These are some of the questions I've been asked about my recent 10 day trek across the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho. My objective was to film for Outdoor Idaho the sights and sounds, the beauty and utter ruggedness of the second largest wilderness area in the lower 48.
By the way, my answer to the above questions was “no.” Actually, my worst trip problem was with eutamias amoenus. But, more about that later.
This is the 50th anniversary of the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964. It set aside special places across our nation “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
For this golden anniversary, Outdoor Idaho is focusing its lens on our state's seven designated wilderness areas in an unprecedented, one hour documentary, coming this December.
What drew me to this project was that I've always wanted to hike across the Frank. There is something about this place and its human history that captured my imagination. I have piloted several rafts down the fabled Middle Fork of the Salmon River and briefly visited Cabin Creek and the research center at Taylor Ranch. But there is much more to the Frank that I wanted to experience.
Last August, I retired as general manager for Idaho Public Television; so I had the time to both prepare and make this journey. Outdoor Idaho wanted to include a broad video profile of the Frank, a 2.4 million acre wilderness managed by the Forest Service, and I was interested in volunteering my time to the effort. Luckily, Jeff Tucker, director of content for Idaho Public Television, agreed to join me part-way down Big Creek River at Cabin Creek airstrip. A good thing, because I didn't relish the notion of a solo trek. Together, we tackled the challenge of capturing, on video, the sights and sounds of this immense and diverse landscape.
The Frank has intrigued me for decades. It is big and remote, with its deeply forested reaches on the west side, its crystal clear rivers of Big Creek, Monumental and the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and the near-mythical Bighorn Crags of the east side. These elements, combined with the region's rich human history — both native peoples and rough-neck miners, ranchers and loners — provide the backdrop to a place few people will ever experience.
My journey across the Frank began in mid-July at the western trailhead entry point near the landing strip at Big Creek, 50 bone-jarring, dirt-road miles due east of McCall, Idaho.
The route would follow Big Creek River due east, past several large recent landslides, past Monumental Creek, Cabin Creek and Taylor Ranch (the University of Idaho's wilderness research center), to the confluence with the legendary Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
The path then ascended the aptly named Waterfall Creek Trail more than 5,000 feet over 11 miles, into the remarkable Bighorn Crags mountains that border the east side of the Frank. Our destination was beautiful Ship Island Lake. All told, with side trips, the hike would be more than 85 miles, spread over ten days.
This hike, and the entire Outdoor Idaho project, required special permits from the Forest Service for our video cameras, even though we would go lightweight and carry all that we needed for the trip. This meant carrying backpacks weighing in at 45-plus pounds. Traditional (heavy) HD cameras and tripod were too much, so we outfitted ourselves with new generation, light weight, DSLR high definition cameras.
What was the journey like? Well, naturally you'll need to watch Outdoor Idaho this December to get the full story! But, I must tell you that I gained a deeper appreciation for this beautiful and ruggedly unforgiving country. Where the Sawtooth Mountains are easily accessible via paved state highways with great signage, stores, accommodations and visitor centers, the Frank is a very different experience. It takes hours on unimproved, dirt roads just to reach a trailhead. There are no visitor centers at its entrances, and minimal signage is the norm. In the Sawtooth, you can easily hike to a lake in the morning and be back in time for afternoon beers, with time to spare. The Frank requires equal parts time and sweat, and maybe a little craziness to boot.
So back to my trip problem. Eutamias amoenus is the chipmunk, that sweet little critter that scurries around the campsites looking for stuff. Well, on the sixth night of the hike, Jeff and I camped at Birdbill Lake in the Bighorn Crags, elevation 8,330 feet. I went to bed early to escape the swarming mosquitoes. The next morning, I crawled out of my borrowed bivy sack (think minimal tent, more like a body bag) and I saw six holes in the foot of the bag, chewed overnight by the neighborhood chipmunk. Arghhh! What am I going to tell my friend?
But, if that was the worst that the trip threw at me, I feel fortunate. The Frank has always been a place that has challenged people to be better than they are. We humans come to this land seeking what it has to offer, but typically not for very long. For hundreds, maybe thousands of years, native peoples traveled here seasonally to hunt and fish its river sections, as well as visit the high lakes of the Crags. Miners sought their fortunes in the mountains. But most everyone would retreat to the low lands to escape the harsh winters. No year round towns sustained themselves for very long. The Frank was just too harsh, too remote and too darn hard to live in.
This is what drew me to hike across the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. I wanted to experience the incredible wilderness backdrop and retrace the steps of native peoples, pioneers and others. I wanted to embrace the challenge of capturing on video a place that few will ever visit.
I hope you can join us in December as we relive what for us was an epic journey. It will be coming to you only on Idaho Public Television.
In July the Outdoor Idaho crew will travel across two of the nation's largest wilderness areas, for a show examining what wilderness has meant to the state and the West.
It's certainly one of the most complicated programs we've attempted – to report on every wilderness area in the state. The logistics are proving to be thorny and time-consuming; but we figure a 50 year anniversary comes around only once. Besides, we're not getting any younger!
My colleague John Crancer will join an outfitted river trip down the Selway River. The five day journey cuts through 1.3 million acres of unspoiled land that confounded the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1805. This is the third largest roadless area in the lower 48, surpassed only by Death Valley and the Frank Church wilderness. A Selway river trip is the most restrictive in the country, since the Forest Service only allows one group per day on the river during July.
Also in July former IdahoPTV GM Peter Morrill will trek across the length of the Frank Church wilderness, a journey of more than 50 miles. He will be accompanied by my colleague Jeff Tucker. The two of them will document a journey that starts at Big Creek, drops down to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, then ascends more than a mile up to the rugged Big Horn Crags and Ship Island Lake.Right away you're probably thinking, “That's nuts!” And you would be correct. The normal route should be the other way, from Ship Island Lake down to the Middle Fork and out to Big Creek. But the guys wanted the Crags to be the payoff, and so they're willing to make the climb, just for us. I guess what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!
In August we'll join some trout fishermen on a backpacking trip into the Gospel Hump wilderness, to explore a part of the state that most Idahoans know little about.
We have already spent time, in April, with the group that hiked 60 miles across the Craters of the Moon wilderness, to re-trace the journey of explorer Robert Limbert. You may recall that Limbert was the one who convinced President Calvin Coolidge to declare Craters a national monument.
Other wilderness areas already visited for the hour-long show include Hells Canyon wilderness and the wilderness areas in the Owyhee canyonlands. And in September we hope to re-visit the most popular wilderness in Idaho, in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
This program will also explore the challenges of wilderness, as exemplified by the Boulder-White Clouds Monument proposal and the desire of groups like mountain bikers and motorized users to have a say in what happens to Idaho's special places. Included in the show will be interviews with old timers and others who have played a role in Idaho's wilderness story. We'll also look at proposed wilderness areas, like Scotchman Peak, in north Idaho.
Oh, and just for the record, our wilderness filming permits are in order. We worked closely with Andy Brunelle and Dave Olson of the U.S. Forest Service, and we appreciate them running interference for us. Without their efforts and that of a few other folks, this examination of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act probably would not have happened.