iˌniSHēˈāSHən: the action of admitting someone into a secret or obscure society or group, typically with a ritual
“This is a big animal…and such a little knife,” I thought to myself.
The celebration is over. The tag is notched. It is time to begin the daunting task of getting this elk processed, packed, and cooled. The truck is somewhere on the other side of this mountain, about 5 miles away. Who knows when we’ll make it back there?
Before I fetch my knife from its sheath, I stop and tell Jerud we should pray. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude, and also well-aware of the hours and hours of work that’s ahead of us. I also know my history with knives, so asking for safety seems more than necessary.
After the “Amen”, Jerud and I worked side-by-side, each with a Havalon in hand. It takes more than 3.5 hours to break-down his bull via the “gutless method”. Many of my friends and fellow hunters that I respect have sung the praises of the Havalon, but I remained a skeptic. However, now that I’ve put one to the test – breaking down an entire bull with nothing but the small scalpel blade – I’m a believer.
The meat is all in bags, and it’s nearing dark, so Jerud and I search for a good spot to stash it for the night. The trees around are thick, and we know that hanging will be difficult, so we find a couple of downed trees and use branches to lay across the deadfall – creating a platform that will allow the meat to cool from all sides. We also tie Jerud’s emergency blanket to surrounding trees, creating a awning over the meat that will provide additional shade and shelter from the rain that is forecasted.
The nearly 4-mile hike back to camp is unbelievably gorgeous. At least while the sun is up, that is. The last half of the hike is made in the dark, giving Jerud and I plenty of opportunities to replay the day’s events over and over.
Morning comes quick. We pack up all of our gear and make the climb back to the truck. Up, up, up… It’s tiring. I am really glad that we’re not packing the elk out this way.
Back at the truck, we empty our packs of everything but water and snacks. The plan is to take an established hiking trail that loops around the backside of the mountain and puts us just above where we have the meat stored. We know it’s going to be at least 4.5 mile to get there, but the good news is that we gain elevation with empty packs to get to the meat, and will have a mostly downhill return trip back to the truck.
We leave the truck and are not even two miles into the hike, and we’re gassed. Six days of hard hunting and hiking have caught up with us. Maybe the best approach might be to do as little mileage as possible. Our initial plan was to pack the elk out in two trips, but I don’t think we have that many miles in our legs. Can we get it all out in one trip? I don’t know, but we’re going to find out!
We finally make it to the meat, which our GPS tells us was a 5.8 mile hike from the truck. We’re at 10.7k, the truck is at 9.7k, and we have to pass over 11.2k between here and there. We load up our packs with the entire elk – all of the meat, and the skull and antlers.
It’s a struggle just to get in our packs and then stand up. This should be interesting.
To get back to the established trail that brought us in, we have to climb nearly 400’. Do we take the most direct, steepest route back to the trail? Or do we skirt around the worst ascent and add mileage to our day? We opt for the straight route, and don’t even make it halfway before I realize that might have been a dumb idea. But what are we going to do now? We have to press-on.
The final climb to make it up to the trail is ridiculous. Completely stupid. Not at all a safe thing to do when weighted-down as we are. I realize how close I am to losing my balance, falling-backwards, and rolling uncontrollably down the mountainside. I’m not planning on repeating a climb like this under this much weight ever again. (But you know what happens to the “best laid plans”…)
Thankfully we safely climb out of there and reach the saddle that will lead us to the trail.
We still have over 5 miles to go, but I know that the worst terrain is behind us. From here we just need to gradually climb a few hundred more feet of elevation, and then it’s literally all downhill. But, just as I’m thinking this, I hear Jerud somberly say my name. “Mark…” I turn to see Jerud behind me…
He says no more with words, but his face says all that needs to be said – he’s hurting.
I do my best to convince him that we can do this. That slowly, but surely, we’ll make it. But he’s not so sure. We talk about stashing some of the meat and coming back later. Deep down, I know that isn’t going to be any easier.
Jerud tells me his hip flexors are what’s bugging him the most. We take a look at his pack and determine that his torose length needs to be shortened further. I also insist that I take more of his meat, at least until he can recover a bit. With those changes made, some of the hip issues are relieved, and we continue on.
As the hike continues I suck the last drop of water out of my bottle. I knew I was low when we were packing up the meat, but stopping and searching for more seemed like a bad idea – we had to get loaded up and moving back towards the truck. Now that my bottle is dry, I’m wondering how long I can make it. I’m praying again – this time that we’ll either cross a stream, or cross by some hikers that have water to spare.
A mile or so later, my prayer is answered. Although neither of us remembers crossing it on the way in, a stream crosses the trail at about the 2.5 mile mark. I sit on a log in the stream, unwilling to get out from under the weight of my pack, afraid that I wouldn’t be able get back under its load after feeling relief. Jerud’s more than ready to get out of his pack, so he filters water for the both of us. Cold, clean water from a mountain stream always tastes good, but right now it’s never tasted better – and probably never will.
The next 1.5 miles of the hike was uneventful. We would, as we have been, hiking a couple of hundred yards, then stop to rest – often slouching over our trekking poles. Hike a few hundred yards, then pause. And so on…
The last mile was a steep descent, and I was losing hope and energy faster than we were losing elevation. I hit rock-bottom. I kept telling myself to keep going, that the truck was just around the corner, but it wasn’t. Every step hurt. If I could have quit, I would have, but I didn’t have a choice. Jerud was right there to keep me going. I pulled him through his low moment at the beginning, and he was doing the same for me at the end.
We should have turned our headlamps on for the last half-mile, but that would have meant stopping and digging into our packs – something that neither of us wanted to do. So we carefully placed each foot as our eyes naturally adjusted to our dark surroundings.
We stumbled back to the track. Unbuckled our packs and let the weight fall to the ground. I can’t express what it felt like to be free from the burden of 130 pounds.
The 11.6-mile roundtrip from truck to meat, and back, took us nearly 10 hours. And with that, our initiation into the brotherhood of elk hunters is complete.