In many ways, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is the land time forgot.
At over 2.3 million acres, it is the largest contiguous and federally managed wilderness in the Lower 48, completely roadless and, as it turns out, unrelentingly inhospitable. There are no motorized vehicles or equipment, just endless miles of hellaciously steep terrain, an occasional trail, and the kind of country even mules balk at.
The Church would be a hunter’s dream, if it weren’t for its sheer inaccessibility. There is, after all, an oceanic scale of untamed country and plenty of wild bulls over 300 inches, many of which have never seen, heard or smelled a human in their lives. There are black bear and mule deer, too, and grouse under virtually every other tree.
There’s also a 5,000-foot climb out of the Salmon River bottom to get to where the elk are, and just a few miles to ascend those towering heights. There’s the river itself, which in many cases must be crossed but flows at a roaring clip and is mostly impassable without a raft or jet boat. There was a packer’s bridge, but it’s been ripped and washed out by Mother Nature.
If you get past all that, you’ve got onerous black bear and wolves that stalk your camp and follow your tracks. And if you do find yourself with a big bull down, your fun has emphatically ended. Without a team of mules and a couple companions, you might just be what the old timers called “up a creek without a paddle.” Better off if you setup camp around the carcass, Native American-style, and eat on it for a few months.
There is literally danger at every corner, as I found out on a recent 10-day trip to the Frank Church. Even on a guided trip with a string of horses and mules, there’s no real way to eliminate the danger of a place like that. And, as it turns out, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
On the last evening of our journey, after we’d returned to the river bottom and the comfort of the Salmon River Lodge Resort, my friend Zach and I polished off a bottle of apple brandy and a few rounds of tobacco as we worked through the impact of the trip on our lives. There’s no better place to distill life than on the shores of a mighty river, deep in the wilderness, with good liquor and better people.
What was it, we pondered, that made men like us seek out wild places? For most people, when you describe the adverse conditions, the tremendous amount of physical exertion, the number of man hours and planning it takes simply to make a wilderness hunt a logistical possibility, it’s a complete turnoff. So why were we here?
Maybe it was perfect cocktail of endorphin and exhaustion after Levi, Colby and I had just completed a full-day pack out of the elk I’d shot a day prior, some 5,000 feet up the mountain from where we were then. Maybe it was the powerful roar of two twin BMW engines, harnessed at nearly 1,000 horsepower, ripping us up the river in Brooks’ Double D jet boat as we headed back to the lodge. Maybe it was the fact that — among the wolves, the 97 switchbacks, the unrelenting rain and snow, the frozen feet and the raging river — we survived.
Like the river, swollen with a week worth of rain, my banks were overflowing with the sheer, raw emotion of that place. When I returned to the lodge, I read a quote in an old black-and-white book about hunting the Idaho wild that best captures the essence of what I was experiencing. Conrad, the 35-year veteran guide, opened the book and set it before me:
“The mere fair-weather hunter, who trusts entirely to the exertion of others, and does nothing more than ride or walk about under favorable circumstances, and shoot at what somebody else shows him, is a hunter in name only. Whoever would really deserve the title must be able at a pinch to shift for himself, to grapple with difficulties and hardships of wilderness life unaided, and not only to hunt, but at times travel for days, whether on foot or on horseback, alone.” — Teddy Roosevelt
We were earning the right to be called hunters. These wild lands were our proving grounds.
As it did several other times during our journey, it struck me then that the wilderness isn’t a place you go to be comfortable — it’s a place you go to be tested with danger, to face your fear, and to be refined as a man. It will push you to your limits, and then past them.
Six-time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates, once made an interesting argument in favor of failure.
“You’ve got to push yourself to the point of failure, and then past it,” Yates said. “Because failure is the secret to growth.”
What’s true about muscles is true about life — failure is the secret to growth.
Why was I so overcome with emotion that day on the boat? Because, somehow intuitively, there’s a moment when, deep in your soul, you realize you broke the barrier of your own limits. You pushed, and pushed, and pushed, and you never quit and you came out the other side as one who’d conquered. You found failure and then you kept going. You faced your fear and you triumphed.
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill
I walked away with a renewed sense of confidence in every facet of my life. Why? Because once you’ve wrestled with fear and punched it in the face, you develop a courageous swagger that transcends the categories of your life.
The wilderness, like life, is a test. It’s a refiner’s fire that consumes weakness, sifts out the impurities of our character, and produces something imperishable, enduring, and precious.
“You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it, so go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember, that’s where you’ll find success, on the far side of failure.” — Thomas J. Watson
“You’ve got to trust your horse. Trust your horse.”
Brooks has a way with his animals, horse and mule alike. I have a nagging suspicion that he knows people pretty well, too.
A few weeks before the trip, I’d been with friends during a forgettable horseback riding trip. A pannier broke, causing one horse to go full rodeo and another mule to run, damn near off the side of the mountain, with my friend on it. After that, I came to the conclusion so many others have — I’m just fine walking, thanks.
On horses and in adversity, what keeps us from getting back on? Fear.
It controls us. But somehow, God brings us back, like Bruce Wayne’s father, and whispers in our shell-shocked ears, “Why do we fall? So that we may learn to get back up again.”
I’ve got to admit, my nerves were more than a bit tenuous as Brooks explained the opening trail ride would take us up 97 switchbacks and 14 miles in to our camp. He’d put me on the typical lead horse, Whitey, who I’d come to learn was one of the most capable wilderness horses on the planet. Half-draft, half-quarter, he knew every trail, and when to get the hell out before it got dark or if there’d been wolves around.
One evening, Brooks asked me if I was ready for a challenge on horseback. One hundred percent faking it, I assured him that I was. And, as though he knew my fear had to be faced, he put me on Whitey and asked me to lead the two of us through a trail-less deadfall.
“How will I know where to go? I don’t know where the trail goes.”
“You don’t need to know,” Brooks said. “That’s the best damn animal we got, and he knows the trails better than you do. Trust your horse. Trust your horse.”
His confidence leveling out my nerves, Brooks kept talking, right behind me.
“Look at him, he remembers that trail from last week,” he’d say. “He knows exactly where he’s going. Trust your horse.”
We all need guides, mentors, seasoned travelers who’ve been down these roads of life before us and have the confidence we lack. This was one of those rare, ordinary moments that changed my life. Simple, profound, life-giving.
With care, wisdom and grace, we sometimes need a friend to help us get back on the horse, metaphorical or not, face our fears, and learn how to overcome adversity. There’s profound wisdom in the man who can spot another’s need to face danger, not run from it. The man who flees will be shriveled up forever; the man who stands tall will not be knocked down again, come what may.
It was the mule’s first ride up the mountain, not packing goods but a human, and a staring contest of sorts was underway. We’d stopped for a break and Cosby kept shooting Brooks, sitting nearby, dirty looks. Brooks handed the mule a stick, which he promptly ate, half in disgust. You could say it was payback — Brooks had left his honeybun in his saddle bag and a curious Cosby had snared it.
Later in the trip, snow unrelenting, Brooks and I rode several miles into the woods for an afternoon hunt in the thick timber. We’d seen nothing and killed nothing except our legs; we were soaked inside and out. As we got on our horses and stopped walking, my feet quickly turned into two small ice blocks.
As the snow fell even harder, the physical misery quickly turned into a moment of sheer awe. Timber parted like the sea before Moses, the snow making every hoof-fall silent among the towering pines. It seemed as though we were riding through a Narnia-like dreamworld, so picturesque and beautiful was the scene before us, two riders in the wintry lane, blanketed by a billion gentle snowflakes.
“It’s beautiful,” I said aloud, shocking myself by breaking the worshipful silence. “Absolutely beautiful.”
Any hunter who says they don’t care if they come home with an unfilled tag is a liar or an imposter, but this trip — above all others I’ve been on — has come the closest to challenging that notion. When I think of it even now, I almost forget about the part of killing.
But there was killing, after all.
Brooks and I headed down to a pocket of timber below the snow line and, as it turned out, beyond the reach of a mule. We’d rode and hiked through snow and rain most of the morning, then topped out on a ridgeline as the sun, for a brief moment, broke through and the rain stopped.
I’d reached a breaking point of sorts as we walked on that second-to-last day of the hunt, the rain unceasing and our chances of finding a bull washing away with the flood. We slid down the mountain more than hiked, mud escorting us most of the way. Tired, mentally exhausted, I almost leapt the edge of self-pity.
Then, as quickly as that gloomy precipice appeared against the backdrop of my inner battle, a whisper came in on the breeze: Jehovah Jireh. On the mountain of the Lord it shall be provided. Abraham had gone to the mountain empty handed, without a sacrifice. Then, at the very last moment, God had provided a ram. I’ve never had anything like this happen before, but somehow I knew.
We reached the ridge and the sunshine and, before we could sit, heard a bull scream in the next draw. Jehovah Jireh.
Sneaking down into the bowl, we watched the other side while Brooks played a tune on his elk call. I caught a flash of brown, a bull, and lowered myself to the ground. Steadying my CZ 557 in 26 Nosler atop my backpack, I ranged him at 250 yards, lined up the rifle, and squeezed.
Three direct hits, he pivoted in place, then rolled down the hill.
Three 142-grain Nosler AccuBond Long-Range bullets did their work, as the bull was anchored where he stood. We pulled one bullet, which held together through a shoulder-centered shot, from the hide on the exiting side.
Little did I know, the easiest parts of the trip were now over.
Come on in, the whiskey’s fine
“We may not have great weather, but we’ve sure as hell got plenty of slow pours.”
Id been giving Colby, our second guide, a boatload of crap about always being around to roll my cigarettes. We’d finally found, I’d said, his lifelong talent and vital usefulness. Before then his life was a giant question mark, but at least now we knew.
In reality, it was my only hope for a good smoke on the trail — I tried, helplessly, to roll my own, but they all came out completely unsmokable. Pretty pathetic, Colby would taunt, for a guy from weed-legal Colorado. Clearly that wasn’t my forte.
What we got during those 10 days in September was an abnormal amount of snow and rain, which made for less than ideal elk hunting but was profoundly good weather for pouring a double-headed attack of whiskey and cowboy coffee next to a wood stove.
Sitting in a tent for a day or two at a time is a test of its own. Throw in four or five different personalities, copious amounts of flatulence, several lifetimes of BS, and you’ve got yourself a winning combination. But the tobacco replaces the scent of unshowered men, and whiskey takes the edge off every rough corner.
And for a brief window in time, there’s no technology, no emails to answer, no pressing responsibilities. Facebook is replaced with face time, undistracted. Even time is measured by daylight and a horse’s pace, not industrial time clocks and a schedule full of appointments every five minutes. Your mind begins to think, not in minutes or hours, but in afternoons, days, seasons.
Unplugged, the soul begins to recharge.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” — Anne Lamott
Most of the things that drive the pace of your life become remarkably insignificant. Why am I trying to please people I don’t even like? With one life to live, why am I spending the bulk of my time doing things that drain my soul, and why do so many of the truly essential things keep getting left off?
“If you don’t have time to do what matters, stop doing things that don’t.” — Courtney Carver
As the days pass, so, too, do the urgent but insignificant things that crowd and clutter my life. What comes into focus, like the distant hillside in my Swarovski binoculars when I turn the dial, are people and experiences. Both things I’ve pushed to the back burner, neglected, taken for granted, failed to enjoy.
The perfect primer for a proper work-life balance is the book of Ecclesiastes. What do you gain from endless, relentless work? It’s just chasing the wind, my friend. What’s really worth living for in light of our impending death?
“Enjoy life,” the great preacher writes, “with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vaporous life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life” (Ecclesiastes 9:9).
Life is empty if it cannot be enjoyed with the ones we love. How painfully this point is driven through the heart when nothing but the vast, unforgiving wild closes in and my bride and boys are 1,000 miles away. You forget how lucky you are to have them, until you spend a few weeks with loneliness and the savage wild.
Stop chasing the wind, I tell myself, buried in my mummy bag, trying to fend off the bitter night’s cold. These moments I have with my boys, they are precious and few. Life needs a pause button, and I need blank space with my beautiful wife. The garden of our love is overgrown with the weeds of worry and hurry.
When I return home, it’s time to turn back to the essential and get rid of the rest. There’s a life, dirty like my garage, that needs cleaning up.
Like Odysseus, the call of battle leads me outward; and like him, too, my homeland rips and tears at my heart. The fundamental journey of all mankind steals my affections — that long and arduous road home.
All my roads lead back to you. On and on we go, and I don’t understand this winding road. But nothing worth anything ever goes down easy.
hitting rock bottom
“How do we get a mule down here?” I asked. Brooks smirked as he replied, staring at the bull I’d just shot. “We don’t.”
I quickly realized we’d be walking this bull out, one way or the other. After a week and a half of hiking and hunting, the best was yet to come.
We wouldn’t be packing the boned-out bull on our backs up the hill, but down it. Three miles and 5,000 feet, as it turned out. Down to the Salmon River where Brooks would pick us up in the Double D.
It took the better part of the day, between Levi, Colby and me, to get that load of meat down the mountain. As we traipsed through deadfall, with 90 pounds on our backs, I wondered why anyone would need Spartan racing — just shoot a bull in the Idaho wilderness.
When we finally made it to the river, they might as well have pinned medals on our chests. Tired, legs aching, I was about as proud as a man could be. As we waited on the boat ride, Colby passed out Camels and, like conquering kings, we smoked. Ice cold Budweiser flowed like champagne in the finest victory hall any knight has known.
After several days of wall tent fever, Zach and I even resorted to chopping firewood. We made a good pile, right up until Zach tried to outdo Paul Bunyan with a swing of the axe that broke not only the wood, but the handle, too.
I thought the break was beyond healing, but Brooks made the mend with man’s trustiest tool, duct tape.
It’s the breaking, in life and of axes, that we fear.
And yet, for the few brave enough to venture out, there is a secret every true adventurer has discovered: Beyond the breaking is a healing that leaves us stronger and better men, in the end.
The wilderness breaks men; I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Some don’t get put back together, because the cracks were faults that can’t be repaired. But for others, the wilderness tests, breaks, and renews. The broken bones grow back stronger than before, as does the spirit.
What I fear is not the broken journey; it’s the paralysis that destroys the souls of men who will never leave the safe confines of a sanitized existence.
The key to Bruce Wayne’s escape from the pit in “The Dark Knight Rises” was, in the end, fear. So it will be with each of us.
The same question the blind doctor asked Bruce is posed to each of us: “How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible, make the leap, without the most powerful impulse of the spirit — the fear of death?”
“You must make the leap,” the blind man said, “The way the girl did. Without the rope. Then the fear will find you again.”
Make the leap into the wild, and leave the illusion of a safe life behind. Then the fear will find you.
That’s the only way to be truly free.
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