I’ve been waiting for this trip for a long time. It’s a perfect plan: hunt your way upriver from the Meadow Creek trailhead, shoot something, and float it back out. At the low levels of autumn Salmon Forks down is floatable, and aside from a few shallow riffles and two rapids, everything is runnable in a heavy boat. The 3 mile hike around the gorge is surely doable with just about any load.
It’s a great trip, and it has good hunting opportunities. Sadly, I didn’t put all the pieces together this weekend.
Things came very close. Late Friday afternoon I was good miles in from the trailhead, having passed a bunch of packstrings on their way out, and trucking along when a big rock rolled down the steep hillside and across the trail. Only bears make that kind of ruckus. On cue, a black bear moved from one clump of bushes to another, quartering away from me across the talus slope. I got out my rifle, put down my pack and trekking poles, and when he went out of sight closed the distance fast. The bear was making a bunch of noise in the blitheful bearish way, and thus it was easy to know where it was and where it would reappear. I got within 30 yards and sat down in the middle of the trail, took a good stance, pulled back the hammer, and waited. The bear stopped, stuck its head out, and did nothing. I was still, crosshairs centered, waiting for it to take another step forward. Instead it coughed, turned dead way as smoothly as rain down a window, and sprinted down the trail.
I was able to follow its tracks in the mud, though this was harder than I would have thought because it largely avoided the sticky, horse-churned mass and ran right on the harder, faster edge. As I expected, little ephraim jogged along for a half mile until the steep slope relented, and vanished uphill into the thick brush. I made camp at a stream a further half mile away, and headed out at dusk on another trail to see if I could cut the bear off, but stalking through the brush was hopeless. Darkness fell, I went back to camp, pulled down my food bag, and brewed tea by the creek as every star came out. It was going to be a cold night.
I had seen a massive amount of fresh deer and elk sign during that brief off trail excursion, so I woke up optimistic. A feeling which seemed to be rewarded after a half hour of slow walking through the still, painfully cold morning when I saw an elk standing in the middle of the river a half mile in front of me. Binoculars revealed another (cow) on the far bank. I stalked closer, hoping those two weren’t alone, but getting within eighty yards didn’t make any bulls appear. Those sisters, in true elk fashion, just stared at my still form for several minutes before walking stiffly off through the mess of burnt lodgepole.
Unfortunately, the trip just got more trying. I hike deliberately between bottoms, glassing the banks, meadows and hillsides, and moved slowly through the pine groves and dry sloughs. It was tiring work, in a way that just hiking along in even the worst terrain doesn’t approach. A dense, high haze hung around until mid afternoon, making it cold work. When the sun finally came out I was out of water, energy, and patience. I climbed down a gully to the river, made soup for lunch, and took a short nap on a gravel bar. I rousted a few whitetail does up as I neared my point of return, but nothing shootable.
Plan B gave me hope, which was to inflate the packraft and with rifle strapped within easy reach, float stealthily down and sneak up on something. Over the past few years I’ve gotten disconcertingly close to deer, elk, moose, and bear this way, so it seemed like a good idea. The first hour of floating was gorgeous, still comfortable with direct sun, and the flows encouragingly fast. Only one doe to show for it, and I got within 30 feet of her without seeing until she jumped out of her bed in the weeds. I had intended to float, slowly, until the end of shooting light, but the clear evening got too cold too fast, and I succumbed to the familiar ritual of pulling over on a gravel bar, and making a fire with shivering hands as the stars emerged.
I didn’t sleep well that night, wracked as I was by a thought which took 24 hours to emerge: why hadn’t I shot that bear in the head? Seated, at 30 yards?! I knew that was not the sort of opportunity which could be relied upon to come along more than once in one season. Bone-tired and aching though I was, I laid in the mid for quite some time running through the what ifs and why nots.
The final morning followed the same pattern. A clear dawn led shortly to a high layer of clouds which kept the cold well in the river bottoms until late morning. I saw fresh scat and tracks, but no critters. I tried out my packraft hunting methods by float-stalking and sighting up on mergansers, strategically grouding on a rock and resting the rifle on my pack. The ebb and flow of the river precluded a totally still rest. This approach would be fine for shotgunning waterfowl, or close shots at big game, but getting out of the boat will probably be necessary in most cases.
The float out was gorgeous, and the constricted sections below Black Bear Creek even moreso, with low and clear water coming together with yellow aspens and just-not-yellow larches in a way which almost brought me to tears. How have I never been back there in autumn before? The beauty of it all just served to highlight further the contrast within me, and the extent to which what would have previously been a satisfying trip had on that day fallen flat. Yes, I had sat down before that bear Friday afternoon with the idea of a perfect double-lung shot locked in my head, which was why I hadn’t thought to pull the trigger on a perfectly reasonable and humane target. All the good reasons available weren’t going to make me happy about it, and I packed up and hiked the 3 miles back to the car with an uneasy soul.
There are any number of hunting cliches I’ll refrain from saying, and leave it with just one: this is the kind of experience which leaves me hungry to get back out there.