The Deer On Top

by Bob Barsch

The Deer on TopWinter is the time of solitude, when the desert hills and distant mountains call the hunter forth to shed his social shackles for a time. It is the season to fulfill the longing for the wild and high, to get nigh the earth, God, and self; to be sheltered alone by the dome of the sky. It does not take much—a backpack, forty pounds of gear, a tough body, tenacious desire, and a big bunch of mountains, such as the Mazatzals.

The Mazatzals (pronounced anyway you want) are located about forty miles northeast of Phoenix. These mountains were named many years ago after the Indian word “Mazatzal”. The connection is fairly obvious. A t any rate, the Mazatzals dominate some 750 square miles of the Tonto National Forest. “Tonto” of course means “wise” or “stupid” man, depending upon whether you are the Lone Ranger or not. The real point here is that the Mazatzals provide enough room for a person to walk himself to death.

The Mazatzals rise from 1700 to 7900 feet and support several distinct plant communities and their associated wildlife species. These plant communities include Sonoran desert at lower elevations, grassland, chaparral, and stands of ponderosa pine on the higher mountains. It is a botanist’s dream and a city dude’s nightmare.

The Mazatzal Mountains are also a lovely place for backpack—hunting trips. And whitetailed deer are one of the finest prizes found there. That is because it takes more solitude and fortitude to bag a white-tailed deer than it does to bag most big game. Unlike the javelina and mule deer found in the foothills, white- tailed deer live on the tops of the mountains.

It is mid-December, the late whitetailed deer season, and the rising sun catches me, loaded with my forty-pound backpack, pushing my way eastward across the Verde River. I strike shore at the mouth of Little Dace Creek and view with a half-hearted chuckle the distant broken ridges, my ultimate destination. I say “ultimate” not “final” because my plan is to return.

From a clump of desert broom beside the clear gurgling creek comes the sound of rustling leaves and nervous chirrs. Forty Garnbel’s quail wildly fan the crisp air and burst out overhead. They clear the brush in unison, set their wings and weave back and forth to settle among the prickly pear and saguaros 150 yards ahead. My heart jumps at the covey rise. My eyes widen in surprise and then narrow with a whispered threat: “My kingdom for a shotgun…you ought not scare people like that!”

There is nowhere to go from here but up and there is only one way to get there. It is five miles and 2,800 feet up to where I will camp. My plan is to walk four miles and climb 2,400 feet in elevation by nightfall. I will then climb 400 more feet tomorrow. I will spend four days hunting out of the second camp. Piece of cake. “Piece of cake—let’em eat cake”—bad choice of words, Marie Antoinette.”

“Oh, but I forgot something—yeah, the packhorse.” The only beast of burden is already talking to himself. He is making an ass of himself. And, then he looks up and asks apologetically: “Ass is a biblical term and likely appropriate in this case?”

I pick up my .257 Roberts rifle and follow the meanders of Little Dace Creek, winding its way into the distant mountains. Along the creek is a narrow gallery of Arizona cottonwoods and willows, a thread of deciduous forest traversing an arid land. This precious thread provides the preferred or necessary habitats for up to eighty percent of the area’s bird species and is a lifeline for numerous other wildlife inhabiting the surrounding desert.

As I start up the creek, a good 2,000 feet below the first whitetailed deer, numerous songbirds dart about the shrubs and trees and I note telltale signs left in the soft sand and mud. Short, rounded hoof prints of javelina are constant reminders of that species love for riparian habitats. I feel a little psychosomatic gurgling in my stomach because I have just had a good drought of clear water downstream from all the pig sign.

The soft sand shows that another deer hunter passed this way and drank from these springs. Mountain lion. Here he bowed and lapped; there he whirled and bounded up the bank. “Competition”—I smile.

“Nowhere but up from here—for sure. It’s 2,000 feet up in the next two miles and then I can rest. Piece of cake…nice scenery though…”

For three hours I climb. I climb and stumble, rest and climb with the pack straps digging into my shoulders. For a moment I hesitate, sit on a rock in the brisk wind, eat a chunk of summer sausage and gape admiringly at deep chasms and canyons, at tall mountain peaks and vast emptiness in all directions. It takes the breath away.

Knowingly, I smile at subtle changes in vegetation. Barren ground, Palo Verde trees and cacti give way to a few perennial grasses, sotol, yucca, agave, and other grassland species. These changes are important because you can start looking for Coues deer when you reach good grass cover. In Arizona on heavily grazed range, that normally means walking farther than a cow will from water or up slopes a cow would fall off.

There is movement to the left at two hundred yards. A mule deer doe and fawn bounce across the rocks, letting me know I am not high enough yet. Up to the aching shoulders goes the backpack—and forward move the feet. The spirit is willing but the flesh is increasingly weak.

Do you know what one thinks about when the flesh is weak? It is not a proud moment. You just feel beat and you think pain. Sure, you will minimize the event later with your friends but in the middle of pain, one thinks of little else but the moment. The present is eternal.

Steps now cover no more than a foot; maybe six inches as I approach the summit of the main ridge. I aim for a goal of perhaps twenty yards and make fifteen. I lean forward to take the pressure of the pack straps off my shoulders and breathe heavily and deliberately. It is a mere three hundred yards at forty—five degrees to the top, but the distance is forever away.

There is no one to walk over. There is no one to applaud. There is only pain, the command of the will—and the soaring of spirit when the goal is reached.

On top I put down my burden at the base of a large mountain—laurel, a chaparral shrub with resplendent green leaves and small red fruits. I slip off my hiking boots, put on a pair of old cotton socks and slip on my soft—soled sneakers. The down sleeping bag is loose. I lay me down in the afternoon sun after six hours of climbing and sleep the sleep of an infant in his mother’s arms.

After an hour, I waken and slip up to a small peak some two hundred yards from camp. I slide up to a light colored volcanic rock with my binoculars and glass across a wide canyon. The canyon trails down from my position for about four miles to low desert and the Verde River below. The north slope supports mountain mahogany, scattered junipers, and pockets of waist—high turbinella oaks. The broad southern exposure is a flaxen yellow carpet of perennial and annual grasses with a few scattered saguaros, jojoba bushes, junipers, and sotols.

I note both a decadent saguaro and a dead juniper standing near one another. It is a narrow niche for desert grasses—too dry for junipers, too cold for desert scrub, and a bit inconvenient for the bovines.

In the middle of the grassy sward stands a sotol and beside the sotol stands a whitetailed buck! But this is impossible. I haven’t hunted yet. I’ve worked too hard and come too far not to hunt. It is not supposed to happen this way. But oh, he is too big to pass up.

I feel the confusion of “too much too soon.” I understand the successes and excesses of famous people… like Elvis Presley with his first hit record or Janis Joplin singing “Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a colored TV?” or Jimmy Hendrix playing the fiddle, or James Dean driving fast. Here I ant for just a moment a small part of the rich and famous. I wonder: Does this mean that people really love me? Shall I kill myself or this big buck?” I subsequently deny the importance of being important and select the latter option. I slip off my tennis shoes and the pair of old cotton socks. I then replace the shoes and slip the old socks over them. With muffled footfalls, I creep to the backside of the main ridge and move to a position directly above the buck. I reach the crest and come down on top of a boulder above the buck. The rifle is raised and the buck, being about one hundred yards or less distant, fills half the scope.

Boom! He falls dead in his tracks. “It is over. . .but I didn’t get to hunt! This is nothing but a bunch of work.”

I eviscerate the prey and prop the body cavity open with sotol stalks because there are no trees large enough on which to hang the carcass overnight. The meat will have to chill overnight to prevent spoiling during the long pack across the desert. The initial work is done, and I trudge back to camp still weary from the hard climb up.

The sun sinks behind the New River Mountains as I crawl between two layers of goose down.

In the southwest, pseudo-twilight of sprawling Phoenix engenders thoughts: “Wonder how many drivers are zipping in and out of freeway traffic, drugging themselves into oblivion? Poor yahoos. . .guess they never looked at all these galaxies and felt the breath of God in a wilderness. No one ever told them that they are infinitesimally small; that their life is a puff of smoke in the wind, and that there is more, so much more!

The following morning, I grab my pack frame and amble to the point from which I sighted my buck the previous afternoon. Immediately below me at perhaps a hundred yards, two more white tailed bucks burst out of a clump of oaks. One heads down the canyon and the other climbs and clears the far ridge north. Each scares up a whitetailed doe in the path of its exit. They are all smooth, and shiny, nicely petite and yet strong. The difference between a desert mule deer and the Coues whitetailed deer is as great as that gulf between a draft horse and a Tennessee Walker.

The next two hours I spend butchering. The muscles of the hams, the back strap, and tenderloins are cut out separately for steaks, and all other meat that can be removed is cut free from the bones. I then spread out the skin, place the meat on it, poke holes in the edge of the hide and sew the skin around the meat with 500-pound test nylon cord.

I then tie the package of meat to the pack frame. A small bone saw frees the top of the skull and antlers from the heavy head and neck. I note that the meat is still cool from the night chill.

An adult bald eagle circles overhead a half dozen tines and a line of Canada geese rises from below, snakes over the highest peaks and into the adjacent valley. In their airy freedom, these birds glide over terrain in five to ten minutes that taxes six hours of my best efforts. “What magnificent—and disgusting creatures! I wish I had your wings and you had a wart on your beak.”

Descending the 2,400 feet and four and one-half miles to the river from camp is an exercise in pure blundering labor. For some perfectly impractical reason, I love it. I simply love packing a hundred pounds across boulders and slopes, through herds of javelina and mule deer, pounding over creosote flats and crawling through mesquite bosques.

Perhaps it is the spirit’s opportunity to subjugate the body. You work it until it gets numb and then you marvel that the thing still functions, still follows commands.

But at last, alas, the ass smells victory! There is hay in the barn, hay made all the more sweeter by the challenge of hard work.

As the incredibly difficult trip nears its end, your own vehicle where you left it across the river is an astounding sight, something bordering on the miraculous.

Near the shore are several cola cans, a bunch of foam cups, and a jumbled pile of monofilament fishing line. A boy of perhaps seven years and a small black dog are enthusiastically exploring the shore for contemporary artifacts, pretty rocks, and small critters. The boy follows me to my car and asks where I have been.

“Deer hunting,” I reply.

“Oh, did you get one…oh yes, I guess you did,” he says. The little black dog looks up to his midget master with fondness and wags his tail a bit.

“Yep, this a whitetailed deer. They live on the mountain up there.” I point across the river and across the desert.

“Wow,” he exclaims with wide, longing eyes, “I bet you’re really tired.”

“Well,” I smile at his longing, “I am a little.”

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