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Piece of Cake - An Elk Ice Rescue

Piece of cake, easy, child’s play, a cinch, a walk in the park. These are all idioms I would have used to describe my 2017 late season cow elk the first ten minutes of the hunt. The work that transpired after those initial minutes made me a true believer of the saying “it ain’t over till it’s over.”

I am a single mother of 3 who just finished my second season of hunting with a lot of firsts. I jumped way out my comfort zone to harvest a Wyoming doe antelope on my first solo hunt. I tagged my first turkey in Nebraska, harvested my first Colorado mule deer buck with my bow and mentored and guided my son to his first big game animal kill, a mule deer doe.

I had a private land only cow elk tag for the foothills, just west of Denver. It was an area I was familiar with and had the privilege of harvesting a cow elk in January 2016. Unfortunately, a number of unfavorable events eliminated my opportunity to fill this tag. I deemed my 2016/2017 hunting season to be over.

A Sitka-Gear logo on the front of a sweatshirt and a holiday conversation in a golf shop, averted my lost opportunity. I am a golf professional and was working one evening just before Christmas when a gentleman sporting a Sitka gear hoody came in for some last minute gifts. Familiar with the logo, I asked him if he was a hunter. (I still consider myself a rookie after season two, but I have learned that hunting becomes a lot easier with the A word- ACCESS.)

Well, not only was he a hunter, he and many generations before him owned property in Kremmling, Colorado. For those unfamiliar with the area, Kremmling is described as “a western wilderness filled with breathtaking scenery, roaring rapids, and inviting expanses of unspoiled terrain where the wild life vastly outnumbers the human population.” A true huntress paradise. I tried not to show too much excitement when he told me this and I shared that I just got into hunting the year prior. In my heart I could feel that a golden ticket opportunity was proportionate to the amount of coolness I could emanate, so I remained calm.

Then, it happened. He asked me if I would be interested in hunting on a damage tag in January! He was sure his sons, who managed the ranch, would be happy to allow me to hunt a cow elk. I placidly replied that I would be interested while inside I was ready to pee myself. Kremmling? The elk migration mecca? The place where millions of dollars were spent to build wildlife bridges, where “the wildlife vastly outnumbers the human population? Wow.

A couple weeks later, I connected with Doug, a young cowboy who managed the ranch. We had a great discussion about elk and golf, (what two greater things are there really) and he educated me on how the land management tags work. The herds cause a lot of damage to their crops, which are primarily hay, and bring disease to their cattle. They apply for landowner vouchers and extend these tags to friends and family in the late season. I was feeling like the luckiest gal on earth right now! “The list” was comprised of interested hunters who were “on call”. When the herd moved down, they called the next person on the list. The tags were issued only one at a time so once someone harvested an elk, they moved to the next person on the list.

It was the week of January 23rd and I was beginning to think I was not going to get “the call”. There were only 8 days left in the season but I was ok with that knowing that I had still made a pretty cool connection. Tuesday afternoon, the 970 number showed up on my phone. “Hi Erin, you are up, are you still interested in in a cow elk hunt?” Was I ever. We discussed the process and some of the expectations. I got a little nervous when he said I would need to be prepared to shoot up to 400 yards. My longest shot distance to date was my antelope at 179 yards.

It worked perfectly with my parenting and work schedule to go up on Thursday evening. Fortunately I had shattered my solo fears with my Wyoming antelope and had no problem venturing alone to the elk capital of Colorado. I loaded my hunting bin and my 308 Savage rifle and drove west. The drive was breathtaking and I had a front row seat to the new safety improvements to CO 9. CO 9 is a major traffic route between Kremmling and Silverthorne in Summit and Grand counties. CDOT, Grand County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the Blue Valley Ranch partnered on a conservation project following numerous wildlife-vehicle collisions, and human fatalities, between mile posts 126 and 137. This narrow roadway, near the Green Mountain Dam Road and Colorado River Crossing, bisects feeding and watering habitat frequently used by wildlife. The wider shoulders, less slope, deer guards, a wildlife fence and animal overpasses have dropped the number of accidents involving wildlife as much as 90 percent since October 2016.

My GPS lead me onto the county road where the ranch was located right at dusk. The minute my truck faced east, I gasped. I had never seen so many elk. There were hundreds, no more than 100 yards from me. Elk- wapiti, fine, lean, wild game meat. One elk is enough to feed my family of four for almost a year. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I have learned in my short hunting career that there are so many more things to a hunt than the actual harvest. The people and specifically the hunters I have come in contact with are amazing. They are hard working, genuine and very gracious. Doug and Lee were no different. The brothers and I shared some stories over a beer and I felt like I had known them for a long time. We made a plan to meet in the morning and I headed to my hotel for a fitful night’s sleep.

The night before a hunt is like Christmas eve. There is no other way to describe it. The excitement, the anxiousness, the restlessness, the fear of missing something. Hunting is just like Christmas morning. Every single time.

We met at 6:30am and formulated a plan while we waited for shooting light. At 6:50am we hopped in the ranch truck and drove a whopping 50 yards. There were three large herds of elk that we could see. We stepped out and focused on the herd that was below us. I set up the shooting sticks and Doug told me to find a cow toward the back and when I had an open shot, go for it. 279 yards. My heart was racing. I fired and couldn’t tell if I hit her. We waited while the herd scurried through a grove of trees and saw the last cow to come through was stumbling. I shot again and she went down. I think I breathed at this point and looked at Doug. She was down. We waited. I looked at Doug again and said, “Wow, that was a piece of cake.” 7:02am.

We waited a little while longer and saw no movement from the cow. It took us a while to drive the truck through the pasture and get through the herd. Startlingly, as we approached the cow, she got up and walked into a thick grove of trees. I was not prepared to shoot nor did I have an opportunity with the thickness of the brush. We couldn’t believe our eyes. She was pushing toward the river so we decided to try and head her off about a ½ mile to the other side of the ranch. We parked and trekked toward the river on foot. The subzero temps created a sting and the yearning for recovery was making me feel anxious.

We found blood. There is something that happens when evidence of the harvest is discovered. I imagine this is how forensic specialists feel when they are on a case. There is hope, relief and a warmth that helps to create a calm. Then we saw her. She had expired in the middle of the Colorado River, but not before her lower half had fallen through the ice. Doug and I looked at each other in absolute disbelief.

We phoned Lee, who happened to be a firefighter for Eagle County and alerted him of the situation. He assured us that he could handle this as he executes ice rescues all the time. He admittedly had never rescued a dead elk, but a rescue was a rescue.

We went back to the shop and retrieved the John Deere front loader and some rope. Somehow we managed to get the tractor close to the bank and watched with clinched teeth as Lee carefully belly crawled to the cow. He roped her legs, we tied it to the bucket and the tractor pulled her free.

It was 11:30am by the time we had her gutted and loaded in the truck. We high fived and reveled in the the 5 ½ hour adventure that just took place and said our good-byes. I was able to get back to Denver in time to pick up my son from school and I giggled wondering how many other camo-clad mothers were in the Hug and Go line with an elk in the truck. What started as the easiest hunt I have done, ended as one of the most challenging. It was a truly memorable adventure and would be the last time that I claim something to be a “piece of cake” until it is really over.

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