When an Elk Hunt Leads You to the Dark Side

A short ride eastward in the ’06 Tundra led us to the southern end of Planet Hoth, a place none of us had ever hunted before. The cozy warmth of the truck cab's defroster was feeling extremely comfortable as the thought of a long day in sub-freezing temps started to become a reality. However, we didn’t drive all the way to this place to gaze lazily out of a windshield toward the frozen mountain in front of us. There was a mission to accomplish-fill the freezer with elk meat.

Shortly after the truck’s idle went quiet, the three of us analyzed the contours of Horse Butte and the anticipation of a shoulder season elk hunt was palpable in the air. We geared up at the tailgate and headed north, for an area we heard elk had been harvested the day before

Within a couple minutes of prodding across the prairie fresh elk tracks appeared before us in the snow. A closer look at the sign revealed that a few elk had headed off across Hoth in the same direction; good news we thought. We continued north and Horse Butte was getting larger as the truck started to look like a Hot Wheels toy back toward the horizon. We followed the tracks over the first ridge of the butte, and then the hill gave away to a small valley. We quickly glassed the area and decided that the next ridge would give us a better vantage point of what lay ahead.

Just as we crested the next ridge - ELK! Six cows making their way out of the draw and up the other side across from us. The range finder told us 500 yards were between us, too far to shoot, so we watched them trot further up the mountain and over the top the top of the ridge, out of sight. The close call kept our spirits high and we decided to continue across the top of the butte in pursuit. Who knows, we might get another chance to see these animals again.

A few miles into the next hike we topped Horse Butte. It was easy walking on the windblown ridge. It would be easy going from here on, we thought. After all, the burning in our legs and falling through crusted snow drifts had been a part of the humor of walking in.

Fueled with determination and jerky from last years elk, we started to make a wide turn that would eventually lead us back to the rig. With one last thick stand of timber left to work we decided to split up. Those animals we saw earlier had either held up in the thick stuff or had skirted away across the prairie out of sight.

Our hunch was right on, but the elk were one step ahead of us again and busted out across the sagebrush before we could get the drop on them. That was our last chance, only a few hours of daylight remained. We decided to head back to the truck. Our tired legs started to carry us through the crusted snow of a sage covered landscape. The GPS told us we had two something miles back and we could see a fence on the horizon marking the half way point.

About 45 minutes later the fence was still at a distance; a mirage maybe? The anticipation of a successful hunt had vanished and Gumby leg muscles were starting to weigh in. Each step gave way to deeper snow - you didn’t know if you were going knee deep or ankle deep as the crusty top layer shattered, and hidden prairie dog holes only added to the challenge. It was no longer humorous as it had been on the walk in, but we still laughed and joked about our miserable condition. None of us willing to admit this was the worst hike we had ever embarked on. Only phone calls the next day from the comfort of our homes would reveal the truth about this crazy epic journey of an elk hunt.

Eventually, the truck slipped into the horizon. It took us hours to do what would take less than 30 minutes in normal condition, but we finally made it with no daylight to spare. Our gear was re-stowed and we headed west.

As soon as we hit the highway everything in the windshield turned blurry and the road disappeared. Had the ’06 Tundra somehow developed a method of hyperspace travel that was going to get us from Planet Hoth back home in seconds? Nope. A quick look at the dash revealed we were traveling at a lazy 10 mph, this was just a whiteout snow storm. Another epic journey ensued, the long drive home was one of the worst whiteouts any of us had driven through. All of the cars in the ditch confirmed our feelings.

Nevertheless, we all made it back to the comfort of our warm homes with nothing more than a tale of an epic journey to a place we had only seen in the 1980’s film The Empire Strikes Back. A quick Google search after the fact revealed that Planet Hoth is “A small habitable world with a freezing climate, too cold for intelligent life to develop.” There is a reason we are fishing guides and not space travelers.