days away. Colorado Archery Elk season was a lot tougher than I thought it would be, but God-willing, I’ll be back next year to once again chase the ghosts of the rockies.
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