My Dream Elk Hunt with a Turnbull Restoration
When it comes to dreaming about western hunting adventures, for most people one thing and one thing only comes to mind: horse-packing into a wilderness tent camp nestled amid the ponderosas and overlooking a grassy park somewhere high above it all in the Rocky Mountains. Could it have been any wonder, then ,that when Doug Turnbull asked if I’d like to join him on such a hunt, I jumped-nay, leapt at the chance. Doug, whose Turnbull Restorations is one of the planet’s premiere firearms restoration companies, had successfully bid on a top-of-the-line guided elk hunt at a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation event and he wanted a writer to come along and participate.
The only stipulation, Doug explained, was that I’d be hunting with one of his beautifully restored 1866 Winchester lever action rifles equipped only with original style open iron sights. Would that be a problem, he wanted to know?
A problem? Not on your life! I grew up with iron sights here in the hills and hollows of southwest Virginia where, back in those days, we considered guns wearing scopes strictly the purview of “sissies” or town boys whose mamas had more money than sense. In fact, even some five or so decades since I popped my first groundhog between the eyes with my faithful old Winchester Model 55 single-shot, I still have the sneaking suspicion that rifle scopes are a red-commie, one-world government plot to destroy America’s marksmanship. Ever see a scope on Davy Crockett’s “Old Betsy” or Daniel Boone’s “Tick Licker”? You can bet your last chaw of Warren County Twist chew’n ‘baccy you aint!
Knowing full well that outdoor writers tend to be, shall we say, BS’ers, Doug insisted on shipping me the rifle with which I would be hunting, accompanied by a couple of boxes of the Coke-bottle sized .475 Turnbull cartridges for which the rifle had been re-chambered, and suggested that I put it through its paces. Frankly, I expected the shell-shucker to kick like a Kentucky mule on steroids, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that it just gave a good hard, business-like shove, akin to what you’d get from a 20-gauge shotgun, 54 caliber muzzleloader and patched ball or a departing Sherman tank. Expecting that the closest shot I might get would be at 200 yards, I set up a target at that distance and was pleasantly surprised – amazed! – that I could still put a decent group in a pie plate with iron sights.
Our jumping off point for the expedition was Gunnison, Colorado, where we were to link up with Dave Mapes and his wranglers from Quaking Aspen Outfitters. Since flying has deteoriated into an expensively irritating hassle, especially flying with guns, I decided to drive out and, truth be told, my old GMC pickup relishes a road trip as much as I. Loaded down with warm clothes, sleeping bag, the Winchester, a razor-sharp Havalon Piranta Edge skinning knife and, optimistically, three large ice chests, the two of us – the truck and I – pointed ourselves west as the eastern sunrise oozed above the misty Blue Ridge. I’ve driven west dozens of times, but I’ve never gotten over the thrill of driving across the mighty Mississippi, catching a hazy glimpse of the Rockies or seeing the first armadillo in its natural habitat – dead beside the road.
Two days later, Doug and I, with Michiganers, Ed Popso and Eric Huey, were greeted by Dave in his honking big truck hitched to a horse trailer. We’d be driving up into the mountains where we’d board horses for the final few miles into camp. Since my GMC is four-wheel drive and no slouch in the muddy stuff, I offered to take it along. “You got chains for all four wheels?” Dave asked. I admitted that I didn’t. Dave said that without them I didn’t stand a chance. I doubted his assessment of my truck and driving skills, but by the time we got to the horses I was a believer.
Arriving at Dave’s beautifully-situated and efficient tent camp at an altitude of just over 10,700 feet in the Gunnison National Forest, we sat around getting somewhat used to the thin air and enjoying the view. After two hours astride a horse getting into camp my butt was pretty sore – horseback riding is not my favorite occupation – so I was glad that I wouldn’t have to do it again until the hunt was over…
Well before daylight the next morning, I was awakened by Doug’s alarm clock and the sound of wranglers and horses stomping around on the frosty ground outside. A few seconds later it dawned on me that my equestrian experience was far from over. The first rays of the sun found us riding across the grassy park and plunging almost straight down into an aspen-lined canyon, my poor derriere doing its best to permanently bond itself to the saddle.
Doug and Eric had decided to stay high up where the wranglers knew a big bull was hanging out and the rest of us were barely out of sight when we heard a couple of shots. Had Doug and/or Eric connected that quickly? Or had the shots come from a small party of hunters we knew were camped not all that far away – “far away” being a relative term in the Rocky Mountains.
We were, after all, hunting on National Forest land upon which anybody with proper over-the-counter licenses can hunt, but Dave is one of the only guides authorized to operate in the area – whose exact geographical location I promised to keep quiet. This particular spot, however, is far from a road, hard to find even if you know where it is and arguably impossible to hunt successfully without horses.
Ed and I and our guide – Don Lopez, a slim-to-the-point of skeletal half-Sioux, half-Spanish individual straight out of central casting – proceeded a couple of miles farther down. Don informed us that all of his successful hunters had to bite their elk’s still-warm heart. Whether this was just to rattle us or a Sioux tradition he never said, and something about Don suggested we not ask.
Neither Ed nor I got a shot all morning although I heard plenty of activity above my position and Ed glimpsed, but failed to get a clear shot at a nice bull. About noon, Don decided that the elk had all migrated to the next canyon over.
So….up the canyon we went! Then down the next canyon we plummeted! My sure-footed little rocky Mountain mare had more or less gained my confidence, but I was still hanging on for dear life when, for some reason deep within her peanut-sized brain, she decided that I would appreciate a nice jog, and nothing I could do, including yanking on the reins, cursing and crying could convince her otherwise. My knuckles turned bright blue, and you couldn’t have driven a 16-penny nail past the ol’ sphincter with a ten-pound sledge hammer.
Tying our horses in a clump of lodge pole pines, Ed went upslope to an opening of wind-toppled aspens and I decided to watch a couple of small converging canyons below me with well-trampled elk trails.
Dusk approached rapidly. I could still see the Winchester’s sights, but right about then I would have appreciated a good light-gathering scope – commie plot or not.
Suddenly, I heard bush crashing above me, and faster than I can write this, three cow elk thundered by me, crouched behind a blown-down root ball, so close I smelled them. They were followed by a nice little bull. He was no trophy, but he had enough points to be legal and enough youth to be tender and juicy – it just wasn’t his day.
I threw up the Winchester instinctively, without sighting, and popped him solid just back of the shoulder. He somersaulted twice, kicked a couple of times and slid thirty feet down the slope. By the time I scrambled to him, it was over. Breathing hard, I went back and paced off my shot: exactly fifteen yards.
Ten minutes later, as I began putting my crazy-sharp Havalon through its paces, I heard Ed shoot. He’d dropped a nice six-point bull.
We quartered our kills and piled brush over them as protection from the ravens until we could pack out the next morning. Fortunately Don forgot about biting hearts. It was midnight as we rode into camp. Doug and Eric, we discovered, had also killed bulls.
Four guys, four bulls – one day – on national forest land. It was hard to believe, but true. While none of our bulls were out and out trophies, they were all five points or better and mine turned out to be the most tender and tastiest elk ever to grace my grill. Want to have friends? Just slap a dozen young elk steaks on the ol’ barbie and watch
‘em roll in!
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