This Labor Day weekend I went Mule Deer hunting in Colorado. I’ve been applying for an Early-Rifle, High-Country buck license for the last nine years and finally drew the tag this year. In this case, High-Country means that you must hunt above timberline, which is about 11,500 feet. The hunting unit is in the Sangre de Cristo mountains and I planned to hunt on the west side, though this is the same range where we frequently go backpacking. Hunting above 11,500 feet means I could either hike 4-5 miles each day just to get to the hunting area, or I could backpack in, camp, and then hike a relatively short distance each day. I chose to drive to the town of Crestone and then backpack to Groundhog Basin with Luke and Paul and hunt from there.
I was thinking that to make the most of the hunting season, I would leave early from work, head down to the parking lot at the North Crestone Creek trailhead, and pack in on Friday night. But, it turned out that Luke had a Rampart HS JV2 soccer match Friday afternoon so we didn’t leave until his game was over. We headed out around 7PM and took US 24 over Wilkerson Pass out to Buena Vista and then headed south through Poncha Springs. We crested Poncha Pass and it beagn raining . . . and then pouring. We continued on CO 17 until we reached Moffat, then headed east, though the town of Crestone, reaching the trailhead parking lot at 11PM. We put down the mid-gate in the Avalanche and slept in the truck until around 7AM when we got up, ate breakfast, loaded up, and hit the trail.
Saturday morning greeted us with brilliant sunshine and we were surrounded by the the sounds of the rushing North Crestone Creek, pine trees and aspens, and the rocky and rugged high-country. From the trailhead at 8,500 feet, it took two hours to get to the place known as Three Forks. Three creeks meet here as well as the three trails, North Fork trail, Comanche Pass trail and North Crestone Lake trail. We took the North Fork trail which ultimately leads to Groundhog Basin, San Isabel Lake and Venable Pass. Two more hours of hiking got us to the edge of Groundhog Basin, setting up camp at 11,400 feet on the east slope of Pyramid Mountain.
After a two hour rest, I got my hunting gear together and prepared to head up to a basin on the northwest slope of Venable Peak. Luke glassed the ridge line first, spotting a heard of 13 elk with one bull on the ridge at the west side of the basin. I headed out leaving the boys at camp to rest and by the time I got to a low saddle where I could look into the basin it had started raining and lightning. I sat for a while and glassed the area as best I could with my new Leupold 15-30 power spotting scope. High quality optics are a real plus in low-light and foul weather. I didn’t spot anything moving or laying down and, feeling a bit discouraged, I headed east around the edge of a large ridge of Venable Peak and back into the basin where the trail goes over Venable Pass. As I entered the basin, and in the pouring rain, I scared up a doe in the willow bushes and watched it bound away. This lifted my spirits some and I continued on into the basin picking my way through the soaking wet, dense, waist-high willows. I stopped at one point looking for the doe I scared off and looked up that ridge on Venable Peak and saw three more does way up at nearly 12,500 feet! I’ve heard that the deer hang-out really high this time of year, but I really had no idea just how true that was. Anyway, I turned around and looked up at a saddle on the north edge of the basin and with the naked eye I saw what looked like a buck deer. I said out loud, “what the . . . Wow! If that is a deer and not an elk it must be pretty big being able see it this far away”. I looked at it with Paul’s binoculars (I left mine way back at the truck) and they had now gotten water droplets into the right eye-piece (another reason to buy high quality water-proof optics). I used the clear half and sure enough it was a buck looking down at me. He had a great vantage point sitting up there at 12,500 feet, able to look down into this basin and Groundhog Basin to the north. I was getting pretty wet, and figured I’d head back to camp when I spotted another two does on the north rim of the basin. Hmmm…… only one buck, I thought? Maybe I should go up that ridge and get a better look at that buck.
It’s about 5:30PM by now and I start up the ridge line which is due east of camp. I can see the tent down below and can also see that Luke has a roaring fire going . . . in the rain! What a funny kid. I’m not sure where he found that much dry wood, but he looked pretty toasty while I’m way up here cold and wet. The rain let up a little on the way up but then the wind picked up and the clouds started billowing back over the spine of the mountain range in a circular motion resembling the surf crashing in the ocean. It was pretty neat to see. I got up to the area where I thought I’d be able to see the buck and it wasn’t there. I circled a large out-cropping of rock, creeping along and then out of nowhere the buck was standing broadside at about 150 yards. Not confident taking standing shots at that distance and out of habit I took off my pack and threw it down on some boulders in front of me and prepared to take a shot . . . only to see the deer bounding up and away. Disgusted that I missed that opportunity I followed the path I thought it would take and then spotted 7 more deer on the ridgeline, which according to my map, was at 13,000 feet. It’s now getting close to 7PM and the rain has stopped, so I headed back to camp to dry out and eat dinner.
The sun rises late on the west side of the Sangres and around 7AM on a sunny Sunday morning I got up and lit my trusty, old, Coleman Peak 1 stove to heat some water for oatmeal and tea. I barely got the water started when I heard two consecutive shots coming from the direction where I stalked the buck the day before. Man!, I thought. Someone just shot that buck. We didn’t encounter any other hunters so, I figure that they must have come over from the Goodwin Lakes area on the east side of the range. I rousted the boys and then heard a third shot so, now I’m thinking that they may have missed. As we were finishing breakfast I noticed something different about the ridge where I was the day before. Luke got out the spotting scope and said, “Dad, there’s like three nice bucks and maybe 7 does standing up on that ridge!” Wooo, hooo! That lit a fire under us and we quickly loaded up, put on our blaze orange to head out. While we were loading up Paul noted that the deer seemed to be gone, but there appeared to be a bear on top of one of the rocks. I looked thorugh the scope, and though it was difficult to say for sure, it was way bigger than a marmot and it would explain why the deer were gone. It was gone a minute later.
We went slowly up that nearly barren ridge the same way as I did the day before and spotted some deer several hundred yards away. Too far to take a decent shot. We were watching them for a while when Luke noted two bucks in velvet, much closer, at what I guessed to be two hundred yards. We watched them for quite some time while creeping around large rock piles to better position myself for a shot without scaring them away. Of the two bucks, both 4 points per side, the lead one was larger. I checked the shot picture in my 4x scope and it looked good, so I backed down the hill a little to chamber a round in my Winchester Model 70, 30’06. Luke says, “Dad they’re moving away and uphill”. So, I quickly get back into position and sight on the lead buck and take a shot. The report of the gun was loud and the deer goes down, but Luke says, “Dad, you shot the smaller one!” I hadn’t realized that the two had changed position in the brief moments I took my eye off of them. The bigger buck ran off and on our way over to the buck I shot, we scared up 5 more does, who didn’t seem to know where the shot came from and were just laying around. They ran away and we found the deer which slid down the mountain some 75 yards.
After cleaning up the deer, Luke and I dragged the deer up and over the saddle and then down to the trail. It took about and hour and a half to complete this process. We thought we might carry or drag it back to camp, but it was way to much. We put it in the shade of some willow bushes and headed back to camp.
Back at camp we ate lunch and talked about the morning’s excitement. We grabbed our frame packs and noted the storm clouds building. The plan was to de-bone the deer and only haul out the meat and the antlers. We arrived back at the deer’s shady spot and started the de-boning work when it started raining . . . and then hailing. The hail was bigger than pea size, but smaller than typical marbles . . . and it hurt when it hit you. We continued on, grateful when the hail finally stopped and it was just rain. We loaded the meat in black heavy-duty Hefty bags and then into my pack. Luke grabbed the furry antlers, and we hiked back to camp. That night, sitting next to a roaring fire, Luke and Paul roasted chunks of meat while we ate our cheese tortellini for dinner. At this point we realized that we left one of the backstraps on the deer, but decided that the hike back up the mountain wasn’t worth it, even though it’s probably the best cut of meat. I guess I was getting tired and anxious to get out of the rain that afternoon and forgot to cut it out. Strange how things work out.
Monday morning was bright and sunny once again. It seems to rain every day in the mid-afternoon down there while it’s bright and sunny in the mornings. We loaded up our packs, which are now heavier than when we packed in, and headed down the trail. It took us 4 hours to hike in, but only 2 1/2 hours to pack out. A 3,000 feet elevation change in 4 miles.
As is customary after a backpacking trip, we stopped at Sonic on the way home for burgers, chili-cheese Coneys and drinks. My body aches today from all the work, but every time someone asks me how the hunting trip went, I get a big smile on my face, take a deep breath, and tell them a story.
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