I came to Idaho by way of Canada, Alaska, Northern California, Arizona and Washington. It didn’t take me long, once I began putting roots down in this state, to become interested in and then obsessed with the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness that sits like a wild, bottomless hole in the very heart of Idaho. The Frank is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48 measuring out at a robust 2,366,757 acres. It’s one of the most untamed chunks of land in the United States.
When I failed to be drawn for elk, yet again, in 2015, my husband suggested we do an over-the-counter high hunt in the Frank instead, allowing us to buy tags for elk and mule deer and hunt what we could while backcountry. I did not hesitate to say yes to his scheme and we began to plan our trip and set the entire affair in motion.
August through October we looked at maps, scoured Google Earth imagery and read all that we could about the Frank in an attempt to get a grip on a patch of topography, an idea of where to hunt, as well as the potential availability of elk herds.
October rolled around and we flew into the country on a lovely morning in a merry little Cessna — it seemed to sing as it flew, chanting itself up and over ridges, the riveted belly of the aircraft sweeping the dust from the treetops. Beneath our fixed wings I watched as the Frank swam in and out of galloping fog banks, reducing itself to islands of trees before revealing itself suddenly, stout and wild beneath the sky. The larch were in transition amidst miles of lodgepole forest, studding the green and stone with mustard yellow. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was from the sky, this place I had dreamed of exploring for so many years. As we descended to the airstrip and the ground came rushing up beneath the wheels of our plane, I began to comprehend what we had committed to.
We unloaded our backpacks and our rifle, a timid pile of gear for what would turn into a ten day stay in a pocket of wilderness that was strange to us. The Cessna fired up again, turned on a dime, the pilot waved and mouthed the words, “November first.” And away he flew.
Then, I realized how alone we were. The meadow echoed back the whine of the plane as it quickly receded into the distance and then it was only us, the sun, the groaning of the forest in the wind and the gurgle of a small, tannin stained creek as it went winding across the meadow.
We struck out beneath the duress of our heavy packs and quickly learned that despite our extensive research, we had been duped. The high country meadows and old burn scars we anticipated glassing down into were actually acres and acres of terrible re-prod growing up out of desolate jim-jams of burned and dead forest. Smashing through it took momentum and felt much like being shrunken down to the size of a flea and then wandering through the thick hair on the back of a dog. It was the hardest walking I’ve ever done. And so we went like that, bushwhacking our way up impossible ridge lines, stepping up and over logs, tripping and falling through ten foot high lodgepole regrowth, sweating, cursing, laughing and lamenting our fortune (that we hoped would turn in our favor).
That’s the thing about hunting though, there’s no guarantee of any kind that the land will be like what you thought it would be like. There’s no guarantee there will be animals in the area you are hunting, let alone the right animal. There’s no guarantee the weather will hold. There’s no guarantee your food will last. There’s no guarantee you won’t hurt yourself in the pursuit. There’s no guarantee of anything. A hunter can work as hard as she can but hard work only carries a hunt so far, at some junction in time, a little luck, a little serendipity must land like a spear in the heart of the excursion, without it, a hunter’s hands will stay empty.
So we carried on, in and out of ten days, hiking, glassing, snacking, warming up with small fires in snowstorms under fir trees, wondering when we would see elk, wondering if we would see elk. The weather turned bad and then good again and then bad once more. We slept cold. We slept warm. Our spirits rose to great heights, tanked, lifted and then we settled into the depths of despair as days continued passing and still we saw no elk, limited sign of deer, wolf or any other living and breathing thing that might be out there in the Frank with us.
Such aloneness settled into our souls, despite the good company of each other. We began to feel our senses seize up after days of pushing our eyes to see more clearly, our noses to smell more deeply, our ears to hear more keenly, and while we teetered there on the taxed edges of our senses, whittled thin by hard work and strenuous hiking, the wind cut at us, biting anyway at everything we carefully covered up, and the snow hurled insults at us and took such delight in exposing the delicate nature of our humanness, and we held on tighter to our raggedly threadbare hope, and we continued to pray for elk.
- Jillian Lukiwski
After Note: Jillian and her husband left the Frank Church without seeing a single elk. They found out later, from a pilot friend, that the wolf packs had pushed the elk herds out onto the breaks above the river where they felt safer in wide open spaces.
Jillian did fill her deer tag at 9000ft — she firmly believes no one has ever worked harder for a three point buck. Her husband helped her pack it out ten miles to their airstrip before they turned around, hiked back up to their camp at 9000ft and continued hunting for another five days (she had a sprained ankle at the time).
Eventually, they found themselves weathered in on their airstrip for three extra days while they waited for their plane to pick them up and fly them out to McCall — they were out of food, out of books and worst of all, totally out of peppermint tea. It was one of their favorite trips they’ve ever taken together.
JILLIAN LUKIWSKI was born and raised way back in the bush of Canada’s western provinces. She now splits her year between the Methow Valley of Washington and the upland country of Idaho where she is lucky enough to continue her hunting and fishing education in the wild heart of the interior West. By trade, she’s an independent silversmith, freelance photographer and writer. She prefers river travel, strong coffee, trucks, cutthroat trout, big-running bird dogs, cowboy boots and extra lime in her gin and tonics.