I had moved to Western Wyoming from northern California on April 14th, 2008 as an assistant engine captain on a wildland fire engine with a federal land management agency. Living in California hadn’t offered many opportunities to hunt or fish for a few years, so I’d been out of the game for a bit.
Halfway through the summer, I had started hanging out with a group of locals that was a mix of younger and older guys that included everyone from the local wildlife biologist to the fire department chief. I had never truly been on an elk hunt, I’d drawn elk tags while growing up in South Dakota, but they were always with tough access and nobody was going to let a hunter on their private land without paying more money than I had in my bank account.
At this point, I was pretty naïve to hunting elk as well as hunting in the mountains. My only experience was hunting deer on the short grass prairies of South Dakota. That summer, I bought a leftover nonresident cow elk tag, I woke up at 5’ clock in the morning to stand in line at the only gas station in town that sold over the counter tags, as I had been invited to elk camp by a group of locals I had started hanging out with.
Early on the morning of October 15th, under a full moon, clear skies, and 2 feet of snow, I met one of my new buddies at a trailhead in the Wyoming Range in my fire-red 2000 Pontiac Grand Am. I parked the car after getting stuck a few times. I was told everyone had headed into camp the previous day on horseback and that everything I would probably need was already packed in, besides the necessary day-to-day hunting items. As I left the trailhead with my old Winchester Model 70 that I had inherited from my grandpa, we walked past the sign that read 13 miles to the mountain where the camp was located. We hiked 45 minutes to the top of the ridge and talked briefly to a guy that was camped there and continued hunting once it was light enough. We hunted the entire way into camp, along the way we saw a group of elk at around 600 yards, but before we could close in, a group of wolves chased them off the ridge. That was my first failed elk stalk.
Once we got to camp, I helped cut firewood and hauled it back to camp, doing what I could to help out. We had numerous neighboring camps stop by and discuss how the opening morning had gone for everyone. Not knowing at the time, but due to a previous couple of days’ bad weather, most of the elk were probably in the timber still. As the old biologist in the camp was making bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit sandwiches, everyone started talking to the new guy in camp – me.
The guys asked a variety of questions. They asked if I wanted a shot of whiskey, but not the good stuff for the new guy in camp. They asked if I was staying in camp because they had all the gear I needed to sleep outside with 2 feet of snow on the ground. The hunters in camp made sure I went through the “right of passage” so to speak.
After eating a sandwich and pondering my options for a while, I pretty much decided to I was not interested in this right of passage. I thanked them for the sandwich and decided to hunt the 13 miles back to my car at the trailhead. Hiking thru the 2-foot snow, I eventually ran into the game warden that checked my license and I continued on my way across the wind-swept ridge. Eventually, I got tired of walking into the cold Wyoming wind and dropped off the ridgeline into the timber and started dropping in elevation on a game trail. After a short while, I came to an old burn scar that was fairly open and heard a few twigs snap, so I just stopped and sat down in the snow. In what seemed like several minutes but was probably just a few seconds, a large cow elk stepped out of the green timber into the burn scar. I slowly worked a shell into my .270 and as soon as I did, she stopped and looked right at me, all the while a few other elk walked by her. I leveled my Winchester and used my knee to brace myself, put the crosshairs right behind her shoulder, and squeezed the trigger. There was a lot of commotion with what seemed like 30 elk running around in confusion, some crashing back into the green timber and others running around in the burn scar. After a few deep breaths to compose myself, I saw that she had tipped over where she had stood. I immediately started shaking from the adrenaline spike – that same feeling you get 20 years after you’ve taken your first animal.
The first thing I did after realizing she had gone down and not going anywhere, was to pull out my GPS from my pack and try to find out how far I was from the car. 3 miles wasn’t far considering how far I’d already walked, I gathered my gear and started walking down to her. The “uh-oh” moment hit once I realized how big a cow elk is.
I grew up hunting in northwest South Dakota where it’s pretty rare to be more than a quarter of a mile from a road and I had just taken the largest animal I’d ever shot, three miles from the car in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Plus, I had already covered about 24 miles that day. I stumbled through the process of breaking her down quarter by quarter as best as I knew how alone. Then I hung the quarters up in a big old gnarly, burned-up lodgepole, threw the soft meat into my pack and started heading for the car at about 11:15 PM at night, and got back to town at around 1:00 AM in the morning. Trying to come up with a plan for the morning was a chore with my foggy brain.
The next morning I woke up feeling a little stiff, sore, and extremely dehydrated, which was understandable after having covered roughly 27 miles in the snow the previous day. I’d made a plan to go get the remaining meat. I grabbed an old REI 5500 cubic inch backpack, a few old canvas knapsacks, and headed back up the mountain. It was a beautiful bluebird day, which makes for slick roads, especially in a fire-red 2000 Pontiac Grand Am.
I got back into the kill sight and loaded up 3 quarters into the REI backpack, one quarter into one of the canvas knapsacks, and started loading the hide into another canvas knapsack. I’ve always admired animal hides and it was my first elk, so I had skinned the cow elk out the previous night, rolled up the hide, and stuffed the whole thing into the knapsack. I had to sit on my butt and get my arms into the backpack straps, clip the waist belt, then roll over onto my belly in order to get my feet under me. Then I grabbed the knapsack with the one quarter and the knapsack with the hide in it and started making my way down the mountain to the car. Naivety and age had a lot to do with my decision to make one trip instead of multiple trips with that meat load. It was a lesson I would feel for many days afterward but ended up repeating a few times in years to come.
There were a few pockets of old burn scar that I had to crawl over deadfall and some pockets of overgrown timber, but for the most part, the hike out wasn’t terrible, besides the heavy load I was carrying. I have always been curious what the 4 quarters plus the hide weighed. As a wildland firefighter, I have packed a few heavy loads and figured, the more uncomfortable it is, the faster I’ll hike. That was until I got right above the trailhead.
I finally got to a bare knob, about a quarter-mile above the trailhead and at last, I could see my car through the bare aspens, but then I heard horses coming. I took a breather while watching the 4 horses and 3 riders approaching me. It turned out they were the two old biologists from the camp I’d left the previous day and a smaller guy that would later turn into one of my best friends, packing a cow elk back to the trucks.
There were some congratulations and a lot more questions about where I shot the elk, how come I was taking the hide, was it really all the meat, and more ribbing. All the while, all I could think of was to tell them to shut up and move it along. My body hurt and I really needed water.
Then, one of the old biologists said, “We are really sorry about how we treated you back in camp, we’ll haul your elk the rest of the way.”
I tried to explain that it was going to hurt me more to take the pack off and lift it up to one of them than it was if I just kept trucking for the car, I can see my car from here.
“Nope, we feel bad and we insist on helping,” they said.
I did not protest. I struggled not to tip over in the mud while taking off the backpack and had to use my knee to help hoist it up to one of the riders so they could balance it across the saddle horn, and then I heard a snort and saw flying hooves in the air. One of the horses thought it was more of a bad idea to pack the meat than I did and decided to pitch a fit. The other 3 quarters got tossed back into the mud and snow. That finally convinced them I could handle it myself, though they did end up helping out with the hide and 1 quarter that were in the knapsack. We slipped our way down to the trailhead, got everything loaded into the trunk of my fire red Grand Am, and headed back to town. I was a little sore, a little stiff, a lot dehydrated, with a little congratulatory buzz and a trunk full of hard-earned meat.
I left that trailhead with a little piece of my soul on that mountain. I left the trailhead that day a certified elk hunter.
About the Author: Cody McFarland, is an Engine Captain on a wildland fire engine for a federal land management agency in Kemmerer, WY. He has 2 amazing daughters with a wonderful and supportive wife, Courtney. He’s lived and traveled all over the country fighting fires since 2003, but has lived in Kemmerer since April of 2008, mainly because of the amazing fishing and hunting opportunities. He is a Wyoming Wildlife Federation Conservation Ambassador and the chapter president for the Muley Fanatics Foundation, Wyoming Range Chapter.