feature By: Gary Lewis | March, 20
I guessed it was at 1,600 yards as we took turns in the spotting scope. Its needle-pointed horns swept up in black arcs. Sheep Mountain is not far from Halfway, which is not halfway at all, but almost all the way to the Snake River. Populated by 2,000 souls, Halfway is one of eastern Oregon’s best towns, with most of its residents connected someway to either farming, ranching or mining. It is edge habitat, which makes it a great place to live – and near good hunting. Sheep Mountain is 15 miles away in a small range south of the Wallowas, west of the Snake River, and for many years there have been no sheep, just a few deer, elk and black bears.
Lucas Simpson (cornucopialodge.com) guides for Pine Valley Outfitters. At 39, he trains like a mixed martial arts fighter, which makes him a patient hunter, but he can move with explosive quickness if he wants – like the black bear.
This hunt was supposed to be easy. Indian plums, Italian plums, hawthorn berry, huckleberry, blackberry and chokecherry would all be in season. Late August and early September, we thought, was a great time to find bears where fruit is plentiful. In fact, we found all of these favorite foods in one little canyon, and although it appeared a bear was in the area, we could not find it in the open. On the first evening we waited and watched a small opening. On the second morning, Simpson walked the creek bottom with the hope a bear would walk out ahead of him and through our little opening. It was not to be.
Up in a meadow where a homesteader had planted two different varieties of apples, I set a Fox Pro call up to try to draw a bear or a lion out into the clearing. Fifteen minutes into the set, a bear huffed at the edge of the trees, but it would not show itself. On the other side of the meadow, another critter set a squirrel into a fit of scolding. Some large animal coughed, but again did not emerge from the brush line. We walked out in the dark, nibbling on Indian plums.
While foraging for plums the next morning, Simpson showed us a structure he had found. Two rock walls stood parallel, both about three feet tall, encrusted with ancient moss. The homesteader had cut a road through part of the wall, and a couple of towering ponderosa pines inside the walls suggested the rock walls were more than 100 years old. Smaller pine saplings were growing up between the stacked rocks now. It was not the foundation of a cabin and the walls extended about 85 yards in parallel lines with no wall at either end, so it was not an ancient corral, either. Looking up the hill, I saw the slopes of two distant hills creating a natural funnel that fed into these two stone walls.
I imagined old men with long black hair instructing younger men and boys in the building and maintaining of the wall; a medicine man, praying for success in the hunt; scouts out on the hilltops waiting and watching for a band of sheep to feed into the funnel. Then I pictured boys rising up out of the sage with blankets waving, driving the sheep down into the funnel between the hills then down between the rock walls, and then warrior/hunters rising up with bows and arrows. Maybe it was like that. Or maybe it wasn’t.
Up on a slope, Simpson led us to the grave of a pioneer girl in the shadow of a chokecherry. We pushed back the low-hanging snowberry bush and wiped off the plaque; Ada Ashby 1887 – 1896.
In the truck, Simpson was quiet, almost morose, the muscles of his jaw worked and his eyes were hard. Mostly you didn’t see his eyes. He was looking away at the ridge lines and hog backs as his eyes scanned the berry patches. We turned off the road at a barbed wire gate. Putting it into a low gear, we crawled across the flood plain of the river, the 10-ply tires finding their way over logs and over the smooth, dry rocks; then to the water and through it and then up the other side and into a shaded glen. From there it was going to be anything but easy. We had four hours maybe. Out in the August sun, the temperature hovered in the mid-80s.
Up onto a hog back we climbed, saving our strength, going slow, one foot in front of another. Hundreds of yards up the rising plateau we stopped. Sweating, we folded our mountain-burned legs in the shade of a grove of trees. Here there was a spring and coolness in the shadows.
It was here, I thought, this hunt would end. We had not seen a bear in three days. We probably would not see a bear at all, but we made the effort. The Rocky Mountain goat was up there somewhere, but we did not see the billy either. Shadows lengthened, yet the sun was still full on the rock faces of the mountain. This is how it happens, I reminded myself. Sit in one good place, let the animals move, let them show themselves.
There comes a moment on days like this when the animals have to move for water. And there is no giving up; hunt until dark; stay at it; believe in the process.
“It is going to come right to us,” Simpson dared to say aloud, but the bear did not. Instead, it emerged into a swale 600 yards
A hundred yards away, Simpson waved and pointed into the canyon. Sam and I sprinted toward him and he pointed savagely. “A bear went right into this canyon, and I’m going in to push him out.” Simpson plunged down the shoulder of the hill and into the bottom, vanishing in the dark of the hole, into the shadows that had swept across the land. Fifteen minutes of light was left. The vantage point could not have been better. I dropped into a sitting position and put elbows against knees. The rangefinder indicated 162 yards to the edge of the brush directly across the canyon. Somewhere down below us, Simpson was working through the canyon.
“There he is,” Sam said. “The bear.” A dark chocolate brown shape materialized on the brush line and then the bear stood up on its back legs. Not the black one I had seen earlier – a different bear. Watching its back trail, it seemed to be looking for Simpson in the canyon below. How many other bears were in there?
In the scope I could see the white hair on the bear’s chest. Under my thumb, the safety clicked through into “fire” and the crosshairs found the white patch. Finger on the trigger, three pounds of squeeze, and the punch of the rifle pushed on my shoulder.
Hit, the bear crashed down into the brush and flashed through openings between the saplings and tangled berry branches to the bottom of the creek. Simpson rejoined us on the hillside, and together we stared into the dark place where the bear had disappeared.
There is nothing blacker than a bear in a hole on a moonless night. For long minutes we watched and listened. “The smart thing to do is leave,” I whispered, “and come back in the morning.” Quietly, we left the canyon and tripped across hilltops and into canyons and back out again, taking most of two hours to get back to the creek. We would be back before first light.
It was dark when we drove the truck up and out of Pine Creek. It was dawn when we shrugged into packs and began the grind up the tributary canyon. We followed old bighorn trails that turned to bear trails; stepped around piles of berry-laden scat and pulled ourselves up by the stalks of berry bushes.
There, waiting for us in the bottom of the creek, was a black bear, except it was brown and was cool to the touch. Down in the cold of the creek bottom, we skinned and quartered the animal, claimed all of the meat and gave thanks for an easy recovery.
Once the Umatilla, Cayuse, Nez Perce and Walla Walla called this their hunting ground. There was a time when bighorn sheep were numerous as deer in these canyons and on these mountains. More recently, there was a time when deer were too many to count. Today there is a Rocky Mountain goat, a small elk herd, precious few mule deer and bears, maybe too many bears. Nothing stays the same except for Sheep Mountain.
With half a day left in our hunt, we stopped to pick huckleberries on a forest slope, filling whatever containers we could find with the fresh fruit. It gave me an idea. Pemmican was the original superfood, a blend of dried meat, dried berries and bear fat (substitute bison fat, beef tallow or coconut oil). I always wondered what pemmican tasted like; this was my chance. Following a recipe I found online, I blended mule deer jerky and dried huckleberries into powder.
Rendering oil on the stove, I poured it over the powdered jerky and berries. The final step was to press the mixture into a serving dish. In the morning I tried pemmican for the first time. Break off a chunk, let it disintegrate on the tongue. It’s the ultimate carnivore protein bar.