A Wilderness Paradise

Idaho's Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness
By Stephen Stuebner
  |  Gorp.com
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It's an immaculate bluebird morning in central Idaho, a perfect morning for flying: clear skies and no wind. Pilot Mike Doris of McCall Air Taxi flies a group of five people into Chamberlain Basin, an alpine meadow in the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Starting from McCall, Idaho, Doris flies the Cessna 206 Piper Cub over a series of serrated white granite peaks, sweeping glacial-sculpted valleys and turquoise mountain lakes as he approaches the Frank Church Wilderness."There's Chamberlain," he tells his passengers, pointing ahead to lush, sprawling, tall-grass meadows and the gently forested mountains surrounding them.

"Well, lookee here," Dories mutters with grin as he passes over the airstrip.

"What's that?" asks a passenger.

"A cow and a calf," the pilot replies, pointing to a mother moose and a calf grazing in the middle of the wilderness runway.

He makes another pass over the airstrip, lower this time, in hopes of spooking the moose, and then comes in for the landing. The Cessna whizzes over the tops of lodgepole pine trees, breaks into a clearing and lands. The moose finally take heed as the plane rumbles towards them and stride into the forest.

Travis Bullock of Mile High Outfitters greets the guests on the runway. He'll be their guide for a five-day "camping with wolves" excursion? a trek in to the heart of "The Frank," which at 2.3 million acres is the largest forested wilderness in the lower 48 states. During their stay, the guests will be in the company of wolves? observing tracks on the trail, listening to mournful howls at night, and, if they're lucky, spotting glimpses of theses rare canines.

The Frank Church Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park were selected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the nation's two best locations for re-establishing Rocky Mountain gray wolves. A starter population was transplanted from Canada in January 1995, and since then the endangered wolves have paired up and multiplied quickly in central Idaho, taking full advantage of ample food (mostly of deer and elk) and abundant space (more than 12,000 square miles) to carve out territories.

Backcountry horse-pack trips are just one of the many summer adventures people can enjoy in this vast, wonderfully diverse wilderness. The Frank Church is so extensive, and so full of scenic wonders, it's like revisiting America's frontier West. Visitors have no problem finding solitude in the backcountry, but the region is remarkably easy to access: with 18 airstrips, boat access on the Salmon River, and 32 trailheads leading from all corners of the wilderness.

On wilderness pack trips, visitors can ride a horse or mule (or lead a llama) to hundreds of mountain lakes (think trout fishing) or lush mountain meadows. With 1,500 miles of trails to explore, the opportunities are endless. Selected airfields provide easy access to the middle of the wilderness. Flights cost $65 to $100 per person.

Almost a vertical mile below Chamberlain Basin, a colorful array of whitewater boaters drift past Campbell's Ferry on the wild and scenic Salmon River. The crossing is named for William Campbell, a man who ferried thousands of gold miners across the Salmon in the early 1900s. They were bound for Thunder Mountain, the site of the last major gold rush in the West. Each year, about 8,000 kayakers, rafters, jet boaters and steelhead anglers ply the 80-mile wilderness section of the Salmon River Gorge, the nation's second-deepest canyon at over 6,000 feet deep. The Salmon is considered the nation's premier family wilderness river vacation because the rapids are playful but not death-defying, the water is deep enough for swimming, and the white-sandy beach campsites are spacious enough to set up a volleyball net or throw a frisbee. Folks visit historic sites and view Indian pictographs along the way. Six-day trips range from $150 to $200 per day.

Perhaps the most treasured river trip in"the Frank," as locals call it, is a week-long adventure on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, also a national wild and scenic river. The Middle Fork has everything the main Salmon offers and more? more rapids, numerous hot springs, world-class fly fishing, and the awe-inspiring Impassible Canyon in the final 25 miles of the trip. About 10,500 people float the Middle Fork each year; about half of them go with outfitters for about $150 to $200 per day.

For a relaxing, low-key wilderness vacation, folks also can consider staying at a rustic backcountry guest ranch on the Salmon River, such as Shepp Ranch or Mackay Bar Resort. The Flying B Ranch is the most popular guest ranch on the Middle Fork. Guests enjoy home-cooked meals, hanging out in a quiet wilderness setting, and maybe a little hiking or fishing. The ranches can be accessed by small aircraft or jet boat.

Once you arrive in the Frank Church Wilderness, it will seem as though you've stepped out of civilization and into the past. As the late Ted Trueblood, an Idaho conservation writer, once said, Americans can experience the wilderness"just like God made it." Aside from the modern conveniences used to access the wilderness, the landscape is untouched? it looks virtually the same as when the Sheepeater Indians lived there for thousands of years. Visitors are almost guaranteed to see moose, elk, deer and bighorn sheep. They will probably hear coyotes yipping and wolves howling at night.

In the fall, the Frank Church Wilderness is a magnet for hunters of all kinds, who come to bag a trophy bull elk, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer, black bear or mountain lion.

For information on outfitted trips in the Frank Church Wilderness, call the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, 208-342-1438 (800-494-3246), or visit their web site, www.ioga.org. For information on tourism and travel in central Idaho, call Georgia Smith at the Idaho Department of Commerce, 800-635-7820, or visit the agency's home page, www.idoc.state.id.us.

For environmental and general information on the Salmon River system, call Idaho Rivers United, 208-343-7481, or visit the group's home page, www.iru.org.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 4 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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