Cory Dukehart | Mossy Oak ProStaff
I should have been asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I was exhausted and restless at the same time. Exhausted from the trip across country and the hike in, but restless knowing that I am here. I finally made it and tomorrow I am hunting elk. I finally allowed myself to drift off into a light sleep when I was awaken by an alarm clock I’ll never get tired of hearing. A bull elk ripped out a bugle well before sunrise and from that point on, there was no more sleep to be had. It was opening day of elk season, the elk were calling and I was with them, sleeping in their home.
I grew up hunting Green Ridge State Forest, a 46,000-acre piece of state managed public land in the Appalachian Mountains of Maryland. To an Easterner, 46,000 acres is huge, but here I was hunting in the Caribou National Forest, which is just shy of a million acres of public lands in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. The mountains I had grown up hunting in western Maryland are hills compared to the Rockies. And you could fit Green Ridge into the Idaho unit I was hunting five and a half times.
It didn’t take me long to realize that everything was harder out in the West. It was harder to eat, harder to get water, harder to sleep, harder to stay warm, harder to stay cool and it was damned sure harder to hunt. Everything required more effort than anything I had previously experienced. The terrain makes you feel insignificant, like we as humans weren’t even made to be there in the first place. My sense of scale and perception were all out of whack. Trees and landmarks that I thought were 150 yards away were actually two to three times that distance. And while all of that could have been discouraging, it provided me with a sense of pride that I hadn’t really experienced before. I was here, I was experiencing it and I can come back and do it again as often as I’d like because I am a public land owner. This was the elk’s home, but I have a key to visit anytime I would like.
A lot of ground was covered over the next five days. My group was able to locate elk, mule deer, moose and black bear, none of which provided us with shot opportunities, but all with great memories. I am an elk hunting newbie. I am whitetail hunter from the East who grew up hanging out of a tree watching a bedding or feeding area. I had no real world experience chasing bulls in the mountains. But here I was packing into the mountains for a week on public land using an over-the-counter tag.
I am a “do-it-yourselfer.” I have always been that way. I know my chances at success are slim, but I find value in that. It’s what makes the experience intriguing. Certainly there are plenty of guides and outfitters out there who could have increased my chances substantially; I don’t doubt that for a second. I like to succeed and fail on my own, and when I do I can find reward in either outcome. Because in the backcountry, being able to give the effort to reach the glassing point is the reward. And while I didn’t find success in harvesting an elk, I can say with certainty that I was hunting for an adventure, and I have no doubt that I found that.
The public land systems throughout our country are the avenues to which any of us can experience the thrill of new sights and sounds. It’s been 11 months since I woke up to the sound of that bugle, but I still can place myself in that tent and open my eyes and hear it like I am still there. Waking up to the sound of that elk is a memory I’ll never forget. Whether you head east to my home to visit the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay and witness epic migrations of Canada Geese or head west to lay awake in a tent under a ceiling of stars in the Rockies waiting for the most epic of alarm clocks, there are new adventures available to any outdoorsman. You just have to allow yourself to go find them.