by Michael Ruhl
The mound of stuff in our living room had been growing for days, which wasn’t unusual for the week leading up to a big hunting trip. The content of the pile, however, was unusual. Coolers, camo clothes, elk calls, fire blackened cookware, all the standards of elk camp. Interspersed was vibrant baby gear; bright red backpack carrier, neon green high chair, electric blue baby swing, you get the idea.
Caitlin and I met ten years ago, when we were both working in Yellowstone National Park. Caitlin was a lifelong angler but had never been around hunting. Right away I recognized in her a skill set that would lend itself to elk hunting. She had been an elite athlete, loved being in the mountains, never complained about being uncomfortable in the elements, and never refused an elk steak. It didn’t take her long to become accomplished, even in some ways that had eluded me. Harvesting an elk with a bow, for instance. After nine years of dating, engagement, and marriage we decided to bring a kid into the picture. Robert arrived about a month after our 2018 elk hunt ended unsuccessfully, although true to form Caitlin had hunted seriously at eight months pregnant.
This year Caitlin and I both drew tags for New Mexico’s first archery elk season in a unit with good elk density but not known for big bulls. We know the unit well and had a good idea about a spot we could camp and find elk within a mile or two of home base. So, all the hunting and baby gear was piled into our little slide-in truck camper and off we went to meet up with Grandpa Tim and another couple at elk camp.
To say that we had some trepidation about managing a ten-month old baby in camp is an understatement and, obviously, keeping the little guy safe and happy was foremost in our minds. Actually elk hunting was a distant second on the priority list, although the big freezer at home was starting to look pretty empty and this was to be our only opportunity to procure meat in 2019. With that in mind, we agreed that any elk was going to do and we wouldn’t pass up any opportunity to fill the freezer.
The day before the season was spent in camp; preparing for the hunt, but mostly chasing the baby around as he explored camp at a fast crawl punctuated by trying to eat all manner of forest floor goodies. We also cooked a now-traditional open fire brats in beer & onions meal. Thereafter we split out time with one of us hunting and the other hanging out in camp with the kid. We would also take the little man out in the backpack carrier. I’m not sure that much of that could be counted as hunting, but he was thoroughly entertained by the walks. Grandpa Tim helping out in camp did allow us a few hours of hunting at the same time but as new parents it was tough to keep our minds from drifting back to the baby. Even with regular radio checks to camp, focusing on hunting was tough.
On this hunt we focused a lot of our time on a waterhole about a mile from camp, a spot that Caitlin has had success in previous years. On the first afternoon Caitlin decided to sit there for a while then swing back through camp before dark. Unfortunately, Caitlin’s departure coincided with the arrival of a bunch of elk precipitating a comedy of errors that is hard to even explain. Let’s just say that for the next ten minutes, everything that could go wrong, did. Suffice it to say no arrows were loosed and nothing was damaged outside of Caitlin’s feelings. I ran into a few elk in my wanderings, including a lone cow that nearly gave me a shot before the wind swirled and blew the deal. On the second evening Caitlin insisted that I head to the waterhole and sure enough a group of cows, calves, and one spike bull charged into the water. The spike cleared the rest of the group, offered an absolutely ideal close-range opportunity, and I managed not to mess up the shot. He fell where I could see him in a manner of seconds. Luckily, the shot coincided with one of our prearranged radio check ins and I was able to relay the good news to Caitlin before I even went to the elk. She was hunting close to camp and immediately went to round up Grandpa Tim, the baby, game bags, and other necessities.
I’ve been fortunate enough to harvest a lot of big game and honestly despite this being my first archery elk, the kill felt pretty business-like. Those feelings changed entirely when I looked up from skinning to see Caitlin coming down the ridge with my son peering over her shoulder from the carrier with Grandpa close behind. This was a family, my family, engaged in hunting together for food and sustenance. Darkness came on quickly from there and with it the little guy’s bedtime, so Caitlin headed back to camp and Grandpa Tim got his first exposure to field dressing a big game animal. My feelings of gratitude grew even more when Caitlin radioed to say that when our friends had returned to an empty camp they figured something good had happened, grabbed packs and headed our way. With everyone’s help all the meat was hanging from the pole at camp a mere three hours after the shot. You can raise kids or hunt elk on your own but it sure as heck is easier if you have a village and we are blessed to have a great one.
We were able to hunt four more days during the season but were never able to replicate my early success. It doesn’t matter, we balanced having a baby in camp and enjoying time in the elk woods. We filled the freezer, exposed someone new to a big part of what we do, strengthened bonds of family and friendship, and laid the foundation for our family’s time in the outdoors.
If I could offer one piece of advice for other folks considering something similar it would be this; temper your expectations. Having little kids in camp decreases your hunting intensity. We were darn lucky to get our elk but the trip would absolutely have been a success if it hadn’t ended with some meat. The trophy is the experience.