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Stalking black bear in the rocky Idaho wilderness is not for the faint-hearted, as Simon Barr found out when he experienced this exhilarating hunt for himself
There’s nothing quite like the romance and tradition of hunting on horseback. Rather than concentrating on where you need to put each foot, you get the chance to soak in the scenery and topography of the country you are in – and not much beats Idaho’s astounding Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
The Frank Church is a spectacular landscape of white-water rivers, rugged mountains and deep canyons and is the largest contiguous wilderness in the United States, outside of Alaska. The area encompasses more than 2.3 million acres of pristine habitat, home to mule deer, elk, moose, whitetail, Rocky Mountain sheep, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, lynx, coyote, mountain lion and grey wolves, as well as the quarry I was after – black bears.
It’s not an area for the faint-hearted hunter. Not only is the terrain steep and treacherous – frequently too steep even for our sure-footed steeds – you are also completely out of touch with the outside world. It is a digital detox of the best possible kind.
The black bear is less of a ferocious predator than the grizzly or brown, and in this area is known to defy its name: around 20-25% actually come in colours of pale sandy-brown to the deepest auburn. They are also smaller than in many other areas, with a full-grown male reaching ‘just’ 5ft.
As my guide, Adam Beaupre of Horse Creek Outfitters, explained: “If you see one that’s 300lb and 6ft, it’s big for us.” And, given that we were hunting in the spring when the bears had just emerged from hibernation, Adam told me that they were likely to be lighter than usual in terms of weight.
“They’ve burned off all their fat, so they’ll be quieter than later in the year when they’ve made up the weight,” he tells me. “They don’t tend to go too far in the spring, and often a bear will work the same 200yd² area for insects and vegetation. They do scavenge, but meat only represents around 10% of their diet. Their paws will also still be tender at the moment and they need to build up their strength.”
We used horses and pack mules to carry us and our supplies to our camp for the week, which was on Horse Creek. Adam has a herd of around 26 and uses draught/quarter horse crosses, which range from 15 to 17 hands high, although he prefers the mules in general. “They’re lower maintenance, and smarter,” he says. “It does mean, though, that if you’ve got a bad one, it’s smart and bad, which can be a tough combination, but they’re generally easier than the horses.”
The other advantage of travelling on horseback is that you see more wildlife, and disturb fewer animals, although Adam says the method is being used less frequently than it was. “Hunters often hike in these days carrying their packs, or they use dirt bikes – I’m not too keen on those.” One can see why, given the disturbance this must cause.
ALL PAIN, NO GAIN
Despite entering the area on horses, the disturbance of setting up camp had pushed any bears away from our direct surroundings, so we had to climb up the canyon sides of Horse Creek to some better vantage points. Working the canyon meant that any shot was likely to be at relatively long range, at distances between 200 and 500 yards.
It certainly puts into perspective one of the differences between European and American hunters, for while many hunters from the US are comfortable shooting at longer distances, in Europe we tend to shoot at far shorter ranges. Interestingly, the reverse is true of running game, and many American hunters are unfamiliar with the idea of shooting driven boar and other mammals.
For longe-range shots there are a few essentials: to be practiced and competent at a variety of distances, to have trusted and quality equipment and, importantly, to have plenty of experience.
Given that we were hunting using the spot and stalk method, rather than sitting in a treestand and baiting bears, our chances would be fewer, but the hunt would be just as I had always imagined for my first bear. We’d see more of the challenging terrain as well as the rich and diverse wildlife, which for an out-of-towner like me is just as important. Sure enough, as the week wore on, we were lucky enough to see bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk and mountain goats, all of which took little notice of us as we moved around the area on horseback, spotting for bear. The bears, however, were proving elusive. The nature of the topography meant that we often had to leave the horses at camp, setting off on foot and covering miles of the steep ground in a day to spy the opposite side of the canyon – it was some of the hardest hunting I’ve ever experienced.
I can’t remember the last time I have been properly frightened. The fear didn’t come from the bears, but from the perceived physical danger I had put myself into. Scrambling rock faces with sheer drops or using slippery fallen trees as bridges to cross ice-cold meltwater rivers quickened my pulse daily. It was managed risk for the guides – crossing a road in a city is a higher risk for them – but for me, being in an environment I am less familiar with gives me a new perspective on how risk-free my day to day life is away from the wilderness.
Risk, and ultimately fear, put me directly in the moment and rebooted my mind. This feeling is one of the main reasons I like to hunt in the wilderness, and my Idaho hunt more than satisfied that lobe of my brain. It was my mental version of ‘control, alt, delete’.
By the fifth day of camp, we’d come close to a shot twice, but hadn’t managed to close the gap quite enough. As Adam was guiding myself and Jeff Johnston of the NRA magazine up a particularly difficult rocky outcrop, I made the mistake of looking down. I froze. I was paralysed and suddenly acutely aware of my mortality. It took all my mental and physical strength to move on, with Adam’s helpful grip to pull me up to the next ledge. With adrenalin coursing, I pushed on up another step and another, this time hands and legs working like a dog with four points of contact until I got to a spot where I could sit. My breathing was ragged and my hands were trembling, but the feeling of being close to danger was intoxicating.
Adam and Jeff, a seasoned outdoor writer, excellent hunter and nimbler than I in this environment, pushed along the next ridge to spy across the slopes of the canyon beyond, while I stayed and took my binoculars to do the same. I don’t know if it was the adrenalin because certainly my hands, shaky as they were, didn’t help – but within seconds I spotted a bear.
Bright cinnamon, the animal’s pulsating movement reminded me of a caterpillar, with that peculiar rolling gait. Backlit by the morning sun, it was silhouetted against a halo of light, and looked unmistakably bear-like. I quietly called to Adam to take a look, but by then the animal had disappeared into a vein-like undulation and I couldn’t spot it again.
Never has quality glass been so important as we scoured the hillside inch by inch, then repeated the process. It took a while, but finally we spotted the bear once more.
Now came the hard part: trying to get closer. The bear was some 1,500 yards away at this point, so we needed to close the gap. Not only that, but the bear was moving at considerable speed. Jeff and Adam set off, stopping to check on its position every few yards but trying to move at a good pace themselves. I stayed in position to keep spotting. As cameraman for the day, I was carrying a pack with 50lb of photographic equipment on my back, which didn’t help my balance or progress.
After what seemed like hours of trying to keep up with the bear, they got to a narrowing of the canyon. Here was their chance. I watched as Jeff found a suitable rest and set up the shot, adjusting for minimal windage and 300-yard distance thanks to the ballistic calculator in the Geovid rangefinder. He waited for his chance, for the bear to stop for an instant. It did, and Jeff didn’t hesitate. The rifle boomed out across the canyon and, watching through my binoculars, I saw the impact. The bear dropped on the spot.
The hard work was hardly over, though. While Idaho doesn’t have a ‘wanton waste’ law for bears (which would make it illegal not to take the meat), we wanted the carcass for camp. We made our way cautiously down to the base of the canyon, where Horse Creek rushed along, wide and wild.
Adam knew exactly where to find a strong tree that had fallen to make a natural bridge, which he shimmied across. He then dragged the bear to the tree, trussed it with a strong rope and brought the end of the rope back over to our side so that we could haul it across.
That night, as we tucked into some hearty camp fodder, Adam told me of how he’d ended up in the outfitting business: “I bought Horse Creek Outfitters six years ago. I’d been working in the corporate world and got to a point in life where I realized that I had to do something I was passionate about, so I went on a road trip with my wife and we found this. There’s no contest!”
I have to admit, I find it hard to picture Adam in a suit juggling figures, but he does say the six years he spent in finance has stood him in good stead.
“I learnt to be a good people person,” Adam says, “and no matter how good a hunter or horseman you are, if you aren’t good with people you won’t be good at outfitting. You’re keeping people safe, as well as managing their emotions and expectations during a trip that can be scary, exciting, disheartening, elating and disappointing.”
Adam is right, and rarely on a hunt have I felt so many emotions – fear perhaps being top of that list. It put into sharp perspective how safely I lead my life, and how rarely I am truly fearful. And fear is a funny thing: it’s visceral, it wakes you up and it allows you a reset on life. Everything comes into focus, everything is raw.
I failed to shoot a bear myself on this trip, but I’d still describe it as highly successful. It’s my fourth attempt at a bear, and I’m determined that one day I’ll shoot one, but I would prefer not to do so over bait. The challenge, the excitement and the skills needed for a successful spot and stalk hunt at these animals is worth the wait.
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