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The thrill of the hunt

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At 17, Erik Olson, of Pequot Lakes, and Austin Mesenbrink, of Crosslake, figure they’ve been friends since before they could walk.

They’re pretty certain they’ve been hunting nearly as long. Deer, pheasant, duck and turkeys — the Pequot Lakes High School students have hunted them all.

In September the pair embarked on an elk hunting trip in the Colorado mountains that they say they will never forget — and can’t wait to do again.

Olson, a senior, and Mesenbrink, a junior, were part of a 10-day, father-son, cross-country trip that culminated with 5 1/2 days of archery hunting for elk in the North Park area of Colorado. The trip included their dads, Dave Olson and Brad Mesenbrink; another father-son pair, Scott Bredemeier and his son, Ryan, 22, of Eden Prairie, who own a cabin in Crosslake; and family friend, Troy Florell, of Jenkins.

They left Sept. 19 for Colorado to hunt with Medicine Bow Outfitters near Walden, Colo., a family hunting guide business owned by Florell’s cousins.

Erik had been rifle hunting in Colorado for elk four times before and had shot a cow while out there on a previous trip with his dad. Austin accompanied his dad out elk hunting in 2006, but he was too young at the time to hunt. This was the first time both teens were going to archery hunt for elk.

While Erik and Austin both rifle and archery hunt for deer, they prefer the excitement and challenge of archery hunting. For months before their trip, they practiced their elk calls and archery, trying to prepare for their elk hunt.

They spent their first night in a cabin on the outfitters’ ranch, then rode horseback, along with all their camping gear and food, for an hour up the mountain to base camp. They left base camp and trekked another 2 1/2 hours up the mountainside on horses until they reached spike camp, a large tent that contained a gas grill, stove and cots, found in a clearing among a thicket of trees.

The high winds made hunting difficult, since it prevented the hunting party from hearing elk calls. They also had to become acclimated to the higher altitudes.

For the first few days of the hunt, no one got anything. Two days before they were to leave, Erik was asked by Jamin Florell, a hunting guide, if he’d want to hunt with him at a lower camp. Erik strapped his sleeping bag on his back, along with some dehydrated food, and walked down the mountain in search of Jamin.

While hunting, Erik and Jamin found an elk herd, a nice, large bull accompanied by about a dozen cows. Jamin, who only had a license to shoot a cow, got one with a long bow. Later, they tracked her blood trail for about three hours, but it wasn’t a good shot and they never found her, Erik said.

Soon after Jamin took his shot, Erik had his compound bow aimed at the bull. He was shooting into the sun and took a shot when the bull was about 30 yards out — and missed. The arrow was deflected off a tree branch.

“It was kind of a heartbreak,” Erik said with a smile. He had shot a cow with a rifle as a ninth-grader while elk hunting in Colorado, but archery hunting was a different sport.

Elk hunting in the mountains was physically draining and a challenge in itself. It had snowed twice while they were on the mountain, and most days the temperature ranged between 40-50 degrees. Erik and Jamin hiked for about 15-16 hours hunting that day.

In early evening, Erik said they could smell elk in the distance. The winds had calmed down a bit for the first time in days, and they knew a herd was near. They used their cow calls to “get the cows mewing to each other,” he said. It took about 20 minutes before the cows started responding by heading in their direction.

As Jamin made another bugle call, the bull responded, walking up out of a ravine and within shooting range. Erik took a shot at about 20 yards and this time, his arrow met his target. It took about 1 1/2 hours before the bull went down, and in total darkness other than their lanterns, they field-dressed the bull and left it hidden by branches on the mountain until they could return during daylight. By the time they returned to base camp it was 11:15 p.m. and they were exhausted.

The next morning they headed back up the mountain on horseback with more help to carry the elk down. Four of them, including Austin and Erik, wore frame backs with 85- to 115-pound portions of meat strapped to their backs. During the five hours it took to get back up the mountain, clean up the elk and bring the meat down on their backs, it had snowed, rained and hailed, and they had endured 50-mph winds.

Erik was the only successful hunter this time around. They all decided to split the elk meat. The Bredemeiers fashioned a large, homemade cooler in the back of their pickup to bring the meat home, which was processed locally.

Erik and Austin both said they want to go back and do it all over again.

“It was an awesome experience. If we all had rifles, we would have all got one, and that’s what is tough about archery hunting,” Austin said. “It’s a lot more challenging and the rewards are better when you’re successful. This was Colorado hunting at its finest.”

Erik’s elk hunting trip nearly didn’t happen for him. Six weeks before they left, he suffered a dirt bike injury, knocking him unconscious. He broke his collarbone and suffered a compressed T7 vertebra in the accident.

(Jodie Tweed is a freelance writer who lives in Pequot Lakes.)