Steve Walls: Will you be ready when the work begins?

There’s really nothing quite like the fresh smell of mountain air as the sky begins to turn light and the early morning thermals begin to breathe up the mountain. By the time this phenomenon occurs, I am usually drenched in sweat, and my body is beginning to cool from the hour and a half hike that led me to this place. I sit quietly and listen to the sounds of the still, dark woods, waiting to hear what the elk have to say. It is a glorious moment in the elk woods, and I’ve been fortunate to experience many of them. 

For those of us who hunt the places elk most commonly frequent, it is understood there is a price to pay for such moments. It is one thing to carry several pounds on one’s back in God’s country, and it is something entirely different when your success in the field involves taking an elk. This is when the real work begins.

Many times, once an elk has been downed, we are forced to make a decision: Pack out less meat and make more trips or pack out more meat and make fewer trips. Usually, either way you slice it, your limits are about to be tested to their extremes. Heart pounding, knees wobbling, thighs and lungs on fire, we push forward up steep crevices and ravines, over fallen timber and through places so thick one has to shove his way through masses of limbs and branches. This is real elk hunting.

When a hunter takes the precious life of an elk, he or she honor it by getting the meat out quickly and at all costs. I can honestly say that the thing I love to do the most also involves the most physical suffering I’ve ever known.

Preparing for elk season

I don’t have all the answers. I would say we need to be intense in the off-season. We need to feed our bodies with proper nutrition, and we need to work out much as we would work when we are elk hunting.

There is a running joke at my local gym. People say, “Nothing prepares you for elk hunting like elk hunting.” While this usually brings a few laughs, and while there’s an element of truth to this statement, it is mostly false. A truer statement would be that we aren’t willing to work as hard in the off-season as we are when we hunt. Suffering is as much a part of this life as joy, and in general, those willing to suffer for what they want often get what they want. Keep the intensity up in the off-season, and you will have it when you need it during elk season.     

Truth be known, you will suffer less with a clean diet. As a person who has both eaten like a complete heathen and eaten squeaky clean, let me say that diet, alone, can bring about a huge shift in energy. I recently made some small adjustments to my eating, and I must say that, within a week of making the changes, I saw energy levels I had not seen since my 20s.  Honestly, I thought my age was catching up with me and that I just needed to settle in with the fact that I am no longer 25 years old. I was very wrong.

I’ve been following this plan now for the past four months, and the gains I am making are mind-blowing. I haven’t changed much at all in my workouts, yet I’ve crushed many plateaus and reached new heights in run times and distances, as well as the amount of weight and reps I can do in all aspects of fitness with a clean diet. In short, some good nutrition plans to look at include Ketogenic Nutrition, Slow-carb nutrition and whole-foods diet. Having more energy from good nutrition has stretched my limits, so it takes more and more work to reach fatigue. This equates to new strength and my physical conditioning improving instead of declining.

The best diet and attitude, alone, still simply are not enough when it comes to hunting elk the hard way. In the gym, you’ve got to work smart. For me, I focus my priorities from the ground up. First and most important, you have to focus on your legs. They are the strongest muscle group in our bodies and what carry us and whatever we are packing. I work legs two to three times per week. A healthy diet of weighted squats, body squats, weighted lunges, body weight lunges, deadlifts, leg curls and step ups has really improved my leg strength.    

Next, I focus on the back and abs. The back is obviously necessary for carrying heavy packs, as are abs, because they work to support the back. Thus, you cannot have a strong back without strong abs. There are a variety of exercises out there, and I try to do at least 250 ab movements every workout. For the lower back, I look to regular deadlifts (legs and lower back), as well as stiff leg deadlifts. Then, pull ups (back and biceps), chin ups (back and biceps), a variety of free weight and cable rows, shrugs (shoulders and upper back) and a variety of other core exercises.       

For those of us who’ve packed heavy weight for miles and miles in rugged terrain, the next important area of focus has to be shoulders. As my body begins to fatigue from packing out game, I begin to shift my load straps. Often, shoulders get tired, so I shift the load to my back until it gets fatigued, then adjust my load straps back to my shoulders, and so on. The stronger my shoulders and trapezoids are, the more likely I am to hold strong while packing and experience a lot less pain. I focus on a variety of military presses, cable crossovers, reverse flys, bus drivers and dumbbell exercises to build my shoulder and trap base.

Finally, I focus on arms and chest. All these muscles are needed due to the interconnectedness of the chest/shoulder/back, as well as the need to just be strong in drawing my bow, loading my pack, boning out heavy animals, etc. I have a host of exercises I use for chest, including push ups in incline, decline and flat positions; bench press; dumbbell press; etc in incline, decline and flat. Cable flies, dumbbell flies, and machine flies supplement, as well.

For arms, I use a lot of the normal movements — straight bar, dumbbell, cable movements. For biceps, preacher curls, free standing curls, concentration curls, pull ups and chin ups help tremendously. For triceps, I focus on dips, dumbbell tricep one-handed and two-handed tricep extensions, a variety of push ups, close grip bench and cable exercises.

Lastly, I go back to intensity and putting it all together. Each day, I select one to three muscle groups to attack. (I base this decision on keeping my muscles confused by constantly shifting from isolating muscle groups to pairing muscle groups). Once I’ve warmed up, I shift to attacking my heavy weight movements for each muscle group — six to eight reps with a little rest between sets. Then, as the workout continues, I shift to high reps, less rest and more of a circuit-style training. This is when I work in abs, calves, push ups, step ups, body squat  and a host of core exercises. Additionally, I run two to four miles every other day, and as the summer progresses, I add in two to three days per week of back packing two to five miles in hilly terrain. I start light and work my way up. 

For me, the taking of the precious life on an elk should come with a price. I love working hard for my winter’s supply of meat, and I love the gift of being able to hit the elk woods every fall. Being prepared physically and mentally not only increases our range and odds of success, but also decreases the likelihood of sustaining an injury that could cost you your life or a really expensive helicopter ride.

The above system is a work in progress for me. Each year, I learn something new and am constantly seeking new ways to perfect my hunting game. This is how I honor my quarry. This is how I stay prepared. In closing, the question I constantly as myself as soon as elk season ends comes to mind: Will you be ready when the work begins?

Steve Walls graduated from Adams State in 2009 with a master’s degree in community counseling and has been a Craig resident for more than 25 years. He enjoys hunting, fishing, being outdoors and spending time with his wife and children.