Into the woods … after the elk
ASPEN ” “Hunters welcome!” read the signs on restaurants and stores all across the state for a few months every fall.
But the greetings and the orange-clad hunters themselves are conspicuously absent in the adventure-sport enclave of Aspen. Now, I want to put my bias on the table upfront: I’ve always thought of hunters as a bunch of beer-drinking Bubbas stumbling around the woods and making life dangerous for us hikers.
My grandfather was a hunter in western Massachusetts, and he loved the woods. I’ll never forget the time the two of us stood at dusk downwind of a herd of deer ” he waved a handkerchief to simulate a white tail and attracted the herd within a stone’s throw. And he took me out after squirrels and taught me to shoot.
But just as my master’s degree trumps my grandfather’s eighth-grade education, I thought my love of the outdoors was more evolved ” the hiking, canoeing and skiing I learned from my dad more sophisticated than stalking game. “Take only pictures and leave only footprints” seemed wiser than Elmer Fudd’s “Be very, very quiet.”
But two recent trips with local hunters shattered my misconceptions.
When the sun came up, the overcast sky produced a dull blue glow on the early morning fog, giving us only glimpses of the snowbound hills along Highway 133 near Marble.
A wet snow started to fall as we pulled up to the offices of OutWest Outfitters to meet Gary Hubbell, our guide for the day. A ball of energy, he flashed a smile beneath his wide cowboy hat and eyed the two of us in our hodgepodge of ski-wear and rain gear.
“You’re good,” he said, and handed us two bright-orange vests as we walked to the corral to saddle our horses.
Hubbell calls himself more of a “hunting instructor” than a guide, and said that his trips are a “grand adventure” for clients who come from a big city or other parts of the country. Many of them have dreamed of coming West on a big elk hunt. Hubbell is passionate about his sport and said what he loves about hunting is the unpredictability.
“If you gave me the option of skiing for 50 days or five days hunting, I’d go hunting,” he said.
Hunting is about honing, he said, and using our powers of observation. “The more you notice, the better the hunter.”
Hubbell believes that hunting is important not just to Colorado’s economy but to the state’s character. It also has less environmental impact than skiing, he said, which claims huge swaths of land for both ski slopes and accommodations. There are good hunters and bad hunters, he added, and those who poach, drive ATVs in restricted areas or use alcohol while hunting should be punished.
My butt was already a little sore from the saddle and my toes were cold, but I started to notice my surroundings. The clip-clop of the horses hooves, the shift of the saddle, the sight of my breath.
We passed through scrub oak into a ravine of aspen trees, mostly felled by whatever phenomenon is killing the trees all over the West, but the clearing offered wide views of the Crystal River Valley before we passed into more dense woods.
Following the other hunters’ tracks, we passed a low campstool that marked the area where a client had bagged a cow elk the night before. We tied up and went on foot to find the elk.
I eat meat, but I don’t get hungry when I see a cow standing in a field; the meat I buy is sanitized in white packages on a grocery shelf. I was anxious about seeing an animal carcass. Would I lose my cookies? Faint?
We followed Bosco, and it took a few minutes of trudging until we found the cow elk splayed on its back, ribs propped open with a log, guts in a heap to one side. This is where meat comes from, and for some strange reason it didn’t bother me at all. It felt natural.
This 450-pound animal will yield more than 125 pounds of meat, enough to feed a family of four through the winter. And the leanest of the meat, the tenderloin, fetches a high price at local bistros.
Hunting is a way to “take responsibility for the food on your plate,” Hubbell said.
Hunters feel that shooting an elk and claiming the meat is more honest than buying beef that comes from a feedlot, where animals stand on high mounds of their own feces and are slaughtered and dismembered in a factory, Hubbell said.
Most hunters keep the meat from animals they shoot, Hubbell said, but clients who don’t keep all of it often donate frozen meat to Lift-Up, an agency for needy people, or a church.
Two of Hubbell’s guides met us at the kill to help butcher the animal. Jonathan Fancher works in a hotel in the Vail Valley and just started guiding for Hubbell this season. Dwight Cox came in June from Tennessee. Both have hunted all their lives.
It takes the guys about an hour to dismember the animal. Cox carefully removes the elk’s “ivories,” the back teeth the elk uses to make a trumpeting sound. He makes them into rings or necklaces. There wasn’t time to skin the whole animal so they cut the elk into quarters and hoisted them on each side of the two packhorses.
They leave the animal’s innards, head and backbone, and Hubbell assures us that, between the bears, coyotes and crows, we wouldn’t even recognize that an elk was shot here in about five days.
On our second hunting day, we trailed a longtime Aspen resident and an armed dentist into the woods. Brad Knotts is an avid hunter and outdoorsman with a twinkle in his eye and a ready smile under his bushy mustache.
“As a kid in Carbondale we all hunted,” he said.
They even got a day off school to do it, and he remembers walking down Main Street in Carbondale and hanging his ducks in front of the general store while going in for a Coke, while everyone admired his catch. He was a big-game guide for nine years and today is a caretaker at a local ranch, which affords him the freedom to get out in the woods.
The walls of his house are covered in trophy pictures of bear, elk and deer; there are antlers and skins, and pictures of his 17-year-old daughter, who often hunts alongside him.
Alice Kaniff, Knotts’ hunting partner, is originally from Chicago. She moved to Aspen a year ago for a lifestyle change and to start a dentistry and sleep apnea clinic in Basalt. She met Brad this past spring.
“I always wanted to shoot and hunt,” Kaniff said. And meeting Brad was her chance.
“Hunting is a spiritual experience for me,” Knotts said. It is being “part of the circle of life on a real fundamental basis,” and knowing where your food comes from, he said.
Both Knotts and Kaniff like the dinners of fatty bear meat (similar to beef) and lean elk steaks. Knotts ages his caches of meat for 10 days, then cuts it and wraps it for the freezer.
It is the hunter’s code that you don’t talk about where you hunt, but Knotts has a secret rock outcrop from which he’s shot five elk.
“If you stay by that rock long enough, something will come by,” he said.
We drive in two cars to our secret mountain base.
Kaniff stepped away from us to load her weapon: a 7-millimeter bolt action, semi-high-powered rifle made lighter for women and young shooters. It has a muzzle break with holes that make the gun louder but reduce its kick.
“Let’s get us some critters,” she said with a grin.
We started our hour-long hike along a dirt road, which was easy but steep walking, then we broke trail through deep, crusty snow. We stopped occasionally as Knotts looked to the hills and open spaces through his binoculars. We walked as quietly as possible, but the crunchy snow made the four of us sound like a freight train. On the other hand, the crunchy snow worked to our advantage by revealing deer and elk tracks.
“These tracks are old,” Knotts said, pointing out the “dew claw” print from the elk’s forelock, which indicated the direction it was walking. Brad spied a weasel trail and the scattered snow and blood where the critter bagged a mouse ” like our hunt in miniature.
“We watch the wind a lot,” Knotts said.
On a windless day, it’s important to know that air moves downhill in the morning and up in the afternoon. Otherwise, if there is wind, we walk against it because scent will give us away. Kaniff is careful not to wear cosmetics on the hunt, and Knotts said it is important to wash clothes in special scent-free detergent. They sometimes even spend the night in a “cold camp,” because lighting a fire would scare away game.
Going slowly and quietly, Knotts said to keep our senses “constantly scanning.” The animals have better senses, and coming across one requires both luck and skill, he said.
“But it’s really just an excuse to be outside,” Knotts whispered at one point, the four of us out of breath and looking across a narrow ravine of spruce and aspen. The sun just started to hit the high branches and the limbs started cracking. I heard every pop.
We checked tracks in the snow, passed an elk wallowing hole that bore the creatures’ smell. A crow flew overhead. A small woodpecker lit on a tree. The sun warmed the snow, turning the top layer into diamondlike crystals.
We got to an open hilltop where the day before Knotts and Kaniff spotted a young spike elk, a male with single-column horns, that they couldn’t shoot.They would bivouac for the day, moving slightly and waiting for a clean shot at something, they said.
We sat looking out over the valley.
“Up here life makes sense,” Knotts said. “When working on the ranch, I look up to the hills and say, ‘I’m missing something up there’; but when up in the hills, I look down and say, ‘I’m not missing anything down there.'”
Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado