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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

Finish What You Start

Updated: Mar 21


Hunter in camo hiking up a hill with a bull elk on his pack

It's Saturday. Wet snow slaps the wall tent in sloppy clumps. Somewhere, not far off, thunder peels – meteorological makings of the mountains. We're tucked into damp sleeping bags – cold, bored, and frustrated. We'd add another log to the wood stove before our instant-oatmeal breakfast, but in our haste to set up the night before we never wrestled it in from the truck, and now it's just too damn miserable to fetch it. Not exactly how we'd imagined spending opening day.


Two hunters in a wall tent eating instant oatmeal

This trip was a Hail Mary – our original plans of chasing rutting mule deer in Montana, then Wyoming, then Nebraska each sequentially falling through. No draw. No draw. No draw. So, the boys and I decided to tackle Colorado's popular second rifle season with over-the-counter elk tags even though, with heavy hunting pressure and never having been to the area, we knew it would be the longest of shots for success.

View out the windshield of a moving truck

Despite the odds, we'd optimistically packed the F-150 to overflowing, hit the highway early Thursday for the 22-hour drive, and arrived at an e-scouted campsite sometime around "are-we-there-yet?" early the next morning. After assembling a small backpacking tent and unrolling mummy bags, we stole a few fitful hours of shuteye before breaking camp.




Hunter in camo carrying a pack loaded with gear into the mountains

Friday began cool and clear in that brittle, needles-on-your-skin type of way. Surprisingly, even with the number of trucks, side-by-sides, campers, and wall tents passed on the drive in, we never crossed another hunter, horse, or boot track on the three-mile hike that would bring us to our intended camp location, some 2,200 feet higher up the drainage.


As the morning warmed and we made the ascent, my fifty-year-old, flatlander legs ached under the heavy strain of the pack, and oxygen-depleted lungs screamed for mercy in the elevation. Although I had trained for this moment, I was slow behind the boys and found myself peeling sweaty layers in vain attempt to cool down and catch my breath – thoughts of maybe I'm finally too old for this coursing like a pack of hounds nipping at my heels.


After the first mile the faint foot-trail ended and the bushwhacking began. Our route, viewed in hindsight, wasn't the most efficient, but we gradually made our way – side-hilling through old aspen groves, clamoring up steep, rocky cuts, and weaving through damnable face-smacking, pack-pulling oak brush – before collapsing into exhausted piles near the shaded saddle where we'd make camp.


Man looking through binoculars in the mountains

A glassing knob just above offered views of three promising basins, and we painstakingly picked them apart until the sun sank low and pink. On a whim I checked the InReach forecast and my stomach knotted. Just behind the blue skies, weather was rolling in. The outlook called for rain beginning that evening with an all-day mix of thunderstorms and heavy snow – up to two feet – for opener.


Shit!


Shit, shit, shit.


Despite the immense effort we'd expended to get to this point – to be at elevation and ready to hunt tomorrow's first light – despite spike camp being set, potential locations scouted, game plans made, and anticipation hanging heavy; despite the sweat and miles, sore feet and tired backs it didn't seem like a good idea to pass the night in an ultralight, three-season tent at 10,000 feet, then spend the following day dodging lightning, and soaking through layers before getting snowed on – all with no prospect for drying out or warming up.



After a short huddle and long string of expletives, we reluctantly reloaded everything into packs, turned around, and hiked the three miles back out. Daylight faded into complete darkness, pierced only by the bobbing beams of three headlamps. After a long push we finally reached the trailhead we'd left earlier that morning, haphazardly threw up the wall tent, and prepared to ride out the coming weather. Physically it was a strain, but mentally it was an almost-impossible pill to swallow as we turned in for the night.

a storage tote with Yahtzee game and lantern on top

Another heavy, wet clump from the towering ponderosa pine lands on the roof with a soggy plop. Looking up I can see the weight of the snow is starting to sag the corners, so I stand up, punch it off, and prop the spot with a trekking pole, before cursing the conditions, and the lack of a wood stove, then heading out into the slop to re-stake corners and tighten guy lines.


Back inside, the weight of the weather has us all sagging a bit in the corners ourselves; barely propped up. Between naps and snacks we break the boredom with a few rounds of Yahtzee then check and recheck the forecast. The rest of the week looks to be sunny with daytime highs in the upper 30s and nighttime lows in the single digits. This storm, followed by cold, clear weather, should get things on their feet. A sudden spark of hope filters into the damp structure, and we set alarms for a 4 AM departure.


Wet clothes hanging from a pole in a wall tent

Saturday's long incarceration has given us ample time to rest up, eat up, and properly pack up, so when the alarm buzzes Sunday, we're quick to hit the trail. Retracing our route, we're once again winding back up what we just recently came down. It's dark, but a luminescent dusting of white greets us as we begin the initial leg – the relatively flat first mile. With a renewed sense of optimism (and the shedding of all but absolutely necessary gear) the packs hang a little lighter, and there's a pep in our step as we cross fresh tracks – mule deer, coyote, and even a big cat that all passed through this lower section since snowfall. We're finally hunting.


But the hike is arduous. Slippery footing requires concentration and coordination to maneuver heavy loads over and under deadfall that litters the route. We make it through the first third in decent time, although slower than the pace we'd set two days before. But now we're slogging through the steep climb in the upper reaches of the last two miles, and the snow is growing deeper the higher we go. To the knees in many places, and waist-deep where it has drifted.


Two hunters wearing camo and orange, hike up a mountain in deep snow carrying backpacks

Kyle, my six-foot, four-inch, long-legged racehorse, breaks trail, followed by my younger son, Blake, the packhorse. I slowly bring up the rear, more like a stubborn old mule that needs a swift kick every now and then – stopping to rest every four or five steps. The climb saps every bit of energy and it's understandable that some folks who attempt Everest decide to lay down and just let the darkness come. It crosses my mind more than once. But the old mule plods on, following the young horses the best he can, prodded by the occasional kick or giddy-up, and a pride passed down from dad that comes with finishing something you start.

orange and white backpacking tent pitched in the snow

It's nearing midday when we finally reach the bench, this one a little farther in and up than the last, unlash glassing pads, and prop ourselves against ancient aspens to grab a snack. It's tempting to rest here in the deep snow, and we do for a bit, but camp isn't set yet. We finally coax ourselves to our feet, build a small lean-to shelter with a tarp, and claw out an appropriate clearing for the tent, before unloading sleeping bags, cooking gear, excess water bottles, and any extra clothing – we'll travel as light as possible to glass for the evening.


Two hunters working up a steep, snow-covered ridge

From camp we switchback down a steep wooded hillside, over a saddle and beyond, then up to a windswept glassing perch. Spreading out, we cover as much country as possible with the binos and spotters, but never turn up an elk or even a track that might indicate their presence. Discouraged and catastrophically cold from earlier sweat that now pulls heat from our body like an exorcist extracting a demon from a wayward parishioner, we shiver in silent misery and beg forgiveness for the severity of our sins. The wind is whipping and, with an hour of shooting light left, we can endure no more, deciding to head back to camp where we'll build a fire, thaw out, and down some food.



Nothing cheers like a campfire, and this one is no exception. As daylight drains from the sky, we gather close around the blaze, thawing frozen feet and frostbitten hands; laughing, joking, and recounting the climb. All five liters of water we've packed in have iced solid, so we resort to melting snow for cooking and drinking. We squeeze every last ember out of the fire before reluctantly climbing into the cramped, cold tent for the night. The sky is clear again – layers upon layers of stars shine overhead while a promising hunter's moon rises on the distant horizon.


A man wearing a headlamp looks over a fire in the snow while the moon rises

I'm no stranger to camping in cold weather, but last night might go down as the most miserable I've spent in a tent. My aching body found little reprieve on the thin glassing pad, and the wadded-up-puffy-turned-pillow put a permanent crick in my neck. Condensation ices the hood of my mummy and heavy frost lines the shelter's thin interior. It's beginning to grow light outside, but the relative warmth of the sleeping bag exerts a pull even stronger than that of pursuing game. I finally force myself out, tug on a couple cold layers, wrestle my feet into boots that have frozen overnight, and slough free, just as the sun begins to sneak over the eastern ridges.


Soon we are all up, dressing, sorting, and stomping warmth into our numbed toes. Kyle, boots not even laced yet, groggily walks over to a glassing edge to feel the morning sun on his face and, to his utter surprise, spots four elk cresting the nearby saddle. Two bulls with a cow and calf. We scramble to throw on gear, grab rifles, and make a play. Hustling through calf-deep snow we reach the lip and drop down the steep sidehill, spotting the small group through the timber. The bulls are both shooters, and my heart bangs heavily as we climb down, attempting to find a clearing that offers a shot. But they spook, having either caught our scent or our frenetic movements, and head off down the basin before disappearing completely from sight.


Like an old truck left out in the cold we were a little slow to crank over this morning, but now, with that jump start, new energy charges tired bodies and thaws numb minds. We hurry back to camp, pack for the day, and move over to the glassing nob – crossing numerous tracks that weren't there the evening before – then set up with views of two snowy basins.


a frozen tripod on a backpack

It doesn't take long before I spot a single-file trail of animals working down over the northern ridge. With the naked eye they look small, perhaps a pack of 'yotes I reason, but binos confirm it's a group of four mule deer doe, heading nervously down to the bottom of the deep draw. I carefully scan the ridge wondering what might have spooked them and, within moments, spy a younger four-by-four with two cows cresting the same spot. "BULL!" I hiss in a raspy whisper that catches in my throat, and we all duck lower to avoid being skylined.


The thermals are favorable, pulling strongly uphill, and the little group is steadily moving in our direction, down the opposing rocky ridge toward the bottom of the ravine, following the path of the doe. I range them at just over 1,200 yards as they work into the dark timber that begins near the bottom then weaves back up the steep face on our side.


They've melted into the landscape, vanishing completely, so we spread out to cover the route with our glass, hoping to catch them emerging near either the upper or lower saddles where we'd spotted recent tracks. Kyle keeps watch on the upper reaches, I cover the middle, and Blake glasses the lower section. Five minutes pass, then ten. Fifteen. Twenty. They could have gone anywhere, and we're worried we've lost them for good. Kyle slides down to confer, then works further down to check in with Blake.


Suddenly there's animated conversation and frantic hand gesturing. Kyle turns back to me and signals directly below Blake's perch, mouthing the words "HE'S RIGHT HERE!"


A hunter looks over a snowy ridge with binoculars

My heart rate accelerates. My mouth is suddenly dry.


I watch as the boys slide down and set up the bipod. My breathing is fast and choppy and my heart continues to hammer louder as I wait for the shot. Agonizing moments pass. They shuffle, relocate, and set up again. From my vantage I can't see what's happening.


Minutes tick by. Nothing.


What the hell?


Suddenly they're standing, then sprinting towards me. The bull came through without the cows, they tell me. Close but never offering a clean shot due to the treeline. But he's unaware of our presence and heading toward the upper saddle. For a short bit he'll be obstructed and, if we hurry, we can move up and cut him off.


I'll never make it in time, so I urge the boys to go ahead without me, and watch as they run up the hill, around the bend, and out of sight.


I flinch at the sound of the first rifle crack. Soon after, another report splits the silence, followed by a third. I'm not sure what to do, so I stand, stupidly staring at the spot they last disappeared. Waiting for something, but not sure what. Finally Kyle rounds and pumps his fist.


Did we actually just harvest a bull on our first full day of stalking a spot that less than week ago was nothing more than a waypoint on a map in a state we'd never hunted?

He scurries over, excited. "Bull down!"


In my state of shock, the words barely register.


"Grab the packs, come on!"


A hunter with a heavy pack makes his way up a snow-covered mountain

I snap out of the fog of disbelief, gather up gear, and make my way. I beat Kyle to the corner and find Blake staring intently at a patch of timber near the bottom of the draw.


"What's up?" I whisper.


"He's down, but still alive. It's too thick to get another shot in there, but he's hit hard."


Like any hunter, I hate the idea of an animal suffering. I'm torn, preferring to put another quick round in for a clean finish, but hesitant because of the tree cover and fear of an errant shot. His head is starting to sag. It's only a matter of time – a difficult moment, but we'll quietly wait him out.


cougar paw print in the snow

To distract myself, I start thinking about the pack job. We still need to tear down the rest of our spike camp, then quarter the meat. It's about three miles out, deep snow, and slippery, but all downhill. Carrying packs heavily loaded with the rest of our gear, we won't be able to get everything in one trip. We'll have to haul one load out tonight, hang the remainder, and come back first thing in the morning for the last one. It's supposed to drop back down into the single digits, so the meat will be fine, though I do worry about the cat tracks we crossed on the way in.


I turn to talk it through with the boys when suddenly the bull is on his feet and running. Caught completely off guard Kyle scrambles over the rise while Blake and I stare blankly, disbelief slowing our senses. It's like we've had a few too many cocktails and everything is slightly warped, a bit out of focus, and not making sense.


Kyle's back now and never caught a glimpse of him. We regroup and they walk me through the sequence of events. The first shot was solid; broadside at 180. He hunched hard, stumbled, and got up. The second shot dropped him again before he got back up and headed into the timber to bed. The last shot was a flyer. By the account I'm sure he's mortally wounded, and confident he'll be close.


We decide to give it 15 more minutes, then split up, with Blake and I heading down to check the shot location, and Kyle cutting over the rise in case we bump him. The celebration has dampened, but he couldn't have gone far.


Bull elk track with blood in the snow

Blake and I sneak down around the cover to the opposing face where the first shot impacted. We can see his tracks, and where he lost his footing, but little blood. My stomach knots again. Following into the timber, we see where he bedded. There's more blood, but not a convincing amount. We scan further ahead, hoping to find him expired. Nothing. So, we follow the tracks – he seems to have gone out on the same trail he came in.


Now on the crossing between the two saddles we catch up with Kyle, and things grow confused with several sets of tracks intermingling in every direction. We follow the freshest, catching the occasional amber drop on the crisp white snow. He's heading back over, down the steep ridge covered in dense, dark timber.


We pause at the edge. I don't want to keep pushing him, but the shots seemed solid, and he's traveling downhill into thick cover – a good sign. Though we're now heading into a completely new drainage, he's descending in the general direction of the distant road. We decide to keep going, hoping to find him not far in.


The spoor is easier to follow now, but the hill is treacherous. Steeper than I ever would have tested on skis – even in my younger years – packed tightly with trees, covered in deadfall, and topped with deep snow over a slick surface.


A rub from a bull elk ops a pine tree in a dense snow-covered forest

Working down we stay on the sign – slipping, sliding, falling, cursing – and find another bed fresh with blood. We've bumped him. Crap. But we continue on, cautiously down the ridge; amazed at the bull's endurance, and hopeful for a recovery. I stumble hard navigating deadfall and find myself stuck in deep snow. I've lost one of my trekking poles but manage to wiggle back up and recover it. The sun is now behind the mountain and it's growing darker. Despite the cold, I'm sweating from exertion.


He continues down the ridge then, near the bottom, turns east, in the direction of the two-track. Down, down, down we follow – over a small creek, up a sidehill, then down again. Dropping elevation, the snow grows thinner and we're into a confusing mix of sign again. It's difficult to discern. Blake searches by headlamp, turning up an overlooked set of tracks that split off, turn south back across the creek, and then lead uphill. Not what we want to see.


With darkness quickly setting in, we mark the location – over two miles from the shot – then hike the drainage out to the two track. The trek is exhausting, our adrenaline long worn off, replaced by disappointment and despair. Sweat-soaked and sucking air, we finally reach the road and shuffle the remaining two miles back to our basecamp. After a quick dinner, we turn in, each dog tired but unable to sleep. Unfinished business looping through our thoughts.


We rise early the next morning and drive to where we wandered out the previous night – back on the trail. At the waypoint we pick up the sign again, cross the creek, and struggle up the steep bank on the other side. We carefully advance, scanning ahead, but barely make it 70 yards before there's crashing over the rise. We've bumped him again.


Two hunters hiking up a snowy hill in the woods

Now true discouragement sets in. We've wounded this bull and chances for recovery look slim at best. It's a hunter's worst nightmare. I'm overcome with exhaustion, frustration, and remorse and unsure how to proceed.

close up of camo and hunting boots on a hillside

We stop on the hillside and give it some time. Checking OnX, it's apparent he's been holding to thick cover the whole time and is continuing downhill, closer to the main two track. There's a heavy patch of woods between us and the road, and then a clearing to the south. We sidehill down and there are no fresh tracks crossing, so Blake and I post up on the opening and send Kyle back to slowly push in our direction, hoping he clears for a shot.


Kyle eventually emerges in front of us, but Blake and I never see the bull come out, and the snow in the opening has melted. We've lost the trail.


Disheartened, we drag ourselves back to camp to eat lunch and pass a couple hours. The boys plan to return to last sign and see if they can pick up the trail again, and I stay back at camp. We've finally moved the wood stove into the tent, and I get it blazing, hoping to dry up some of the dampness inside, wash dishes, and pick up the rest of the mess we've accumulated over the last few days.


I'm fixing venison backstraps when the boys return. They'd picked up the trail again, not far past where we last left, bumped the bull, and this time watched as he crossed the two track and scurried down the steep bank to the river, never offering a clean shot. He's gone; it's time to punch the tag and move on.


But the idea doesn't sit right. Once again dad's voice comes to mind. "Allen, you don't stop doing when it gets difficult, you stop doing when it's done."


And that's how it was. Whether finishing homework I hated, a ball game I found myself losing, a stack of wood ready to split, newspapers that needed to be delivered, or a house in need of paint, dad taught me to see it through 'til the end. And we would.


We owe the effort to ourselves, we owe it to those who came before, and most of all we owe it to the animal. To not give up. Not allow him to suffer. Somehow, I still believe we are destined to find this bull.


The following morning we make our way to the riverbank where he was last seen. Beyond the river, the land pushes nearly vertical into miles and miles of steep, roadless wilderness. Climbing up to the north would be virtually impossible given the terrain. To the south, it's uphill but more gradual with some sparse cover. The river bottom is a thick tangle of scrub. His inclination, when not pushed, has been to bed, and I doubt he's gone far. We decide to check the southern route first, crossing the river and methodically zigzagging up and down for over an hour. No sign. He's either long gone or never came this way. In his condition it seems unlikely he'd have gone far, especially uphill. The only other possibility is the river bottom.


Blake and I cross back, while Kyle remains on the far side. We slowly advance through the thick brush, hoping he's bedded. The snow here has long since melted so we search for tracks, broken branches, overturned leaves, or any other sign of him passing through. A few steps, then scout the ground and scan ahead. Nothing.


An earsplitting shot just across the river catches me unprepared. It had to be Kyle. We sprint forward to catch a glimpse, but can't see through the brush. Kyle is moving down in our direction, shouting. We meet at the river, and he fills us in. He spotted the bull further ahead, bedded on a small peninsula, and was able to make the shot when the elk stood broadside.


He's down. It's finally finished.


three hunters wearing orange pose behind a bull elk

Though it seemed destined, reality only sets in when we actually lay hands on him. He has a beautiful blonde coat, with a thick, dark mane, and chocolate antlers. His front right shoulder is completely inoperable – the first shot – and we'll eventually find the second round buried deep in one of his lungs. This bull was a warrior, traveling nearly four miles through some of the most rugged terrain I have ever put boots on, with a broken shoulder and one lung. I'm humbled by his magnificence and shear will to live.


Kyle wants to say a prayer, so we all take off our hats and bow our heads.

"Lord, we give you thanks for the blessing of this incredible animal, and the food he will provide. We thank you for giving us the fortitude to push on – even when we wanted to give up – and for keeping us safe in this journey. And we thank you for this time together in your beautiful creation. Please keep us safe on our travels home and be with our loved ones that we have been away from. Amen."

I blink away a tear and turn my head, embarrassed by the emotion. But I want to soak in every aspect of the moment. This special time with my boys, that seems to be slipping by faster and faster. Fleeting. The rugged beauty of this land we have been given the opportunity to explore. And the life of this amazing animal, so strong and vital, that we have taken to be our food.


Two hunters hiking up a hillside with elk quarters on their backpacks

Packing out, I'm sweating and out of breath. The straps cut into my shoulders. My feet are sore. I pause, watch the boys climb up ahead, and smile.


I can't wait to call dad.

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6 Comments


Guest
Dec 21, 2023

Wonderful story for so many reasons. Thank you Allen!

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Allen Crater
Allen Crater
Dec 21, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much 🙏🏼

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Guest
Nov 30, 2023

It was like I was right there with you. Watching you struggle to climb and chase that bull. To never giving up. What an amazing adventure. Phil R.

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Allen Crater
Allen Crater
Nov 30, 2023
Replying to

Thanks, Phil!

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Guest
Nov 29, 2023

Wow, just wow. Beautifully written, I was there with you guys. Ross

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Allen Crater
Allen Crater
Nov 29, 2023
Replying to

Thank you 🙏🏼

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