One shot was all it took

The horse trail climbed through the West Elk Wilderness Area near Gunnison, Colo., for more than nine miles. The two horses negotiated the bends, rocks and stony creek beds with the sureness of Sherpas on the flank of Mount Everest.

The horse trail climbed through the West Elk Wilderness Area near Gunnison, Colo., for more than nine miles. The two horses negotiated the bends, rocks and stony creek beds with the sureness of Sherpas on the flank of Mount Everest.

For the three men, the climbing was less natural. They were approaching 10,000 feet above sea level on the Western Front of the Colorado Range. Each carried a heavy pack.

For Paul Stageberg, an investment executive with Lake Region Bank who lives near New London, this was like climbing Mt. Tom a hundred times in one afternoon.

"It was exhausting," he said Tuesday, recounting the mid-September adventure. "My brother had told me I'd better get in shape, but hiking at that elevation with so much gear ... it was hard."

Stageberg's younger brother, John, a radiation oncologist in Pueblo, had arranged the hunt. The two horses were his. The third hunter was Kelly TerWisscha, president of TerWisscha Construction of Willmar. Paul and TerWisscha were classmates in the Willmar Class of 1982.


"John had been trying to get me out for a hunt for a long time, but there always seemed to be a reason not to go," said Paul. "John finally called Kelly and pleaded with him to get me out there."

TerWisscha had business in Denver and flew his plane there with Paul on board, and then on to Pueblo where they met John. They drove to the Gunnison area, where they picked up the two horses John had recently bought for such a purpose.

John knew this high country; he'd been on two guided hunts in the majestic alpine haunts.

Now he was ready to lead a back-country trek. He'd all ready established a camp site 9.5 miles up the trail. The three men and the two horses reached camp Friday evening.

They didn't hunt Saturday. "We were all exhausted," said Paul.

On Sunday, John and Kelly rode the horses back down to the car to pick up the last of the supplies for the one-week stay. It took seven hours for the round trip. There remained a few hours that day for some hunting.

"John did the calling; kind of a high-pitch bugling," said Paul, imitating a muted scream. "Kelly and I went up ahead 200 or 300 yards separately and watched. John tried to coax an elk into our range."

With a bow, the maximum shot is said to be about 40 yards. The Stagebergs were both long-time archers and deer hunters. The boys' father, Dave, had introduced each of them, along with a third brother, Jim, to archery as each entered his teen years.


"After an hour we heard responses from three elk," said Paul. "I saw one elk with two tines on a side but that's not legal. They must have at least five. But after a little while longer, here comes this elk walking right toward me and he's plenty big."

The elk stopped behind a fir tree, obscuring the shot.

"I heard John and Kelly coming up behind me," said Paul. "John saw me at full draw and they stopped."

"I put my sight on a spot to the left of the pine thinking the elk would head back the way he came," said Paul. "The elk turned and exposed his side to me from about 25 yards. I let go and saw the arrow strike. I knew it was a good shot."

The mountain light was failing. The men waited, standard procedure, before tracking. It was dark now and they found no trace of blood in their headlamps. They found the broken nock end of the arrow. At 11 p.m., they gave up and started the two-hour hike to camp.

Monday morning the two brothers headed out on horseback. When one horse spooked, they felt they were getting close. And there it was a perfect six-by-six, known to hunters as a Royal Elk -- the arrow stump planted just below the left front shoulder.

They quartered the elk, carefully preserving the cape and wrack for mounting. The meat would turn out to be unusable. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources told the men it was best to dispose of it because of the length of time to find the animal.

"I felt really badly about that," said Paul. "The DNR understood. They even offered me another tag but I didn't take them up on it."


Each man had paid $500 for a license. In the last five days of hunting, no more bulls were spotted. Nor did they see any other hunters in the remote landscape.

A guide at the trailhead reacted in feigned disgust that a flatlander in the first two hours of his first hunt had bagged a big bull.

After disposing of the meat, John and Paul still had to come back up the mountain. It was dark and they faced a three-hour climb on horseback.

"Trust the horses," John told his brother. "They see more than you."

The investment banker held onto his mount for dear life. When John's horse sprinted across a meadow, Paul's horse took up the pace. Paul heard a hard "click," like a hammer on stone. A moment later he was down, the horse falling on his left leg.

"I must have landed on the only soft earth around, but I still thought my leg was broken," he said. "I was OK, but I wasn't getting back on the horse. I walked back. My leg is still black and blue and not quite right."

They had more success fly fishing for cutthroat trout in the mountain streams which provided water for filtration.

Since returning, he's been asked if he had "fun?"


"I can't describe it as fun," he related. "It's a challenge, like maybe climbing Mt. Everest. Physically, it was draining but worth it. The country is spectacular."

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