Elk and Early Season Snowpack

The walk had taken us thirty minutes in the dark and as we were coming out of the thick trees we spotted them.  There were about twenty five elk.  They had no idea we were there and we crouched and ran along the tree line to try to cut them off.  That was when we almost ran into them.  The elk had crested a low hill and were just standing above us at about 75 meters.  As a hunter you couldn’t ask for a better shot.  I froze and watched the elk before they turned and ran.  As I hunted for the next two weeks and didn’t see an elk, I realized I had learned the first of many lessons from elk.  As a mountain guide I have learned many lessons from the mountains.  But, this was my first from the elk.  If you want to put meat in the freezer, be ready.  I had squandered that opportunity, and elk don’t give you a multitude of chances.

I live on the west slope of the Tetons and get to spend a great deal of the year in the mountains.  Living in the mountains we are part of the changing seasons.  Each time of year has natural cycles and one of the joys of life in the mountains is being a part of these different seasons.

Winter has long been my favorite season.  Mountains, snow, and skiing inspired me to migrate to the Tetons in 1993.  For me, there is nothing like a day skiing in the backcountry.

Fall has always been a close second as my favorite season.  Temperatures can be warm, but not blazing hot like summer, the crowds have thinned out, and my summer guiding work has slowed down enough that I can actually get out and enjoy it.  The fading Indian summer days seem that much sweeter knowing that a long cold winter is knocking at the door.  As the aspens turn golden, it is a time of anticipation of winter.

The anticipation of winter is bittersweet.  After all, it’s my favorite time of year.  But, there is also lot of work to be ready for winter… harvesting potatoes from the garden, cutting and hauling firewood from nearby canyons, and the last house and yard projects before we get buried by snow for 6 months.  There is also the prep work for a busy winter of avalanche courses and ski guiding.

Fall is also a time of elk hunting.  When I started elk hunting 10 years ago, I thought it would be just another chore, a great way to fill the freezer for a long winter.  But, elk hunting has become a time of year, and a natural cycle, I look forward to with anticipation.

Heading into the mountains with a rifle looking for wild animals fundamentally changes my relationship to the world around me.   My senses are heightened and I feel a connection with the land unlike in other mountain pursuits.  Every day out holds the possibility of a magical encounter with elk.

Days start well before dawn and most approaches are in the dark.  Sitting and waiting to glass a mountainside or aspen grove I never tire of the subtle change from dark, to hints of dawn, to fiery sunrise.  Many a time, just as I think, “there are no elk here” a bull or a group of cows will appear.  They can just as easily disappear into the brush or slip over a hillside as if they were never there at all.

You never know how a hunting day will evolve.  I leave the house with a rough plan, but not a clear objective like you’d have when hiking, skiing, or climbing.

The day will unfold based on what I see, hear, smell, or a gut fell.  It is magical to encounter elk in the backcountry.  This magic doesn’t happen every day. Elk are wild and live in amazing places, and looking for them has taken me to parts of my local ranges that don’t see much human traffic.  They can be very hard to find.  They have patterns and places you “expect” to see them, but in the end they are wild and there is little rhyme of reason to where we find them.  As the old saying goes, “elk are where they are at.”  There is no substitute for being out as much as possible and looking, and looking, and looking some more.

Late season elk hunting has a strong connection to winter and the upcoming avalanche season for me.  Looking for elk and forecasting for avalanches are both forms of hunting, and hunting is all about observing.  In terms of observing, there is no substitute for being out in the mountains as much as possible.  As Doug Richmond from Bridger Bowl Ski Area says, “To know there, go there.”

Each year we follow the early season snowpack very closely.   October and November storms and weather patterns will form the foundation of our snowpack for the upcoming winter.  These patterns will dictate, in a large way, what kinds of avalanche problems we will see in the coming months.

This early snow also effects elk behavior and movement.  Getting out and hunting elk puts me in tune with the snowpack in a way that just poking around early season using rock skis on Teton Pass doesn’t.

As I am looking for elk I am fully experiencing the development of the snowpack.  At what elevations is the snow sticking?  It has melted off the south facing slopes, but is holding on upper elevation north aspects.   Below 8,000’ the snow is crunchy, I wonder what will become of that crust when it is buried?  Upper elevation slopes have turned to sugar or faceted… that may be a problem.

The connection between elk hunting and the snow and avalanches that are to come is tangible for me.  I’m heading out tomorrow to camp and hunt for a few days of the elk opener.  Snow is forecasted for the mountains.  Will I see any elk?  How will the snow affect the elk?  Will this snow stick around and be the foundation of our winter snowpack?  Not sure, but one thing is for sure, the elk are where they’re at.

by Don Carpenter

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