When I was sixteen I started working with my black cowboy friend, Dick. He owned Popcorn and several other horses and we spent a lot of time together getting his BLM mustangs under saddle and behaving like proper horses. We spent hours riding in all types of weather (I was younger and tougher then) and he was the first one to show me how to rope off my horse. We did some team roping, a lot of trail riding, and some hunting (one of the nice things in the West is there is always something to toss a rope over, something to ride or something to shoot). The fall I turned seventeen, Dick finally got a tag for a bear. He had been on the waiting list for several years (he had taken a black bear in South Dakota I think, several years before and had a pair of too-die-for chaps made out of the pelt) and his number had finally been drawn in the lottery.
The tag was for a brown bear (grizzly) in the Palisades Dam area, between Yellowstone, WY and Eastern Idaho. Dick asked me if I wanted to go and I said yes. I didn't have a gun. I was just going for the fun of it. We took Queenie and Popcorn and figured we would ride them in, shoot the bear and then use the horses to haul out what we took. Dick wanted the head, the pelt and some meat (although I have to say eating bear meat of a male grizzly who is in it's middle age is not so tasty. Pretty rank, actually.) I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I just figured it would be a fun ride.
Now, I'm not opposed to hunting . . . . it's something we did. We lived on deer meat when I was younger (I don't like deer at all), slaughtered chickens, pigs and calves for food, hunted duck and rabbit and pheasant like every one else in Southern Idaho (in fact, our rule for T has always been "you can hunt whatever you like, but you kill it cleanly and you have to eat it.") I'm a decent shot with a shotgun, can handle a rifle and a pistol, although the largest caliber pistol I shot was a .22.
I must digress . . . I was working for a fast-food company in my late twenties. They were based in Colorado and decided to have a management retreat at a operating dude ranch in the Rocky Mountains near Decker. It was a pretty fun three days, filled with management meetings (boring) in the morning and free activities in the afternoon (spent a lot of time trail riding in the afternoon). One of the days they offered skeet shooting. A group of men, regional managers and the President of the company, (I was one of three women managers in the company) decided they were going to prove their manliness by shooting the guns. I tagged along. By the time we got to the shelter for the skeet shooting, the men had a pool going: $20 a piece and the shooter with the most skeet (clay discs flung into the air that you shoot at) would take the pot. They were ribbing each other and pretty much ignoring me, although they did allow me to throw my $20 into the pot, thinking it would up the ante without risk.
I went last.
A guy named Scott H did the best among the men, which I guess was to be expected since he was jawing the most, he hit and shattered 12 out of 25 and chipped two. They finally let me step up, acting like it was a waste of time, and were still chatting and ribbing each other when I picked up the gun. It was a pump-action 12 gauge. Just like my daddy's gun. I raised it, getting a feel for the weight and balance, then called for the pull. I shattered 21 out of 25, and chipped an additional 2. So I touched 23 out of 25 skeet. There was dead silence when I was done. The good humor and baiting between the men was absent as I picked up my winnings. It was bittersweet. I was driven out of the company by Scott H two weeks later (he was my regional manager). But, I do know how to handle a gun.
So, back to hunting the bear . . .
We loaded the horses up in my horse trailer early and headed for the Palisades region. The drive was a little over two hours. We parked and unloaded the horses, saddling them and Dick slid his 30-30 lever action Marlin into the scabbard attached to his saddle. We tied on jackets to the back of the saddle and Dick tied his tarp (to wrap the bear in) over the top. We each had a lariat and a couple of extra ropes tied on. I had a set of saddlebags with sandwiches and sodas on the back of the saddle. Dick slid a bunch of hollow point bullets into his vest pocket for the gun and we were off.
The mountains around Palisade's dam are incredible.
They are the mountain range the rests right on the border between Wyoming and Idaho, with the Grand Tetons to the North.
There is usually snow, at least when I was younger, on the north facing slopes, and we were riding in early October.
Hunting bear is not as exciting as it sounds. We trekked up the mountainside, riding deer trails up switchbacks, along some pretty decent screefields and drop offs. In some places, the horses were forcing their way through brush taller than we were, (deer are much shorter), and the path was rocky and steep. The horses had to scramble a couple of times and at one point Dick and I both dismounted to lead the horses across a narrow chasm of shale rock. It was hard work and after a couple of hours of riding, I was beginning to lose interest in finding a bear, being much more interested in keeping my hide and Queenie's in one piece. The ride was beautiful but so demanding, I really didn't get a chance to do much but focus on our next step.
We were coming up a pretty steep piece of trail, with Popcorn and Dick in the lead, Queenie and I just behind. The trail opened up into a little meadow. The edges of the meadow were lined with Aspen and bramble bushes, with a small creek winding its way through the middle. The horses both stopped to drink and Dick and I were discussing whether we should stop and eat, letting the horses graze a bit in the fairly thick, although definitely not green, grass available. The horses had just lifted their heads, water streaming from their mouths, and were eying the menu options, Dick and I arguing amiably, when there was a hoarse, grunting bark from the far end of the meadow, which was suddenly way smaller than it appeared.
A freaking grizzly bear stood up from the bushes at the far end of the meadow and huffed at us again. It was tall and broad and waved it's claws in typical bear fashion and the smell of it was pretty intense. That was all I saw, because my mare, the mare who had followed me across a railroad bridge, and into a house, and swam a river at my request, had had enough. She jumped and spun so quick that the meadow was a blur and the only thing that kept me in the saddle was the fact that I had been resting my hand on the saddle horn, which I held onto for dear life. Queenie headed back down the trail we had just come up, her butt tucked up under her and she was running for her life. All I could do was hang on.
Did you ever see The Man From Snowy River? That was us.
We made the trip back down much quicker than the trip back up. Popcorn, for all of Dick's bragging that he had hunted bear on Popcorn before, was right on Queenie's heels. It passed in a blur of bush, treelimbs and sliding rock noises, with the faint grunts of the bear somewhere in the background. After the majority of the mountain was traversed at a dead run, I was finally able to pull Queenie up, trembling and sweat soaked, lather dripping from her shoulders and flanks. Popcorn wasn't much better off. Dick didn't even suggest we try to go back up. We just walked, head hanging and exhausted, back to the trailer, loaded up and headed home.
Dick went back up a couple of days later, found, tracked and killed the bear, hauling him out on a packhorse he had taken with him. I did not go.
Queenie was fine and recovered without issue. We did not hunt bear after that, however.