Jan 11 2022

Helicopters & Bears

June of 2019 my dear friend Heather, her husband John and I set out for what was my first bear hunt.  Heather is very knowledgeable about bears and has a lot of experience hunting bears.  I didn’t have any experience with bears but was curious and wanted to learn.  In 2018 I reached out to Heather and asked her if I could tag along on a bear hunt with her. She went above and beyond and asked me if I wanted to plan a spring bear hunt in Idaho for 2019. My answer was YES!

The hunt was set and I began to count down the days.  I took ten days off of work and we set off for this amazing adventure.  As we sat down and ate supper the first night at camp, we discussed the plan for the next morning.  The next morning, we planned to hike in on a closed road that proved to be a popular area for the bears.  We switched to the other side of the drainage for the evening hunt.  It was thick with brush and not the best place to hike into, but it was worth it. We spotted our first black bear, but too far away and on the side of the drainage where we had been that morning.  We backed out for the night with high hopes of finding him in the morning.  

At 3:00 a.m. the night silence was broken by the sound of cell phone alarms.  We were eager to get into the spot where we had seen the bear the night before. Suddenly Heather pipes up “There’s one.” Across the drainage nearby, a black bear was feeding across the hillside.  In order for us to get to him we were going to have to go where we had been the night before.  

As we made our way through the vine maples and a waterfall we arrived at a nice little meadow with lush green grass.  A heavily used game trail wound its way through the tall grass, Heather suddenly stopped and the hair on the back of her neck stood up.  There was this monster pile of griz scat.  We cautiously continued on when we came upon a very large bear bed.  Again, we stopped and Heather turned to me and emphasized the size of this bear, she then asked me if I wanted to continue on or back out.  I told her that I thought we should continue on, but I thought it would be best if we planned on being out of the area before dark.  

We made our way on top of a good vantage and spent several hours glassing.   After several hours John spotted a large black bear. Before I knew it, he was at about the closest that he would ever get to us, straight down 250 yards from where we were sitting.  I took a rest on my pack and waited for him to step broadside, I squeezed the trigger and missed.  

As we made our way out, John was in the lead and I was bringing up the rear.  We began to climb the small incline out of a creek when all of the sudden I heard Heather scream.  As she fell, she spun around facing me. My attention went to her right foot, it was facing a direction that was not normal. I knew that this wasn’t good.  I knew how we had to go and the terrain that we had ahead of us.  Heather knew that it wasn’t good because we weren’t too far from where we had seen that grizzly bed, and we were in a cool creek bed.  John and I gathered sticks to make a splint for her leg. Heather was determined that she was going to get out of there on her own power.  Walking wasn’t an option but she knew that she was in a bad spot and was not going to stay where she was.  She sat down and scooted herself backwards through the brush, over rocks and up the creek bank into an opening about 100 yards from the spot where she had broken her leg.  

John took Heather's gun with him; he wasn’t hunting so he only had bear spray on him. He headed out for help. It was about 4:30 in the evening and I didn’t know what the rest of the day was going to look like.  All I knew to do was to keep her occupied, so I just talked to her about everything.  She held her bear spray close and I never set my rifle down.

I began to gather wood while talking to her.  A couple of times I faced away and fought back tears of fear.  I didn’t know what to do to help my friend.  I just felt helpless.  As the sun began to set, Heather began to shake worse than before.  I started a fire near where she sat to try and help keep her warm.  All of the sudden she and I were startled by the sound of John’s voice on the radio.  John informed us that help was on the way, they were sending a helicopter in from Montana to pick her up.  Search and rescue did not know, however, if they were going to pick me up or not.  The helicopter was going to be another couple of hours. I hung flagging ribbon all around us while we waited.  I put the fire out about an hour before we expected the helicopter to get there. 

Darkness was sitting in and we began to wonder if help was really coming.  She began to close her eyes for longer periods of time and I just kept talking to try and keep her awake.  In the last minutes of daylight, we finally heard the chopper come over the mountain range, we turned on our flashlights and waved them in the air.  

A sheriff's deputy repelled down just feet from where I was standing. As much as I hated to waste his time asking questions, I needed to know if they were going to pick me up or not.  He informed me that it would be up to the pilot if they took me or not. Heather wasn’t terribly excited about the helicopter and she was even less excited when she saw what she referred to as “the string” that was supposed to lift her and the deputy to safety.   Just before they were lifted up, the deputy informed me that they would try to get me. 

I watched as they were raised from earth and very quickly disappeared into the helicopter.  As the bird circled around my location a few times I wondered if they were going to stop or not.  All of the sudden the deputy lowered down. He handed me a harness and helmet, and while I am putting those on, he put on my pack. Before I knew it, we were fastened together and air born. A couple of months later I found out that Heather played a huge role in getting me in that helicopter. They weren’t going to come back for me and she told them that if they didn’t, they needed to put her back down on the ground, because she didn’t want me to be out there by myself.  

I think it was around 9 p.m. when we landed beside a road, where an ambulance was waiting for us.  The next few hours consisted of x-rays, another ambulance ride and Heather going into surgery.  During all of this John was on the other side of the mountain range, tearing down camp and rushing to get to the hospital.  He made it to her side 30 minutes before she went into surgery.

Heather was in the hospital for a few days with some new hardware in her leg.  She worked hard the entire summer to heal up enough to take part in the fall hunts she and her family had planned.  We talked about trying again for that spring bear in 2020.  We had plans and then there were so many things associated with COVID, state shut downs that I wasn’t able to go, but her and John went and Heather brought home a beautiful bear from the same area where we had been the year before.  I was never so happy to get that picture from her and see that smile on her face.  That bear was so well deserved.  

We started planning for the spring of 2021 and she asked me early on if I would mind if her daughter joined us.  Rachel graduated high school this year and this was going to be part of her graduation gift. I won’t lie, I had a little anxiety about the hunt, and the trip itself.  However, I really wanted to get a bear and I knew that I was more prepared this time if something were to happen.  

Heather had two goals in mind for this 10-day hunt; she wanted her daughter and I to both get bears and she was going to do everything in her power to make it happen.  As usual Heather was spotting bears left and right a mile away. On day three I was excited when my alarm went off at 3 a.m.  We made our way to a closed road and slowly started our way in.

We were walking side by side down the old tire tracks of the road, when we came to a right hand turn in the road. I slowly worked my way out where I could see around the bend in the road and there it was.  The first bear that I had found or seen without it being pointed out to me.  I calmly stopped and slowly pointed to the bear in front of me who was feeding in the opposite direction.  Heather said that is a nice black bear, take him. I took a knee to give myself a better rest and when I did so, I couldn't see him.  I stood back up and tried to hold still enough, but Heather and I both knew that wasn’t a good option. The whole time I was thinking about that bear that I missed in 2019, and I didn’t want that to happen again. So, I put my gun down and tried a different plan.  He continued to feed and I made my way to what I thought was a good position and dropped to one knee, I had him in my sights and waited patiently for him to turn and give me a good shot. He finally stepped to the left and gave me a broadside shot.  I squeezed the trigger, watched the bullet hit him and felt relief--I knew I had made a lethal shot.  

This being my first bear, Heather was great at explaining how to skin and quarter him out. As I began filling bags, she started packing them out to a snowbank near the road.  Rachel was standing guard in case we had any visitors and helped me cut rib meat and hold legs when needed.   As we filled the last bag we made our way out of the brush, divided up the loads, strapped them down and made our way back out to the truck.   I felt so blessed that the Lord had given me this opportunity, I was honored and proud to be packing meat out of this vast landscape with these two amazing women by my side.  

This hunt took two years but the memories, lessons and experience that I have gained will last a lifetime.