Big Water and Black Bear on the Salmon
By Gary Lewis
A breath of wind blew down the canyon, but its treetop rustle was lost to the murmur of the river - running at 13,500 cubic feet per second - the pulse, its every crash, its ebb and flow and eddy.
Swallows hunted insects above the water and a long-billed bird dipped on a stone near the boat ramp. On the northern bank, yellow spots of color showed against the green grass. I checked my watch. It was almost 11:00am.
On the wind came another sound, the whine of twin fire-breathing 460 Fords. As it grew closer, the beat of the engines filled the narrow canyon. The boat streaked down through the rapids and passed the ramp. Mike Demerse lifted a hand and waved when he saw us.
We shipped the gear on board - duffels, packs, rifle cases and groceries brought by one of the ranch hands - then Mike fired the engines and backed in.
He turned the boat in a circle then pointed the bow upriver into the rapids. On step, the boat threaded between boulder and cut every corner in inches of water. Each turn in the river opened new vistas up long, steep canyons.
Switch-backed game trails snaked down green hillsides to touch the river. There! Whitetail deer in the willows. There! Elk, their flanks dappled by pine-filtered sun. 30 minutes later, the canyon walls seemed to part ever so slightly, then a long grassy lawn came into view and Shepp Ranch was visible on the northern shore.
Spring is supposed to arrive on the 20th of the month named for the Greek god of war. As the days march on, the snows melt, the river rises and the hillsides turn green. Black bear in their dens find their way to the sun. But this year, the snow kept the potential locked in a month longer. We saw spring unleashed in May.
Guide Rex Hubbard, Tim McLagan and I hunted the first evening in a drainage north of the ranch. A sea of green grass on the ski slope-steep hillsides was stippled with color. White prairie stars, purple larkspur and the tiny maiden blue-eyed Mary showed off their springtime color. But it was the arrowleaf that caught Hubbard's attention.
"We look for the arrowleaf balsamroot," he said. "That's how we know when the bears are out."
"I guess I should warn you that we might see rattlesnakes," he whispered. He indicated a little white flower - a trillium. "When we see these, we see snakes." Thanks Rex.
As if on cue, a yard-long reptile slid across the trail behind Tim's boots. We hadn't taken ten steps. Since I was the only one that had seen it, my heart assumed the responsibility of racing scared for all three of us.
Minutes later, Tim spotted the first bear, a sow with yearlings. We watched the trio for an hour. The big female had a heart-shaped blaze on her chest, visible when she rose on her back legs. She made short work of the salad, shearing the stalks, crunching the leaves and the flowers. Her offspring padded along behind and scrambled to catch up when she woofed for them.
We compared notes over dinner. John Milton and Bill Moe with their guide, Dave Von Essen, had watched a small bear in the bottom of a canyon; close to water and close to the best feed.
Spring hunts are designed to control predation. Bears take a fierce toll on newborn elk calves. If food is scarce in the summer, bruins wreak havoc in river camps and in the gardens of the few ranches along the river. Bear numbers are so high that Idaho offers a second tag in some units.
The next morning, our legs on fire, we climbed 'the elevator,' a switch-backed scar of a trail cut straight up the face of a cliff. We topped out on a finger ridge, poked along the crest and probed the shadows. There, 50 yards above the creek, but a long way below us, was a bear.
Its long, unrubbed coat shined cinnamon when it passed through patches of sunlight. Rex ranged the bear with his rangefinder. I missed with the first shot but the bear gave another chance.
"302 yards," Rex whispered. My .30-06 is sighted for a hundred-yard zero; the 165-grain Nosler AccuBond drops 14 inches in 300 yards. To allow for the angle, I calculated nine inches high and squeezed. 20 minutes later, we started down the slope. The bear had come to rest along the creek.
On the third day, we rode horseback along a narrow trail. A big black bear in a canyon kept us busy, as we waited for another look. When the wind changed, we got our glimpse, but that was all. Again, Rex showed us the little 'rattlesnake' flower and whispered its name.
Ten minutes later we were in our saddles headed back down the five miles to the ranch. The trails snaked up and down, in and out, carved along the sides of the mountain. One stirrup nearly touched the ground on our right side, the left stirrup hung out over a cliff. Rex's horse, Belle, dislodged a 30-inch serpent, which dropped into the trail in front of Tim, mounted on Buttercup.
This time it was a real rattler and we almost had a rodeo on a 12-inch trail, 200 feet above Crooked Creek. Belle spun around to stomp the snake. Buttercup turned a tight circle and Pete, my mount, merely backed up a few paces. Cool equine heads prevailed and the rodeo was averted.
Our last full day of hunting, we saw a bear early and watched as it fed out of the canyon into the fog. Below us, the river raged, brown as chocolate milk. Shattered trees bobbed through whitewater waves.
Across the canyon we searched out the arrowleaf and examined each blackened 'stump bear' with our binoculars. Rex promised he'd say no more of rattlesnake flowers.
Back at camp, we heard the thump of the big V8 as Sara Jean came into view. John and Bill climbed out and walked up the bank. Their guide, Dave Von Essen had a satisfied smile on his face.
John and Dave had spotted the bear at over three hundred yards as it fed in a patch of wild onions. While they watched, the animal stretched out on a rock and went to sleep in the sun. Rather than take the shot, John elected to see if he could get closer. Over the next hour, the pair kept the wind in their favor, crossed the canyon and climbed to the top of the ridge.
With 40 yards left to go, a grouse flushed and that woke the sleeping bear. He spun up from his rock and turned to get a look at what was coming. That's when John shot him.
Skinned, the boar measured five-feet, eight inches from nose to tail and six-feet-even from claw to claw. Layered with fat, the well-fed boar was as round as a barrel.
By the end of the trip, four of us, with our guides, had seen 19 bears. Nearly half of them were color-phase black bears: blonds, cinnamons and browns. Sitting on stand one afternoon, Bill Moe saw a wolf.
Five days after we started, we boarded the Mary Belle again. The river was swollen with snowmelt to a measured 36,500 cfs. Deadfall and debris swirled in eddies. Rex Hubbard watched the water for bobbing trees. I watched the hillside for arrowleaf and examined each black stump for legs and a head.
In the Lower 48, some of the best hunting is far beyond the end of any road and the ground is so steep that it is out of the reach of the best pilots and the most maneuverable tail-draggin' airplanes. That's the way it is on the Salmon River, but you can get there with a pump and a shallow-running boat. And a good pair of boots for that trail up and away from the river.