I stop asking about Jeeps in the kitchen when we notice wolf tracks in mud on the trail. We have wolf tags so we’re awfully interested. As Idaho has struggled to come up with a strategy to control the introduced wolf population, they’ve made it easier to get tags and have lengthened the season.
“The wolves cleaned the elk almost entirely out,” Arby says as he kneels down for a closer look at the tracks. “In elk season there used to be a dozen elk camps back along the trail we rode in on. All filled with hunters, too. Now maybe a few guys come out just to get away. The elk are mostly gone. The mule deer are way down too.”
The elk, he then explains, used to be on top. He points to far-off grassy parks. Up there in the open country big packs of wolves had an easy time encircling and killing elk. So the elk that survived learned to stay in densely wooded, rough terrain in the middle of the mountainsides. A few survive that way today, Arby says. Now since the elk herd crashed the wolves have dispersed. Some are still here, of course, but their packs are smaller as their prey base is a puny percentage of what it was. The others are off reducing herds elsewhere. These changes make me wonder if the elk can make a comeback and find a better balance with their predators, both four-legged and two-legged.
No doubt the ecosystem here was thrown out of the balance it found without wolves. Now the state is struggling to find a new balance that still includes a healthy elk population and wolves. Idaho, being a mostly rural and therefore sensible state, sees hunters as an economical and natural part of that balance. This is important, as some would like to cut humans right out of the ecosystem. They don’t think humans belong, even though people have always hunted. Even this big, rough country is shaped by everything we do—or, perhaps, don’t do.
Seeing Eddie in this context says something too. We watch as he carefully puts down his rifle and splashes into a stream to cool his face. He is a fresh reminder that we need to be able to stay a part of all of this, that young hunters need the chance to play an active role in these ecosystems as well. We just have to find the right balance. We’re all a part of the natural ecosystem and always have been. People can remain in the wild, as part of the wild; not conquerors of nature, but as active participants. If we were just here hiking, we would be only observers and Eddie wouldn’t get nearly the same experience.
“Gosh, Dad, this water feels good,” Eddie says, splashing his father, and then we continue to climb and glass mountainsides for black bears.
An hour later I’m walking with Arby and he points a thumb back at Eddie and says, “That kid is a good one, being brought up right. A few years ago we had another 12-year-old boy in one of our deer camps. This kid had never hunted before and all these men kept telling him to shoot and kill this doe. The kid finally shot and wounded the deer. It took a lot of doing to finish that wounded doe. It was miserable. The kid left with this awful look in his eyes. If they’d only taught him to shoot and took him out for small game first he would have grown to understand hunting and why it is right. Instead I’ll bet that kid never wanted to go hunting again.”
We never see a bear. The next morning we ascend switchbacks up another mountainside. We cut back and forth, gaining altitude and stopping to gasp. Eddie’s boots are dragging. Greg is grunting. The bears are spread out this year. Spring came early and the mountainsides greened-up in April showers weeks before they usually do. The bears don’t have to search south-facing slopes for green grass; they can find grass and other edible vegetation everywhere, even under the timber.
“Never seen it so green here in April,” says Arby. But that’s hunting. Come mid-afternoon we spot a bear but by the time we slog down a slope steep enough to frighten skiers used to double black diamonds the bear is gone.
On day three we go up a ravine several miles upriver on the Selway. We slog uphill for 50 or 100 feet then stop to gasp and groan. When muscles stop burning we go again. Eddie is quiet now, but still smiling and eating Kit Kat bars. We earn a look across a panorama of wild mountains and spot a color-phase bear.
It takes an hour to get there through folds in the landscape that hide deep ditches and blowdowns. Finally we’re glassing grassy patches between ponderosa pines on the opposite side when Greg sees a big black bear, a different bear. It’s as black as a well bottom and as big as they get.
The bear is more than 350 yards away and the shot is tough. Even though Eddie could always make that 300-yard metal plate ring, we decide to get closer. We go down the slope and get within 150 yards but just as Eddie gets on his gun the bear steps into a copse of trees. We wait as the sun sets but the bear never reappears.
Eddie says, “Let’s just camp out here. He’ll come out of there in the morning.”
He means it, too. But we all know none of us would mean it after midnight when we’d be cold and without dinner and maybe wet from a night rain in the mountains.
We almost have to drag him from the spot. This is a good sign. He’s stubborn. He’s willing to work for his reward.
The next morning, the last morning, Eddie again goes up the ravine from the first day. He has this resolute look on his young face. He’s all joy and determination. His muscles are there but lean along growing limbs. We’re all proud of him. This time there’s no holding him back. In the afternoon they see a bear walking along a hillside opposite a roaring stream. They move in and Eddie is on his gun in moments and then his gun goes off and the bear rolls down the hillside. One shot at 220 yards and the bear is done.
Another member of camp had missed three times. Not Eddie. No one else in camp had bagged a bear. But Eddie had. He stood up and shot well and everyone in camp couldn’t have been happier that he did.