February 13, 2023
From the road, the canyon’s entrance is hidden by thick timber. Tourists drive by it daily, seldom realizing the canyon is even there. Penetrate the tangle, and you’ll find a broken trail that is all but gone in some spots — long since covered by deadfall and undergrowth. The broken trail is unmarked and relatively unknown, but it’s manageable once discovered, and it provides access up a narrow drainage that’s flanked on both sides by towering rims of rocky spires.
My son had drawn a limited-entry elk tag, which I helped him fill earlier in the season. Then, my much-anticipated Greenland muskox hunt consumed the second-half of the elk season.
I’m not complaining, mind you, because September had proven kind to both my boy and me. But elk are my favorite species, and I now found myself with only one day left in the season to hunt them, so I intended to pull out all the stops.
The area I planned to focus on really shouldn’t be day hunted. When hunting there in the past, I typically spiked out for several days at a time, but that wasn’t an option with only one day left.
I had other spots I could have chosen that weren’t so hard to get to, but this was the spot where I thought my chances for success were best. I’d just have to head in early and pack out late — sleep would have to wait.
I made my way up the trail under the cover of darkness, eventually arriving at a spring-fed pond just as the sun’s glow began to illuminate the canyon walls. It takes about three hours of steady hiking to get there from where I’d parked my truck, and my timing was perfect.
Above the pond, the canyon topped out on a plateau of lush grass where elk often feed. I expected to hear a few bugles as I hiked in the darkness, but I hadn’t. It was a silent climb.
I spent the morning calling sporadically as I worked my way up and around the edge of the plateau, but there were no responses. Midday was spent searching for scant sign. By late afternoon, I felt my chances dwindling. Then suddenly, I thought I heard a distant bugle.
I hustled in the direction of the sound, covering a considerable distance in the process before setting up to call. No response. I moved again — still nothing. I kept moving — begging and pleading with cow calls and bugles. But as hard as I tried, the results were the same.
Frustrated and tired, it was time to accept the situation and start heading back toward my truck.
Pulling up my onX app on my smartphone, I began plotting my egress. I had two choices: I could either backtrack a few miles to the top of the canyon and then head down the trail I had used to enter, or I could take a shortcut and pick my way down through the spires and rimrock and save myself several miles in the process.
I’d never attempted the latter, but my maps showed timber growing in what appeared to be avalanche chutes between the cliffs. I figured if timber was growing there, then there had to be a way down, so I chose a route and began my descent.
The terrain was relatively tame for the first 1,500 feet of my descent. Then things started to get steeper and more aggressive. Loose rocks and deadfall quickly became a problem, but the thought of turning around and climbing 2,000 vertical feet, only to hike several miles in the wrong direction to get back to the trail, seemed just as daunting. Fatigue had set in, and I was exhausted, so I decided to press on.
I soon found myself in one of the most frightening predicaments of my life. I’ve faced some danger over the years, but this time was different… I was scared!
Working my way down, I reached to brace myself against a deadfall tree trunk that’s circumference was about the size of a basketball. It snapped like a matchstick as soon as I put weight on it. The base of the trunk swung violently from above, hitting me in the back and sending me head-first over the rocks in front of me.
I tumbled at first, then began to slide. Frantically trying to regain control, I slid backwards into a rock that abruptly stopped my fall. My Kifaru pack cushioned the blow, and luckily, I came out of the situation relatively unscathed.
After gathering myself, I realized I was now in a position in which going up seemed just as dangerous as going down, and I’m not ashamed to say, that’s when the praying began. I promised to be a better father, a better husband, a better man. I pulled my phone back out, confirmed that I still had no coverage, then recorded a short video for my wife and kids, just in case I didn’t make it out of this jam.
All I could think about — other than my family — was Roy Roth.
Roy was a bowhunter who became legendary for his relentless, never-give-up attitude. He was an absolute beast, but he was taken from us too soon. Roy suffered a fatal fall in the mountains of Alaska in 2015, and now I found myself wondering if he was watching over me. The thought had a calming effect.
I could see a gap in the rocky spires to my right. If I could get there, hopefully I would be able to see into the next chute and find a more manageable path out of the mess I was currently in.
At a snail’s pace, I picked my way toward the gap and discovered a route with less loose rock and deadfall, eventually making it safely back down to the trail in the bottom of the canyon.
Consistently successful bowhunters all have one thing in common: They don’t shy away from challenges but rather thrive on them. They choose to hunt with a primitive weapon. They climb trees, rocks, and ridges in the dark, exposing themselves to untamed elements that humans have been attempting to mitigate for countless years. They go farther, stay longer, and try harder. And their success as a result is no accident because it’s what naturally occurs when preparation meets undaunted determination — no matter how scary the scenario.
A flood of relief overtook me as I made my way down the trail leading me back to my truck. Once on the road home, my mind again began to drift, and I found myself pondering a familiar, all-consuming question: How many days till next elk season?