World's Toughest Elk THE FOLDS AND CREASES OF HELLS CANYON ARE HOME TO MANY ELK THAT DIE OF OLD AGE

From the air, Hells Canyon strikes hunters dumb with awe. Located on the Snake River between Oregon and Idaho, it is, after all, the deepest canyon in North America. It is also among the best, wildest, most untouched Rocky Mountain elk habitat in the West.

"You would think that as rough as this country is, finding elk would be difficult," says packer Jim Workman of Back Country Outfitters. "It's not. This is open country. You will see more elk in there than anywhere else you can legally hunt them. The trouble is getting close to them. They have a knack for appearing and staying right at 1,500 yards." This is a place where even dumb and unlucky bulls have a decent chance of dying of old age.

RUGGED AS HELL

One of the most remote corners of the lower 48 states, Hells Canyon is impossibly rugged. Every map mile, flattened out, would be more like five. Or ten. To put that in perspective, the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is 652,488 acres with 215,000 acres of wilderness and 900 miles of trails.

But it's open country. You can see a long way. It's spread-out pine and fir and tamarack and grass, kniknik berries, bitterbrush and bare ground. And rock. Lots of rock.

And it's all standing on its end. Elk don't mind it. There are hunters who go in on foot. You'll leave them behind in the first map mile. Even though you'll go in on a horse or mule, you need to have legs. This place is hell on a couch potato.

This is not do-it-yourself hunting. You'll need to hire some help. Here are five really good outfitters: Shawn Steen, Steen's Wilderness Adventures (541-432-6545, www.steens-packtrips.com); Jim Workman, Back Country Outfitters (541-426-5908, www.backcountryoutfittersinc.com); Jon Wick, Outback Ranch Outfitters (541-886-2029, www.oregonelkhunter.com); Butch Brown, Hells Canyon Packers (541-853-2341); and Dan Morse, Wilderness Trophy Adventures (541-426-9097). For an air shuttle, call Spence Air Service (541-426-3288). The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area's Web site is www.fs.fed.us/hellscanyon. Find all the regs and drawing stats at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Web site (www.dfw.state.or.us).

PLAYING THE WIND

Finding the elk is not the hard part. Getting within 300 yards is what it's all about. For that, it's like chess. You bust a gut moving in the spaces where the elk can't see you. Easy enough? Well, it would be were it not for the wind. These elk won't hang around if they sniff you. This wind is just as crazy as the topography--it goes in all directions at once. You just work at it, moving to where the elk will be, not to where they are.

You will probably not see another human after map mile two. You will likely see bears and lions and trophy mule deer and all manner of critters not used to looking at people. You will see land as untouched as any. You will see bulls--maybe at a distance, but you will see them. From a high ridge you will see beyond beauty clear to heaven. Which is a long way indeed from a place called Hell.

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