The Longest Walk

FOR BIG-GAME HUN­TERS, FROM THE SUB­LIME TO THE RIDICU­LOUS IS BUT A FEW MEAT-LADEN STEPS

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - BY AN­THONY LICATA

Pack­ing out a big-game an­i­mal is one of the most re­ward­ing, and mis­er­able, ex­pe­ri­ences in all of hunting. We’ve gath­ered pho­to­graphs that show what suc­cess re­ally looks like: knee-buck­ling loads, suf­fer­ing, teamwork, and the sat­is­fac­tion of truly work­ing for your sup­per.

MIX­ING PAIN AND PLEA­SURE

is the recipe be­hind so many of our most sat­is­fy­ing pas­times. Count­less ac­tiv­i­ties are built around a pe­riod of suf­fer­ing fol­lowed by a pay­off of smug sat­is­fac­tion that you made it through the self­im­posed or­deal: run­ning a marathon, a morn­ing at the gym, tem­po­rar­ily ab­stain­ing from cof­fee, booze, or what­ever your vice.

But pack­ing a big-game an­i­mal out of the woods or moun­tains stands alone. You’ve al­ready worked and strug­gled and been re­warded with the ter­rific pay­off of a suc­cess­ful hunt. And then, well be­fore that glow can fade, the real suf­fer­ing be­gins.

First, let’s be clear about what con­sti­tutes a pack out. It’s not drag­ging the crit­ter 100 yards or so to a spot you can get to with the truck or ATV. If you can do that, good for you. You’ll be back in camp in plenty of time to drink to your good for­tune.

What we’re talk­ing about is drag­ging, car­ry­ing, or quar­ter­ing and pack­ing out of the bush a biggame an­i­mal us­ing your back and legs.

It starts pleas­antly enough, with field dress­ing or butcher­ing. Ev­ery hunter I know fan­cies him- or her­self an ama­teur butcher, and this task, while a bit messy, is deeply sat­is­fy­ing. You take your time, en­joy­ing the work, un­til a creep­ing dread sets in. The sun slides down the sky and the suck­fest that awaits starts to cast a long shadow.

Field dress­ing and drag­ging works for white­tail-size an­i­mals if the dis­tance isn’t too far, but even that isn’t easy. I once spent a day on Ko­diak Is­land climb­ing a moun­tain from the sea to the tree­line and killed a fine black­tail buck. The is­land’s plen­ti­ful brown bears have learned to equate a gun­shot with din­ner, so un­less you want to fight a bear for back­strap, a quick field dress and drag is the smart plan. The climb was very steep, so I thought it would be an easy slide down the moun­tain. But hours later, after bulling my way through miles of devil’s club, tan­gled trees, and steep ravines, all while drag­ging what felt like a sea an­chor, I re­al­ized that you don’t truly know a place un­til you’ve taken an an­i­mal out of it.

That for­est with some downed tim­ber turns into an ob­sta­cle course of jum­bled dead­fall. An open, marshy val­ley is ac­tu­ally a boot-suck­ing morass of mud and wa­ter. Those rolling hills you strolled through on the way in turn out to be twice as steep and long as you re­mem­ber. And if there is any­thing that can catch, trip, snag, poke, or scratch you, now is when you will find it.

There is no shame in look­ing for short­cuts or schemes to make the task eas­ier. I once tied a rope to a black bear and stum­bled down the mid­dle of an icy stream, tow­ing the 400-pound beast be­hind me like a strange, furry barge. It still wasn’t easy, but it was eas­ier, and that was enough. If I could’ve climbed aboard and hoisted a sail, I would have.

But most of the time, the only way to get a biggame an­i­mal out of the back­coun­try is the most ba­sic and pure: break it down into man­age­able chunks, stuff your pack to the burst­ing point, strap on just a bit more, wres­tle it onto your back, and start walk­ing. Re­peat as nec­es­sary.

When you’re car­ry­ing 60 pounds of meat, hide, and horn, cer­tain things are guar­an­teed to hap­pen. You will won­der why your fa­vorite pack is now squeez­ing the breath from your chest, rub­bing your hips raw, and knif­ing into your spine. You will fall on your face at least once. You will be bent dou­ble, gasp­ing for breath. You will want noth­ing more than

to dump your load and lie down, but you won’t, be­cause you’ll fear that the ef­fort of get­ting the pack back on and stand­ing up again isn’t worth the mo­men­tary relief.

On the bright side, killing an elk (or, god for­bid, a moose) in the back­coun­try will show you who your real friends are. When you fi­nally get cell ser­vice and make the call for backup, you’ll find that some of your buddies would love to help, but jeez, wouldn’t you know it, they have to take the dog to the vet. The friends who show up are the real deal, and while they will ex­pect noth­ing in re­turn, proper moun­tain eti­quette dic­tates that you pay them hand­somely in meat. The very best friends of all are friends with horses. If you don’t have any, make some.

We big-game hun­ters have it pretty good. The suf­fer­ing is real, but the re­ward is un­matched. And it makes for a hell of a story over a meal of the best-tast­ing meat you’ve ever eaten.

1. ELK MIS­SOURI RIVER BREAKS, MON­TANA

2. MULE DEER MILK RIVER, AL­BERTA

3

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