Knowledge from Storms: Wheel Book September 2023 Entry

Training: Trust The Process

My partners and I had bucked the odds, killing two bulls in the last five days, but that was of little consolation as I went into the final day of the hunt with an unfilled tag in my pocket. My friends were encouraging and optimistic that we could run the board and fill the third tag in the next 24 hours, but I wasn’t so sure.

The next morning, warm temps and high winds made it challenging to hear bugles. We’d have to adapt and change our tactics. Although the wind was bad for calling, it gave me the advantage of slipping in close if we could spot a bull in a stalkable position.

The elk sought shelter in the dark timber of the pre-dawn light as the shrieking winds increased and the sun broke the horizon. I accepted that I’d done everything possible to train, shoot, plan, and prepare for elk season. My partners and I were experienced elk hunters, and we worked well as a team. My internal mantra for that day was “Trust the Process.”

After an unproductive day, 30 minutes of light remained in the season. Spotting a few young bulls emerging from the timber, we lined out up the mountain, hoping for one last opportunity. The wind was so strong it knocked me around as I hiked, and all I could do was laugh at the ridiculous situation. I’d need to get within 10 yards of a bull in these conditions to feel confident in an ethical shot. 

As fate would have it, the wind suddenly stopped, and the air became dead calm with only 20 minutes of shooting light remaining. Now, it was almost too damn quiet. Switching tactics, we began to cow call softly on the edge of the thick timber we’d seen the bulls hanging around last.

The subtle sound of a snapped twig clued us into the bull’s approach. Quickly ranging a few prominent landmarks, I knocked an arrow and prepared for a shot. Working on instinct built from hundreds of hours on the range and thousands of reps, I drew my bow just before the bull stepped into a shooting lane. A 35-yard, slightly quartering-to shot led to a short recovery an hour after dark.

The emotional roller coaster of archery elk hunting is an addictive, if not masochistic, drug that keeps me returning for more abuse. It’s easy to get discouraged with silent elk, hot weather, erratic winds, a missed shot opportunity, and sore feet, but in the end, we have to trust the process. 

The time spent, money invested, effort expended, and mental anguish of second-guessing your gear and scouting are over. It’s time to put your chips on the table, go hunting, and see what your efforts will yield.

Gear Locker: Hilleberg Soulo w/ Rain Fly & Poles

Backcountry shelters are expensive but can last many years, possibly even decades. I have tents and tipis dating back 20+ years that are still in good shape. It’s important to look for a backcountry shelter that provides good versatility, strength, and performance to adapt with you as you progress through your bowhunting journey and expand your experiences. 

Weight is certainly a consideration in selecting a shelter, but don’t compromise safety or comfort for a few ounces, especially when we all desire to come out of the mountains a few hundred pounds heavier than we hiked in. 

I’m a big fan of free-standing tents. Once pitched, they provide a structure to toss gear into quickly and don’t rely on anchors for strength and integrity. Free-standing tents are also easier to set up in diverse environments, such as small ledges on rocky ridges or sandy soil in the desert southwest. Tarps and tipis have their place but are usually much tougher to set up, especially in high winds and storms, in the dark, and solo. These types of shelters also completely rely on anchors for their performance, and if one fails, you have no choice but to get out into the elements and fix it. 

Over the last few decades, I’ve used many backcountry shelters on remote, gnarly mountain adventures. After several epic nights sitting up bracing tent poles to prevent them all from breaking, shoveling snow non-stop to prevent a collapse, and poor ventilation leading to uncontrolled condensation, I’ve come to rely on Hilleberg tents for their uncompromising performance. 

These tents are an investment and have never let me down. One unique feature of most Hilleberg tents is the ability to leave the inner tent at home and bring only the rain fly and poles as conditions dictate to reduce weight in the pack. This configuration provides an incredibly sturdy, minimalist shelter on quick-strike trips in permissive weather, as a bomber cook shack for fly-in expeditions onto glaciers or remote pack trips where weight restrictions exist. It’s quicker and easier for me to pitch the Soulo tent in any conditions than string up a tarp to seek shelter from the afternoon heat and sun. In the fall, I often run my Soulo in this minimalist configuration during elk hunts, where dynamic weather is a consideration but generally not the rule.

Here are the Pros of using this minimalist tent configuration:

  • A bomber floorless shelter that withstands extreme weather
  • Free-standing design that doesn’t rely on anchors for structure
  • Versatile to pitch in almost any terrain
  • Easy to ventilate and keep dry inside
  • Quickly deployed in the rain, snow, or high winds for glassing

Here are the Cons of using this minimalist tent configuration:

  • No mosquito netting can be an issue in a buggy environment
  • Will not keep snakes out of your sleeping bag
  • Does not provide a second layer of protection in stormy weather

Shelter is your top survival priority in the backcountry, serving as your bunker from the elements, your sanctuary to rest and recover. Without shelter, you’re in a world of hurt during inclement weather. I’m willing to compromise to save a few dollars or ounces on this life-saving piece of my kit. 

Hilleberg Soulo Tent (Red Label) $795 

Packed weight: 5 lbs. 5 oz.

Fly – 2 lbs 1 oz.

Poles – 1 lb 3 oz.

Tent Body – 1 lb 6 oz.

Courses: Backcountry Mission Planning

Backcountry Mission Planning is 16 chapters, drawing on my 30+ years of mountain experience. It focuses on preparing you for the upcoming big game seasons and all backcountry travel, making you a more knowledgeable Student of the Game. Use code BARKLOW to get 20% off an annual Outdoor Class membership and unlock all the knowledge on the platform.

The Closet: VBL Socks

Vapor Barrier Liner socks, or VBL socks as they are more commonly known, are essentially non-breathable bags that slide over or under hiking socks to keep your feet warm and dry. Think of VBL socks as rain gear for your feet. These specialty socks create a warm atmosphere inside the footwear system, reducing the foot’s exposure to cold, wet, or frozen boots on multi-day trips.

Exposing your feet to wet or frozen boots over many hours or days can lead to medical issues like blisters, trench foot, and frostbite, all of which can be trip-ending or worse. And while the atmosphere inside the system will become damp from sweat and many hours of hiking, it’s one of the best and simplistic options for these tough conditions. 

VBL socks originated from the mountaineering community to keep feet warm on long, cold climbs. And even though your mom probably hasn’t climbed a cold, high-altitude mountain, she may have utilized this same tactic, putting your feet into plastic bread bags before sending you outside on a winter day to build snow forts. 

I’ve always carried VBL socks in coastal Alaska, where temperatures can hover at or below freezing, and the humid climate doesn’t allow boots to dry in the field. I’ve unfortunately also seen the unpleasant outcome of those who haven’t had the awareness and been prepared and suffered mightily because of it.

Another decent alternative to VBL socks is waterproof socks like those by Seal Skinz. These hybrid socks look and fit more like traditional socks and may be a good choice, depending on your use. However, I prefer the versatility of a VBL sock unless I know my feet will be constantly exposed to cold and wet conditions, like when pack rafting. 

No matter the choice, testing these waterproof socks inside your intended footwear is important to ensure a proper fit. A dry foot inside a tight-fitting boot with pressure points and poor circulation will not work and will set you up for similar foot issues over time. 

If you live or hunt in damp climates like the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Canada, you should consider incorporating VBL socks into your footwear arsenal. Painful feet and a lack of mobility will limit your capability and shut down a trip quicker than a lack of food or damp clothing.

VBL sock: 

Rab VBL socks $35.00, www.rabequipment/uk

Seal Skins socks $45-$55,

Gore Wear Shield socks $55,

The Word: Perspective

Last year’s elk season tested my mental preparation and resolve. I glassed the biggest bull of my life on an incredibly hot opening day and had him broadside at 115 yards at dusk and was within bow range of several other mature bulls with zero-shot opportunities. I also ground through excruciating pain in my left hip and knee, which interrupted my sleep and challenged my commitment and focus.

I tried not to let the mental anguish during the season sour my perspective or slow me down. I refused to allow fleeting opportunities and any excuses to interfere with my goals. I never slept in, took a day off, or faltered to chase a bugle. My fitness was good, but I over-trained in the off-season, which hurt me.

I ultimately prevailed, killing a velvet Muley in Montana and a great bull near the end of September in Utah. I took the lessons learned and the scar tissue from the season into the winter months and focused on improving my capacity. There are only so many fall hunting seasons left for me, and I’m determined not to squander the gift.

September will be an emotional roller coaster drawing on all the preparation we’ve completed since last fall. We’ll undoubtedly endure pain and anguish in our quest to kill a buck or bull. We’ll get kicked in the balls, metaphorically speaking, question our actions, and maybe even curse the gods. It’s what we signed up for. It’s the ebb and flow of this primal game. 

Perspective is a beautiful thing because we have control over it. It’s imperative to get your mind right, remove all distractions, thoughts of failure, fucking excuses, and focus on the outcome. On opening morning, I’ll be committed to the process, confident I’ve done all I can, and embrace the fleeting opportunities I’m hopefully afforded.