Old Ephraim: Logan Canyon bear's
legend improves with age
Old Ephraim's skull, bottom. / Photo courtesy of
By Brad Plothow
April 13, 2006 | LOGAN -- Frank Clark didn't tell fish
stories. His big catch was a grizzly bear named Old
Clark, a sheepherder with Ward Clark Co., became enthralled
with hunting the beast, but for nearly a decade Old
Eph eluded him. The creature, widely thought to be the
last grizzly in the Bear River Mountains, was a mammoth
-- 10 feet tall and more than a half ton, according
Clark claims to have killed Old Eph in August 1923
somewhere in the "right hand fork of Logan Canyon."
He burned and buried the carcass, and a group of Boy
Scouts later retrieved the skull and sold it to the
Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Today, the
skull is on display in the Tanner Reading Room of Utah
State University's library.
Reduced to a skull, Old Eph is still the stuff of
legend. In fact, the lore surrounding the grizzly may
have fuzzed some of the facts. How big was the beast?
Was it really the last grizzly in Northern Utah? Is
the skull cared for by USU's Special Collections and
Archives really Old Eph's?
The facts are beside the point, says USU archivist
"He (Clark) may have extrapolated from many bear hunting
stories. He was a consummate storyteller," Parson said.
"These bear stories get better with age -- they're like
cheese or wine. But the Old Ephraim legend is important.
I don't think it's nearly as important to disprove that
That sentiment is shared by many who know the tale
of Clark and Ephraim. Larry Cantwell for years played
the part of Clark during reenactments of the famed hunting
expedition at Cache Valley's Festival of the American
West, and he shared Parson's notion as long as a decade
"The facts are secondary," Cantwell told the Cache
Citizen, a weekly newspaper, in 1985. "Frank Clark
actually said (he killed the grizzly). If he was lying
through his teeth, it wouldn't matter. People have accepted
the story for years."
Fact, fiction or perhaps some of both, the legend
of Old Ephraim still lives.
Clark had an affinity for animals, but he loathed
bears. In a 1923 letter to William Peterson, then the
director of USU's Agricultural Experiment Station, Clark
wrote, "Do you know how a bear kills his prey, or rather
devours it alive? ŬIf he is (hungry) he kills the first
one by devouring it alive, if not so hungry he eats
what he wants and lets it go to a lingering death."
As a sheep herder, Clark was especially bothered by
the havoc bears wreaked on local herds. In 1911, Clark's
first year herding sheep, he charged bears with the
deaths of 154 sheep. Clark became obsessed with hunting
bears. Parson estimates that Clark killed roughly 40
of the animals between 1914 and 1943.
Clark was born in Malad, Idaho, in 1879. He died in
1960, 37 years after he claims to have bagged Old Eph,
and was buried in Lot 5 of the Malad Cemetary.
Old Eph was already legendary by the time Clark became
fixated on his demise. Trappers and hunters spread the
tale of the 10-foot, half-ton killer that roamed Logan's
Orsen Ryan, who moved to Logan in 1921, said in a
1950 radio interview with KVNU's Reed Bullen that President
Theodore Roosevelt heard about Old Eph while hunting
near the Snake River in Idaho. An avid hunter, Roosevelt
decided not to pursue the beast because "he made up
his mind that there was no such animal." A bear that
massive was merely the stuff of imagination, he thought.
The president was probably right. The Smithsonian
determined the skull did belong to a grizzly, but Barrie
Gilbert, senior scientist for USU's forest, range and
wildlife sciences department, says it was not as large
as Clark believed.
"It was fairly monstrous," Gilbert said. "Compared
to Yukon bears, the skull was bigger. But there's no
way it was 1,100 pounds. Some bears that weigh that
much have about 300 pounds of fat and eat hundreds of
salmon. Some bears in (local mountain ranges) are starving."
Gilbert examined the skull purported to be Old Eph's.
He said it was more than 15 inches long and more than
8 inches wide.
"Based on skull measurements, Old Eph was not one
of the world's 12 largest grizzlies," Gilbert said.
A larger skull was found in Yellowstone, he said, and
that animal weighed about 550 pounds. Gilbert called
that grizzly "a big bear." It's possible that the bear
looked 10 feet tall on its hind legs, Gilbert said,
but a more realistic weight was 550 pounds.
The bear's age was estimated the same way scientists
date trees. One of the fangs was sliced, and the rings
were counted. The test showed the bear to be less than
10 years old, but Gilbert suggested otherwise.
"There is often inaccuracy with counting rings," he
said. "My guess is [the bear was] older than that."
Clark grew to like the taste of bear meat. "It is
good meat if you don't see it before it's skinned,"
Clark said in a written account of his hunt in 1923.
But it wasn't his palate that drove him to hunt Old
Eph. It was obsession.
George Hill, a former professor at the University
of Utah and son of the scout leader who found the skull,
said Clark's fixation on eradicating bears drove him
to "a fierce psychosis." Indeed, Clark said, "I have
sworn eternal vengeance on bears and it shall be mine."
By 1923, Clark had become familiar with Old Eph's
migration habits. The beast was easy to track because
of a deformed paw -- three toes. Clark had taken shots
at and laid traps for Old Eph before, but to no avail.
If it was the last grizzly, then it certainly made Clark's
extermination efforts difficult.
According to his written account, Clark laid a trap
near his camp, about 20 miles up canyon from Logan,
on Aug. 21, 1923. That evening, Clark's slumber was
interrupted by "a roar and groan near camp." Old Eph
had his paw caught in the steel jaws of the 23-pound
Clark thought the growling and bellowing came from
his dog. He checked. She was silent. It couldn't have
come from another trapper or hunter. The nearest person
was three miles away, Clark thought.
Clark tried to go back to sleep, but the noise was
too much. He got up and slipped on his shoes, but not
his pants. He took his gun, a 25-35 cal. carbine, and
seven ball cartridges and started down the trail. "It
was darker than hell and plenty cold," Clark said in
Perhaps the dark explains why he thought he'd caught
a horse in his trap. Clark was overjoyed, yet anxious,
when he saw Old Eph standing there, the chain from the
trap wrapped around his paw. Clark's amusement quickly
morphed into fear when the bear began to charge him.
Standing atop a 4-foot bank, Clark was able to unload
six of his seven rounds into the beast. Old Eph was
spouting blood from his nose with every breath, but
still would not die.
One shot left.
"I gave him the last bullet in the brain," Clark said
of the shot that felled Old Eph. "I think I felt sorry
I had to do it."
It was not the joyful feeling he expected to accompany
his nine-year crusade, now complete. In fact, Clark
told the Deseret News in 1959 that he wished
he had not killed the bear.
"Was I happy? No, and if I had it to do over, I wouldn't
do it," Clark told reporter Chris Nielsen.
Clark skinned Old Eph and then burned and buried the
body. He marked the bear's grave with stones. As an
epitaph for Old Eph, Clark "told the story to hundreds
of scouts at the grave."
Led by George R. Hill, a scout troop later went to
where the beast's remains were believed to be. They
dug up the skull, which was partially burned, and sold
it to the Smithsonian for $25. Grizzlies were widely
believed to be extinct in the continental U.S. at the
time, so the Smithsonian was excited to confirm that
this was indeed a grizzly's skull.
"The Smithsonian didn't care whose skull it was,"
Parson said. "They wanted to confirm it was a grizzly."
That fact was confirmed. It's one of the few facts
about the skull that has been substantiated.
Sen. Orrin Hatch helped bring the skull back to Utah
in the 1970s, where USU kept it on loan from the Smithsonian.
Today, the skull still belongs to the Smithsonian, but
is on permanent loan to the university.
Facts or fables
Old Ephraim got its name from a P.T. Barnum story
about a bear that terrorizes a California community.
Clark said he believed the bear was 10 feet tall because
he once saw it bite a branch off an aspen tree that
was 9 feet, 11 inches off the ground. "Now these are
facts and not fiction," Clark contended.
The skull did belong to a grizzly; the Smithsonian
confirmed that. Whether it was the famed Old Eph is
uncertain, although Parson believes Clark's story holds
"As far as we can tell, it's the last grizzly ever
evident this far into the Wasatch mountain range," Parson
said. "There might have still been grizzlies, there
may still be grizzly bears. To my knowledge, there's
never been another one since [Old Eph's] death."
After Clark's infamous encounter with the beast, news
of Old Eph's demise, and the outlandish circumstances
surrounding his death, spread. Even some during Clark's
time believed the story became distorted as it was passed
through the rumor mill. In a letter to Clark dated Feb.
12, 1953, Cache National Forest Ranger Owen M. De Spain
said he'd heard people sharing versions of Clark's story
that had "no resemblance of the facts."
"It is disgusting to me," De Spain said of the gossip.
"For this reason we would like you permission to have
your story printed in the Logan paper just as you have
On Feb. 16, 1953, Clark responded to the request and
OK'd the printing. His story appeared in the Feb. 24,
1953, edition of the Herald Journal under the
headline, "Thots and Things: Here's the story of Old
Ephraim by the man who bagged him."
The legend grew from there and now is part of Cache
Valley lore. Clark's story may be completely accurate,
a blurred account from an obsessed man or just a "big
fish" story that keeps growing.
Whatever the case, the legend of Old Ephraim has its
rightful place in local legend, Parson said.
"When it comes right down to it, it's not important
whether every single solitary aspect of the story is
true. I don't think there's ever been a bear story told
that's completely accurate," he said. "The most important
thing is that it's a viable legend. It's a good story."