It doesn’t matter how good of shape you are in. A hike through the Idaho wilderness challenges everyone. But the spectacular scenery keeps you moving forward, regardless of what your lungs and legs say.
The trip actually began to come to fruition early last spring with a phone call from my friend Corey Fields. “Hey John, want to go elk hunting in the mountains of Idaho?” he asked. “You promised,” he added, referring to our previous conversation during a snowmobile trip in the western United States last February. “Sure,” I responded without even giving any more thought.
Fields explained he wanted the challenge of doing everything on our own, without the help of a guide or outfitter. It sounded better all the time.
As preparations were being made it was decided we would be joined by his sons Avery, age 13 and Quintin, 21. “Wow, that’s something I have always dreamed of doing,” said my friend Jeff Fager, a week later as I told him about our upcoming adventure. So it was mutually agreed he would accompany us as well.
Fields and his sons made the 1600 mile drive pulling an enclosed cargo trailer carrying a large assortment of our hunting and camping gear. Fager and I took the easier route and flew into Idaho Falls. After renting a vehicle we met up in beautiful Swan Valley. From there we headed farther north, venturing deep into the Targhee National Forest. After considerable searching we settled on a beautiful camp site located in a pristine valley tucked five miles into the back country.
The tags we had in our pockets were good for bull elk, black bear, mountain lion and wolf. Our legal hunting area encompassed roughly one million acres of the Rocky Mountains in the shadows of the Grand Teton mountain range. We were actually hunting in what is still considered part of the Yellowstone ecosystem. One of the last remaining large and intact natural areas in the earth’s northern temperate zone.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game had cautioned us about grizzly bears that inhabited the area and reminded us about taking necessary steps to avoid any conflicts. We made extra efforts to keep a clean camp. After all, the last thing we wanted was a confrontation with an angry grizzly. We never lost sight of the fact that it was us who were the visitors in this great land.
After setting up our remote camp we spent the next day scouting miles of backcountry trails. The scenery was breathtaking with snowcapped peaks pushing towards the sky. Although the weather was stunning, the first few mornings we were greeted with brutal cold. Waking up in an uninsulated aluminum trailer, where the thermometer read eight degrees, made it hard exiting a warm and cozy sleeping bag, especially with frost covering the ceiling.
Our source of water came from a small creek which flowed directly behind camp. In our effort to remain “bear aware” we cleaned all cooking utensils as soon as they were used. We couldn’t help but laugh after washing our few pots in the adjacent creek. The water remaining would freeze before reaching the tote they were stored in just a few yards away.
The first morning after a quick breakfast and much needed warm cup of coffee we grabbed our rifles and backpacks and headed out. I couldn’t help but feeling a little light headed brought on by the 7,000 feet Idaho altitude where camp was set – and my own excitement. However, if you live in the low lying Indiana flatlands, like me, and six decades of age in the rearview mirror, the morning chill quickly gave way to sweat and the shedding of clothes which were stuffed back into my pack.
We hiked miles each day glassing deep canyons and towering slopes trying to locate game. At each stop we couldn’t help but admire and appreciate the pristine beauty created by the never-ending landscape. Valleys contained dark timber made of lodgepole pines, black spruce, aspens and thick brush, slowly giving way to snowcapped mountain tops. A good pair of binoculars was a necessity. There were times, when after spending hours behind glass, I felt as if my eyeballs were being sucked from my bald head.
Every piece of terrain we covered had only three directions – up, down or sideways. A quality pair of boots offering traction and ankle support was also extremely helpful, especially for legs that have seen many miles.
Each day, after studying maps, Corey and his sons would strike off in one direction while Fager and I would choose another. I admired the youthful vigor exhibited by the Fields, brought on by their younger age. Oh what I would give to be in my twenties again.
One evening after returning to camp the Fields family excitedly recapped an episode that took place a few hours earlier. While making their way back to camp, with nightfall closing in, they heard brush and limbs snapping. Being close to dark and in an area of thick foliage they could not see what was causing the disturbance. That’s when they then began hearing low, deep growls. “It was hair-raising, Corey explained. “Trust me, I had my bear spray out in a flash,” added his son Quintin, patting the orange canister attached to his belt.
On another particular day Fager and I were deep in the backcountry when dark began setting in and the temperature began dropping like a rock falling of a table. The thought of a warm meal and the few comforts at camp increased in importance. We pushed ourselves out of a deep canyon without stopping. Once reaching the top of the trailhead we stopped gasping for air. “So…much…for…pacing…ourselves,” I huffed. We looked at each other and tried to laugh, in between long breaths. The ache in our leg muscles twinged. “I’m scared to cough because I might lose part of my lungs,” Fager said, only half-jokingly.
Through the course of our trip we had the opportunity to meet a host of other people including local residents, ranchers, small business owners, as well as other hunters. Everyone was beyond friendly with many offering their assistance on future hunts. Several even mentioned they would help us pack out animals with the use of their horses or llamas in the event we would see success in the deep back country.
Overall, the hunt was physically hard but an experience everyone should experience, at least once in their lifetime. We traversed some of the nation’s most beautiful scenery under towering pines, over blowdowns and lush new growth created by previous wildfires. We made our way over rock strewn slopes and areas of thick snow tucked in shaded canyons.
It didn’t take long for all of us to realize the taking of wild game represents only a small portion of why we hunt. It’s more about the entire ride, not the end result. In the west there are mountains of different sizes, shapes, altitudes and ecosystems. We all found ourselves intimately drawn to them. And that’s what will keep us going back.