In November 2003, Dave Linner called to tell me about how he had just bagged his first elk. High on adrenaline, he described how he scaled a snow-covered mountain road with an ATV before the sun rose, hiked through waist-deep snow, shot a cow elk and packed the 400-pound animal out to the road.
That story convinced three friends and me to join Linner in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for an elk hunt-our first. It would turn out to be Linner's last. For all of us, it was an experience we will never forget, one of those vacations where noting works out but it's so much fun it doesn't really matter.
Mike Haenggi and I were meeting the rest of the group at Linner's home in Steamboat Springs after driving in from Denver. We rolled into his driveway at 5 p.m., about three hours late. Sporting a new flat-brimmed black hat and a neatly trimmed goatee, Linner was in the garage sorting through a pile of sleeping bags, rifles and duffel bags.
"Hey man," he said, offering his hand and a grin backed by a slightly baleful glint in his eyes. "Where have you two been?"
The reason for our tardiness was two-fold. We had taken the scenic route, for one, but we also got delayed buying a trailer that was perfect for hauling two ATVs. For the elk hunt, we were hauling a Polaris Ranger 4x4. The trailer had 12-inch-high side rails all the way around it with an opening at the back that was wide enough for an ATV but too narrow for the Ranger. We had the guys at the dealership put the Ranger on the trailer with a forklift. We'd figure out how to unload it at the trailhead.
After explaining why were late, we asked Linner about the fourth and fifth members of our elk hunting crew, Sam Wheeler and Peter Peil.
"They're asleep," he said. "They fell asleep after the third beer and the fourth episode of 'Sanford and Son.'"
The two emerged as if on cue, rubbing sleep out of their eyes and accompanied by Linner's wife, Laurel. Peil sported an eight-month tangle of wild facial hair topped by an unkempt mop of hair on his head.
"Great to see you guys," Haenggi said. "What's up with the hair, Pete?"
"When ski season ended," he replied, "I decided not to shave or get it cut until it started again." He then erupted into his trademark giggle, an infectious laugh that bubbled out of him like water from a spring.
Laurel, in the meantime, was checking out our cargo, a brand-new Polaris Ranger 4x4 loaded onto the aforementioned brand-new trailer.
"So what's this I hear about the Ranger not fitting on the trailer?" she asked.
"It doesn't, no." I answered.
"So how did you get the Ranger on the trailer?" she continued.
"With a forklift," I replied.
"And how are you going to get it off?" she inquired.
"We'll figure something out," I assured her.
"And why did you buy that trailer?" she asked.
"Well, it all made sense at the time," I responded.
"Yeah," Haenggi chimed in earnestly.
Sometimes, great adventures are more misadventures than anything else, and the Great Colorado Elk Hunt fit that bill perfectly. As a group, we had somewhat mixed objectives. Wheeler, Haenggi and I were all content simply to get the hell away from our desk jobs and into the Colorado mountains for a few days. Peil was even less invested. He didn't own a gun or have much interest in hunting, but he loved the outdoors. His plan was to hang out at the camp, read Jon Krakauer, cook dinner and drink beer.
Linner, on the other hand, was on a mission. After bagging his cow in 2003, he was determined that this was his year to get another one, maybe even a bull. And he was not the sort to let the mob rule. Linner knew what he wanted, and he was going to drag the rest of the group along if he had to carry us up the mountain.
Our tardiness had stretched his patience. He and Peil had set up the tent earlier in the day. All that was left to do was haul our gear up the steep, muddy trail to the camp. I suggested we wait until daylight to go up-I was not terribly eager to spend the night in a zero-degree tent, and opening day was two days away-but Linner was already barking orders to the boys. We were going up the mountain, in the dark. There were elk in those hills, and David B. Linner was determined to find one and kill it.
After a 30-minute drive to the trailhead, the first trick was unloading the 1200-pound Ranger. We tried lifting the Ranger over the trailer rails, but we couldn't quite muscle the machine out. Finally, we stacked firewood and made a little ramp for the machine to drive over. After a couple of tries and some adjustment, it worked! Innovation at its finest.
With the Ranger off the trailer and the stars shining overhead, we loaded rifles, camp chairs, cook stoves, three coolers of food and beer, whiskey, cigars, headlamps, a GPS unit, ammunition, sleeping bags, books and snowshoes onto it, a Polaris Sportsman 800 Twin EFI and a Suzuki KingQuad 700 4x4. Two trips later we had all of our gear in the camp. We outfitted our canvas palace with two lanterns, employed the little wood stove to bring the inside to a balmy 55 degrees, set up some camp chairs and poured a glass of Maker's Mark. There is nothing better than a warm tent on a cold mountain!
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.
That night, Haenggi and I packed our things to hit the road the next day. Work was beckoning, so Linner and Wheeler were left for another morning of hunting at Mad Creek.
The following morning they found a small herd of elk waiting for them in the valley and were able to creep within 90 yards of the animals. I've heard conflicting stories about what transpired. Perhaps the results are only fitting, considering our lack of experience, planning and research. The freezer may be empty, but the success of a hunting trip is rarely measured in pounds. I'll remember Wheeler's bourbon-fueled theories about sex and marriage, Peil's grilled chicken, walking along an icy cliff-side path by the light of one headlamp with Haenggi, and Linner gleefully roaring up the trail with the Ranger, his drive and enthusiasm quiet encouragement for all of us to hunt harder, hike longer, get up earlier and generally get our asses in gear. I'd call that an unmitigated successful misadventure.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Dave Linner. Linner was killed in a plane crash in Wyoming in January of this year. He was a flight medic and was flying in to pick up a patient when the wings of the plane iced up.
Hunting With A Polaris RangerWhen we decided to hunt elk in Colorado, we needed ATVs to haul the gear up to our campsite and to reach trailheads. I called Polaris, and the company's rep suggested a Ranger 4x4. I balked a bit at first. It's a lot of machine to transport, and I was concerned it wouldn't be able to handle the rough terrain on the trail to our camp. But I eventually agreed to try it.
We picked up the Ranger at Xtreme Performance in Dacono, just north of Denver, and were given the lowdown on operation. The machine is simple to operate, with a shift lever for high, low and reverse on the dash, a button that engages four-wheel-drive, a foot throttle and brakes, and a steering wheel. Everything but the differential lock is self-explanatory.
Hauling a week's worth of hunting and camping gear up about 2500 feet of mountain in the dark was a pretty decent trial by fire. The Ranger's load capacity is listed at 1000 pounds, and we had nearly achieved that, loading up the box until the rig had a Beverly Hillbillies look with gear heaped above the cab.
We also stuffed three of us in the front of the machine-and not one was a little guy. The Ranger handled the load with aplomb, clawing up a deeply rutted, muddy hill without a whimper. Ground clearance is quite good on the vehicle, and even loaded up, we were navigating 12- to 16-inch ruts without trouble-we made it over obstacles impassable with a stock four-wheel-drive truck or a two-wheel-drive ATV.
Power from the 500cc single is ample but not overwhelming, and the exhaust and transmission noises are relatively quiet. The PVT automatic transmission engages smoothly, with none of the annoying jerks or lag we've seen with older Polaris transmissions. The comp-any claims a 41-mph top speed, which is believable as we saw mid-30s indicated on our GPS on a smooth trail loaded with guys and the mountain of gear.
The steering effort is light and nimble, and the machine is generally easy to drive. You have to place your wheels carefully when the going gets seriously rough, and the $9399 Ranger is not as nimble or as fast as a standard ATV. But this is a utility machine that's ideal for hunting. It's quiet, convenient and surprisingly off-road capable.
One of the necessities of elk hunting is winter camping. We experienced evening lows between zero and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. But snow and cold can be done in comfort:
* Use a sleeping bag rated for -20 or lower. Down bags are more expensive than those lined with synthetics, but they are more comfortable and will keep you warm if wet. Expect to pay $200 to $300 for a good winter bag.
* Sleep off the ground, as it will suck the heat from your body. We used simple cots, which can be found at outdoor stores for about $50. At the least, you'll need a camp mat (mats range from $20 to $80).
* Wall tents are ideal for winter camping, as most are set up to handle a small stove. A smaller four-season tent, which has a heavier-weight floor and sturdier poles to handle snow on the roof, will work also. Bear in mind that your heavy clothing and gear will take up lots of space-figure roughly 50 square feet per person.
* Before you set up your tent, pack down the snow, scatter a couple of bales of straw and lay a heavy plastic tarp under the tent. The straw helps keep the floor insulated from the snow, and the tarp keeps your floor dry.
* A heated tent makes the experience much easier to take! You can buy small tin tent stoves that don't hold heat all night. If you can haul the weight, a cast-iron stove is the ideal solution.
* Burning hardwood (typically oak or maple) will provide longer-lasting heat than burning pine.
* Have plenty of water on hand-estimate at least 32 ounces (approximately 1.0 liter) per person per day. Store your water bottle inside your jacket or in your sleeping bag to keep it from freezing.
* Plan on eating about 111/42 times your regular intake. Your body burns lots of calories just staying warm.
* Dress in layers: polypropylene close to your skin, wool or fleece as a mid-layer and a waterproof outer shell. Be sure to bring heavy pacs for your feet, warm gloves and a hat.
* A good source of winter camping information is Outdoor Action Guide to Winter Camping by Rick Curtis on www.princeton.edu/~oa/winter/wintcamp.shtml.