Back Country Adventures: Ascent Into Hell

Hunting in the wilderness is never easy, but that's exactly the point. These sacred places are hard to reach—and even harder to leave.

Hells Canyon Wilderness, Idaho

Driving north along U.S. Route 95 near Riggins, Idaho, I felt that perhaps I’d been lied to. Andy Savage of Heaven’s Gate Outfitters had promised that we’d hunt black bears in the coniferous subalpine forests sandwiched between the Snake and Salmon Rivers, but nothing I could see looked like the country he’d described. Rather than pine forests, the countryside was dominated by vertical rocks rising sharply up from the river, the volcanic soil covered with dull, tan grass and scattered sagebrush. It didn’t look like bear country.

Then I began to climb.

The 217,000-acre Hells Canyon Wilderness Area is one of the most diverse and dramatic landscapes in North America. Great volcanoes rose up out of the sea about 300 million years ago to form the spine of the Seven Devils Mountains in the heart of the wilderness, and those towering peaks were then cut by glacial flood­waters, creating a tableau of deep, steep, rocky canyons that rise up from the Snake River Canyon nearly 8,000 feet to the top of He Devil Peak. Along the western edge of the wilderness, the Snake River carves the border between Oregon and Idaho. It’s dry, treeless country, but as you climb (and climb, and climb) higher into the Seven Devils range, the landscape shifts dramatically. And just as Andy Savage promised, there we found the high alpine country with scattered glacial lakes and dense forests of firs and pine.

And bears.

Idaho is one of the few places where you can hunt bears with hounds, by baiting, or by spotting and stalking. But if you want a bear in this rough country, you’ll work no matter which method you choose. On the first morning we followed Andy’s hounds. Anyone who believes hunting bears with dogs isn’t difficult should try keeping up with a pack of howling hounds up and down the canyons in roadless wilderness. When we finally treed a bear, it was a sow, so we didn’t shoot, which was a good thing. I was nearly too exhausted to raise my rifle after five hours of vertical hunting. Later in the hunt, we glassed a steep drainage choked with vegetation and spotted a half dozen bears feeding up and down the canyon. After a long stalk, I had my bear.

I had my birds, too, on the last day here, a mixed bag of chukar partridge, ruffed and spruce grouse, all shot under the gaze of He Devil.

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