Spot & Stalk
Dec 28 2023
Idaho Backcountry Bear Hunting
By Josh Kirchner
For 18 hours, I drove solo in the truck. I can still feel the butterflies after all this time. Backpack hunting for black bears in Idaho was something I had wanted to do for years, and it was finally happening. Nervousness, excitement, and curiosity all flowed through my veins. What an adventure it turned out to be, too: eight days in the mountains looking for bears with basically just my own thoughts for company. I ended up missing a great bear on that trip, but left with a smile on my face, eager for the next year. That was three years ago in 2021.
The following year, in 2022, I was accompanied by a good friend. We packed in for eight days and experienced all manner of weather, most of which kept us tent bound. Still, we were able to find bears every day and, in the end, I unfortunately made a bad shot. It resulted in a fruitless blood trail and a sick stomach. Not the high note I was hoping to leave on, but a driving force to get better for 2023.
Those memories are ones I cherish. They kept me company during the 18-hour pull I was currently making for the 2023 spring bear season. Each of them was filled with lessons that have hardened my mind for the better. And despite the empty cooler coming home in the past, they made me a better bear hunter. Every gas station I passed and every cup of coffee I sipped, I hoped that the third time would be the charm and I’d finally lay my hands on an Idaho black bear.
Solo hunting is a love of mine, but I won’t lie, it’s nice having someone along for the ride—someone who can share the experience of calling a small piece of civilization in a wild world “home” for a short time. My buddy, Dillon Flint, joined me at the trailhead as we loaded our backpacks for eight days in the backcountry. I had a rifle in tow and Dillon had a camera. Both of us have a potent love for backpack hunting as well as bear hunting. Needless to say, we were pretty dang excited. All that separated us from camp was about six miles and 2500 ft of elevation gain.
The weather was the hottest it had ever been in the few years I had done this hunt. The hike along the river felt more like August bear hunting in Arizona than Idaho bear hunting in May. It was muggy, it was hot, and both of us were feeling it. I’ve never felt like I was gonna Ralph before on a hike, but this one nearly had me there. After doing the brunt of the elevation and grabbing a quick snack and water, we made our last 800 foot push to camp. It was a welcomed sight and looked—quite literally—exactly how I left it the previous year. Home sweet home.
First Evening, First Mountain Goat
Our camp was set, dinner was eaten, and we were finally behind the glass scanning for little black dots. On the surface, you’d think a bear would stand out like a sore thumb with its color and all. On the contrary, they blend in extremely well. Shadows, burnt stumps, and rocks are all things that I have mistaken for bears in the past. Just as I was being reminded of that, something caught my eye. It wasn’t a black dot, though, it was a white dot.
This may be the Arizona in me showing, but my jaw was on the floor. Never before had I seen a mountain goat until now. “What an interesting animal,” I said to Dillon. A lone mountain goat fed across the way from us and I was drinking it in. The long fur, goofy beard, and how almost out-of-place it looked captivated me. I then remembered I saw a giant, jet-black boar standing right where he was the previous year. Then, it was back to the bears for me, but no bears showed up that evening. That was okay, though, because we were there and that made sleep come very easy that night.
Mornings in the backcountry are something I look forward to on every backpack hunt. There is just something nice about sitting in camp in the middle of nowhere drinking a hot cup of coffee. It’s times like these that remind me hunting is about far more than just hunting. Dillon and I spoke of the previous day and days to come, which made the coffee go down even quicker in our eagerness to get started behind the glass. It didn’t take long before we spotted movement below.
I was trying to brainstorm some ideas for photos with Dillon when he abruptly stopped me as he looked through his binoculars, and said, “I think I got a bear.” He directed my eyes to where he saw it, and sure enough there was a strawberry blonde bear feeding in the lower 1/3 of the basin. “That color!” I exclaimed. Right off the bat, I could tell that the bear wasn’t a giant by any means, but goodness it was pretty. And just like most bears, it never seemed to stop moving until it disappeared. We saw that bear at 7:30 am.
10:30 am. rolled around, and we still hadn’t seen the bear come back out. I had an educated hunch that the bear was bedded right around where we last saw it and that it would surely come back out in the evening. So, we filtered a bunch of water to keep at camp, grabbed our stuff, and started making our way over to the bear.
The bear wasn’t terribly far away from us. As the crow flies, it was only 3/4 of a mile. The problem was the country that separated us was partially impassable and would force us up 1,000 ft over and then back down another 1,000 ft. It gave a new meaning to “only 3/4 of a mile.”
Throughout the entire hike, I envisioned making the push in the dark back to camp and how that would be. Some of what we were working through was knee-deep snow at the tops of the mountains. And most of it was, of course, very steep through very dense brush. With each step, the word “adventure” kept popping up in my mind and with it, my smile grew bigger.
After 2.5 hours of hiking, we reached the outcropping that would put us right over where we last saw the bear. It was a great little spot with a shaded saddle behind the edge. Dillon and I set up shop and chatted about life. A few hours later and out of nowhere, the bear materialized down beneath us. My eyes were glued to the bear: how it pinballed its way around, how it delicately grabbed its food, and how the wind negotiated its way through its fur. I was hooked, but I didn’t know if I wanted to pull the trigger yet. We shouldered our packs and started making our way down for a closer look.
It took quite a bit of looking around, but we finally found a suggestion of a flat spot for me to lay down and possibly shoot from. I had my rifle out in front of me on the bipod and my bino harness topped with the pad I sat on for a rear rest. It wasn’t perfect, but it would work. Once that was set, we relocated the bear. It hadn’t gone far.
Bears mesmerize me. How they effortlessly move through treacherous landscapes is admirable to say the least. Through the daze this bear put on me, I saw something. The bear walked over a small bush and rubbed its downstairs on it. I had seen this in the past and every time I had seen it, the bear turned out to be a boar. I believe it’s them marking their scent. The decision was made and I got behind the gun.
This was going to be a tricky shot, as the bear was working his way in and out of sparse timber. Lots of opportunities to hit a tree instead of a bear. After what felt like an hour (probably 15 minutes), the bear finally came into a small gap quartering away, standing still, and feeding. This was it. My turret was set to 500 yards and I slowly pulled the trigger as Dillon took pictures of the bear. The shot broke, I lost sight, and Dillon said, “Josh, you hammered him. He’s down.” I couldn’t believe it. Finally, after three years, I had an Idaho bear down.
Recovery and Pack Out
Walking up on this bear, I was hit with waves of memories from the previous two seasons. So many miles were hiked throughout them, so much elevation gain and loss, and a little bit of heartbreak happened, too. I’ve killed far bigger bears than this one, but I can tell you something right now: this bear meant way more than his size, and I had a grin from ear to ear laying my hands on him.
We shot the bear at 5:00 pm and had to drop another 1,100 ft to get down to him. That put us in front of him at 5:30 pm. By 7:00, we had him all worked out and in our packs. Now, we’d have to ascend 2,100 ft back up to the top of the ridge, over “only 3/4 of a mile,” and then back down 1,000 ft to camp.
That hike put us back at camp at midnight. In that time, we trudged with heavy packs through knee-deep snow, ran out of water, and even had an avalanche greet us near the top of the mountain. Luckily, it was off in a chute to the right of us, but it was spooky hearing that snow coming down the mountain in the dark. Upon arriving at camp, both of us were having mobility issues. Our legs were done, and so were our minds. There would be no alarm the next morning and no wake-up call.
The Hike Out
Come morning, both of us were in a much better place mentally and physically. We were hydrated, recovered, and our spirits were high. It was time for hot coffee all around and reflections on the night. Through our chats, I kept looking around us. We were camped on the top of a lonely ridge and the surrounding landscape stunned both of us. We are lucky that we get to put ourselves in these wild, unforgiving places. It’s a pleasure pushing our mental and physical boundaries. It’s also a reality check that there’s more to life than a little screen. We hadn’t even left yet, and I already missed this place. All good things come to an end. The best part about that is there is a new beginning around the bend. Until next year.