Eva Shockey's First Elk Hunt
Colorado's Jurassic Park
The author and her father, Jim Shockey, discussing the sounds surrounding them.
Dinosaurs??” I whispered.
“Shh!” hissed my dad.
“Tigers?!” My whisper grew more audible.
“Elephants? Chimpanzees? Gorillas? Sasquatch??!”
“Elk,” my dad replied.
“Those are elk?” I asked.
“Yes, those are elk. It’s called bugling.”
There are better words to describe the wild tones echoing around us. These elk shriek, squeal and roar at the exact pitch and tone that sends chills down my spine and triggers my flight vs. fight response. Or at least triggers the flight part. Find a happy place. Find a happy place.
Growing up in British Columbia, I spent my fair share of time in the mountains. The Shockey freezer was always full of deer, moose and caribou, but not elk. My dad hunted black bears every spring without fail, headed to the Yukon every fall, Saskatchewan in the winter but only once did “Colorado” ever grace his calendar, and seldom did an elk grace our kitchen table. Up until last year, the only elk I’d seen was one Roosevelt elk mount in my dad’s trophy room. That said, he actually once wrote, “Elk are the Brad Pitt’s of the animal kingdom, whereas moose are the Mike Tyson’s.” My dad obviously is a Mike Tyson kind of guy; I on the other hand, have no problem with Brad Pitt.
After a lifetime of wapiti-less hunting seasons, it was a big surprise when I got the call last fall from my dad asking if I would be interested in joining him in Colorado for an elk hunt. Of course when he asked me, I’d never come any closer to an elk than I’ve come to meeting Brad Pitt. What I didn’t realize at the time was that he was really asking for me to come to the center of the place with the highest density of elk on the planet, during the middle of the rut when all those Brad Pitt’s are so full of testosterone that they start acting like Mike Tysons.
After a long stint in the remote Yukon wilderness, my dad and I flew straight into the bustling Denver airport and then connected to the small city of Hayden. Our guide, Mark Jones, met us at the airport and we all jumped into the Suburban and headed north toward the ranch. As we skirted the Wyoming border through the aspen-cloaked valley toward camp, I sat staring out the window in awe of the vibrant reds and glowing yellows against the bright blue backdrop of Colorado sky. The fall foliage was lit up in gold and auburn; I could almost smell the trees changing.
This hunt was with our long-time client and family friends, Tom Arthur and his lovely wife Dixie on the Chicken Creek Ranch in northern Routt County, Colorado. With my dad on the road for more than 300 days of the year, this hunt had been in the works for a long time and we finally made it.
“Welcome to Chicken Creek Ranch.”
It turns out that Chicken Creek is actually named for the only flowing creek on the entire 5,500-acre property, but in my opinion, could easily be called Chicken Dribble instead.
“So that’s Chicken Creek?”
“Yup – in all its glory!” Mark replied.
Mark was a stoic, mature, confident cowboy; exactly how I imagined a Colorado elk guide to be, but as he stood beside me, apparently looking at the same so-called inspiration, I couldn’t figure out why he looked so proud, rather than confused like my dad and I. So I stepped across Chicken “Creek” to see if it was any better from the other side.
Well, the creek certainly wasn’t the Grand Canyon, I thought to myself as Tom passionately began telling us the story behind the name. He said when he bought the land back in 1998, there were all kinds of ranches with glamorous names like “Quaking Golden Glory” and the “Aspen this” and “Aspen that,” and he wanted to be different. With one of the best elk hunting ranches in the state, he chose to name it after the tiniest creek that no one had ever heard of - the perfect understatement!
The perfect overstatement, on the other hand, was his ranch house. Perched on the top of the hill at 8,400 feet in elevation, with more luxuries than the Four Seasons and overlooking the golden aspen woodlands below and Routt National Forrest in the distance. In a word, the place was magical.
Over dinner, Tom explained to us how the hunt was all spot-and-stalk accompanied by lots of elk grunts, bugles and mews from our guide slash expert elk caller, Mark. Growing up as a competitive athlete and dancer, fitness was never an issue for me, so when Tom told us we’d be doing a lot of walking, I didn’t even think twice … Until we began walking that was.
It wasn’t until I was standing 9,900 feet above sea level, that I realized what John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” really meant when it said, “he climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below.” At that altitude, there were no oxygen molecules – it was more of a Rocky Mountain Gasp.
My lungs took awhile to realize they were no longer at sea level in Vancouver. During the first two days of huffing and puffing up the mountains, the elk must have heard my heavy wheezing because they were on high alert. The quaking aspens were a madhouse of bellowing elk, but only the young satellite bulls would let us get close enough for a shot. I’m not a trophy hunter in the traditional sense, but since there were so many elk and I was using a powerful Thompson/Center .300 Win. Mag. that was capable of a longer reach than my usual go-to T/C muzzleloader, we decided to hold out for a fully mature bull.
By the third day I had acclimatized and was ready for some action. It was dead silent as we sneaked through the trees in the pitch-blackness and just like the first two mornings, as it started to grey-up, the extraterrestrial sounds started. Screams, whistles and grunts exploded around us, but this time not only was the entire herd within 200 yards of where we stood frozen, but I could count more than 30 Angelina Jolie silhouettes and one beefcake of a Brad Pitt.
Mark, Tom, my dad and I all tried to chameleon ourselves into the nearest clump of aspens. The next two intense hours were spent trying to work our way in for a shot at the magnificent 6x6 herd bull as he puffed his chest and gathered one cow at a time, only to return her to his herd just in time to watch another cow stray from the rest. Gun ready, trigger finger itching and eyes bigger than pancakes, I couldn’t get a clear view of the bull’s body, let alone a clear shot with so many cows surrounding him.
Finally it happened, the bull chased a smaller bull out of the thick cover, out onto the open face of the ridge 100 yards across from us. Just as the herd bull took his first step into the opening, the cacophonous mews and roars from the surrounding elk triggered another untimely Jurassic Park scene.
The roars and bellows of the bulls below were disconcerting enough to cause me to shake violently enough that the scope crosshairs raked the bull from top to bottom and side to side!
Breathe, calm, forget the Jurassic Park sound. Breathe and squeeze, squeeze … BOOM!
At that moment, Jurassic Park went silent for the first time since we left the house that morning.
“You got him Eve!” My dad was hugging me. “Perfect! He’s huge!”
“Walking up to such a magnificent animal for the first time in my life overwhelmed me with emotions. It was a flurry of exhilaration, euphoria and a part of me even felt disappointment that the hunt had come to an end.”
And huge he was. Walking up to such a magnificent animal for the first time in my life overwhelmed me with emotions. It was a flurry of exhilaration, euphoria and a part of me even felt disappointment that the hunt had come to an end. After three thrilling days of being immersed in one of the densest elk populations in Colorado, the intoxicating behavior of these animals had me hooked and I knew I would be back.
Thanks to our friend Tom Arthur for inviting us to hunt in the beautiful state of Colorado and the expert guidance of Mark and my dad, it was at that moment that I really understood what Mr. Denver meant when he sang “Rocky Mountain High.”