By Scott Van Orman
Searching for the elusive elk: it can take you to the most amazing places, both outside and inside yourself. Places most people will never lay eyes on, and that most don’t realize even exist. It’s the sights, the sounds, the details, and everything in between.
My Green River Lakes elk hunt started with the inspiration from Kirk Billings, a friend who did a similar trip a couple years ago. I was inspired, not only by his success but also the adventure of hunting an area new to me, and the image in my mind of a mid-1800’s trapper paddling a canoe in these same valleys, gathering pelts, and living off the land until the next Rendezvous on the Green River. As luck would have it I drew the tag!
During the summer I was able to make a couple short scouting trips and was amazed by the grandeur of the basin that is dominated by Squaretop Mountain above the Upper and Lower Green River Lakes, Whiterock Mountain to the East, and Big Sheep Mountain to the West.
"Having harvested a dozen elk..., I have always been a solo hunter. This however, was a non-negotiable situation with my wife..."
I also realized that the area is inhabited by Ursus Horribilis, aka, the notorious grizzly bear. Having harvested a dozen elk in the Lander and Dubois area, I have always been a solo hunter. This however, was a non-negotiable situation with my wife, so I started to find a partner for this trip. After several friends were unable to make the time, Craig said he had 3 days available to accompany me as long as he could use me in his photos for Maven content. I thought “Sure. three days is better than giving up on the hunt all together.”
When we arrived at Green River Lakes, we unloaded gear and prepped for the adventure under dramatic skies and fair weather. Against a headwind we paddled across Lower Green River Lake, and after a short hike found a nice camp along Clear Creek.
In the morning we awoke to about an inch of fresh snow, low clouds and wet snow falling. After a quick breakfast we started up the trail and glassed along a series of meadows. All the while the thought of stumbling across a bear was in the back of my mind. As we hunted further off the trail through stands of timber I was, at times, gripped with the fear of having a bear encounter. After all, we were doing what hunters do - working quietly into the wind.
Early that afternoon as the snow subsided and the clouds lifted, we spotted a small group of elk with a nice bull high up on Whiterock Mountain. As afternoon turned toward evening, I felt that we would not be able to get on the elk before dark. I would rather not be out too much at night with grizzlies behind every tree, so I called the turnaround time. Knowing that we had tomorrow to hunt, maybe the elk would still be on the same ridge.
"When we arrived at the meadow where we had seen the elk the previous day, all we found were tracks and the strong smell of elk."
As we hiked down the valley toward camp in the fading light we spotted a small group of cows and calves emerging from the timber. I had an “any elk” tag so they were fair game, however a bull was my priority given that I also had a late season cow tag that I had good odds of filling. But the bull I wanted never appeared out of the trees. There was still tomorrow.
On the final day of the trip, we awoke to rain which stopped soon after we trekked up the north ridge of Whiterock. When we arrived at the meadow where we had seen the elk the previous day, all we found were tracks and the strong smell of elk. We paused for quite some time, glassing and taking in the tremendous views in every direction, but there were no elk to be seen, only the tracks of elk and remnants of glaciers that were here before.
Ultimately I was unsuccessful at harvesting an elk. But the fact that I had an opportunity to hunt in such an amazing place made the effort worthwhile. Despite the fear of encountering a grizz while tiptoeing in bear country, I would definitely do it all over again.