Article contributed by Editor in Chief J. Townsend
The Sierra Nevada Mountains in California have been the point of interest for me since I first arrived in California when I learned of the expeditions of John Muir into those pine crested peaks. These are the very same mountains where countless prospectors chased their dreams to discover buried riches during the California Gold Rush. In my mind, the Sierras have always been the backdrop for every western and frontier novel I read growing up. As an adult, I was fortunate enough to visit Yosemite and several other pristine, breathtaking areas hidden deep inside the reaches of this landscape. Each time, I was in awe at the raw beauty and wildness of this land.
Field Staff Writer AJ Fick called me earlier this year and told me he drew a Mule Deer tag for Californiaâ€™s X9B zone. He asked if I wanted to backpack and hunt with him during the season. X9B has one of the highest success rates for Mule Deer in California and it is not too far from our home in San Diego. I could do nothing more than quickly agree and dream of the adventure to come.
In early summer, the planning began and over the next few months there would be a lot of packing list revisions, chats about hunting areas, and physical preparation. Since I did not draw a deer tag, I purchased a Black Bear tag to use while in the backcountry, should we run across a black bear. Neither one of us had ever hunted this area so one of the biggest challenges was going to be hunting a new area without having time to scout and learn the deerâ€™s patterns first. Another major challenge would be that neither one of us has every hunted that deep in the back country. The area we would hunt was several miles into the heights of the Eastern Sierras. It was exciting and intimidating all in the same feeling.
â€œFew places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.â€Â
â€•Â John Muir,Â The Mountains of California
Every hunter knows how quickly the summer comes to a close and how swiftly hunting seasons open. A trip which initially seems so far in advance quickly arrives in almost an instant. Months of preparation passed to find AJ and myself now standing in the dirt parking lot at the trail head peering at the massiveness of the mountains which laid before us. The warm September sun beat down on us as we felt the weight of 50 pound packs bearing down on our backs and shoulders. Our entire existence for the next three days and nights was contained within these packs.
Neither one of us had ever hiked this trail so it was all very knew to us. We had conducted some initial research and believed the distance to our campsite was approximately 5-6 miles. The trail is broken into three distinct areas; the high desert of Owens Valley, the slope up to the pass, and then the area known as the Hogsback, which was a ridgeline that traveled upward to our campsite. We would have to scale 4000 feet in elevation in what we assumed should take no more than 6 hours to reach our campsite. Our hike was ever arduous as we pushed ourselves through the high desert in the mid-day sun. We sipped freely from our water supply as we sweat profusely.
At mile marker 2 we stopped to eat and break after about 2 miles of traveling. It is here were we saw our first glimmer of excitement as what may be waiting for us at the top of the Hogback. On the side of the mountain were two doe and a legal 2×2 buck grazing at only about 150 yards away. They paid us no mind as we ate our freeze dried meals. This stop is also where we learned some other valuable lessons. Donâ€™t overeat when you are so intensely engaged in physical activity. AJ and myself are very physically active and should have not overlooked this important notion. After eating, we made it about another Â½ mile before having to break due to nausea and tiredness. At this juncture, our water was low with only about 2 liters between the two of us and it was closer to water up the mountain than it was to the truck. The sun was also beginning to slowly set behind the peaks above us.
After an hour break, fatigue was overcome and we were able to slowly (more slowly now) push upward towards the pass. About 1 mile from the pass and 6 hours into the hike we quickly realized that we had underestimated the length and difficulty of the terrain. At this point we were traveling by headlamp along the path and rationing our water while mentally pushing our tired bodies towards fresh cold water and a warm sleeping bag.
After 9 hours of trekking up the mountain and around the pass, we reached the first watering hole. The fresh, cool mountain stream water never tasted so refreshing. At this point in my life, I now want to challenge anyone who believes that hunting is not an athletic event. AJ and I had spent the past 6 months training for this hunt and it still kicked our butts. I do not think I have experienced anything so physically demanding as hiking a 50-60lbs pack up 4000 feet in elevation to what would total to be 9.1 total long grueling miles to our campsite. I would strongly recommend learning to become Mountain Strong and preparing for high altitude backcountry hunts if this is a route you wish to take. (Despite the level of difficulty, I thoroughly enjoyed almost every minute of the hunt)
That night AJ and I were zombie like as we went through the motions of setting up our camp. The excitement of the next day as opening day could not even keep us awake. We both poured ourselves into our sleeping bags and dozed for a couple of hours until the onset of sunrise, which would finally bring the opportunity to pursue Eastern Sierra Mule Deer and Black Bear.
To be continuedâ€¦..