Looking down, we saw where something had slid, leaving a trail of red in the middle. I stepped a few yards sideways to look downhill through the trees. I ended up standing in a deer bed.
“Wow, these guys hang out in here and lay in these beds all day.” I pointed out to Goose.
“There he is.” Goose had spotted his buck. It had slid down and was curled up into a ball at the base of a few pines. His last tumble left his legs tangled in a knot.
“What an awesome buck, especially for your first one!” I was so happy for Goose. He’d truly earned this deer.
We untangled the bruiser and slid him down to a small flat area created by a fallen tree, back-filled with dirt.
“You’re going to want to mount this buck on your wall. If I was you, and if this was my first buck, I’d get it mounted.” I didn’t really have to convince him. Goose was pretty excited to say the least.
I actually had never caped out a buck. I’d dressed and skinned plenty, so all I needed to know now was where to make the cuts. It was a good thing I had cell reception. After five minutes on YouTube, we were caping out the buck in no time.
Once caped, I started showing Goose how to cut the meat off of the deer using the gutless method. Goose held the legs and laid the meat in the game bags while I cut. I took my time as he asked questions. It was a real pleasure for me to share my knowledge with him.
We packed Goose’s boned-out buck into my pack and headed down the slope through the trees. We weren’t about to carry a 100+ pound pack back to where Steve was, so we hiked down just below him.
The short haul down through the patch of trees and over to the sagebrush-covered, east-facing slope was a harsh sample of what was to come on the 5+ mile pack out. I knew it would be grueling since it hadn’t been too long since I did something like this; I had packed out a bull elk just six weeks earlier. However, I told myself this journey would be easier since the load was lighter.
We arrived at an area just below Steve and set down our loot. Steve had gutted the deer and was waiting for us, so Goose headed up to help him drag it down to where I was sitting with the packs so we could all chip in to debone and pack the meat.
Steve got to work and deboned most of the buck. Now having witnessed the butchering of two deer, Goose took his virgin knife and did a fine job of carving off the backstraps and tenderloins. As the meat was cut off, we loaded the meat bags. Caring for the meat was quite easy since it was a chilly October day. Additionally, some clouds and fog moved in and blocked out the sun, which helped to keep the meat even cooler.
As most of you reading this will know, deboning and gutting a deer takes some work, especially in steep terrain. There is a lot of bending over, squatting down, tugging, holding legs, and repositioning the animal’s body. This makes for thirsty mouths and sore backs. Goose had about a liter of water left, which lasted all of two minutes once he took it out of his pack. We were officially out of water; 10,000 feet above sea level and 5+ miles from the truck. Right then it hit me hard; how were we going to come down off of the mountain with heavy packs and no water! Our inner Boy Scout kicked in.
“Hopefully this storm brings enough rain that we can collect it to drink,” I said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” said Steve.
We weren’t really hungry, just thirsty; but we all felt it best to take a rest and eat some food before our pack out. Not only that, but eating some fresh venison would brighten our spirits and lighten our loads, so we took the game bag with the tenderloins in it and started walking back into the patch of pine trees to make a fire. As we were walking, it started to sprinkle!
“Let’s lay something spread out that will collect the rain and funnel it into a water bottle,” I suggested.
Steve took out his deflated sleeping pad and spread it across the face of a vein of rocks poking out of the mountain. The rocks were North-facing, so the rain was hitting it perfectly. Steve then made a funnel at the bottom of the sleeping pad and put his water bottle below it.
As we let the rain water collect, we built a fire. Luckily, we found a big pile of dead pine needles and dry wood at the base of a large pine tree. The heat from the fire was welcomed, breathing life into our exhausted bodies. We roasted tenderloins using makeshift hot dog sticks from pine branches and ate what we could, which wasn’t much. Our bodies didn’t want meat, they wanted water. Nevertheless, the warm meal was appreciated.
The rain was light, but over the course of an hour, the bottle was full. We had a whole liter of water! We rationed the water, giving us all just enough to want more. Steve’s water bottle had a filter, so we all took turns drinking from it.
I remember the taste. Never had water been so heavenly; not only in taste, but in timing. I also remember being jealous of Steve and Goose as they drank their allotted amount. A third of a liter is not very much when you’ve been hiking, hunting, and butchering all day. As soon as the bottle was empty, Steve set it under the funnel of the sleeping pad once again.
We sat by the fire for another hour and each of us drank another third-liter of water. I looked at the time and it was 6:30pm! I was shocked. Time passes in unique ways when you’re hunting and I hadn’t realized it was so close to getting dark. We had 30 minutes of “seeing” light left and I knew we had to hustle and get on the trail. Keep in mind we were not going back the way we came. We were dropping straight down the canyon, in an eastward direction, until we hit the dirt road. From there we would walk north to our truck. None of us had ever been in that canyon prior to that day, so we weren’t sure where the trails were, if there were any, or even what the best way down was. I had topo and aerial maps loaded onto my phone that would serve as our navigator back to the truck.
The rain had faded as we made our first steps downhill. In one particular area, still steep as balls, the sagebrush disappeared and was replaced by short alpine grasses, which made it difficult to walk down. Actually, it wasn’t really walking; I would call it sliding. I fell on my ass more than a couple of times. I was starting to rethink telling myself that this pack out was going to be easier.
The alpine basin began to narrow. We were now walking in single file on whatever appeared to be the path of least resistance. Because there wasn’t an official trail, our plan was to follow the bottom of the canyon out to the dirt road. At this point full darkness descended, and our headlamps would illuminate the path going forward.
Steve was in pain. In the first few minutes of our pack out, any remaining energy he had left was sucked out of him due to the heavy pack and steep terrain. Okay, kids, let’s take this time to consider how McDonald’s is not a good choice.
Goose and I were fatigued as well. All of us had expended a lot of energy in the past 24 hours. The thought of water was dragging us down, but we kept hiking with one goal in mind: get to the truck.
Goose and I were walking at a faster pace than Steve. At one point, the canyon forced our path into a dry creek bottom full of river rock. Each step required concerted effort and mental focus. Falling prey to the rocks would not feel good, and twisting an ankle was highly probable. After hop-scotching through them for a couple hundred yards, I took the first opportunity I was presented to get out of that creek bottom. I saw a game trail that flared up, almost like an exit ramp, which lead to a sage flat. It felt good to walk on dirt again.
“Ahhhh!” Steve screamed like his leg was being sawn off.
“Crap! Steve must have fallen and broken a bone,” I thought to myself. I was really worried that we would have to carry him out of there. I looked back and saw his headlamp at what seemed to be the beginning of the river rocks. I yelled, “Steve! Are you okay? What happened?”
He was still yelling out in pain; I could hear his heavy, labored breathing.
Again, I yelled out, “Steve! What happened? Can you walk?”
Finally, he answered, “Yes… I fell… and I twisted my wrist… under a rock… I don’t think it’s broken,” he answered timidly.
Yep, the river rocks; they were a bitch.
I was relieved it was his wrist and not his leg or ankle. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” He was so exhausted. It took all he had just to stand, as evidenced by the deep roar he let out getting back up.
Thankful that Steve could still walk, I got back to it. It was actually less painful to walk than to stand in place, probably because walking meant I was that much closer to the truck. Goose had gotten ahead of me. I trudged through the sagebrush flat and walked in his direction. He had found a game trail which was next to the creek bottom and made for easy walking. After winding through a few willows, the trail poured over a bench and descended quickly, but smoothly. Once we started our descent, we lost sight of Steve’s headlamp. Normally you would be able to look up a dark canyon and see little slivers of light from a headlamp, but a fog was moving in which made it hard even to see the light coming from Goose’s headlamp only a few yards ahead.
It started to rain again, and this time it wasn’t drizzling. Goose and I stopped to rest. I took off my pack, took out my rain jacket and put it on.
“I think I’m going to go ahead of you guys and get the truck, and then I’ll meet you at the road.” I said to Goose. “Just keep following this draw all the way to the bottom and you’ll eventually hit the road.”
It was Steve. We ran to his aide to discover he was calling out for fear of being left behind and lost. This is when Goose demanded that we needed to stick together. I agreed. We needed to all walk at the same pace to stay together and help each other in this treacherous march through the unforgiving wilderness.
This is where I began telling this story. I’d like to say that we frolicked the rest of the five plus miles through the hills like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” but that definitely wasn’t the case. The hills were not alive with the sound of music, but enough with the cheesy movie comparisons.
We hiked, and hiked, and hiked. Each step was like the last rep in the last set of a work out. It was mind over matter now. Oh yeah, and we were now hiking in the bottom of a ravine. Because of the darkness, we didn’t want to waste time and energy looking for another route by hiking out of the ravine and wandering through the thick forest. This ravine was our best option and our worst nightmare. Deadfall was plentiful, and when we weren’t stepping over it, we were stepping on it, cautiously placing each foot, hoping we wouldn’t slip on the wet rocks and leaves.
We rested often. More than I would have liked. I just wanted to keep moving, but we needed to stick together. “I’m so thirsty,” was the most common phrase during our rests. The only thing we could do to help quench our thirst was to slurp rain water off pine needles. It was October, so the quaking aspens didn’t have their broad, smooth leaves, which would have made for a better water offering. After a few slurps on pine needles and getting more dirt than water, I put my synthetic facemask on my head like a hat. After a few minutes of hiking, I removed the facemask from my head and sucked the rain water out of it. Man, was it tasty! Those little treasures of liquid kept me going.
About every half hour or so, I would check the map to see if we were heading in the right direction, mostly because Steve and Goose would ask, “How much further?” It was like we weren’t making any progress. The blue dot on the screen, our location, seemed to move only millimeters each time I checked. Nevertheless, we moved on.
Two or three different times, we came to steep drop offs in the ravine. We ended up sliding down on our butts while grabbing any shrubbery that we could to slow the speed of our fall. The first time was quite nerve racking with a 90-pound pack on, but we handled the last one like seasoned veterans. The slides almost became fun.
We eventually arrived at the road. The time on my phone said 12:30am. It took us six hours to hike to the road! As the crow flies, we had only gone one and a half miles! We had easily traveled three to four tortuous miles because we definitely didn’t walk in a straight line. We were at the road, Hallelujah! No more high steps over downed timber and balancing on wet rocks and logs. The rest of the walk to the truck was a cake walk. I quickly measured the amount of road we needed to walk to get back to the truck: two more miles.
The rain had stopped, but it only took 10 steps on the road to realize I wouldn’t be able to drive the truck there. The mud was thick! This indeed was a cake walk; we were walking in thick frosting. I almost preferred to be walking in the ravine again… almost. I wasn’t crazy.
We rounded a corner and the road started to ascend. By the contour lines on the map, the road didn’t’ look very steep, but oh, it was! And did I say muddy? We had to get down on all fours just to get enough traction to make it up all the way. Try bear crawling up a 30 degree slope, with a heavy pack, in mud. Just kidding, don’t. It’s not fun.
Of course, we collapsed when we made it to the top of that stupid hill. We were in a camping spot on the side of the road. We took our packs off and just sat there. Our leg and back muscles throbbed in pain. I remember seeing something shiny in the fire pit and crawling over to it; a glass bottle. I picked it up, hoping it had rain water in it, but it didn’t. We were desperate for water.
With much disdain, we all got up to keep walking. My body had cooled down, and I was getting cold, which served as my main motivation to begin walking again.
Along our walk, we passed by ruts in the road that were filled with water from the rain. Steve would scoop some water into his bottle and we would again take turns drinking. The puddles were quite shallow, so we could never get enough water to achieve satiety.
Although very tired and exhausted, I tried to lighten the mood with jokes, sarcasm, and the like. Goose and Steve were having none of it. I was just glad to be walking on a road because I knew we were going to make it out that night, and in less than an hour I would have a 32-ounce Gatorade in my hand chugging away, having the last laugh at that mountain.
I’ve learned that humor is a good way to keep your spirits up. I also learned to find things that motivate you to action in tough situations. In this situation, I was thinking of Gatorade and energy drinks. Getting your mind off of the pain is the key; it’s all mental.
“Steve, you want to get some McDonald’s on the way home?” I suggested, half seriously.
I’ll try talking to Goose. “Goose, I’ll be so pissed if you don’t mount this buck. I don’t care what Erica says, there’s no way I carried this cape off the mountain just to see you do a euro mount.”
I think Goose said one or two words in response.
Pretty much the only thing the two of them said for the last couple of miles was, “How much further to the truck?” It’s funny how long a quarter of a mile is when you are about to pass out. Our legs could barely lift our feet off the ground.
When we saw light reflect off of some tail lights, it literally was like being found by Search and Rescue. The truck! Sighs of relief came from all three of us. I volunteered to drive. I knew the muddy roads were going to be a challenge, and didn’t trust either of them to drive those roads in their condition.
I’ve always had a thought run through my mind while hunting: “You have to earn it.” If you want to be successful in harvesting an animal, you must put forth your best effort and do whatever it takes. By so doing, the mountain will reward you. The mountain rewarded us indeed, and kicked our butts. We earned our harvest. The ride out was like a victory lap for me. I was so pumped that my two brothers-in-law had successfully harvested some nice muleys, and I was less than 30 minutes from fluids!
It was 2:00 am when we pulled up to the gas station and got out. Stepping out of the truck was painful, like I had just come out of hip surgery. I waddled into the station, and upon seeing that the attendant had just got done mopping the floors, decided that I didn’t give a crap. I walked to the drink cooler and grabbed two Gatorades and a Rockstar lemonade. The attendant was not too happy with me, but she did ask, “How’s it going?” To which I replied, “It’s been a rough night.”
We guzzled our drinks down like a few refugees and pointed that truck toward home. However, we did make one more pit stop: we grabbed some cheeseburgers, fries, and Cokes at McDonalds!
When I got home it was almost three. The next morning I talked to my wife and told her all of the details, then said, “I’m done hunting for the year.” I was planning on a late season mule deer hunt three weeks later, but I was so physically and mentally drained that even the thought of hiking made me shudder.
Three days later, I seriously regretted saying that.