Paul Ulrich: Growing Up (Quickly) In A Wyoming Elk Camp

Guest columnist Paul Ulrich writes: "Lousy weather just feels right for elk camp.  A beach needs sun, Vegas needs strippers, and elk camp needs mud -- and snow blowing horizontally."

Paul Ulrich

November 05, 20225 min read

Ulrich at elk camp 11 5 22 scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

By Paul Ulrich, guest columnnist

The way you hear some hunters talk about elk camp, you are led to believe that it’s a magical place, full of amazement and wonder, the secrets revealed to bagging an elk, and an endless flow of your favorite booze. 

Others describe elk camp as a retreat from the daily grind and responsibilities of life.  An escape for a week or two that recharges the soul.

Of course they are all correct.  Elk camp is all of that and more.  To a lot of us, it’s a week or two that we look forward to all year and every year.  It’s a chance to spend time outdoors, with friends and family, and most importantly chase Wyoming’s most iconic big game.

If you’re lucky, the weather is terrible with plummeting temperatures and snow on the ground.  Elk start moving and they are easier to track. Lousy weather just feels right for elk camp as well.  A beach needs sun, Vegas needs strippers and elk camp needs mud and snow blowing horizontal.

I was a sophomore in high school for my first true elk camp.  I had been at elk camp as a kid but was more baggage than anything.

As a young man, with a hunting license in hand, the invite to join the adults was like getting invited to the NFL Draft.  When my dad asked me, I was over the moon.  I had made it. I was now clearly a fully grown adult and ready to be treated as an equal.  Some of you may be smirking with an understanding of what was to become.

Entire Camp In Admiration

As we headed to the Wyoming range, my mind was racing with visions of demonstrating my superior hunting skills and downing a huge bull. 

I could see the entire camp in admiration as I proved I belonged. Hold on, it doesn’t quite work that way.  In fact, reality sets in when you realize that there is a lot of work to be done to set up camp and you are manual labor. 

That year I was blessed to have my best friend and his dad join the hunt.  That means there were two of us to help set up tents, haul wood and basically do all the little things that the seasoned hunters told us to.  We did what we were told and marveled at the stories we were hearing about past hunts and adventures. 

Exhausted, the first night was fairly uneventful.  We slept, were awakened early and off to hunt.  Our true initiation into elk camp began night two.

Night Two

One thing true for most elk camps is great food.  I have never eaten as well as I have in elk camp. Some serious thought and generations of experience go into meal planning.  The other thing that is true is the flow of libations.  Beer was a staple but after dinner, scotch and whiskey arrived. 

For two kids experiencing their first elk camp this was awesome. We heard conversations around the campfire that we would never hear at home.  Barriers were dropped and we saw a new side of “adults”. Humor, laughter, and foul language all around and an insight into what makes elk camp so special.

We were not encouraged to partake.  As it worked out though, the rest of the hunters knew their limits and retired at a reasonable time.  As the two young hunters, we felt it was important to carry the torch and prove we belonged — which means staying up and sneaking a bottle of scotch.

The snow had begun to fall and we began passing the bottle back and forth.  The first few chugs were rough.  As chugs continued though, they got easier. The elixir also seemed to magically ward off the cold.  Minutes turned to hours and for some unknown reason, we weren’t able to get out of our camp chairs. 

Early morning arrived to find two idiots sitting, outside, passed out, and covered in snow with at least one empty bottle of scotch at our feet.  

No Compassion

A reasonable person might think that finding us in this state would lead to compassion.  We would be fed a warm breakfast and allowed to sleep it off in the comfort of the wall tent. Nope. A granola bar and cup of coffee and orders to get in the truck. We then spent the next several hours hunting and dry heaving. Mostly dry heaving.

Lesson learned, to some degree. I believe it just might be a rite of passage. 

We did have success that year and I credit the experienced hunters in camp for being patient and understanding and more than anything willing to teach us. 

Time With Family & Friends

Let’s be clear: there is a heck of a lot more to elk camp than good food and drinking. In fact, the overwhelming value to me has been learning to understand our natural world and time with family and friends. 

The chance to share in something we love is what makes elk camp truly wonderful. The opportunity to pass on lessons learned to the next generation or a new hunter is fundamental to elk camp. There is nothing better in this world than seeing a hunter harvest their first elk.

The pure joy of seeing a new hunter overcome inexperience, insecurity and nervousness to become successful is vastly more rewarding than any trophy bull. 

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Paul Ulrich