I was sitting on a saddle over four miles into a small wilderness area in eastern Oregon, watching the sun descend in the sky. A brisk wind blew steadily in my face giving the thin air at 7,000 feet a little sting to my cheeks. Every half hour I let out a couple of cow elk calls, and I was excited when a half-hearted chuckle rose from the bottom of the drainage to the south in reply. With a little over an hour until dark, I slowly descended the hillside. Shadows lengthened, and I had yet to see or hear any elk. As the evening fell upon those mountains, I made a small camp on an unnamed knoll next to a creek.
Shortly after dusk, the bull I had first heard began chuckling from the ridge top to the west. Over the following few hours he worked himself into a cacophony of bugles that resonated out over the drainage, washing past my ears and serenading me to sleep. I lay there on the ground, in a spot where I was sure no other human had slept for a long time, watching the stars and listening to the bull while I drifted into dreamland. The bull called for half the night, slowly working his way south and out of earshot. But right before dawn he was back in the same location and bugled a couple of times before it got light.
My camp was an elk bed with a little slope that I scraped to flatten. I placed a row of rocks on one side to help keep me from sliding downhill. There was a small stream nearby where I could get fresh water. The night was crystal clear, so with no threat of rain I chose to sleep out in the open and laid my tarp below me to keep the dust off my sleeping gear. When choosing a place to sleep for the night, I try as hard as possible to use the flattest ground I can find. The slightest semblance of a tilt, slope, or divot can really make sleeping difficult. So, do your best to flatten the ground where you will sleep. Sometimes I use my foot and a stick to rake the ground even. You only need to flatten a spot the size of your sleeping pad.
In the light of dawn the next day, I was drinking coffee and scanning the far ridge with my binoculars. As the sun started to shine on the slope, I picked out the colors of three elk feeding in a burned forest. I carried an “any elk” tag, and not caring if they were bulls, cows, or calves up there, I packed camp into my bag and headed up toward the elk. On my back, I carried everything I needed for a few days: sleeping bag and pad, tarp, cord, clothes, food, stove, archery equipment, game processing gear, a small first aid kit, a two-liter water bottle, binoculars, trekking poles, and a “do everything” knife.
It took me over an hour to walk to where the elk had been feeding. Then I spent another hour sorting through their sign to find the trail exiting the area. While studying all the elk spoor, I heard a distant bugle to the west and over the ridge. Picking up the tracks, I started to follow the elk in that direction. They led me over the ridge top and contoured around the bowl at the head of a small ravine. Dark dirt held musky urine, still damp in the dry environment of this high desert-mountain habitat. I tracked them onto a small finger ridge that split the head of this drainage, where I crossed the spoor of a big bull elk walking straight downhill. He was coming from above tree line where he had been feeding during the night, and it looked as if he was heading for a dark patch of firs to bed for the day. (I had watched bulls do this before, walking straight downhill to a bed an hour after first light. This is one of the few scenarios in which I have seen animals walk with the wind.)
I switched tracks to start following the bull. The wind was now blowing uphill in my favor most of the time. Instead of walking directly to the firs, he ventured to a rocky outcropping overlooking a steep ravine. He stood there and, I believe, bugled, which was the calling I had heard an hour previously. Then the bull turned and headed for the timber. The trail was easy to see; big feet had kicked up dark-damp earth. I moved carefully, slowly, and intentionally as I approached the trees and while walking through the forest, placing my feet into his footprints and taking care not to crack any twigs. I scanned the shadows and bases of trees with my binoculars, and that was how I noticed the texture of an animal’s fur that materialized into the form of a bedded bull elk chewing his cud.
My pack, boots, and socks came off for the stalk. The wind had picked up and become more erratic—or did the elk choose this location because it made the wind less predictable? I closed the distance from 60 yards to 30. I needed another ten and was trying to figure out my best approach when the breeze swirled around from my back. Then the bull was up and running downhill, taking the whole herd with him!
I kept in touch with them for another few hours, following the sounds of a big bull bugling. That afternoon I found some great wallows, and since the elk were still in the drainage I decided to sit by one for the evening. I heard elk talking but never saw one, and as the darkness approached I set up my camp down by the stream. Again, there was no threat of rain, so home that second night was as simple as the first: a flat piece of ground with my sleeping pad and bag laid down on a tarp.
During my teenage years, I spent two months and three weeks (on two separate trips) walking the mountains of the southern Rockies. I used my tarp as my pack by rolling all my gear, cinching it tight with para-cord, and snapping on shoulder straps. That strong, German military tarp was tough, 100% waterproof, and durable. Tarp shelters are simple to set up, yet they can be arranged in a diverse array of shapes. My two most frequently used designs are the A-frame and lean-to. If there are no trees around, you can use trekking poles or sticks to secure the tarp. Wrap the line from the tarp around the top of the trekking pole, and then direct it to a stick, stake, or rock in the ground off at an angle from the pole. Learn to tie a few simple knots: bowline, trucker’s hitch, and clove hitch. The bowline can be untied easily even after pressure has been applied. The trucker’s hitch allows you to create a pulley system for tightening down lines. The clove hitch is a simple method for tying off rope on branches.
I prefer a heavy-duty tarp that won’t tear easily and has a very high waterproof rating. The one I have started carrying has a 70D rip-stop fabric with a 20,000 mm hydrostatic resistance rating, and a two-year guarantee. I’m pretty tough on gear, so that guarantee is important. It weighs more than lightweight backpacking tarps, but I don’t sacrifice weight for durability or comfort when it comes to my tarp, backpack, clothes, or meat care gear.
When I woke in the morning I could hear the bull bugling in a tributary drainage, so I began walking into the wind and toward their direction. The elk were moving to their day beds, and the last bugle I heard was above me on a bench off the steep, rocky ridge. While sneaking up on them, I miscalculated their position and they winded me. This time the bull took his herd all the way down to the main creek, downstream, and part way up the other side. They were over a mile away and across some rugged terrain, but I got on their tracks and started following them.
A few hours later and halfway up the other side, I found the elk feeding and bedded on a bench with a spring that provided food, security, and wallows. I had crawled from 200 yards in to 50 yards in a steady crosswind breeze. The big bull was raking his antlers and bugling, while the cows and younger bulls were feeding and chewing their cud in a bed. I started to think that this might be the opportunity I had worked so hard for. All I needed was to crawl another 30 yards, and then I would have a good screen of willows for cover as I crept into shooting position. Alas, the gods of the hunt were watching over the elk that day. The wind swirled and blew directly from me to the elk. They busted out of their reverie, and I watched the dust from their pounding hooves billow into the air as they ran off downstream.
I decided to back off. My friend Matt Leutdke was meeting me the following day, so I figured we’d get back on the herd after they had some time to relax. Turning north, I started the long walk back to my truck. I was six or seven miles and 3000 feet below my starting point. The elk had taken me on quite an adventure!
I like the freedom of carrying my whole camp on my back. I can go anywhere the animals take me, and make camp when it gets dark wherever I find myself. When hunting this way, the whole forest and mountainside becomes my home. I tagged a real trophy from this hunt: the memory of lying in my sleeping bag, bewildered by the brilliance of thousands of stars on a clear, moonless night while the calls of a big bull elk echoed off the mountainsides and serenaded me to sleep.