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Steamboat Springs It’s about the stories, not the hunt, the Spencer family explained.
For years and years, longtime local Keith Spencer and family have rung in the first elk rifle season with a trip to a 500-acre patch of Routt County that, thanks to decades of sweat and sacrifice, is all their own.
The hunting can be good, almost as good as the stories that spill out when the family comes together.
“A couple of years ago I came across a nice big bull elk and I just admired him,” said 85-year-old Keith Spencer, recalling only one of a hundred tales.
That elk stepped out from the forest and into a meadow on the property, south of Hayden and the last piece of a ranch Spencer simply couldn’t entirely let go of.
“He was 20 yards away and I didn’t shoot him,” he continued. “I looked at him, how pretty he was, and he looked at me. We sized each other up, and he turned and started walking away. About the time he got 100 yards away, I thought, ‘Oh! I’m supposed to be hunting that guy!’ So I raised my rifle and shot.’”
Keith’s son Rick was napping on a nearby rock. He finished the story Thursday, and he finished it nearly a dozen times last weekend as the Spencer clan yet again was gathered near the meadow on their plot of ground.
“I jumped up and said, ‘Someone shot! Who took that shot?’ My dad said, ‘It was me, you idiot,’” Rick said, laughing.
“We told that story at least 10 times this weekend. We even told it 10 minutes before we saw the elk, which came right down through the same spot.”
For the Spencers, that elk, a tall, handsome bull trotting through the same trees and into the same meadow, will no doubt go down as yet another great story.
Keith Spencer grew up near Trinidad in the southern portion of the state but moved to Steamboat Springs with his wife, Darlene, nearly 60 years ago.
“I was working at Safeway; I told them I’d like to get out of Denver,” he said. “They gave me the chance to come up to Steamboat and run the meat market. That was Sept. 26, 1953.”
Another 15 years passed before Spencer opened OK’s Meat Market where Steamboat Meat and Seafood still operates.
There, Spencer, his wife and eventually his two sons, his daughter and their families processed hundreds of elk, deer and other game until Keith finally retired in 1999.
They also hunted whenever they could, picking up the stories that now make their annual trek to the Hayden-area land what it is.
“I hunted all around Steamboat for years,” Keith said, eight decades of grit oozing from his words. “I hunted on Blacktail Mountain and on Storm Mountain before the ski area. There was some good hunting up there.”
Some things have changed.
“There’s not nearly as much game out there as there used to be,” he said.
Some things haven’t, as there is still plenty of opportunity for good stories.
Keith and Rick were only just finished with one rendition of the near-elk encounter when another bull stepped through the trees and into their meadow.
Quite a tale
There’s only a long-abandoned homesteader’s cabin on the property, and that’s the way they like it. It is seclusion, the property circling a 35-acre meadow that’s bound on all sides by steep ridges.
Keith’s son Ron, his grandson Dominic and a trio of great-grandsons set out for the high ground. Meanwhile Keith and Rick, slowed oxygen tanks, hung back near the meadow by an all-terrain vehicle, waiting on elk, sure, but mostly just enjoying the annual ritual that is the get-together.
“It’s an escape,” Rick said. “We all pretty much drop what we’re doing for that weekend, and really, it’s priceless.
“I think about it a lot. Not everyone can still spend time with their dad and with their family like that.”
Whether they expected it or not, the elk came, and only a few minutes after the sun, a few minutes into the season.
Rick spotted him first. Keith didn’t spot him at all, at least not for a little bit.
“I could immediately see he had horns, which means he was pretty decently sized,” Rick said. “I shot out in front and then he turned around. My dad was still saying, ‘I don’t see him.’ He has a tough time with his eyes sometimes. Then all of the sudden he took a shot.”
It was 400 yards with a .243 rifle, and all the years of experience paid off. Pierced through the lungs, the bull staggered and he fell. Rick sent a text message to the other hunters: “That’s how it’s done, boys.”
In one shot that elk gained immortality, a lead character sure to step out from those woods dozens times on the first day of rifle season in years to come. It was the year when “Papa” Spencer got that big bull that at first he couldn’t even see, the year they didn’t have to find the elk because it found them first.
It’s a tale that will be retold to children and grandchildren as long as Spencers continue to convene on their favorite place.
“So there we were, sitting by the meadow ...”