Women of the River: Part 1

Women of the River: Part One

In 1955 Frances Zaunmiller wrote of seeing a rare creature at Campbell’s Ferry. Frances, who lived at the Ferry from 1940 until her death in 1986, chronicled life in Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness through a weekly column for the Grangeville, Idaho newspaper.

The sight of this exotic creature brought a high degree of excitement. What was this unusual creature? It was a woman.

There were other women in the backcountry but the chance of seeing one outside her natural habitat, the place she lived, was unusual, especially in winter. There are countless reports of men moving through the canyon on a regular basis at all times of the year. Frances’ husband Joe Zaunmiller regularly rode his horse to Dixie (the closest tiny town) even in the dead of winter, often making the 26-mile round trip in a day. But someone had to be at home to care for children, animals, and the property while the men were out and about. It was the women.

My husband Doug describes the situation as, ‘a woman was the anchor on the place.’ They were the ‘mooring’ that attached each family to their homestead.

Things are not so different today. While I rarely see the other women who live in the canyon, the men make regular appearances. They appear via jet boats, airplanes, rafts, hiking and horseback. Often there are men staying here with us, helping with various projects. Since April 22, we have had nearly 30 “guy nights” with multiple men here at the Ferry.

I was discussing the lack of female companionship with Heinz, the jet boat maestro of the canyon and our neighbor from 5-Mile Bar (10 miles down river). Heinz and his jet boat haul the heavy construction supplies and machinery for our renovation projects from the road end, four miles upriver, to the Ferry. We’ve seen him a great deal this summer. Three days after our talk Heinz’s partner, Barbara sent email invitations up and down river for a girl’s night garden party and sleep over at their home at 5-Mile Bar. Every river woman was to bring a bottle of champagne, a dish for a potluck supper, clothes that she no longer wore (for a clothing exchange) and a pair of high heels to wear to aerate the lawn.

The evening was great fun with a dozen ladies in attendance. They ranged from owners of backcountry properties to full-time caretakers to part-time helpers. We ranged in age from 74 to 19. After glasses of champagne, the clothing exchange, and supper, Heinz built us a huge bonfire in a fire pit on the beach next to the river. As the darkness crept in around us we talked about the ladies who came to this river before us: their strength, idiosyncrasies, origins, and life stories.

Frances and her “frenemy” Rheo Wolfe, probably the best-known and most colorful women in the canyon during their era, were prime topics. Rheo’s daughter Linda was at the party. Rheo’s oldest child drowned in the river in 1945 and is buried at Campbell’s Ferry, an event that forever strained their relationship. There are earlier residents of the canyon whose stories are every bit as compelling, including two other tragic deaths connected to Campbell’s Ferry: Rose Cook & her baby died during childbirth in 1905 and Emma Zaunmiller in a horse accident in 1938.

The generation after Frances and Rheo offers the story of the three wildly beautiful Wilson sisters who grew up on horseback at Wilson Bar, stomping rattlesnakes and riding bareback along the Salmon River. Legend has it that Alice Wilson was Marilyn Monroe’s double, swimming her horse across the river, in a scene from The River of No Return film with Robert Mitchum.

The girl party beach scene went on well after midnight but I slipped off to bed just before. In bed with the muffled sounds of the campfire filtering through, I thought how, without really knowing our predecessors, we had chosen to live their lives. We are a sisterhood of women on the river that reaches back more than a century. The canyon has changed little in that time. The things that delighted their eyes are now in mine. My day-to-day struggles were also in their bodies and spirits. The women at the party had been called to live a life so different from their contemporaries…just as my life is so different from most of mine.

A jet boat engine woke me at 6:30 AM. It was Heinz taking my river sisters down canyon. The few remaining “up river girls” staggered into Barbara’s kitchen for breakfast and morning talk over coffee. When Heinz returned with a Forest Service trail crew on board headed for a job up river, we rode along to our homes.

It was delightful to be back where I belonged and next to the man I love at Campbell’s Ferry. I felt full, like a sponge that had soaked up “girlness” and was expanded by it. It would have to last me a long time.

12 thoughts on “Women of the River: Part 1

  1. What a lovely portrayal of bonds shared by women – especially River Women. Thank you for sharing these wonderful accounts and recreating in my minds eye, your life at your beloved Ferry.


  2. Life on the river is a far cry from needlepoint in Tucson! How lovely it must have been then and now even with the hardships..I so enjoyed reading about it.


    • Thanks, Lynne. We are now living in the 1905 cabin with no running water while our one room cabin is being renovated. i will post about this experience once it is completed. Life is interesting if not comfortable.


  3. Tough, adventurous women that know how to live a full life. I love the post. You might want to check out this blog by a woman I met in a remote section of Costa Rica: http://www.wakingupinthejungle.com
    Audrey used to write for the Nantucket local paper and she and her husband later built an extraordinary property in an undeveloped section of the Nicoya Peninsula. You share the same pioneering spirit!


  4. Thanks for writing this. It was fun to see another account of my great aunts (the wildly beautiful Wilson girls). I know very little about that side of my family. Mainly just what findagrave quotes from a book “River Of No Return”
    Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley
    1978. Have you read that? It’s an intertaining story. Here is the link: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/104912135/howard-allen-wilson.
    Do you have any other information on the Wilsons? Howard Haywire Wilson was my father’s father’s father. My grandfather is Howard Wilson Jr, We are driving through Twin Falls and Idaho Falls in a few weeks on the way home from Yellowstone, but aren’t going far enough west to see the area you live in unfortunately. We will have to make a separate trip one day. Thanks! Clara


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