Voices in the Wilderness: Hunting for a challenge in the backcountry

By Bart George
Reader Contributor

For most of us, it’s not an accident that we live in the Inland Northwest. Locals that have been here for generations love this place and are proud of their roots. Transplants move here intentionally because the allure of wide-open spaces and untouched landscapes is impossible to ignore. Most people who spend a few years in our region learn to take advantage of the unique opportunities that the region’s four seasons provide. Some folks live for the skiing or snowmobiling, others can’t wait for the spring thaw so they can get back on the water with their fly rods. In my case, fall hunting season is what brought me and keeps me exploring the backcountry all year long. 

Bart George in the backcountry. Courtesy photo.

I look forward to the opening day of elk season the way my 4-year-old looks forward to his birthday. This year, the night after his birthday party when we were putting him to bed, he asked, “Can I have another birthday tomorrow?” I thought to myself, “I can relate, buddy.” 

As soon as hunting season ends, I am thinking about the following year. Hunts are planned months, even years, in advance. Gear is maintained throughout the year and tags are purchased as soon as they become available. Around work, things pretty much stop in the fall. We don’t plan any meetings in September or October. During these months, hunting becomes the priority, not zoom calls or construction projects. 

It’s the usual group of friends getting prepped for the hunt. We get our stock ready, pound shoes on horses and mules, mend busted tack and give the stock trailers a bit of attention. Track down all the pack saddles, gather up boxes of pots and pans, lanterns, the collapsible wood stove, horse feed and our food. Then we make the piles. Piles of gear that look more like a disorganized yard sale than the result of months of planning. 

Matt is the packer — he makes the final cut on what goes into the backcountry and what must be left behind. We all feel a bit like a kid at the grocery store, trying to slip things into a cart unnoticed. He’s mostly a benevolent packer, allowing some unnecessary weight, which comes at a real cost — 10 days or so of relentless teasing. So, you better really want that extra pillow, because you’ll be paying for it around the campfire all week.

I’m the cook. It would be an embarrassment to run short on food and particularly bad if we have to ration coffee, as we did in 2015 and which still comes up regularly. As the cook, I’m allocated one mule. I get a cooler on one side and a dry box on the other. I organize and pack all the food and drink and do my best to keep us fed, but if we hunt hard and spend long days hiking and packing we should all lose some weight. 

We pack in a long way. Past all the hikers and day-trip hunters, “picnickers,” as Matt calls them. Usually, we have a destination in mind, but trail conditions most often determine how far we go. Trails littered with windthrow and down trees slow the pack string and limit our progress. Clearing them with a crosscut saw is an arduous task, but it’s also the reason we’ll have entire basins to ourselves. Tough trails are a blessing and a curse — it makes our job more difficult, but it means no one else is there.

We always get elk from Idaho’s wilderness areas. Every time we go, at least a couple of us manage to get some meat. The group divides it up and we try to make it last until the following season. I’m thankful for the healthy meat that hunting provides my family. But beyond that, I am thankful for the time spent away from crowds and the bustle of my regular schedule. 

We go to the wilderness to hunt even though there are far easier places to find elk. We really go there to challenge ourselves and get away from our comfortable routine and cozy lifestyle. The wilderness gives us the opportunity to test ourselves and our gear — it also gives us a season to anticipate every year, like a kid anticipates their birthday. 

Bart George is a professional wildlife biologist and hunting guide who enjoys spending his time pursuing backcountry elk and following his hounds on the trail of a cougar. When he’s not busy with his wife and two young sons he is eagerly preparing for his next backcountry adventure.

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