I’ve been waiting all year for this. I’ve invested time, sweat equity, scouting, and money into gear. Somehow 2020 just keeps on throwing punches while we’re collectively down as a society. This year’s fire season has been one for the record books. It’s been frustrating watching the several large scale fires burn throughout Colorado, and all the attention seems to be further west in California. As the season crept closer for Colorado second rifle fires seemed to be burning all around my unit. East Troublesome, West of Kremmling, Williams Fork, and Deep Creek fires all threatened my route into the area around Kremmling, CO and threatened to shutter the entire National Forest system.
Weather Outlook: Troublesome
Going into the season I made sure that we had a team of folks watching the weather and fire conditions. The East Troublesome fire was getting worse by the day, and over one evening before our trip began it had consumed 100,000 acres overnight. It went from a fire that wasn’t terribly concerning to a fire approaching a state record in less than 36 hours. Thankfully my unit was west of the fire, meaning prevailing winds would generally push it east. However, the fire caused closures in several other Game Management Units and fire bans were getting upgraded quickly. Stage 1 fire bans and a lifted ban meant we’d be able to utilize our new backcountry tent stove. As the truck was being staged with gear Routt National Forest East of CO-40 entered a Stage 3 fire ban, and hunters were evacuated from Jackson County.
The outlook of the hunt wasn’t looking good. Weather on the way seemed to be in flux. Colorado Parks and Wildlife shifted second rifle season by a week this year, as part of a larger 5 year plan to change season timing and monitor the herds. This change in timing meant that my hunting partner and I were more likely to experience the same weather that had caused us to prematurely close camp last season for safety reasons. After our experiences scouting the area and getting snowed out last year somehow I managed to convince Mike “Manny” Manfredonia to join me again in the mountains. We both must be crazy.
Driving in the conditions were great, but we saw Colorado Parks and Wildlife vehicles everywhere, starting to close areas and warn hunters East of highway 9 and around highway 40. Smoke was visible along our route, puffing up from the Troublesome fire, Williams Fork, and surely others. Otherwise the weather was fantastic and mild. It would make the nearly three mile pack in easy.
Despite it being relatively mild, and a decent forecast for the opener there was a very real dropoff in participation based on the trucks and trailers in the area we’ve hunted previously. Perhaps they were scared off by the fire closures, but it was almost purely Colorado plates as we drove through the used lot of pickups that made up the forest service road, carefully gaining elevation and picking our way over rocks and ruts.
This year I’d lost 20 pounds and had been hiking feverishly in an attempt to make the heavy pack of carrying elk camp on my back suck just a little less. It still weighed heavy on my shoulders and hips, but I had to stop and rest much less. Soon we were at our little place in the pines.
This was my first year using the SeekOutside 6 man tipi and the setup, while a little finnicky, was pretty easy. It requires way more stakes than you’d think, but the end result is both cozy and accommodating for people and gear. Scaling to a 6 man meant Manny and I could use half for sleeping quarters and half for gear storage. We set aside a small wood pile in the event that we got the 0-20 inches of snow that various weather reports were calling for.
Opening morning came quickly. It’s almost like time traveling when your head hits the pillow after pack in day. We made some coffee and moseyed over to our spot with a commanding view of the creek. We hunted the first day Eastern whitetail style, sitting and watching and waiting. I used my binoculars to scan the tree line, but with three sightlines longer than I could effectively take a rifle shot, I assumed we’d be bound to see something. By mid morning though, the only thing fired up were birds… and the fire. Smoke began rolling into the head of the valley from one of the nearby fires.
By mid day we hadn’t seen anything in our little valley. Knowing the next two days were going to be very cold overnight, with one night going into negative temperatures we made a break for the trucks. I know, opening day? Going back to the trucks? Stupid move, but more stupid was not having heavy thermals knowing extreme temperature swings were coming. We took minimal gear, and some things that weren’t going to be used.
The first gear casualty had occurred earlier that day. Fresh off my backpacking trip to North Dakota where it had successfully albeit slowly filtered water from the Little Missouri River, my Katadyn Hiker Pro exploded. The pump split down the side and sprayed water in a fan. No sense in carrying that. There are some things even duct tape can’t fix. My filter along with my glassing tripod went back to the truck. Along the way I carried my rifle, on the off chance critters were bedding along the logging road. I didn’t want to be caught off guard.
A Surprise Encounter
But then I was. Carrying my rifle at the ready there was a sudden crashing through the brush ahead of us. Off to my right something really large came onto the trail in a panic. With the wind being what it was, she’d been on bed in the timber below but our scent cone had blown over her. A large, dark cow moose stood between us and the trucks. The encounter lasted less than 30 seconds, but it presented a quartering away shot at 20 yards. Had it been a cow elk, I’d have just had the easiest pack out experience of my life. Just like that though, she crossed the trail uphill, and then a split second later crossed again downhill and ran off. Embarassingly, I didn’t even have a round chambered had it been an elk. I promptly worked the action and flicked the safety back on.
I had to be sure it was a moose. It was dark in color but I didn’t get a good look at the face. The rump was about eye level though, and it would have to be a very large cow elk to meet that height. I felt like I needed to see the nose. When we got back to the trucks we made a game plan to push the blowdown hillside with the wind at our advantage. Sound however wasn’t. The dry Colorado landscape conspired to telegraph our every move. We never saw her again. We got back to camp in time to talk to some other hunters who’d come near our camp and then we put the valley to bed hunting until nearly dark.
Changing Weather Conditions
The next morning we had a dusting of snow, but we knew we were in for it. It was supposed to set in for an all day snow. We just didn’t know how much snow would be on the ground at the end. With the cold front upon us, I figured the animals would be hunkered down, so I wanted to cast a loop into a bedding area, through some blowdowns, skirting a saddle, and then hugging a creek. Sounds great on paper. Map wise we’re looking at about 6 miles, a pretty easy day. Famous last words.
We started up the hill, picking our way through blowdowns and small fields. I wanted to take routes to avoid the glacial deposits of large rocks that I could see on the satellite images, unfortunately that wasn’t all of the rocks out there. We stumbled into large boulder fields time and time again.
Picking lines through the beetlekill reminded me of navigating tops in Pennsylvania clear cuts while whitetail hunting. Unfortunately, these blowdowns created by the Emerald Ash Bore beetle killing the lodgepole pine lasted for miles. And miles. And miles. Eventually the conditions worsened, the wind blew mightily and footing became much more unsure. Hydration bladders were intermittently freezing, and snacks running low. We never made it to the saddle we’d intended on, and decided to turn back to camp as snow was mounting.
Down the hill we went, squirrels mocking us all along the way. Getting into what we thought were small fields on the downhill were actually spring seeps. No wonder moose loved this area so much. We hiked back down to the creek valley, but ended up still over a mile from camp busting through brush, snow, and muck until we got to a rocky outcropping. Finally a landmark where we knew camp was just around the corner.
Home Sweet Backcountry Home
Getting back to the tent finally, we were cold and wet. Beards were iced down, but finally home. We warmed up with handwarmers and bailed ice and snow from the footprint of the tipi that had shrunk from the weight of the snow. There are methods to guy out the tipi to better shed the snow, we just didn’t do it.
On the morning of our fourth day in the woods we decided that if the burn ban continued we just couldn’t safely stay in the backcountry. We had packed in our SeekOutside tipi and stove, set aside a pile of wood and kindling, and couldn’t even use it despite the snow weighing down the edges of the tent. We sent out an inReach message in the morning to see if the fire status had changed only to have my wife relay a somewhat snarky tweet from the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest Twitter account.
I’m sure it wasn’t meant that way, but when we were trying to be able to feel our feet after walking around in 8-10″ of fresh powder reading that message on the 2 inch monocolor screen doused our hopes of a warming fire. With that, and my pants standing ready to go from freezing overnight — we had to make it back to the trucks and regroup.
Tearing down the tipi wasn’t terribly hard, but lacking a thermometer we believe the temps were in the 10’s or single digits. Beards frozen we pulled the numerous stakes, broke down the stove, and packed up. The parachute of the tipi was coated in condensation on the inside and ice on the outside, making it neccesary to re-jigger my pack. Packs loaded and spinal columns compressed we crossed the valley and made it back to the old logging road to pack out. With breaking trail, heavy loads, and tired legs it was slow going back to the Jeeps. We managed about a mile an hour, mostly in silence.
Our hydration bladders had frozen despite best efforts to keep them thawed. With no water easily available and hearts pumping hard we resorted to popping some Clif Shotbloks into each cheek. Counter-intuitively, the salty supplements provide the needed energy to continue plodding towards our vehicles while allowing us to salivate. It provided a false sense of hydration but allowed us to get to our trucks where we could thaw iced water bottles.
After the slow drive out we regrouped in Kremmling and had a burger at The Grand Old West. We discussed options, but by now it was clear that we were headed home for the evening. Short of renting a hotel room and drying our clothes there — we didn’t see a clear path to spending the rest of the week out. Perhaps we’d pick up a day or two later in the week. So after lunch we drove back to Denver. A little down, but not defeated.
Hindsight is 2020
2020 appears to be all about hindsight, it is in fact 20/20. What could have saved that outing and extended it further? I put a lot of prep work into ensuring that I would have recovery gear for poor road conditions, added a snow shovel to my kit to allow for digging out an area if we scuttled camp. What I didn’t plan for was a way to warm and dry our clothes. After walking in a snow squall, doing creek crossings, and circumnavigating some swamps we were cold and damp. In the negative overnight temperatures we needed to sleep in thermals in our 0 degree mummy bags to maintain a good core body temperature.
Safety would absolutely be a concern if we had to do that more than one night in a backpacking type scenario. However, instead of falling back to the truck and then to our homes in suburbia, we could have went to a farm supply company and picked up some propane and a Heater Buddy. If we’d relocated to a roadside camp, like so many hunters who have their trailers with them, we’d have still been in the game. I guess you live and learn.
The season isn’t over though. Weather is improving in my hunt area and I can still manage a long day trip, but I won’t be camping out. Despite investments I’ll still need to dial my road game a little more for the conditions. Either that or I need to start building more points to hunt first rifle or muzzleloader.