Idaho History Sep 25, 2022

“Cougar” Dave Lewis

(Part 2)

Yellow Pine to Edwardsburg to Cougar Dave’s for a hunting trip in 1925


Idaho Game Trails

by Claude P. Fordyce

An account of a big-game hunt by pack train into an almost inaccessible part of Idaho, where good game fields still offer that chance for hunting which you have looked for and seldom found.


The privilege of a hunt in one of America’s last bits of almost virgin wilderness, plentiful with big game, was sufficient incentive for the writer to jump at the chance of accompanying Sam Cupp, guide, and his party into the region of Big Creek, tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Central Idaho, last fall.

The Forest Service has a system of arriving at a pretty accurate estimate of the big game resources in America, and it was indeed surprising to learn that Idaho has hundreds of square miles of forests as primitive and unfrequented as it was centuries ago, where big and small game live unmolested in native haunts — one of the last of our heritages of wild life which has not been touched by the mania of destruction which characterizes modern America.

The cumulative summary of big game in Idaho’s national forests for 1923 gives these surprising figures: there are of deer, 45,021; elk, 5,213; moose, 579; mountain sheep, 1299, and mountain goats, 3,452 — this last the largest number of any state in the Union and surpassed only by Alaska. Idaho has more game and fish than any other state, more natural resources and more unexplored territory, and is one of the few states in the Union that is not hunted to death.

This bountiful supply of game resources is due first to the fact that so much of the state is still wild and inaccessible — much of’ its mountainous wilderness is not penetrated by trails; and second, and perhaps the main reason, is that this region has not had publicity. It is with extreme reluctance that I give even this account of the hunting possibilities of this paradise, for once its potential possibilities are known there are hundreds of nimrods who stand ready to go even to the far ends of our hemisphere if the game is really there. That means depletion in time.

OL-1photoCircle – One of the hunters and a goat.
Left – The writer with a black bear.
Bottom – A nice buck.

The northern and southern portions of the state of Idaho are totally dissimilar as far as climate and topography are concerned; the northern part called the “Panhandle” has the largest and heaviest stands of timber, many large lakes and much mining, while the southern and eastern portions, chiefly sage brush deserts, have been made to blossom as the rose and yield bountiful crops thru irrigation. Near the dividing line of these vastly different regions runs the Salmon River — a territory of great mountain ranges, fine trout and salmon haunted streams, wonderful forests, with a rough terrene [sic] offering but little grazing, therefore there are but few ranches and ideally suited to game production and general recreation.

Last year the Forest Service projected a trail far toward the David Lewis Ranch on Big Creek, 235 miles from Boise and in the very heart of the big game country. Harry C. Shellworth hunted there last year and his party brought out their full quota of big game. He saw in one band 32 mountain sheep (which are now fully protected), bears, deer and many mountain goats.

Our party consisted of Charles F. Speed, Dr. R. G. Davenport, Sam Cupp, guide, and the writer, who met in Boise where we got acquainted with 150 of Idaho’s sportsmen at the unique hunting camp banquet, which was one of the monthly dinners of the Boise Fish and Game League. This league is a model and their organization has been copied by other groups of similarly interested men in Idaho as well as other states. They not only stand for but ACT for conservation, their meetings foster good fellowship, and their most recent achievement was the establishment of the game refuge on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Our party left by auto for Yellowpine [sic], a distance of 150 miles, which is the real “jumping off place” for here we bid farewell to the automobile for a month and met our pack train and the rest of the personnel of our party — Floyd Morden, Harold Young and Cy Johnson. Yellowpine is a log cabin settlement at 4,700 feet altitude, in the bracing air of the lower mountains and surrounded by a yellow pine forest without a peer in America. It is destined to be a great summer resort and a number of Easterners have already built cabins.

After a hard day’s journey we appreciated the hospitality of the log hotel, and F. F. Foster won our hearts thru the medium of his famous raisin bread. We took stock of our provisions and laid in our last supply of candy and “ropinos” to smoke, at the commissary of A. G. Behne. Behne is a real pioneer of the old school — one of the type of men who have built the West — and this is the third community he has started in his life. Next by is the United Mercury Mines and many smaller holdings. While awaiting our outfit we observed the packing of 35 mules with dynamite destined for the Cinnabar Mines. In season Yellowpine is the rendezvous for deer hunters and they “get their stuff.”

Before us lay 85 miles of trail along Profile Creek and Big Creek to the Dave Lewis Ranch. The first day out our party naturally organized into an exact status — dudes and buckeroos. Sam Cupp, head guide, was our flapjack wrangler, and he was “there” and an expert horseman and packer, having taken second money on “Lightfoot” at the Pendleton roundup. Floyd Morden and Harold Young were fine young fellows and always ready to do their “stunt,” and past masters at the gentle art of “snaring” ponies. We were advised to take particular notice of Cy (37) Johnson. During the World War Cy and Cupp broke 30,000 horses in nine months for the French army. The “37” meant that he wouldn’t sit down to breakfast unless there was sitting before him a stack of 37 flapjacks “to start in on.” Perhaps this was one reason that our pack-train numbered some 35 horses. Of the hunters Doc Davenport of Colorado came with much experience, chiefly with deer in Texas in the days when it was wild and woolly, and his only pretext for being with us was his enthusiasm for bears. Speed of Evanston came all primed for the experience of his life, and he got it, along with some beautiful trophies of the hunt. The humble writer just came, saw and conquered; while he bravely assumed a certain dignity, he exactly qualified as the ace tenderfoot, and with 20 miles a day in the saddle after a year in an office chair he couldn’t keep his mind on his feet.

OL-2photo1Top – Lewis ranch cabins

OL-2photo2Center – Doc got his bears and hit the trail for home.

OL-2photo3Bottom – Our party divided into groups, each hunter with a guide and supplies and pack-horses for the ten-day bear and elk hunt.

One of the chief joys of any outdoor trip is the camaraderie among the fellows. The close association for a month under trying circumstances of hard work, extreme fatigue and occasional exasperating circumstances brings out whether a man’s a man or not.

Of neighboring camps there were few in this new country. At one night’s trail camp we sat around the friendship fire of Gill and he told us how to cook tough goat meat tender, and I pass it along to you: “You place the goat meat with several rocks in a big kettle and cover with water and cook it for all it is worth. When you can stick a fork in the rock, the meat is tender.”

Our introduction to Big Creek was at Edwardsburg, the site of the Forest Service headquarters — a log cabin and tent settlement of generous proportions. An immense log structure for headquarters was under Construction and near by lay the bodies of two bears which had just which had just been brought in. Doc Davenport went wild at the sight of them. In the corral was a string of fine pack mules and in the commissary were panniers of supplies ready for any emergency fire call from any point in the great forest acreage faithfully and continually under observation from the summer fire lookouts. The Forest Service personnel are big men. Some day the reading public will come to know them, as their exploits are just as worthy as the much-vaunted Royal Northwest Mounted Police. Their calling is as picturesque; they are intrepid as any group of men on earth, and seem imbued with the strength of the great pines which are their wards. It is indeed a privilege to know a man like J. P. Rutledge, the assistant supervisor of the Idaho forest, whose fine spirit exemplifies Uncle Sam’s best policies in administering the outdoor heritages of the people.

Edwardsburg was named after W. A. Edwards, whose ranch adjoins the forest headquarters, an accredited eastern lawyer who came west for his health and settled here to develop his ranch and to mine. With vision into the future when a town will be here, he is the type of the empire builders. Near his hospitable cabin home he has caught 25-pound salmon which had come 700 miles up from the mouth of the Columbia to spawn.

A pack-horse trip down Big Creek is one of the most inspiring journeys in America — sheer walled polychrome canyons, the beauty of trout-haunted roaring streams, camps in clearings amidst great trees, and trails thru endless aisles of the silent forest. In the entire 85 miles from Yellowpine to the Dave Lewis ranch there are but four or five ranches, as the grazing value of the land is low and widely distributed. When winter comes these people are snowed in from October to June and must pack in supplies for that time and visit their neighbors miles away on snowshoes or skis. What a boon the radio must be to shut-ins like these!

OL-3photo1Top – On the trail

OL-3photo2Center – “Cougar” Dave Lewis, who has killed more than 1,000 mountain lions and whose ranch was the headquarters of the hunting party.

OL-3photo3Bottom – The gang.

On the third day we came to Dave Lewis’s ranch — a small clearing with three cabins and the largest one of four rooms allotted to our party. Uncle Dave is famous in these parts, a professional cougar hunter who has hunted these predatory animals for fifty years, first off the stock ranges, then out where the great deer herds are wintering, and he has killed more than 1,000 mountain lions — 500 in Idaho and the rest in California and Oregon. Dave is one of the few men who voted for Abe Lincoln. You conclude that he is old, but he could out walk any of us. Such is the efficacy of the simple outdoor life. He has always lived in the wilderness just ahead of the march of civilization. After the Civil War he came West during the days of the survey of the Union Pacific and as a young man knew General Dodge, Joe Meek, Ezra Meeker, Jim Bridger and others of our famous old scouts. He saw the West when it was black with buffalo, and men of his type as well as the big game of America are making now their last stand.

Lewis is a dead shot. The sheriff at Cascade relates how many forehead shots are in the cougar pelts brought in by Lewis for the $50 bounty. One of Dave’s records is 13 cougars out of 14 shots. He is absolutely unafraid — fear never enters his mind. He said that he learned deliberation in shooting in the old muzzle-loading days when every shot had to count. He waits until within a few feet of his quarry and then drops his animal. He uses a .44-caliber model ’92 Winchester, and for cougars his favorite is a .32-20 carbine with open sights. His winter cougar hunts usually last three days each, and he carries a minimum of equipment and sleeps under the lee of a big tree with a big reflecting fire in front.

The very happy news he gave us was that during the summer his dogs treed 20 hears in the valley near his cabin, but he shot none of them. He saw 420 deer in one gulch within 3 miles of his ranch. The season before, Shellworth’s party got its full quota of goats on the ridges back of the ranch and saw one band of 32 mountain sheep up there.

Laying east of Dave’s cabins, 6 miles, is the union of Big Creek and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and the trail was a particularly difficult one. To the north across Big Creek, which is here a swiftly-flowing, broad stream of 50 feet, loom great stretches of brown grass-covered hills backed by the density of pines, and far back beyond lie the Black Buttes, where we were to go on a bear hunt. Twenty miles north of the ranch are the Cottonwood Buttes, northeast of Chamberlain Basin, where elk were plentiful. The few lazy days in camp gave us opportunity to peer north over the broad reaches of the brown hills to feast our eyes on browsing deer which know that the season was closed, because when the season did open they were wary and cautious and had to be really hunted.

Short sorties from the headquarters cabins daily up Rush Creek showed occasional signs of big game, but the deer and bears had left the valley after the berry season and had gone higher up where the bears could get the pine nuts, and the deer for sanctuary until the first snows should drive them down again to the valleys for a time. As the snow disappeared they would return to the heights and sporadically return until the winter snow came for good, and the valley floor would then be the home of hundreds and the easy prey of the predatory cougar — the wilderness Fight for the survival of the fittest.

The goats remained high up in the crags and pinnacles. The first few days were occupied in reconnaissance trips verifying the locations that bears and deer were “using.” Daily our larder was replenished with fish from Big Creek; never a time did the disciples of Izaak Walton whip the clear, cold waters without landing, with the lure of spinners and bacon strips, a full quota of Dolly Varden and cut-throat trout — the stream seemed a veritable fisherman’s paradise.

Came the time for organized hunts. Packs made up with tents, bedding, mess kits and food supplies for ten days. With complete equipment and our saddle and pack horses we headed one day up Big Creek 6 Miles, fording the stream several times past sheer walls, to Conyer’s Ranch, where my out-fit camped for the night. Speed and Cy Johnson headed on for Cave Creek and Crooked Meadows for elk — if unsuccessful they were to go over to Mosquito and Moose Meadows. Davenport, Cupp, Uncle Dave, Hap Young and I blazed our trail next day to the top of Black Buttes, where we established camp. Each day we hunted afoot over heavily timbered and rocky buttes and saw plenty of bear sign.

One day Cupp and I kept to the top-most ridges while Dave and Doc went down the west slope toward the breaks. Suddenly we heard an outlandish yelping of the dogs and then a shot. Cupp and I literally “fell” down the mountain side and came to the scene of conflict — Doc had shot his first bear. That night it snowed and when we got out of our tents in the morning we shoveled away 2 feet of flakes. We rearranged our kitchen leanto tent and built a big reflecting fire in front and did our cooking and eating there (we don’t “dine” in the wilderness, we stow it away in amounts). This blizzard weather was a trying test for Cupp’s novel sleeping bag arrangement. In spite of the common belief that the air mattress is cold to sleep on our new arrangement proved that it could be used in the coldest weather. There is no question that it is the ultimate in sleeping comfort. Atop the air bag were spread inch-thick pads of wool as it came from the shearer and then cleaned, and above this was placed the regular sleeping bag — double Kenwood wool warmth bags encased in a light canvas shell. I used Fialas no-hide-fur bag in a comfort sleeping pocket. We slept perfectly comfortable every night and feel we have established the utility of the air mattress in cold weather by the use of an adequate insulating pad above it.

On another day we all kept to the top ridges as we supposed the likely places for bear to be the talus slopes below which after the snow Bruin would be hunting for a winter den. After a particularly arduous jaunt we sat down to rest when Doc suddenly sighted, on a small clearing between the trees on the valley floor 200 yards below, a sure enough grizzly. Now a grizzly bear trophy was Doc’s cherished ambition — he talked it, he dreamed it — it would be the fulfillment of his most cherished ambition. It was enough to excite anyone and Doc was excited. He blazed away, and altho in calmer moments he proved his worth as a sure shot here he emptied his gun and missed every shot down hill and at the rapidly moving target. I lost my head, for this was Doc’s bear, but I added a fusillade from the powerful .30-’06 -Winchester, which J. A. McGuire has used so successfully in Alaska and elsewhere, but missed. In a short space of time Dave had difficultly in holding the younger dogs of the pack, but the leader, the Norwegian huskie, stood on a jutting rock poised as a statue and with every fiber of his being aquiver. He would not “break” — he was the perfect hunter — until Dave gave command, and then the whole pack leaped down the rough mountain side with marvelous speed and was gone. Only a few minutes elapsed before we could no longer hear the yelping — they were on a hot trail. We descended to the valley and tried to pick up the trail; found one dog, Cub, who was bewildered. We concluded that a black bear would be treed, but this was certainly a grizzly, and no telling how many miles away he was by now, so we returned laboriously to camp.

Next day one dog returned and the day after two more dogs came, one with his snout filled with porcupine quills. Dave said this was the dog’s third experience — they don’t seem to know that they can’t beat the “buzz-saw” game. The fifth dog did not return to our camp, and when we got back to the ranch a week later Floyd told us that the dog got to the ranch five days after our hitting the grizzly trail. If dogs could talk —

OL-4photo1Monarch of the wilds. (Photo by Dr. A. E. Weaver.)

Now our party broke up, Doc and Dave returning to hunt south of the ranch, from which place they planned to hunt bears. Hap Young went after two lost horses, and Cupp and I, with a string of pack horses and full equipment, went north along a good Forest Service trail to Disappointment Creek and Cottonwood Meadows for elk. There we hunted in the densest lodge-pole thickets I ever saw, and the wonder of it is that elk can wedge their antlers thru the trees and travel as fast as they do. We came to the camp of a party from Nampa and at another camp met our fellow hunters, Cy Johnson and Speed, who had their elk; then joining forces, we all returned on a two-day trip back to the Lewis ranch. We saw a number of elk and many deer and some bear sign.

Shortly after our arrival at Lewis’s Doc, Dave and Hap came in from a successful bear hunt and Doc announced that he had come for bear and had secured his trophies and was ready to go out so next day he, Cupp and Young took the trail for home.

The Mormon Mountains south of the Lewis Ranch are the rendezvous of many mountain sheep and goats. Lewis estimated that there were 500 sheep here in 1906, but they are not so plentiful now because of their destruction from scab disease probably contracted from domestic sheep. He has seen many dead with a mass of scab on their bodies. One mountain sheep has become a pet of old Dave’s and has been within 30 feet of him several times in three years before he was killed by a poacher.

Our quest for goats was the most interesting feature of our trip, and as hunting goes, the easiest we had, for on the very day that each went for his trophy that day he got it. Dave’s definite knowledge of the country, of course, saved us time. Riding saddle back up the canyon south of the ranch to the top of the ridge we left our horses to be returned to camp by one of the packers and we crossed the ridge afoot and trailed down the adjoining valley to Rush Creek then to Big Creek and home.

Coming to a jutting promontory high up in the pinnacles and crags, we peered across a small canyon and on a brown ledge 200 yards away we saw the beautiful white of a mountain goat slowly moving; as Speed was the first to sight it it was his goat according to our accepted rule in hunting. One shot mortally wounded the animal and by the time we reached it it was dead. Traveling down this canyon was the roughest walking I ever experienced, and but one example of the many days of similar travel. There was no trail, of course, and we laboriously fought our way over the rough, rocky terrene, over and thru down timber, down steep slopes and thru a maze of the underbrush of briars, where only a few feet progress was possible before a stop had to be made to recover vitality. We had to literally drag ourselves into camp and so fatigued that every step seemed the last one possible, but after a wonderful feed prepared by Floyd and Cy our spirits were soon revivified — a few yarns by the fireside with sleeping dogs on the floor, then the welcome wool, a seeming few minutes of the densest slumber, then the morning call of the cook to “come and get ‘er,” and we were again fresh and ready for another day in the wilderness.

Time approached for homeward plans preceded by the days set apart for the open deer season — two trips on the ridges west of the ranch and our quota filled — chosen from among dozens of possibilities. Then the trail to the “outside” and back to city life— indeed a far cry from those idyllic days in America’s last frontier — days of opportunity which come to few men and, as time flies, opportunities which will soon be no more for this treasureland of big game will go like the rest of America’s outdoor heritages.

As I write comes from Shellworth a copy of the bill sponsored by the friends of conservation and passed by the legislature of the state of Idaho creating the Middle Fork Salmon River Game Preserve, whose west boundary comes just east of the Dave Lewis ranch. This does not cover the region of our hunt. The Middle Fork Game Refuge will likely in time become a national game preserve and it ought to — else we are dealing unfair toward posterity. The people of Idaho are nobly conserving their big game resources — and before it is too late.

Outdoor Life June 1925

Courtesy Sandy McRae: “I found the Outdoor Magazine in the William Edwards old Big Creek house in the 1950s.”

Link to Outdoor Life June 1925.pdf
Link to Outdoor Life 1925-06: Vol 55 Iss 6

Further Reading

Link to More Dave Lewis photos from the Idaho State Historical Society

“Cougar Dave, Mountain Man of Idaho” by Pat Cary Peek
Link to Book at Amazon
The state of Idaho named a mountain for him when he died in 1936. Cougar Dave Lewis, miner, guide and bounty hunter, was as wild and free as the mountain, as independent and solitary, as unfathomable and some would say as stubborn and immovable as the peak that bears his name. He lived alone in the center of what is now the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and played a part in establishing the original Idaho Primitive Area…

Link to 1928 Photos Warm Lake to Yellow Pine to Big Creek to Cougar Dave Lewis Ranch. Harry Shellworth Album Idaho State Historical Society, photographer Ansgar Johnson Sr.

Link to Cougar Dave Lewis Part 1
Link to Cougar Dave Lewis Part 2
Link to Cougar Dave Lewis Part 3
Link to Taylor Ranch History
Link to Frank Church Wilderness
Link to Big Creek / Edwardsburg Index Page

Link to Deer Hunting
Link to Elk Hunting
Link to Idaho Hunting Stories
Link to A Hunt in the Rockies 1892
Link to The Carlin Party Tragedy

Page updated October 2, 2022