Whenever quality time is spent in the wilderness there is a story to tell. Growing up near the Cabinet Mountains has molded the backbone of my adventurous spirit. I feel privileged to hike on non-motorized trails, pick huckleberries, hunt during later months and snowshoe in the winter. I pursue remote areas as they provide challenges and an ultimate reward. My favorite story comes from the North Fork of the Bull River, September 14th, 2019.
With summer adventures behind us, my dad and I prepared for archery season by scouting and tuning our archery skills. Hunting the Cabinets is one of the most physically challenging places to pursue game. When scouting this mysterious wilderness, you never know when you will find the biggest bull of your life. The mule deer and elk in this country rarely see people, and some likely have never seen a human.
Without the right gear, the attempt to travel these mountains stands next to impossible. With hunting season underway my dad and I, along with my younger brother, loaded our backpacks and hiked into the North Fork of the Bull River. Prepared for a three-day hunt, we reached camp and pitched our tents. The next morning, we climbed out of our sleeping bags and got ready for the day. Finding fresh elk signs, we let a bugle sore through the air. With no answer we hiked in further to locate the elk. Seeing fresh beds and rubs we knew we had to play our cards right to avoid getting busted by the herd.
Without a bull responding to our morning bugles we sat down to eat lunch on the side of the mountain. Under the sun we were able to take a bit of a snooze. When in bear country it is essential to carry a means of protection. We make sure we always have bear spray among us when hiking. As evening approached, we attempted to locate the elk one more time. Along a game trail we let out cow calls to see if we could stir a bull. After two calls, we had a hit!
Roughly 150 yards ahead we heard the crashing sound of a bull elk. I knocked an arrow and reached for my range finder. The moment I had prepared months for was finally happening in seconds. As the crashing got louder, I ranged multiple trees so I would know the distance where the elk would walk. We hid behind the trees and waited as the crashing came down the hill. The hill that usually requires five minutes to hike down took this animal about ten seconds. The sound was approaching too fast. I peeked around the tree and my heart sank.
To my amazement I watched a full-grown grizzly charging head on. Time froze. Its eyes locked on the group of trees we had previously cow called from. Without hesitation, my dad stood straight up and yelled “Hey bear!” I stood back as my little brother and dad reached for their bear spray. I was astonished when I realized my dad’s bear spray holder was empty as he was looking around on the ground as if it had fallen out. My younger brother pulled his and was ready. Immediately my dad grabbed the bear spray from him and pointed it in the bears direction.
The silver tipped boar came to a stop at 22 yards and stared us down wondering what we were. In the thick brush, it wandered close studying us before it slowly turned and walked away. I looked back at my dad who was still looking for his bear spray. Turns out, it had fallen out during our lunch earlier in the day. This magnificent animal had clearly thought us to be elk until we came into view. As nervous as we were, we all knew this was a once in a lifetime encounter! The size and speed of a grizzly is like nothing else. Not wasting any time, we packed up camp and retrieved the lost bear spray.
I may not have harvested a Cabinet elk, but this day will always be my most memorable experience in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. Whenever quality time is spent in the wilderness there is a story to tell and possibly a lesson to learn.
Ryan Goodman is a Lincoln County graduating senior and a 2020 winner of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness essay competition from Libby High School. Congratulations Ethan! Ethan’s essay can also be found on Your Wild Place podcast.