The Sounds of Elk Season

Autumn storm clouds over the Medicine Bow Mountains. Photo by Dennis Smith

By Dennis Smith

Several years ago, the boys and I were bow hunting on the western flank of the Medicine Bow Mountains in North Park. We were after elk. Storm clouds had rolled down from the north, blanketing the high peaks of the Rawahs with snow, but the crowns of aspen trees on the slopes below were still blazing with color. It was a pretty dramatic sight. The calendar said autumn, but winter was written in the wind.

Dawn was creeping through the pines when we parked our four-wheelers at the end of a forest service road, shut the motors down and began uncasing our bows. Camp lay six rugged miles behind us, and we still had to hoof it about two more miles to reach the pocket meadow where we spotted elk the day before. I was shouldering my pack when Dave slapped my arm and whispered, “Listen! You hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“An elk. I just heard an elk bugle. Right down there.” He pointed down the mountain.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“Shhhh!” He put his finger to his nose. “There it is again.”

This time we all heard it. Below us and to the east, an elk was bugling, though why it’s called “bugling” is beyond me. From a distance, it sounds like an off-key circus calliope. Up close, it’s a confusion of grunts, raspy screams and guttural wheezing. Up real close, it’ll raise the hair on your neck and send chills down your spine. It’s a wild, blood-curdling, primordial call and, if I live to be a hundred, I’ll never tire of hearing it.

Another bull screamed, this one even closer. Then came crashing noises: limbs breaking, hooves pounding and cows chirping and the stampede-like rumble of an elk herd on the move. It sounded like they were headed right for us. We looked at each other bug-eyed. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and I remember thinking this is the kind of thing elk hunter’s dream of.

That was many years ago. The mountains have grown taller and steeper since then, and the iron has long gone from my legs, but I still go elk hunting with the boys each fall. I tag along as camp cook and to help poke the fire at night. I hike more slowly, climb far less and sit more often, and I carry a camera instead of my bow. I’m perfectly content to sit at the meadow’s edge watching storm clouds race across the peaks while the boys play cat and mouse with elk in the dark timber beyond. I’ve learned it’s much easier to haul photos out of the backcountry on a memory card than to pack an elk out on your back. And, apart from not being able to eat the pictures, it’s every bit as gratifying.

Dennis Smith is a freelance outdoors writer and photographer whose work appears nationally. He lives in Loveland.