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Tooth, Fang and Fire

A pack trip into Idaho's backcountry predator pit.

Tooth, Fang and Fire

Packing into Idaho via horseback is an American backcountry experience that all should try. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McKean) 

If you don’t believe in the power of fire to shape history, define generations, and scar landscapes, then you owe yourself a trip to Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness. Actually, you owe yourself a visit to this wonderland of frothing cataracts, timbered ridges, and snowy peaks for plenty of other reasons—including the real focus of this story: its bears—but as a study in the transformative nature of wildfire, it’s a hard place to beat.

One hundred and eleven years ago, this part of Idaho—it’s where the “Gem State” starts to thin down to form its distinctive Panhandle—looked like much of the intermountain West. Logging and mining camps dotted the big woods, hunters’ and trappers’ cabins crouched on creeks, and down-valley boomtowns combined the attributes of the bare-knuckle frontier with Chamber of Commerce gentility. Even to this day, look around most towns in the interior West and you’ll see lintels in the oldest buildings that bear the date of their construction: 1910.

That was a year that the modern West was made—literally. Opera houses and lumberyards went up, built of stone and brick this time, instead of rough-hewn clapboards with the bark still on. Hotels were constructed, and boosters talked about an “Inland Empire” built on timber, salmon, and precious metals.

Then the Fires Came

In this part of the West, it’s still referred to as the “Big Burn.” It started with an unusually dry winter followed by a blowtorch July. There was so much activity in the woods—short-line railroads built to get timber and ore to mills and smelters, chain-smoking loggers, itinerant tent camps, and miners using steam engines to hydraulically dredge ore-bearing gravel—that it was inevitable there would be fires. No one could have guessed that those little blazes would combine into an inferno that would consume three million acres of timber in a weekend, charring entire counties from the Palouse of eastern Oregon east to Montana’s Bitterroot River. The winds guaranteed it, blowing embers into unprepared valleys where entire towns were engulfed in minutes. The official death toll stands at 87 people, but hundreds more were undoubtedly killed.

You’re reading a bear-hunting story and not a history lesson, but stick with me for a few more decades. The Big Burn was quenched by an early season snow, and over the following troubled years, Idaho’s Panhandle recovered, with successional timber and shrubs growing from the ashes. By 1940, mountain towns were rebuilt, and elk returned to the now-open ridges and scattered timber. For the next 40 years, the Big Burn—now nearly all national forest land—became the nation’s best big-game hunting destination.

Tooth, Fang and Fire
Horses and good pack mules can help you access some of the most remote wilderness areas. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McKean)

Memory being what it is, every fire was immediately quenched, and a generation of Idaho hunters came to expect an elk every year from the generous Selway and Salmon. But forests that don’t routinely burn turn dense and decadent, and by 2000, Idaho’s Panhandle was too overgrown for elk. Instead, the heavy cover supported a growing number of black bears. Wolves moved in from Yellowstone Park and from Canada and learned to ambush ungulates in the tangled underbrush. Mountain lion numbers grew. Mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and moose all fed the increasing predator population.

Elk populations plummeted so drastically that, in 2011, Idaho Fish and Game biologists declared that calf-to-cow ratios in the Lolo/Selway Zone had declined to levels “too low to sustain elk populations” and blamed black bear predation as the main mortality for elk calves younger than 90 days. This is the classic definition of a predator pit, when large carnivores become so successful that they eat themselves out of a prey base.

River of No Return

Because the fires of 1910 eradicated most human presence in Idaho’s backcountry, it was an obvious choice to become a wilderness area. The Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, designated in 1980, is 2.3 million acres of remoteness, drained by the Middle Fork Salmon and Selway rivers. It’s the largest contiguous wilderness area in the Lower 48, and this former paradise of elk hunting is now the best public-land predator hunting area in America outside Alaska.

I hunted there last June, out of a canvas wall tent at the end of a 12-mile horseback ride, with black bear, wolf, and mountain lion tags in a fat wad in my pocket. I hunted around the skeletons of trees burned by more recent wildfires, in basins below the crest of the Bitterroot Range that held grizzly bears when the Lewis & Clarks Expedition wandered through here 215 years ago, and in drainages that see only a couple of hunters or energetic backpackers a year.

Tooth, Fang and Fire
Canvas wall tents are heavy but once erected offer a very comfortable, classic camp in the backcountry. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McKean)

I came to this historic country with a very modern purpose. I wanted to test the capabilities of the 10mm on bears. Over the last couple of years, the 10mm has replaced the .44 as the darling of backcountry guides, who say that when it comes to stopping charging grizzly and brown bears, a semiauto pistol chambered in 10mm beats a muzzle-jumping, hand-pounding wheelgun chambered in .44 or .454 Casull. The idea is that at the moment of need, any gun you can shoot well beats a deadlier gun that you shoot poorly.

But I didn’t bring the 10mm into the River of No Return to turn a charging bear. Instead, I brought CMMG’s Banshee AR pistol here to hunt unsuspecting bears, hitting them in the vitals instead of the skull, turning the platform from a defensive to an offensive purpose. My choice of kit—a Banshee with a six-position shoulder brace and an eight-inch barrel topped with a 1.5-4x20 Leupold VX-Freedom scope—isn’t designed for rapid deployment so much as placing precise shots at the longer side of short ranges, out to 60 or 80 yards.

Our guides on this trip would be as new to the country as my gun. For a generation, Storm Creek Outfitters has guided bear, elk, lion, and wolf hunters into the remote Selway. The outfit had recently been sold to the living incarnation of an American success story: Gary Cameron and his four strapping sons.


Tooth, Fang and Fire
You never know what you may see when riding through the dense forest. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McKean)

Cameron built a thriving plumbing business outside Beaumont, Texas, and as his boys came of age, each joined the family business. But the Camerons didn’t love plumbing as much as they loved packing into the mountains on their rare weeks off. So Gary Cameron cast about for a backcountry outfitting business to buy and settled on Storm Creek, based over the Bitterroot Mountains in Darby, Montana.

Cameron and his sons—Duke, Luke, Brute, and Oscar—walked away from their plumbing operation and started guiding in an unfamiliar wilderness known for its color-phase bears, its remoteness, and its lingering snow. A year into their ownership, you’d never know they were new to it. I hunted with Brute, who epitomized the Texan work ethic: When effort isn’t quite enough, get a bigger hammer and take a run at the problem. But he also brought the ease of a natural horseman, a ready laugh, and an appetite to learn everything about his new homeland.

Tooth, Fang and Fire
The hunters spotted this black bear while on horseback. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McKean)

Pray for Predators

You’ll notice by now that there’s been mighty little hunting in a story that sells itself as a bear hunt. That’s because there’s not so much to say about 10 days in the backcountry, each endlessly long June day running into the next, sometimes sitting over a bait site in the woods, other days glassing open slopes for moving bears. Half the days huddled under rain gear waiting for the cold rain to pass.

That’s not to say there wasn’t action. Four days into our hunt, Jeff Overstreet, the CEO of CMMG, connected on a six-foot bear with a blaze chest that came into a bait site 50 yards above his blind. The boar went about 50 yards and piled up. Meanwhile, neither Eric Renander, who runs media relations for CMMG, nor I had seen a bear, though we cut tracks on the muddy trails on the hours-long horseback rides to our hunting areas.

Tooth, Fang and Fire
Jeff Overstreet, CEO of CMMG, with his bear taken at 50 yards. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McKean)

This being an area described by biologists as a “predator pit,” I had packed my predator calls. After a few fruitless sits on well-used game trails, I blew a series of fawn-in-distress wails, hoping to lure in a bear or a lion or, even, a wolf. Instead, I mainly agitated the tree squirrels and surprising numbers of white-tailed deer in this 7,000-foot basin that looked like it should hold more elk than deer.

On the seventh day, I finally had a chance. At the last feeble light, I spotted a dark shadow moving through the woods, and when the bear stepped up on a blowdown tree, I held the FireDot reticle on its front shoulder and fired. I was so sure of my shot that as the report echoed through the basin I wondered whether to mount the bear’s head or make a rug out of its luxuriant hide.

But when I inspected the area of the shot, and the path that the crashing bear had taken, I found no blood or other evidence of a hit. Finally, a full hour into my search, I found a sesame-seed-sized drop of blood and 10 yards later, another. There’s nothing quite as elemental as searching for the blood of a wounded bear in the darkness of a wilderness night, on your hands and knees in thick cover with only a headlamp beam for company, to remind you of the necessity to make your first shot count.

I looked until midnight, then called in Brute’s second-in-command, Thijs VanderHam, a Michigan dairy kid who got the bug to hunt the West after graduating from a horse-packing school and who has guided backcountry hunters for a couple of years. He and I looked for another hour, tracking the bear into a tangle of heavy cover well past midnight. We decided to pull out for the night and return in the morning to recover what I was sure was a dead bear.

The high-country weather had other plans. Overnight, some four inches of heavy, wet snow fell, and we struggled to pick up the blood trail the next morning. It pains me to write these words, but we never found the bear. My only consolation is that the bleeding had stopped, and I’m sure the bear lives to this day.

Empty Packs, Full Experience

Our group rode out of the wilderness with a certain heaviness that seemed to contrast with the lightness of our pack string’s panniers. No green hides. No heaving quarters of bear meat. Tags for bear, lion, and wolf still intact. But as we trailed horses down small frothy creeks into larger tributaries and finally along the wild, churning Selway River itself, we saw plenty of signs of consolation.

We cut tracks of a sizeable herd of elk moving between two ridges that had recently burned. We spotted mule deer does with knock-kneed twin fawns on most hillsides. A cow moose with a gangly calf at her flank tucked in the willows as we rode a riverside trail.

Tooth, Fang and Fire
A shot of the paw of Overstreet’s big black bear. These animals use their claws for everything from foraging to fighting. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McKean)

Yes, this is a landscape dominated by predators. But nature has a way of resetting herself, and I was encouraged by the amount of game among the regrowth pines, grazing the open slopes, and picking their way through the ruins of burned-out cabins that should remind the precious few passers-by in this wilderness that humans are temporary, but that the landscape—changeable as the sky—finds a way to endure and to provide endless adventure for wilderness explorers.

AR Pistols

AR pistols are rapidly filling the niche between 1911 semiautomatics and full-size modern sporting rifles, and Missouri gunmaker CMMG is leading the trend with its line of Banshee pistols in a dizzying number of calibers and configurations. You can get these in 9mm, .45 ACP, .300 Blackout, .308 Win., and even .22 LR, along with a couple dozen additional chamberings. My choice was the Banshee 300 MK10 in 10mm.

Tooth, Fang and Fire
For our horseback hunt, the 24-inch pistol fit most scabbards or carried well in the saddle thanks to GrovTec’s single-point bungee sling. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McKean)

The pistols feature CMMG’s patented Radial Delayed Blowback operation that reduces recoil while speeding lock-up times. Banshees ship with 30-round Glock-style magazines, but we traded these out for flush 10-round mags. Topped with Leupold’s 1.5-4x20 VX-Freedom riflescope with the illuminated FireDot reticle, I could ring steel out to 150 yards all day but, with Hornady’s 175-grain Critical Duty loads, decided to hold shots on bear inside 75 yards.

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