Life as a Camp Cook in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness

Salmon, Idaho’s proximity to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness makes it a popular destination for wilderness visitors of all stripes. This accessibility also attracts wilderness enthusiasts and professionals who make Salmon their home year-round. These residents can be river guides, BLM and Forest Service employees, trail workers, and hunting guides, among others. This eclectic mix makes for a colorful community, full of people brimming with passion for Idaho’s wild spaces. One such resident is Kristin Baungard. I recently caught up with Kristin to learn more about her unique job as a camp cook at a remote backcountry hunt camp.

Q: How did you get involved with hunting operations? Why did you become a camp cook?

A: I hate to say it, but it was because of a boy. Well, I guess a man. I was in my mid-20s and had spent several summers working as a river guide on multiple rivers, but the Middle Fork of the Salmon held a special place in my heart. One summer, I fell for a guide from another company while working some Middle Fork trips. I had to leave to go work on the Grand Canyon, so I got his address. We exchanged a flurry of letters and postcards, sending them to various backcountry mail drops. In one letter, he asked me if I wanted to be the camp cook at the hunting operation where he guided in the fall. Without a second thought, I scrawled “Yes.” across a postcard, dropped in the mail at Phantom Ranch, and started planning my trip. Because of complicated scheduling, I did not see him again until I got off the plane at the backcountry airstrip. He and the other crew members were waiting for me ]with a full pack string of mules and horses, prepared to ride the 10 or so miles into camp. In my hasty postcard, I had conveniently left out the fact that I am very allergic to horses and I had never hunted, but that is a story for another day.

Q: What did you think when you first saw hunt camp? Describe the setup.

A: The hunt camp is in the Frank Church Wilderness near Big Creek. Guests arrive at camp by flying into the nearest airstrip, a dirt runway approximately four hours away from the outpost. When guests arrive, they and their gear are loaded onto mules and horses for the trek to camp. When we arrive at camp, the hunters separate into their wall tents. Each wall tent sleeps two hunters and is heated by a woodstove. The tents surround the cook tent, where the camp kitchen and common area are located. In camp we also have a corral for the horses and a spring for drinking water. A creek runs nearby and the view of the surrounding wilderness is astounding. When I first arrived, I was surprised by how comfortable everything was, while still maintaining the remote feel that such a huge wilderness provides.

Q: Camp sounds comfortable, but I’m guessing that the hunters don’t spend much time there during the day. What is a day like for the hunters?

A: The hunters wake up just before dawn when a guide comes into their tent to fire up the woodstove. They are told to stay in their sleeping bags until the tent is warm, then they can prepare for the day. After the wake-up call, everyone comes to the cook tent for coffee and hot breakfast. Breakfast is different every day, but biscuits and gravy are a crowd favorite. After breakfast, the hunters pair off with their guides and head to the lookout rock. This viewpoint allows a vista of the surrounding area, perfect for spotting game. The crew then heads out, usually on foot, for a day of hunting. Weather permitting, they stay out until dusk, when they return for dinner and a night in camp. After dinner, there is the opportunity to sit by the fire, swap stories, and admire the jaw-dropping views of the night sky before turning in and starting over the next day.

Q: This all seems like a luxurious way to experience the wilderness. I am betting your day might not be so plush. What is a typical day like for a camp cook?

A: I wouldn’t call it luxurious, but my typical day is pretty awesome. I wake up around 4:30 to get the fire started in the cook tent. The fire warms the tent but also provides my heat source for cooking. I cook breakfast in the dark and prepare sack lunches for the hunters. Once I have them packed off for their day of hunting, my camp chores begin. I clean up the kitchen and then straighten the hunters’ tents–restocking wood, sweeping the floors, and tending the woodstoves. After tidying camp, I turn to my horse chores. We generally have 12 to 15 horses and mules in camp. Due to our remote location, we cannot bring all the food they will need for the stint we spend out there. Fortunately, there are ample food sources in the Frank Church. We turn the animals out each night to graze, so I have to go wrangle them each morning. Generally, they stay near camp because they know where their grain comes from. After locating the horses (a task that can take anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours) I bring them back to camp and corral them. Depending on the day, I may saddle up a string and take them out to a predetermined location so that the hunters can ride them out at the end of the day. After the horses are taken care of, I start dinner preparation and await the hunters. My days are pretty busy but also very fulfilling.

Q: If you spend so much time separated from the crew, how do you communicate with the hunters and hunting guides?

A: Well, one of the best things about the wilderness is the way it forces us to change our patterns. We pride ourselves on not depending on any unnecessary technology, eschewing the use of satellite phones, satellite texters, or even walkie-talkies. The crew I work with is very knowledgeable and experienced, and we have found that a well-laid plan in the morning seems to work for us. I also know that if I hear a gunshot, I should walk out and see if they were successful. If they were, I’ll bring a string out to pack out the animal. I think the simplicity of our days in the wilderness might be one of my favorite parts of the job.

Q: This conversation has made me ready to plan my trip. What is the best time to book a hunting trip in the Frank Church Wilderness?

It depends on what you’re looking for. People come to the Frank Church to hunt elk, mule deer, bear, sheep, goats, and predators, with elk and deer being the most popular.  Our hunting season starts with elk hunts from mid-September to late October. Mule deer hunts begin in late October and run to mid-November. For the non-hunters, several outfits also offer amazing backcountry fishing packages in the early fall.

Corralled at Camp - Salmon, ID
Corralled at Camp - Salmon Idaho wilderness
image: dog at camp on watch
Annie at the Lookout Rock

Q: What keeps you coming back to the wilderness year after year?

A: Most of my favorite memories were made in the Frank, whether on a rafting trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, a backpacking trip through the Bighorn Crags, or my annual hitch as the camp cook. In hunt camp more than anywhere else, I really begin to comprehend the vastness and enormity of the wilderness that surrounds me. I enjoy getting to see the area from a different vantage point than I have in the summers while river guiding. I also appreciate the opportunity to share my love of the wilderness with other individuals who value nature. I guess I should point out that it was a man that got me into hunt camp, but it is my love of wild spaces that keeps me there. I am engaged to that hunting guide now though–so that doesn’t hurt!

Photo Credits to: Sena Strenge and Kristin Baunsgard

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