An involuntary grin consumed me as I toggled my iPhone to “Airplane mode.” It would be more than a week before I was again walking through those invisible fields of cell reception, and I couldn’t be any more ready to shut down that demanding device — and my mind — and spend some quality time with Frank.
The Frank Church Wilderness represents the largest contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48 states, comprised of nearly 2.4-million acres of soul-recharging landscape that’s home to more species of huntable wild meat than one hunter could pursue and pack out in a week’s time. Hell, a month’s worth of days wouldn’t be enough. While Rocky Mountain elk are always the crown jewel of most any license collection, it’s very possible to take to the backcountry with black bear, either-species deer (whitetail or muley), wolf, and mountain lion tags in tow — for less than a thousand bucks.
But here’s the truly unique part about Frank’s personality: Although extremely controversial with the purists, a smattering of narrow gravel airstrips adorn the pine-woven landscape, creating an easily accessible means of getting into the bowels of the wilderness. And if all that isn’t enough to set your freezer yearning for protein-rich wild sustenance, a handful of those airstrips are located in wildlife management units that allow rifle hunting during the September bugle — a life-altering experience that’s largely reserved for bowhunters throughout the majority of the elk’s range.
Don’t misunderstand me here: I love the unparalleled thrill of bowhunting more than most, but there are definitely times when the need to quit chasing animals around and put some flesh in game bags triggers within my genetic makeup. The only thing that could improve upon hunting a bugling herd bull with a rifle would be hunting a species of elk that came with six backstraps.
Trying to Get Lost
At the northern end of the crude and desolate airstrip, the door of the tiny twin-prop opened up to reveal a scene from a Charles M. Russell oil painting: Two un-showered mountain men awaited our arrival with a team of nearly a dozen mules and horses tethered loosely among the pines, both beast and man stirring the dirt with their feet, impatiently yearning for the opportunity to again disappear deep into the wilds.
I know a few people who are very vocal about their contempt for hunting with an outfitter simply because, to them, it’s a hunter’s way of pushing the easy button. Those people might be right in some circumstances, but that’s an extremely polarized view that leaves them missing a major component of traveling to hunt: the people.
Brooks Murphy runs Salmon River Lodge and Outfitters, excelling in lodge-based Idaho adventures in addition to deep-dive backcountry adventures that become more difficult for a digitally diluted soul to experience as each year passes. At first glance, Murphy wears the beard-framed jaw and weather-cracked hands of most any other mountain-cut individual, but my grandpa was right when he demanded that I never judge a book by its cover.
Case in point: After his work on a wildlife biology degree, Murphy pursued an environmental “nondestructive testing” profession before exchanging his office chair for the wilderness and a saddle. The translation? Every minute in the wilderness with someone like Murphy is a unique and detailed tutorial in all things flora and fauna of the dirt on which we walked in search of elk.
And easy button? There’s no such thing in the roadless, reception-less vastness of the wilderness. In the backcountry, help and resources are a long way away, and the terrain can quickly consume the unprepared. In the backcountry, all men (and women, too, of course) are created equal, and everyone pitches in. All that’s available are the supplies and the people on-hand, which means you need to choose your gear and your company very, very carefully.
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