The Sisterhood Of The Outdoors Elk Camps – from Elation to Terror

Thanks to Amy Ray, founder of The Sisterhood Of The Outdoors, for telling this story, which keeps coming back to the terror that a bear can add to a hunt out West. Look for more stories from Amy that describe the camaraderie and experiences of the women who hunt. ~BB

I shared a pack trip experience with 9 women in Wyoming one summer, and I knew I would be back. It’s a love affair I have with the horses, guides, camp and the most of all, the landscape. The lure of the Washakie Wilderness has bitten me. I can close my eyes and return to a mountain top and the smell of camp – a heady mix of campfire, pack animals and fresh mountain air. Maybe it’s my drug of choice. But I have been back every year since that first trip. Each year having a very different experience – from moments of elation to sheer terror. 

Summer Elk Pack Trip 2013

The summer trip was great. We camped at 8,000 feet in a meadow by a pristine mountain stream. We fished for native trout and we rode our horses to the top of Eagle Peak just outside of Yellowstone Park. I loved the summer experience, but I was determined to come back as a hunter. I organized the First Ladies Cow Elk Pack Trip for 2015. I wasn’t sure if I could book a party of 5. I knew other women wanted to elk hunt, but I had never seen a group hunt for cow elk before, so I felt excited when it worked out and the first trip was planned. We prepared all year for this epic hunt. It became a personal mission of mine to introduce women to elk camp and the entire pack trip experience. Going after cow elk is less expensive and less time consuming than gaining a bull tag for this area. This hunt is all about the experience and putting meat in the freezer. It’s a great way to introduce women to big game elk hunting. And, who doesn’t love a grilled elk steak?

Sisterhood Of The Outdoors Elk Camps summer trip 2013 1

Ladies Cow Elk Pack Trip 2015

The first year is always a test run, especially when you take 6 ladies on a journey such as this one. We packed too much gear for sure, we missed some things we wished we had and we had a tight schedule for the hunt, just 3 days. The ladies came from all over the US. We met at the historic Irma Hotel the day before our trek up the mountain. First lesson learned, although it’s a great hotel with historic feel in the heart of Cody, it has no elevator to the second floor, which means carrying suitcases and rifle cases up and down the stairs. We now book only first floor rooms. The first night, we enjoyed pre-camp camaraderie and meeting our guides for license checks and questions. The evening is always filled with anticipation and little sleep, waiting for the 4 a.m. alarm to drive to the trailhead. My mind always races through last-minute checklist of things in my bags and where certain necessities are packed. 

That first ride up the mountain was amazing. The horses knew that it was time to go to work. The ride to camp is normally 4 hours, but on this trip, once we crossed into hunting grounds we split up and hunted our way in to camp. The weather cooperated and we enjoyed sunny, cool days and not-so-cold nights. 

On day #1, my partner and I found an elk herd and I let her shoot first; I’ve already taken elk and she had never done it before. We set up for a long shot … and she missed over the back of the cow. Had she made that shot, there would have been high fives all around and little bit of jumping up and down. And we were OK with the results, because at least we tried. Back at camp for the evening, we felt sore from riding and dead tired. Another hunter filled her tag. After sharing her story of success and hearing about everyone’s days, the ladies unpacked their bedrolls and crashed. The next day’s strategy was built around the sightings of the previous day. Another hunter in camp also had a missed opportunity, but she was not the least bit upset about it. The ladies we had in camp were truly amazing. The best attitudes create great experiences and these ladies exhibited impressively joyful and patient qualities. After all, it is hunting. 

Sisterhood Of The Outdoors Elk Camps summer trip 2013 Elk Pack Trip

My second day unfolded as more exciting than we planned. I learned a lot about myself in a very short amount of time. Our guide took us to an amazing valley where you can spot the elk migration from the mountain tops. A prayer of mine is to be in that valley when a thousand head of elk spill over from Yellowstone on their way to winter grounds. Our late afternoon “sit” in the valley ended with an event that will stay with me forever. A grizzly bear came up the trail right behind us. At a moment before last light, I felt like I had to turn around and see behind me and saw a large boar coming right toward us. Our guide acted and stood his ground with his hands in the air and pistol drawn; when the bear wasn’t having it, the guide politely yelled, “Amy, load that 7mm!” That’s my gun! 

I went into action and with shaky hands, I pulled 2 rounds out of my belt sheath and loaded them. I clicked off the safety and readied myself. I had a giant grizzly bear in my sights and I was dead still. My friend also loaded her gun and had him in her sights. She began to yell along with the guide and I couldn’t find my voice. Nope, not a word from me; I was super focused on the shot to be able to yell. He sniffed and snapped at us and tried to decide what to do for way too long. I lost my ability to tell time temporarily, a normal thing that happens when under stress. Thankfully he decided we were too much and he lumbered away back down the trail. I think we each took 2 steps to get saddled in for the ride back to camp. I teach personal security and safety and I truly experienced my brain not having any information to draw on for handling this situation. We don’t train for grizzly bear attacks back in the South, where I come from. Once at camp, I had a full-on, come-apart break down. I couldn’t stop shaking. I’ve never experienced fear like that before and I was on adrenaline overload at high altitude. It was not pretty. 

Sisterhood Of The Outdoors Elk Camps summer trip 2013 3

The last day we scouted in the morning and found some elk high on a ridge. At lunch, we had to pack up for the end of the trip. Some ladies chose to head back to town and have a nice slow afternoon ride and of course, get a hot shower. My partner and I, being driven and not having a normal stop button, wanted to hunt our way out the last afternoon. 

We knew where the herd was located, we just had to get to them. We took a trail ride up what is locally known as the elevator – a very steep ridge. Once we could see through the trees to the elk, we dismounted. We were within 350- to 400-yards of the elk. We set up on our sticks and counted down so we fired at cows at the same time. Hers dropped and mine was hit, but not down. Immediately we watched the herd climb up above the tree line … but we didn’t see evidence of a wounded cow in the group. We just had to get to the other side and take care of business. We quickly went to the downed cow and, as a team, made quick work of the meat packing. We then blood-trailed mine and began to run out of daylight. The guide left us with the pack mule and meat and tracked a short while on his own. He came back with news that she had gained strength and adrenaline and headed down the valley. She knew there were bears in the area and she was putting distance between us. A decision had to be made to leave her and get safely off the mountain. 

Darkness followed, and we were riding out in the dark from the mountain tops. I remember my horse turning its head downhill with a vengeance to get off the top trail. The 40 mph winds at below freezing temps were almost too much for us. It only lasted about 20 minutes and we descended into the forest out of the wind. The time was 6 p.m., and we still had 4 hours to go till we reached the trailhead. I’ve never ridden a horse in the dark and was amazed at the light under the full moon. Especially where there was snow on the ground, the white reflection from the full moon was just enough light to not have on a head lamp. I was the last horse in the mule train bringing up the rear. We had 2 more bears coming toward us to the smell of our meat. The guide started steering us off the trail and yelling loudly. Then he asked me to turn on my head lamp and turn around to see if I could spot any green eyes. By now I was overdone and ready to be off the mountain. I did the quickest ever light check and just said I didn’t see any eyes. At this point I didn’t want to see anything. We had more trouble in the dark when we missed the trail by a few yards and found ourselves dismounting in a boulder field to walk the horses down to the trail. After the 2 bears came up hill toward us, I was not the least bit happy about walking my horse downhill, but I wanted desperately to get off the mountain. We finally made it to the trailhead about midnight. We had just enough energy left to unpack the mules and load our gear into our car. I probably shouldn’t tell this part, but back at the hotel, we didn’t shower before we fell fast asleep. It wasn’t until the next morning that I found enough energy to get cleaned up. The first thing I did was check in with my family to tell them of my adventure and my encounter. They were happy it turned out good for us, but not real pleased that I was coming home with an empty cooler. 

Sisterhood Of The Outdoors Elk Camps Year 1 cow trip 2

Ladies Cow Elk Pack Trip 2016

Year #2 turned out to be another sell-out. We had a party of 6 ladies again. Two were returning with me for a second attempt at a cow elk. We had fallen in love with the journey and counted the days all year until we could once again ride off the beaten path into elk country. The best way to describe this year would be the word “success.” We reorganized this schedule based on a debriefing with our outfitter from year 1. We added a day and planned to hunt after we set up camp and not hunt our way in and out. This made for a much more enjoyable experience and more time around the campfire. I enjoy watching the first-time elk hunters more than anything. This second year we had a first timer on a horse, first timer camping outside and first timer on a rifle big game hunt. We broke her in good, right from day 1. Being there for these women when they tagged out was something I will never forget. It’s as if I helped bring them a gift, a gift of memories to last a lifetime. I heard stories of ladies crawling on hands and knees just to make it to the steep terrain to get a shot at a cow. Stories of misses, but second and third shots that rang true. And stories of back straps that they could not wait to share with family and friends. I believe we cooked some form of fresh elk every night at camp that year. I even tried sautéed elk heart for the first time. The meat pole was full, and we had an amazing hunt together. The excitement was overwhelming as we rode back into town to take our elk to the processors. I remember rolling down the truck window in Cody and yelling out to people at the gas station, “Hey, we tagged out!” Yes, I was a little delirious from being high on the journey, but it just spills out of you. I will never forget that feeling of success. This trip had become my annual soul searching and personal rejuvenation trip. Of course, I had to plan year #3 as soon as I returned from year #2. I now have a standing date each year with our outfitter. The cow elk hunt has become an annual event not to be missed. 

Sisterhood Of The Outdoors Elk Camps Year 1 cow trip

Ladies Cow Elk Pack Trip 2017

Year #3 took a long time to get here. It seems like 12 months is forever when all you want to do is get back up the mountain. A lot can happen in a year, waiting to go on an elk hunt. I discovered I have alpha-gal, the allergy to meat. I had a terrible near-death experience along the journey to finding out what was wrong. On the bright side, I met a trauma nurse that likes to hunt, so I invited her on my cow elk pack trip. We had a great group of ladies on this trip: my nurse, a good friend of mine from Georgia and her friend from her Georgia deer camp and a retired veteran. We had one lady cancel for family reasons this year, so we were a party of 5. I was happy to be back on the mountain and share my love of this hunt with these ladies. 

There is a saying in Wyoming: “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.” Well, we had to wait more than 5 minutes on days #1 and #2. We had high winds and deep heavy snow for the first 24 hours. We saw elk as we hunted, but we had fog roll in and lost visibility for making a clean shot. On day 2, things went from bad to worse. The weather was better, and my partner and I had hunted close to camp and had no luck. We were the first to arrive back at camp for dinner. As we settled into the warm dining tents the base camp radio went off. News of a cow elk down, a first elk for a first timer! We had a celebratory moment and then it turned to tragedy. The second radio call came in sort of unclear, but we did hear the words “bear and medic kit on the trail.” 

GRIZZLY BEAR

I locked eyes with my guide as he zipped his parka, grabbed a shotgun and instructed the wranglers on which horse and mule to get saddled immediately. The guide and wrangler took off to go meet the hunter and guide, not knowing what to expect. We were left at camp to wonder if our friends were alive or not and prayed it was not bad. Appetites were instantly gone, and we went into triage mode. We had a trauma nurse with us, so she helped us gather supplies for first aid. We finally got another radio call to clear the dining room tent and set up triage, their ETA was 10 minutes. That call made it seem real. 

As a team, we cleared out tables, chairs and bear boxes. We stoked the fires in the stoves to warm the tent and we boiled water in wash bins. Elk camp at 8,000 feet is hardly a sterile situation. As the guides came back into camp with the wounded hunter and guide, they took immediate action to save their lives. Our nurse friend took over patient care, the guides began the radio calls for helicopter evacuation and everyone else pitched in to do whatever it took to save them. 

The bear had come in hot to take the elk way from the hunters; they had no time to react. They are both amazing people with a will to survive. I will never know how they could mount a horse and ride back to camp with the injuries they sustained. They were gravely injured and needed immediate care. Everyone played a role in getting them safely off the mountain. Waiting for the helicopters to come was the hardest part. We needed them as fast as they could come. We took the lanterns from camp and lit the meadow up like a run way for the landing area. We cleaned up what was supposed to be dinner, we gathered emergency phone numbers, we boiled more water, we built a bigger fire, we hauled wood to keep everyone warm, we handed supplies through the tent opening as the patients were taken care of by our nurse in camp. It was a well-orchestrated rescue with each person in camp playing a role in helping make it go smoothly and most of all helping to save our friends’ lives. It was surreal that this even had happened. We know we are in bear country, we are prepared for bear country. You do the best you can, but when a grizzly bear wants to eat, you lose. 

It was kind of the perfect storm – early deep snow and hungry bear after the same elk as us. We are prepared and have bear spray and experienced guides, but everything you know to do didn’t work that day. It was terrifying for all involved. I feel responsible for my hunters whom I invite to camp each year. I felt I needed to be strong for everyone and remained calm as possible during the entire ordeal. There was relief when the patients were finally lifted off the mountain, but it didn’t last long. The next thing I thought of was what if their families can’t make it to them. All I wanted to do was get off the mountain and go to them as fast as I could. No one slept that night; we spent a couple hours cleaning up camp after the wounded friends left. 

We lay down, but found ourselves shaking in disbelief at what we had just been through and our thoughts were with our injured friends. We decided to have a breakfast and pack up and depart a day early in hopes we can help our friends in some way. We would make the trail ride out after lunch. At this point, we didn’t have contact with anyone back home and we had no idea if anyone knew of the attacks other than immediate families. The ride out was solemn and slow. The camp cook and his daughter guided us out and led our pack mules with our gear. We packed our friend’s gear to bring home to her. 

Once we topped the last peak where you can see the trailhead, my tears started to flow. I cried the entire way down. It was a total release from the last 24-hour ordeal. I brought up the rear, so no one saw me falling apart. I wanted to hug my husband and talk to my dad and sister. I wouldn’t be calling to tell of great hunting adventures this time. I’d be calling to tell them I was OK and that I was the lucky one. I made it to the trailhead and loaded my truck for the ride to town. As soon as I had service, I made the call to my husband. He had already heard and was worried sick. I had to be brief to remain composed. The next call was to my father – my elk hunting partner and teacher. That call was very difficult to make and was brief as well. Basically, I told them it wasn’t I and that I needed time to process everything and I needed to find out if my friend was OK. She endured hours of surgery and wound vacs and antibiotics, etc. She was at the trauma center for more than a week before she made it home. Our guide had multiple injuries and countless cuts and broken bones. He was basically torn apart. They are both still recovering, and I must respect their journeys. 

Sisterhood Of The Outdoors Elk Camps Year 3 group cow trip

Why I will return to elk country

I can only tell my side of the story, not theirs. I was not on the mountain with them when the bear attacked. I am forever grateful for those who were on the mountain that day. The professionalism and planning that took place to enact such a rescue from a remote mountain was impressive. I admire the men of this outfitter more than they will ever know. I chose them for their long-term success and family-like atmosphere. I also knew I could trust them with my life and lives of my hunters. 

The journey to elk country is amazing for those who experience it for the first time. No matter what, I will still have a love affair with the Washakie Wilderness and the elk that migrate through there. I will always long for my once-a-year trail ride up the boulder cliffs into the valley of a 15-year-old forest fire of burned-up trees and pristine trout streams that trickle along the valley floor. I will always see in my imagination the snowcapped mountain tops above the treeline and elk tracks on the snow that give way to the valley below. I won’t let this stop me from doing what I love. I will walk through that fear and hunt those mountains again. 

I will continue to support and pray for my friends as they take the time they need to heal from this event. No one knows how you would react and the only ones who can relate to their journey are those who have experienced the same kind of attack and survived. I had my own encounter with a grizzly bear, but it pales in comparison to what occurred when my friend went from the best moment in her life to the worst moment in her life in a matter of minutes in a remote area of the Washakie Wilderness. 

I won’t let this stop me from introducing women to elk hunting and a pack trip journey. We are booked again for year #4. I’m taking this year off and sending one of my staff members to host. I’m trying something different and going after a mule deer. I am saving my money and buying my points for a bull elk in 2019. I’m going back up that mountain and facing my fears and bringing home a bull elk. Just knowing I will be back in the saddle and hunting that mountain again is a step toward healing. 

Organizing hunts for women is my passion. This hunt is one of the best ways to introduce elk hunting to women. I have found a way to share my love of elk country with other women hunters and it feels so good. It’s not a trophy hunt, it’s a hunt that feeds the soul and fills the freezer. 

Hunting and sharing hunting with others has opened the earth to me. Those mountains can make you feel so small, and that’s a humbling thing.

Learn more about The Sisterhood Of The Outdoors. A few spots are available for this season’s hunts.