High Country Nirvana

By Michael Benge

Michael BengeMichael Benge
Colorado, 2008, DIY, Public Land

It was early; too early. Hyper-excited to chase high country mule deer bucks, I had awoken before my alarm went off, and pumped up to the ridge with still a half hour remaining before first light. Blasted by a brisk wind that lanced my sweat-soaked body, I put on all the clothes in my pack, ate some gorp and waited for the sun to rise over the Colorado peaks.

Soon, moving cautiously and glassing both sides of the ridge, I spotted deer about 800 feet below – six bucks and nine does – feeding in a pristine alpine basin. Through binos, a couple of the bucks looked like big deer, so I set up my scope and fumbled to focus it with numb fingers. Dialed in, I could see that the higher-up buck sported deep forks and a super-tall rack, albeit somewhat narrow.

His companion wasn’t quite as high but was a heavy, wide 4x4 with good eyeguards and a left-side kicker. What set him apart was his massive body, which dwarfed the other deer, like an F-250 next to a Prius. Indeed, he was a monarch, although not one of the bruisers my hunting partner and I had spotted on our scouting mission a week prior. But my decision was made, and I settled in to watch the deer to their beds and savor the roadless, 360-degree view that included two wilderness areas.

Come early August (or is that May?), I begin squirming at my desk, daydreaming of the September bow season, which, at a month, seems cruelly short. Whitetail guys typically get three plush months, which gives them time to ease into the season and prepare for the rut. Here in Colorado, though, you have to pay your dues training and scouting pre-season. When season opens, you set the throttle on high and leave it there.

My high country mule deer fanatic friend, Scott, and I had been scheming to scout one of our favorite haunts all summer, but responsibilities like work and kids got in the way. We knew there would be deer there, but knowing there’s a few bombers always makes the anticipation that much sweeter. Finally, just a week before the season opener, we were able to load up our scopes and binos, and hoof it up to those dizzying, above-treeline basins that big velvet bucks and possessed bowhunters crave.

“That ridge scares me,” said Scott, pointing to the jagged escarpment we typically traversed to peer on bucks below. “Let’s take the low route today.”

I was simply happy to be up in the mountains and was easily persuaded, although it would mean we would miss looking off the far side of the ridge. The deer we soon observed feeding in the open, green basins and bedded in the scattered krumholtz, however, sealed where we’d be hunting at our first opportunity.  Unfortunately, it would not be opening weekend. Still, I didn’t have anything to complain about – I would be elk hunting with my 14-year-old son, Teddy, who, last season, made a clean, composed shot on his first bull elk. Scott would be deer hunting with his keen son as well.

Among a few different basins, we scoped 20-plus bucks, not many by some years’ standards, but three of those were enough to have us stammering. “I think that’s a 190-inch buck,” exclaimed Scott, glassing a deer bedded beneath low-growing krumholtz. Scott knows big bucks and has killed his share, all with his trusty recurve.

“I’ll take your word for it,” I replied. “Can you come in next Tuesday?”

Scott lives on the other side of the mountain range from me, so we made plans to meet at our high camp Tuesday of opening week. But, alas, on Monday, Labor Day, Scott killed a gorgeous buck with a 12-yard heart shot on his side of the hills, and, with packing and butchering to do, wouldn’t be able to make it to camp until Wednesday.

The next Tuesday, after frantically wrapping up work obligations and stuffing everything into my pack, I began the several-mile hump into camp. Arriving an hour before dark, I set up my featherweight tent, gathered firewood, and milked water from a nearby trickling spring. Enveloped by the mountains and being alone deep in the woods always adds a tinge of extra excitement, and I slid into my sleeping bag feeling energized.

The next morning, I made the aforementioned trip up to the ridge and found the deer. All but two of the does headed down toward the timber early, while the bucks continued grazing upward, finally bedding about 9 a.m. on a small, vegetated bench pocked with beds dug into the shale over thousands of years. After finagling around and kicking a couple of the smaller bucks out, the two biggest bucks, fortuitously, bedded in the two highest spots just yards apart. That would allow for the closest shot, and the closer the better when you’re toting a recurve. Fortunately, it appeared a blunt ridge would hide my approach, and a few stunted pines above the bucks might offer a sort of “blind.” At least that’s how it looked from 1500 yards away.

So, with my heart rate rising, I packed up and dropped through some loose cliffs into the basin and crossed a huge, rickety talus field to a 40-degree-sloped, grassy hillside 100 yards from the shallow ridge. There, I shed my pack and light hikers for the final approach, which made me feel much more nimble.

On red alert, I picked my way across the hill, finding it surprisingly quiet going on the shale in my thick wool socks. I approached the highest clump of low pines, hoping I could enter them soundlessly – and that the deer would still be there, unalerted by some fickle wind swirl over the ridge. The wind was steady, quartering uphill across me but not dead in my face.

Safely in the pines, on tiptoes, I could just see antler tips but immediately knew I’d have to drop down to the other tree clump. So, I backed out back onto the hillside and delicately stitched back to the ridge and found a narrow passage into the next set of pines.

As my head cleared the last branches, I found myself less than 25 yards directly above the big boys, able to see only their heads and antlers. What would Randy Ulmer do? I thought. He’d wait them out until they stood up for their midday stretch and snack, which might be an hour … two hours? It was a nerve-wracking thought, because my perch was steep and precarious and a wind swirl was inevitable. Tick-tock, tick-tock. An intense hour later, my feet were going numb and legs were on the verge of cramping, while the deer calmly chewed their cud.

Then, I looked down and saw the perfect throwing-size rock. Impulsively, I slowly grabbed it and tossed it over the deer (not what Ulmer would do) … or tried to. My arm caught on the tree and the rock dropped short, right between the bucks, which boiled out of their beds. I focused on the biggest buck, which stopped after two quick bounds. Instinctively, I drew and shot as all hell broke loose. I thought I’d missed as the deer contoured across the hill. But then, the big one took two huge, stumbling bounds straight down and – apparently very dead – started tomahawking down the slope. With a hanging jaw, I watched as it cart-wheeled, velvet shredding, for 300 yards before coming to a stop, its legs giving a few final kicks.

Sometimes things do just work out, and I gave thanks to the mountain gods for the gift of this day. Then, I crossed back to my pack and shoes, ate a snack and began the descent to my deer. With his antler tips blood-stained and velvet hanging like moss from a swamp cedar, he looked plain gnarly. Suddenly I felt very small, imagining, for some reason, what this scene looked like from a hawk’s perspective. Man and prey in an ancient dance in a high, lonely alpine basin. I was happy to be alive.

About the Author:
Michael lives in Western Colorado with his wife, Alison, and sons, Teddy and Roy, who are his favorite hunting partners. He is the Editor of Trail Runner magazine.

Equipment:
Bow: TradTech Titan
Arrows: Beman MFX Classic
Broadheads: German Kinetics 125-gr. Sliver Flame
Optics: Leica 10x42 binos, Bushnell spotting scope
Pack: Dwight Schuh
Clothing/camo: Day One camo, Peter Storm raingear
Accessories: Great Northern quiver, Black Diamond tent, Jetboil stove, Valandre sleeping bag, Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pad