Outdoors/Adventure

How to pack game on your back: Choose a good backpack, and find a young partner with strong shoulders

The second (or maybe fourth?) caribou season is in progress on the Denali Highway. No one really knows because the Alaska Department of Fish and Game only updates its “Hotline” every four or five days.

The hunters are in absence. There are caribou around, but permit hunters are scarce. However — soon moose season will be upon us! There will be crazy numbers of side-by-sides and 4-wheelers. Every motorhome will be towing a couple trailers full of them.

Since the advent of ATVs, trail hunting has become the “thing.” The back trails have more traffic than the highway. Beware the foolish moose who attempts to cross the Swede Lake Trail. There just isn’t room between rigs.

I poke a little at the ATV hunters, but in reality it soon could be me. The hunting public is getting up there in age. All of us once could, and did, pack game out on our backs. It is now easier to bend over the Honda and play mechanic than bend over and hoist a pack with half a caribou tied on.

I have packed my share. And I am still at it. One thing about hunting on foot with a packframe — the success rate increases considerably. That’s because these days, the packboard hunter has zero competition. “Hmmm,” you say. “That sounds pretty good, maybe I’ll give this packing stuff a shot.”

Before one gets serious about packing, there are a few tips I’d like to share. I have been packing since I was 7. I have been hunting the Denali on foot since the glaciers receded, so don’t disregard my words of caution.

First, choose your pack with the utmost care. The yuppie stuff is worthless for packing game, unless you only have a half-limit of ptarmigan to haul. A good packframe is made from welded magnesium. Camp Trails made a frame they called the “Freighter” that is hands-down the best frame ever made. I have four of them. One has packed at least 20 moose and even more caribou. It is as good as it was when new.

Kelty also made a real good board. Again, availability could be tough. The old Trapper Nelson packs were adequate if you were young and didn’t mind punishment. They had a uncomfortable tendency to break in the middle of a mile-long pack under a heavy load.

The fiberglass military frames are still available, and if you see one, run ... the other way. Those boards were made to break soldiers, not to pack moose.

Should you find a good board, take the sack that it comes with and put it way high in the storage shed. You will never need it. A quarter of moose or a caribou half will not fit in the sack, and even if you are able to stuff it in, the weight would be so unbalanced that the load would be impossible to carry comfortably.

I am not really going to kid you about having a comfortable moose pack. There is no such thing. There are ways to make a pack easier. The No. 1 trick is to pick the right guy to hunt with.

I prefer hunting partners in the 225-pound range. Leave your long-legged friends home. You want blocky, tough guys with an attitude. Pick packers who can’t out-walk you. You need to be the first one to the kill site so you can choose the lightest chunk to carry.

Always help your buddies tie their load on the pack. You should even help them to their feet and wonder out loud if it might be a bit heavy for them. That’s where the attitude comes in. If you have chosen your partners wisely, you have guys who will never admit you might be able to pack as much as they can.

Taking your animal less than a mile from the road is another good trick, but not always possible.

And short distances don’t necessarily make things easy. A few years ago I shot a medium-size moose three-quarters of a mile from the Denali. I like to take the minimum number of trips, so I will choose four heavy loads over six lighter ones. Thus, I quartered the moose and took a hind quarter to the road. It was heavy, but manageable.

The next trip I hefted a front quarter. My considerate wife helped me up and carried the heart. I staggered to the Denali and clawed my way up the bank to the back of my truck. A game warden was sitting in his truck watching me struggle. He just shook his head.

“I’m not even going to bother to check you,” he said. “If you forgot to punch your tag, you’ve already paid the penalty.”

Backpacking game is not easy. However, I would rather spend a couple of tough days packing and have a moose on the meat pole than spend five days sitting around the table talking — would have, could have, should have, and go home without.

So by all means, bring the ATV. Just don’t depend on it to hunt with. Bring young, uneducated shoulders to help you hunt. Remember, pick your packers first — and shoot later.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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