An “Old-Fashioned” Wyoming Horseback Elk Hunt

Grizzlies and Wolves and Elk, Oh My!

My son-in-law, Ben, and I recently returned from a guided horseback elk hunt with Lynn Madsen, at Yellowstone Outfitters, Afton, Wyoming.  It was incredible!

Here’s what Lynn has to say about his outfit:

“Our Hawks Rest Camp is located in the Teton Wilderness northeast of Jackson…It sets off the southeast corner of Yellowstone Park between the Yellowstone and Thorofare Rivers (Area 60 on a Game & Fish map). It is one day-pack 28 miles, from our base camp at Turpin Meadows…The Hawks Rest camp holds the reputation of being the furthest spot in the continental United States from a road in any direction. Not only will you be hunting in one of the best trophy elk camps in the United States but you will also be hunting in country that looks the same as it did 100 years ago.

Our fully equipped camp consists of a large cook tent, shower tent, sleeping tents with cots, foam mattresses, and wood burning stoves along with plenty of fire wood. We are proud to say that our camps hold an excellent reputation earned by hiring reputable licensed guides, maintaining a clean comfortable camp, serving good food and supplying both good horses and mules and equipment.”

Well, our experience lived up to Lynn’s promotional material and then some.  We had a “once in a lifetime” experience.  Read on, if you are interested in the details.

Ben flew in from California and the following day we made the 8 hour drive from Fort Collins, Colorado to Jackson, Wyoming, where we spent the night.  You can fly into Jackson’s small airport, but it’s kinda expensive and you have to pay hundreds of dollars to ship your elk meat back home, so driving seemed like the frugal option.  Besides we were able to enjoy each other’s company and the lovely Wyoming scenery as we motored along.

On Monday morning October 9th we rose early, ate breakfast and made the 1 hour drive north and East to Turpin Meadows where we met Lynn, our guide, four other hunters and were introduced to our horses who would become our new and closest friends for almost 10 hours today.

Lynn provided quality, well cared for horses that are a cross between big, strong draught horses (for strength and stamina) and quarter horses (to reduce the size).  They are still really big, tall horses and getting a leg up into the stirrup was my yoga/stretching challenge each time we mounted.  Getting off was no issue, but is was a long way down.

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The yellow marker highlights the beautiful pack trail into camp.  We cross the Continental Divide at Two Ocean Pass and gain over 1,300 feet in elevation over the 28 mile trek.
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Hunters “chew the fat” while pack mules wait patiently

Heading up the mountain, we were passed by Lynn’s string of mules bringing our gear and replenishing needed supplies.  On the way in we passed several sets of grizzly and wolf tracks.

Nearly there!  Riding through the Yellowstone Valley, soon to cross the Yellowstone River, Hawk’s Rest Mountain in the distance.

Lynn runs an authentic “old-time-Wyoming” elk hunting camp in what’s locally known as “The Thorofare Country” where the Yellowstone and Thorofare Rivers come together.  Lynn provides everything you need, nothing you don’t need.  Accommodations are basic but quite comfortable.  Lynn hired a wonderful cook, the food was very tasty and filling and there was always lots of firewood, so sleeping warm at night was never an issue.  The main focus, as it should be, is having a wonderful time hunting elk in country few people are lucky enough to see in their lifetime.  Some folks prefer to hunt out of a fancy lodge with white tablecloths and down comforters.  Ben and I much prefer this type of experience for our “bucket list” trip.

Each day’s hunt followed a similar pattern: up around 5 a.m., head to the cook tent to make our sack lunch, breakfast at 6 a.m., mount our horses in the dark and ride for an hour or two watching and listening for elk.

We were in luck, as our hunt week happened to coincide with one of the three elk breeding cycles, so we heard lusty bulls bugling every morning and throughout the day. Lynne assigned Brandon to us as our guide.  He did a great job, putting us among  elk every day.  Incidentally, Brandon is Lynn’s grandson and made his first ride into camp on his own horse at age five.  He knew elk and this Thorofare country very well.

Opening Morning: Ben Gets His Elk

Opening morning, having breakfasted, we rode for 90 minutes in the dark, past the forest service cabin and the Yellowstone Bridge, into a small area of forest.  After dismounting and tying up the horses we proceeded on foot to glass the Yellowstone Valley to the north.  Immediately Brandon spotted  a large 6X6 bull elk (six points on each side of his antlers) with a small herd of cows and motioned Ben to walk silently ahead with him.

As I had previously decided to let Ben have the first shot, Brandon asked me to remain behind to lessen the chance of us being seen or heard.

Ben and Brandon slowly moved 50 yards closer where Ben could use a large log to steady his rifle.  Brandon used his rangefinder determining the bull was 300+ yards way.  After Ben got into position he took the shot, hitting the big bull in the spine and dropping him instantly.  A finishing shot was needed for insurance, then we waded across the river to admire Ben’s bull, snap some photos and call the mule packers to come and get the elk before a grizzly bear shows up.

Ben makes a great shot, you can barely see the elk across the Yellowstone River, lying in the meadow

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The successful hunter!
Such beautiful country

Grizzlies and Mules

After Brandon, with our assistance, quartered the elk, the mule string showed up.  Lynn previously explained to us that because grizzly bears are not hunted, they have no fear of humans.  They have however, made the association between a rifle shot and an animal carcass, which for them means a couple of days meals.  So, a rifle shot is like a dinner bell, attracting grizzlies to the kill site quickly, so it is important to get the animal packed up and moved away as quickly as possible.

Due to the recovery of the grizzly population (since it’s crash in the 1970’s from 140 animals to approximately 700-1,000 today) and also due to  increasing human-bear conflicts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department is currently considering removing grizzlies from the “threatened” list under the Endangered Species Act, but the debate rages on between those who favor limited hunting and those who wish to prevent hunting totally.

The mule string arrives
Packed up and heading out
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Next morning – a grizzly feeding on Ben’s elk carcass, the following morning there were two wolves on the carcass

Two nights after dark and once during daylight hours, grizzlies tried to enter out camp. Lynn had set up a solar-powered electric fence all around the camp to discourage the bears, but they are still drawn by the smell of food and elk meat.  On two instances the Australian Shepherd dogs ran them off, one night a shotgun fired over the bear’s head caused him to take flight, but they were ever-present.

Interestingly, the horses are not overly concerned about the bears.  They are pastured in the open Yellowstone Valley every night with large bells affixed to their necks for ease in locating them every morning, but are not tethered or fenced.  Our guide Brandon explained that a bear will not attack a horse as they are quite effective in defending themselves.

In the above photos: a grizzly bear photographed outside of camp, one of the camp dogs, Ben and two other hunters standing behind the electric fence and a view of the Yellowstone Valley from camp.

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Hawk’s Rest Camp and our hunt area

Yellowstone’s Elk and Bison Herds

Most of the Yellowstone’s elk are not in Yellowstone Park for most of the year.  The “Cody Herd” elk spend their summers in Yellowstone National park, then migrate east toward Cody, Wyoming to winter on private ranches where the weather is less severe,  then have their calves in the spring and move back into the Thorofare country for the summer.

For the next few days, we hunt hard.  Although Ben has already gotten his elk, he accompanied us for the experience, the beauty of the country and the opportunity to see wildlife.  From a hill northeast of Bridger Lake, we watched two bison feeding and napping all afternoon.  Soon Ben, feels compelled to follow their example.

Nearly extinct in 1901, two dozen buffalo remained in the Pelican valley, northeast of Yellowstone Lake.  Park officials were able to breed them with captive buffalo and increase the herd sizeably.

The Cry of the Wolf

While I was never able to capture a wolf on film, during our hunt we saw twelve wolves, saw their tracks often and their howling serenaded us on most evenings.

Thirty one Canadian Grey Wolves were introduced back into the Yellowstone in 1995, in a very controversial attempt to reintroduce wolves back into the ecosystem.  There are now 500 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and approximately 100 wolves live within Yellowstone Park.  From a numbers standpoint, the re-introduction could be considered successful, but the Canadian Wolf, a far more aggressive species than the extinct native Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf, have dramatically reduced the moose and deer population and wolf-livestock conflicts are increasing.  Elk numbers have also dropped as they make up 85 percent of the wolves’ winter diet.  Due to this situation, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have once again legalized wolf hunting.

I Find My Elk, We See Wolves and Hear a Grizzly

After three days af hard hunting and one missed opportunity, we find a small elk herd out feeding in the early morning in a meadow not far from where Ben found his elk.

The large 6X6 bull elk was standing nervously, while the cow elk were all bunched in a circle, looking outward with the young calves protected inside the ring, which seemed odd.  We then noticed two wolves circling the herd, trying to get at the calves.  Brandon told us the rest of the wolf pack was likely in the brush and trees hoping for an ambush.

Brandon had me move as close as possible to the to the bull, but we were still 230 yards away, with no opportunity for a rest, so I took my shot on one knee.  At the sound of the shot, the wolves and cows scattered and we could tell that the bull was hit because he headed in the opposite direction from the cows into a stand of pine trees.  Before he could reach the woods, I fired, hitting him again, but he managed to make it into the trees.

We waited a bit to let things settle down, retrieved our horses and proceeded to where the bull entered the woods, tracking him by his blood trail.  It took a couple of shots to finish that tough old bull, but he finally breathed his last and I had my elk as well.  Not quite as big as Ben’s elk, but a pretty bull elk nonetheless.

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Brandon and I kneel next to my bull

After Brandon called on the walkie-talkie for the mules, we immediately we began to quarter the elk.  Shortly, we began to hear brush snapping in the dense trees around us.  Our guide was sure a grizzly had located the kill site and was circling us to get a chance at the elk carcass.  Brandon took Ben to bring a horse in closer, explaining that the grizzly would not attack the horse and we should get behind it if the grizzly did appear.  The horse was acting nervous, moving to face different directions as the brush popping and cracking continued.  Brandon then asked me to fire my rifle and yell at the bear and so I did.  I then stood with my rifle ready while Brandon and Ben finished quartering the elk.  I believe I had the more relaxing time of it!

Mules to the Rescue

The mules arrived 20 minutes after we finished the quartering and the packer tied the two mules in separate locations to again perform bear alarm duty.  But finally the brush stopped cracking and although the mules behaved nervously, thank goodness the bear never appeared.

Now it was time for a leisurely ride back to camp and a celebratory glass of lemonade!

The Last Day – Hanging Out at Camp

With one day left in the hunt, our plan was to fish for Cuthroat Trout in Bridger Lake, but the temperature dropped to 10 degrees in the night and we woke to a couple of inches of snow in the morning.  Pretty, but not ideal fishing weather, so we spent the day in camp, doing chores, listening to one of the other hunters tell stories and getting our gear ready to pack out tomorrow.

Firewood: the guides and packers cut down dead trees, dragged them to camp with a Percheron draught horse and sawed them into splitting-sized rounds with a crosscut saw – no mechanized machinery allowed in the wilderness.

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Ben keeps warm and passes the time by splitting wood
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Our camp cook, Bridget, prepared excellent meals with very basic kitchen conveniences

Views from camp on our last day, horses grazing unafraid, while a grizzly feeds on the other side of the valley.

Lynn, the outfitter and Ben, Lynn and grandson Brandon our guide and Brandon preparing the head for a “european mount”

The morning of our ride out dawned sunny and cold!  As we rode we spotted grizzly and wolf tracks in the snow, passed two big bull moose and encountered a pack of eight wolves feeding on a carcass.

The ride back out was still 28 miles, but gently downhill, so we made better time, arriving in camp in about nine hours.  From the base camp we drove the hour back into Jackson, visited the meat processor to make arrangements to pick up our elk in the morning, took a much-needed shower back at our hotel and went out for a celebration of pizza and beer.

Next morning, we loaded up our elk (around 500 pounds of meat from the two elk), tied the heads to the top of the 4Runner and made the 9 hour drive back to Fort Collins.

The heads will be prepared as a “european mount” by our local Fort Collins taxidermist and “beetling” expert Matt Lorek at Rocky Mountain Headhunters.  This is how Matt describes the process:

RMHH uses the help of hundreds of thousands of dermistid beetles to clean the flesh and tendons from a trophy. This is the same method in use by all museums and leaves the cleanest most intact skull possible. Boiling a skull can cause cracking, brittleness and sets the grease and fat deep into the bone to be exposed years down the road as a yellowing smelly sticky skull. Once the beetles are done removing each spec of tissue from the skull we move to the degreasing process. Skulls will spend weeks to months in specially formulated baths removing the grease and oil from the bone. This is the most important and lengthy step which ensures a clean white skull for years to come. Once grease free the skull will be whitened with chemicals designed to retain the structure of the bone and bring out the beauty within. Only now is the skull ready for the wall, a sealer is applied and hanger attached.

Matt’s beetles get to work and the finished “European Mounts”

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The heads as delivered to Matt – not so pretty
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Matt’s Beetles get to work
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My finished “European Mount” which scored 283 points according to the Pope & Young scoring system
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Ben’s bull had longer, wider and heavier horns, officially scoring 323 ponts and mounted on a plaque of pretty beetle-kill pine.

The previous week, all eight hunters brought out a bull elk.  Of the six hunters in our camp, four of us were able to bring home an elk, but even the hunters who did not succeed agreed that we all had a fantastic experience in a part of the world few people ever see and our experience was worth the cost, elk or no elk.

We experienced remote, wild and beautiful country on horseback and afoot, saw seven grizzly bears, an even dozen wolves, bison, moose and many hundreds of elk.  How would it get better than this?

If you are interested, give Lynn a call.  Click here for a link to his website:  Yellowstone Outfitters

Author: David Willett

Worked at Agilent Technologies and Hewlett-Packard, attended University of Washington and Michigan State University, lived in the Netherlands, the Peoples Republic of China and the United States, visited 36 countries and 49 U.S. states, living in Fort Collins, CO, USA

One thought on “An “Old-Fashioned” Wyoming Horseback Elk Hunt”

  1. Excellent story and experience! Thanks for sharing! We are headed into an adjoining area next month, and I am wondering if I can pick your brain about some of the elk’s behavior and movement patterns? My email is: justinwp7@gmail.com.

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