Larry Simms claims he doesn’t go uphill fast. The look in his pale blue eyes seems to back up that statement.
Then he scrambles jack-rabbit fast up an almost vertical slope, mumbling, “Maybe we’ll get lucky and find a trail.”
Simms pauses often as the ridge levels, squatting to scan hillsides frosted with blazing yellow tamarack. He pulls his worn 7-mm Mauser to his shoulder from time to time and squints through the scope.
After serious study he rises and adjusts a belt that holds a revolver, two types of ammunition and two knives - one he made himself. His back pocket sports a fold-up saw. After all equipment is adjusted, he steps lightly up the slope.
Simms is one of 50,000 people who take to the North Idaho woods each fall to hunt elk and deer. In October and November, they spend an estimated $33 million on bullets, food, gasoline and groceries in these five counties.
Spinoff jobs and the resulting income has experts pegging the economic impact of North Idaho hunting at $75 million, says Jim Hayden of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
So much money and time do not guarantee success. Simms hasn’t landed an elk in 18 years of hunting, 13 of them in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains with buddy Ron Kruse.
Alternating between a muzzleloader and his modern cartridge rifle, he’s gotten a deer “pretty near every year,” Simms says.
He is enthusiastic about trying the throwback ways of hunting. Simms has shot deer with a flintlock. And he’s lost elk on account of it.
The first year he took this Revolutionary War technology to the woods it was raining. Simms got within 100 yards of a bull elk, drew a bead on the animal and pulled the trigger.
The bull elk walked away, followed by three cow elk that had been hiding in the nearby brush.
He pauses, points to an elk track and notes “traffic within the last couple of days.” Then he melts into an alder thicket as dense as a book of federal regulations, pulls out a cow call and squeals to the distant unknown.
Later, Simms volunteers that it would be cheaper to purchase meat at the grocery store. “What you don’t find at the store is an ermine crawling across your book or seeing a rabbit and a fisher playing together,” Simms says.
Hunting partner Kruse grew up in the Yaak River country in Western Montana under enviable hunting conditions.
“I was spoiled,” Kruse says. “I used to get deer in the pasture right by our house.”
Like many Idahoans, Kruse came by hunting out of necessity. His father raised cattle on a shoestring and worked in the sawmill to make ends meet.
“We couldn’t afford to keep a calf back,” he says. “Venison was our meat.”
Businesses bag the bucks
The elk-hunting density is higher in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains than anywhere else in the state - an average of nearly seven people per square mile, according to Fish and Game. The rest of the state sees an average of 2-1/2 people per square mile.
Thirty-thousand people each spend an average of 7-1/2 days hunting deer in the Panhandle alone, according to Hayden, Fish and Game’s regional wildlife manager. Nearly 20,000 hunted elk, each investing an average of 6-1/2 days in the woods.
Hunting is the economic champion for everything from sporting goods to trailers, gasoline and groceries.
“Hunting and Christmas rate about the same,” says Don Craft, assistant manager of Black Sheep sporting goods store in Coeur d’Alene. The cash register rings all year as hunters buy bullets and other shooting supplies to keep their aim in shape.
And it’s gaining popularity among women, Craft adds. The past two years the store’s big-game contest has been won by women.
“I look forward to that extra boost,” says Jeff Puyleart, of M&M; Boot and Shoe Repair in Coeur d’Alene. He often works late into the night stitching hunters’ favorite boots back together, replacing zippers in jackets and packs, or waterproofing the woods-bound leather gear.
Babin’s Grocery - the end of the grub line near Prichard - sees 300 people a day this time of year, most of them hunters. They buy everything from lanterns to hot dogs, or rent a few minutes in the showers. Despite the drop in temperature, owner Rich Babin also does a brisk business in huckleberry ice cream.
He opens the door at 5 a.m. - although resourceful hunters know he’s in the back room doing book work at 2:30 a.m. - and closes when he’s tired. Tough hours, but it’s a passion for Babin, much like hunting is for others.
Babin enjoys local and out-of-state hunters, including the same bunch of Florida residents who have passed by the counter of his 30-foot by 40-foot store for 20 years, “telling the same old stories,” he says. And he likes to see the families that depend upon wild game to get their winter meat.
The store is a great place for wacky stories. Just last week, Babin says, someone came by looking for a kiwi or a mango or some “weird produce item.”
That’s not uncommon. All kinds of people are used to shopping at a deli in town and believe the same selection is available here deep in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.
“I tell them, hey, I’ve got potatoes and hamburger,” Babin says.
Tony Piccinini, proprietor of the Avery Trading Post, looks to make his year selling hunters beer and Mountain Man burgers - two slabs of meat, two slabs of cheese and a slab of ham. “You about have to put it in a can crusher to get it in your mouth,” he brags.
Piccinini also provides all of the essentials - like a steak special on Thursday night, and Monday night football. Many an intrepid hunter comes out of the woods for “a warm fire, beer, sandwiches and a chance to watch the game.”
He loans his wind-up alarm clock and camping coffee pots to those who forget to pack them.
Smaller businesses just close up for opening day so the proprietor can go hunting, Hayden says. “You certainly don’t see very many teachers giving tests on opening day.”
More thrills than kills
The latest legend in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains is of a rookie hunter who drove up on opening day, walked to the top of Windy Ridge and dropped a big bull elk. Then he ran into a bunch of eager young hunters who helped him pack it out and headed back to town within hours of his arrival.
If it’s true, it’s rare. A small percentage of those who drop all of that money and time on the tradition bag an animal.
So why bother?
“Twenty percent are out for the killing,” says Nick Sanyal, a sociologist and biologist at the University of Idaho. “Probably the same number would be appalled if they killed something.
“It’s a remnant of a traditional way of life, an excuse to get outdoors, not only during hunting season, but the rest of the year scouting.”
There’s proof in the people who hunt.
“It’s huntin’ - h-u-n-t-i-n,” emphasizes Larry Isenberg, a longtime hunter and manager of timberlands for Crown Pacific. “And the question always is, ‘Have you gotten your elk?’ It’s like, if you were a man you would have found out a way to put your tag on the elk that by fate was put there for you.”
It isn’t just huntin’ either. “You do it in a red-and-black wool shirt, Malone wool pants, and it doesn’t make any difference how warm it is,” Isenberg says.
“You don’t shave and you don’t shower and you eat a lot of red meat.”
Mike Grabenstein, pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Coeur d’Alene, started hunting with his father when he was 8 or 9 years old, traveling to his grandparents’ farm in eastern Nebraska for a week chasing birds.
“It was a chance to reconnect,” he says.
Now he motors down to Lochsa River country with a friend who started hunting the area with his father and grandfather 45 years ago.
Good meals are mandatory - heavy on the grease, something “you wouldn’t want your doctor, your dietician or maybe even your wife to know you are eating,” Grabenstein says. They play cards and always have a cigar after supper - the only time Grabenstein smokes.
“It’s my own therapy,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s cheaper - but it’s as good.”
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