Packtrips then and nowSeptember is a glorious month to be in mountainous country, the air crisp and sharp, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is on with a packtrain — a string of horses, some saddled for riding, others carrying panniers containing the provisions for the trip.
By: Bernie Kuntz, Outdoors, The Jamestown Sun
September is a glorious month to be in mountainous country, the air crisp and sharp, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is on with a packtrain — a string of horses, some saddled for riding, others carrying panniers containing the provisions for the trip.
Many years ago, before the advent of bush planes, the packtrain was the only logical choice in getting into big game country, and it often involved a week or two of riding just to reach the hunting country.
The late John Jobson, camping and hunting writer for Sports Afield, and Jack O’Connor, who wrote hunting and shooting pieces for Outdoor Life, embarked on lengthy packtrips beginning in the 1940s. Some of these trips were as long as 60 days in duration, 45 days was common, and a 30-day packtrip was fairly standard. The time required for a trip of this sort naturally eliminated the common working man, who was fortunate to get two or three weeks of vacation from a job. (Consider that it often would take a week of travel on either end of the trip, just to get to the jumping off point where the 30, 45 or 60-day packtrip would begin!)
I have been on a number of packtrips in Wyoming, British Columbia and the Yukon. My longest was 18 days. Most were 14 or 15-day affairs, and some were 10 days in duration. Anything longer is very rare today. A well-heeled old friend of mine from New York State made special arrangements in the 1990s to go on a 21-day trip in Northwest Territories. The outfitter probably thought he was nuts!
The light plane has largely replaced the lengthy packtrip, and I cannot say that I lament its passing. As one who has ridden several hundred miles on mountain horses, the less time I need to spend in the saddle, the happier I am.
Take the first Dall sheep I ever made. This was in the upper Yukon in 1979. We were flown about 90 miles in a Cessna plane, landed at a base camp, were weathered in for a couple days, then flew another 25 miles and landed out on the tundra where a string of horses awaited. Wranglers had trailed the horses in a couple weeks earlier from Dawson. Without the airplanes, it would have been a week’s ride to get to the hunting area and another week to ride back to the highway.
We rode the horses another 10 or 15 miles, left the horses and a wrangler near a willow-lined creek, and hunted on foot from that point. After we killed a pair of Dall rams we brought the horses as near to the sheep carcasses as possible, quartered the sheep and packed the horns, capes and quarters to the waiting horses. That is when a hunter really appreciates a horse — after climbing for miles in mountainous terrain, crossing creeks on foot, slogging through bogs … it was wonderful to load packhorses with meat and walk back to spike camp, carrying only a light pack and rifle!
My first Stone sheep hunt was in northern British Columbia in the Muskwa-Kechika region. It involved about a 75-mile plane flight in a Cessna, a harrowing landing on a gravel bar, then 15 days of hunting. We rode up the broad river valleys, stopping occasionally to glass, all this amid spectacular scenery and bright autumn colors. Once we spotted rams, we climbed to them on foot. One time moving from one area to another, we rode horses over a glacier! Talk about adventure!
With my artificial knee and hip and plates in my lower back, I probably have ridden my last horse. But I remember the sweet smell of the saddle horses, their snorting and the horses’ antics — trying to kick one another, bucking off panniers in the middle of a river-crossing, breaking out of makeshift corrals at night … It makes me smile to remember it and most of all in September.
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974