Backcountry Bear Part 1: Packing In
Damon: ‘I’m out of bear meat. Want to go Spring bear hunting?’
Clay : ‘Yes’
That pretty much settled it.
It wasn’t until a few months later that Clay and I actually met in person, at the Backcountry Hunters & AnglersRendezvous in Missoula, MT. Clay is a self-bow traditional archery guru, and head professor at Twisted Stave’s ‘Backcountry College’. I’d first seen his videos on-line while perusing YouTube one winter weekend, and decided to reach out as we seemed to share some common interests. We went over some details of the hunt via e-mail, talked a little at the Rendezvous, and now it was early May and I found myself standing in an Idaho driveway with Clay who I barely knew, two complete strangers in brothers Tiege and Thayne, one old RAM truck full of stubborn goats, another truck full of gear, and the common goal of adventure on the minds of all of us. It’s always easier to make new friends when the latter is involved.
Pre-Hunt Meet and Greet
Nez Perce Trail
Our journey would begin with a scenic river drive on the Nez Perce Trail, eventually reaching the Selway watershed. It was swollen with Spring rain and snowmelt, and the falls were in fine form, exploding with power and reminding me of younger days spent seeking prized whitewater puzzles like the Selway delivers.
But this was no whitewater trip downriver into the unknown. This was an upriver trip into solitude. Up the famed Selway River, backpacks weighing us down, fly rods, recurves, longbows, and self-bows in hand for a week of immersion in the Idaho backcountry. Just some guys, and some goats.
This was my first experience with pack-goats. Working goats that don saddle bags and carry more gear in, or give you more capacity to haul meat out. Like goats tend to be, they’re full of personality, and fond of eating just about anything, including what you strap on their backs.
Checking On the Goats at the Falls
Goats Gettin’ Out
At the trailhead, gear was divided up between our packs and goats backs. I learned about balancing their loads out evenly, and that at any moment they may be eating grass, or the shoulder straps on my EXO pack. I also learned that the crew I was with liked to eat, a lot. No ultralight freeze dried diets on this foray – no, we’d be going to bed with bellies full of elk steaks, jambalaya, blueberry cakes, and anything else we could forage along the way. We had an Orion 85 in our gear stash too – Too big for ours or goat backs, it would remain locked in the truck at the trailhead, and be available for mid-week meat pack-outs if they became necessary.
Wrangling Goats for Loading
Our quarry on this adventure – black bears. Spot and stalk, and so with traditional bows, that meant getting close…really close. It wouldn’t be easy, but that’s part of the point. The reward is in the challenge, skill and woodsmanship required for it to all to come together to even have a chance of taking a bear. It would work out if the bears and mountains wanted it to. If we didn’t get a bear, that was OK, by no means would it be a failed hunt. This was grizzly country too, a protected species in the lower 48, something we were conscious of and trailhead signs make sure all hunters are aware of the difference.
With packs and goats loaded, the hike began upriver. We had all day to get to basecamp – wherever we decided that would be.
Goats Hitting the Trail
Prior to the trip, I had been forewarned that the river gorge can have a tendency to be a bit ‘snakey’ – and not in the winding river kind of way, but ‘rattlesnake’y’. As I life-long snake aficionado, it got me more excited than anxious. I love finding and photographing new snake species, and was looking forward to the prospect. It wasn’t long into the trail,maybe a half mile, before the first slithery river resident was encountered: a harmless garter snake.
The trail itself was a good first day walk. Fairly flat, winding along just above river level and leading into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. With blue-bird skies, it was easy to zone out, and just listen to the sounds of footsteps and the river passing by, and take some extra time scanning cracks in the cliffs as I passed by for anything scaly.
Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Sign
Butterfly Fly By
We all spread out and hiked at our own pace. Clay’s goat shepherding duties dictated his pace a bit, taking care not to overheat them as the day went on. I stopped at a small shaded creek for a lunch snack, and eventually we all re-grouped there, and the goats enjoyed some shady tree time off their feet.
Creek Log Crossing
Goats Resting In the Shade
It wasn’t long after our lunch break that as Thayne and I brought up the rear of our caravan that I heard him say ‘rosy boa’ and slowly bend down. Right there in the trail, right where Clay and Tiege and sixteen goat hooves just stepped, was a beautiful coastal rosy boa. It may seem odd to be so excited about the encounter, but I was ecstatic. Usually hidden in leaf litter, rosy boas are not easy to find, and this was the first wild one I’ve ever encountered. Add a new species to my list. I was glad it wasn’t injured, and took some time to enjoy its company and made a little video, linked below:
That was two snake species for the day for me, and the other guys saw a rattlesnake, but I wasn’t with them at the time. I must have walked right by it. The day wasn’t over yet though, and the third species I found that day came at camp in the form of a small brown racer sunning itself in a clump of brush.
No rattlesnakes for me on Day 1, and camp came in the form of sandy beach below a roaring rapid on the Selway. The goats were ready to get their saddle bags off and have a snack, and we were ready to settle into our Seek Outside Tipi and enjoy a night of river sounds filling our ears and mountain visions filling our heads. We didn’t see any bear sign on the hike in, and our prediction that bears would still be at high elevations up near snowline feeding on the freshest grass was starting to prove true. Time would tell.
Goats Resting in Camp
Part 1 of this story will end here, just some guys and some goats on a sandy bank of the Selway river. Tomorrow, the climbing and hunting would begin…