Lolo Pass Disaster

Sally was no mustang, and my first Idaho mountain mule ride turned out to be a real "bear" of a trip! (January 2006)

Battered and bruised, with a concussion, author Stephen Carpenteri returned to camp to fill his Idaho bear tag.
Photo courtesy of Stephen D. Carpenteri

I had dreamed about my Bitterroot Mountain bear-hunting adventure for months prior to landing in Missoula, Mont. But my trip of a lifetime turned into a nightmare just one hour after falling (literally) into the saddle.

For most of the day before, three hunters and I had driven west from Missoula through Orofino, Idaho, and then north to our outfitter's spring bear camp along the Clearwater River in the Bitterroot National Forest. The drive along the river took about three hours, but seemed to last all day, along winding, twisting mountain roads. Little did I know that I was destined for a much longer, more miserable trip just 24 hours later!

We were to hunt black bears over bait, and things were looking good for our week-long hunt. All the baits had been hit in recent days, and hungry post-den bruins were raiding the outfitter's base camp donut supply every night. Bear tracks and sign were everywhere. The four of us went to bed that night full of enthusiasm and anticipation. This was going to be one hunt to remember!

At dawn, our outfitter met us at the cookhouse for breakfast and told us the plan for the day. We'd ride with him on mules into the high country to replenish baits during the morning, and then go back up after lunch to hunt over the most active bait sites. This would give us a chance to see some country, select our stands and practice our equestrian skills. At that point, I had no idea that my one and only lesson in mule riding was going to take less time than eating breakfast!

I should have known trouble was ahead when my mount -- a dark-colored beast named Sally -- shook violently from head to toe as we were being "introduced." Sally was touted as the gentlest pack animal in the outfitter's herd, but I had my own ideas as I stood there trying to cozy up to 700 pounds of disinterested Idaho mule. I'm no Hopalong Cassidy, and by the way I flopped into the saddle, I'm sure Sally had me figured out. But the next thing I knew, we were last in line, plodding along behind the outfitter, three wranglers and three other hunters. So far, so good!

We left the road and started into the high country. I became used to the rhythm of the ride and actually started to enjoy the trip. Every so often, Sally would stumble or slip along a sharp turn in the knife-edged trail, and I would stiffen up like a week-old cadaver -- admittedly not the best technique for trail-riding. A couple of times I nearly fell over backwards when Sally hesitated and then hurried to catch up to the train.

About 45 minutes into the ride, I was starting to think I had this whole mule-riding thing down, more or less. The outfitter topped a ridge, stopped and then waved for us all to dismount. We'd reached our first bait station, and apparently a bear had been at the bait. We rested and talked while the guides re-baited the site, then we mounted up and headed for the next bait.

The next few seconds remain a mystery to me but later, I was told that the bear had not exactly left the area. It was, in fact, in the process of running past us! The mules scattered in all directions, and Sally decided she'd had enough of tiptoeing along the precipice. As she bucked and jumped down the trail, I did my best to hang on, but my 50 years of not riding mules led to what happened next.

Sally twisted and hopped another 10 yards in perfect rodeo fashion, and then stopped -- suddenly. Unfortunately, I did not. I flew over her head and landed with a loud crack on a sharp, pointy rock. Or at least they tell me that's what happened. Next thing I knew, I was standing in the trail with blood streaming down my face, my glasses broken and everyone standing around looking like they'd just eaten a raw, rotten onion.

"Is that his brain sticking out?" asked one of the young wranglers. At that point, I knew I had something more than a few cuts and bruises.

Suddenly, the mountains began to spin, and I nearly fell over. Blood was spilling down my face and neck and dripping down my arm onto the ground. The outfitter rode up and looked at me like he'd just lost his whole operation in a poker game.

"You need to get to a doctor," he said. Everyone there agreed. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was an hour's walk (no more mule rides for me!) back to camp, and then a three-hour drive to the nearest clinic, in Orofino.

Luckily, "Doc," a medical doctor from Ohio, happened to be in camp. When I reached the cabins an hour later, he took one look at my blood-encrusted head and said, "You are going to need stitches. Hop in. I'll drive!"

By this time I was dizzy, disoriented and suffering from a king-sized headache. I told Doc I needed to rest a little, but he wouldn't hear of it. "We're going to town right now!" he shouted.

We took the winding, twisting gravel road that borders the Clearwater River. Every bump felt like someone was lightly tapping a brick on my skull. All along the way to Orofino, Doc kept chattering like a squirrel on a mountain of acorns. He wouldn't slow down or stop to let me rest. I thought about strangling him to shut him up, but couldn't find the energy. As it turned out, Doc was doing exactly the right thing, and it's quite possible that his obstinate, annoying performance helped save my life. Had he allowed me to rest or sleep, the concussion I suffered might have caused my brain to swell and eventually, kill me. Thanks, Doc!

At the clinic, the real fun began. The emergency room crew literally threw me into an empty cubicle and began the long process of cleaning dirt, leaves, twigs and rock chips out of my wounds. I had an X-shaped cut over my right eye, a major black eye and various deep cuts and scrapes on the top of my head. The process was a long, slow one, but the guides and Doc helped pass the time by joking with the staff about what a great horseman I was and ribbing me about how beautiful the doctor was. (I couldn't see her since my face was covered with gauze, towels and other important medical stuff.)

Some five hours later, I walked out the door with 35 stitches in my forehead, five staples in the top of my head and one award-winning black eye. My head felt like I'd been punted through the uprights at Mile High Stadium, but I was alive and in one piece . . . and ready to hunt bears!

We made it back to camp at 10 p.m., more than 15 hours after Sally and I had parted company. For two days, I couldn't see out of

my swollen right eye, and the throbbing in my head made me wonder if touching off my .375 H&H Magnum rifle at a bear would be a wise decision. I continued to hunt -- on foot! -- and saw a few small bears early in the week. But I decided to wait till I saw a decent bruin before taking the risk of imploding my skull with the recoil and muzzle blast of the big gun.

By Wednesday, I was feeling much better, and it was fun to sit at the cookhouse table and watch the looks of amazement and dismay on my fellow hunters' faces. By week's end, I looked much worse than I felt and throughout, I actually felt no real pain, just a persistent throbbing under my skull -- a reasonable symptom, considering how hard I'd landed on that rock and how bad I still looked on the outside.

On Friday I finally had my chance at a bear about an hour before sunset, when a 250-pound boar came to a bait. Shooting from a solid sitting position over crossed shooting sticks, I touched off the shot, dropping the bruin face-down in his last meal. As the boom of the Ruger .375 echoed over the Clearwater valley, I gingerly probed my head for additional leaks and cracks, but found no additional damage. The stitches and staples held, and I had my first Idaho black bear.

Thanks to the fine work of the Orofino emergency room crew, plus a daily dose of ScarGo (a liquid anti-scarring treatment provided by a local nurse), I was back to normal a few months later. In fact, when I met the same outfitter and crew again in September for another bear hunt, they couldn't believe how well I'd recovered.

A year after my ordeal, I'm none the worse for wear. But that was a close one. I was lucky, and I know it. That same year, in fact, another hunter and his mule were killed while hunting in the same mountain range. Nevertheless, I hope I have a few more Western big-game hunts left in me before it's over. I plan to avoid mules named Sally from now on. In fact, I think I'll ride a mountain bike next time!

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