Believe it or not this is my very first horseback hunt. The vast majority of my elk hunts have been on foot, lugging some huge freaking packframe up and down mountains. So this will be a treat. Kent Jarnagin, who you may know as the outfitter we hunt with in Kansas (Cimarron River Outfitters) has become a good friend and did most of the planning for this hunt after the devastating news that Tuttulik went under and our caribou hunt was cancelled. Turning lemons into lemonade was the theme for this hunt however we both know we are woefully unprepared - physically - with just 5 days notice. Obviously, our only option was an OTC tag from Colorado. These tags are easy to get but they also represent limited opportunities on big bulls. And both of us are looking for trophy animals. Little elk will be passed. Obviously, success odds are long.
We met the outfitter in Platoro Colorado which is a tiny little town 23 miles up a dirt road. We met Vic and Doug, the two wranglers who will be taking us deep into the mountains. At sunrise we weighed all of the packs and balanced them on both horses and mules. They picked out an animal that was known to be a gentle horse and good for an inexperienced rider like me.
The ride up was fantastic and took several hours. Platoro starts at 10k feet and by the time we crossed over Conejos peak we were above 12k. I could already sense the thin air (I live at 300 feet) and looking down at all of the steep canyons made me gulp. Our little pack train plodded along at a nice slow pace until we broke from timber. Then things started to go wrong. I guess from my talks with Kent that issues with packing horses are common. One of the mule packs shifted and fell off. That was fixed with an adjustment, another mule got tangled with the mule he was tied to around a tree. The horses were getting fidgety too, especially Shania - the mare. She was growing increasingly agitated and became the problem horse of the group. Guess who was riding Shania? You got it - me. I can only assume she knew she had a newb on her back as she would quit and start grazing. I'd pull on her reins and kick her in the side and she'd not move. When she did move, it was a lunge and I got the distinct feeling that Shania didn't like me. We continued on up the trail -struggling with each- other until we hit a high meadow.
I was close to the last in line. We had one of the outfitters in the front, and one in the rear. The mules, Kent and I were in the middle of the pack. We hit a meadow close to our camp and all hell broke lose. My horse, Shania, went berserk and ran full blast across the meadow with me on her back. I was scared S-less. My hat flew off and I was being bounced around so much that my quiver separated from my bow strapped to my back and flew off. Doug yelled what I needed to do but I was pulling up on the reins instead of straight back to my hips. Just inches from being thrown off this race horse I yanked the reins as far as I could and got that bitch under control. She stopped and Doug picked up my gear laying around the meadow. Kent told me later it was pretty funny to watch. We laughed about it later, but I was freaking out as it happened.
We all made it safely to camp and honestly, I couldn't wait to get off those freaking animals. I longed for my two legs and my backpack again. Vic and Doug were great. They pointed out where they were seeing elk and told us how to get in touch with them if we needed anything at all. They also said they'd stop by later in the week to make sure everything was Ok. I was impressed with them. We said goodbye as they took the train back down the mountain.
We spent the balance of the time getting organized and ready for a big push tomorrow. Our camp is at 11,600 feet and most of the hunting will be down from camp in a canyon that held elk last week - according to the outfitter. We did a quick hike and listened for bugles. We heard some and that got us pumped. The elk are here and they are talking. This should be good.