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Father/Daughter Adventure

January 2020
Story by Dale Rankin
Hunters: Courtney Duncan
State: New Mexico
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

There was one non-resident rifle tag available in this unit in New Mexico that had never had a public land elk hunt. According to the locals, elk only showed up in this area six or seven years ago. All of my Texas family members applied individually for this tag, and my oldest daughter, Courtney, was the lucky one to draw the five-day hunt, which started on October 1st. We were excited that Courtney would get to hunt with a rifle during the rut.
We left home three days before the hunt in order to have a couple of days before the five-day season started to scout this area we had never been in before. We stayed in a small motel in the tiny town 20 miles from the canyon. We found there was a muzzleloader deer hunt going on in the unit that would overlap our elk hunt. There is basically one 40-mile long canyon to hunt in this unit where the elk hang out. We focused our scouting in this canyon, and the first morning scouting, we heard a bugle. That was it.
The second day of scouting produced no visible elk, but we weren’t too concerned because there were only 20 elk tags for the entire unit and we felt for sure we would find the animals. We were seeing sign everywhere we walked in the canyon. The first day of hunting, we walked into the bottom of the canyon early to be near where we thought elk would be and waited for daylight. Before it was light enough to see, we heard a cow give a quick chirp. That was the sum total of our elk experiences for the day.
The next day, we stayed up on the rimrock and glassed the canyon, looking for anything. Finally, Courtney spotted a lone 5x5 bull walking along the flat bottom of the canyon. He was a long way off, and while Courtney was watching him through the scope, trying to decide whether or not to take the long shot, he disappeared into some trees. We thought he may have bedded in the trees in the bottom of the canyon, so we decided to hike down to the bottom to get closer and see if we could find him. What a hike! Just finding a way off the rimrock was a challenge.
We finally got down to the bottom, near where we had last seen him, and were never able to locate him again. Part of me was relieved about this because I was hoping for a larger bull for Courtney and the thought of packing him out up that incredibly steep canyon gave me the shivers. The problem with going down into a canyon is that you must climb up again. I’ve hunted the West for many decades, and this hike out with Courtney was one of the most difficult I’ve ever done. Climbing for hours on all fours up a steep incline with a pack on, busting through the brush, only to arrive near the top to find an impassable rimrock can be discouraging.
We found a crack in the rimrock we thought we could shimmy up and come out on top. Halfway up, we realized we couldn’t make it, so we climbed down to search for another break in the rocks to climb out. Finally, we found a spot and made it on top and to the truck. We had fun talking about this later and saying that only crazy hunters would attempt a hike like that. Crazy or not, we were having an awesome father/daughter adventure! We were both training for a half marathon race, so we were putting our fitness to the test.
The third day, we decided to drive to a different area down the canyon. Driving into the bottom of the canyon, we visited with some of the deer hunters and began to realize that they had probably pressured the elk to another, less accessible area of the canyon. There was an area to the north that was only accessible either by a several hour hike or by road through private land. Of course, public hunters must avoid private land where they don’t have permission to be. Courtney and I were getting a little concerned about having only seen one elk in four days of hard hunting. That day ended with more glassing from up top and no elk spotted.
The fourth day of hunting, we went back to a spot on the rimrock where we could see a long way. Nothing. We’d finally had enough. It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We drove on the public roads further north than we had been to see if we could access that area of the canyon in any way. Private land blocked any vehicle access to the canyon, and after our “death march” of the day before, we didn’t feel like another extended hike.
We drove the county-maintained road onto a small ranch that was close to the northern part of the canyon we wanted to check out. The road led to a ranch house where we parked. Courtney and I met the owner there, a nice man who looked and acted a lot like Santa Claus. We visited for a while and told him our dilemma and asked if we could drive across his property and park at the far end of his ranch so we could have a manageable hike to the canyon. He thought about it for a while and talked to his wife and finally decided it would be okay. We shook hands, thanked him, and he gave us directions on where to go and park. The rest of the story is like a happy dream. We parked at the far end of his pasture, got out, and walked a mile and a half on flat ground to the edge of the canyon. Right before us stood herds of elk. A nice bull, surrounded by cows, was staring at us 150 yards away. Courtney and I both saw him at about the same time. I handed her the adjustable tripod we had been using as a walking stick, and she put her .25-06 on the tripod and shot the bull. After days of struggle, it was as simple as that. 
The bull was only a little ways down the canyon, so we got to him quickly and got him quartered and the meat in game bags just as it got dark. We left the meat there because it was cool and made plans to pack him out early next morning. It was a happy walk back to the truck. We stopped at the rancher’s house on the way out and gave him the good news. He and his wife were so happy for us, and we became fast friends that day with the shared experience of Courtney’s elk.
The next morning, we got an early start. As soon as it was light, we were on the ground with our big pack frames to haul the elk out. We made two trips each, and again, we faced challenges. Making this trip on foot carrying little or no extra weight was not a problem. Carrying elk quarters was a different matter. Anyway, we each made two trips and got the job done in five hours. It rained while we were packing out, and Courtney and I got soaked.
Once again, we stopped by the rancher’s house on the way out and celebrated the successful hunt. We gave them one of the backstraps and were able to change into dry clothes, and the rancher’s wife offered us coffee and brownies. What a way to end a hard morning of packing! We thanked our gracious hosts and happily made the seven-hour drive home, grateful that we had made some great new friends and had such an excellent adventure.