In early October, four of us backpacked into the high country of Western Colorado to hunt elk. Except for a new guy in our foursome, the rest of us had done this a number of times before. This exercise is not for the fainthearted.
Unlike hunting with an outfitter who brings you and your supplies to a drop camp by horses and mules, a backpacker is limited to whatever food and gear he can carry on his back. On the trail it is easy to distinguish the first time elk-hunting backpacker from the seasoned veteran. The new guy pants the hardest. His overloaded pack and thin mountain air takes its toll early during the uphill trek. The veteran backpacker learns the hard way: Take only the absolute bare essentials. Mere ounces quickly add up to a pound, and a just a few pounds can spell the difference between a manageable pack and one that will cause pain and discomfort.
Within these parameters, there is a singular challenge that faces every backpacker, novice or veteran, hunter or non-hunter. There is no easy answer. It is actually a dilemma. On the one hand, you must keep your weight at a minimum and carry the lightest food stores possible and yet, on the other hand, the "caloric burn" during your 5-day hunt is exceedingly high as you climb up and down steep inclines in aspen groves and dark timber. So, from a nutritional standpoint, each backpacking adventure is a separate experiment as each of us rely on past experience in an attempt to maximize our carried calories while at the same time minimizing our weight. Still unresolved is our never-ending argument as to whether it is best to emphasize carbs or proteins (peanuts or macaroni.)
The experienced, backpacking elk hunter splits the difference. He accepts the trade-off: a few hunger pangs in exchange for a lighter backpack. The temptation to pack in a can of beans is quickly dismissed by the flatlander who has "been there," who has heretofore humped a 50-pound pack above 8,000 feet. Although the Colorado elk season opener is a five-day hunt, we have learned to gamble on an early kill and take only enough food for about three to four days. So, if the elk don't cooperate and the hunt drags on, it soon becomes necessary to begin rationing our already meager food rations.
My hunting partners are big on the Mountain House freeze-dried meals. Just add hot water to the pouch, let simmer for a few minutes and eat. Granted these freeze-dried meals are light to carry, convenient and they do fill the void. I tried a couple this year for the first time. The chicken and rice combo wasn't too bad, but the mashed potato in beef gravy was dreadful, I thought.
Two new culinary ideas I tried this year worked out well. A small foil packet of tuna in sunflower oil was stir-fried with some diced peanuts. I polished that off with an MRE packet of spiced apples. For a backpacking meal, it was darn good, a keeper that is worth repeating another year. Also new this year were some small Food Saver-sealed bags of pre-cooked bacon and extra sharp cheddar cheese that saved the day.
This year the elk were not cooperating and, by the third hunt day (fifth day in the mountains), "the grub was a gittin' low." But Providence intervened, and by late that afternoon, our new guy, Rick Thompson from Glenburn, had killed a big cow elk. By the time the four of us had carried the four elk quarters and massive backstraps the mile back to camp over rough terrain, we were as hungry and calorie drained as a late March bear. An appetizer of broiled elk was in order. We had saved out an elk inner loin for just this occasion.
Our campcraft expert, Greg Goodman from Winterport, jury-rigged a shish kabob affair from the portable camp buck saw. He propped up the saw blade with some rocks and laid it over a bed of hot coals in the fireplace. The tender cut of elk meat was butterflied, rubbed with some Montreal Seasoning and stretched across the sawblade over the coals.
The blade, as a skewer, proved far more effective than the rusty coathanger that we had employed to cook our meat on earlier hunts. The elk was perfect: black and crusty outside, pink and tender inside. We savored the fresh meat! There, under the star-studded Colorado night with the campfire flickering and the coyotes howling over the gutpiles down in the drainage, my thoughts danced with the flames, as they often do: An old man deep in thought, and raising the same old question. "Is it all worth it, this elk hunt the hard way?"
Elk hunter and writer Kurt Cox has answered the question. "Only elk are worth it. Only elk hunters will ever see what I am seeing today."
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program "Maine Outdoors" heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his new book is "A Maine Deer Hunter's Logbook."