10,000 Feet

Greg Saunders (5-24)
Published in the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle Magazine, September - October 2010

Changes in altitude, changes in attitude, nothing remains quite the same.

10,000 feet is where aspen groves and huge stands of fir and spruce line open meadows tinged in wildflowers and hip-high grass. There is something very special about this number, something magical that keeps drawing my soul back to the same spot year after year. Below are the ponderosa and piñon forests, hot and almost desert dry. Above , barren scree-covered escarpments dominate like jagged teeth bared in defiant challenge to the sky. Above and below hold a certain beauty of their own, but 10,000 feet is where I choose to hunt and play.   

There is a spot in northern New Mexico that fits this description. In New Mexico, water is king, and if you wish to escape people and find solitude you need to leave the fishing waters behind. No streams or lakes to draw the crowd. No boom boxes or ATVs. No generators and no neighbors. I have spent days in this special spot and never seen another human. At 10,000 feet, it’s cool when the summer sun bakes the desert and high plains. In fall, aspens turn with the first bugles of a September rut and the clack of antler on antler resounds across the high-mountain fingers. Spring is crisp and ever changing, an alpine renewal that can leave you breathless. For me it’s about wilderness and nature, and ultimately it’s about family.

I remember the first time I visited this spot in the late ‘70s—lured there to scout in high summer by the promise of a bull elk tag in the fall, and led there by a brother-in-law who had logged the area a few years before. Imagine my skepticism at trying to bow hunt a logging operation. “Did ya leave any trees?” I kidded him. He just smiled a half smile and nodded a maybe. We cruised rugged roads through tall forests cut by deep drainages and virtual pastures of grass. Excited, he led me down a particular ridge to a spot I still return to year after year. A wallow, high on the north side of a ravine that overlooks a spring-fed creek lined in willows and wild iris. Game trails cross like contrails across a dusky sky. Almost in reverence he whispered to me, “Ain’t this just elky as hell.” 

That was some 33 years ago and the place still is an elky paradise. And so much more. It’s the spot where I taught my boys to shoot a .22 and the bow and arrow. I introduced them to flocks of wild turkeys, the taste of campfire-roasted spruce grouse, constellations and moonlit nights so bright you could read a book. We counted satellites and searched the sky for hours just to wish on falling stars. Once my wife and I spent three days in the rain here under an awning, tending a fire and simply enjoying the wonders of nature around us—not a care in the world. I called a bull elk into camp one night, all the way to the fire. I saw my first bobcat in these woods, fed chipmunks by hand and had the misfortune of finding myself between a lovesick porcupine and his intended. I've sat at camp and watched wild horses and elk graze in the meadow below us and listened to the bands of coyotes as they sang to the rising moon or told of a successful hunt.

From this camp we explore old mines, hike or bike miles of woodland game trails and satisfy the amateur geologist within us. This is mineral-rich country and many of my hunts ended with me carrying 20 or 30 pounds of rock back to camp, each a new addition to the homestead landscaping. I’ve chipped away at a bluff face 0f white quartz when I should have been hunting, just to see if I could find a trace of what the old miners were looking for. One fall I stumbled over the remnants of a 100-year-old shovel in a place so remote I thought I was the first to ever to visit. On it was stamped “Good Luck.”

From camp we watch as storm clouds build and roll toward us, lightning and thunder and whipping wind. I have seen summer snowstorms and blinding fall blizzards and winter days where it’s more than comfortable catching a suntan. At night, when all is calm and quiet, I have even felt the earth move.

Four dogs have grown old following me around these woods, and now a new one has taken their place, warding our camp against wild animals, errant butterflies and the occasional passing truck. Two boys, grown from infants to young men as tall as me, have shared this site and my many adventures. I hope their families will share it as well, each building memories from all that these mountains have to offer. Adventure, solitude, simplicity and best of all, companionship.

Hunting? Yes there has been a bit of that. Every hunt is a success whether we tag an animal or not. Usually not has been my experience, though I did kill my first bull elk with a bow not far from where we set up the tent. I have chased deer, called elk and flushed grouse up and down these hills and never regretted a minute of it. I have hunted alone and with partners, and each hunt was special.

Once I called in a bull that nearly stepped on my wife as she curled up in a little camo bundle waiting for me to shoot. Ghost bulls, herd bulls, satellite bulls, spikes and raghorns. All have challenged me at one time or another. I’ve shot over ‘em and under ‘em, and the trees in front of 'em. It’s not always like the hunting videos.

Memories of the outdoors and nature—that’s what brings me back year after year, season after season. Memories of the family and friends who have shared my adventures. Memories of my kids growing up. Memories of dogs, old and new. Spending so much time at the same spot gives one an appreciation of seasons and the rhythms of nature, ever changing and yet always the same. And of course, there is the anticipation of adventures not yet experienced, memories not yet made. Perhaps this year I will get that clean unobstructed shot on a royal bull, just like in the videos. Mostly I anticipate more exploration and adventure in these mountains with my wife and sons. Maybe, in the future, a grandkid or two. That number, 10,000 feet, holds a special place where I hope to camp and hunt for many years to come. And when I’m old and gray and can’t climb these hills anymore, I will still have the memories.