Shooting light had just arrived October 11 as my daughter Leah and I followed our friend Jim Simonson uphill toward a rock ledge at 8,800 feet in elevation.
Simonson, a Green Bay, Wisconsin native long since transplanted to Centennial, Colorado, soon disappeared into thick brush about 25 yards uphill. Seconds later, Leah and I heard hoofsteps on the ledge above him.
We knew without looking that the sounds weren’t Simonson. Three elk—all 1.5-year-old spike bulls—stood skylighted on the rock balcony, looking down at us like snooty stage critics. They repeatedly moved back and forth on the ledge, disappearing for a few seconds and then returning to look at us again, apparently not believing their eyes.
When the young bulls fled for good, we climbed as fast as we could to join Simonson, who was now seated on the rock balcony the spikes abandoned. He was pointing excitedly. Elk seemed to be standing, walking, or trotting everywhere we looked.
Leah crouched and hurried forward to Simonson, sat down and propped her .30-06 rifle on her right knee. In the next instant she aligned her left eye behind the riflescope, held steady for a few seconds, and fired.
On the mountainside about 125 yards away, a 5-by-5 bull staggered, lurched forward, raced downhill about 50 yards, and stumbled to the ground as Leah’s left hand bolted another round into her rifle. Just as quickly, the bull righted itself, charged downhill again, and then crashed nose first, somersaulting to a thunderous end in tall sage brush.
And just like that, Leah’s hunt was over before we even caught our breath from the 90-minute climb in the thin mountain air. I hurried to her side, slapped her shoulders with pride, and congratulated her for the clean, well-executed kill.
I was half-expecting a little rust in her performance. After all, she hadn’t hunted since last November’s Wisconsin deer season. “Great shot, Lieutenant!” I gushed in a half-whisper. “You knew what you were doing!”
Just 24 hours earlier, I had picked up Leah, 29, at the Denver airport after her flight from Dallas, Texas, where the Navy has her pursuing a doctorate degree in midwifery at Baylor University’s College of Nursing. We then drove about four hours to Craig to meet Simonson and his friend John Hagen of Aurora.
From there we drove into the mountains, stopped to put tire chains on both trucks, and followed Simonson and Hagen up a long, muddy, deeply rutted ranch road to two cabins where camp boss Allan Reishus of Craig awaited. After unpacking, we met Rolf Ulvestad, Minneapolis; Ken Constantine, Steamboat Springs; John Humpal, Fort Collins; and Bob Clark and his son, Gary, Fort Collins.
Reishus and the group jointly own about 600 acres of mountain, their land flanked by a private ranch below, and National Forest and Bureau of Land Management properties above and to the sides. Reishus has been hunting these lands since 1977 and Simonson since 1987, so Leah and I paid attention when they described where and how she’d hunt the next morning.
After we admired a late-afternoon twin rainbow, Simonson, 60, pointed north to a mountaintop about three-quarters of a mile away, and showed us the rock ledge below the peak. Everyone assured Leah she’d see elk if she sat there and waited, but even Simonson was shocked how quickly the hunt unfolded the next morning.
“I’ve been up here many times, but I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said.
After again congratulating Leah on her elk while taking enough photos to do it justice, we skinned it, removed its quarters, filleted out its back straps and tenderloins, and slid everything into game bags. Next, Simonson and I each grabbed a front-quarter, and our threesome hiked to the two-track road a half-mile below.
Along the road we bumped into other camp members who were also hauling out elk. We agreed we’d be working till dark to get everything back to camp. Once there with our first load, I lowered the truck’s tailgate as a makeshift table so Leah could bone out the quarters.
Simonson and I then returned for the rest of the elk. He made two trips downhill with the antlers and hind quarters, while I boned out the neck meat, and removed the cape for a shoulder mount.
I then rolled up the entire hide, stuffed it deep into my freighter pack, and topped it off with a bag holding all the loose meat. I smiled as I fastened the pack’s shoulder and hip straps, stood shakily, balanced the load, and started down the mountain.
If there’s a more satisfying challenge than packing out your daughter’s first bull elk, I don’t know what it would be.
Images by Patrick Durkin