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New York Times, July 2007, Idaho: The Last Wilderness.

The last wilderness

CURIOUS it may be, but there is not a single national park in Idaho, a state with more public forest land, more wilderness, more white water than any other in the country outside of the superlative-trumping asterisk of Alaska. It has two dozen sites as part of a national historical park dedicated to the Nez Perce Indians, but nothing on the order of a velvet-roped shank of mega scenery.

So when people decide to go “Out West” for a visit, a phrase that always sounds quaint to a Westerner’s ear, they usually head for the canyon lands of southern Utah, or the fly-fishing streams of Montana or the aged chasms of Arizona. They fashion their trips around Yellowstone (to be fair, a mostly overlooked sliver is in Idaho), Zion or Grand Canyon ­- the iconic national parks, all worth a visit of course.

But just as there are good pastrami sandwiches to be had outside of the Carnegie Deli, there is so much to see, float, hike and absorb in what may be the most overlooked part of the West — the Big Empty of north-central Idaho.

I drove once until there was no more road, and then hiked, with two of my brothers, until there was no more trail. Like leprechauns at rainbow’s end, we found a deep pool at the base of a waterfall, hard by a grove of ancient cedars. We caught fish until our arms were tired, and then watched the night sky theatrics. There was river music, white noise for sleep. And I promised never to tell the exact location. This was in the upper reaches of the St. Joe River — that’s all I’m able to say.

But, there are other moments, other waterfalls, other pools of gin-clear trout water in the grip of the Idaho Panhandle. In many parts, the land is as wild today as it was 200 years ago, full of jumpy rivers kicking out of the Bitterroot Mountains and exotic surprises like the Turkish cook who serves lamb tahini deep in the folds of high country. Though much of this area is roadless, there are numerous landing strips for small planes inside the wilderness, and hundreds of trailheads and river put-ins for outbackers on horse or foot, and rafters or kayakers.

On the map, it is bounded roughly by the St. Joe to the north and the Middle Fork of the Salmon to the south. The names suggest wild mood swings, and a chance for some sublime risk-taking. You can camp at Heavens Gate, not far from Hells Canyon, and wonder about the cartographic argument. What, no Purgatory Flats? You can float without directions on the Big Lost River. Or eat a fine meal near Colt Killed Creek, the place where members of the Lewis and Clark expedition nearly starved. (And yes, they had to dine on one of their young transports.)

The crown jewel is the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, at 2.3 million acres the largest single protected wilderness area in the 48 states. River of No Return is what the natives told the American gold-seekers who headed upstream on the Salmon, and their name for the big river, 425 miles of twisty mountain water. But it may have been an inducement as well. Frank Church was the Idaho boy who loved the outdoors, and became that rarest of 20th-century politicians — a liberal Democratic senator from the Gem State.

One of the offbeat little towns in the middle of all this wild country, Orofino, still has a high school mascot, the Maniacs, which is, according to lore, named for residents of the neighboring state mental hospital. Call them crazy and insensitive, and they say, well, our boys played like maniacs long ago and the name stuck. The mental hospital came later. Sure. No problem. Cool T-shirt, though.

This part of Idaho, if known at all, used to have a reputation as a hideout for neo-Nazis and others of the far-right fringe. When it was black helicopter country in the mid-1990s, I sometimes thought the scariest part of any backcountry trip was in town, mixing it up with the locals. O.K., so tell me again how Hillary Clinton put the transmitter in your back molar? But now, the white separatists have been run out of their compound well to the north, and there’s a winery not far from where another extremist had a standoff with the federal government.

It may be safe to say that the wilds of the Idaho Panhandle, like much of the West, are deep into a new chapter — the microbrews and mountain bike phase. It has its hook-and-bullet enthusiasts, yes, and count me among those who get more excited chasing cutthroat trout with a dry fly than listening to Broadway show tunes.

But I no longer hear the soundtrack from “Deliverance” while floating its rivers. Actually, I stumbled upon a camp of fiddlers from Virginia while floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon not long ago; except for the occasional John Denver tune, it made for a wonderful evening.

When you expect nothing is when you find something.

The narrative of this land is built around timber, water and native people. The timber was western white pine, a legendary species that drew lumber barons who bought big tracks of forestland and tried to cut it all. What they couldn’t remove, disease did. Today, big, old-growth white pine forests in Idaho are almost as hard to find as those Democrats who used to vote for Frank Church. But the national forestland, largely a legacy of Teddy Roosevelt, is intact, and it has become one of the West’s biggest playgrounds.

In all there are 11 national forests in Idaho — more than 20 million acres. The peaks are not Matterhorn-craggy or even buff skyscrapers like the sentinels of the Sierra. The North Cascades, in Washington, are a small fraction of the size of Idaho’s mountain acreage, but have more glaciers and jaw-dropping vertical flanks.

What this part of the overlooked West has in abundance is a rich variety of forested river country. The big rivers are the St. Joe, the three forks of the Clearwater, the Lochsa, the Selway, the three forks of the Salmon and a half-dozen or so feeder streams, any one of which would be a national attraction if it were in, say, Texas. These rivers drain an amazing swath of real estate, owned by every American — a public land inheritance unseen by most of its owners.

Rare as it is to find an undammed river in the West, the Idaho Panhandle has a surfeit of free-flowing — indeed anarchic — waterways. The best white water, when the rivers are at full froth, tends to be in the spring through early July, as most of the snow melts.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon is a paradise float, through thick-waisted cedars, firs and pines, and open prairie turns, a Class III or better set of bumps almost every hour, sometimes more. But it’s no beer-swilling joy ride. At times, the river will back up with downed timber, requiring a portage around the new hazards.

On our summer trip a few years ago, midday temperatures were well into the 90s, with only a slight breeze. At night, we had a thunderstorm preceded by near-hurricane force winds. It knocked down trees and an outhouse held by guy wires. Our tent walls were flapping like flags on top of Everest. Overnight, the bears had their way with our coolers, even though we had lashed and secured them. That pesto chicken, apparently, had something over roots and berries.

At the other extreme are the natural showers, courtesy of hot-spring waterfalls along the way. Of course you can soak in deep-pocket boulders — nature’s hot tubs. But there is nothing like standing next to polished basalt under a cascade of 105-degree water at the end of a day.

By car, an easy way to see this wild country is along United States Route 12, which crosses the Panhandle. The road passes by the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, an area bigger than the state of Delaware, and follows or intersects three wondrous rivers: the Lochsa, the Selway and the river formed when those two streams merge — the Middle Fork of the Clearwater.

The three rivers in the Route 12 corridor are designated Wild and Scenic, a federal protection, and they live up to the name. The Lochsa, which means Rough Water in the Nez Perce language, is ferocious and explosive white water, for hard-core rafters. The major stretch has more than 40 significant rapids. By that I mean, bumps with names, bumps that are the focus of many a rafter’s dreams. One night in May over dinner at a river rat hangout, a couple of guides showed me photos from a busy day on the Lochsa. Every frame was solid froth, with a bouncing raft in the middle of it.

The Selway, which meets the Lochsa near the hamlet of Lowell, is a different character. Where the Lochsa is stirred and frenzied, the Selway is more meditative, deeper, moving at a much gentler pace for the most part. It is another one of the places here that reminds me of Alaska, mainly because of the wildlife. While hiking and fishing the Selway, I’ve seen moose, elk, black bears, every manner of raptor, and have come upon tracks of cougars, the most elusive of Rocky Mountain inhabitants.

The Selway has a couple of draws: Selway Falls, reached by a road that is paved for part of the way, and a little resort at the confluence of the three rivers, where Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton stayed, in cabin No. 4, in 1985. Hey, it’s the West: Washington or Jefferson never slept here.

I spent a night in a cabin downriver from the confluence, and was forced inside early by a storm. The morning was glorious, with eagles looking for chinook salmon in the swift Middle Fork of the Clearwater and the thinnest of mists holding to the trees.

A few words about the fishing: in the fall and winter months, this is steelhead country, drawing anglers from around the world trying to catch the most difficult of big trout. In the spring, there’s a brief season for salmon, the big kings, or chinooks, coming into the mountains from a long journey that began at sea.

The best trout fishing, in my experience, is on the St. Joe, reached by Interstate 90 from Missoula or Spokane, and then over the Bitterroots on gravel roads. I shouldn’t give this up; my two fishing brothers are going to kill me for this. But in sections of the St. Joe the trout are so easy to catch you want to give them pointers on dodging the cheap fly. They’re cutthroats, some as big as 18 inches. They don’t fight as much as rainbows, but they’re abundant, and rise on cue to any decently presented dry fly. Trout Unlimited called the St. Joe the best cutthroat trout fishery on the west side of the Rockies.

The Lochsa, Selway and Middle Fork of the Salmon are also great places for trout. My son caught a 17-inch cutthroat once when he wasn’t even fishing — his fly rod was dangling out the side of the raft, unattended, when a fish went for his Elk Hair Caddis.

The Clearwater, perhaps because the young salmon and steelhead take much of the food, is not as good for trout. But it’s the gateway to a land where people have lived for thousands of years. Following the main stem Clearwater and Route 12 west gets to the expansive heart of Nez Perce country. These natives impressed Lewis and Clark more than any other people they met along the way. Not only did the Nez Perce basically save the Virginia Men, as they were sometimes called, from starving, but they impressed them with what may be the finest breed of horse in the West — the appaloosa.

Unlike some tribes left with only a casino or a small reservation, the Nez Perce are not a mere passive presence in this part of the West. Their imprint is big.

There is the history, notably that surrounding Chief Joseph and his epic 1877 running battle that is commemorated at sites along the Nez Perce National Historic Park. And then the culture, through powwows and numerous festivals open to the public in reservation towns like Kooskia, Kamiah and Lapwai throughout the summer months.

For me, the most stirring of the Nez Perce sites is White Bird, along Route 95 south of the reservation. This is the Indian Gettysburg, where one of the few real pitched battles between natives and the American Army was fought. The army was routed at White Bird, while the Nez Perce did not lose a man. But it was bittersweet, as Chief Joseph’s people — about 750 men, women and children — were later chased more than 1,500 miles throughout the Rockies and finally gave up, hungry and cold, just short of the Canadian border.

It does not take much to look down into the canyon from the roadside historic site and imagine the battle unfolding, or to stare into the wilds of the Salmon River country, the mountains snagging wayward clouds, the River of No Return at its center, and see why they fought so hard to hold on to this place.



It is not easy to get to north-central Idaho, but once you get there, transportation choices are numerous. Airlines, connected through Seattle or Salt Lake City, fly into Lewiston, Idaho, on the western end. Or you can approach from the east, through Missoula, which is also served by several airlines.

A good four-wheel-drive car is helpful, especially on national forest roads. But Route 12, the paved scenic route, can accommodate any vehicle.

If you want to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon, get in line, as permits are limited and are issued well in advance. But guided tours, out of gateway towns like Salmon or Riggins, are plentiful. Allow at least five days, and remember that the river runs through land that is mostly without roads.

There are small landing strips along the Middle Fork, but the planes won’t come unless contacted in advance.


River Dance Lodge (208-765-0841;, on Route 12, has new cabins with hot tubs and a chef who serves Turkish meals, among other offerings, on the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River. Cabin rates start at about $140.

Just up the road is the place where the Clintons stayed, Three Rivers Resort (208-926-4430;, with log cabins and motel, pool and Jacuzzi. It’s at the confluence of the Lochsa and the Selway. Motel rates begin at $69, and go up to $145 for the cabins.

In the backcountry of the St. Joe, via horseback or on foot, are rustic cabins and veteran fishing guides at St. Joe Outfitters and Guides (208-245-4002; Three nights in the cabins, with food and guiding, are about $1,500 a person.

Idaho is huckleberry country, and perhaps the best cobbler is at the Elk River Café, (208) 826-3398, in the hamlet of Elk River.

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