Lots of Hoosier hunters are on pins and needles this week as western states begin mailing results for their various draw hunts. If drawn, and depending upon where they are headed, most are in for very different conditions than they are accustomed to, as well as dangers they probably never imagined.
Prior to spending the past 11 falls in Alaska, I spent 10 consecutive falls hunting, fishing and surviving the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. Like other lower 48 mountain hunters, I eventually learned that despite being more populated with humans than Alaska, the Rockies are still huge and unforgiving.
I experienced all sorts of challenges in the Rockies, but dehydration was always the biggest danger. At elevations where I routinely hunted elk, antelope, bear and mule deer, there was never enough water, and on one occasion, it almost killed me.
It was opening day of Colorado’s muzzleloader elk season and adrenaline was coursing through my veins. After a six-hour hike from base camp the night before and another hour-long, predawn stumble, I eventually plopped down against the trunk of an aspen tree.
Only a half an hour after full light, I knew I was in the right spot. Elk are smelly beasts, especially during the bugling season, and well before my eyes caught glimpse of anything moving I caught the unmistakable stink of elk.
I jammed a cap onto my gun’s nipple and scooted around the tree, pointing myself in the direction I thought the breeze was coming from. After 15 minutes, I saw the head of a cow elk crest the hill 50-yards in front of me.
A dozen other cows and calves followed her from the mile-wide, heavily timbered bowl I was overlooking. As they meandered around me, I sat motionless, waiting for a bull.
On cue, he came over the hill last. After making sure he was legal, I waited for the cows to part and move from behind him, and I fired.
I knew he was hit hard as the smoke cleared, but was dismayed to watch him use his last few steps to head back down the slope, into the timber.
After giving him enough time to expire, I butchered him with knives I had on me and quickly divided the meat into several 60-pound bags for transport. I easily got the first of eight bags to my spike camp a mile away, where I realized I didn’t have any water left.
It was a six-mile hike back to base camp at 9,000 feet of elevation, and like most places that high there were no sources of potable water along the entire route. Despite being only 70-degrees, it was sunny, dusty and everything, including the air, was as dry as tinder.
Nevertheless, I started the hike back with the first load already thirsty, figuring I could make it one way with no fluid. I was very wrong.
Half way down the trail I started getting nauseous and my head was pounding. I tried to press on with visions of my wall tent and water waiting for me at my final destination, but then I started vomiting.
I knew I was in trouble when I couldn’t stop the dry-heaves, so I dropped my pack just off the trail and made my way toward the nearest shade. I fell to the ground and after catching my breathe, I pinched my arm to see how dehydrated I was.
Normally hydrated skin bounces back into place. Mine stayed up out of place, only slowly moving back down.
My original plan to get the elk back to base camp was now a desperate attempt to get me alone to a source of water.
I could see a drainage 2,000 feet below the trail, but with the help of my binoculars I could see it was dry. I remembered a 20-foot wide, manmade cattle pond near the trail on the way in the day before, but it was at least another mile down the trail and was thick with mud and the droppings of constant visits from cattle and wildlife.
I knew even my filter couldn’t make the water potable, even if I could make it, which I didn’t think was possible in my condition.
My only option was to preserve the fluids I had left in my body until someone else happened down the trail. I knew I needed to stay out of the sun and stop losing fluid by sweating and exhaling so vigorously.
I hoped cooling down would also curb my vomiting.
I eventually fell asleep under a huge spruce tree and was wakened several hours later by a couple of hunters on mules. They saw my meat bag first, then me.
I drank some of their water, but did so too quickly and immediately threw it back up. They encouraged me to take my time and after sipping it for about a half hour, I felt energy returning to my muscles.
In one of many acts of kindness by other hunters I have witnessed while hunting in the American wilderness, they turned around and carried my meat and me back to my base camp.
I laid on my cot hydrating and recovering for 36 hours before I felt well enough to start the process of hiking out the rest of my bull. I carried more food and water on the subsequent trips than I thought I needed, but still could have used more.
Since then, I have hauled numerous moose, elk, antelope, caribou and bears out of the wilderness on my back. Though I have made other life-threatening mistakes and lived to tell, I have never made the water mistake again.
Don Mulligan can be reached at outdoor