hunter carrying elk antlers up a hillside
Lee Thomas Kjos / The Raw Spirit

The Longest Walk: Packing Big Game Out of the Backcountry

From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a few meat-laden steps

M

ixing 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 self-imposed 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 big-game 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.

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But most of the time, the only way to get a big-game 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.

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