Why I started hunting in the first place

(**Bear with me, this is a long one!**)

If you ask my husband he’ll tell you I started elk hunting after our freezer went empty for a few years after he had a few unsuccessful archery hunts. And he’s partially right about that. 😉 But really what made me realize I wanted to try elk hunting was my graduation from my nutrition therapy program.

You see, as a holistic nutritionist there are so SO many things you cannot un-know or un-learn. We research and study about the health benefits of conventionally-raised/harvested animals vs. organic and free-range. We study about how the different lifestyles of these groups of animals impact the health of their own lives and well-being. And at the end of the day, animals that are free to roam as they please and consume the food they’re supposed to in their natural habitat, you get a high quality animal/meat that’s highly nutritious.

Beyond the health benefits, I really wanted to practice what I preach. As much as the actual harvesting of the animal terrified me and made me sad at the thought of it, I wanted to put those feelings aside and prove to myself that I am a provider. And if I could see where that animal came from, be the person who harvested it, be the one who processed and consumed it, then I would better understand and appreciate where my food comes from.

Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. Now, truthfully, I come from a long line of hunters. I grew up in Central Pennsylvania where schools are closed (or they used to be) the Monday after Thanksgiving because it’s the first day of deer season. And given that I was dedicated to my tomboy-ness, I ‘hunted’ with my dad in the freezing cold while my sister slept in, in her cozy bed, and took advantage of not having school that day. I put ‘hunted’ in quotes above because white tail deer hunting in PA typically involves sitting in a tree stand and waiting (in the freezing cold) for a deer to appear and then you try to shoot it. It was the worst. I hated the cold, I got bored, I only focused on when I could eat the snacks I packed, and to my father’s disappointment- I never got anything despite having been a great shot with my rifle. I knew deep down that I just could not kill an animal. I loved their brown eyes and sweet faces and I would think about their families, I just could not bring myself to do it. While those feelings are still with me to this day, my mindset and perspective is totally different. I view hunting as the ability to ethically harvest an animal and put healthy, quality food on the table for myself and my family. Nothing goes to waste, and my respect and appreciation for the animals I harvest are beyond measure.

Now, before I get in to all the things I’ve learned during my 3 elk hunts, I will say this. If you’re reading this and thinking ‘I could never kill an animal’ and you consume meat- you’re wrong. By voting with your dollars and purchasing meat, you are, essentially, killing animals. And if they’re conventionally raised and harvested, then I encourage you to learn more about what the lives of those animals are like. The documentary, American Meat, provides a great look and comparison of conventional and free-range animal farming, along with solutions that people can take to support American agriculture.

What I’ve learned while hunting

Even though I’ve hunted and harvested elk for the past 3 years, I’ve learned so much with each and every hunt. Every hunt that I’ve had has been entirely different than the one before, but I am so incredibly grateful for each one. Here are the highlights of each of my hunts.

2017: My first elk hunt and to say I was terrified was an understatement. I was scared that the hunters around me would be careless and I was scared that I’d chicken out if given the opportunity to harvest an elk. I hunted outside of Alamosa, Colorado, which is sandy desert with sage brush (no trees), so mornings were frigid and afternoons were blazing hot. Add to that we hiked no less than 6 miles one way, multiple times a day (IN SAND), it was a physically challenging hunt. The morning of the 3rd day of my 5 day hunt, I finally had a bull elk close enough to feel comfortable taking the shot. It took me almost an hour to make that first shot. I was so scared, and I felt so bad for this animal whose life was about to end, but I had a job to do. I finally mustered up the courage and I did it. And I bawled. And bawled some more. I had the honor to watch these animals the previous 2 days and now I harvested one myself, nobody else, it was me. It may sound weird, but the love and respect I already had for those animals swelled to a whole other level and I was honored to have been able to harvest such a magnificent animal who would nourish my family so well. Beyond that, I learned that:

• I can do hard things
• I can put aside my fears to accomplish what I set out to achieve
• I can provide food for my family

2017 sunrise along the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.

2018: My second elk hunt was definitely something I wish everyone in this world could experience at least once in their life. I was lucky enough to draw a license for a unit outside of Creede, Colorado, truly God’s country. It’s everything a non-Coloradoan envisions Colorado to be. High elevation, stunning views, challenging terrain, and a ton of elk. My husband and I spent a few days scouting the area and on opening day we knew where we were heading to. With the bulls bugling nonstop, we hiked in over 6.5 miles to the place where I harvested my bull. I could go in to crazy details about each of these hunts, but long story short, we had to hike out 13 miles to get out to a road all while carrying hundreds of pounds of meat on our backs. That 13 mile hike included over a mile down off a mountainside in the dark, hearing mountain lions all around us. That 13 mile hike also included 15 river crossings… at one point around 2 am (in sub-zero temps), we tried to make a fire to warm and dry our feet and the only way it would warm you is if you literally sat in the fire itself. It sounds like hell on earth, but I loved every moment. We’d hike a little, then shut our headlamps off and rest for a few minutes and look up at the sky. We’d watch countless shooting stars and hear endless elk bugles all night long. We finally made it out of the woods around 8 am the following morning, and I waltzed up to an old ranch hand and asked him for a ride to our camp which was still about 7 miles away. The memories and friendships made will last me a lifetime. On that hunt I learned:

• ‘I didn’t come this far to only come this far’- elk are incredibly smart and elusive, and I knew hunters would quickly push the animals far back within the canyon I was at… I just kept going and kept hiking, believing if I put in the work then I would reap the reward
• There are genuinely good people in this world, and finding and connecting with them is such a blessing
• I am capable of asking for help when I need to- this is hard for me, I’ve always tried to do absolutely everything for myself without ever asking for help. It took everything in me to ask that ranch hand for help, and the warm reception (of hot coffee and cookies) was just the best

2018- My husband in the doorway of our camper, with a family of moose just across the pond.

2019: I thought my 2018 hunt was hard, physically and mentally, but this year had something else in store for me. My husband took me to Rico, Colorado for my elk hunt and boooyyyyyy it was a doozy. For starters, it was incredibly dry so any step in the woods sounded like Gabriel’s trumpet sounding from Heaven’s gates… Add to that, the majority of the terrain would be considered a cliff by most people it was so steep, and elevation over 9,000 ft always makes things interesting for the lungs. This was the first hunt where I didn’t even see an elk with my own two eyes for the first three days. I heard them, but I couldn’t get close enough to see them (mostly because I was busy falling (read: CRASHING) down the mountainside to look for them. And I wasn’t going to share this, but I feel lead to because it was such a huge lesson for me. My number one fear (beyond wreckless hunters), is to wound an animal. I never ever want an animal to suffer. On the morning of day 3, I was feeling discouraged from not seeing any elk and having so much knee pain from this insane terrain, that I got desperate when we spotted a bull that was over 800 yards away. I got down in the meadow across from him and placed my rifle on a rock, adjusted the turret on my scope, and settled in to take the shot. I truly felt like I couldn’t pass him up and was worried he’d be the only bull I’d see… I shot 5 times. I thought I hit him with the last one, but couldn’t be sure because he quickly ran in to the woods. My husband went and searched for him for 4 hours- nothing… not a drop of blood, not a track, nothing. I have not cried that hard since the day my grandfather died. The thought of me possibly wounding an animal just guts me, but my husband has reassured me that there’s no evidence to point to me wounding the animal. But I can’t stop thinking about it. Every single day I head out to hunt, I pray and ask God for protection and wisdom to make good decisions. And in my desperation to fill my tag, I let wisdom fly out the window and took a shot that I was not comfortable in taking. I was so (and still am) unbelievably disappointed in myself and my lack of thoughtfulness in that moment. Fast forward to the final day of the hunt, and I faced a similar situation. In my head I’m just thinking that it’s the last day of the hunt and every second is ticking away at my chances of harvesting an elk. My husband spotted a small group of elk across the canyon from us, and he ranged him at 880 yards. Can you believe that I actually crawled up behind a log, propped up my rifle, and took my rifle off safety? I did. And then I put the safety on and looked at my husband and said ‘No, I’m not doing this.’ He totally understand and supported my decision, but then the elk started to walk toward us. So we adjusted our position to where my potential shot would be 200 yards or less (I’m very comfortable with shots up to about 600 yards), but the elk never came. At that moment I was at peace with the fact that I wouldn’t get an elk, and it’s OK. But that’s when my husband saw the elk had moved again, and we were able to close the distance significantly. I was able to comfortably harvest my bull and fill my freezer. And although I wish it had been on day 1 and not day 5, I had learned some incredible lessons on my journey.

• Trust God- every day I pray for wisdom, and yet my desperation threw wisdom out the window even though my gut was telling me I wasn’t comfortable taking that shot on that first bull. I need to listen to my gut (to me that’s God nudging me).
• Patience- if I learned the previous year that putting in hard work will yield rewards, then I learned that consistently putting in hard work day after day will yield rewards, it just may not be as fast or look the way you want it to

2019- Me, carrying the last part of my bull that I harvested at 10,500 ft on the last day of the season.

My favorite part of hunting

I love the mountains, I love sunrises and sunsets, I love to watch all of the animals we encounter, I love to prove to myself that I can do hard things, and most of all I love the time shared outdoors with my husband. We have some pretty awesome conversations and I come away from every hunt feeling closer to him. (He’s a pretty great guy, and I couldn’t do this without him). He is in his element when we’re out hunting, and he’s such a great coach to me. He pushes me (but not to the point where I get mad), and he makes me want to be better and do better, and I want to make him proud. I couldn’t be more grateful for our time together during these hunts.

Final Thoughts

A lot of hunting has to do with conservation. I don’t think most people realize that the money hunters spend on licenses gets used for conservation efforts of our national forests, etc. Beyond that, when states release licenses for hunters, they do so based on healthy herd sizes. In an effort to protect land (elk can be very destructive), biologists work to monitor herd sizes and ensure health bull-to-cow ratios, and so hunting licenses are issued accordingly in promoting health herds across our state.

Not all hunters are poachers. For the most part, people who hunt do so legally and ethically. That’s not to say some people literally only hunt for the trophy/antlers, but there are a lot of rules and regulations in place to protect our wildlife and most hunters respect and honor that. Don’t assume that anyone who hunts is willing to kill an animal at any given point in time.

The actual harvest, for me, is the worst part. That’s when the incredible amount of work begins of processing the animal. But being out in nature and seeing these animals in their natural habitat, watching the sunrises and sunsets, the shooting stars (!), experiencing the extreme temperature changes… it’s incredible and truly an experience I wish everyone could have. There’s nothing like seeing the sun come over a mountain peak, or to see and hear an elk bugle, or watch a bear entertain itself from a distance. The beauty that surrounds us never ceases to amaze me and I am truly blessed to have the opportunity to witness it firsthand.

If you have any questions or thoughts about hunting (as long as they’re thoughtful and respectful), I’d love to hear them.