Bears and Boys in the Backcountry

Bears & Boys in the Backcountry

May 2009

Cameron Hanes

"The mountains have broke many of men over the years...however, this past week, the rugged mountains of northeastern Oregon were the proving grounds for a group of tough, young hunters."

I have had memorable hunts with both of my sons over the last few years as they begin their journey from boys to men. Of these hunts, Alaska black bear with both of them at different times and Oregon blacktail deer and Hell's Canyon elk with Tanner, never had we enjoyed a hunt together...all sharing the same camp. This was by design as I've felt it was important that I was able to focus all my attention on one boy at a time as they learn the ways of the woods.

That changed this spring as I decided, through ODFW'S mentored youth hunting program (MYHP) to give Truett, 12, my youngest son, the Oregon Snake River spring bear tag I drew. I made plans to get deep in to bear country and share camp with my good friends at Del Sol Wilderness Adventures. Barry Cox, the owner of DSWA, and father of two boys himself would be there as his youngest son Forrest, 15, drew out also. My long time friend, Shay Mann, who works with Barry wanted to tag along for one, because he loves the mountains, two, because we enjoy hunting together and three, he wanted to see the boys experience success. Each of us also shared another common goal...we wanted to film this backcountry epic for RMEF's Elk Chronicles. I think it is hunts like this that depict the true essence of western hunting. I also decided to pull my oldest boy, Tanner, age 15, from school to join us on this weeklong quest. He wouldn't be hunting, but I wanted him there to share the highs and lows of this hunt in the rugged northeastern Oregon mountains. Honestly, he protested a little, trying to pull the "end-of-the-school-year-grades-are-important" card. His fire for the hunt, especially a tough backcountry hunt, wasn't burning too hot given he didn't have a tag and wouldn't be packing a weapon. I wouldn't give in though. In my mind, the missed school lessons could be made up, the experiences we would share with Truett on this hunt for his first Oregon big game animal, while overlooking the awesome Imnaha River country, would never be forgotten. He copped an attitude while throwing together gear the night before the hunt. I ignored him, telling him simply, "We are leaving at 4 a.m. so you better get to bed soon."

Also tagging along on the hunt, was my long time friend, ex-Eagle Cap hunting partner and old high school classmate, Tim Thompson, and his youngest son, Tucker. Just like me, Tim, drew the Snake River spring bear tag. Upon finding that out, I suggested to him that he too let Tucker fill the tag on the MYHP, as he had never hunted. I also told him how great of a hunt this would be for the boys. We would see lots of bears, the hike in wouldn't be that would be a perfect first hunt. I told Tanner the same thing….fun hunt I promised. Woops. Hey, spring bear hunts are tough to predict and so far as the difficulty of the hunt rating, Tim should know never to trust me on this one. I have roped many a' guys in by underselling the toughness prospective of hunts over the years. And, thinking on this now, I guess the underselling deal goes for workouts too. I have heard Tanner tell Truett that if I say we are going to go on a 3 mile run it is really going to be about 7. He is probably right. Once I can get them out there, either on the mountain hunting, or on the trail running, I figured I can inspire em' to stick er' out. And, most of the time, it works.

Easy or hard, I believe a tough backcountry hunt is perfect for anyone, young or old. The backcountry tests your mettle in ways nothing else will. It'll get you out of your comfort zone. We need that. We learn in the backcountry that to overcome, you live life inch by inch, not yard by yard. In terms of navigating the straight up and down mountains, loaded down with a pack, yearning for your next pull of water, you do it one step at a time. And we did, approximately 7 miles a day on average, and zero of those miles were "easy highway miles" so to speak. Virtually every step was hard earned, either seemingly straight up or straight down. Daunting, but such is mountain hunting.

Ol' Timmy Thompson (note - he is younger than me) and I have been friends for a long time, but hadn't hunted together in many years (10 I believe). I was really looking forward to hitting the woods with him again, especially with our boys along. He has always been a tough guy, someone you could count on when the chips are down and a good friend, until this rugged hunt that is. He told me on the way home that if he ever heals up and feels normal again, he is going to come over and kick my butt for roping him in to this trip. He was joking. I think?

We had a long, fairly physical walk in to base camp that first day, which wasn't too bad but difficult enough that the boys knew they were going to be putting in a week of hard work in big country and enough that Tim was asking me, "Dude, I thought you said this hunt would be fun?" I spent the first couple of days hunting with Truett, Shay, Tanner and our cameraman Bill Owens who was rolling film for Elk Chronicles. We covered lots of country and glassed much more. Bear sightings were few and far between. We were a little high it seemed to me, and in fact we spent almost one full day in snow shoes covering abut 9 miles we are figuring. Honing in on where we thought the bear were, Shay and I talked with Barry about moving camp about 11 miles away and touch lower. He agreed and after a half day of work and a long, straight down then straight up five hour hike, as the horses packed camp, we were eating dinner at base camp on the other side of the river drainage. Very impressive display of backcountry mobility I thought. But as I've know for many years, when it comes to horses and mountains, Barry Cox is the best.

In the right country, now we just needed a break, and it needed to come soon. As it was day four came and went with nary a bear sighting by my party, Tim and Tucker saw a sow and cub. We were getting down to crunch time and the boys, while putting in long days (5:00 a.m. to about 9:00 p.m.), were hanging tough. I was amazed by their durability and positive attitudes. The evenings at base camp and days in the field were filled with more laughter than I've heard in a long time. That being said, fun is fine, but like anyone who steps up to the challenge of the backcountry, they longed for success. Given their effort they believed they'd earned it and so did I. But I also know, the mountains and wild animals don't care what you think you deserve. Life is not fair and back there, hunting hard doesn't guarantee anything but sore feet. Giving 110% is all I know to do though, so on we went. In the very worst way, I wanted the boys to realize the fruits of their labor, but I have to admit, I wasn't real hopeful as the hunt seemed to be winding down very quickly. At least we had good weather if not many bear sightings.

Finally, we caught a break. The last evening of the hunt, Shay spotted a beautiful chocolate/blonde bear on the other side of a wide canyon. Knowing this might be Truett's first/last and only chance with my little hunter, Tanner and Bill in tow, I took off on a full tilt sprint sidehilling towards the bear. When in view I would hunker down, scurrying forward with stealth, while instructing the guys to do the same. When we would drop out of sight, shielded by one of the three spine ridges between us and the bear we would sprint. The bear was in perfect position and the wind couldn't be better for Truett to shoot across a tight canyon. We ran, covering a little more than one tough cross country mile as Bill rolled film. I didn't want too much to change by the time we got there. It took us about 20 minutes. Easing up to peak over the ridge, straight across from where the bear should be, I was relieved to see it still feeding as we gasped for air. Telling the guys to stay in the shadows I set Truett up for his shot. I bounced the laser from my rangefinder off the came back saying 156 yards. That is a shot I knew Truett could make, but I also worried about how he would respond to the intensity of the situation....tail end of a grueling nearly week long hunt, running hard for 20 minutes over rocks, through brush, jumping creeks, logs and sloshing through mud, camera rolling and me in his ear telling him to lock in...not an easy scenario.

I remember my first rifle kill and I will tell you what, I had no idea what I was doing, should be doing, or did, after it was over. We were in Deer Camp over near the Eagle Cap Wilderness some 26 years ago and me and my brother, Pete, thought we were lost even though just over a small rise the rigs were in eye sight a half mile away. A group of four or five deer feed along the timber's edge. I threw my rifle up and locked in on a spike buck which was a legal harvest at the time. Finding his shoulder I fired as the cross hairs floated past. He dropped. Pete, standing beside me said, "You shot a doe?" I said, "I did?" I didn't think I did, and I surely didn't mean to. As it turns out I did indeed drop the spike, thank God, my first kill, but the point is not much was clear as adrenalized surged unbridled through my body. I guarantee my brain was on lockdown.

On the flip side, Truett a young 12 year old, was as cool as the other side of the pillow. He found the bear in his scope, locked on and said, "Dad, I got him. Perfect." I hissed, "Are you sure? Are you sure your crosshairs are right on his shoulder, midway up his body? Are you positive?" "Yes, it is perfect. I got him." I said, "Well then, if you are sure and you feel good, then relax and s-l-o-w-l-y squeeze that trigger." Pause and…boom!!! And, the bear dropped, blood showing on his light hair immediately right where it should show. He rolled into some trees, thrashed, then rolled to the creek. Dead.

I was so proud of Truett, I hugged him told him what a great shot he made. With smiles all around and the never-blinking-eye-of-the-camera catching it all, Tanner came up and congratulated his little brother. It was a very special moment. Backcountry hunting has changed my life and it is the lonely mountains that influence what I do and think about nearly every day of the year. So to share such an experience with my boys in God’s Country, to watch my youngest son succeed on his quest in the face of great adversity and see him and Tanner, their sunburnt faces, dirty hands and faces and blistered feet standing there in the warm glow of the evening sun on that sharp spine ridge miles from any road, had me filled with emotion. That moment in time is something I will cherish forever.

Amazingly, the good fortune didn't stop there. Barry's boy, Forrest, killed his first bear that night too, after a long, long stalk into a very deep canyon. They had been watching a bear with a bum foot they named "Limpy" for the past two years and on that fateful night, just before dark miles from camp, Forrest killed Limpy, a good bear that turned out to be on old, scarred up boar. Forrest and Barry walked into base camp at 1:00 a.m. after breaking the bear down and hiking out of the bottom of that Hell Hole. Now we just had Tucker. He hadn't earned a shot yet, so the odds weren't looking real good as he just had a few hours left of the hunt. We needed to hit the trail at about 11:00 a.m. the next morning to start our hike out.

Well, I gotta give a lot of credit to Tim on this one. Like all of us he was banged up, beat up and tired. It would have been real easy to just call it a hunt and tell Tucker he would get his bear on the next go around. But he didn't. They got up at about 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. and headed out. And, to close out this "feel good hunt of the year," as you may have guessed, they glassed up what looked to be a trophy bear, closed in to 212 yards and as Elk Chronicles cameraman Matt Young worked magic with his video camera Tucker made a great, one shot kill on a bear we had named, "Big Chocolate." Predictably this all happened down a very steep ridge. By the time we got Big Chocolate skinned out, broke down and packed up to the trail, loaded up on the packstring and made our way to the riverside trailhead it was 5:00 p.m.

After swinging by Shay's in Joseph to take a quick shower (incidentally, I wore the exact same clothes, underwear and all, the entire 6 days and never brushed my teeth...nice. Life IS different in the backcountry), packing a couple of coolers with bear hides, meat and ice and loading up on Slurpees and hamburgers we spent all night driving home. During this time Tanner said to me, “Dad, you know, I didn’t think I would but I had a lot of fun this last week. Besides all the walking, it was a blast. And even now, the walking doesn’t seem like it was all that bad.” I said, “Good buddy, I am glad you had fun and I loved having you there with us.” I pulled in the driveway at almost 4:00 a.m. set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. and after two quick hours of sleep, headed to work. As they say, misery loves company so yes, all the boys went to school too. Truthfully though, for me, it felt great. I will gladly endure a day or two of sleep deprivation in trade for a lifetime of memories. I can promise you, not a one of us will ever forget spring bear hunting May of 2009.

My hope is our backcountry bear hunting adventure makes for some powerful TV...tune in to RMEF's Elk Chronicles on the Outdoor Channel to catch this memorable episode.

Thanks for the support guys, Cam

Contact Barry or Shay at
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