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A Beetle, a Bull, and a Fire: My Time in the Idaho Wilderness

Trip Report by Doug Geiling

“Idaho? Find some potatoes to eat while you’re backpacking.”

That’s what my boss said when I told him where I was going on my 10-day vacation. Never mind that potatoes don’t really grow in the wild in Idaho. It’s a little sad, really. Mention Idaho and someone finds a way to say potato. In a way the potato is symbolic of the lack of understanding of what treasures the state of Idaho really offers. The perception many of us have of Idaho is that it’s a boring, bland state. Like an uncooked, unseasoned potato.

Ah, but I know better. See, I’m a student of the American wilderness system, and I know a little secret. Some of the largest and finest wilderness in America is found in Central Idaho. Here we find a landscape that would have been worthy in every way of the designation of a crown jewel national park. In fact it could have easily been our largest national park outside of Alaska. And, yet that national park does not exist. While the hordes of people head to Yellowstone or Glacier or Rocky Mountain National Park, the equally deserving mountains of Central Idaho remain lightly visited, unspoiled, and stunningly spectacular.

Instead of a national park, what we have in Central Idaho are the largest blocks of protected wilderness in the Lower 48 states. The Frank Church River of No Return (“The Frank” for short) protects nearly 2.4 million acres of wilderness (roughly the size of Yellowstone) and is separated from the 1.3 million acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to its north only by a long and rugged dirt road called the Magruder Corridor. Together, these two wilderness areas combine to create the single largest block of protected land in the Lower 48 states. Within this land are hundreds of miles of wild and scenic rivers that carve deep gorges through rugged mountain ranges clothed in vast expanses of pine, spruce, and aspen.

Not far to the south of this wilderness region, across a lonely two-lane highway, is the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Managed for it’s primitive recreation and wilderness preservation qualities, the SNRA consists of three more wilderness areas: Sawtooth, White Clouds, and Hemingway Boulders. Together they account for 350,000 acres, give-or-take, of rugged peaks dappled with some of the most stunningly beautiful lakes in America.

The Beetle and I were headed for the Sawtooths. We would take two days to get there from Southern Colorado, stopping for a night at Bear Lake. Like the Tahoe of the Rockies, Bear Lake is a big, round, natural lake that straddles the state line between Northern Utah and Southern Idaho.

From there we crossed Idaho potato farming country, traversed the territory of the Idaho National Laboratory where people work on nuclear things, and skirted the edge of the weirdness that is Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Eventually we turned north towards Atlanta. Atlanta, Idaho, that is. A winding paved byway eventually turned to gravel and then into a narrow dirt road of questionable suitability for anyone pulling a trailer. I worried for the strength of the Beetle’s axel as it bounced over rocks and holes in this road, and dreaded the possibility of meeting a full size pick-up coming the other way. But, the axel held, and after 22 miles of single-lane treachery, not one other vehicle met us in the opposing direction.

Finally this road popped us out into the metropolis of Atlanta, Idaho consisting of a few log cabins and a lone operating lodge with an adjoining supply shop and restaurant.

The Beetle and I continued through town another couple miles to the road’s end. Here was a place with a name to inspire dreams of mountain splendor — the Power Plant Recreation Area. There was a small, almost empty, campground and a trailhead parking area, also almost vacant.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the Beetle is my camper. It’s a custom teardrop style trailer with Colorado beetle-kill pine paneling. I bought it this past spring on impulse from a talented guy who built it as a “pandemic project.” I have already become quite attached to it, like an inseparable appendage.

I put the Beetle in a shady parking spot and activated the theft deterrent system — two metal wheel locks. Giddily, after a long drive and months of anticipation, I hoisted my backpack and headed into the Sawtooth Wilderness.

For the next five-and-a-half days I hiked 50 miles alongside glorious mountain streams and Caribbean-blue lakes. I caught and released dozens of trout with my 3.5-ounce tenkara rod before I finally kept one fat cutthroat for the pan. At one point I caught three different species — a cutthroat, then a rainbow, then a brook, in a span of about two minutes all from the same pool! What kind of sorcery is this place?

Idaho Wilderness Tenkara - Doug Geiling - Tenkara Angler - Camp

If I wasn’t tenkara fishing I was stuffing my face with fistfuls of wild blueberries. I even rode natural water-slides down slabs of water-polished granite, plunging into pools below. No manicured lawn or pampered meal could possibly compare to the satisfaction of the crunch of my footfall on the rugged path, or the taste of fresh trout that I caught, cleaned, and cooked on the shore of an alpine lake that I had all to myself.

The fire plume appeared on day-three. It was a clear blue-bird morning in the Rockies except for the strange brown-tinged cumulus cloud billowing up over the ridge to the east. Wait, that’s no cloud. That’s smoke!

I stared at it for a while concluding that there was no real threat at the moment seeing as the fire was at least one valley over and blocked by a jagged ridgeline of above-timberline peaks. The remainder of my route also took me somewhat away from this plume of doom. But, it was there nevertheless, and I would have to be observant of its development.

The smoke plume stayed on the other side of those mountains and the fire never really threatened to derail my plans. With my backpacking trip complete, the second leg of my trip with the Beetle was about to begin. After a night’s stay at the Power Plant Campground, I loaded up, hooked up, and drove the long way out of Atlanta.

My destination was the White Clouds area to the east of the Sawtooths. To get there I had to make a big looping route, first to the west, then north, then finally east on Highway 75. This took me through the tiny development of Lowman where I got myself the tastiest huckleberry milkshake in the world. Another 57 miles past Lowman came the next town, Stanley, population 63 (that’s sixty-three), but with a full blown grocery store.

Another 60 miles or so past Stanley I made a turn to the south on a road that follows the East Fork of the Salmon River to its headwaters. And, as is typical of this big country, I followed that lonely road for fifty-some-odd more miles as, like the road to Atlanta, it went from narrow pavement, to narrow gravel to even narrower dirt. The road finally ended at the beginning of a trail, and I found a beautiful disbursed streamside campsite for the Beetle. This was to be camp for the next two nights.

Idaho Wilderness Tenkara - Doug Geiling - Tenkara Angler - Beetle

The next day I went in search of trout. I climbed a closed gate, walked through a hiker’s easement through a private cow pasture past side-eye staring cows, and into the national forest adjacent to the Hemingway Boulders Wilderness Area.

The previous evening the area had revealed itself to be remarkably beautiful — a long river valley adorned with sage and pine underneath the high peaks of the White Clouds. But on this day wildfire smoke was filling in to obscure those views. I knew it was likely the same fire that sent its menacing plume over the ridge from my backpacking route days earlier. I was west of the fire then. Now I was east of it and in the path of prevailing winds bringing the smoke towards me rather than away.

I rationalized that, if the fire was threatening the valley I was in, the road I drove would have been closed, or at least there would be significant fire-crew activity in the valley. I decided I was not worried and continued up valley into thicker smoke.

At four miles in I decided that was far enough. My plan was to hike in and fish the stream back to the edge of the private land, and that’s exactly what I did. The East Fork Salmon River here is a small stream — maybe 10 to 15 feet wide and easily “sloshable” (my term for wading a small stream in hiking shoes).

With my little 3.5-ounce tenkara rod and a small terrestrial dry fly, I cast into riffles and little bank-side runs with little luck. I caught a couple 6-inch rainbow trout over the course of over an hour. Tough fishing!

Idaho Wilderness Tenkara - Doug Geiling - Tenkara Angler - Rainbow Trout

Then I hooked into something that looked and acted a little differently. It gently sipped my fly off the surface in a foot of clear water, but it was so well camouflaged that I couldn’t see the fish even though the water was as clear as air.

Once hooked this fish acted more like a brown than a rainbow, stubbornly pulling away and down rather than leaping around like a maniac as rainbows often do. Then it emerged into my view in the water. I’m an experienced enough trout fisherman that I can usually identify the species before I land the fish as long as I can see it in the water. The coloring of this one was odd. It seemed to have a dull olive-like color. It didn’t have the red-orange flair of a brook trout, the crimson blush of a rainbow or cutthroat, or the yellow-orange glow of a brown.

As I played the foot-long trout to the bank I realized then what it was. It was an endangered bull trout — a first for me! Now these guys are pretty cool. Not a true trout, but a char, they are native to the Pacific Northwest, and endangered due to competition from non-native introduced trout. They also require pristine natural conditions — cold clear rivers with a gravel substrate. They are strictly catch-and-release. I cradled it in my hand and got a quick couple of pictures and a release video.

Idaho Wilderness Tenkara - Doug Geiling - Tenkara Angler - Bull Trout

After admiring my bull trout as it swam back into its home and disappeared (they are incredibly well camouflaged — more so than other types of trout in my opinion), I soon noticed it was snowing.

Snowing ash, that is. I looked around and the smoke had only gotten thicker. And, now little white flakes of ash were drifting down in front of the pines. It was a bit of a surreal sight. I decided to pack up my rod and hike the three miles I had left back to the car.

Back at camp I seemed to emerge temporarily from the smoke cloud as the air cleared out and blue sky appeared above. I looked back up valley into the wall of smoke I had just emerged from, a blood-red late afternoon sun-ball glowing through smoke like a dull lantern.

The clarity did not last. As the evening wore on back at camp the smoke moved in and thickened. As nightfall approached the ashfall came with it littering the hood of my 4Runner with little gray flecks and sticks of burned wood.

I realized then that I was now the only human left at the head of the valley — two hunters I passed on the trail earlier drove down valley, and a lone camper upstream was now gone.

An unnerving feeling swept over me then as the ashfall continued and I could now barely make out the trees a football field away across the meadow. Perhaps there was a fire closure and a patrolling ranger never saw the Beetle tucked back into the trees while I was up fishing.

I decided then it was time to go. As night fell I packed and hooked up the Beetle and headed out. Fifty-odd miles and an hour later I came to the main highway under a clear starry sky. Down the road a few miles I followed a sign indicating a campground would be found eight miles up yet another “narrow winding road.”

Narrow, winding, and steep it was. For another 45 minutes the Beetle and I slowly made our way up that road in the darkness, at one point passing a shifty-eyed man sitting in an all-terrain Razer in the dark whom I surmised may have been a poacher. At 11:00 pm on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend I finally came to a half-empty campground and quietly pulled into an open site for the night.

The next day would mark the beginning of the two-day journey back home. I would learn upon coming back into civilization that the nearby fire had indeed gotten out of control the day I was there, fueled by high winds. While the fire never crossed over into the valley I was camped in it certainly could have happened. It was a good call to get the Beetle and myself out of dodge and into the clear.

Idaho… It’s so much more than potatoes.

Doug Geiling is a life-long Colorado based trout bum who recently took up tenkara and hasn’t looked back. He loves exploring and fishing the wilderness waters of the American West. Doug is also currently working on his first book “The Geography of Trout.”

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