March 31, 2021
Some dreams subside with time; others remain, prowling your soul, even though they seem as unobtainable as the fountain of youth. As a boy hunting whitetails in the Allegheny Mountains, like many Easterners I dreamed of packing into the wilds of the West on a big-game hunt.
At the half-century mark I managed to drag that dream from a coal-mine-like hole of my memory and make it come true. I saddled a horse and rode into Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains with a rifle.
Ten miles from civilization, I tensed in the saddle as my mount negotiated a tight trail above Horse Creek. The terrain was so steep I could almost lean in the saddle, reach out and touch the ground on the uphill side. I felt like I was in the heart of 1800s America, in the center of everything wild. I was riding a horse, carrying a rifle and breathing possibly the cleanest air my lungs had ever consumed. And, I was coursing the watershed of the river Lewis and Clark described as, "foaming and roaring through rocks in every direction, so as to render the passage of anything impossible."
Although I was surrounded by the majestic mountains of the West, I wasn’t looking for elk, sheep or even deer. I had joined Adam Beaupré of Horse Creek Outfitters for a spring black bear hunt in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the largest contiguous wilderness in the United States with the exception of Alaska.
Mesmerized by evergreens three telephone poles tall and a canyon so steep it seemed to defy the laws of geometry and nature, I was not paying enough attention to my mount or purpose.
When I heard Adam whoa his horse, I immediately reined up and saw him pointing skyward. Even at what seemed like a quarter mile away, the bear stood out like a wart on a witch’s nose. Its black coat was dark in contrast to the fresh, brilliant green grass, and the sun lit its back like it was covered in aluminum foil.
"There’s your bear," said Adam, and the roar of Horse Creek faded behind the thump of blood now swiftly pulsing through me. We hurriedly dismounted, Adam secured our horses, and I pulled my Steyr Scout rifle from the scabbard. Instantly I realized the rifle’s integral bipod would be of no assistance shooting at an angle steep enough to paralyze a protractor.
After some panicked searching we settled by a fallen tree with a trunk about 3 feet in diameter. I struggled to get into some semblance of a shooting position, unlike anything I’d learned in the military or at Gunsite Academy. All the time the primary axiom of rifle shooting was echoing in my head: If you can get closer, get closer; if you can get steadier, get steadier.
Closer was not an option. The bear was nearly 400 yards straight up a canyon wall so rugged and perilous it would have put a strain on me 30 years ago when I had just graduated basic training. Steadier it had to be. I managed to slide my legs partially under the fallen tree and rested my rifle vertically on the log. I guessed the angle to be nearly 30 degrees. Adam slid in behind me as I found the bear in the scope. He called the range at 365 yards, and I applied the correct holdover with the reticle in the scout scope.
"You ready?" I asked.
"Yep," Adam whispered, and my finger broke the trigger at almost exactly the same time his lips closed together. The bruin reacted with a jerk and jogged about 20 yards to the cover of a burned-out section of young trees about the size of a mobile home. Adam called the shot a miss and jumped up.
"Let’s move fast; get a better angle and a better rest," he said. I crawled out from under the log as quickly as I could, and we sprinted 100 yards or so up our side of the canyon. I no longer noticed the sound of Horse Creek.
We managed to find an opening through the tops of the trees where we could see the bear milling around in the tangle. It seemed fine. I continued to watch the animal as Adam tried to construct a shooting platform, one that would allow me to shoot uphill while positioned on a downhill slope. He worked with rocks and logs for a few moments, but I still could not rest the rifle with the elevation needed to shoot the bear.
Positioned behind a huge Ponderosa pine with my rifle trained on the bruin, I realized I had a big knife clipped in my pocket. I pulled it out, opened it and instructed Adam to drive it into the tree’s bark with a rock where I indicated. The result was a makeshift but sturdy "limb" I could use for a rest. I looped up in my sling and was rock-steady on the bear. Then we waited, trying to calm our heart rates while hoping the bear would step into the clear.
Pounding a pocketknife into the side of a tree for a shooting rest might seem like a silly thing to do; why would I not just rest the rifle against the side of the tree on top of my hand? Well, when all the trees are so big two men cannot reach around them, that technique does not work. We improvised, and surprisingly, the rest was pretty darn good.
The bear was in no hurry. Unusually, it was preoccupied with licking its paw. A bit perplexed by the results of my shot, I asked Adam if he’d given me the true ballistic range or the actual distance to the target; his binoculars were capable of providing either reading. This was critical because when shooting at this kind of distance, and at this kind of angle, it mattered. Not just a little—it mattered a lot.
Like a good guide should, Adam had his rangefinder set to true ballistic range, but when he’d read out the 365 yards, I mistakenly assumed he’d given me the actual distance. I then reduced the range by 80 percent, which is about right for a 30-degree angle, and held dead on with the 300-yard tick mark on the reticle. This resulted in a drastic variance with regard to my point of impact. My first shot had impacted about 10 inches lower than where I was aiming. (This also explained the bear’s unusual fixation with licking its paw—it had a bullet hole through it. Of course, while we were sitting on the side of the mountain watching the bear, we did not know that.)
After this bit of very important news, we got on the same sheet of music and confirmed the new, true ballistic range to the bear using both of our rangefinders. From our new position the bear was, as far as ballistics were concerned, 403 yards away. Lesson learned: when your guide is running the rangefinder in steep country, have this conversation well before the shooting starts.
After a long session of paw-licking, the bear finally stepped into the open. This time I placed the reticle’s 400-yard tick mark right on the bruin’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The bear was hit but broke into a run and passed behind a Ponderosa treetop. I scooted to the right, picking up the shooting sticks as I ran. Planting my butt on the steep hillside, I looped up in the sling once more and swung through the bear as it ran. When my 400-yard mark passed its nose, I broke the trigger. The bruin collapsed and began to roll.
And roll it did. It rolled and rolled and rolled some more. After plunging almost 400 yards, the bear came to a rest just a matter of feet from the torrent of water at the bottom of the gorge. We congratulated ourselves, wondering what kept the bear from rolling into the rushing water, and then began discussing the seemingly impossible task of getting to the animal.
The recovery would be the hard part. Horse Creek was a raging, rock-filled, whitewater blast of ice-cold melted snow. Few would have braved it in a raft. We rode back to camp to get supplies, and on the way we found a huge log across the creek. The plan was for Adam to scoot across the log, travel up the other side, secure the bear with a rope and then float it across the river at a small oxbow. The plan worked to perfection. The bear was the only one of us who got wet.
As it turned out, that bright silver reflection off the bear’s back I had noticed earlier was due in part to the unusual silver-colored hair running down its spine. The taxidermist said it was only the second bear he had seen with hair like that, and that both had come from Horse Creek. When I told him the story of the hunt, he also said it was the only bear he’d ever seen that had been killed with a knife.
The time I spent in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness was without question one of the most memorable hunts I’ve been on. When it comes to wilderness hunting, maybe the great gunwriter Townsend Whelen said it best in his 1927 book, Wilderness Hunting and Wildcraft: "The delight of wild scenery, the exhilaration of bodily exercise in pure air, and the every-varying circumstances of the wild and majestic country; the inspiring sense of solitude, broken only by the whistle of the marmot or the laugh of the loon; the intimate communing with Nature in every aspect of sunshine, mist, and storm—all these, and with them the satisfying of that hunter’s instinct which is one of the most deeply rooted things in human nature; the delight of pitting the intellect and the senses against the instincts of self-preservation of a really wild animal—that is wilderness hunting."
I wonder if Townsend Whelen ever killed a bear with a pocketknife.
Editor’s note: This story was adapted from Richard Mann’s new book, Under Orion, Volume 2, available at amazon.com.
A backcountry bear hunt is a bargain.
When most folks think trekking into the backcountry on a big-game hunt, they think of elk or sheep. As majestic and iconic as both of these hunts can be, they come with a price tag just as stunning. Hunting in the United States is not a sport limited to royalty like it was for our European ancestors, but some hunts require significant savings for sure. Thanks to Adam Beaupré of Horse Creek Outfitters (HCO), wilderness dreamers like me have a more affordable option.
HCO is based out of Challis, Idaho, and operates on roughly 300 square miles of public land. A respected outfitter in Idaho for more than 20 years, HCO offers guided opportunities for elk, deer, moose, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, mountain lion, coyote, wolf and bear. HCO operates over what seems like a never-ending vast expanse of wilderness, with camps as high as 9,000 feet and as distant as 10 miles into the backcountry, far beyond the reaches of motorized access.
Theirs, like many backcountry elk hunts, push the 10-grand price tag. However, HCO’s steal of a deal is the backcountry black bear hunt in the jaw-dropping Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Prices start at $2,500 for a five-day hunt and include meals, accommodations, horses and tack. Contact Adam Beaupré at Seeks Out Adventures or McGowan Outfitting (mcgowanoutfitting.com) for more information.
The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is an endless stretch of steep and hellishly rugged mountains, deep canyons and wild whitewater rivers that encompasses 2,366,757 acres. It is more than unspoiled wilderness; it’s a national treasure.
Sen. Frank Church sponsored the Wilderness Act of 1964, which protected 9 million acres of land as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. He also introduced the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, which included the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Church’s environmental legislation culminated in 1980 with the passage of the Central Idaho Wilderness Act. This created the River of No Return Wilderness by combining the Idaho Primitive Area, the Salmon River Breaks Primitive Area and a portion of the Magruder Corridor. In January 1984, Congress honored Sen. Church and renamed the area the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.