Words by Anthony VonRuden
Last light was fading as I left our viewpoint and made my way over to the heavy pack that I had become all too familiar with over the course of this six day hunt. Another day had passed and we still were in search of another black bear. Our Idaho backcountry hunt had us located twelve miles back in a basin full of thick brush, broken up by small grassy meadows and a half dozen creeks. This hunt was very special to me because I had roots in the region, my dad was a logger back in the 80’s and worked in the very same area that we would be hunting. Zack and Travis Boughton, the co-founders of Montana-Wild, were alongside on the hunt. Travis would be hunting with myself and Zack was manning the camera during our week long adventure. These two spend as much time in the woods as anyone I know and with the combined expertise of the three of us the expectations were running high. We all had a role to play on this trip and I was in charge of research and logistics. We all wanted to do something that would test our limits both physically and mentally and our destination would do exactly that. After countless hours scouting Google Earth, checking outfitter websites, and talking to fellow hunters, I had scouted a basin that looked like a black bear haven, the only catch was that it was over 8 miles from the trailhead. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but the reward if we pulled it off would be more than worth the effort.
After a five hour drive from Missoula we finally were close to the trailhead and ready to hit the trail. As we drove along the river upstream we actually spotted a bear from the road. Unfortunately he was inaccessible and we just watched him feed for a while before continuing on our way as planned. We rolled into the trailhead and began making final adjustments to our packs before leaving the truck for seven days. After a short time we we’re ready. Our packs were far from light as they were loaded down multiple cameras and lenses on top of our basic gear such as tents, food, and other backcountry necessities. We weighed the packs prior to leaving the house and the lightest pack weighted in at 60.4 pounds. Not exactly lightweight.
We made good time and were soon eight miles back and at the base of the hill that we would have to ascend to reach our campsite. The brush was unbelievably thick and far from what we had expected after looking at Google Earth. It was nasty and steep and home to a few moose looking to evade the local wolves. The 1600′ of vertical climb took us two hours of solid climbing to complete. The hike made us all want to quit but we pushed through and finally emerged on the top to a wonderful view and a chance to finally rest.
Once at camp we were treated to a king’s view of the basin and it quickly became evident that we would see plenty of bears throughout the trip. We threw up camp and hurried over to a rock outcropping that would give us a commanding view of the drainage. After five minutes of glassing we had turned up four bears out feeding. Light was fading as we all exchanged high fives. We began to strategize a game plan for the following day as we cooked up our meals in the soft light of an awesome Idaho sunset.
The glow of the morning light was just becoming visible as we crawled out of our sleeping bags and began gathering our gear for the mornings hunt. The plan was to work our way down the ridge that would take us to the head of the basin and into some clearings that looked promising the night before. The brush was over our heads and the going was tough, but it seemed that every time we broke out into a clearing we would glass a bear feeding miles away on the other side of the drainage. We just had to get closer to some open areas and hope we could locate a bear in a stalkable location.
Seeing those bears gave us the motivation to keep pushing forward until midday when we finally reached our destination and set up to glass. Almost instantly Zack spotted a beautiful cinnamon bear about 800 yards below us. Zack and Travis were gathering themselves for a stalk when I saw a little cub zip out of the brush to its mother’s side. We just sighed and went back to glassing, hoping to turn up another bruin. Hours passed and nothing showed itself, so we moved locations to get a better view of the area. As we did, a spring storm blew in forcing us to take shelter under an old pine tree and wait for a break in the weather.
After the storm had passed we pulled out the binos and Travis spotted a monster bear. The large boar was on the move and never even slowed down to feed, finally making his way into the dark timber. We were pretty dejected and decided to start working our way back towards camp. We stopped at a small creek to fill our water bladders for the night. As Travis was pumping water I looked up and something caught my eye. The binos confirmed my suspicions and I excitedly whispered to Travis to get ready for a shot. A beautiful blonde bear was feeding through a series of small clearings above us. After a few tense minutes of scrambling to get Travis set up, fire up the cameras, and relocate the feeding bear, we we’re ready for the shot. As the bear fed into a good clearing Travis settled the crosshairs and made a perfect heart shot at 388 yards. A short blood trail led us to Travis’ first Idaho bear. We all exchanged high fives, snapped a few photos before breaking the bear down for the pack back to camp.
By the time we got the bear in the pack and started working back to camp it was pitch black and pouring rain. We slowly followed a grown in horse trail back down the basin. Our camp was located only a mile away, but with a 1200′ ascent in the wet jungle we decided that our best option would be to spend the night under a tree. When your that far back safety takes a high priority and it was decided that we would find the best shelter available and tough it out. After finding a group of large, old pines, we quickly scraped together a small area where we could all sleep around the fire. We got a fire started and roasted some bear backstraps as we dried out our wet gear.
I can honestly say that if we hadn’t invested in the the best gear available we could have been in serious trouble. Fortunately we all had quality gear that mainly kept us dry and happy despite the poor conditions. After fully drying out and filling our bellies, we began a long night huddled around the campfire. Constant attention was required to keep the fire going through the night.
The next morning it was decided that we would forgo returning to camp and instead try to get on another bear. It was a smarter decision to hunt during the day rather then waste our energy just to bust back to camp. We hunted new country all day in an attempt to double up but were unable to turn up any bears. As the sun sank lower in the west it was decided that Travis would pack his bear back to the trailhead and sleep in the truck. Zack and I would make our way up the mountain to our camp and in the morning we would pack up camp and relocate to the opposite side of the drainage where the majority of bear sightings had occurred. Travis would meet up with us at the new camp after his twenty four mile mountain marathon.
Tuesday and Wednesday passed slowly as we were forced to change tactics. A lack of any good vantage points forced us to hunker down and wait out promising areas hoping that a bear would show up. It was slow hunting but it was going to give us our best chance at a bear.
Wednesday afternoon I spotted a bear across the drainage feeding in the highest clearing. It was a large chocolate black bear and I was eager to burn some rubber off my boots. To much sitting around will make you itch to climb a mountain. Zack and I quickly assembled our gear and began the trek. We hoped the bear would feed while we crossed the basin. As we crossed the creek and began to climb we soon realized the apparent stupidity of the idea. What had seemed simple enough turned into a grueling two hour journey. As we neared the top we elected to circle around the ridge and glass a few adjacent meadows. The country was beautiful but all we turned up were two large elk in velvet. As we made our way back down the avalanche shoot I spotted a large black bear across the drainage. We quickly hustled to close the distance. Five minutes later we were five hundred yards away but the bear was no where to be seen. We had missed him by a matter of minutes. A long nasty hike took us back across the creek and back to our camp.
Day 5 was much of the same. Our morning turned up zero bears and the temperatures were reaching the high 70s. We spent the day napping amongst the aspens and waiting for the high sun to fade to the west.
The golden time had finally arrived and we were set up over a wide high alpine hillside. Time passed and we continued to patiently wait. All of a sudden the silence was broken as Travis exclaimed “Bear, bear, up on the far hillside.” A large chocolate bear had worked out into a clearing on the far side of the basin. It was too far of a shot where we were at and we quickly scrambled to close the distance. Five minutes later and the .300 was resting over my pack and a bear was in my sights. The shot was 602 yards and the bear was feeding on fresh green grass. His head was down and facing directly towards us. As I settled the crosshairs on him I felt that instinctual moment when you know your ready to pull the trigger. The shot rang out and the bear ran off to the left. The guys were yelling saying I missed him. A disappointing few minutes ensued as we all sat in disbelief. I had taken a shot that felt right but wasn’t. I got lectured on taking a broadside shot at that distance and we quietly retreated down the mountain for the night. With only two days left to hunt it was coming down to crunch time. Food was running low and our bear sightings were slowly declining in number. It was now or never to redeem myself and make the trip a success.
Crunch time was upon us. The vibes were refreshed that night in camp and we hoped that the following day would allow me an opportunity to redeem myself.
Read Part 2 here > Part 2.