The highlight of owning pack animals is to take them into the wilderness, making it possible for a more fulfilling backcountry experience, whether it’s hunting, fishing or just camping out with family. I am constantly planning and thinking about my next trip. When spring comes and the snow begins to melt in the mountains, I can hardly wait to hit the trail. When the packing season nears its end, I am often planning trips back-to-back, never wasting a moment. Without fail, the last one of the season is bittersweet.
It was my second hunting trip of the season. I had decided I was packing out the next morning after hitting the trail with a hunting buddy and five of my donkeys for an elk hunt two weeks before. A successful hunting excursion, we were able to kill two elk in three days, packing out on the 5th day. I went home for a few days to rest before heading out on my own for a mule deer hunt. This trip was meant to be only three or four days, and the last of the season. I planned to ride and hunt and then do some exploring in this wilderness area I have known for several years, savoring the moments before heading back home.
On that last day, I woke up around daylight to the signs of changing seasons. It was 29 degrees and there was a heavy frost on the grass down by the creek. Shivering, I took my camp chair and a mug of steamy, hot coffee over to a sunny spot and sipped while I watched my three donkeys warming themselves in the morning sun. It is impossible to describe the peace and solitude as I sat there. Even though I had taken a nice bull the week before, in that moment I thought to myself, "This is why I do this." I find, as I get older, I am more excited about just being in the backcountry than the thrill of the hunt.
I took my time loading and weighing the panniers. I really did not want to go. Noon turned into 1 o’clock, and when I finally hit the trail for my 10-mile ride back to the trailhead another hour had passed. As I got the donkeys moving, listening to the familiar sounds of hooves hitting the trail, the remnants of the dying fire lingering in the air, I wanted to burn all the sights, sounds and smells into my memory. I took deep breaths of mountain air. I tried not to miss a rock, tree or patch of grass along the way, stopping at one of the creek crossings to listen to the little mountain stream as the water rolled over rocks and fallen trees. Riding through the big, open parks I looked in every direction, taking in all that I could. I heard a distant Grey Jay sound the alarm as I approached. Nostalgia always hits on my last ride out. I have taken hundreds of pictures and videos but they do not capture the beauty and vastness of my little slice of heaven. I have found the best way to capture the really important moments in life is to put down the camera and use my brain to record the splendor.
Saying goodbye to another season, and a place that I hold near and dear to my heart, my emotions are mixed. While I am sad that this is my last trip of the season, I am also filled with anticipation for next year’s adventure.
Now… Where did I put that map?