Return to Idaho's Bighorn Crags

Can two brothers re-create the 1974 wilderness trip they took as teenagers? They were surprised by what they found.

bmanny@idahostatesman.comJuly 9, 2014 

  • 50 YEARS OF WILDERNESS

    This is one of a series of stories highlighting Idaho's wilderness areas and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act that made them possible.

A handful of snapshots and some hazy memories.

That's what we had. Would that be enough for two 50-something trekkers who wanted to retrace their trip into Idaho's wilderness 39 years later?

We certainly had changed, so how much would nearly four decades of fires, storms, wind, rock slides and avalanches have changed the rugged Bighorn Crags?

Would anything look the same?

That first trip in August 1974 had become family lore. I was 15, and my brother, Marty, 13. We and our dad, Bill Sr., joined Granddad, Foy Simpson, for a weeklong trek in his beloved Bighorn Crags deep in what is now the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness west of Challis and Salmon.

We caught fish and took horseback rides. Then rain and hail soaked our cotton clothes and flannel sleeping bags while we were away from camp.

The wind battered the little lake basin where we camped, then it snowed and hailed and blew some more. The days we spent drying out in camp made it our cozy home away from home.

When we returned to civilization, Richard Nixon had resigned as president.

It was a momentous, life-altering week. But like most teenagers, we grew up, moved away and had families of our own. The trip nearly faded to a family fable.

For decades, we talked about returning. I moved from Oregon to Idaho in 2001, and the talk about a return trip got more and more serious.

But Granddad Foy died in 1993, and none of us knew the trails or the lakes he'd taken us to, or even the trailhead where he parked his old Dodge Power Wagon and horse trailer.

We remembered stopping for breakfast in Challis on the long drive from Granddad's house in Idaho Falls to the Crags. We remembered hiking past Cathedral Rock. We remembered an icy trail chipped from steep rock called Beaver Slide. We remembered looking from saddles to Airplane and Ship Island and Big Clear lakes.

And we had our photos. A couple snapshots showed trail signs with mileages to Clear Creek, Panther Creek, Goat Lake and other lakes. We studied maps and developed a plan: Start at Crags Campground trailhead, hike the Cathedral Rock trail, then do some detective work.

Had we camped at Heart/Wilson lakes, or somewhere else? Could we find the right places? Would we recognize them after 39 years?

WILDERNESS TIME WARP

Armed with about 20 photos and modern backpacking gear, Marty and I headed for the Bighorn Crags last September.

The Crags Campground and trail head looked unfamiliar, as did the initial steep climb through undistinguished Idaho pine forest. But after a few hours, on the sandy bench where the trail meanders through the weathered, surreal Crags, it started feeling familiar.

We started late, so we camped near Cathedral Rock and woke to find ourselves just yards from our first 1974 photo.

Hard to believe two guys could have such big, goofy grins. The trees, rocks and snags that looked so similar to 1974 were even harder to believe.

Much of the high-elevation trail stays on open benches and ridgelines, offering the views that make the Crags so seductive. The landscape is spectacularly unique, a fact we didn't appreciate as kids in 1974. Lit by the setting and rising sun, the gentle light made the Crags much more other-worldly.

More sandy hiking, more déjá vu. We stopped to recreate our 1974 photos and moved on. Along Fishfin Ridge, we knew for certain we were going the right way.

At the junction where the Wilson/Harbor lakes trail meets the Airplane/Ship Island lake trail, our jaws dropped. This saddle was unchanged from 1974.

We held up our old photos for comparison: The snags, the burned trees, even the deadfall, were exactly the same. This eerie similarity was becoming a theme.

WRONG TURN

Our first disappointment was Wilson Lake, a tiny sapphire set in a ring of crumbling, jagged granite. It was lovely, the sunset gorgeous, but our heart wasn't in it. It wasn't the right lake.

Would we be able to find the right one? There are many, many lakes in the Crags. We could spend our entire week visiting nothing but wrong ones.

Should we head south to check Welcome Lake, Heart Lake or Terrace Lakes? Our guts told us to go north, toward Airplane and Ship Island lakes, which we did the next morning.

Our disappointment ended when we came to the Beaver Slide, sans ice. Marty and I both remembered Granddad's ominous warning about holding the reins loosely as we led the horses over that snowy ledge of a trail. If the horses slipped down the snowfield, he told us, let go. We felt we were taking our life in our hands.

In 2013, the only risk of death was to our camera batteries as we recreated the exact camera angles from 1974. Eventually, we pushed on. We wanted to find home.

From the ridge above Birdbill, an egg-shaped lake rimmed by talus, we felt another familiar tug. Just before the lake, we came to a trail junction that cemented our certainty.

We found the exact same trail sign, leaning slightly with old age, near the same distinctive tree and roots where we snapped a picture of Granddad helping a backpacker map his route (see photo 4).

Again, that haunting similarity, as if Granddad might emerge from the trees to guide us, map in hand.

And through the trees, not 100 yards away, was Granddad's 1974 camp. The trident-trunked tree, downed log and diamond-shaped campfire rock were exactly like our old photos.

HOME AGAIN

We spent an hour hunting around and comparing our old photos with the 2013 landscape. We snapped new photos. A leaning snag that my 15-year-old self pretended to lift was still leaning. Snap. We loped over to Birdbill and posed at our old fishing rocks. Snap. Snap. Snap.

Then we collapsed in the shade, happy and hot on the same spot where we huddled soggy and cold in 1974.

We rested our backs against the old log and toasted ourselves, with tequila and lemonade: Two first-rate wilderness detectives, case solved. We made it back to Granddad's camp. He'd be proud.

We spent the next three days finishing our unfinished business. We explored Gentian Lake and its unnamed neighbor. We visited Airplane and Ship Island lakes, which we'd spotted, but not reached, on that wet 1974 trip. Ditto for Big Clear Lake. We found almost every place we photographed in 1974.

One mystery remained.

Why did Granddad like his homely camp when nicer spots at nearby lakes went unused? We figured it had to do with the trout we yanked out of Birdbill Lake in 1974.

Another possible answer: Just across the clearing was a ramshackle wooden outhouse. Marty remembered it as a gross, creepy place to do your business, but I was skeptical. I had no bathroom memories at all.

The phantom outhouse, I pointed out, didn't appear in any of our pictures. I suggested my little brother might be mistaken.

EXORCISING GHOSTS

One morning, we met three Forest Service rangers and chatted as we sipped our Starbucks Via.

The rangers were there to burn the outhouses at Birdbill and Big Clear lakes. The outhouses were built decades before, possibly before the wilderness was designated. Now they were decrepit (you could put a foot through the aged planks if you weren't careful) and likely illegal, but they were still convenient.

A couple camping at Birdbill Lake objected. They'd seen how pit toilets kept human waste and toilet paper from proliferating in their native Minnesota's Boundary Waters wilderness.

But rules are rules, and buildings of any kind are frowned upon in the wilderness. Many old cabins, outhouses and out buildings have had a similar, controversial end in Idaho's wilderness areas.

It wasn't long before the rangers had a bonfire going. They let us take a turn tearing up a plank and throwing it on the pyre.

Marty took special delight in exorcising a 39-year-old demon. We took turns sitting on the unscreened stainless-steel seat before it was hauled away.

Marty snapped a photo that showed rays shining through the clouds and lighting me on my throne. The heavens agreed with the bureaucrats, apparently, when it came to burning old outhouses.

After a day of hiking and recording more echoes from the past, we returned to Birdbill to find no trace of the outhouse, its pit or the rangers' bonfire. Those young rangers had thoroughly erased its existence.

Had we been a day later, I would never have believed an outhouse stood at the edge of our 1974 camp. In one day, a few people brought more change on our wilderness camp than Mother Nature had in the previous 39 years. There's a lesson there somewhere.

Another lesson learned: Digging through the old photos back home, I found another shot of our 1974 camp, with a shadowy, square outhouse lurking in the snowy background.

So, rare though it may be, it's possible for a know-it-all big brother to be trumped by his kid brother's haunted memories of a decrepit outhouse.

Bill Manny: 377-6406

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