When I stepped off the plane in Hayden, Colorado, it was out of the frying pan and into the, well, deep freeze. I'd come straight from eighty-degree weather. In northern Colorado it was about ten degrees, and the forecast for that first December week was for the mercury to fall a great deal lower. My hunting partner, Matt Anderson, flew in with me, as did Conrad Evarts, Field Producer for "Petersen's Hunting Adventures Television."
Matt is director of marketing and communications for the Tuscan, Arizona-based, SCI, so he was just as shocked by the cold as I was. We would be hunting with Dick and Cheryl Dodds' Elkhorn Outfitters north of Craig.
The last member of our group, Hunting's Kevin Steele, came in a few hours later, when it was dark and really cold. Long before then Matt and I had mustered our courage and ventured out to the range to check our rifles, chipping sheet ice off the bench to keep the rest from sliding. Fortunately his Browning and my Savage, both in .30-06, were pretty close to zero, which was where the mercury was, too.
The cold snap was unusual, but it had been a cool autumn that had already seen heavy snowfall in Colorado's high country. Elkhorn Outfitters hunts a vast chunk of country--from high alpine basins down to sagebrush hills. Under Colorado's Ranching for Wildlife program, the season lasts from September into December. In this particular year, explained our guide, John Papierski, early snows had already pushed the majority of elk out of the high country to the north and into lower country to the west.
The sagebrush hills west of Craig, at about 7,000 feet in elevation, are traditional wintering grounds for thousands of elk, but John explained that the herds' schedule was very flexible. Winter weather was generally required to push them out of the high country, and as the winter progressed, they kept drifting on to the west. However, they would often come back during a mild spell, and then move on west again. Right now, he said, the timing was very good, with lots of elk on the wintering grounds Elkhorn controlled.
The landscape looked very much like the North Pole, but I wasn't ready to believe in Santa Claus. I figured we'd see elk; northern Colorado has lots of elk these days. But I also figured we'd have tough sledding. In my experience, some of the most difficult elk hunting takes place after the rut, when the animals have been hunted hard for several weeks and the bulls have gone off by themselves to recover for the coming winter. I had recent and painful experience with this. Just a couple weeks earlier I'd hunted post-rut elk in Arizona on a permit I'd waited ten years to draw. I didn't even see a bull, let alone one of those Arizona monsters I'd dreamed of. So I had no great expectations.