H&B founder and Editor-in-Chief John Radzwilla hunts along his wife Natalie on the Ensign Ranch. It’s Utah elk hunting at its finest.
“The Echo, the high rocks on the north, high mountains on the south with the narrow ravine for a road, form scenery at once romantic and more interesting than I have ever witnessed…the scenery is truly wild and Melancholy”
-William Clayton, clerk to Joseph Smith the founder of Mormonism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, July 16, 1847.
It was early morning, well before sun-up, when we set out with only the light from our headlamps to guide us. A slight wind swirled, adding just the right amount of crispness to the early autumn air and filling our noses with the smell of the sage brush we were pushing through. On the horizon, we could see the sun begin to rise, with the most subtle yet deeply red-orange hue, reminiscent of the glow of hot coals after a well burnt campfire. My imagination wandered between the bugle of an elk that I was so anxiously awaiting and the history of the land we were navigating.
The section of Ensign Ranch where we were hunting dominates the landscape, consisting of 105,000 acres of land within its low-fences, and the ranch as a whole—including parts in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho—it totals an overwhelming, one million acres. In its not-so-distant past, it also included another legendary ranch, the Deseret—once part of the original Ensign, but sectioned off and sold roughly 50 years ago. The land stretches as far as the eye can see and surrounds both sides of the historically important Echo Canyon.
The canyon has an expansive history. It has influenced the course of the American west and continues to act as a gateway to adventure. Native Americans, fur trappers, pioneers, handcart companies, forty-niners, freighters, overland stages, Pony Express, U.S. Army, Mormon Militia, telegraph, transcontinental railroad, the Lincoln Highway, and interstate 80 all have followed this strategic canyon passage.
The Hunt For My Wife’s First Elk Begins
As the sun began to crest on the horizon, I focused my attention to the hunt. Beams of orange, purple, and pink fired upward, and the silhouettes of aspen trees began to appear dotting the rugged hillsides that surrounded us. This was a special hunt—my wife, Natalie’s, first elk. I was along to support. For me, it is not the kill but the journey and adventure of it all and to watch it all transpire for someone I love; it is more than worth it.
Our guide, Kayden Murphy, great great grandson of the original owner of Ensign, began to call. The nasal squeak of a cow elk call broke the silence of twilight. We waited in stillness. Nothing. A few moments later, he called again, and a bull elk’s bugle erupted, echoing across the valley.
This Land Holds a Rich History
Long before white men made the first roads through the Echo Canyon, the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Crow came West by this route to raid the Shoshone and Ute Indians. The Shoshone were the original inhabitants of the region. Then came the trappers and fur traders who marked the trails for the original pioneers and subsequent wagon trains.
In 1847, Mormons, under of the leadership of Brigham Young, were traveling to the Salt Lake Valley. At that time, the Great Basin of the West (a geographic area between the Sierra Nevada mountains on the west, the Rocky Mountains on the East, the Snake River on the North, and the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts to the south) was Mexican territory, and they hoped they would be able to practice their religion peacefully there. The Mormon Pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley through Echo Canyon, on July 22, 1847. Around 60,000 more Mormons would travel the same route over the next 20 years.
Bugling Elk, The Initial Encounter
The bull elk bugled again, this time closer. Maybe 400 yards away. We crouched down amongst the bushes, finding cover in what little we had around us. Another call and the bull’s antlers could just barely be seen approaching as it lumbered up the hillside. We huddled together, peeking out from behind a larger bush to judge his size.
No more than 35 yards from us, a magnificent 6×6 elk stood, probably measuring 300-plus inches. His neck was swollen, and you could tell the rut was at its peak. The early morning sun exaggerated the well-worn tips of his antlers. Unaware we were there, he bugled once more. It sent chills through our bodies. By any account, this was a great bull, but a decision was made to let him walk as it was the first bull, on the first morning, and in all fairness, he will be a magnificent bull this season for another hunter. Our guide knew we could find bigger in the coming days, though for Natalie, this first encounter would forever engrain in her an acute call to attention that a bull elk’s bugle beckons.
The day’s hunt would play out with several more elk in our spotting scopes, most too small or far away, and we would eventually call it a day.
Echo Canyon’s Peculiar Past
In 1863, Roswell Stevens homesteaded the area of Echo Canyon we were hunting and built a cabin that still stands today. In 1872, Stevens sold out to Daniel Heiner. The next year Daniel Heiner married Martha Stevens, the daughter of Roswell Stevens. He also married Sarah Coulam, who was his brother’s widow. Collectively they had 19 children. One wife lived in the canyon home with some of the kids, and the other stayed in Morgan, Utah, caring for the rest. The wives switched places each year during the summer. In 1901, Deseret Live Stock Company purchased this canyon from the Heiners who eventually sold it to our guide’s great-great grandfather.
Polygamy is often a misunderstood aspect of early Mormonism that has continued to be an ignorant stereotype placed upon Mormons. Today, with the exception of a small fraction of more extreme believers, Mormons do not take more than one wife. When the Mormons first came to Utah in the late 1840’s most of the men died enroute due to the hazards of the journey. Deadly river-crossings, encounters with wildlife, accidents in general, and more examples of the sort, left the few male survivors and hundreds of women.
To re-populate and establish Utah as their home, they needed to procreate. It was not acceptable to have sex outside of marriage and, be it a loophole or an order from God according to the Mormons, it became acceptable to marry multiple women in order to have more children. The Mormons abolished the practice at the turn of the 20th century.
Glassing A Historic View
The next morning, we woke up early and set out through the canyon passing the Stevens’ homestead site. If not for the beam of our headlamps grazing it, we would not even have ever noticed the decrepit shack. It stood empty and lifeless in the inky still of the predawn dark.
The sun brought light to a new day and our hunt led us to an area of Ensign where the land transitioned from sage and aspens to cedar and cactus. As we trekked from canyon to canyon glassing for elk and calling along the way, one thing was becoming clear as I thought about the ground we were visiting: for each footprint Echo Canyon area has seen, each came with their own unique set of circumstances. From Native Americans on the war path, to early Mormon settlers bound for religious freedom, to the Pony Express riders who galloped through the canyon, to ours, each carried their own story.
Pony Express stations were set up 10 to 15 miles apart along the 1,800-mile Pony Express Trail. Each rider was expected to carry a shipment somewhere between 75 and 100 miles; horses had to be changed every 10 or 15 miles. Three Pony Express stations existed in Echo Canyon. On Ensign, all that remains of the legendary route is a single original growth pine where the station once stood. My mind pondered what news flowed through that station and the many lives that were elated to see or sorrowed by the approach of that rider down the very canyons we were stalking. To think, the Pony Express trampled the ground that we were sitting on while glassing hillsides. I was in history junkie heaven.
Bulls on the Horizon
Just then we spotted a bull elk with a herd of cows, diverting my imagination back to more important matters. He was a brute; the largest we had seen so far and according to Kayden, probably one of the better ones we would see. Closing the gap, we managed to position ourselves roughly 250 yards away. It was a tough stalk and not for our guide, one we probably would not have succeeded in. He was in a precarious area and from what we could glean from our spotting scope and binos, he was across the canyon but about 20 yards from a 30-or-more-foot drop while standing on the downward slope of the hill. We would only have one shot at him, and it had to be a solid one, otherwise he had a great chance of going off the cliffside and becoming almost unrecoverable.
As we set up for the shot, the bull took two steps into the cedar trees and out of sight. It took almost 10 minutes for him to step back out, but a well-calculated cow call by Kayden made all the difference. Natalie’s finger quivered and nerves fired as she pressed her fingertip to the trigger. One more rake of the cedar tree he was standing near led to a broadside shot. The round cracked across the canyon and echoed like so many had in the past. Down the canyon it reverberated until the last faint echo could be heard. With that single shot, Natalie’s elk fell, and the real work began. (Read our full review of the round, Federal’s Terminal Ascent, click here.)
Utah Elk Hunting: An Incredible Experience
When President Teddy Roosevelt stopped in Echo Canyon on May 29, 1903, he came out on the rear platform of the rear car and made a short address: “Utah was not a country to which people afraid of work would have ever come. All the prosperity you have has been won by the men and women who did the work, because you applied thrift, intelligence, and water to the soil. I congratulate you upon the State, but I congratulate you most upon yourself.”
Our legs burned, our backs were stiff, our feet were sore, but our spirits soared as we returned to camp after a full day of packing out the elk. Our hunt was not out of the ordinary, but as I reflected over whiskey that evening on what occurred, my mind once more drifted back in time. We weren’t the first, nor we will be the last, but we were amongst the hardy few who stood gazing across that canyon, aiming to give it the best shot they could. And that is something to be damn proud of.