May 11 2023

The Story Of The 50 Mile Bruin

Hunting Bear In The Most Remote Place In The Lower 48

After a series of family emergencies and canceled plans, I found myself alone for eight days hunting bears in one of the wildest places on earth. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho is over two million acres and the largest federally designated wilderness you can hunt in the lower 48. The name of the Wilderness honors US Senator Frank Church who fought tirelessly to conserve this special place. To finally get the wilderness area passed, concessions were made that allowed traditional forms of access such as keeping the remote airstrips open.

I had spent time doing wildlife research in the Frank, but as I got on the plane taking me from Atlanta to Boise and as I sat down in my rental car to drive the winding roads up into the mountains, I could feel the level of excitement and anxiety building with every step of the journey. Sitting in the lobby waiting for my flight into the wilderness, I repeatedly went over every piece of equipment in my pack. Hunting for eight days with only what you can carry on your back is as much about survival as hunting. As I climbed into the small bush plane it reminded me of an old car I had in high school—all the knobs and buttons worn and the interior paint chipped and aged. As we flew away from civilization, I looked down and watched endless numbers of ridges and valleys pass by. My pilot was confident and skilled, and our landing was gentle and uneventful. I stood there almost as far as you can get from a road in the lower 48 and watched as he flew by tipping the wings. Then everything went silent. The real adventure was about to begin.

I had landed at a high elevation airstrip (about 7000 feet) but my plan was to work higher and spend the week hunting lower and lower until I found good bear signs. I hunt bears in the Appalachians and my strategy is based on woodsmanship, which is to find bear feeding signs, then use the combination of sign and terrain to slowly hunt through the landscape. On my hike up to the high country, I found one pile of bear scat at about 7500 feet, but it was old. It was hard to age the scat in such a dry climate when I am used to hunting in the Appalachians, but it was at least a week old. As I got above 8000 feet, I realized water was going to be difficult to find but I eventually found a small spring where there was a trickle of water coming out of the mountain. Next, I set up camp and began hunting the high country. The landscape above 8000 feet was austere with rock walls, open sage brush meadows, and patches of pines. I spent three days hiking and glassing, covering an incredible amount of country with my legs and eyes. Each day I was greeted by multiple dusky grouse and even found the tracks of a large mule deer buck that was holding out in the high country as it waited to move lower and join the does for the November rut. Even though I really wanted to find a bear in the high country, I was quickly realizing I needed to move lower if I wanted to find the bears.

Packing camp up, the lone pile of week-old scat was on my mind. The plan was to move down to 7000-7500 feet and look for more signs. In my exploration of those altitudes, I had found nothing but that lone pile of scat. But the landscape was enticing, full of high mountain meadows surrounded by rolling hills, so I decided that spending at least a full day in that area would be worth it. I hiked an eight mile loop checking terrain features and potential food sources. After a frustrating day of finding no bear signs, I decided to finish the day by sitting on the edge of a large meadow. Within thirty minutes of sitting down, to my surprise an eight point white-tailed deer stepped out. Having lived in Idaho for many years, I knew there were whitetails but I could not believe that I was seeing one at this elevation. Having a lifetime resident hunting license in Idaho meant I had a deer tag in my pocket, but given I was alone on this hunt any animal that I killed meant the end of the hunt and I really wanted a bear. The buck moved off and as the sun set I was lucky enough to watch a great grey owl feed for thirty minutes in the meadow. It was time to move lower.

The path I planned to take into the lower country would take me down through some thick forested headwater basins, low beaver wetland filled valleys, and back up over multiple mountain passes eventually ending on a large creek at about 4000 feet. I planned to take two days hunting the forests and beaver wetlands during the mornings and evenings and spending the hot parts of the days doing the big hikes over the mountain passes. By midmorning on the first day, I had hunted a dense forest below the original scat I had found, but found no other signs. So, I moved into a series of aspen patches and beaver meadows. From the meadows, there were long range views of mountains in all directions and the soil held tracks well. By midday I realized that I had found the elk because I saw multiple elk and could not take a step without landing on an elk track. However, I did not glass a bear and had not seen a single pile of bear scat or tracks. I spent the day hiking over mountains and had the same lack of bear signs that afternoon and the following day. The afternoon of the second day found me down at about 5000 feet where I had commanding views back up to the tree line at 7000 feet, expansive sagebrush and ponderosa meadows, and down to 4000 foot ridges. As the sun set, I had not seen a bear and realized it was time to move even lower. I was far enough away in terms of miles and elevation from the airstrip I flew into and knew if I was to kill a bear, getting it back there would be almost impossible. Looking at maps, I found a lower elevation airstrip and sent the pilot a message to pick me up at this new location. Now I was committed; I was well into the hunt and there was no going back up.

The next morning, I hiked and glassed my way down a creek and was pleasantly surprised to see that these lower creeks were lined with snow berries and rose hips. The landscape had changed from a high alpine ecosystem full of grouse and mule deer to a desert mountain ecosystem with bighorn sheep and rattlesnakes. By midday, I was on the creek and had set up my shelter a mile from the new airstrip. This was almost a week into the hunt and I still had not seen another human, but the trails along this creek were covered with horse tracks and one afternoon I even saw a horse train going up a distant mountain. I spent a couple days hiking these 4000 foot high canyons and watching bighorn sheep, mule deer does, and rattlesnakes but never found bear signs.

There was one full day left before I had to fly out the following morning and I was exhausted. That last morning, I had almost resigned to the fact that I was not going to get a bear. I loaded my pack heavier than normal including my stove and food to cook and headed up the creek that had led down into this country. My plan was to set up for the entire day watching a ridge where I had seen some bighorn sheep, cooking a meal, and just generally enjoying my last day. About four miles up the creek at 9:00 AM, I began seeing bear scat from yesterday, wet and full of snow berries and rose hips. I took my rifle off my pack and slowed my hiking pace to glass all the mountains and canyons in the area. After a mile of finding signs, I looked across to the other side of the canyon and first noticed the white patch on the boar’s chest as he crested a small fold in the landscape. He was across the valley from me about 100 yards moving down the canyon, and had no idea I was there. A thick creek bottom was between us, but luckily I was perched up on a bench. About 10 feet in front of me I saw a large boulder. I moved forward kneeling behind the rock. As I did this he saw me and stopped behind a shrub. We stared at each other for about five minutes before he slowly stepped out. One shot behind the shoulder and he rolled about thirty feet. Within twenty seconds he let out a loud death moan.

As I excitedly approached the dead bear, the severity of the situation sank in. I was flying out in less than 24 hours and I was six miles from the airstrip. I got to work while trying to calm my anxiety, knowing that I was going to have to pack this entire bear out in one trip. I boned out the meat and skull, packed them in game bags, and strapped the hide to the outside of my pack. I was on the trail by 11:00 AM. It was the heaviest load I have ever carried, including many elk and mule deer packouts over the years. It felt like with one misstep, one wrong twist, and I could blow out a knee. I put that theory to the test within the first mile when I heard the sound of an alarmed prairie rattlesnake right where my foot was about to land. Somehow I was able to use my trekking poles and launch myself over the snake. I admired the snake for a few moments but was in so much pain I had to move on.

I packed the bear six miles to the airstrip by 6:00 PM. I hung the meat in a tree and collapsed in the middle of the airstrip with tears of accomplishment and pain. After I gathered my composure, I picked up what seemed like a feather light pack and hiked back to camp. I made it to camp by 8:00 PM and collapsed in my shelter, falling into a deep sleep.

The next morning, I talked to my first human in eight days as the same small paint-chipped plane landed. Looking at my InReach, I had traveled fifty miles covering an elevation range from 9000 to 4000 feet. The pilot got out and said, “You came a long way! Didn’t I drop you off up on top of the mountains?” I was excited to see him but exhausted, silently enjoying the view of valleys and peaks as I flew out of the Frank.

This entire experience was one of the greatest adventures of my life and it was only possible because of the North American Model of Conservation and our public land system. I serve on the board of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers ( and we are the leading voice protecting our access to public lands in North America. If you care about wildlife, wild places, and the freedom we have to embark on epic hunting and fishing adventures, please visit the website and consider becoming a member and part of the team.


Dr. Christopher L. Jenkins lives in the Chattahoochee National Forest in the mountains of north Georgia. He has built a year-round lifestyle hunting, fishing, and conserving wildlife and wild places. He is the Chief Executive Officer of The Orianne Society and serves on the North American Board of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.