27 Hours in Boulder Basin

10.10.09 and 10.11.09 - "Experience is a hard teacher, because she gives the test first.."

Shoup, ID is a wide spot on the dirt road that runs along the northern bank of the Salmon River (also known as the "River of No Return") as it winds through Boulder Canyon westward from North Fork, Idaho. 1,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon of Colorado, Boulder Canyon lies at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains which separate this area of north central Idaho from Montana. Known as the birthplace of Sacajawea and home to many points of interest along the Lewis and Clark route from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast, this area is protected and preserved as part of the 4,235,940 square acres Salmon-Challis National Forest which straddles the 45th parallel - halfway between the equator and the North Pole. The Salmon River falls about 12' per mile as it winds the 17 miles westward from North Fork to where Shoup itself sits at about 3,400 feet above sea level - 5,000 feet or so lower than the tops of the mountains which lie to it's immediate north.

It is among these mountains where I and a friend planned to hunt mule deer over multiple days beginning October 10th. This trip is my second in as many years with these guys to this area to hunt. The picture below and left illustrates how our base location at Shoup relates to the major areas we desired to hunt. As is always the case when you are sitting behind a computer screen, the plan seemed pretty simple: take the jeep (beginning along the blue route) up to the ridge road at about 6,500 feet where we had identified drop off points where we would stop and hunt back down on foot through ravines, ultimately arriving at Shoup to catch a ride with our buddies back up to pick up the jeep. These would be day long hunts where we planned to be out hunting at daylight and coming into camp to catch a ride back up to the jeep about dark.

After a day and a half 1,100 mile drive from southern California, we arrived in Shoup on Friday morning, October 9th - the day before opening day. We changed, got the jeep setup, and hit the blue trail to scout. This is where we ran into our first issue: the path to the ridge road was gated by the forestry service about 10 miles and 2,000 feet from where we had identified our drop off points (point marked "2nd Fork to the Left" below right). Not to give up easily on our plan, we decided to start hiking up the road to see how difficult it would be to hike into our hunting areas. We hiked as far as we could without getting caught by darkness, about seven miles, and returned to the jeep. The road was steep, but we had fresh legs and found it manageable. This recon convinced us that we could hike up the road to our drop off points by about 11am, harbor up for an hour to rest, then hunt down through the ravines and ultimately arrive back at Shoup about 7pm when it would get dark.

Now would be a good time to mention how light I normally travel when stalk hunting in this kind of terrain. I get hot easily, so I usually forgo thermal underwear and heavy jackets, opting for layering in a couple of shirts and a fleece and sometimes carry a head cover of some kind. I also don't usually take a lot of water or food due to the weight of the backpack required to properly carry it. For some reason (providence I claim), I made different decisions for this trip. Besides minimal clothing, rifle, knife, and ammo, I also packed a backpack with a set of thermal underwear, a heavy coat, a second head cover, gloves, two bottles of water, crackers, protein bars, a borrowed GPS with spare batteries, perma cord, baby wipes, and two bologna sandwiches. Another first, I also carried a borrowed Camelbak water bladder filled with water. Similarly, my buddy carried his large jacket and a pack with breakfast bars, water, and coffee along with his usual complement of knives and gear. I actually thought as we loaded up that morning that we were way over packed for what should be a pretty easy hunt, but chalked it up to it being our first day (I seem to always carry less as the days go by). It turns out we where way thankful for every ounce we carried into those mountains.

Hiking In

After sleeping a little later than normal, we were out of the jeep and walking from the point marked "2nd Fork to the Left" on the map to the right by about 0800. It was a beautiful, almost cloudless day where the temp would reach into the high 30's or maybe even the low 40's in the low country. The 10 mile hike up to the ridge road where our drop off points were took about 3 1/2 hours but the views were beautiful and the time went by pretty quickly. Besides the wolf we had seen the day before, we also noted multiple and fresh piles of brown bear droppings and talked some about the mountain lions which were also becoming common to the area.

After arriving on the ridge at 6,500 feet about 1130, I was impressed by the beautiful view looking south and west and took photos #2 and #3 to the right below the overview graphic marked #1. Photo #2 with my buddy Dirk in the foreground shows the national forest maintenance road we had been walking for 3 1/2 hours and is looking WSW as the ridge road continues to wind its way around the northern rim of the valley we wanted to hunt. Photo #3, looking down into the easternmost part of the valley, shows the steep terrain that would eventually prove very difficult for us. Little did we both know when I took these photos that we would end up staying the night in the ravine pictured.

After taking photos #2 and #3, we walked about another 6/10 of a mile, and harbored up for about 45 minutes very near where the GPS indicated was the point we had identified as "Drop Off #1" on the map above and right. We drank some water, at our bologna sandwiches and a protein bar, and took some time off our feet. At about 1245, we continued walking a few dozen yards until we found a suitable point to depart the national forest road and begin our hunting down through the ravines and back toward Shoup. Before we left the ridge road at 6,500 feet, we shot a route with the GPS and believed we were about three miles (as the crow flies) and 3,000 feet from Shoup with roughly 6 hours of daylight left and every step ahead of us downhill. While the distance sounds like a lot, we had averaged about 2.5 mph hiking UP to this ridge and needed to only average about 1 mph hiking out - so the task still appeared manageable. Ironically, it was at this point that we discussed for the first time the need to avoid getting into what my buddy calls a "crap sandwich" - walking ourselves into a box canyon that is impossible to hike through or around. Avoiding the "crap sandwich" (sorry for the crass-sensitive folks out there, but some things just are what they are) would come up multiple times as we hunted ourselves downward toward Shoup.

Crap Sandwich

Over the next three hours or so, we hiked the red route shown on graphic #1 above and had a great time. We saw two large elk - one 3x3 bull and one calf - and saw TONS of buck and doe sign as we walked down into Boulder Basin. We side hilled (walking sideways along a hillside, up or down, as a way of making forward progress while easing the acuteness of the terrain) into the ravines to the east and west of the descending ridge we were walking. It was a beautiful, sunny day - as you can see in the photos - and we were enjoying the hunt. At about 1615 - around 3 1/2 hours since leaving the ridge road - the terrain turned slightly upward and we ultimately arrived at the rock outcropping seen in photo #4. Avoiding the "crap sandwich" had become more and more of a topic in the last thirty minutes or so, and I walked to the edge of this outcropping specifically to try and confirm our route out. As you can probably deduce by looking at the photo, it was at this point we began to get a little more concerned. In the photo, you can see the rocky terrain immediately in front and along the hillsides to both sides in as well as get a feel for how steep the terrain rapidly becomes beyond this point. What you can't see is what looked to be a possible way of continuing downward and toward Shoup immediately to the left of this outcropping. Hopeful, we worked our way down the left side of this outcropping, to the bottom of the ravine over which it looks, and down another couple of hundred yards. I will admit, the terrain got very, very tough. Thick aspen groves, ground cover, steep and slippery rocks, trees, creeks - it was very thick. Honestly, I think we were focusing so much on getting to the ravine bottom to make sure we could continue that we never stopped to think about how hard it would be if we had to turn back. If we had, I'm not sure it would have made a difference, but it's safe to say we were very "forward focused" at this point.

It took us about 45 minutes to reach the bottom of this ravine and what I have marked in graphic #1 above as "Uh-Oh Point". It would be here we would get to unwrap our crap sandwich and begin choking it down. Photo #5 shows, albeit kind of poorly, what we saw ahead of us when we popped out on the edge of the ravine we had struggled to descend: essentially a bowl made of rock. Being pretty resourceful guys, we were pretty unphased at first. We sat and discussed all kinds of really, really bad ideas about how to proceed: trying to side hill left or right along the very sheer rock faces or using para-cord to try and somehow "repel" down immediately forward, etc.. After a few minutes of this, we realized we were having a fit of stupidity. Eating the crap sandwich was bad enough, but eating it while injured must be avoided no matter what. While only a mile or so from Shoup along the white route shown in graphic #1 above, the only way out of this canyon was backtracking the way we had come. Once this realization sunk in, we whipped out our handy GPS and confirmed what we already knew in our gut: we had about two hours before dark to hike two miles and about 2,000 feet up back to the ridge road where we had started this hunt. It was about 1700 (sunset expected about 1915) and it was at this point that "holing up" for the night was mentioned between us. On the heels of the comment, I could see at least some of my buddy's thoughts in his eyes: temps in the teens by midnight, no shelter, the bear sign we had seen, the wolf sign we had seen, all the mountain lion discussion we had heard, etc. I'm sure he could see similar thoughts behind my eyes and it all came down to one thing: neither of us wanted to spend the night on this mountain. We immediately began to backtrack along the pathway shown in yellow in graphic #1 above. Not in a panicked way, but we were done hunting. Later, as we stole a few moments to rest, I mentioned to my buddy that it is amazing how quickly hunting (or anything else) can turn into surviving.

2 hours. 2 miles. 2,000 feet. At this point, it might be helpful for me to provide some geographic perspective for any of my Huntsvillian friends who read this. From the foot of Monte Sano "mountain", say at the Texaco gas station at the corner of Governors Dr. and California St., it is only about 900 feet to the TOP of Monte Sano if you take it all the way to the peak within Monte Sano state park. And the ground is hideous to climb on. It's steep, about a 20% grade, and the soil is a mix of sand, silt, and gravel held in most places by a foot-high stand of grass or aspen leaf. Worse, because of the fires and storms that frequent these mountains, it's strewn with piles of petrified wood from trees that have died and blown over. The general effect is that it's like climbing on sand, unless you are walking across the wood piles in which case you’re just trying not to snap your ankle or leg in half. The first quarter mile or so on our return trip was back up the ravine which we had just descended and it was hard going. The terrain was rocky, slippery, almost straight up, and covered with aspen trees and very, very thick vegetation. At several points, one of us had to climb up using both our hands and feet to a ledge, get a grip on a rock or tree, and let the other climb up by holding on to the first person's feet, legs, etc. like he was using a human ladder. At about 1745, we knew we had about 1.8 miles and about 1600 feet up to go to get back to the road with darkness looming about 90 minutes away. We started sidelining the eastern edge of what I believed was a finger that, if followed, would lead us back to a waypoint along the roadway, an overlook that I had captured on GPS earlier. After about .8mi, however, we were concerned that continuing to sideline this finger would result in us being in a ravine that would require us to go down then back up to the road. We didn't want to chance being wrong, so we went down, across the ravine, and began sidelining on the finger to the west that we were more certain would intersect the road directly.

"Go Daddy Go"

As we pushed back up the mountain, racing the sun to the ground, we both were getting pretty wasted. It reminded me of an old truck I had that you had to tap the fuel gauge a little ever so often to get the right reading, which was always lower than what was first shown. I thought I was doing pretty good energy wise, but if someone could have tapped my gauge they would have seen that I was getting way low. Worse, the slippery ground meant that it took three sliding steps to make one step of forward and upward progress. Both of us had fallen hard multiple times (I still have injuries on my left hand that haven't completely healed), but we were both determined to get to the road by dark. Our thought was that the road was easy, and even if we had to walk the 10 miles of forest road out after dark by flashlight, that beat an unprepared night on the mountain hands down. So even though we could only take about 20 steps without having to stop and rest - remember, we are above 6,000 feet where air is harder to get and we already had over 14 miles of up and down hiking on our legs - we were both pushing, pushing, pushing. It was at one of the many rest stops that I told my buddy what had been going through my mind for the last hour. I was replying something my son has done for me a couple of times that touched me so deep to the core. The first time, which is the one that is most vivid, our family was in a running store where I was getting fitted for some running shoes. They put me on the treadmill to video and analyze my running style so they could recommend shoes and inserts, and when I took off on the treadmill my son - in the middle of the 50 or so people in this store - started jumping up and down and cheering for me saying "Go, Daddy go. Go, Daddy go." over and over again. What touched me so much was that I could see a few snotty patrons giving him a look for what was a pure, unfettered showing of love and he didn't care a bit. Right then, I was the only person that even existed in his eyes and he wanted to show his dad that he loved him and he didn't care who thought what about it. I keep that memory tucked away in a corner of my heart that nothing touches, and I called on it as I began to tire, replaying the audio and video of my boy in my mind. I kept seeing and hearing, "Go, Daddy go. Go, Daddy go.". I was going to get out off that mountain, one way or another.

Attitude and the Three W's

Darkness caught us about a quarter mile and 300 vertical feet from the ridge road.

We paused to rest on a large tree that had fallen perpendicular to the slope of the mountain side and realized we had a decision to make. The temperature was dropping by the minute and we couldn't see where we were going anymore. We could either push on with a flashlight or hole up. We scanned ahead with the flashlight and realized it was practically useless. The moon wouldn't rise until the middle of the night, which meant it was getting very dark very fast. The flashlight would only tell us if we were about to run into a rock, but couldn't tell us anything about the foliage covered ground we were trying to walk or our ultimate best long term path (important). To combat the falling temperature, we agreed to start a fire right where we stood to warm by while we discussed our options. We quickly gathered kindling and tinder (grass, leaves) from right around our feet and used my buddy's cigar lighter to get a fire going. It didn't take long for us to agree that we were done for the night. It was tough to pull up so close to our goal, but the risk of injury if we tried to walk in the dark was way, way high and it just wasn't worth it. We were guaranteed to be inconvenienced and uncomfortable, but we could avoid being hurt.

Resigned to our fate, it now being about 2000, we knew we had about 11 hours of night ahead of us before it would be light enough to start walking again so we started getting ourselves organized. Our big concerns were the three W's: warmth, water, and weather. With these in mind, one of us began gathering a store of firewood to get us through the night and the other reviewed our food and water. We had used all the water in the Camelbak, but still had two full and one partial bottle between us. We also had some coffee, crackers, protein bars, and breakfast bars. We wouldn't be stuffed when we hit the sack, but we easily had enough to get by on. That settled, we both focused on firewood and, using a bone saw, had a really good stash piled up in little time. We were fortunate also that two perfectly size large logs - about 18" across by 24" long - were nearby and would act as good "large warmth logs" if we could support their burning with smaller pieces. With the fire lit, we also took a moment to put on whatever spare clothes we had brought with us. It was at this point that it dawned on me how useful the thermal underwear that I had never carried before were going to be. With warmth and water pretty much in hand, we turned to weather. We knew we couldn't do much about it, but we could prepare a little and hope for the best. Again, fortunately the sky was crystal clear with no clouds in sight. We hoped it would remain that way, knowing that rain, snow, or sleet at this altitude could turn things much more serious very quickly. Really the only issue was the body warmth robbing wind. It wasn't bad, but it was intermittently out of the north and sharp when it did come up. To combat this, we built a makeshift shelter closed to the north and open to the south facing the fire. To do this, we set one end of a fallen tree on the slope and rested the other end on the large fallen tree, and then built a roof over the top of it using shorter logs and fir trees we limbed and cut down with the bone saw. We then took more fir limbs and created a bed of sorts that would help us keep our bodies off the ground as we lay beneath the shelter and tried to sleep. Interestingly, I actually lost my flashlight on the ground at one point and even after trying for about 10 minutes, couldn't find it. Miraculously, later that night when gathering more aspen leaf to fortify the shelter roof, I happen to simply put my hands right on it (another nod to the heavens). Once our shelter was satisfactory, we took a moment to eat supper: crackers, protein bars, and water.

After we finished supper about 2300, we moved on to thinking about how best to get through the night. We would have to sleep in shifts, mostly to keep the fire fed and make sure it didn't light the whole Bitterroot Mountain range while we slept. Also, I for one, hadn't forgotten about the black bear sign we had seen, wolf I had seen the day before, or mountain lion stories we had heard. I knew it would be very unlikely for an animal to approach humans around a campfire, but I also didn't forget about it either. With all this in mind, we agreed on 2 hour watches with me taking the first beginning immediately instead of waiting until each one of us was so tired neither could stay awake through the first watch. We agreed I would take the first watch from 2300 to 0100, then by buddy would take the 2nd from 0100 to 0300, then I would take the third from 0300 to 0500, then my buddy would take the final watch from 0500 to 0700 (it would not be light enough to move until about 0730). Plan in place, my friend laid down under our shelter. Unfortunately, about 0000 (midnight), my buddy rose unable to sleep. So I lay down shortly after and he let me rest until about 0400. I then took watch from about 0400 to about 0700.

What followed next was 8 hours of very uncomfortable rest. Both of us found that the ground was very hard, very rocky, and absolutely sapping of warmth. Even after warming around the fire to the point where an area (heads, chest, legs) were so hot you couldn't stand it, the ground would rob that heat and make you cold within a minute or two of turning away from the fire. Whatever side was facing the fire was warm, whatever side was turned away was cold. After finally slipping into fits of restless sleep from exhaustion, we both awoke multiple times during our rest periods shivering and would get up, warm up, then lay down to try it again. I was wearing thermal underwear underneath hunting pants on my legs, and thermal underwear, two shirts, a fleece, and a thick hunting jacket on my torso. All this topped off by a toboggan underneath a full-face baklava, and I was still very uncomfortable. Our best estimate after talking to the locals about the overnight lows at 4000 ft led us to believe our low temp would have been in the teens as we tried to sleep. My buddy and I both agreed, however, that the night was actually pretty amazing. During our watches, it was humbling to see the tar black sky and all the stars that we normally don't get to glimpse in our suburban lives. It was really beautiful, and discomfort not withstanding, I must admit that a part of me enjoyed it.

Getting Out

We pitched camp at the spot marked "Camp" in graphic #1, and photo #6 shows it in all its glory. This photo was taken the next morning and the glowing embers you see were the leftovers of our fire that we were trying to let burn down to lower the risk of forest fire. The fire was bordered at the top by a large rock, and on the sides and bottom by more rocks. The large tree my buddy is leaning against is the tree we had stopped to rest at the night before. The shelter we built can be seen in the back, the front main beam being the tree laying on the slope in the left of the photo and on the tree in the right. The roof made of limbs is no easily visible, but hopefully this gives you a feel of what our little camp was like.

Finally the moon rose, and then the eastern sky started to lighten just a smidge about 0630 just as my buddy was waking. We began discussing the task of getting home. We decided to shoot for a 0730 departure. First, we stoked the fire up really high and both got really warm now that we knew our wood would last through departure time. During this period, we broke out our food, THAWED the water and protein bars, and had a very lean, but well appreciated, breakfast. While we ate, we decided to keep going the same direction and shoot for the ridge where we believed the road to be. Our best estimate was that we were about a quarter mile and 300 feet vertically away. Unfortunately, we both were very tired, had very sore legs, and almost unbearably sore feet. At 0730, after letting the fire burn down, we covered it with dirt until we could see no smoldering then loaded up. The cold killed the batteries in the GPS and only left us enough juice for a couple of pics in the camera, but neither would matter much. With our clear goal ahead, we started (painfully) moving. As we sidelined up the slope, we saw a pretty good size bull elk on the opposite hill across the draw, but we were so tired we didn't really care. Neither of us thought we had the strength to unsling our rifles and take a peek through the slope while also maintaining our footing. So, we ignored the elk and chose to spend energy staying upright, on our feet, and moving forward :-). Sure enough, after the first hundred feet, we knew we were almost at the road. But, we were way sore and moving very slowly, taking our steps very deliberately. It took about 40 minutes to cover the distance and get to the road. It was now about 0810. We had a brief (like two second) celebration during which I took photo #7, then moved onto the next big goal: getting down the 10 miles back to the jeep and then back to the lodge as quickly as possible to hopefully avoid the cavalry call that was surely going to go out from our buddies if we didn't show up soon. Stories are plentiful about guys who get hurt and stranded in the hard, hard country around this area. Our friends would trust us through one night, but if we didn't show up by mid-morning, we knew they would be sound the alarm.

We took off on a pace that was something close to a forced march - probably a 12 minute mile pace or so - that I kept up for the first half mile but then just couldn't do it. I had hot spots on both my feet that I knew were turning to blisters, and since it was only necessary that one of us get to the lodge ASAP, I told my buddy to go on and come back and get me at the gate where we had parked the jeep. He did, and it turns out he made the entire 10 mile hike in about two hours. By the way, I would take this as a fairly significant ego hit but give myself a pass since he is a previously active USMC RECON Major and one of the toughest guys I know walking the planet. I arrived at the gate about 15 minutes after him, but only after taking a shortcut through the woods we had discovered earlier that cut off about 1.5 miles. I took a rest at the gate, drank whatever unfrozen water I had left now that I knew I was almost home, and then kept limping down the road toward the lodge. My buddy and our friends met me in the F250 after about half a mile. I was very happy to see them, and learned that my buddy had arrived at the lodge just in time to see the Lemhi county sheriff getting BACK in his vehicle to go sound the alarm with the forestry service. We were a few minutes from ending up in the paper the next day! I arrived at the lodge myself about 1110, thus ending my 27 hours in Boulder Basin.

In Retrospect

Looking back on the experience, there are obviously some take aways that are worth remembering. In the "not so smart" column, the root cause was that we overestimated our stamina on the first day of our season. We simply didn't pause to concede that there was a "crap sandwich" situation we couldn't physically get out of by dark. Even though we discussed it, we didn't follow through and agree on a "decision point" where we would turn back if not 100% sure going forward would work. But, again, this is linked to the fact that this was our first day and neither of us knew how strong or weak hiking-wise we were. Boy did we learn. While we hunted the rest of the time (at Telephone Pole Springs in graphic #1 above and other places) we weren't real eager to let the jeep out of our sight and kept our first day's experience pretty fresh in our mind to keep us cautious. In the "decently smart" column, we made good decisions when it got hard, deciding to backtrack and pull-up short of our goal instead of risk getting injured. We also didn't panic, helped each other, stuck together, and even kept a good attitude. At one point we even joked that we had talked about camping out this year anyway instead of staying someplace anyway.

I also personally learned a lot during this deal, enough actually that I'm very thankful for the experience. I've got a confidence about these things, that I won't allow to turn to arrogance, that I didn't have before. It's the difference between knowing how to do something and having had to do it. I've learned that I will never go into the wild to hunt again without certain things, no matter how many people are nearby or how close I am to camp. I've learned a lot I can pass on to my son as we hunt and camp together. I've learned that it makes me proud how we conducted ourselves during a long, cold, night in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

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