Spring in 1997 came late to the North Idaho Panhandle following one of the hardest winters in nearly thirty years. Along with the late arrival came an unseasonably wet, dreary and cold spring. The prolonged cold weather brought forth very little early vegetation, the grasses and ferns sprouted much later than usual, as did the skunk cabbage and other typical spring forage for a healthy black bear population.
Alex, my son and I hunted regularly and with gusto for two consecutive three day weekends during May, camping in the general vicinity of Priest Lake, Idaho. The spring black bear season typically runs nearly six weeks in the Panhandle, traditionally opening on tax day. Our persistent efforts to locate an eligible bruin for the freezer were fruitless, and although the time shared with my young son highlighted every trip afield, the damp, cold, overcast days with persistent cold winds tended to overcome our exuberance.
Season ended June first, and Alex and I headed Northward once again on the Thursday before Memorial Day to camp through the weekend, and have our last hurrah hunting spring bears. The weather had broken, and the predictions were for each day to be in the mid seventies for temperature, with broken overcast, and a slight chance of evening thundershowers. The prospects were good, and our hopes high for a productive hunt.
We set up camp just before dark, enjoyed some venison steaks cooked over our campfire, along with some other fixings, and turned in relatively early in order get a fresh start in the morning, before daylight.
Friday brought great weather, warm sunshine and clear skies, a great recipe for bears to come out and feed while soaking up some sun, especially since it had been such an unseasonably cold, wet year. However, the bears seemed to have other ideas, and we searched high and low (literally) looking for bear sign. We didn’t locate so much as one torn up log, or fresh pile of bear scat. Although we spent many hours glassing likely haunts of bears, nothing materialized, and I covered many miles, over varying terrain and habitat trying to find sign of bears being out and about. All was to no avail, and we returned to camp tired, hungry and frustrated.
Over dinner and hot coffee we discussed the possibilities and likelihood of finding a bear the following morning, and I decided that since things had been so cold, and the vegetation was unseasonably late coming forth, that perhaps we should hunt lower in elevation than we had been, concentrating on the river bottom and the lush vegetation along the river, and the feeder streams that run into the Priest River. It was as good a plan as any, and we went to bed content that we at least had a game plan for the morning.
Saturday morning we arose about daylight, and had a leisurely breakfast, packed a lunch, and stowed away gear for packing and bagging a bear once it was down. We felt good about the prospect of the day, and looked forward to success. The area that we targeted for our hunt was just South and West of Coolin, Idaho East of highway 57 and West of the Priest River. There is an old system of logging roads that networks the lush bottomland along the river that are gated off, and are closed to vehicular traffic. It was here that we wanted to concentrate our morning hunt effort, searching out the moist fern and skunk cabbage covered marshes along the river and its tributaries.
We parked at in old elk hunting camp at the head of this system of gated off logging roads, and donned our packs and binoculars, loaded our rifles and eased down the road behind the massive steel gate. Although this is public property, few spring bear hunters in the Idaho Panhandle actually get out of their vehicles of off their ATV’s to actually hunt, so this area showed no signs of human entry since winter snows had melted. There were no fresh tire tracks where we parked, and no human footprints in the soft mud in the old logging road indicating anyone being there ahead of us this year. Our spirits soared!
As we silently slipped along the old road, a warm gentle breeze was in our face. Brilliant greens reflected in the morning light sparkling off the dew on newly unfurled fern fronds and skunk cabbage leaves. A soft carpet of white clover was growing in the center of the logging road, and lush grasses were nearly knee high in the units of cutover timber between the road and the river bottom. Truly this was the best habitat we had hunted all spring in search of a bear, and conditions couldn’t have been more favorable.
After about two miles of quietly and slowly traversing our way down this old road system, I had noticed a rather queer phenomenon. There were absolutely no signs of wildlife. There were no deer tracks, no elk, moose, or bear tracks, no fresh scat from any big game animal of any kind anywhere either on the closed road, or the banks along the road. The clover in the center of the road should have been a magnet to any big game animal in the area, yet not a single clump showed the least signs of being browsed. I commented to Alex about the situation, the first words we’d spoken since leaving the pickup, and he too had noticed the conspicuous absence of sign along the road, and on the game trails.
Too, we became aware of a deafening silence. A silence that was so loud that it was stifling. It was an eerie type of quiet, no birds singing, no squirrels chattering, not even any frogs croaking or crickets chirping. The entire forest was absolutely deathly still. While we had been very quiet in our meandering on the old road, due to the soft earth and green grass and clover, I’m not sure when we really became aware of the silence in the woods, but after verbalizing our mutual acknowledgement of no physical signs of game, we became acutely aware of the imposing silence of those woods. It was an entirely unnatural and unnerving quiet.
We continued on, down the roadway for another mile and a half or two miles in this unsettling, deafening silence, never hearing the smallest of creature make a sound, nor seeing any sign of life, not even squirrel tracks in the soft moist earth of the abandoned road. At this point I decided that whatever the reason for the unnatural silence, and lack of animal sign, we were wasting our precious hunting time continuing further on foot in this area. Alex and I talked openly, and in normal tones of voice about our options, and decided to return to the truck, and go elsewhere in search of a bear.
After reversing our course on the old road, we’d scarcely gone more than half a mile, when Alex and I both stopped simultaneously, mid-stride as we rounded a bend in the road overlooking a small patch of cutover timber next to a small creek feeding the river. There, below us, about a hundred and twenty yards distant, was a huge bear! Both of our rifles shouldered in unison, and neither of us touched our trigger, or safety! As we silently peered through our scopes, we took note of the claws extending at least four inches beyond the massive golden front paws of this enormous bruin. The six inch long guard hair along the back and on the shoulders rippled in the mild breeze, and his small round ears were nearly lost amid his long fur coat. The muzzle on the dished face was nearly seven inches wide, and his teeth gleamed bright white in the morning sun as he rose up on a brush-pile trying to scent us. Although his head was huge, it seemed dwarfed by the sheer bulk of his body.
The breeze was in our face, and we could hear his nose anxiously sniffing, trying to scent us. We stood stock-still, and the bear knew something was not quite right, but being unable to scent us, was unsure of what we were. We both watched as he rose up on a slash pile left over from the logging operation, and observed his enormous front paw nearly wrap all the way around an eight inch diameter log while his claws glistened in the sun. After a few minutes, (which seemed a VERY long time), this very confident monarch of the forest dropped back down off the brush-pile and did an about face, retreating into the dense Lodgepole Pine and Birch thickets bordering the creek below us.
My son and I, while both amazed and humbled by this massive grizzly, also felt an urgency to give him his space, and made tracks quite rapidly out of his territory. It was immediately apparent why we hadn’t seen any game or sign, due to him taking up residency in the area, and we followed the example by making it the three and a half miles to the pickup in less than forty-five minutes.
We later found that in the places where this bear had scratched trees to mark his territory, that his claws gouged deeply into trees eleven to twelve feet high above the ground, and that his stride was about three feet, It’s front paws left tracks roughly the size of a paper plate, with the claws extending four inches beyond the toes.
Although we didn’t harvest a bear that Memorial Day Weekend, it still remains a great memory, of an awesome time spent together with my son, and to have shared an experience so intense and special in the woods.
I’ve come to understand since, the significance of “quiet signs” in the North Idaho woods. It seems that every time since this experience, when we’ve had a grizzly encounter, that we’ve first been tipped off by the same deafening silence that we experienced that Memorial Day Weekend.