Idaho Frank Church- River of No Return Wilderness Hunt
Unit 27- 15-22 September 2012
Tags- 1x Elk, 1x Deer, 1x Bear, 2x Grey Wolf
We met at McCall Aviation in McCall, Idaho at 0645 to load up the Islander plane and get our flight briefs. We ended up having to wait a little bit until there was enough light to see before we took off. We flew into the forest service airstrip at about 0800, crossed the river at the pack-bridge and filled up 1.5 liters water from the river. The plan was to hike upstream to and take the trail up to the area we planed to hunt. That plan changed though and we made a horrible decision to go straight up a ridge that ran down to the river instead of using the trails. We pushed hard to get to the top, hiking up the ridge which gained 3000' in less than 2 miles (40-degree incline). We finally reached the top at about 3 p.m.; out of water and half-dead. Once at the top we dropped our packs, ate some lunch and started making our way to the closest known water, 2 miles away.
On the way to the alpine lake my brother got so dehydrated he was throwing up and couldn't lift his legs more than a few inches. I forced him to sit under a tree next to the game trail and wait for me to return with water. I was almost as bad off as my brother, but had to get to the water and back or risk losing him.
I finally made it to the lake and after a few pumps my water filter broke!!! I ended up having to use my emergency water treatment tabs to treat 7L of water. After filling up all our water bladders I had to make the steep 1000' climb out of the lake basin to get back to my brother. By the time I made it back to him he was doing much better, but I was having trouble walking and having dizzy spells that would force me to a knee.
We stumbled back to our backpacks just in time to glass a drainage until dark. After glassing light was gone, we set up camp and ate dinner. Then we finally went to bed.
Several times during the night we could hear animals moving around on the bench behind the tent, but we never could figure out what they were.
We woke up at 0615 and glassed the same drainage for a few hours then moved over the ridge to glass the top of drainage we climbed the day before. Nothing seen. At about 0930 we started to hunt our way back to the water. On the way we stopped to glass a rocky area with strips of pines at the top that looks outstanding for Mule deer. We saw nothing. We also stopped to glass an unnamed basin we called “The Bowl”. This looked like awesome elk and deer country and we decided we would return to hunt it later.
After filling water, eating lunch and napping on the grass next to the lake we hiked back to camp. In the evening we hiked up the hill to watch the bench and saddle just above camp, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever was making all that noise the night before. Nothing showed itself, but there was a lot of elk sign in the new growth pines and willow covered bench. After dark we ate dinner and went to bed.
We still-hunted to the same saddle we glassed the night before and saw nothing (No new sign either). Then we decided to work our way through the new growth pines and deadfall at the very top of the drainange east of camp. We crossed a small clearing in the new growth pines that was scattered with fresh elk tracks and was obviously used the night before. Shortly after crossing the opening we looked back to see a cow and a young 4-pt bull elk crossing the clearing. They made it into the timber before brother could get a shot. I told him to get a steady rest on a stump and watch the ridge on the opposite side of the draw. Sure enough the elk popped out on the open ridge 350-yards away. The bull paused at the top of the ridge and I waited for him to shoot. he decided the bull wasn't big enough to warrant all the work to pack him out (a good decision) and passed on the bull. The elk left the ridge and headed towards “The Bowl”. We hiked back to camp to rest a bit and make plans for the evening.
After a short break, I went to glass for Mule deer to no avail. My brother wasn't feeling well so he slept in the tent for 1˝ hours. By the time I got back from glassing he was feeling better and hiking down the ridge to glass the drainage near camp so I joined him. We saw nothing moving.
At about 2 p.m. we decide to hike back to the small clearing we saw the elk in. There was tons of sign in the area and we reasoned that it was more sign than 2 elk could create. We sat and napped in the shade while we waited for it to cool down enough for the elk to start moving. We got into position early because we would have to walk through the clearing to get into position. Not the best way to do things but we tried it anyway. Nothing showed in the clearing that evening.
The smoke from the Halstead Fire was so thick this morning that we couldn't see more than 200 yards, so we decided to sleep in. That suited us both just fine! After breakfast we packed up camp and moved to a new camp at the top of “The Bowl”, then hiked to the lake to refill our water and have lunch. The basin above the lake looked like outstanding mule deer habitat and we glassed it a little bit. In retrospect we should have glassed that basin a lot harder since it was one of the better looking areas. We heard an elk mew and break some branches in the burn below the lake but never saw it. After hiking back we set up camp and spent a lazy afternoon in the shade around camp until it was time to glass “The Bowl”. As good as it looked we saw nothing that evening and returned to camp to eat dinner and go to bed.
We woke up at 0615 and glassed he Bowl again. It was very smoky and we really couldn't see very far. At about 0745 we heard what sounded like a cow and a young bull . The bull was making half-ass attempts at bugling but didn't quite get a real bugle out. At 0830 I left my brother on the vantage and worked my way around the timber we heard the elk in, hoping to drive the elk into The Bowl where he could get a shot. I didn't work and nothing came out of the timber. I the end The Bowl didn't produce a single animal sighting even though it looked like the best habitat on the mountain. We think that the high temperatures during the day was keeping the elk timbered up and not rutting in the open like they normally do. We couldn't figure out why they weren't bugling at all, not even at night.
After glassing my brother took another nap. When he woke up we packed up camp and hiked to the a new pass. This was the lowest point emotionally of the hunt for me. I had high hopes for this particular area, but when we arrived the smoke was too thick to glass it and there was no sign anywhere in the area, not even a track. It was very depressing.
We were basically out of options. We were too wore out to hike back into the areas we had already hunted and the smoke was so thick we weren't able to glass the areas we thought might be good. To top it off there was no flat ground in the area to set up camp without the danger of a burned pine tree falling on us. My brother's ankle was starting to bother him and he commented that if we stayed to hunt he would have to stay in camp instead of risking rolling his ankle in the deadfall. All this added up to our decision to pack out 2 days early. I hated the decision, but considering our position it made sense to cut our losses and pack out.
The rest of the hike down was gorgeous, taking us through steep slopes covered in red an yellow brush and young new growth pines. We were hurting pretty badly however. My left knee was swollen badly from the steep decent and my brother was flat out smoked. We decided we had better push through to the airstrip because if I stopped my knee would be so swollen by morning it wouldn't allow me to hike out the next day. So we stumbled along once again and finally reached the airstrip right at dark. All told we hiked over 7 miles through the mountains that day. Chad went straight to bed without eating dinner and I struggled to stay awake and eat. After dinner I loaded up on painkillers and went to sleep.
Pushing through turned out to be the best decision because by morning my knee was swollen like a grapefruit and I could hardly put any weight on it. We packed up camp and I sent the non-emergency help message from my SPOT satellite messenger, which McCall Aviation knew meant we wanted to be picked up. After the message went out, I limped down to the Ranger Station and talked to the Ranger on duty. He confirmed that McCall Aviation had gotten our message. After describing our hunt to him, he deemed us crazy and commented that he couldn't get horses up the ridge we climbed the first day and would have trouble covering the amount of ground as quickly as we did the last day on horseback! I guess we were doing alright getting around the mountain after all, although we only had the pains and aches to show for it. The Cessna 172 showed up at 1100 and landed even though the smoke was too thick for real VFR flying. That was a testament to the skills of the backcountry pilots. He picked us up and flew in small circles over a drainage that he knew had room in order to gain enough altitude to get out of the wilderness. Once back in McCall we showered up and started driving to Idaho Falls.
The hunt was officially over and we had five unfilled tags in our pockets. The weather was just too warm for good hunting and I think the wolves and winters had taken their toll on the game in the wilderness. We had fun and worked hard and came away with memories that will always be with us, and that makes it a successful hunt.