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Bears Atop the Continental DivideWords by Dusan Smetana
In the backcountry of north-central Idaho time stands still. I believe it would still look very much the same standing here thousands of years ago.
My feet move over mossy trails under the stately pine forest, and native wildflowers cover sun-washed grassy slopes rising up from the Salmon River far below. There is no human mark in sight, but I know I am not the first.
This land has hosted hunters for millennia. The rich natural food sources made this region a plentiful home for the Nez Perce who hunted elk and deer in these same mountains. But this spring it is bears that draw us to those hunters’ ancestral home.
The wilderness and national forest of this region cover literally millions of contiguous acres. Bears trek down from the high mountains to recover from their months of slumber and to gain weight in canyons lush with spring grass.
With such sparse human population, it’s ideal country to support a high density of bears, some of which, I like to believe, have never even seen a human.
Idaho’s regulations allow bear hunting with bow, rifle, muzzleloader, and handgun. Hunters can hunt over bait or spot and stalk, but the most challenging, exciting, physical, and, arguably, most selective method is with hounds; tracking a bear for miles, with the last tracking done on foot following the baying of the dogs through forest and rough scrub.
Meeting our guides Jim, Randy, Tom, and Andy and their dogs for the first time, I thought, “Look at them legs.” (On the hounds and the hunters!) It was obvious we weren’t going for an easy morning stroll through the countryside.
This hunt is not for the soft or the unprepared. Strong legs, lungs, and well broken-in boots are prerequisites. In this country, it is easy to clamber a thousand feet up or down but move only a hundred feet as the crow flies.
We left early in the morning to allow the dogs to catch the strong-est scent, following the maze of Forest Service roads through the dark timber. A century ago, a bear hunter’s best friends were mules, but today we headed out in Polaris Ranger XPs and various trucks.
While driving sounds easy, the roads weren’t a cakewalk, and we knew that after the roads, this hunt would end in miles of boot leather. Again and again, we were bogged down in mud or sliding toward a precipice, chaining and unchaining as we yanked each other out of bad situations.
The hounds rode snug in their boxes, droopy faces poking through portholes. Randy’s cold-nosed Hondo rode tethered on a specially- designed platform up top, alert and waiting for the first whiff of bear scent.
When Hondo struck he was released to gauge the strength of the track. Like a connoisseur at a wine tasting, he would plod from track to track, burrowing his nose deep to determine age and vintage. The first track was not strong. He came back and we moved on. But the second track was hot. The guides released the rest of the hounds, and the race was on as the pack joyfully plunged into the forest.
Spring hunts are much more physical than fall hunts as the bears weigh less and move faster and farther. Home ranges easily cover several square miles of steep terrain. We drove parallel to the pack and managed to stay fairly close to them. The dog owners have spent massive amounts of time, money, and energy on the care, breeding, and training of their dogs.
The reintroduction of wolves into the region has provided another reason to be grateful for GPS tracking collars as it allows them to rapidly find and assist their dogs in potentially fatal encounters.
Winding high up on a densely treed slope, we were signaled that the dogs had bayed. We abandoned the vehicles to slide our way down the slippery pitch, at times clawing through heavy brush and deadfalls. We could hear the dogs baying, but we couldn’t always sense where, as the sounds bounced off the slope.
The experienced boar that has been treed before often doesn’t seek refuge by climbing, but instead chooses caves or stone walls to protect his back and will stand and fight. This is where dogs get some hard-earned lessons—bark and bite, but don’t be slow.
The guides led us closer. Finally we could see the pack, bouncing and yelping around the base of an enormous evergreen with gouges in its bark. This is good. The more time the bear spends in the tree, the more time a hunter has to field judge wisely and decide whether this is the bear he wants to take. In this case our hunter was to be disappointed.
High in the tree, wrapped casually by jutting branches and studiously ignoring the dogs, was a small cinnamon sow. Though nominally black, eighty percent of Idaho’s black bears are in color phases ranging from pale blond through deep red to dark chocolate. Most hunters in the field are after a mature boar, and after a short time watching her, we secured the dogs and climbed the mountain to the vehicles.
Moving on, we crossed high meadows filled with purple lupine glowing in the sun. Spring arrives in Idaho at least one month ahead of my home in Bozeman, Montana. I had left snow there, but had arrived here to find fields of wildflowers despite the high altitude. I was amazed at the astonishing drama and beauty of the terrain. The Salmon River lures wilderness lovers from around the world. It is an undammed, freestone river, boasting world-class salmon and trout fishing and whitewater kayaking and rafting.
Once our morning’s excitement had settled, hunters chose to glass the hillsides or tend the bait sites. The ranch is also home to whitetail deer, mule deer, and elk, as well as turkey and quail. We rested among the wildflowers late in the afternoon and listened to blue grouse strumming.
One of the other hunters took a nice-sized dark boar at one of the bait sites just before sunset. We had dinner in the luxurious stone and wood lodge, looking out at the breathtaking view of the grassy slopes rising from the Salmon River and blue hills for as far as we could see.
The next morning we again loaded trucks with hounds and launched ourselves into the mountains. To hunt a bear in such massive terrain you have to find the bear. Working with hounds makes it a team effort, and an emotional bond develops between the hunters and them. By the end of our trip, each of us knew Hondo and Ranger, Stryker and Tizzy, Daisy and Flash and Rio.
For me, the sound of dogs baying in the forest is visceral and takes me back to my earliest memories of boar hunts in the forests of Czechoslovakia. Four things give me goose bumps: bugling elk, a fast car accelerating, racing pigeons coming home in the dusk from 600 miles out, and barking dogs on the chase in the forest. It just feels right.
When the strike came that morning, energy was high, and the pack was released and rapidly disappeared into a high canyon. Threading around by the roads, we veered toward and away from the pack, but we didn’t lose them.
The guides finally brought the vehicles to a halt, and we muscled up a narrow canyon toward the impatient dogs and their treed quarry. Our boots slipped, our thighs burned, and our shoulders were hunched with anticipation as we closed in on the high-pitched yelps.
When we came into sight, the dogs were spinning in place under the tree, standing on their hind legs, all but saying, “Come down here, and we’ll kick your ass!” And in that tree, looking down at us were the green eyes of a great gold mountain lion.
No bear for us on this trip. But with the scent of ancient pine in our nostrils, wired-up hounds scrambling against our legs, blood flowing fast in our veins, an astonishing creature perched across from us, far from what we call civilization, we felt pretty damn lucky anyways.