Donning a lightweight backpack, I hit the peaks of the San Juan range with a zeal that had flowed through my veins for more than 20 years. I loved the high, wild places of wilderness where few people had trod. It was a rugged existence, one that made me feel like a man and challenged me every day in almost every way. Scarfing down energy bars between gulps of snowmelt; dodging electrical storms, rain and snow; hiking until my legs and lungs burned and then going farther--it was thrilling! As the hunt progressed, though, I wondered how many more years I would be able to live this sort of life.
With archery season still a ways off, the first few weeks of my stint were spent rambling across the top of the world. With my bow back in the truck, I spent my days moving from one alpine ridge to another in search of my majestic and elusive quarry. The mule deer were like needles in haystacks. With my nightly spike camps set up on windswept saddles, I would spend the following mornings and evenings scouring the rims of the surrounding basins for big bucks. Few were the sightings, but the prize is always worth the price. And besides, there's nothing like watching a bachelor group of muley bucks at 12,000-plus feet!
As the late-August season opener approached, I spotted some decent alpine trophies, but only a few of them really got my heart a-flutterin'. It was these few, though, these big boys of rack, that held my attention. These were the guys I would put my effort into hunting. Would I win? From years of experience, I knew the answer to that question all too well--not likely! Still, I also knew I would be a winner whether I feasted on backstraps or merely memories.
Opening day found me attempting a variety of maneuvers on numerous bucks. At the end of the first week, though, my efforts had yielded only bittersweet results--frustration and exhilaration were my constant companions. With persistence, however, my number finally came up.
Waking well before daylight, I hiked the two-mile roundabout under the cover of darkness. Frost blanketed the ground, and thankfully, a bright moon lightened my arduous course. Finally making my way into the belly of a remote basin right at first light, I was glad to get a breather. The journey to this staging area had required me to gain a couple thousand vertical feet, and beads of sweat were popping out on my lower back. Taking a moment to down a few gulps of spring water, I stuffed a granola bar into my piehole and pulled my binos from my fanny pack. High above, a group of five mule deer bucks was slowly making its way down toward the clumps of stunted spruce that delineated timberline.
I had watched these bucks for the past few days in order to fully understand how they lived their lives. The resulting knowledge had led me to my current destination in hopes of intercepting the bucks as they made their way toward their daytime bedding location. The morning thermals were in my favor and would be so until an hour or so after sunup.
As I watched the big guys saunter toward me, my mind was sharp, my senses on edge. I crawled through the alpine brush to a position about 30 yards below the trail the bucks had been using each morning to descend to their daytime hangout. Pulling an arrow from my quiver, I moved slowly as my moment of reckoning quickly approached. The third buck in the procession was the object of my desire, so I remained motionless as the first two muleys passed. Slowly drawing my bow, I then sent a good arrow on its way.
In that remote alpine basin high in the Colorado wilderness, I reached a level of satisfaction I've rarely equaled before or since. A "poor man's sheep hunt," as some call it, that muley hunt will forever live in my memory.