Sunday, October 19, 2008

Blogger Discovers Mule Deer Hunting

Briefly, in difference to the uninitiated; let me mention that the mule deer is a larger relative of the eastern Whitetail which lives in the Western half of the United States, Canada and Mexico. It's called "mule" because it has bigger ears, that people think resemble those of a mule. It has a goodly bit more meat on it, it tends to stop and look back when spotted instead of just running away, and it doesn't have as a good a sense of smell as the whitetail. But rather than sitting there all morning in a tree stand enjoying chirping birds and your clothes' new Doe urine flavor, the most common method of Mule deer hunting in this land of sweeping vistas and fewer trees seems to be just walking around a lot, the higher the better, looking through binoculars, and then walking towards where the deer is, and ideally with a high powered rifle making a shot from 50-300 yards away (for the everyday marksman).

Solo Mule Deer hunting, on public lands in the Rocky Mountain west, is possibly the most challenging outdoor activity in the United States. At least that I've discovered... Far more so than "bagging 14ers", or even rock climbing, in this "sport" the elements of endurance and self discipline tend to supersede all others; while simulatenously requiring a well rounded skill set of experiance with camping, backpacking, map reading, mountaineering, marksmanship, etc... all for a goal that may ultimately elude you after several days of effort, and send you back empty handed and apparently as some kind of failure to the long faces of disappointed friends and family you used to talk excitedly about venison with.

Doing a day hike, of say, a 14,000 ft mountain, can have all sorts of challenges. But it is a relatively straightforward affair. You eat a nice big break fast, you go up, it may be trickier the higher you go, you take your time as you acclimatize, and then you come back down, get in the car, put some nice fresh socks on, and go find a bar.

Now, say we knock 2,000 feet or so (though I have seen elk at 13,600 feet)- give or take- off the maximum elevation of that climb. But repeat that climb several times, in perhaps slightly different directions, for several days in a row. With summiting a 14er, or even a 13er or 12er, there is a certain objective in mind, and a certain sense of accomplishment. With deer hunting, assuming you are able to park the car or camp relatively near to decent deer habitat, you may wake up at least by 4:30 am, be hiking by 5, be in the area you want to hunt in by first light, and then hang out there all day. If nothing good is happening, maybe switch areas, climb that ridge or check out the neighboring basin, and hang around until the evening when wildlife gets more active again. All that hiking, lugging a backpack and a heavy gun around, and the odds are that you'll return to camp that night empty handed- all that effort having been apparently for nothing. Mule deer (or elk) hunting in Colorado is the only sport I know of where you seem to work harder and longer than any other athlete, cover more ground over more days, and you still have a 50% chance (according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, or 75% chance for elk) of being "unsuccessful". Imagine for a minute, if most people, after going through a maze of regulation and applying for a chance several months in advance, spent 2-7 days trying to climb Mt Evans or Long's Peak, with a summit attempt on every day, and only half of them made it... you begin to see the picture.

You might have seen plenty of deer all year around but now you're where they supposedly live and you don't see one all day, or for two, or three, or more days. You're straining yourself more than you ever have. It doesn't take long before you realize this is a most precarious way of obtaining meat. Sure, maybe back in archery season, or if you were a poacher/wildlife observer even before the season began, the deer were more plentiful and much less wary of people. But now all you can think about is how great burger king chicken fries and hot coffee are, or Japanese hibachi grilled chicken & steak, with hot sake, fried rice, and those delicious vegetables!

And heaven forbid, that unlike the out of state trophy hunters who can afford things like $250 non-resident tags, round trip airfare, guides, and all the best equipment- you are of a somewhat more "popular" background; have a basic set of outdoor gear in various states of condition and applicability, and are in these troubled economic times actually seeking to gain more in saved meat-cost than you're able to spend on high tech clothes, or brand new top shelf weaponry, optics, gasoline, or, heck, at least a pair of hiking boots that's actually water proof and doesn't threaten to turn your toes into frozen, soggy mush every time you have to traverse a snow field!

Instead of horses and hired help* to chop the firewood and cook your breakfast you now find yourself totally alone, as the sun is setting, in a 12,000 foot basin that you've been walking around all day, looking in vain through your binoculars in the vague hope that you might get to walk another mile or so away to kill something, skin, clean, and quarter it (as night falls, natural light is gone, and the temperature drops back down to below 32 degrees F), and then carry well over of a hundred pounds of the mess, plus your water, gun, extra layers of clothes that you need to put on if you stop to rest but which are too hot if you're walking, knife, hatchet, tarp, etc... down a steep precipice in the dark and about 3 more miles back to your car.

Woah, and I only *weigh* like 150 lbs!

Of course that's not some kind of perverse punishment for convicts or anything, that's what "winning" here looks like! And as you try to beat the crowds, you're probably not by the most famous peak or sought after, well advertised wilderness. You're way off the beaten path, and the boulder fields and gullies you have to traverse might have seen very few- if any- human feet before yours, leaving them far more wobbly and unsettled. Should an emergency occur and your means of communication fail you, it's far less likely anyone would ever chance upon your position.

Here's an article Mercy just sent me about the kid who twisted his ankle on a mountain in Oregon, and who lived off of centipedes and insects for five days and nights alone at 11,000 feet until a rescue dog found him. Awesome.

In the morning it's between 18- 26 degrees F when you start out so you're all layered up. All day long you're constantly changing out of and putting on more layers in response to more or less sunlight and wind. But here of course it has to be even more difficult than regular mountaineering, as you are wearing camo + a reasonably priced pull-over blaze orange vest. So you can't just put an extra jacket or sweater on. You have to take at least two things off first to then put something on, and then get all dressed back up again.

Most mule deer hunting experts discourage people from trying to fit their hunt into one weekend. Most encourage getting at least five days off if possible. Granted, it is possible that the first day in the early morning you'll get your great shot and it'll all be over. But assuming that doesn't happen, which statistics strongly favor, the tendency toward general demoralization if not giving it up all together becomes tremendous. Sure, in the long run you can save money if you have a freezer full of deer. But when you're up there, and it's cold and windy, and you're worrying about your feet getting wet from all the snow you walked through, you hardly care, and mostly likely would much rather just cut costs elsewhere and deal with the grocery store rip offs as they come.

In the off season, in the pages of industry magazines, hunters gaze longingly at the latest technologies, argue over the best calibers, and think about picking up some of the latest products. Should you see a deer, and be able to get within range, all of this might matter...

Far more likely, however, is that the two most important things any mule deer hunter must have will have been given insufficient attention- by you or by anyone else- until you're actually in the field. It's there that physical fitness, and a most stoic mental stamina, are really the most important things you can have. On the bright(er) side, they weigh very little to carry in, and don't have to cost as much financially as anything else you carry with you. But they are most unglamorous and difficult to develop! I mean, seriously... imagine all the above hazards I have just described, and for say, a 48 or 72 hour period the highest point of your day is when you get to see freshly laid animal poop. Not exactly the kind of thing most people send postcards home about...

FOR THE ABOVE STATED REASONS, I believe, as a semi-fit person who for the next week is participating in a mule deer hunt, that the most important thing any hunter can take into the field is good food. Good, warm food, somewhere nice, is most what I think about when I'm in the field, tired from hiking all day, low on snacks, and I have a pair of underwear over my head secured by a baseball cap because the one thing I forgot to pack before I drove an hour and a half away from home was my warm winter hat. For people backpacking into somewhere rather remote this is harder, as weight and lack of a cooler shrink your options. But I almost think it makes limiting your hunt to a day's hike from the car worth it, to be able to have every night a nice cooler of steak, some good bacon, biscuit mix, butter, seasonings, and fresh vegetables besides just an onion or potato to make a really good, hearty stew with. A glass of wine or a shot of whiskey to spice your evening tea up with doesn't hurt either. What you need is something to look forward to when you make it back to camp, besides that tired old kind of generic, flavorless gruel and the knowledge that the pine sap in the fire will soon be stinging your eyes and that trying wash yourself and your dishes soon will make your hands much, much colder than they already are.

Here again, of course, being solo makes it even harder. When you're waking up early to strain yourself all day, and it's below freezing outside but at least semi-warm inside of your sleeping bag, the last thing you want to do is the dishes from last night, or spend a long time making a dish with multiple ingredients. The same goes for the end of the day- just throwing some rice, lentils, some jerky, a bullion cube and some salt with a few onion slices into a pot and letting it boil over for a half hour is knocking out all the prep in one step, and the carbs will help you stay warm at night- but I tell you it sure doesn't taste like much!

Which may be why today was the first day of the open (second) season, and I just came back from Burger King. You can have all the best camo and fancy rifle accessories in the world... but if you can't keep yourself in the field, the deer will win every time- and your freezer will stay empty!

* * *

Maybe hunting would be easier if I lived in a city, far back east somewhere, and all my pent up energy for the outdoors and extreme alpine environments went unfulfilled for a year at a time. Were this the case I might have a lot more willpower to deal with things as they are... but actually living here, having my life incorporated with the general goings on of these outdoors, and being rather intimately familiar with things like snow, the cold, loss of body temperature and not enough firewood, etc... my instincts are present are actually to avoid high elevations in the months of October-April as much as possible. The pursuit of food is pushing me towards them, far more than I myself get pushed towards the pursuit of food as some kind of extra (benefit or burden?) of getting to play in the nice forests for a while...

* this author has nothing against hired help, and believes all hired help should be respected and well compensated. Unfortunately it has fallen to him to note that the number of people who can afford it is tending to dwindle.

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