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A Very Long Night

I mentioned in my 2022 yearly wrapup post that the night we packed out my mule deer deserved a post all on it’s own. It’s because it was one of the longest nights I’d ever had in the woods. It was a night that will stay with me for quite a long time, mixed with feelings of success, failure, excitement, and fear. It’s hard to describe at a level for people to appreciate without telling you the long version.

Mule deer hunting

We’d decided to spend some more time mule deer hunting, the day Manny left. Up on a ridgeline that had been pretty successful so far in producing deer to come out at last light to feed. I’ve tried to learn the lay of the land in our unit over the course of the last several seasons ands have done fairly well. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can reliably produce mule deer for my buddies, but not elk. Since we had deer tags in our pockets, this is where we’d focus, and the next day we’d switch to elk.

New neighbors

We pulled into the trailhead for an evening hunt. There’s posts there that allow for ATV travel under a certain width restriction, and sometimes the trailhead is busy. However when we pulled in I let out a groan. There was an 8 man Cabela’s outfitter tent pitched in the turn around. But that wasn’t all… a trailer, three quads, and a full sized pickup were also there. They were in for the weekend, already running a generator in the large tent, multiple propane bottles for heat. Dogs were running amok outside the tent. It was going to be a long night.

I shook my head as I geared up. Sure, I was jealous of their setup, it looked quite comfortable. I pulled my truck to the side of the turnout as three ragamuffin dogs came over to greet us. We waved and parted ways with our new neighbors, fighting the fading daylight to get some spots on the ridgeline so we could enjoy a last light hunt.

Break down and pack out

Like clockwork, as the sun began to set mule deer appeared on the opposite ridgeline. Some time afterwards soft padding through the snow on my side of the hill brought a large doe and a smaller buck. I was after meat, so I waited for the perfect shot — and took it.

I waited some time after the shot. The doe had only gone about 40 yards downhill before piling up into a fallen log at the base of a big pine tree. I watched through my binoculars to check for the rise and fall of the sides. The variegation in the brown and white fur playing tricks on my eyes. I walked slowly to the body, bigger than any doe I’d ever taken. I’d been primarily a whitetail hunter all my life. It was intimidating, just the idea of breaking it down and packing it out. I’ve only ever quartered one other animal in the field before, and that was a last-hour-last-day whitetail doe I’d taken a few years prior. This was going to be my first western big game pack out.

I’ll tell you what, if you ever get the opportunity to take a trained chef out hunting, and break down an animal together — do it. We processed out that doe in absolute record time. We saved all the nasty bits, the offal other than the caul fat. I just can’t seem to get a good balance of timliness versus saving everything there.

The ball joints on a rear quarter are usually the hardest part for me. Danny made absurdly quick and clean work of it. While he cut the rear hams I pulled off the front shoulders. We got everything packed into game bags and split the load between me and Danny on our pack frames. Heavy, but we’d only need to make the trip once apiece. We did this because the walk back to the truck was a little under a half mile, all uphill, with obnoxious levels of elevation gain and loose rocks. Thankfully I had my trekking poles to rest my shoulders on. Hiking with a 90lb pack was something I hadn’t really thought through well enough. It was pitch black at this point, and we were lit only by the wash our headlights could provide.

We just put one foot in front of the other with slow half steps uphill. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears. It’s hard to maintain a pace where you’re not sweating when you’re hiking under load.

Lost rifle

I was soaked when I made it back to the truck, having worked uphill at my own pace I figured I’d do more good getting my stuff off and doubling back to help Danny if he needed it. I’d taken my pack off and put the bloodied game bags in the cooler in the back of the truck. Chugging a Gatorade and listening to our new neighbors watch television from their inverter generator I shook my head again. Everyone has their own definition of comfort. If they had mule deer tags and their aim was true they’d likely fill them this weekend here.

Danny arrived at the truck a little while after. He declared he’d lost his gun after looking at his pack and starting to unload. My stomach sank. It was pitch black except for a little moonlight and some stars twinkling overhead. It was getting pretty cold, and I was running on adrenaline. My mind raced, he was new to this, he was amped up, and now one of the most valuable pieces of kit was somewhere on the mountain. Snow was coming, and there was a fresh gut pile, in black bear and lion country.

I asked if he wanted help, and he waved me off. Down the mountain he went again. I can’t remember if he lit up a cigarette to calm his nerves or not, but he was pegged. Maybe hunting media had gotten to him, with the tales of grizzly bears over gut piles prowled in his brain. I told him here you really just had to worry about the pumas. It didn’t help. He and I were both anxious. But a short while later he came back with his rifle in hand, having laid it down right where we had processed out the deer.

Unfriendly Neighbors

After some calm celebration in my now pre-heated truck we worked our way down the mountain road. It’s not a particularly easy drive, and the locals made it all the more entertaining that already long night. The access road to the spot is sort of an older unimproved dirt road. It’s been eroded by the Colorado elements, exposed jagged rocks, ruts, and washes along the spine of a ridge. There’s blind curves with dropoffs that sometimes feels like you might want a spotter.

We picked our way down a particularly steep portion of the trail I put the truck into manual. Feathering the brakes slowly sliding the truck down, fogs and low beams guiding us between rocks and spindly quaky aspens of the high country. Then the truck lights hit the green hue of animal eyes, our windows rolled down to get a little bit of the cold air mixed with the warm truck we heard what sounded like someone slapping sheets of 3/4 plywood together — aggressively.

On a slight rise in front of us, and in the middle of the road, two bull moose were sparring. It was pitch black other than some starlight and a little moonlight, and these two were out flexing. The foglight wash caught another form off to the right hand side of the road, and there was a cow moose looking on at the two fighting. I have no idea whether she was impressed or weary by their jostling and jousting. I snapped a photo as best as I could in the darkness, but I’m not at all sure what I’d captured.

We paused watching them fight for what seemed like twenty minutes but in reality was probably only a few before I did the dumb thing. I started creeping the truck down the road, rocks crackling and popping under the weight of my tires. The moose looked at the truck, and made moves briefly toward us and then trotted off, but only slightly off the road. I gritted my teeth as we slipped by the trio of moose. They surely outweighed the truck together.

Canyon driving

After creeping down the rocky ridge road portion of our adventure there were two choices. Take the very long route past nearly every other hunter in the area, or take the treacherous twisty canyon road back to town for ice. I’d hunted this area four seasons and not killed anything to bring back. I was going to ice this critter down or hang it so as not to let the precious meat spoil. We decided we had enough energy to cruise off to town and get some real food and ice. After a half dozen switchbacks and then sort of cruising the washboards on autopilot we were back on asphalt.

Gas station ice

There’s nothing quite like a trip to town after you’ve been in the woods for a few days. Even if you’re driving from spot to spot rather than being backcountry all the time. It’s civilization, to an extent. In mountain town gas stations they’re used to camouflage clad grizzled folks coming in at all hours for ice, coffee, and some fried brown delicacies roasting under a red heat lamp. A quick stop to top off the tanks, use a real honest-to-goodness marginally clean bathroom, and grab some food was a godsend. There’s really only so much dehydrated food one person can take.

We grabbed a six pack and some food with the water already inside it and headed back up into the mountains to my place where we’d load up the coolers and reset for an elk hunt.

Quonset hut

Ice thrown into the back of the truck we’d largely just guestimated how much we’d need. I bought two or three large bags knowing I had a humungous igloo maritime cooler at base camp. My place is at the head of a valley, roads forming an outer edge and then spiderwebbing into the center from there. Cutting up the ridge road the lights of the permanent houses and other various camps lit the valley like twinkling stars.

It wasn’t until we pulled into the driveway that we had a chance to look up. It was a cold night that had fallen, nearly cloudless. With the limited light pollution in the little valley that hung below the pass the stars seemed to shine extra brightly. We could see bits of the milky way gleaming through the aspens. We were already tired, a long day and it was already a long night and we were only half way through it. Though we thought we could see the finish line, there was still more. I rolled up the door to the garage and we carried the game bags into the cooler. Throwing them on top of ice and sealing them for later when I’d take them home and butcher them further.

It was time to get back to camp and get some dinner, and crack a gas station beer. We hopped back into the truck and tore off into the night, leaving base camp behind us.

Elk in the road

Leaving the garage we went back up the mountain to the pass in order to get to our camp. Why we didn’t just sleep there I’ll never know. I was gassed and probably just wanted the comfort of my mummy bag. We tore through the dirt roads of the neighborhood to get to the pass road. A rooster tail of dirt behind the jeep lost in the darkness of the night.

Back on the main road I could all but guarantee we were the only ones out and about, so I throttled up. Climbing up to the pass the road turns and twists with the contour of the creek drainage until my headlights caught something large and dark clambering across the road. “That’s what we’re looking for!” I thought, while I’m fairly certain I only managed to shout “Hoooollllly shiiiiiiiit” as my feet tapped and feathered the brakes, trying not to hit the large bull elk running from right to left across the road and dumping down into the darkness. I recall telling Danny that it had been a legal bull, and hopefully he’d stick around. The next day we were going to be heading back that way to hunt elk.

The Yard Sale

When we finally got to camp after picking our way up the pass, over cavernous potholes, and through iced over mud pits we dimmed the lights so as not to upset our new camp neighbors. For some reason our friends with the wall tents had broken down and packed out. It seemed likely it was the high winds and lack of game that sent the extended family home.

I rummaged around for a head lamp and sleepily grabbed my pack. I was ready to light the heater, crack a cold one, and heat up some backpacking food. Enjoying a little gas station snack before some shut eye sounded amazing. Walking to the tent that should have been silhouetted in the moonlight but, it wasn’t there. Instead it had become clear that something had happened to our campsite.

Our gear tent was still standing, miraculously. But the tipi with the hot tent stove and all of our sleeping gear had been spread about the mountain side. Our long night just got longer. It wasn’t clear if a bear, our new neighbors, or the high winds had torn apart my trusty tipi. We ruled out our neighbors pretty quickly. Our sleeping stuff had been neatly piled in a heap outside of where our tent had been staked. The center pole had fallen and our guy lines were ripped from their moorings.

It had been the same high winds that earlier in the day forced us into the protected valley and caused concerns about trees coming down. The freezing and thawing of the ground coupled with the howling winds had ripped our guy lines from the ground and tossed our lightweight tent.


We peeled our gear from the snow where it had iced itself firmly. Down sleeping bags aren’t very warm when they’re frozen to the ground. It was an insult to our sore bodies but I tried to laugh it off. The biggest benefit to the tipi tent was that it only had one very strong pole. After re-guying the tent out it was stable, we swapped the titanium camp stove for my propane heater, and got it fired up. Fingers were no longer numb, and I only aggressively bent two or three tent stakes with my hammer. The ground was frozen and I was incapable of finesse.

With the tent warming up, we cracked some fancy Avery White Rascal beers and tore into dinner. We had created a home again, in the wind whipped wilderness. Coolers were full, and the day’s experiences had overflowed the face of the clock and spilled into the following. While I’d prefer not to have to re-pitch camp by headlamp, I wouldn’t trade the day for anything.

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Tags: Last modified: March 16, 2024