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My 2021 Elk Hunt  


Nothing I've experienced in life contains the same combination of emotions as harvesting your own food, alone, deep in the wilderness.

 

I hope this weeks blog finds you having a great start to your week. I’m fresh off an epic experience in the mountains and wanted to share some fresh energy with you! 

Each year I like to plan a trip that puts me into positions where I have no choice but to push my perceived limitations and come home a better person. That’s a 2 part goal by the way… 1) push my limits to become better & 2) come home.

Carrying a whole elk worth of meat from miles deep in the wilderness with nothing more than a backpack sounded like a perfect fit...

This year’s 10 day adventure drew me into the remote wilderness of southwestern Colorado. The plan was to buy a readily available $800 hunting license & bull elk tag (the easy part), beat the odds (roughly 85 out of 100 hunters return home with empty coolers), beat myself (do what I think I probably can’t), and have a couple hundred pounds of some of the most wild and pure meat on the planet to nourish my family over the course of the next year. So, now, you may be thinking... "wait, you have the best bison, elk, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, rabbit, lamb, etc. at your fingertips already so why would you do spend so much time, energy, and resources on a hunt like this?!" And you’d be absolutely right. It’s not cheaper and it’s certainly not easier but in addition to the food aspect mentioned earlier, it’s all about the challenge, the adventure, and re-centering myself. Sort of like why people choose to risk their life trying to summit Everest but with an added element of possibly putting a lot of amazing food in the freezer.

Needless to say at this point, hunts like this are not average. And even though most hunters that embark on these types of adventures are above average in terms of physical fitness, commitment, and mental toughness, few actually summit (or pack out meat in this case). A couple of the main reasons for failure are inclement weather or getting pummeled by the treacherous terrain. As one friend put it; “There are only two directions out there, up and down.” Mix in a little snow, rain, wind, slop, sunburn, altitude sickness, sore muscles, blisters, dehydration, ghost-like elk, bear precautions, loneliness, dehydrated food, filtering water, cold sleepless nights laying on rocky, frozen ground, getting up well before daylight to slip back into frozen pants and boots and it’s easy to see how one’s perspective by day 4 or 5 turns from getting an elk to simply being grateful for a survival story and the modern basics of home. However, if one can compartmentalize the discomfort, stay focused, and press on long enough, you will experience more potent emotions, more intimate connections, more of yourself, as well as sights, sounds, and situations most don’t even know exist. Words fail to convey one's true experience. Photos make a valid attempt but are still merely one dimensional. 

Without going into details here that may bore you, I’ll just say I was blessed to be apart of the small group of hunters who had the grueling joy of packing meat off the mountain on my back. I found a small herd of elk about 6 miles deep in a steep, secluded little pocket and was able to make a quick, clean harvest of a mature, legal bull from the group. Over the course of the next day and a half, I executed relentlessly on the responsibility I now had square on my shoulders of preserving 225+ lbs of elk meat and antler over 36.4 round trip miles in 4 trips over the next day and a half. When you're walking for hours on end, you have a lot of time to think, and often, you must to take your mind off the muddy trail, crushing weight, and sore muscles. One of my thought patterns wandered to think of the 300+ million other people bustling about that aren’t even aware of this chore I found myself in the middle of that used to be as common as a hair cut not more than 200 years ago. I longed for people to know what it feels like to have so much intimacy with their food and the world it inhabits. As I pondered this sense of longing, my fire for providing this quality of food for others was deeply rekindled. My “North Star” here at Northstar has been to use this wilderness experience as our model for the types and quality of the products we raise and sell. The sweat dripping off the brim of my hat and aching body helped to clarify my purpose in that vision once again.    

God bless and enjoy the mere photos and captions of my recent adventure.

 

 

 

Daunting expanse & breathtaking beauty.

 

 

 

 

The mountains make their own weather. A snow storm blew in the first night painting the landscape fresh. Naturally, the higher we went, the deeper the snow got so we decided we would focus hunting elevations between 10,000 & 11,500 feet that would afford us more conducive hiking conditions.

 

 

 

 

12 degrees, 30 mph wind, a 6' snow drift.

 

 

 

 

Just prior to the season opening, we used optics to try to find elk in the deep cut drainages opposing us. The hillside in the distance is 2-3 miles line-of-sight but 6 miles hiking and the drainage below is almost 2500 feet deep. The wind howled and numbed our bones as we sat on this exposed knob at over 11,000 feet hoping to locate some elk to hunt. After a few days of glassing several different areas, we hashed over our pre-hunt knowledge, made our plans, and split off to our own areas to hunt several miles apart to maximize our opportunities.

 

 

 

 

Sunrise at 11,000 feet.

 

 

 

 

What an incredible sight; Elk on a distant ridge.

 

 

 

 

Beauty in the smallest of details.

 

 

 

 

Not elk but still a sight to behold! A Rocky Mountain bighorn ram guarding his small band of ewes from predators and other potential suitors. Bighorn sheep are extremely rare and a conservation story worth noting. Similar to the bison, bighorn sheep have, through the valiant, concentrated efforts of a few, been rescued from the way of the dinosaur. If you're fortunate enough to lay eyes on wild sheep, revel in the moment and admire them! They're rare, gorgeous, incredible animals.

 

 

 

 

This lamb was enjoying it's view and safety from predators and the chaos of the breeding season amidst the jagged cliffs.

 

 

 

 

Living among the clouds.

 

 

 

 

I spotted the maker of these beastly prints gorging himself on an elk kill on a distant ridge, a ridge I'd spotted some elk on and had planned to hunt the following morning. A couple of hours hiking in the dark before sunrise put me up on "bear ridge" by daylight where I spotted the massive boar once again still indulging himself. I gave him plenty of room as I moved around and then cut his track later in the morning further down the ridge heading into some steep, dark timber, likely to rest for the day in the shade.

 

 

 

 

My bull. The smile on my face is not one of "conquering the animal" as is often interpreted in these types of "trophy" photos. My smile is rather one of deep admiration, respect, accomplishment, satisfaction, connection, knowing I'm bringing a lot of incredible food home for my family. The exhaustion of days of hiking up to this point is starting to tally but the real work is just beginning... butchering and packing the meat from this enormous animal back to the trailhead where empty coolers await.

 

 

 

 

I am always amazed at how in tune nature is. Within minutes of me beginning the butchering process, these scavenger birds showed up to feast on scraps as I worked. They "joined" me, showing a strange level of comfort (I'd almost describe it as gratitude) as they feasted within a few feet.

 

 

 

 

A satisfying stage; the butchering process is complete. The bags of meat are cooling on the snow in the distance near the antlers.

 

 

 

 

The Treasure... approximately 200 lbs of nourishing meat and a beautiful set of rich, chocolate colored antlers that will stir a flood of gratitude and memories every time I look at it.

 

 

 

 

The first load. Meat first, antlers last, always. There is always a nagging fear of worst-case-scenarios in the back of your mind each time you leave your kill with a load. Knowing full well this country is full of apex predators much larger and less passive than those scavenger birds, you hike fast to try to get back for another load before something inevitably catches wind of your harvest and lays claim. This particular pack out was a total of just over 46 miles total. Thanks to my new buddy Jesse (I'll share the short version of that story further down), I only had to do just over 36 of those miles over the course of the next day and a half.

 

 

 

 

The slow melting snow from the week before made elk and horse trails muddy and arduous. 60-90 lbs on your back, what feels like 5 lbs of mud on each foot, fighting suction with each step tests your resolve. Sweat dripping, muscles burning, joints aching, toes bruised... But you have no choice but to keep going and there's no easier path so you suck it up and press on, being thankful you're one of the few of the few who has the privilege of packing their own meat out of the mountains. Your mind runs the gamut, only to recognize the only valuable attitude is gratitude.

 

 

 

 

My humble campsite, plumbed with a steady supply of fresh, ice-cold mountain water. This photo was the first time I saw my camp in the daylight as I arrived back with my first load of meat. I set it up in the dark and would then leave hours before daylight and return well after dark, day after day.

 

 

 

 

Packing Day 2; The Last Load.
This might be TMI (too much information) but I think it helps convey the physicality of the endeavor... I was drinking 2 1/2 gallons (about 350 ounces) of water a day during the pack out and was still seriously dehydrated (I rarely urinated and it was dark amber in color when I did). I couldn't drink enough to keep up with my level of perspiration.

Photo credit: Jesse

 

 

 

 

To have benefitted from the land further intensifies my desire and obligation to give back. Not to just give back pound for pound but to give back more than I have taken. The elk on my back will fuel me physically and mentally to give so much more, Lord willing. In a regenerative world, nothing is lost, it is only transformed.

Photo credit: Jesse

 

 

 

 

Jesse; geologist, mountain climber, alpine skier, husband, father, learner.
He's one of my good buddies now too. Jesse and I met around 9 pm, approximately a 1/3 of a mile from the trailhead as I packed the first load of meat back to my vehicle. As I struggled to keep my pace after the 22+ mile day with thousands of vertical elevation gained and lost to boot, Jesse caught me on the trail. As I stepped aside to let him by, Jesse flipped down his headlamp, popped his hand out and said warmly "Nice to meet you, I'm Jesse." I introduced myself briefly and instead of continuing to hustle on, Jesse proceeded to hike back to the trailhead at my slowed pace. Jesse shared though he was not new to the outdoors, he had never had anyone to teach him how to hunt, so he decided to just jump in and do what he could to teach himself but could tell he could benefit from some mentoring. I've been fortunate to grow up in a hunting-rooted family and have been able to guide over 40 successful elk hunts so I graciously shared what I could in the short hike we had. Jesse was eager to keep the conversation going and offered to help me pack meat the next day if he could bend my ear on the trail. Jesse and I were hauling hind quarters back to the trailhead by 5:30 am the next morning and talked about what it takes to be one of those fortunate 15%. Naturally, Jesse and I's conversation turned much deeper and more meaningful than "notching elk tags". Aside from the obvious of helping me pack out my elk, I benefitted far more from my time with Jesse. Jesse's hunger and humility toward learning is inspiring. Our paths crossing at that hour, under those conditions is too far to stretch my faith in coincidence, I believe it was divine. Jesse and I have since stayed in touch and are planning a trip back to the Colorado wilderness to pursue elk again in 2023. Looking forward to spending more wilderness time together my friend.

 

 

 

 

Another snow storm blew in after getting the last load out.

 

 

 

 

Mountain weather can be savage. It can turn on a dime, reminding us just how powerless, finite, and vulnerable we really are.

 

 

 

 

I hope you've enjoyed the journey of my adventure. This is by no means a prideful, look-what-I've-done narrative and, by all means, men and women have done harder, far more valiant things than I. But as anyone who has done this can attest, the depiction is accurate and the emotions are real and you will inevitably leave a different person than the one who came.

Whether you're alone or with family, home or away, have a most incredible Thanksgiving.

Our situations don't dictate our gratitude.

 

- Sean

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