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Whitetails: back of beyond: solitude and the promise of big bucks lure hunters to the wilderness.

Thanks no doubt in part to the fact that he spent his final 27 years in and around the small town in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains where I grew up, Horace Kephart has always been one of my favorite people associated with the outdoors. For starters, he was a literary figure of considerable repute. His book, Camping and Woodcraft, ranks as one of the 10 bestselling outdoor-related books of all time and has never been out of print in the 101 years of its existence.

"Kep" was also widely recognized as the "Dean of American Campers" and along with Theodore Roosevelt was a charter honoree in the American Camping Hall of Fame. Add to those qualifications a remarkable knowledge of woodsmanship, pioneering studies of ballistics, gunsmithing genius and camp cookery expertise, and you have an outdoorsman for all seasons.

Yet the thing about Kephart that probably has the most appeal to the modern hunter was his consuming passion for remote places. He coined the phrase "back of beyond" and was never happier than when in a cozy camp built entirely with his hands. He lived off the land, savoring every minute of the wilderness life, and left all of us a tidbit of wisdom we should remember every day: "There is no graduation day in the school of the outdoors."

My introduction to hunting far from avenues of asphalt and armies of orange came through a staunch son of the North Carolina mountains named Joe Scarborough. Joe had done three tours of duty as a sniper in Vietnam, and he credited his deer hunting experiences with allowing him to survive. When he returned home, he renewed his love for the hunting ways of autumn with a will, and sharing some of his approaches should be informative for anyone interested in this adventurous approach to hunting.

"I want to be at least five miles from the nearest road," Joe was fond of saying, "and 10 is a lot better. Most hunters won't get much more than a mile from the nearest highway or maintained trail, while deer are in many ways just the opposite. If they can get away from hunting pressure and still have plenty of food, that's what they are going to do."

His approach was simple enough, although it isn't necessarily recommended as the best one. Joe would stuff a few essentials into a light backpack--some dehydrated food and high-energy snacks, a couple of space blankets, water treatment tablets and rain gear--and head off into some little-traveled section of one of the million-plus acres of land embraced by the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests.

All across the country there are similar opportunities awaiting hunters who harken to the call of adventure, are reasonably fit and don't mind the rigors of long walks and rough camping.

For the most part, these situations involve national forests, but there are also other situations--especially in some of the more sparsely populated states and in regions of extensive wetlands--where it is possible to get away from it all on private land (with landowner permission, of course).

The whole idea is to hunt whitetails in places seldom if ever visited by other hunters. One advantage is that bucks have the opportunity to live longer in such situations and thus grow bigger racks. Another is that deer in remote areas are more likely to feed and move during shooting hours and are perhaps a tad less wary--in marked contrast to highly pressured deer that are always on high alert and move mostly at night.

Basically, there are three ways to gain access to hunting grounds where the likelihood of encountering others is minimal. These involve what I've always heard described as "shank's mare" (hiking or backpacking) or by horse or watercraft. (Some readers might wonder about use of ATVs, but from this writer's perspective, any place that four-wheelers can reach doesn't fit the true definition of back of beyond.)

For the backpacker, the primary consideration--provided you have identified a good deer hunting area--involves personal fitness and woodscraft skills. An experienced camper carrying a gun on his shoulder and his home on his back can manage a week to 10 days in the wilderness without a great deal of trouble.

A good tent and sleeping bag, essential cooking utensils, dehydrated foods and the proper personal gear can all come in at a weight of between 50 and 60 pounds. The key is to know your gear and your needs, plan menus carefully and be prepared to deal with adverse weather.

The backpack hunter needs to know how to set up a comfortable, functional camp; be willing to hike, sometimes for miles, from that camp while hunting; and know his way in the woods. A compass and GPS are essential for this type of hunting. Carry both, and be sure to bring extra batteries for the GPS.

Weight considerations and bulk mean you probably will have to leave your favorite climbing or lock-on stand at home. Instead, you will find yourself hunting deer the traditional way: on the ground. You can either still-hunt or find a comfy tree to stand or sit against that affords a good view of a deer trail crossing.

Horses and mules also afford access to the hinterland, and while the average hunter doesn't have access to equine help, those who do are able to reach remote areas without walking themselves to death--and they can carry in more gear and have an easier time of bringing deer back out.

But stock also has its disadvantages. Some terrain is too rugged for horses and may not offer a way to feed them when you get to your destination, and some trails are off-limits to horses and mules.

Over much of the country there are sections of rivers--from the blackwater streams that weave their way through coastal plains all across the Southeast to muddy creeks in the Midwest and whitewater in the Rockies--that beckon the deer hunter.

I particularly like the possibilities afforded by hunting swamps or using a canoe or johnboat to penetrate remote locations that are otherwise pretty much inaccessible. Hunting swamps involves a willingness to deal with mosquitoes and snakes if the weather is warm or insulated waders if it's not, but the effort can be well worthwhile.

After all, deer regularly use swamps, most of which have elevated sections or islands scattered throughout them that deer seek as refuges. And swamp oaks and other mast producing trees often draw them to such spots in the fall.

River hunting requires more attention to logistics. You either need to leave a vehicle at your take-out spot or else make arrangements to have someone meet you.

The ideal approach is to drop off all the gear at the launch site, shuttle one vehicle to the intended take-out spot, then return in a second one to where the river travel is to begin.

The latter method provides flexibility because you can leave early if everyone tags out or the weather turns really bad, and if you need to stay longer, you can do that as well. If, on the other hand, you've arranged a day and time to be picked up, you may have to stick to the schedule.

One of the problems associated with hunting deer in remote places involves getting out the venison when you have been successful. My friend Joe had a simple answer: "First I get a good deer, and then I start worrying about how to get the meat out."

For someone with his grit and exceptional woodscraft skills, that worked just fine, but for most of us some forethought is advisable. There are several possible approaches. If it is possible to drive within a few miles of the spot with a vehicle or ATV, the best idea is to field dress the animal and use one of those handy, lightweight wheeled game carts. They work quite nicely in all but the most rugged or densely forested terrain.

If you have to haul it out on a stock animal or on your own back, you'll want to reduce the meat to the lightest, most compact form possible. That means boning everything out and being prepared with some heavy-duty plastic bags that will help avert any leakage of blood.

If you've got the time, eat some of the meat while in camp. One, it cuts down on some of the weight you'll have to pack out and, two, if you've been living on dehydrated food for a couple days, the change in rations will be most welcome.

Hunters who travel by boat or canoe are in great shape--just move the animal to your watercraft, load it up and paddle or motor back to civilization.

Even then you will probably find it easier to quarter the animal before you move it, and quarters are handier for stowing in a boat.

No matter the situation, sound hunting ethics demand full utilization of venison, so be sure to plan ahead for how you'll take care of the deer you kill.

Regardless of what approach you take to hunting deer far from civilization, you need to know how to read topo maps, you have to possess the requisite backcountry travel skills, and you should feel comfortable hunting in a wilderness setting.

This type of deer hunting is not for everyone. It is demanding, potentially debilitating and may even require a bit of daring. Yet getting back of beyond offers many rewards: the splendid solitude of an evening campfire where there is no noise or light pollution, enhanced opportunities for success and a sense of self-sufficiency you can never know when you amble a few hundred yards from a truck and climb into a ladder stand. Most of all, though, there's the feeling that motivated Joe Scarborough whenever he took to the woods.

"To me," he was fond of saying, "wilderness hunting tests your mettle, and I'm a man who appreciates such tests." Chances are you will be equally appreciative, and you might just kill the buck of a lifetime in the bargain,

Backswoods Pointers

* Always take hunts of this type with a companion. If something goes wrong, two is better than one.

* Be in shape. What should be a grand experience can turn to sheer misery if you get blisters, are physically incapable of dealing with what you face or otherwise suffer because of inadequate conditioning.

* Plan carefully. You can't drive your truck a few miles to pick up some shells or to buy food. Checklists of personal gear, food, the camp outfit and even menus are a good idea.

* Always have backup means of starting a fire. One simple solution is to have everyone carry an inexpensive cigarette lighter as part of his equipment.

* Be prepared for emergency situations. That means carrying a functional first-aid kit, leaving a detailed itinerary with a family member, having an awareness of medical conditions of all party members and the like.
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Author:Casada, Jim
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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