THE ELK AND TIMELESS
LANDS OF COTTON MESA RANCH
…by Doug Pike
This past week, the bold
bugling of bull elk filled the southeastern Colorado air. The sound is
hypnotic, a timeless symbol of the West that draws hunters from
On the way to Cotton Mesa
Ranch, a 10,000-acre spread that begins 5,000 feet above sea level and
tops out at 7,000 feet, Bill Carter and I stopped for groceries at Raton,
N.M. An hour later, we reached the ranch.
We rolled out of camp
late that first afternoon for a sort of orientation and introduction.
Taking it all in
The tops, bottoms, and
benches between them support three succulent, native grasses that paint
the flats a pale green. Violent geologic upheaval and volcanic activity
split this ground eons ago, showering it with random stones in random
sizes and creating those steps of lush habitat.
Draws that have funneled
runoff since rain first fell here are flanked by the darker green of
cedars, junipers and pinion pines that wick moisture from the damp soil.
We were not there to
admire the scenery (although ignoring it is impossible). We were there to
hunt bull elk.
My guides for this trip
had roughly 75 or 80 years combined elk hunting experience. Unless dreams
count, I had none.
We spent an afternoon
scouting the wide end of a high mesa, an area where both men had seen
quality bulls in the long shadows of previous days.
low-pressure system and brightening moon didn’t fully relocate the elk,
but the changes did shuffle the times at which they fed and moved. Martin
and Cockerell expected to see more elk, I saw what seemed plenty.
We exchanged bugles with
many bulls and closed the gap to fewer than 20 yards on several of them.
The nearer you get to a bull elk, the greater your appreciation for its
It wasn’t until the final
morning, after evening and overnight showers cooled the air and darkened
that filling moon, that the elk reappeared up top.
Just before sunrise,
Martin spotted a fine bull idling toward a stand of cedars.
“Put the camera down for
this one,” Martin said, “and get your rifle.”
Even at 200 yards, the
bull’s mass filled the scope. It continued to walk straight away,
increasing its pace after seeing us crest the ridge, I feared it might
make the heavy brush before presenting a favorable shot angle.
Cockerell offered a cow
call. And again. The bull turned broadside and paused, just
long enough. A fine 5x5, tall, heavy, and incredible.
The settlers’ life
In one of the valleys on
this ranch, overlooking a gentle turn in the river that sates the unending
thirst of tall grasses, stand the remains of a late 19th-century
homestead built by thick, calloused hands from blocks of red rock and
planks of cedar gathered on site.
The family that lived
here did so in two small rooms that backed into the hillside on the north,
blocking winter’s coldest wind. The modest dwelling opened to the south,
facing the river.
They had a corral and
stone barn for their horses, perhaps a few cattle.
And on autumn mornings
they awoke, and at night fell asleep, to the sounds of elk bugling
throughout the canyon.