That night I discovered the hard way that the stove held heat for only about an hour and then the snug tent transformed into a walk-in freezer. I spent the night shivering in a 20-degree sleeping bag. Luckily, Linner loaned me a military bag rated for -60 degrees for the rest of the trip.
The next day, we headed out to do some scouting. According to our reading on elk hunting (or at least Wheeler told us he'd read an article once), it didn't sound that hard. All we had to do was find some fresh tracks on our scouting foray and position ourselves where the tracks were the next morning. When the elk walked by, we'd shoot them.
We spent the day scouring the valleys and peaks in the area. The terrain was 8,000- to 10,000-foot ridges with giant bowl valleys and narrow creek canyons. With clear blue skies, warm sunshine and daytime temps in the 50s and 60s, we were able to hike in fresh snow in T-shirts. We walked at least 8 miles, hiking low and high, snaking our way through the passes looking for places where elk were moving from food sources to water or bedding locations and saw lots of tracks. Hundreds of them, in fact, but nothing was fresh.
That night after dinner, we planned our strategy for the next day. We agreed to try an area just over the hill from our camp, setting up early and surrounding the bowl with hunters. It turned out we weren't the only ones with that plan, and we found several other hunting parties in our area of choice. I saw plenty of guys in orange that morning, but not a single elk.
After a map check, we decided to head for Gunn Creek for the afternoon. It was an area that locals claimed was "teeming with elk." Six long hours busting through thick brush into Gunn Creek and all we found were more old tracks and a week-old gut pile.
The next day was the same story; more old tracks. Elk were as hard to spot in Elk Park as a Hell's Angel at a Vespa club meeting.
The next morning it would be a new area: Mad Creek Trailhead. We were hiking on the trail before first light. The climb was fairly long and arduous, and wound along the Mad Creek Gorge. At a fork in the trail, we split into two pairs to cover more ground. Linner and Haenggi would continue up the hill, while Wheeler and I were going to follow the Swamp Park Trail.
The trail crossed the open valley and entered a canyon, where not far from the canyon's mouth the snow became covered in tracks. We came upon a salt lick, the ground around it torn up with elk tracks. We couldn't tell how fresh-most of the tracks were at least several days old-but some of them were crisp and clear, unmolested by wind and snow. Elk had been in this canyon, and not long before.
We set up and watched the area for a bit, but it was too late to expect to see elk. At noon, all of us gathered back in the valley. Haenggi and Linner had also found fresh tracks. After four days of hunting and probably 30 miles of hiking through the mountains, we finally found some elk sign!
The rest of the day was spent scouting the valley. I hiked up to the south fork of Mad Creek while the guys prepared for an evening hunt. I had hopes of following my GPS back to Elk Park, but a fast-moving and ominously deep river crossing and trails buried in thigh-high snowbanks foiled this plan. I came back to find Wheeler poised over the salt lick and sat with him as the sun dropped low and the elk stayed away.