Renowned hunter and journalist Simon K Barr enjoys a digital detox and a thrilling wilderness experience
There’s nothing quite like the romance and tradition of hunting from horseback. Rather than concentrating on where you need to put each foot, you get the chance to truly observe the scenery and topography of the country you are in, and not much beats the astounding wilderness of Idaho’s Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness. The area encompasses more than 2.3million 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 to hunt for the faint of heart, for not only is the terrain steep and treacherous – frequently too steep for the sure-footed steeds we were using – you are also completely out of touch with the outside world – a digital detox of the best possible sort.
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 to 25% are not, in fact, black, but come in colours from pale, sandy brown to the deepest auburn. They’re also smaller than in many areas, with a full-grown male reaching 5ft. As my guide, and owner of Horse Creek Outfitters, Adam Beaupre explained: “If you see one that’s 300lb and 6ft, its big for us.” And, given that we were hunting in the spring, when the bears had just emerged from hibernation, Adam told me that the bears 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. They don’t tend to go too far in the spring, and often a bear will work the same 200-yard area for insects and vegetation. They do scavenge, but only around 10% of their diet is meat. Their paws will still be tender and they need to build up their strength.”
We’d used horses and pack mules to carry us and supplies in for the week to our camp which was on Horse Creek. Adam has a herd of around 26 and uses quarter-cross draught horses which range from 15 to 17 hands high, though he prefers, in general, the mules. “They’re lower maintenance, and smarter,” he says. The other advantage of travelling on horseback is that you see more wildlife, and disturb fewer animals.
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 Horse Creek canyon sides to better vantage points. Given we were hunting using the spot-and-stalk method, rather than sitting in a treestand and baiting bears, our chances would be fewer. The bears were proving to be 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.
By the fifth day, we’d come close to a shot twice, but hadn’t managed to close the gap. 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 and was temporarily paralysed by fear. After being assisted to safety, I rested to regain my breath and took out my binoculars to spy across the slopes.
Within seconds I spotted a bear. Backlit by the morning sun it was silhouetted with a light halo of light. I quietly called to Adam to take a look, but by then the animal had once more disappeared into a vein like undulation and I could not spot it again. Never has quality glass been so important. Moving inch by inch, then repeating the process we scoured the hillside. It took a while, but finally we spotted the bear once more.
It was at some 1,500 yards away at this point, so we needed to close the gap. After what seemed like hours of trying to keep up, they got to a narrowing of the canyon. Here was their chance. I watched as Jeff found a suitable rest, set up the shot, adjusting dope for minimal windage and 300-yard distance thanks to the ballistic calculator in the Geovid rangefinder, and 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. Once it was on our side, Jeff could admire his bear properly. Bright cinnamon, the animal was, at Adam’s best reckoning, five years old, and a decent size for the area.
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.”
This hunt underlined the appeal. I’d describe it as highly successful irrespective of the fact I failed to shoot a bear myself. 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.