The strength and endurance of a mule hunter has been tested


BACK IN YEARS when I had more mouths to feed and every deer was a good deer and where it died on the mountain was not a particular concern, I drew a tag to hunt elk in the Spanish Mayan Desert in Montana. I did not think much of the difficulties involved in such an endeavour. To me, a deer was just a deer in a different color, and I had filled deer quarters from near and far and from river bottoms to rock pools, suffering no consequences other than the loss of a few pounds.

The destination for this hunt was a saddle on a ridge on the far side of the Gallatin River, where I would meet up with my old friend Joe Gutkoski. Joe would hunt deer while I tried to track a deer.

There was nothing wrong with this plan, except that as far as mold hunting goes, I was two months too late. Moose are fairly easy to find during the fall rut, when they are down in the bottom with their minds in the ditch. You go up and look down. A mole on a willow tree is as obvious as a spider on a slice of Wonder bread. But by November – and this was already at the end of the month – the elk are as high on the mountain slopes as the deer and play just as hard to get.

To compound my problem, it had snowed only a few days before, the fresh dust not completely obliterating the tracks, but deep enough to mask the identity of their makers. In country where there are 50 deer for every deer, I can waste a lot of time hunting the wrong animal, or, for that matter, the right animal by going the wrong way. When I brought this up with Joe, who had a small fire when I found his camp, he said to look for hair. That would be the gift – that and following the trail in both directions until I found a clear track pointing the way.

With this wisdom, we turned in for the night. The next day, climbing before dawn, I soon found myself put to the test. The tracks ahead of me were only vague troughs in the snow. As I had suspected, I couldn’t tell which way the animal was going, let alone identify the species. I wouldn’t see Joe again until the evening, so I couldn’t expect help from a second pair of eyes.

However, I could follow my old friend’s advice. Taking a guess, I turned north on the track and had gone perhaps half a mile through heavy timber when I came upon a scattering of hairs where the animal had been scratched against a log. The hair was long and black, so a problem was solved. It was a deer, but I still didn’t know which way it was going. Ahead of me, the path led to a clump of pines where the canopy was thick, making the snowpack thin. Here, in the scanty white blanket, hoofprints were visible. I was well on the trail and, going very slowly, I saw the buck ahead of me, just the lines of his skin showing between the tree trunks. It was a bull, as they call a paddlehead in Montana—no trophy, but I was hunting meat. A few steps to my right would have given a clearer view, and I don’t think he heard the shot that killed him.

Real moose

It wasn’t until I ran my hands over the beer barrel chest and massive forequarters that I realized that, while the hunt was over, the job might be more daunting than I thought. This was not a stag I could wrestle on his back in field dress. I couldn’t lift the moth’s head more than an inch.

Because I couldn’t move the beast, I had to carve the meat off the bones on one side, then turn the alto over and work on the other side. This was the gutless method before I knew such a technique existed. Well, necessity, as they say… It was dark when I got back to camp, blood up to my elbows, where Joey was waiting for me with raised eyebrows.

“How big is he?” he asked.

“Big enough.”

At the scene of the murder the next morning, Joe was ecstatic. “Look at that nose, huh?” he said. “Look at the length of that bone. He’s a holdover from the Ice Age, that’s what he is.” He took out the knife.

By noon, the rest of Ice Age consisted of ten plastic garbage bags with wet mold sitting in the snow, plus the wrapped skin covered in branches and the head and horns nestled in the crotch of a tree. A pair of whiskey plugs attracted friends who attracted friends. They bound the branches like crows in a Hitchcock movie.

Joe stuffed a bag of meat into his pack and slung it over his shoulders, then hesitated.

“This is not one man’s burden,” he said.

He removed his pack and put it in another bag. “There,” he said. “That’s more like it.”

I had to put his pack on his back while he was sitting on a log and then help him to his feet. Well, if Joe could carry a man’s load, then I had no choice—he was 30 years my senior and couldn’t weigh more than 130 pounds. And so, similarly overwhelmed, I tumbled down the mountainside.

Think you're tough?  Try packing a Moose
Marcin Wolski

When I think about reaching my endurance limits, that’s the day I remember. It wasn’t very far on the map, but it was all up and down, treading the drop covered by a foot or more of snow in places, with holes where the crust was thick enough to support your weight, almost.

One or the other of us would fall every few hundred feet and we would have to bend over to help each other up. The muscles in my inner thighs began to twitch. I put my hands on my knees to catch my breath.

“This is grouse hunting,” said Joe, his breath weary. “It’s like getting old. It’s not for girls.”

A mile or two further on, we passed a deer trail. The track was fresh, hoofprints leading down the basin to the well-worn game path we had followed. Joe turned it on. “Never leave deer to find deer,” he said. It was one of his hunting maxims. He shrugged. “As long as he’s going our way,” he added.

The elk was heading our way. Then he wasn’t. The tracks had turned uphill.

“Tell you what,” said Joe. “I’ll stay a bit at his place and meet you down at the ford.” I watched him return to the track, bent under the weight of the pack.

You are a better person than meI said to myself.

Two hours after we parted I saw the river for the first time, with the broken strip of tin glistening far below. We had hidden our boats on the near shore, and by the time Joe joined me there, I had already gone through a load of venison.

“Not any?”

“No deer.” He removed his pack and took out the game bags.

“Aren’t you going back to town?”

“No, I’ll be out for a few more nights.” He said that there was a cave in which he had bathed before, not far from where he had left the elk trail. Then he asked me to tell his wife that there was a change of plan. He turned and I watched the darkness swallow him.

I’ve always been compelled to test myself in the most difficult outdoor pursuits—solo backpack hunting for elk, fly fishing for steelhead—without being able to articulate why.

Now it was to me, an angry-looking strand of electricity and a human burden of venison. “Just don’t fall,” I said under my breath. I almost didn’t. But only a few steps from the far shore, my kerchiefs slipped, and, as I descended, I felt the flow of ice water over my tops. It was not deep, but weighed down by the shoal, I had to walk on my hands and knees to the bank, then I got into the truck weighed down by the water in my firs. That will be a story one dayI told myself.

But not yet, because six sacks of venison were left on the mountainside.

Seven days after the impact echoed, I went in for the last load. The blood and bones were covered with new snow and the birds were gone. I had packed my head and hidden it on previous trips, and now there was nothing to show we had been there.

Why Eternal

It’s been a quarter of a century since I returned to walk down the pond with my last load. It’s been a long time and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the hunt. I wish I could say I learned a lesson—never shoot moose again, for starters. But it is the concept of the so-called male load, or, better put, testing the limits of physical and mental endurance, that continues to intrigue me.

I’ve always been compelled to test myself in the most difficult outdoor pursuits—solo backpacking for elk, fly fishing for steelhead—without being able to articulate why. Part of it, I know, is just circumstantial. I’ve never had pockets deep enough to pay a specialist to go on a backcountry horse hunt or hire a guide to show me where to shoot. And so it was easy to reason, telling myself that the greater the effort expended in hooking the fish or bagging the venison, the greater the reward, at least in the spiritual sense that brings us closer together. much with our ancestors as we continue their lives. traditions.

These connections with primitive man were old Joe’s favorite thoughts. He suffered from a climbing injury that made it painful to lie on hard ground, and I often woke to find him sitting before the embers of his dying fire, marveling at our place under the silver pepper of stars.

“What is it about, ma’am?” he would say, looking at the night ahead. “Tell me when you know.” Joe is hunting the deer of paradise now, and I like to think that their trail has led him closer to the answers he’s been looking for.

As for me, I would continue to hunt another deer, proof if necessary that the body, given time, erases the memory of pain. Once more I would strain my heart and legs to the limits of strength and endurance, and once more I would have reason enough to say never again.

But that’s another story.

This story originally appeared in the Limits Issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories.





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