Editor’s note: Most hunting adventures focus on the pursuit and killing of the animal, and while the tale of Phil Lundahl, a Lynnwood, Wash., backcountry deer and elk hunter touches on that, it’s also instructive in what it takes to pack an animal out by yourself — good info as the state’s bow bull season continues into its second and final weekend and as the High Buck Hunt begins this Saturday in select Cascades and Olympics wildernesses and national recreation areas.
By Phil Lundahl
Alone in a two-person tent, on a ridge-top saddle at over 7,000 feet high in the backcountry of a Washington wilderness area, my alarm clock went off.
It was a little before 6 a.m. I quickly got dressed and gathered the items I needed for the day’s hunt: an already packed daypack, rifle, binoculars, and wool gloves. I unzipped the tent and put everything outside. It was a beautiful clear and crisp morning. Not a cloud in the sky.
After tying my leather boots, I headed out before sunrise. It was mid-September and the start of my fourth day. I walked to the edge of the ridge and peered out at the valley before me. After scanning the meadows and not seeing any deer, I decided that today was the perfect day to go up the hogback and explore further into the wilderness.
It was a high crest that separated two river drainages. I picked my way through the brush and small stunted conifer trees. After hiking uphill for about 15 minutes, I entered a level clearing, a natural place to stop and take a look off to the side.
The sun was still behind the big ridge to the east. Standing at the edge, I took in the view of a relatively open valley. All of a sudden to my disbelief, I spotted deer bedded down beneath me.
Immediately I dropped to my knees and started to back up a bit. I took the rifle off my shoulder and set my daypack on the ground. Grabbing in one hand the .300 Winchester Magnum bolt-action rifle, which was loaded with three, 150-grain bullets, I crawled on my belly to reach a rock outcropping on the edge. Once there, I carefully searched lower.
There were three deer: two does and a buck. All of them were laying down in front of some trees on a narrow bench, maybe 125 yards downhill. All three were staring downhill into the valley.
What a vantage point for them! Mule deer seem to like bedding down high up on a slope, near the top of a ridge where they can observe with a good view or keep an eye on a lower trail. They must feel safest where they can watch for possible danger and have an escape route when necessary.
I glassed with my 10×50 wide-angle binoculars, trying to identify how many points the buck’s antlers had to see if it was legal or not. A mule deer buck, to be permitted by law, has to have at least three tines on one side and all need to be a full inch long in this part of Eastern Washington.
At first glance, the deciduous horn looked like a symmetrical 2×2, but was there a third point on either side?
After careful glassing for awhile, he turned his head and antlers to just the right angle and light. I spotted a small branch and third tine on one side. In order to see it from that distance, I thought, “It must be a full inch long point. It must be a legal 3×2!”
I steadied my rifle on a rock and eyed through the scope. Eventually the buck got up and stopped broadside to me, still looking downhill. I took careful aim before I pulled the trigger, not wanting to take too long and lose the opportunity.
After the shot, the deer scattered. The two does disappeared to the left, but the buck headed lower and into a cluster of conifer trees. I took chase and dropped off the ridge, choosing a less steep scree-slope option.
Not seeing the buck anywhere, I decided to enter the group of trees where I last saw him go into. As I walked into the trees, the buck exploded out of them, startling me. He went straight down slope and fast. Losing sight of him, I ran downhill trying to track the buck by intuition as to which path he chose. I spotted him at a narrow rocky gap. The buck had stopped momentarily to take a glance back uphill at me. I quickly fired again.
Once more, the buck headed downhill. But this time he seemed to stumble and disappear over a rise. Upon reaching the gap, I could see him below. I walked down. He was still.
I said a prayer to the buck and apologized for taking his life.
In honor and respect to the deer, I would try not to waste any of its meat and use as much of the animal as possible, including the hide, antlers, heart and liver.
The buck was in the sun so I dragged him into the shade for field dressing. I had read from an expert that once a deer dies, the hunter has only one hour to clean out the inside of the body cavity. This cools the meat down in time to avoid degrading and losing quality. Black flies showed up immediately. They must have a great sense of smell. The high mountain air was cool this time of year, and welcome.
I always save the heart and liver, two organs that are a shame to waste. They are delicious, nutritious, and are usually my first taste of the deer before the meat is processed. I also save the hide for tanning into leather. The only thing I leave in the field is the remaining innards or gut pile, and this is certainly not wasted either. It becomes food for other creatures until it is gone.
The buck was big in body size and weight. Living on the west side of the Cascades, I am used to the smaller blacktail deer, of which I have on occasions carried out whole or in one piece. This was not an option with this mule deer.
After cleaning out the body cavity, I cut the deer in half to be able to pack it out. Using sticks to keep the cavity open, it wasn’t long before the meat was cool to the touch and ready for bagging. I slid the two halves into two large heavy-duty cotton game bags to help keep the meat clean, cool, and fly free. I cached the two meat bags in a shady spot at the base of some trees. I planned to leave them in the backcountry overnight, unguarded, and this made me a little uneasy.
Studying the terrain, I made a mental note of the location and attached small orange items to the tops of a couple short evergreen trees. This was to help me find the spot when I returned for my meat. I packed the lower legs, heart and liver into my daypack and grabbed hold of the buck’s antlered head as I left. I then climbed up the valley to the ridge and my tent. After I broke camp, I proceeded back down with my large backpack hoping to reach my car before dark. This I was able to do.
The next day, the challenge before me was to pack out the two deer halves before dark. They were approximately 2½ miles in – one-way. Unfortunately, I had managed to leave at home my L-shaped pack frame for hauling out meat bags. With it you just lash the bag to the upright frame and it rests on the bottom of the L-shape. So instead, I had to use my backpack with an external metal frame and nylon bag attached. I prefer not to use the pack for this purpose because it takes extra time to take apart and clean afterwards. But I didn’t have a choice. In it I brought straps, ropes, two quarts of water, and some snacks. Just in case I got caught in the dark, I brought a headlamp and flashlight too.
I headed back into the wilderness. As I approached the area where the buck was field dressed, I saw a raven flying low near the gut pile and scattered scraps. Ravens seem to have a great ability to locate or spot human activity and they associate the possibility of a meal with us. We are worth checking out.
Walking up to the cached bags, I was relieved to find that they were untouched. Now, the physical task of carrying two meat bags out of the wilderness all by myself in one day was upon me. The pack out was mostly uphill and I asked myself, “Can my body do this?”
Because of the brute challenge and the general demands of negotiating mountainous terrain, these hunting trips are usually my most rigorous exercise of the year.
I lowered the rear half of the deer that was in a bag into my one-compartment backpack. The buck was so thick around the middle that it would not even reach the bottom of the pack. It also stuck out of the top of the backpack. I secured it as tight as possible.
While the pack was still on the ground, I slipped my arms into the shoulder straps. I stood up, fastened the waist and chest straps, and then tightened all three. Trying to minimize the steep climb out of the valley, I traversed diagonally down and across the mountainous slope until I reached the main trail. I told myself, “With this heavy backpack on, be careful not to slip or fall and injure yourself. Just go slow and steady.”
On the pack out, I only took a total of two brief breaks when I literally took the weight off my shoulders. The first break was at the top of a long and steep climb. The second was at the base of two long switchbacks leading up to a pass and a road.
To rest, I don’t actually take my backpack off. That would be more work than necessary. I just unsnap the waist and chest straps, then loosen the shoulder straps. I look for a hillside or a large log next to the trail to lean back or rest my pack on.
Upon making it to the car and then driving to my car camp, I stored the first bag in some shade. I then immediately returned to the trailhead to retrieve the second bag. The front half of the deer was even wider than the rear half thanks to the rib cage. It wouldn’t lower into my backpack at all. Instead, I had to strap, tie, and secure it tight to the outside front of my pack against the nylon bag.
After a total of seven and a half hours, two round trips, and about 10 miles with meat bag one weighing maybe around 80 pounds and number two possibly over 90 pounds, the deer pack-out was accomplished.
Back at my car camp, I felt the strong need to pack up quickly and get home as soon as possible. There were loved ones to see. There was also the urgent task of cleaning and skinning the two halves and getting them to the meat processor and refrigeration before the meat started to spoil. Time was of the essence.
In addition, I had to scrape and salt the two hides and get them to a tanner and take the head to my taxidermist to mount my trophy. I thought about all the roasts, steaks, chops, ground, sausage and tenderloin that would come out of the deer and the personal satisfaction of fixing venison meals for family and friends.
It had been a successful and memorable “High Buck Hunt.” Besides the hunt there had been many simple joys too. An overload of alpine larches turning gold, wind through the conifers, fragrant rainbow-like wildflower meadows, blueberries, mountain water and air, the flutter of a forest grouse, soaring birds of prey, tinkling creeks, trout, sun, rain, hail, snow, night skies, vistas, vitality, solitude and freedom.
As I drove away, I was grateful to have experienced this special high country wilderness.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Got a great Northwest trophy tale to tell? Email it and pics to firstname.lastname@example.org!