June 01, 2008

When on the Trail a Griz' You Meet

Yesterday I rode out in the early morning with a group of riders (code for a motley group of cowboys, herders and horsemen) to visit the gravesite of the most famous and notorious of all grizzly bears to have ever roamed the backcountry of Utah - Old Ephraim. Old Ephraim was an outlaw bear who was trapped and killed in 1923 after a long career of terrorizing the stockmen of Cache Valley.

We reached the gravesite after some pretty rough cross-country riding over the "Old Ephraim Cuttoff". In 1966 or so local Boy Scouts and their leaders erected a stone monument to Old Ephraim. We found the place. In that neck of the woods (the rugged mountains south of Logan Canyon), they say to bring your sleeping bag, because you will probably get lost. We didn't and made it back out in good order. A complete recounting of the tale is found right below the poem.

I first heard this story from my grandfather during deer hunting trips in Franklin Basin, just east of Preston, Idaho, which is located in northern Cache Valley. We have a familial connection to this fabled episode of the opening of the West. My great uncle, Ed Sommers (married to my grandmother's sister Zelda) ran one of the largest herds of sheep in Cache Valley and surrounding mountains from the turn of the 20th century and on through to the Great Depression. He hired his sons (and others including my father Reese Kern) Ken Sommers and Fred Sommers to herd the sheep in the mountains during the summer months. The night when Fred Clark trapped and killed Old Ephraim, Fred Sommers was camped nearby with the family herd. He was only 13 or 14 years old at the time but reported that the human ear has never heard such fury as came from Old Ephraim that night. It echoed through the canyons and trees creating such a hellish commotion never to be forgotten. Fred was one of the first on the scene. He later made the rounds telling the tale of Old Ephraim to rapt audiences.

I wrote this poem several years ago about a personal encounter with a large silver tipped grizzly bear on the trail in the Bridger Teton Wilderness Area, south of Yellowstone National Park. In the backcountry of Idaho and Wyoming you have to be prepared for encounters with bears. I have lost count of all the bears that I have come across in the mountains. There are many ways to take care of yourself during such an encounter ranging from avoidance to the use of firearms to the use of pepper spray to playing dead if you have to. Sometimes there is more to worry about than just the bear - your horse for instance.

When On The Trail a Griz’ You Meet
by Paul Kern

A grizzly on the trail we met,
Headed downhill so it couldn’t get,
A full head of steam and a running start,
To grab us and then to pull us apart.

But it probably wouldn’t have anyway,
In front of the bear stood that day,
Three mounted horses whose footfall,
Gave no clue that we were human at all.

We stood there and faced off each other,
Twenty yards 'tween bear 'n boot leather,
When the silver tipped griz’ finished countin’,
It then turned and headed up the mountain.

You see, it’s that shuffling biped booted gait,
Of a human that makes hair stand up straight,
On the backs of the necks of the forest clan,
Who run from it as fast as they can.

The cleated soles and stumbling sound,
Travel the area with a constant pound,
Much too heavy for the weight of the walker,
Compared to the paws of a forest stalker.

But put that biped on the back of a horse,
And travel across a mountain course,
Then much to your own disbelief,
The critters don’t run away like a thief.

The closer you get the more curious they are,
They just want to see this thing from afar,
So they stand there lookin’ and waitin,
Calm and collected with no trepidation.

It’s the beast that’s all covered with tack,
The one who’s withers and saddle back,
Are down below and between your legs,
He’s nervous as heck and walkin’ on eggs.

Meetin’ up with these curious creatures,
With such odd lookin’ unhorse features,
No flowing tails nor matching manes,
In the face of danger his courage wanes.

Don’t worry ‘bout that bear you meet,
Standing on the trail on all four feet,
The six-footed creature he sees through his eyes -
Your horse - could give you a big surprise.

Move fast he thinks, run down the trail,
Away from the grizzly – quick turn tail.
Somethin’ could come loose inside of his head,
You’re riding your very own hazard instead.

So lower your heels and shorten your reins,
Your buddy the horse feels in his veins,
To make a dash away from the bruin,
His claws, his teeth and most certain ruin.

Just stay calm on that saddletree,
Stay together in your group of three,
Shorten the reins and take a good seat,
When on the trail a griz’ you meet.

The Story of Old Efphraim
by Newell J. Crookston

Old Ephraim and Frank Clark were truly great characters who lived and died in this area. In writing this story about them it is my purpose to present the facts in such a way that they will interest the young folk, especially the Boy Scouts of the Cache Valley Council; with the hope it will help preserve the story and keep these rugged individuals alive in the hearts and minds of those who read it, for many years to come.

The information is taken from a copy of the account written by Mr. Clark at the request of Viola Schantz, Zoologist Branch of Wildlife Service, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., as published in the Herald Journal, Tuesday, February 24, 1953, and from hearing Mr. Clark tell the story to groups of Boy Scouts and their leaders around a campfire not far from Ephraim’s grave, also from Henry Aebischer who went with the group and got Ephraim’s head.

Sincere appreciation is expressed to Marianna C. Israelsen who drew the sketch of the bear.

Frank Clark was a little discouraged and perhaps somewhat disgusted when he arrived at his trap that he had set in the wallow a day or two ago. It had been removed from the muddy water and placed upon the bank. The huge tracks of the giant bear were plainly visible in the dust around the pool. Clark knew it was Old Ephraim who had taken the trap out of the wallow so he could enjoy his mud bath without the danger of getting caught in it. He had been doing this all along for several summers, each time removing the trap without setting it off. This great grizzly had been given the name of Ephraim because of his enormous size and prodigious nature. As Clark stood there looking at the trap and wallow he said to himself, “Sometime I will outsmart that old bear and will catch him.” This was the morning of August 22, 1923.

Mr. Clark’s home was on Cherry Creek near Malad, Idaho. He was a quiet sort of a fellow, not much given to talking. I suppose that is because he spent so much time alone. At his sheep camp he seldom had a visitor or saw a newspaper during the entire summer. The camp mover would come there about every six or eight days. He would bring some grub, as they called it, and move the camp to a new spot. As they moved to higher areas they left the camp wagon and used a tent for shelter. It would be set up near a spring or a stream of clear water. Mr. Clark knew these hills like a preacher knows the Bible. There was not a trail, spring or creek that he was not acquainted with. He was a very versatile man, as were other sheep-herders of that day. They had to do their cooking, take care of their clothing, be their own doctor in case of an accident or of sickness, shoe the horses and do many other things that require training and skill, as one can well imagine. He was not entirely alone however. There were three things that were always with him. His horse, his dog and his gun.

There were always tow or three horses and dogs around the camp. The horses were for transportation and were used every day, as he rounded up the sheep to keep them from spreading out too far and moving them onto good feed. One or two dogs always went along with him to help with the job. The others would remain at camp. They took turns with the work, as did the horses. The gun was carried in a scabbard on the saddle and was used mostly to kill marauding wild animals that ventured near the sheep. Mr. Clark carried a .25-35 rifle, which would hold six or eight bullets. He was an expert shot.

When Mr. Clark came to this area July 13, 1911 to herd sheep it was considered the worst bear infested area in Utah. Black and brown bear were numerous and each year a number of them were trapped and killed, but not Old Ephraim, he was a little too clever. Only one man had ever actually seen him. That was Mr. Clark’s pal Sam Kemp from Portage, Utah. Sam was tending sheep in this area the summer of 1913. One morning Sam came almost face to face with Ephraim. As the huge bear rose up on his hind legs, Sam became so frightened and unnerved that he backed slowly away. He was fully armed but could not and dared not fire a shot. So they parted in a friendly manner, going in opposite directions.

This great king of Cache National Forest was widely known. His nightly killings had been going on for years. His activities were first observed in the north end of the forest near Soda Springs, Idaho. Over the years he drifted south as far as Weber County, but for the past ten or twelve years he made his home in the upper areas of the right hand fork of Logan Canyon, Elk Valley and Temple Fork. He had made his wallow about half way up a hollow where water from a spring trickles down the ravine. He would make his visits to the sheep herds for meat and return to the wallow about every six days. Sometimes he would stay around there for two or three days in the weather was hot.

Bears feed on a variety of wild fruits, pinion nuts, rodents and fish. They also like to eat grass and clover, and other green plants; in fact, they will eat almost any kind of food, but once they get a taste of a cow or sheep and learned how easy they are to get, they are not content to leave them alone. Old Ephraim could break the back of a cow or elk with a single blow of his huge paw, but preferred to kill sheep rather than cows.

Bears can’t see very far, but do have a very keen sense of smell and can hear fairly well. They can run fast, too. They can easily out run a horse in the woods. They locate the sheep herds as soon as they come onto the range, and follow them all summer, killing sheep whenever they like. They don’t always wait until it gets dark. They like to kill at daybreak as the sheep start to graze. After they have eaten what they want, coyotes come along and clean up the rest leaving a few scraps for the birds.

Frank Clark was not afraid of bears. He had killed forty-three in the thirty-four years he had spent on Cache National Forest. Government trappers were trapping in his area, trying to get rid of some of the bears. They were getting too numerous and were killing a large number of sheep every summer. Mr. Clear counted one hundred and fifty dead sheep the first summer he came here. The bears were bad killers and scared the herders until they would not stay on the job. The sheep owners were having a hard time getting men to go up there to tend the sheep. Just the day before Mr. Clark went to his trap, eight sheep had been killed in the Reese herd. The bears were not content to ill one or two sheep and eat them, but would run through the herd and knock over as many as they could hit, then take own or two and go.

Even though Clark was discouraged, he was going to keep on trying to catch Ephraim. He put the trap back into the wallow, covered his tracks, also the log chain; then went back to his camp which was about a mile down the hollow near the head of the right fork of Logan Canyon. He knew Old Ephraim would be killing more sheep and would return again to his allow and maybe step into the trap.

The next morning Clark went to the bear wallow to see if anything had happened. There was the trap upon the bank again. This time, however, it had been spring but it didn’t catch the bear. It must have made him suspicious because he had dug a new pool below the other one and drained some water into it. He had taken his bath in it and gone on his way rejoicing. It seems like in the hot August days he wanted to bath every night. It was strange to Clark that an animal as large as him could keep out of sight in the day time. In all these years he had been seen only once. His large tracks were easily seen where he had gone in and out of the pool, so there was no doubt in Clark’s mind who removed the trap and made the new wallow. Clark wasn’t about to give up and decided to make another try at catching him. He set the huge trap again and put it into the new wallow. He stirred the mud good—let it settle over the trap, then covered the log chain and log which was on the outside of the pool attached to the far end of the chain. The log was about one foot in diameter and nine feet long—heavy enough that the bear could drag it if he got caught in the trap. Trappers do not attach the chain of a trap to a solid object because in such a case the bear, if caught in the trap, would chew his foot off or break it off at the jaws of the trap. Clark then got some willows and made a brush with which he removed his tracks from around the pool and made the place look like it had not been disturbed, then went about tending the sheep.

The night of August twenty-third was a beautiful starry night. After supper as Clark sat alone gazing at millions of bright stars so familiar to him in his outdoor life, he could hear the tinkling of bells on the necks of the horses as they were feeding in the meadows and on the hillsides nearby, and now and then the sad call of the lonely coyote—all else was still. The sheep had bedded down for the night, the birds had gone to rest and his dogs were curled up on saddle blankets under the sheep wagon. It was getting late so Clark went to bed. He had been to sleep about an hour or two when he was awakened by a strange sound up the hollow. It was an awful roar and screams mingled with pain and misery. It would ring around the hills and between screams it seemed like everything in the hills was listening for the next roar. He tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t.

Clark didn’t know that Ephraim had gone to his new wallow and in a moment of carelessness had stepped on the trigger of the trap. The mighty jaws of the steel trap had snapped shut on his right leg with viselike grip. Ephraim roared, jumped out of the wallow and started to run. He was terrified when the chain that was fastened to the trap and log stopped him. Old time bear hunters say there is nothing that will enrage a grizzly bear so much as to be caught and held in a trap. The next similar situation is when a mother grizzly is defending her cubs when they are in danger. The enraged Ephraim fought and gnawed at the trap and chain as he dragged the log down the hollow. Finally the log caught between some trees and held him fast. He roared and plunged and fought will all his savage fury. The jaw as of the great trap held his leg in its solid grip. He could not get it off, so started to work on the chain. He followed it to the log and tried to break it loose, but it was fastened securely. There was a ring on the end of the chain and the chain had but put thought it as it had been placed around the log. Ephraim bit at the ring, twisting, crushing and turning until it broke in two. His mouth was bleeding and one of his great teeth was broken off. Now he was free from the log, he started down the hollow again. He was badly hurt—he had been tricked by man and he was going to get revenge.

It is written that the grizzly bear in his primitive state was a very peaceful animal—one who would not start a fight, but when he got into one would fight to the finish. Over the years, man with his rifle has changed the nature of the grizzly and made him the most ferocious fighter of all animals. They all fear him and keep out of his way.

Ephraim bit at the trap and chain but could not get free from its powerful grip, the more he tore at the trap the more severe the pain became. He was raging mad. He knew where Clark’s camp was. He had seen it many times and seemed to know it was Clark who set the trap for him and he was going there and fight it out with him. He screamed with pain and roared with anger as he smashed through the trees and brush in the darkness of the night.

After listening to the roaring and screaming for some time, Clark thought it might be a horse down. They make an awful noise in their agony when they get down. He put on his shoes, got his rifle and in his underwear went up the trail about three or four hundred yards. He hadn’t gone far when he realized that Ephraim had got caught in the trap and was coming down the hollow. The roaring had stopped for a few minutes as Clark went on up the trail. He stopped when the roaring stared again. Ephraim was now between him and his camp, down in the wash in the brush. Clark had walked within about ten feet of him as he was going up the trail. Clark was now shaking from fear and cold—mostly fear. For once he was really scared. He had killed many bears, but this was different. This was a fierce raging grizzly—the largest one ever seen in this country, and it was dark. He was sure there were seven cartridges in his .25-35—all steel balls. What should he do now? Both sides of the hollow were covered with brush. He couldn’t get off the trail in the darkness, so decided to keep quiet and listen to the animal the rest of the night.

Daylight at last and Clark plenty mad went down where he last heard the bear. It was under some willows in a wash. Clark couldn’t see him very well so he got a pole and tried to poke him out. He slipped away and went down near the camp and hid in a patch of willows. Clark went down there and got sight of a part of him and took a shot at very close range. Ephraim rose up in all his greatness—nine feet and eleven inches with the twenty-three pound bear trap clamped on his right foot and the fourteen foot log chain would around his leg held high above his head. His back was toward Clark, the trap sill above his head. He turned around and started for Clark. When he got about ten feel away Clark fired. He staggered back a little—another shot, again he staggered—three more shots and Ephraim still on his hind feet with the trap and chain held above his head. There was a three or for foot bank between him and Clark. When Ephraim came to it he turned around and walked up the creek about fifteen or twenty feet to a place where a trail crossed the creek. Clark thought Ephraim had had enough and was going away, but not so, for him the battle was still on and he was looking for a way to get to Clark. He came up out of the brush and onto the trail that Clark was on. Clark was filled with amazement as he got his first view of the entire body of the great bear. He appeared to be at least twelve feel tall with the trap held high above his head. His right leg, head, neck and breast were smeared with blood from the wounds of his mouth and foot and the six balls of steel that entered his body. Clark could see blood squirting from his nostrils at each breath and blood and foam dripping from his snarling open mouth as he started for him. He had never before backed away from a bear, but this blood smeared charging monster was too much for him. He stared to step back and caught his heel on some brush and fell flat on his back. He scrambled to his feet as quickly as he could and started down the trail with Old Ephraim close behind. As he rounded a turn he heard his dog Jennie barking. It had appeared at the scene for the first time and was biting at the bear’s heels. Bears don’t like dogs and Ephraim stopped to fight him. Clark burned back and urged the dog on. As Ephraim turned to hit the dog, Clark stepped up as close as he dare and fired the remaining shot into the back of the bear’s head, with a prayer in his heart that it would finish him. It did. The massive form of the great beast fell forward, rolled a little and hit the ground with a thud only a short distance from Clark. A strange, faint, sick feeling came over him. His knees were shaking and buckled as he sat down beside the trail and watched a great spirit depart from a great body. It seemed like a long time, finally Ephraim’s head raised just a little, looked Clark in the eyes and fell to the ground again and all was still.

Was Clark happy? No, he was not happy—only thankful it was all over. He decided then and there he would never kill another bear and he never did.

Mr. Clark now had an urgent desire to see a human being, so went to his camp, dressed, got a rope and went to find his horses which had been frightened away by the terrifying roaring during the night. He want on and on—finally finding one horse on its back in a wash with its hind foot caught in the hobbles that were on his front feet. He removed the hobbles and got the horse on its feet then rode to Sheep Creek to the camp of Joe Brown and had breakfast with him. He then told Joe about his battle with Old Ephraim and asked him to go back there with him.

When they got to Ephraim, Joe was not about to get off his horse, but finally did after Clark had assured him the bear was dead. He measured, nine feet, eleven inches. They estimated him to weigh well over 1000 pounds. They removed the trap and skinned the bear, leaving the head on the body. The hide was almost an inch thick. Clark took it to his camp. Later on he gave the claws away as souvenirs. They tried to drag the body away from the creek but couldn’t, so covered it with brush and set fire to it. For three days Clark continued to burn the body then burred what was left of it.

The news of the killing of this great grizzly, the last one known in these parts soon spread from sheep camp to sheep camp, and the herders rejoiced in the fact that they would not have to worry about him any more.

Dr. George R. Hill, who was Scoutmaster of Troop Five of Logan, heard about Ephraim being killed and reported the incident to the Smithsonian Institution at Washington D. C., indicating that the bear was a very large grizzly. The officials at the Institution doubted that the bear was a grizzly and offered twenty-five dollars for its head if it proved to be a grizzly. They maintained that there had been a few grizzly bears in this area many years ago, but they had long since left.

Dr. Hill suggested to his scouts that they get the head and send it to the Institution. They were all eager to go. He got a map from the Forest Service and took it to Mr. Clark who marked a cross on it indicating where the grave was located. Preparation for the excursion was made and they were on their way about the middle of October. The group included Henry Aebischer, Alma Burgoyne, Harold Rosengreen, Lester Dunford, Fred Hodgson, Henry Daines, Herbert May, Horace Bunce, Ezra Cardon, J. Clare Hayward, Ivan Burgoyne, Jack McGree and probably others, with the leader, Dr. Hill. They camped at the Scout Cabin at the mouth of Cowley Canyon and left for the grave early the next morning. They went up Box Canyon, which appeared on the map to be the shortest, but proved to be the most difficult route. By mid-morning it started to rain and snow and got quite cold. Some of the boys weren’t very anxious to continue the trip. They finally arrived at the hollow about one-half mile above the mouth of Long Hollow. Dr. Hill soon located the mound and they began digging. They had with them a pick and shovel and a box to put the head in. The grave wasn’t very deep and they soon found the body and removed the head. The hair on one side had been burned a little; otherwise it was in good condition. The odor however was anything but pleasant. Some of the boys wanted a vertebra to make into a neckerchief slide so they removed part of the spinal column and took it with them. After filling the grave, they took the head, which was large enough to fill a bushel basket, and put it into a box and it was carried to camp by Dr. Hill and the boys. He took it to his chemistry lab at the college where he cleaned it up and prepared it for shipment and sent it to the Smithsonian Institution where it now rests. The twenty-five dollars was subsequently received and used by the Scouts.

A rock monument has been placed at Ephraim’s grave designating the time of his death and other facts about him. Many scouts visit the spot each year. They love to hear the story of this great grizzly.

Links for more information and photos of Old Ephraim's skull:


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