“I'm just there holding my bow back for quite a while and he's just staring at me. I didn't know what to think at that point. My heart was pounding so fast.”
Note: Chad, Larry, and Mike are pseudonyms to protect the identities of the subjects
After parking their truck at an elevation of about eight thousand feet, Chad (then 16), his stepfather Larry, and his friend Mike began hiking through terrains of sloping mountains, rushing creeks and lush valleys.
It was the third day of their 10-day elk hunting trip in the Hermosa Creek Wilderness near Durango, Colorado — a trip Chad had dreamed of ever since he first shot a deer with a bow at the age of 13.
Chad became fascinated by archery when he was 12 years old and received his hunting license soon after. After that, he began hunting wild pigs, turkeys and deer near his sheep ranch in Sonoma County, Calif. He said that he dislikes guns, so he hunts using fiberglass bows—a modern traditional style of hunting that allows him to connect to the animals and to the Earth.
“Hunting for me isn't the killing part; I really don't enjoy that part,” he said. “It's the time and effort: waking up super early in the morning and being out late, hiking a lot and learning how to move slow and listen.”
Chad knew that elk hunting would allow him to test the stalking and tracking skills he had been practicing. Although he became a little discouraged after not seeing any elk during the first two days of the trip, his optimism returned the third morning.
He, Larry, and Mike drove up the mountain and parked near a ski resort. Almost immediately after leaving the truck, Chad and Larry began tracking a herd of elk by following signs like rubs on trees and peeled bark on trunks from where bulls had raked their antlers (Mike had decided to hunt by himself).
As Chad and Larry came across fresh elk wallows — wet muddy spots in which elks urinate and roll in — Chad began to feel more and more excited. Elks were definitely nearby.
After wandering for hours, they sat down in a flat area inside a hanging valley and began to call out bull elk bugles — low growls and then high-pitched screams that male elks use to indicate their presence. The sky began darkening, but the two continued to call. Suddenly, they heard crashing sounds coming through the trees.
“It was a huge animal charging full speed, running down the hill toward us,” Chad said. “I saw these antlers from far away just come and it was a little intimidating.”
He stood up on his knees behind two small spruce trees and pulled his bow back as the elk, likely weighing 500 to 800 lbs, walked toward him and stopped, only 10 to 15 ft. away. Chad’s entire body was shaking.
“I'm just there holding my bow back for quite a while and he's just staring at me,” Chad said. “I didn't know what to think at that point. My heart was pounding so fast.”
For him, time seemed to pass in slow motion before the elk spun around and bolted up the hill. Although Chad wasn’t able to get a shot, he said that just being next to an animal that powerful was an incredible experience.
“The adrenaline rush was pretty intense,” he said. “There's a certain point when in those encounters where I'm not really scared. It's part of this mode we go into when we're hunting.”
Bows and arrows that Chad has made
A few days later, Chad trekked up the mountain again, hoping to spot some elk grazing in the hanging valleys between the rocky ridges. He followed some elk tracks, while Larry and Mike went in a different direction.
After trailing an elk herd for most of the day, Chad noticed a wallow in an open spruce and fir forest. A fallen log had fallen across the spring, creating a small pool bordered by lush firs. Nearby, a canyon dropped into the meadows 2,000 feet below.
Chad tucked himself beside a few medium-sized spruce trees about 20 yards from the spring and began listening to the elk bugles coming from below the cliff.
Suddenly, a herd of elk trotted up the mountain. A young bull was in the lead. Panting, the young bull stopped at the spring to rest and Chad saw his chance to get a shot.
“I go on autopilot [while hunting],” Chad said. “I get in a different mode where I'm not really like thinking a ton and I’m just reacting to what is going on around me. It's probably one of the times when I feel the most in my body. It's probably one of the moments that I live for where my brain is pretty calm, but at the same time, I have an adrenaline rush.”
He said that he has had instances where it felt like animals had offered up their lives to him. The moment that the bull stopped in the open, Chad's intuition told him that it was ok to take a shot. He didn’t hesitate.
He pulled his bow back and released. The arrow arched through the air and sunk into the elk.
The elk turned and galloped down the hill, most the arrow sticking out of his back. Immediately, Chad could tell that the arrow hadn’t gone deep enough. He feared that he had caused the deer needless suffering.
“It's a really hard thing to lose an animal like that,” Chad said. “I still think about all the time and I don't know if I did something wrong or maybe there was a lesson that I was meant to have.”
He called out the meeting signal — four bugles in a row — and Larry and Mike came running. The three spent the rest of the evening and most of the next morning searching for the young bull, but weren’t successful.
“This was a really humbling experience for me,” Chad said. “It’s not something I'm proud of, but it definitely changed me as a hunter. It's really made me try to up my game with my archery and tracking and made me really realize that I need to improve my ability to perform under those kinds of conditions with that much adrenaline rush.”