Solo backpack hunting Idahos Selway zone
Ridgeline Knife Works owner Zack Waddle recently threw his loaded pack on his back and headed into Idaho’s Selway zone solo in search of elk, deer, bear…basically anything that would fill the freezer. The following is his journal from what he describes as the dumbest and most fun thing he’s ever done.
Arrived at Paradise Campground roughly 11am, met a friendly couple horse packers from Tennessee heading out to pick up the rest of their group. They are camped at Coopers flat, and will be back in Wednesday night. Made good time to Coopers flat considering the heavy load, continued up White Cap creek hoping to not camp right next to the Tennessee group. Turned off the trail about 2 miles up the creek, hoping to find a bench to set up on somewhere near the creek. No luck, stupid idea. Decided to head back down to Coopers flat for the convenience of the trail junctions there, nearby water, and the safety of having a nearby group. 13 miles today loaded heavy.
I allowed myself a late start today, as season doesn’t open until tomorrow, and we had a good freeze last night. Climbed 2700 vertical feet up to Vance point, mostly hoping to find cell reception to text camp coordinates to the “safety net”, but no luck. Found a deadhead whitetail, and some sign of deer and elk, nothing fresh enough to get my hopes too high though. Met 2 locals with a big mule team on the way back to camp, they are headed way deeper in than I can get on foot, and didn’t seem to think there would be much in the area. 9 miles with a light load today.
Day 3 (Opening Day):
Headed back up Whitecap Creek at dawn, didn’t see much in the way of sign, and no responses to calling. Turned around after 5 miles, and worked my way up canyon slope to look higher. Southern exposure and burned area seems too hot and sunny, need to try to get on northern exposure side of Canyon Creek or Cooper Creek tomorrow. Stopped for lunch on a saddle about ¾ way up the ridge, watched an 8 point whitetail come out of some thick brush and feed 100 yards away. Passed on taking a shot, I’m probably going to kick myself for that later. 10 miles today with a light load. I’m already tired of filtering water, but I forgot how good Mountain House Chili Mac is!
Hiked up Canyon Creek 5 miles without seeing any sign, came back down and tried to get up northern exposure side of Cooper Creek, no luck. Decided to relocate camp to higher ground (Coopers is about 3600 ft) in a different area. Packed up and headed back to Paradise campground, then drove back to Darby to send coordinates of new camp back home. Saw possible fresh wolf tracks on the pack out. 10 miles with light load and another 9 miles fully loaded today. Pushed too hard, suffering from bad knee pain now.
Drove ¾ of the way through the Selway zone this morning, definitely coming out the other side instead of retracing my route! Now in Frank Church wilderness Zone 20 instead of Selway Bitteroot NF Zone 17. Saw a small mule deer and a nice bull being packed out when I got to the trailhead, things are already looking better. Met three other guys from California heading in same direction I’m going. Weather is a lot cooler up here (7800 feet), and it started to rain on the way in. Definitely pushed too hard yesterday, could only make it about 2.5 miles in. I was lucky to find a nice meadow with a spring overlooking a lake and another meadow at only about 300 vertical feet below the trail. Rested and slept most of the afternoon through continuing rain and fog.
Slooooww moving morning, very sore, and hoping for the fog to burn off for an easy glassing day. Finally got moving and headed south over a saddle. Fog never lifted so I kept moving down other side of the saddle, rain comes and goes. Hearing quite a bit of bugling, but I’m not sure if it’s bulls or hunters. Found a spring with fresh tracks, scrapes, and bedding areas. Moved about 100 yards away and sat to see if anything shows up. 1:00pm: Heard a solid bugle just downhill, going to check it out. The fog lifted just enough so I could spot a meadow and a wallow through the trees through the binoculars….and just a flash of a big bull. Stalked downhill, struggling to stay quiet through rain gear, steep slope, and joint pain. Saw a few more flashes of the bull pacing, then watched him push his cows up and across the valley from me. I thought I had blown them out but saw a small bull following. Decided to punch my tag on the small bull instead of chasing a bull I already blew out, and moved in to 200 yards. Fighting to get a shot against bull fever, condensation on scope, thick timber, and now hail. First shot likely hit a branch, but was still enough of a hit to stop him, second shot got him down. Waited 15 minutes then moved in 100 yards to wait another 15, and saw the big bull come back to see what was going on! Now I’m not sure whether to congratulate myself or kick myself for a lack of patience! After finally getting to the bull and taking a few snapshots, I used the Ridgeline Skinner in S35VN to skin one side, then the Caper in S35VN to break and bone the quarters and remove the backstrap/neck/rib meat. I switched back to the Skinner again to gut, then used the Caper to remove tenderloins and after a flipover, repeated on the other side. I’m thankful for the S35VN edge retention, as it appears I forgot to pack my sharpening stone! Loaded up the backstraps and a shoulder, and at 6:40 pm started the climb back to camp in fog and wind driven rain, laughing and smiling. Only hiked about 2.5 miles today
No sleep last night: It’s funny how much rain dripping from trees onto plastic can sound like an animal trying to get to your hard earned meat. Weather has improved greatly though. Packed the first load to the truck, then headed straight back to get a second load. Due to the burn, there was no branches around to hang from, so I left the meat wrapped in my boning tarp and covered in rocks last night. Thankfully nothing found it yet. Finished up boning I didn’t finish last night, and packed brought another heavier load to the truck. Didn’t get second load to the truck until 7 pm, so decided to stay the night at the truck despite not having a sleeping bag. 14 miles today, half of it loaded heavy.
That sucked. Cold, stiff joints, and cramped in the backseat all night, hardly any sleep. Packed up and headed to break down camp at 5:30am. Caught up to yet another bull bigger than the one I shot that was walking on the trail ahead of me. Broke and moved camp supplies up to main trail, then headed to get 3rd load of meat. Still lucky with no scavenger visits. Stopped on way back to grab half of camp. Ran into the Bitterroot Creek Outfitter guys again on my last trip in. They’re bringing their clients out with another good bull. I think that’s 2 bulls and 2 deer since I got here for them. The last load with the last of camp was the heaviest load, but I managed to make it to the truck faster than any other trip, funny how that happens… 19 miles today, 7 miles heavily loaded.
Now that I’m finally back home (after several more days and adventures in truck issues), I’d like to share some thoughts on my gear and things that worked or didn’t.
GPS: Having not only a map and compass, but a good GPS possibly saved my life out there. Extreme fatigue causes terrible decisions, and for me, my sense of direction deteriorates greatly. Having a GPS to quickly get me back to camp payed off more than once.
Synthetic down pants and jacket: These items made mornings and evenings enjoyable instead of teeth chattering. Since they are light and compact when compressed I had them with me constantly, which allowed me to make it through the night I couldn’t get back to camp.
Ridgeline Knife Works Skinner and Caper: Because I do dumb things like forget a sharpening stone, the edge retention on these knifes saved a lot of frustration. The ergonomic handles performed as they were designed to, and made the knives comfortable to use despite the hail, rain, wind, and quickly dropping temperatures I had while using them.
Kuiu Ultra pack: Whatever brand you like, spend the money on a good pack that’s comfortable. The Ultra was comfortable, light, and the very stiff carbon fiber frame carried the meat well.
Food: The mountain house food was great, I need to work on lunches and breakfasts though, and I need more calories. I lost 12 lbs on a 2500-3000 calorie per day diet out there.
The first location I decided to go to did NOT work, nor did hiking 50 miles there without seeing anything. The idea of hiking a 19 mile day with 9 miles fully loaded before seeing elk didn’t work either. Lesson learned: Don’t kill your body before you’re packing meat.
What did work was knowing when to cut my losses on an area. There was going on in the first area, and it didn’t feel right. I’m extremely happy I trusted my feelings and relocated.
Shooting the small bull in my sights over chasing the bigger bull? I don’t regret it, but I guess I’ll never know how the alternative would have played out. I just hope the big bull is around the same area next year…