THE DREAM OF AN ELK GUIDEby Josh Wamboldt on 04/28/18
It was September of 2004, the morning was wet and had a like sprinkle of rain coming down. We had our horses saddled and were going for a ride looking for elk in the mountains of Colorado. Our good friend Dan Eckert was taking my dad and myself out for a day ride. We road all morning through pine trees, open meadows and aspen groves. We came into a small aspen grove with grass three feet tall but not 30 yards in front of us lay 3 bulls. Their wet antlers shining in the little sunlight that was pushing through the grey clouds. The grass had amazing contrast of greens and yellows with the bright white and black trunks of the aspen trees in the background. I could not believe at 14 years old that I was sitting atop a horse in the Rocky Mountains staring at 3 elk that had no clue we were even there. It was at this point that in my life that it all became clear of what I wanted to do in my life. I wanted to become an outfitter, I wanted to live the life of riding horses into the mountains and come out of the mountains with horses packed full of meat, antlers and camping gear.
The elk stood and their dark necks, and yellow bodies just seemed like a perfect fit to their surroundings. They were made to be in this terrain, of open meadows, pine trees and aspen groves. As they finally sensed we were there they froze and locked eyes with us, all their senses keying in on us to try and figure out predator or fellow prey. They slowly turned their backs to us and began to make their way from us slowly. They moved with such grace quietly through the grass and downed trees. Within moments they were gone, completely disappeared like ghosts into shadows.
I have always had a passion for hunting, I was 5 years old when I made my first hike with my dad in an area of Colorado called bear paw. I don’t remember a lot of it but one of the things that stuck with me the most was wanting to hike the entire way without dad having to carry me. I almost made it, but my little legs just couldn’t make it the last bit and dad had to carry me. I have always cherished hunting with my dad, always trying to learn everything I could from him to make myself a better hunter. My hunting passion came from him walking behind him for many years trying to place my feet just as he did to be as quiet as possible. I wondered how he could step on a pile of sticks or leaves and not make a sound, but when I stepped in the same exact spot it was like walking across a piano keyboard. He would turn around and look at me give me the hand signal to be quiet and step easy. It took years for me to master this Indian style of hiking so quietly.
I began working for a dude ranch, where my passion for outfitting increased. Taking dudes out daily into the woods and teaching them about the wildlife, terrain and history of the land. In the fall id pack in drop camp hunters, 3-8 horse strings lined up behind me taking hunters into the woods with their gear and dropping them off for a week. My favorite part was loading meat and packing out antlers for these successful hunters. Even though these were not my antlers or meat I felt a sense of pride in being able to pack these hunters out of the Colorado Mountains. Then came the year I went to work for Dan as a guide. My first season with Dan was in 2011 a five-day archery hunt, in the same area we had ran into those three bulls seven years prior. We made an evening ride the night before we began hunting just to see if we could spot anything a little way from camp. This is where we had seen a nice six-point bull, and his small harem of cows coming out of a wallow in the aspen trees.
I guided for Dan that year for three seasons, one archery and two rifle. Although none of the hunters I guided personally killed an elk, I was still having the time of my life. We had packed out many bulls though in some tough conditions. We rode some days for 12 hours in search of elk, blowing snow and wet conditions. The 3am mornings saddling horses before the hunters stirred, scarfing down a breakfast before leaving camp for the day and not returning until well after dark where hot meals and a fire awaited us. We would then unsaddle horses, unpack saddles full of meat and topped with antlers. The long hours, early mornings and cold days were the highlight of my year. These days guiding helped to drive my dream of one day owning my own business and making a living by combining my passions.
The stories that are told in elk camp around the night fire are some of the best stories you will ever hear. Guys and gals from all over the country in one remote area around a fire brings you back to a different time. There is something about sleeping in a wall tent with a wood stove, waking in the morning to a stale smell of campfire smoke and horse sweat stuck to your clothes from the day before is something not many can experience. Guiding these hunters in search of elk and deer is a feat not many get to experience. But in the end whether a hunter fills their tag or goes home empty handed, the experience of a hunting camp in the mountains is one of the most amazing experiences one could ever endure.
When you combine elk hunting with wall tents and horses the experience turns into something comparable to the old west. Most elk camps have modern amenities, such as cots, propane stoves, modern rifles, and food has gone from beans and potatoes to steaks, tacos and desserts. But at 4am when you swing your leg over that saddle on that horse, it’s as if you travel back in time once again. As you leave camp and it disappears into the trees behind you, suddenly there’s a feeling of complete freedom, a sense of being one with nature. These are the days that I have always cherished, the dream that I have always wanted, and a dream that I have accomplished. I plan to live this life, ride these mountains, and meet all these wonderful new friends until the day I die. The newest dream is to spend my last days in these mountains, ill hopefully be working until the day of my funeral and quite possible even show up late.
The one thing I ask is that I never know when the last time I ride a horse will be.