Wolfe Hunt

We titled our book Merciless Eden.  The history of Campbell’s Ferry and the surrounding lands is replete with stories of the hardship and danger folks suffered to live in this beautiful wilderness. One of the early settlers died falling from his horse on the trail to Dixie, a small town 13 miles from the Ferry.  In 1938 another horse accident at Campbell’s Ferry claimed the life of Emma Zaunmiller.  Another woman and her baby died in childbirth and are buried on a slope above the orchard. Over the decades three drowned in the Salmon River, including a 5-year old boy named Norman Wolfe, also buried at Campbell’s Ferry.  The very first resident who settled here, William Campbell, disappeared while hiking home from Thunder Mountain.  His body was never found.

Recently there was a new disappearance.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

At 9 AM we heard a knock on our cabin door.  When you live at a remote homestead in the roadless section of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, a knock on your door is rare to say the least.  Doug was at his desk but I was still propped up in bed reading the New York Times and drinking coffee.  It got our attention.  Doug opened the door to David Wolfe, whose brother Norman is buried on this property.  We offered Dave coffee.  The Wolfe family was raised on Gaines Bar, four-miles down river from the Ferry and still maintains the old family cabin.  Dave had flown in to the Ferry and hiked down to his cabin the preceding Wednesday and had hiked back up this morning hoping to find transportation back to his truck parked in Dixie.  Gaines Bar has no access to Wi-Fi so he asked Doug to send an email up and down river to inquire if he could hitch a ride with anyone who might be going out of the canyon. Doug did so but, unfortunately, nobody was planning to go out.  Dave called to ask the cost of a charter flight but decided that the cost was prohibitive.  He had grown up in this country and made the hike back and forth to Dixie many times as a child and young man so he knew the country.  Despite the fact that he was now 73-years of age, had not made that hike in 30 years and knew the trail had not been properly maintained, he decided he would hike the 13-mile Dixie Trail back to his truck.

Dave and Doug poured over Google Earth images and topographic maps of the area for about an hour, tracing the route that he would take.  We fed Dave breakfast, gave him an extra bottle of water and returned a rain jacket that he had left here on his last visit.  He assured us he had plenty of food for the hike.  Dave used Doug’s phone to call his wife Beth to tell her he would contact her once he was out and that he would see her tonight.  His last words to her were, “I love you.” At 10:30 AM we watched him shoulder his pack and head down the trail.

For those familiar with the area, the Dixie Trail (Trail 231), forks off the Main Salmon Trail at a high point below Rabbit Point, goes across the head of Reed Creek to a saddle, then drops down to cross Rabbit Creek before heading down to a junction with Rhett Creek and then up Rhett Creek to Dixie.  The first place you come to is Comstock Mine (8 miles from the Ferry) where a five-mile dirt road leads to Dixie.  Because of the altitude gain and the poor condition of the trail, Doug estimated Dave would reach his truck around 7:30 PM.

In the late afternoon Doug called Beth Wolfe to ask her to let us know when she heard from Dave.  We had not heard from her by the time we went to bed.

Monday, July 20

We woke early.  I urged Doug to call Beth but he said he would wait until 9 AM.  It was likely Dave arrive late, was tired and they might both be sleeping in.  When he got Beth on the phone she reported that she had not heard from Dave and had already been over to talk to her neighbor who was the recently elected Sheriff of Idaho County.  He sent Jim Gorges, the Undersheriff, to check to see if Dave’s truck was still at the Dixie airstrip.  It was.  He also reported to Rick at Silver Spurs Outfitters and Lodge that he was looking for Dave.

At 10:30 AM Doug sent a map and GPS coordinates to Jim and Beth, laying out the route that Dave planned to take. He also notified Jeff Shinn, Salmon River District Ranger and Doug Olive, Trails Coordinator for the Red River District of the Nez Perce National Forest.  Immediately afterwards he sent emails to Barbara Eisenberg at 5-Mile Bar, Steve Shotwell at White Water Ranch, Buck Dewey at Mackay Bar and Walt Smith at Arnold Aviation, telling them what was going on. The backcountry community was on notice with the grapevine activated.

At 3:08 PM an email arrived from Amanda Willet, Dave’s daughter expressing concern and asking about Dave’s last contact with us.  Doug relayed what he knew and sent her the map, coordinates and the contact information for the Sheriff and Forest Service officials.  At 5:00 Doug checked with the Sheriff’s Office.  There was no news of Dave but he was told a helicopter would be joining the search in the morning.  Doug asked Rick at Silver Spurs to check if Dave’s truck was still there and to drive the road to the Comstock Mine looking for Dave.  When he did not hear back he assumed there was nothing to report.

Around 6:30 PM Barbara Eisenberg checked in with Doug and then contacted Joe Viehweg at China Bar. China Bar is right across the river from Gaines Bar (and the Wolfe cabin) and she asked them to check to see if by chance Dave had returned to the Wolfe cabin.  She also volunteered her husband Heinz’s help whenever he was free from his jet boat bookings.  Doug called Beth and Amanda to update them from this end.  Amanda said that she, her husband, 2 nephews and 2 brothers-in-law were driving out from Seattle to search.  At 8:00 o’clock Walt Smith (Chief Pilot for Arnold Aviation in Cascade) emailed to volunteer to search with the plane as long as it would not interfere with the helicopter.  By 9:30 PM Joni Dewey at Mackey Bar heard from Joe Viehweg.  He had taken the boat over to Gaines Bar and checked the cabin.  No one was there but he and his father would keep watch from across the river.

Later Doug had a call from Jeremy (Dave’s son-in-law) on his way from Seattle.  Doug went over the map he had sent and relayed contact information from folks who had volunteered to help.

Doug and I crawled into bed highly cognizant that this was the second night that Dave was somewhere out there alone in the wilderness below the sliver of moon we could see from the bedroom window.  I tried to envision him curled up asleep in the deep brush and to banish other more worrisome visions from my mind.  I knew, that next to me, Doug was doing the same.

Tuesday, July 21

We woke at dawn to a beautiful morning with silent hopes for good news.  Doug found an email from Dave’s sister, Linda Karki and responded by sending her all the information so far.  He also sent an update to everyone beyond the canyon who was now in the loop.  At 7:30 Linda called to say the family from Seattle had arrived in Grangeville at 1:30 AM.  They were now in Dixie where they had talked to Rick and were already heading out on the trail to search.  It worried me a little that they would be hiking the trail before any experienced trackers would have a chance to see it but, of course, it was not my place to tell his family what to do.  In any case it was likely that they would come across Dave along the trail so tracking would not really be necessary.

At 8:35 AM we heard the helicopter circling over the Ferry and ran outside to look.  When they said helicopter they meant HELICOPTER.  It was THE 10 million dollar Two Bear search and rescue helicopter out of Whitefish, Montana, carrying every kind of search and rescue technology money can buy.  It is fully funded by philanthropist Mike Goguen with no cost to tax payers or users.  As the helicopter repeatedly circled over head, Doug and I hoped they were going to land to speak with us but before long it crossed the river and we watched as it began to trace the trail, rising up the side of the mountain and following the ridge before it disappeared behind it.  We continued to look for it as it made at least three round-trip passes over the trail.  Once the helicopter left we saw two small private planes circling the area on and off during the day.

Deputy Sheriff Stan Denham was coordinating the search from Dixie.  At 9:27 AM he let us know that there had been no sightings so far from the chopper.  Not only were the family members on the trail but also fire fighters from Red River were heading out.  Mike Wakefield from Dixie was trying to catch up with the family carrying InReach technology, which not only allows tracking via computers but can also send and receive communication.  I suggested bringing in search teams with dogs but was told that it was too late and the scent would no longer be perceptible.

Around 11 AM Joe Viehweg from China Bar moored his jet boat at the Campbell’s Ferry bridge and began hiking up Trail 231 (the Dixie Trail) from the river.  Searchers were also dropped off at Rabbit Point but there were still no sightings.  Mid afternoon two members of Dave’s family arrived at the Ferry, having hiked down from White Water Ranch.  They were not really prepared to hike further and sat under the walnut tree to wait for the rest of the family who were out on the trail.  Around 7 PM Joe returned to Campbell’s Ferry to pick them up.  He had met up with the family members who hiked from Dixie.  Joe had come upon the only evidence that had been found so far.  About two miles up the trail he found some hardboiled egg shell and later a full roll of toilet paper.  He surmised that Dave had eaten the eggs on route and that the toilet paper must have fallen from his backpack.  In that area Joe could also see places where Dave had compacted the tall grass as he walked through.  But soon the signs stopped.  The tired and distraught family was all gathered onto Joe’s jet boat and he ran them up to Elk Horn Rapid, as far as he could go, and dropped them off to hike the rest of the way to White Water Ranch.  Joe returned to Gaines Bar to check at the Wolfe cabin once again.

We got a message that the helicopter was due back tonight to hunt with heat sensing technology.  Unfortunately, the weather forecast was for thunderstorms in the area. When we went to bed around 11:00 PM we had not heard it arrive.  It took a long time to get to sleep.

Wednesday, July 22

The skies were still overcast when we woke but at least it had not rained perceptively overnight.  Dave was heavy in our thoughts.  It seemed not only useless but also weird that our lives were going on unchanged except for the worry and the communication efforts Doug was conducting.  I drank my coffee remembering that Dave had been sitting on this very stool drinking coffee on Sunday morning.  At least the temperatures were forecast to be cooler today, not the mid to high 90s of the past three days.

At nine o’clock Walt flew in with the mail and groceries.  One of the owners of Copenhaver was on the plane with him.  Doug spoke with them about the search and recounted that Dave had repeatedly mentioned how his mother Reho would hike down a very steep chute below the Dixie trail from a point high above their cabin.  Doug was developing a possible scenario where Dave found the trail too overgrown and the temperature too hot and decided to abort the hike by going down his mother’s route back to the cabin.  Walt volunteered to circle the slopes above Gaines Bar on his way down river to survey this area.

Around noon Jeremy called to update Doug on what was happening in Dixie.  He said Stan Denham, Lucas Swanson, a Fish & Game officer, plus two interns had started down the trail early that morning, walking the reverse of Dave’s planned route.  These were experienced trackers who were trained to notice signs.  We were sure that they would be able to find something.  They were also going to explore some side routes that Dave might have taken.  Two other individuals were taking motorbikes from Churchill Mountain out to Rabbit Point to look for signs.  The Two Bear SAR helicopter was unable to fly last night but they planned to be back tonight.

At three in the afternoon we saw Tim Viehweg’s private helicopter from China Bar flying making numerous passes over the route.  About an hour later when the Viehweg’s were back at China Bar, Joe call to say the had made numerous flights, trading off spotters.  They traced the trail and made low passes over Rabbit Creek, Rabbit point (where they saw the dirt bikers), up Spring Creek and followed the trail to the end of the road where they saw the sheriff’s and Fish & Game’s vehicles.  They also flew the ridge above Gaines Bar and made multiple passes up and down the face that drops down to the Wolfe cabin.  Joe said that the springs and creeks were so brushy that it was impossible to really see down into them and that there was so much timber at Rabbit Point that the visibility there was compromised.

The high temperature for the day was 75 degrees so less challenging than before.  At 9:00 PM Jeremy called to ask if we had heard from Stan but we had not. We had thought that Stan and the Fish & Game trackers might come over to the Ferry at the end of their search.  Stan’s son Cody was tracking them with InReach so Doug gave Cody a call.   It turned out that they double backed once the reached the end of the trail, had just reached their vehicles and were driving back to Dixie.  Stan’s wife Neely called to say that Stan would call to update us when he got home.

At 10:45 PM Stan called to say they had searched thoroughly, including exploring places where Dave might have strayed from the trail or taken an alternate route.  They found nothing.  Our hopes had been with Stan and his search team so it was very disheartening to get this bad news.  We began to consider a cougar attack.  He said that they were coordinating with Tim Viehweg to fly a search team with a dog into the area in the morning.  Hmmm…wasn’t I told yesterday that it was too late for a dog search team.  What was different?  Was this a cadaver dog rather than rescue dog?  Is there a difference?

Thursday, July 23

More thunderstorms were in the area preventing the Two Bear SAR helicopter from searching again last night.  This area is over 200 miles from their base in Whitefish.

Tim Viehweg took his helicopter to McCall to pick up the dog search team but was grounded this morning by weather.  By noon the weather cleared enough that they were able to fly them, landing somewhere up on the ridge near the trail.  Doug and I watched them flying overhead.

Greg Metz from Yellow Pine Bar did two shuttles carrying the Wolfe family and friends from WWR down to the cabin at Gaines Bar. They spent the day searching the slopes behind the cabin in case Dave had tried to return

Doug and I spent the day listlessly performing tasks to try to distract us from our thoughts.  I knew Doug felt that he should be out there searching for Dave himself but I was so grateful he did not succumb to that urge.  We don’t need to be worrying about anyone else.

At 7:45 PM Doug heard a jet boat down by the bridge and ran down to find Joe Viehweg had come to pick up the dog search and rescue team.

Joe and Doug hiked up to the Jim Moore Place and ran into two members of the Valley County Search and Rescue Team, Stan Denham and a dog.  They did not find any new sign.  Stan said that tomorrow they were bringing in 4 more dog teams from other communities and counties, part of a group called Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit (IMSARU) that was bringing additional resources to the search.  Joe boated the group down river, before heading to Gaines Bar to transport some people to the Mackay Bar Road

Friday, July 24

Once again I woke early to a beautiful dawn.  I lay still in the bed, looking at the silver pink clouds and writing words in my head to say at a memorial service for Dave.  Turning my head I saw Doug lying quietly beside me with his eyes on the ceiling.  He was doing the exact same thing.

At 9:00 AM the sound of a helicopter overhead called us outside and we watched it going to Rabbit Point, assuming it was Tim carrying one of the dog teams.

Down river Heinz Sippel had left home early, jet boating to Vinegar Creek pick up supplies and bring them up for the Buckskin Bill Store at his place at 5 Mile Bar.  On the way back up river he picked up two searchers at the Mackay Bridge.  They unloaded the store supplies at 5 Mile and then picked up the Wolfe family and friends that had been searching at Gaines Bar to take them back up river to their vehicles at White Water Ranch.

Doug went to the barn to work on the mower.  I did cabin chores before reading the news on my computer.  At 11:18 I heard a ping from Doug’s computer announcing an incoming email.  Normally I would ignore it but these were not ordinary times.  It might be someone needing help with search issues so I went to his computer and clicked on a message from Steve Shotwell at White Water Ranch,

“Hello everybody.  You are all invited to share in the rejoice.  Dave Wolfe just stumbled towards my barn where I was putting things away.  He is coherent all intact!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Pass the word.”

I ran to the barn calling Doug’s name and as he came into sight I just yelled “David Wolfe”.  He ran to me as I relayed the message and then we both ran to the cabin where Doug called White Water Ranch immediately.  He was able to speak with Dave Wolfe who said he simply got lost.  He was dirty and tired but not hungry, still having 2-days worth of food with him.  The reason no one could find him was that he had wandered too far afield.  He had even set a signal fire and fired his pistol at times but he never heard (or even knew about) searchers.  He said he heard a helicopter nearby once but the brush was so high he could not see it and knew it could not see him.  This morning Dave stumbled onto a trail on Churchill Mountain and followed it with no idea where it was going but it ended up at White Water Ranch.

Dave told Doug that the extra water we had given him was a ‘lifesaver’ as was the rain jacket we had returned to him…he had not yet been able to reach his wife. Doug sent word out to folks on the email chain.  We hugged each other and marveled at what felt like a miracle.  We both felt emotionally overwhelmed and I was teary.

Evidently Dave was somewhat confused.  He thought he had been lost for 3-4 days but wasn’t sure.  He said he found himself retracing some of the trails he had been on multiple times.  At White Water Ranch he took a shower and lay down for a nap. Heinz and his passengers arrived at the WW beach at the same moment as Greg Metz, Sue Anderson, Beth Wheeler, and Kathy Shotwell. Greg and company had jetted down from Yellow Pine Bar in response to Steve’s email.  None of the places where Heinz picked up his passengers have Wi-Fi so they were unaware of Steve’s email.   Barbara received it but only after Heinz had left 5-Mile and she had no way to contact Heinz on the river so as the family was heading up river toward White Water Ranch, they had no idea they were heading toward Dave.  As people debarked from both boats, Sue mentioned that Dave was here.  A very forlorn grandson said, “We KNOW he’s here somewhere (waving his arm to the mountain side) and we’re just going to keep looking!”

“No”, Sue said, “He’s here!”

Dave’s son-in-law responded, “Yes, we have faith he’s out there somewhere and we’re intent on finding him.”

Finally Sue yelled at them, “DAVE IS HERE!  AT WHIITEWATER RANCH!”

They finally got the message.  Eyelids flew open, jaws dropped, and heels started spraying up clouds of dust as everyone sprinted toward the ranch house with euphoria flooding everyone’s eyes and hearts.

Dave was still sleeping upstairs.  The group let him sleep a bit longer.  Finally Kathy Shotwell walked up quietly and woke him, telling him that a bunch of people wanted to see him.  Dave rose and came down stairs to be met with an uproar of love and celebration.  Dave told everyone he was fine but his feet were in bad shape so Sue and Kathy sat him down and “doctored them.”  After walking through wilderness for 5 days, Dave ended up 4 miles from where he left.

On Wednesday, August 5th, after Dave had twelve days to relax and recover, Doug had a lengthy telephone conversation with him.  We had come up with some questions for him about his experience and feelings.

He was not exactly sure where he got off the trail but surmised that he went down into Rabbit Creek and followed it, thinking it was Rhett Creek.  That route led him northeast of Dixie but Dave thought he was still on the Dixie trail when the first night began to fall.  He figured that bushwhacking through the brush and timber had just slowed him down so he believed that he was very close to Dixie.  When it got too dark to go on he did his best to make a little camp and settled in for the night, thinking he would move on to Dixie in the morning.  The next morning he got back on the trail.  By mid-afternoon when he had not arrived in Dixie he began to realize he was lost.

From then on he was unsure about timelines and sequence of events.  He just kept walking through brush so thick and high that he could not see anything beyond it. He had matches with him and at one point, perhaps the third day, he started a signal fire from a ponderosa root and stayed there all day hoping someone would see the smoke and find him.  He fired his pistol at various times but by now he was so far away from the planned route that no one heard it.  He heard what was likely Tim Viehweg’s helicopter overhead at one point but the brush was so thick he could not see the helicopter and knew they could not see him.

At various points he came across three huge rattlesnakes. On what Dave believed to be the fourth day he had to shoot the third rattler he saw when it blocked the trail and would not give way.  Doug asked if he cooked and ate it but Dave said that he was so tired that he just could not be bothered.  He had plenty of trail mix and was never hungry.  On another occasion he camped in an open area and tried to start a fire with his last matches but the matches had become wet and fizzled so he had no more chance at fires.  In all this time he saw no signage of any kind on the trails he was following except that at one trail junction he saw a tree with a 3 blaze mark on it.

At night he would bed down in bear grass and said it was comfortable.  He found his muscles shuddering when he would try to sleep but said he wasn’t cold and thought it was just muscle fatigue.  One night there was some rain but he had a plastic cover with him that helped him stay dry.  He told us that it seemed to him he had everything he needed except a map, a compass, a lighter, and someone to hold his hand and tell him where to go.

His wanderings had led him up on Churchill Mountain but there was no way he could know that.   There he found another trail and started following it without any idea of where it was leading.  In a meadow above White Water Ranch he saw his first signage but he still was not sure where he was until he saw Steve’s powerhouse and Greg’s pickup, surprised to find himself at White Water Ranch.  Thrilled and relieved, he walked up the rise and headed toward the barn.  Steve Shotwell and Dave Wheeler happened to be working at the barn.  Steve heard Dave Wheeler say, “Who’s that guy?”  Steve looked up, peered through the heavy shade, shook his head and looked again before trusting what he saw.  Steve’s first words to Dave Wolfe were, “Hey Man, the whole world is looking for you!!!”  Dave said it was a truly awesome moment when he saw Steve.  Actually, it was incredibly lucky.  The Shotwell’s are not at the ranch that often but had recently been there while rebuilding their water system.

Dave was escorted to the ranch house where he was offered food, water, a shower and a nap.  “Do you have a cold beer?” asked Dave.  He had his beer and shower but refused food, saying he still had two day’s worth in his pack.  He then settled down for a nap.  When Kathy woke him he went downstairs to find two grandsons, his son-in-law, a nephew and four friends from Kamiah, as well as Greg & Sue from Yellow Pine Bar and Beth Wheeler.  Dave said everything from that point on was kind of a blur.  The Sheriff was already on his way to pick Dave up, assess his condition and take him home.  The Sheriff made the drive in record time.  We did not ask about his reunion with his wife so we don’t know if she kissed or strangled him.

During our August 5th phone conversation Dave told us that he had spent the previous night with Stan Denham discussing his ordeal and said that Stan was very informative and helpful.  Naturally, Dave was very appreciative of all the efforts made by so many on his behalf.  In the end, I guess, he saved himself but he has promised to never go out in the backcountry again without InReach technology.  There is a tentative plan for a family gathering at Gaines Bar in September.

A list of people mentioned (see map for river locations):

-Phyllis and Doug Tims:  Owners/caretakers at Campbell’s Ferry Ranch

-Dave and Beth Wolfe:  Wolfe family with a family cabin at Gaines Bar

-Linda Karki: Dave Wolfe’s sister

-Amanda and Jeremy Willet:  Dave’s daughter and son-in-law

-Kathy and Steve Shotwell:  Owners White Water Ranch

-Beth and Dave Wheeler:  Helpers at White Water Ranch

-Joe & Tim Viehweg:  Owners China Bar

-Barbara Eisenberg and Heinz Sippel: Owners Buckskin Bill & 5-Mile Bar

-Joni and Buck Dewey:  Owners Mackay Bar Ranch

-Sue Anderson & Greg Metz:  Caretakers Yellow Pine Bar

-Walt Smith:  Chief Pilot Arnold Aviation

-Stan Denham:  Deputy Sheriff Idaho County

Women of the River: Part 3 Rose Bernardi Aiken Cook

“History is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance about the past. It is the record of what’s left on the record. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance or a map is a journey,” Hilary Mantel, historical novelist.

Rose Bernardi Aiken Cook was the first woman to call Campbell’s Ferry home, as well as the only woman to be buried in its soil.

Rosa (Rose) Bernardi was born in December 1862, the second child in a Catholic family with eight children. Her Italian father, Joseph Bernardi, was a saloonkeeper and liquor dealer and her German mother, Rosa Gephart, ran a boarding house in Salem, Oregon. Rose grew up surrounded not only by her seven siblings but also the live-in guests in a large, lively setting. Undoubtedly all the Bernardi children grew up with necessary assigned chores in the boarding house, learning hard work and responsibility. Yet the atmosphere appears to have been joyful and supportive. Her friends described the petite, energetic Rose as cheerful and kind to all, known to have a happy, positive outlook on life.

At nineteen Rose married Joseph Aiken, a twenty-eight-year old widower with a six-year old-son, Bliss, who, during their eighteen-year marriage, Rose raised as her own. Tragically, twenty-four-year-old Bliss drowned in the Snake River in 1899 and the following year Joseph died of pneumonia. Rose moved back into her family home at age thirty-seven. There is no record of Rose and Joseph having any children together and the 1900 Census that lists Rose as living with her family in Salem makes no mention of an Aiken child.
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It is not known exactly when or why she moved to Idaho but three years later Rose was working as a schoolteacher in Elk City, where she met and married twenty-seven-year-old Warren Cook from Dixie, Idaho. The discrepancy in their ages is interesting. What attracted Warren to this older widow? Was it the lack of single women in the mining towns or was it some deeper need. Perhaps he saw in Rose someone whose strong love and sense of family compelled her to faithfully raise her stepdaughter as her own and to care tenderly for her ailing husband before he died. Maybe he admired her buoyant spirit that could not be shaken by the tragedies she had endured or that he respected her brave choice to start her life anew out on her own in a small mining town surrounded by wilderness. Possibly he fell in love with the commitment and care he saw her lavish on the children in her classroom. Conceivably, he was attracted to the close, warm, gregarious comfort of her family, a situation so different from his own.

In contrast to Rose’s early life, Warren’s precarious childhood was marked with desertion and upheaval. He was born in Dayton, Washington, February 26, 1876, the first child of John Barrister Cook and his wife Clara, where John worked as a farmer. Some time later the family moved to Grangeville, Idaho. John opened a blacksmith shop; two more children were born. One day Warren’s mother, who had a history of mental illness, simply walked away, never to be seen again, leaving John to raise three children. At first a Nez Perce woman was brought in to help but family life was chaotic. At age ten Warren was sent to live with a Nez Perce family who raised him until he left after 8th grade to work as a laborer at farms in the region. In 1898 twenty-two-year-old Warren joined the First Idaho Regiment of infantry volunteers and shipped out to the Philippines to fight in the Spanish American War. Returning to the U.S. a year and a half later, he went to work in the mines of Dixie, Idaho, thirty miles south of Elk City.

Since no record exists of how Warren and Rose met, we are free to imagine some scenarios. Travel between the two towns was commonplace. Warren might have been shopping for supplies in the larger community of Elk City, attending church or some social gathering, when he met Rose. Disciplined and self-sufficient, he was also strong and handsome. Rose was vivacious, friendly, warm and kind. Clearly they found love and comfort in each other’s company and on June 22, 1903 they married, living in and around the mining camps of the area.

In 1904 they embarked on a new adventure. Warren was hired to run a ferry business at a wilderness homestead on the Salmon River known as Campbell’s Ferry, where the couple moved into the existing cabin in March of 1905. Strangely, at this point in Rose’s story a mysterious five-year-old boy appears. From various accounts, the child was severely disabled but all accounts have him living with the Cooks. Where did he come from? Did Warren see in Rose’s commitment to this child the love and dedication that he did not have from his own mother? Possibly he was Rose’s child by her first husband Joseph, since Joseph died just five years earlier, but no birth records have been found. Furthermore, the child was not listed as living with Rose and the Bernardi family in the 1900 Salem Census nor is the child mentioned in Joseph’s obituary. If this was Joseph’s child, was Rose pregnant with him at the time of Joseph’s death and at the time of the census? In local newspaper stories about Rose after she moved to Idaho, the child is never mentioned. Did Rose become guardian by some unique circumstances? History is silent.

What we do know is that shortly after moving to Campbell’s Ferry Rose and Warren’s cabin burned to the ground. They lived in a tent while Warren, aided by friends and family, hurriedly built a new cabin on a site 100 yards downstream. Fortunately, it was now spring, weather was warming, Rose had a garden started, and new life was emerging everywhere in the canyon…including in Rose now pregnant with Warren’s child. These must have been happy, hopeful months. Wildlife was abundant in this beautiful place. Fields were high with summer grasses. Flowering trees began to bear fruit, and wildflowers created shoals of color under the dark pines. With their cabin completed, the family nestled in to prepare for their new child. Rose told friends that since coming to Idaho she “led an ideal life.”

In early October Rose suffered an episode that was described as apoplexy, likely brought on by premature labor. She was two month’s shy of forty-three. Today her condition would be described as a stroke and preeclampsia. Possibly because her labor was premature, the baby had not turned and was in breech position. Making things more complicated, Rose’s left side was completely paralyzed. A midwife who lived four miles upriver was summoned to her bedside but despite her best efforts the baby could not be turned. A doctor was sent for but it took several days for the ride out and back from Elk City. According to her obituary, the doctor did not arrive “…until after the Angel of Death had claimed its own.” Jim Moore, who lived across the river from the Cooks, had also been present, later writing in his journal that it was “…a six day ordeal. The first three days we prayed that the baby would be born. The last three days we just prayed for it to be over.” Rose Bernardi Aiken Cook and her unborn child died the evening of October 12, 1905.

On a rise overlooking the orchard and the cabin Warren had built for them, he dug the grave that would hold his wife, his unborn child and his own broken heart. Today, if you know where to look, you can find the grave marker mostly hidden in the deep shade of the pines. Many friends from Dixie and Elk City made the journey to be present for the internment on a Saturday. As stated in her obituary, “…her untimely death is sincerely mourned by the entire community. She was a devout Catholic, Christian, and as near as possible, was buried under the rites of that church.”

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Survivors mentioned were her husband Warren, her mother, her three brothers and four sisters…nothing about a mysterious disabled five-year old boy.

Devastated by loss of his wife and hoped for first child, Warren decided to forsake the Ferry. One can envision him kneeling by her grave to say goodbye. What did he say? What did it cost him to walk out of the canyon leaving them behind? What would it have cost him to stay? We know he never returned and surviving family members say he never spoke about this part of his life.

Epilogue:

Rose Bernardi Cook lived at Campbell’s Ferry for five short months and died in the existing cabin here just over a hundred years before Doug and I began caring for it. In the time we have lived at the homestead I have thought of her every day.

In 1987 Idaho boatman and writer, Cort Conley, placed a grave marker between the pines that mark her resting place. Since the large bedroom windows of our cabin look out on the site, it is one of the first things I see from my bed each morning. The trail from the cabin to our garden runs directly past her grave. Eight years ago I planted two old-fashioned rose bushes next to the site, a pink one for Rose and a white for her baby. It is not a great spot for roses. There is too much shade under the large pines and the soil is not the best, but I baby the roses so that they bloom throughout the summer and into the fall. I like to imagine that the essences that were once their bodies have merged into the ground and are now drawn up into the roots of the roses, creating the blossoms that powder the air with their fragrance.

When Doug and I began living here in 2006, daily life was not substantially different from what it was in 1905. Rose and I both moved into a different life, where the arc of the sun measures time in its travels between the two mountain ridges that embrace the river, where one begins to feel a kinship with the stars overhead during the hushed nights. I allow myself to imagine that she felt the same wonder at the uncountable shades of green emerging in the spring, that she also delighted at the sequential waves of wildflower blooms throughout the summer, and that her heart warmed with the red and gold of fall.

She would be surprised, I think, to know she was a subject in our book, Merciless Eden, about the homestead, that all these years later another woman carries memories of her and struggles to make sense of her story as she goes through her own daily life at the Ferry. I would love to speak with Rose, ask her the questions…especially about the five-year-old boy. I wish there were some way that history could be captured in the light that escaped earth so many years ago, like a film traveling through the far reaches of space carrying the imprint of her life.

Forest Bathing

The early morning light filtered between my eyelashes and I squinted at the clock… 6:30 AM. Campbell’s Ferry nestles deep in the Salmon River Canyon, a cut in the earth between mountains. We have ‘high horizons’, what I mean is, unlike the flat lands, the sky gets quite light before the sun actually tops the mountain to the east. One of my morning pleasures is to watch the first light paint the highest ridge of the densely forested mountain to the west and track its glow as it gradually descends toward the river, illuminating the trees.

One morning before rising from bed I decided to count all the trees I could see without lifting my head from the pillow. When I reached 500 I stopped. I had covered only a very tiny percentage of the visible trees and was now looking at an area where trees were thicker than hairs on a dog’s back. It was hopeless. There are thousands upon thousands visible from my pillow, not to mention all the other trees that completely surround our property that I can’t see from the bedroom.

I had been reading about forest bathing. The Japanese have a phrase for it, shinrin-yoku, meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing,” the healing that comes from just spending time in the woods immersed in nature. There have been numerous studies in Japan on the health benefits induced: lower blood pressure, lower pulse rate, lower levels of cortisol, lower sympathetic nerve activity. My first thought was that Doug & I must be very fortunate, health wise, to live in this healing environment. Information on how the forest actually does this healing was sketchy so I began to ponder the question.

Our ancient ancestors lived lives surrounded in nature. No one was around to measure their vital signs but it seems they weren’t living all that long. Still, does this legacy of our ancestors sing the siren song of the forest in our blood? Science reveals to us that everything on this planet had the same origin. Do we have some kind of tribal affinity for our genealogical heritage to nature that we find calming? Healing? Is this what is really meant by our “family tree?”

On a chemical level we are not only related to nature but also interdependent. In his book, Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote, “What a marvelous, cooperative arrangement – plants and animals each inhaling each other’s exhalations, a kind of planet-wide mutual mouth to stoma resuscitation, the entire elegant cycle powered by a star 93 million miles away.” Since plants produce oxygen is there more oxygen floating around in the air of a dense forest? We know that Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (breathing pure oxygen) helps to reduce swelling, control infection, stimulates growth of new blood vessels and allows stubborn wounds to heal. Of course the forest won’t have pure oxygen but will it have more and does even this limited difference, make a difference?

I am not exactly sure what all this means and the more I thought about all these trees, I wondered…should I be worried? Since we spend so much time in the midst of trees, could this be problematic? Will my blood pressure, pulse, cortisol, nerve activity get too low? This can be trouble, you know. Look it up.

On second thought, it is unlikely that I need to worry about vital signs plummeting. Occasionally while walking through the forest we catch sight of a mountain lion or a bear engaged in its own Forest Bathing. Such a sighting is enough to rev up all my physiological systems. My heart rate and blood pressure rise, sympathetic nerve activity prepares for fight or flight (fortunately, neither has been necessary so far), and I am guessing that the cortisol levels are right in there with the rest and it all balances out.

I am feeling so much better.

The Birds

“Silent Spring,” I thought to myself, recalling Rachel Carson’s book.  It was 2006.  Doug and I had just started our first six month residency at Campbell’s Ferry.  Among the many things that I had anticipated about living here was the thought that I would write to my mother (who had recently taken up bird-watching) about all the birds I saw living in the wilderness.  Small problem…no birds.  It was April.  Perhaps it is too early for birds, I mused, and waited.  Eventually a few nosy crows and desultory robins appeared.  Not much to write home about.

Through the years as we have worked on the land, kept the old ditches from Trout Creek running, irrigated, planted gardens and a few new trees, we gradually began to notice more varieties of birds arriving for short or extended stays with us.  Now, twelve years later, we awaken every morning to bird song outside our open windows.  Before I rouse myself from bed, I watch their flight patterns as they zip past…we are O’Hare International Bird Airport. I am not sure exactly why more and more birds keep coming. Doug says it is the increased water and greenery. It is probably not our irresistible personal charisma.  In any case, as we have made the place more sustainable for ourselves, we have obviously made it more enticing for other creatures.

DSC_0009We scramble to keep up with their appetites, filling bird feeders and hummingbird stations several times a week.  Black-chinned, Calliope, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds guard their feeding stations as fiercely as Samurai warriors.  House Finches, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and brilliant Lazuli Buntings squabble over the bird feeder.  Washing dishes one morning, I gazed out the window into a young tree just beginning to leaf out.  It was set in motion by a flock of Cedar Waxwings in their chic feathery attire, breakfasting on insects.  Yellow Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers and Western Tanagers create flashes of gold amongst the deep green foliage of trees. We try to discourage the Barn Swallows from making nests under our eves. Spotted Towhees, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and dozens of others we have yet to identify amuse us with their calls and antics. A Northern Flicker issues bold squawks from its nest in the hollow trunk of an apple tree near the garden. Downy Woodpeckers turn the pine trees into percussion instruments. Robins perform their twitter-pated courtship dances in mid-air. In the fall Doug takes the dogs out hunting Blue Grouse for our dinner table.

DSC_0003In one of my most beautiful sightings took place in a deeply shaded spot lush with tall ferns, lilies of the valley and wild roses next to a tumbling creek. Shafts of light fell through the leafy canopy. I had just taken a few steps beyond when I was stopped in my tracks by a melodious song. I turned slowly back to see a Mountain Bluebird perched on a delicate branch, illuminated in a shaft of sunlight, glistening turquoise and singing his heart song. Standing riveted to the spot, I did not move a muscle for fear of spoiling the moment. Suddenly the glorious bird flew directly towards me. I could feel the air movement from its wings on my cheek as it passed. Magic!

We watch Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles soar in lazy circles high above us. One morning while standing on the bridge above the Salmon River I saw two Bald Eagles fly under the bridge below my feet. For some years now an Osprey has maintained a nest in the top of a tall pine opposite a small beach where Doug and I go to cool off in the heat of the summer. She circles above, sharp eyes scouting for fish just under the surface of the river. Occasionally she dives like an arrow into the river. Grabbing a fish with both claws, she shakes the water from her feathers and turns the unfortunate fish headfirst to decrease wind resistance as she flies back to her nest with the prize.

I have two favorite bird stories. The first I have already reported in my blog entitled Fawn Frolics, the dance duet between a wild turkey and a fawn. The second occurred in 2015 when Doug and I were living in the historic cabin (the Cook cabin) at Campbell’s Ferry for seven weeks while our smaller cabin (the Crowe cabin) was being renovated. A river group had come up and was sitting under the walnut tree while I was telling them history stories about the Ferry. Rita (our dog) was being her usual Miss Congeniality self, spreading her attention among the guests, when I noticed that she had focused intently on a little bird that she was now stalking in slow motion. The bird was hopping along nonchalantly, staying just beyond Rita’s nose. The river guests worried that the bird was having trouble flying when suddenly Rita lunged at it and the bird flew up into the walnut tree…no problem. Nondescript in looks, it seemed abundantly endowed with personality.

After the folks went back to the river the bird hopped about, perching on logs, rocks, and chairs nearby, coming closer and closer to me. If I sat quietly it would hop up right next to me, looking at me curiously. It would not let me actually touch it, hopping just out of reach if I tried and then returning to my side. As long as I stayed on the porch it would hang out with me as if we were old friends sitting quietly. Doug and our neighbor, Greg Metz, who had been working at the barn came down to have lunch on the porch. The bird stayed on the porch with us during lunch, hopping around under our feet.

When lunch was finished the men got on the tractor, drove up the airstrip and walked into the woods to do some milling with chain saws. Suddenly they noticed that the bird was up there with them. It hug out under the log they were milling and stayed with them all afternoon despite the activity and noise from the chain saws. When they drove the tractor back down to the Cook cabin it flew past Greg’s shoulder and landed on the side of the road until the tractor had passed. Then it flew up to hitch a ride on the log they were pulling on the trailer and rode back down the hill with them. Back at the cabin Greg pulled out his towel and began to wash off in the ditch. I know you are not going to believe me but I have two witnesses…that little bird jumped into the little ditch beside Greg and began to take a bath! When Greg stood up and started drying off, the bird hopped up on the table and began drying its feathers. Afterwards the bird stayed around during cocktail hour until we moved inside. I tried to get the bird to come to my hand to take some food. It would let me get within 6 inches before it would move slightly away.

We did not see the bird the following day but some folks who had come up from the river told me they had encountered a little bird behaving strangely and following them around our place. We never saw it again. I don’t even know what kind of bird it was. From some research I suspect that it might have been a Hermit Thrush or a Pine Siskin and I am annoyed with myself that I did not document its appearance. If anyone knows of a bird that behaves like this please get in touch with me!

It seems that there are more birds every year. We fight them to get any share of our cherries so word must be out on the Avian Trip Advisor website. Now that the birds are here my mother is gone. I cannot write her the bird stories I know would amuse her. Perhaps it is now perpetual Silent Spring for my mother in that place where we all are destined. But I like to imagine that the birds are singing songs of her. They must be… for I think of her whenever I hear their melodies.

 

 

Ferry Food

Clamped to the kitchen counter in the historic cabin sits a neglected strange device that stares reproachfully at me every time I pass. It has been at least 30 years since it has been put to

2009-06-03-001use. Visitors often ask what it is. In response I ask them to guess.

“A meat grinder?” “A coffee grinder?” “A juicer?” Nope.

Rarely someone recognizes it as a device to clamp and seal the lids onto cans of fruit, vegetables, and meat prepared by far more proficient homemakers of the past. Under the counter a box of empty cans still awaits their destiny.

When you live in a roadless wild place surrounded by 4 million acres of wilderness, people have questions. One of the common questions is how we get our food. William Campbell first came here in 1897 for the purpose of answering that question for folks who worked in the mines in the surrounding mountains. Since the mines were in the high country the seasons were too short to grow most crops. William had hiked down into the river corridor looking for a spot to farm…a low, open, flat area with tillable soil, sun and good access to water. On a bench above the Salmon River he found what he wanted, a place that later became known as Campbell’s Ferry. His crops were transported to his customers by horses and mules or sold to folks who were passing through the area.

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Ferry Garden in the 1960s

It is simpler problem today than it was in past but it definitely takes thought and planning, as well as getting dirt on the knees of your jeans. Where William Campbell had extensive fields we have a small garden growing vegetables and berries. Since we are typically feeding just the two of us for the six to seven months we are in residence, it is enough. Unlike the few spots along the river where people live year round, I do not have to can, freeze and dry food supplies for the winter months when travel in and out of the canyon is risky or impossible. Year-round residents not only have larger gardens but also green houses where they can give their plants a head start in the early spring. The strange canning device at Campbell’s Ferry will remain idle during this woman’s residency.

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Ferry Garden 2009

We arrive in April but the danger of frost keeps us from planting seeds until the snow melts from the tops of the surrounding mountains, usually mid-May to early June. As I have mentioned in earlier writings, our neighbor Barbara (twelve miles down river) always sends us some of her extra baby plants to jump start our garden. Her husband Heinz drops them off on one of his passing jet boat trips. Although people have been growing crops here for nearly 120 years the soil is not particularly rich so each year the garden soil is augmented before planting. As those of you who garden know, it is a lot of physical, dirty work but it has rewards. The two moments I love most are seeing the tender new plants emerging and harvesting the first crop.

I hate the weeding. My mother always kept a garden when we were growing up on Yankee Farm in Santa Barbara. I did not mind picking things from the garden so much but despised the weeding chores.

“Mom! Why can’t we just buy our food at the store like normal people?”

I vowed I would never have a garden. Look at me now, growing lettuce, arugula, cilantro, basil, kale, chives, garlic, rosemary, oregano, dill, string beans, peas, potatoes, peppers, chilies, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, tomatillos, and strawberries.

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In addition to the vegetable garden we have an orchard of apple, pear, peach, walnut and cherry trees. The first pioneers planted a variety of apple trees some time before the first homestead report was done by the newly formed Forest Service in 1906. That means over a century of conditioning for the local wildlife to think of Campbell’s Ferry as a food source. Local bears have become accustomed to gorging themselves on the apples each fall. The sows bring their cubs, teaching them when the apples are ripe, so each generation of bears learns in turn. We have counted up to 8 bears in the orchard at the same time.   If the Ferry bear1humans want any apples we have to be quick and we don’t argue with bears.

The pears and peaches are also at risk. We planted dwarf peach, cherry and pear trees six years ago that produce beautiful fruit but the trees’ delicate size makes them vulnerable to being destroyed by the bears. The moment we spot the first sign of bear we take the defensive tactic of harvesting all the peaches and pears, fully ripe or not. The bears have not caught on that the cherries ripen earlier so we only share cherries with the birds, so far. Each of the fruit varieties ripens all at once, an avalanche of each particular fruit. Since we cannot keep up with the fresh fruit, the overflow peaches and img_2619cherries are pitted, stuffed into baggies and consigned to the freezer. The pears don’t freeze well so the excess is baked into cakes, pies, and breads. Last spring we planted dwarf apricot and plum seedlings but it will be another year or two before they are producing.img_4143

The huge beautiful walnut tree next to the historic cabin was just a seedling when it was planted in 1963, a wedding gift to Frances Coyle Zaunmiller (who lived at the Ferry 1940 until her death in 1987) from her third husband, Vern Wisner. Its off shoots are found at many of the homesteads up and down the river. The size and strength of this original tree allow it to withstand marauding bears. The walnuts are particularly attractive to the packrats that secure dsc_0001them in their winter vaults. The historic cabin is not rat-proof, so it is not uncommon for us to return to the Ferry and find hordes of walnuts stuffed into the attic, drawers or our mucking boots.

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John Crowe with Steelhead 1960s

 

There are some wonderful old photographs of earlier Ferry residents with their fishing catch or hunting trophies but we don’t do much of either. My brother and our grandsons have caught fish on each of their visits. As one might expect Trout can be found at the mouth of Trout Creek where it enters the Main River. And there is a well-known hole below the bridge on the big river that migrating steelhead visit every fall. Smallmouth bass and whitefish are common, too. In season Doug will take the dogs bird hunting for grouse, chukar and quail but it makes up only a small portion of our diet.

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Grouse for Dinner – Thanks Rita!

We do our hunting in April before we come into the Ferry. Our hunting ground is the Boise CostCo where we venture forth armed with our six-month shop list and credit cards. Suffice to say, we are almost guaranteed to win “The Most Stuff Bought Award” for the day, probably for the month, and maybe even a contender for the year. You don’t want to be behind us in line.

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Cessna 206 delivers supplies

We descend on the home of our partners Patricia and Brad Janoush with our harvest in tow where we package the various meat, chicken and fish products into meal-sized portions and stuff all the baggies into the Janoush’s freezer. There are also some frozen vegetables for the weeks before and after the garden is producing. On the morning that we make the hour and a half drive to Cascade for the flight into the Ferry we rise early. The frozen goods are quickly packed and sealed into ten cardboard cartons designed to hold approximately two-weeks worth of meals. Once we arrive at the air taxi service, nine cartons are stashed in their walk-in freezer and the tenth one stuffed into the plane along with our gear, the dogs, and, of course, us for the forty-five minute flight into the Ferry. Arnold Aviation (the air taxi service) brings the mail into the canyon every Wednesday, weather permitting, and will bring us a new box on request. They will also go to their local grocer and add 10% to the bill for fresh items like milk. Food and anything else that can fit in the plane can come to the Ferry for $.33 per pound. It is a great bargain!

Once we are in residence our neighbors six miles up river at Yellow Pine Bar send down four “loaner chickens” to Campbell’s Ferry Summer Camp to supply us with eggs. One of our simple joys is watching the free-range chickens scurrying abodsc_0027ut the premises. This summer, however, a family of foxes took up residence, helping themselves to a chicken dinner without an invitation. As a result the remaining three chickens were restricted to the chicken coop for the duration of their visit. When we leave in the fall, the chickens are sent back up river for the winter.

2009-05-01-001Not long after we arrive each spring another hunting season is on…for wild morel mushrooms and asparagus. The season is short and both are elusive but we delight in the search, rather like an Easter egg hunt for grown-ups. The morels in particular are tricky, expert at hiding in the under-growth of the forest. Some years are better than others but we have found two hundred plus morels in a season. Naturally we cannot eat so many while they are fresh so I freeze some for later, like the peaches and cherries. We have also tried drying but find that we like the frozen method better.

Not being able to run to the neighborhood grocery store for last minute forgotten items forces careful planning and, when that fails, creativity.   But we have had few, if any, “meal disasters” in the past ten years and we have never gone to bed hungry. While it is much easier for us to eat well than it was for previous residents, the work involved gives us insight and respect for the challenges they faced. The canning device, however, remains in retirement.

Light Musings

It is creeping toward me, accompanied by a quiet drumroll of crickets. I sense it coming before I perceive it. The sky outside the windows is dark but the stars are already shying away from its approach. I lie in bed peering steadily in its direction trying to catch its first appearance. Is that it just behind the pines?

Of course it is not really creeping toward me but I who have been traveling relentlessly toward it throughout the night, traveling at more than 700 miles an hour perched here on my small point on the earth’s surface hurtling toward this rendezvous. There it is! I see it now, dimly, but perceptible nonetheless. The outline of the trees to the east is more clearly etched. Stealthily the light is changing but so discretely, it is impossible to catch it in the act. From the east, greyness is titrating into the black sky, evolving from gunmetal to a rosy-grey sky. The apple tree branches outside the bedroom window become a black lace applique to its surface. The greys melt into pearl, spreading upward until the sky becomes a quiet brightness. Pink streaks appear before dissolving into a flame colored horizon behind the stalwart pines. I am so busy watching the shifting colors I fail to notice that a translucent tender blue has overtaken the sky.

Our historic homestead lies deep in a canyon carved by the Salmon River, poetically known as “The River of No Return.” Because the property is a narrow bar along the river encased by mountains, the sky becomes light long before the sun climbs over the eastern ridge. An old growth forest wraps its pines and firs down the mountains and around the homestead’s clearings. Once the sun breaches the mountaintop its rays are filtered through the trees in downward slanting shafts of light that hang in the air and create complex patterns on the forest floor. The effect is ethereal, almost holy, the trunks of trees transformed into a many-pillared cathedral illuminated by the stained glass window effect of the early sunlight sifting through the branches. Were the early builders of churches thus inspired? The little time I have spent in churches was as a gawking tourist craning my neck at the brilliant windows and soaring columns of Europe’s cathedrals or standing in awe of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. But now this forest, this hillside, these mountains and this river have brought me this feeling of reverence. This has become my church. The mundane act of the morning walk to the outhouse is transformed.

In the cloudless bright of mid-day when light permeates everything I rarely notice it as something extraordinary.   But there are days when heavy grey clouds race across the sky and the lighting becomes dramatic. The clouds become a theater light board and call the cues, controlling shafts of light that create an illuminated mosaic on the earth. The orchard is covered with follow spots that feature an apple tree, then a patch of green grass, then the cabin. Light sweeps across the hillsides focusing on some place it finds particularly intriguing. The soloist might be a rock face or the flash of a waterfall. Perhaps I am fascinated as a result of sitting in darkened theatres for so many years watching lighting rehearsals, captivated by the capricious qualities of light that can transform a darkened space.

Summer rainstorms regularly provide us with dramatic performances. On one such occasion the sky down river was a glorious azure blue with grey-blue and ivory-apricot clouds looking oddly silky-smooth…like an Aubrey Beardsley sky. Upriver the sky was dark and ominous. Thunder rumbled in the distance and occasional flashes of lightning announced the approach of the storm. Earlier Doug had attached a large tarp to the front of the cabin that served as a shade and rain awning… the big top. As the storm arrived Doug and I sat out under the big top, audience to a dramatic show featuring relentless spears of lightning and percussive thunder. The electrical storm was just the first act. As it exited down canyon the rain made its entrance…so violent…as if it were pummeling the earth with its fists. The temper tantrum gradually wore itself out as the clouds began to break apart, gentling the rain as shafts of sunlight reappeared. Suddenly the rain was brightly backlit by the sun, creating the illusion of a million strands of spider silk slanting from the clouds to the earth, land and sky woven together with a drop stitch. Veils of rain glided down river while shards of mist drifted in the opposite direction, vaporous ghosts that tucked into the side canyons playing hide and seek before they melted into the rain. Birds, seemingly undisturbed by the storm, darted across the sky. Hummingbirds cavorted from feeder to feeder to background music of birdsong and the percussion of rain on the tarp.

In the late afternoon I take our dog Rita with me, walking down the trail to the riverbank to sit in the shade. The river is now rising as a result of the warm weather, in fact I can watch it rise in the hour we spend at its side. Watching the water gradually inch upward along the bank made me think of childhood days at Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara when we would sit on the sand and watch the tide slowly rise toward our toes. I think of a quote by Loren Eisley, “If there is magic on this planet it is contained in water.” The river’s surface is blindingly bright, burning gold in the low angled sunlight. Eisley’s poetic quote fires my imagination and I think, “If there is magic in this universe it is contained in light.” Bright green grasses glow at the feet of a regiment of dark pines and firs that march up the canyon walls from the river, like a romantic illustration in a fairy tale book. The effect is heightened by a hatch of tiny insects on the river that rise into the air in waves.  At this distance they look for all the world like depictions of fairies. Backlit by the sun they sparkle against the dark backdrop of the forest for their brief aerial dance, meant only to find a mate. From my fly-fishing books, I know they are the final stage of metamorphosis of their species, basically nothing more than wings and reproductive organs bent on creating the next generation in the few hours they have left to live. I think of fairies prowling the night, hell-bent on finding sex, their biological clocks ticking away. I don’t remember any fairy-tales with that plot but If you only had their few short hours to live this would be one of the better places to spend them, glittering in the air currents above a golden river looking for love. Surely the legend of fairies had to be born along a river in a fly-fishing country.

Some afternoons Doug & I sit on the porch of the 1905 rustic log cabin toward the end of the day, like so many souls must have done over the last 111 years. The low sun filters through the tall pines, imbuing their millions of needles with reflected light. You would believe that each needle was crafted of freshly polished sterling silver. In contrast to the pines’ reflective glitter, the firs seem to absorb the light, glowing softly from within. For whatever time we have here, this view is ours…the luminous firs and shimmering pines swaying capriciously, like metronomes unable to agree on a tempo.

 Our evening ritual is to sit together on the terrace that Doug created in front of the cabin. From here we watch the sun setting in the panoramic view of the canyon, an Albert Bierstadt painting come to life. The Rainbird sprinklers irrigate the hillside below and, although it sounds mundane, it is beautiful to watch the water droplets falling through the light. Caught in a swirling breeze the mist travels across the landscape in shape-shifting translucent veils, the diamond-bright vapor creating ghostly figures. We pretend that these are the souls of those who lived here in the past, their spirits made visible by the mist clinging to whatever ghosts are made of. They share our cocktail hour. The coda to the evening is watching the earth shadow encompass the historic cabin, then creep stealthily over the meadow and orchard toward us. Once it has us in its grasp we not only see but also feel the difference. The planet turns its other cheek to the sun’s radiance.

At the end of each day the sky-show is unique. There are summer nights when the heat seems to burn the color from the atmosphere but tonight the sky burns with hues from across the color wheel. Clouds lying along the western ridge are lit from within. One could imagine a cavalcade of Renaissance angels erupting from the heavens, cascading down the canyon walls, darting in and out of the trees. A few thin-feathered clouds are sprinkled above, looking as if one of their depressed, compulsive members had plucked the marabou out of her wings and thrown it out into the heavens.

During cocktails Doug and I had a discussion that morphed from the beauty of nature to the nature of beauty. Do all living things experience awe? Why are we wired for wonder? Several nights ago, on my way back to the cabin from putting the chickens to bed, I raised my eyes to the pearl-grey sky, dazzled by the sight of a white-gold sliver of a moon wreathed in chinchilla dappled clouds. Did the world’s first woman on her journey under African skies stop in her tracks stunned by such a sight? While I am not someone who believes in any organized religion, this powerful, inherent sense of reverence is the best argument I can think of for the existence of the supernatural.

 I call our tiny bedroom “The Star Chamber”. The windows that make up two of the walls begin at the level of the bed and rise to the ceiling. Most nights the air is as clear as glass, inviting starlight to invade the room. Lying in bed, you can see the silhouette of the mountain ridges, black against a million sparkling pinpoints of light. I watch the star formations creep across the sky, in and out of the spaces created by the dark pines. Sometimes the pines seem to capture the stars in their branches so that they twinkle like lights on a Christmas tree. I wonder if that is where the idea of a lighted Christmas trees originated…from someone like me long ago watching this phenomenon in the dark.

Waking throughout the night I catch glimpses of the constellations sliding past, this spherical planet rolling through the cosmos on its miraculous journey. Living here, folded into nature’s heart, the immensity and luminosity of the universe slaps us up the side of the head and says, “Look here! See the light!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ferry Serengeti Part 2: Cats

We have tried keeping cats at Campbell’s Ferry. It hasn’t worked out too well. They were brought in to address our on-going rodent problem. Unlike the cats, the mouse, pack rat, and marmot populations thrive unabated. Our attempts to encourage their departure have ranged from glowing travelogues of how lovely it is at our neighbors’ down river (complete with detailed map and directions) to less humane measures falling just short of Hellfire Missiles. The cat strategy was one of these.

We fixed up a cozy spot under the historic cabin with an on demand feeder that Doug constructed for them. I lined their beds with fabric from an old cashmere robe. They could come in and out at will through openings large enough for a cat (or rodent if they wanted delivery) but small enough that a coyote, fox or anything larger could not enter. No avail. The cats did not survive. I suppose it is possible that they came across those travelogues we made about the glorious life down river, studied the maps and moved on. However, finding the occasional cat skull or an amputated tail makes me think otherwise.

This year, however, we do have a cat living at the Ferry and it seems to be thriving. We have not actually seen it with our own eyes but we have caught several photos of it on our game camera. We have also seen evidence. The young couple we brought in to help us with the “start up” chores three weeks ago were walking down the trail to the river when they spotted something suspicious. Clumps of deer fur dotted an area where somethinTracksg clearly had been dragged across the trail.

They followed the drag marks over the side of the steep hill and bushwacked through the brush to come upon a fresh deer carcass well hidden in the thick undergrowth. It was partially consumed. Doug mounted the game camera nearby, focused on the kill. That night the mountain lion returned three times to feed…all caught on camera. We captured more photosLion3 over three nights until the deer was gone. Whatever remained was moved elsewhere.

It may be the same cougar we saw in 2011.  It was early evening when I was standing at the window over the sink in our one room cabin.  Something was coming toward me from the far side of the orchard.  Instinctively I knew it was a mountain lion from the way it moved, still it was hard to trust my eyes since it is so rare to actually see one.  I reached for the field glasses to confirm the sighting, then called to Doug who was at my side instantly.  We had 2 Navy Seals visiting us at the time.  We stood mesmerized and watched the cat approach.  It was stalking five deer standing on the hill just below the cab1 BigCatin. When the deer caught wind of the cat they bolted down hill toward the river, the cat following.  We congratulated ourselves on the unusual sighting, believing it was over.  Doug had just stepped out the door of the cabin when a commotion ensued.  The five deer bolted past heading up the hill into the trees, the cougar hot on their heels.  The deer stopped just uphill of the cabin and the cougar froze just yards from where Doug was standing.  Naturally we don’t want a mountain lion hanging around so close to our cabin.  Doug came in to get his 357-magnum pistol.  It was not lion season and he didn’t want to kill it anyway.  He just wanted to frighten it off.  He shot the pistol in the air over the cat’s head.  A 357-magnum is a big powerful gun so it makes a loud noise.  The cat did not move a muscle.  It did not flinch or look in his direction.  It’s rapt attention was focussed on those deer.  After what seemed like a very long few minutes the deer moved on up hill with the cat still stalking them.  The next day we searched the forest uphill of the cabin but found no evidence of a kill.

These days I find myself looking over my shoulder when taking the dogs for a walk. It is unlikely (but not unheard of) that the lion would attack a human but dogs might make an attractive target. I wish there were a way to encourage the cougar to clear out our rodent population instead.   Yes, they are small but there are so many of them…think of them like caviar, the smaller the better. My friend Jon Scoville calls deer “rats on stilts” and, come to think of it, I see what he means, especially when they are eating my flowers and ripping the branches off the fruit trees. Now if I can just convince the cougar about the rodent caviar.

Ferry Serengeti Part 1: Fawn Frolics

In 2009 my husband Doug & I, along with my sister’s family and friends went to Tanzania to view “The Great Migration” across the Serengeti Plain. The trip was number one on our “bucket list” and it exceeded all expectations. The sheer numbers and varieties of animals were staggering to behold. When we returned to Campbell’s Ferry Doug started calling the orchard, where our wild animals congregate, The Ferry Serengeti. Though not as exotic as 1 Ferry Serengetithose on the real Serengeti, they nonetheless provide great viewing and (sometimes exasperating) entertainment. As an aside to anyone dreaming about a trip to Africa, I highly recommend Wildlife Explorer and the outfitter Gary Strand. Of all my world travels, including an earlier trip to Africa, this 2009 safari was THE trip of a lifetime.

In the early spring the pregnant does populate the orchard with their yearlings. The young deer romp and chase each other, sometimes chastised by the adults with a quick kick or bite. Once their fawns are born, the does tend to sequester the babies away, hiding them in hollows or in thick clumps of bushes when they come to the meadows to feed.

In June of this year Doug and our visiting friend from New York, John Filo, went up to the woods south of our airstrip to harvest some downed logs. While Doug was scouting logs, John spotted a stump that would make a fine stool for him to sit on and wait. Fortunately as he approached it, he happened to look down. He had nearly stepped on Fawn1a day-old fawn that the mother had left in a small hollow in the ground for safe keeping. John called to Doug and they were able to get a photograph of it. The fawn remained perfectly still, moving nothing more than its eyelids for the entire time they were in the vicinity. Doug and John returned to show the photo to my friend Jackie and me. Leaving the men behind, Jackie and I hiked up to the spot they described but by that time the mother, who must have been nearby, had moved the baby. We found the small hollow but no fawn.

Later in the summer, when the does deem it safe enough to bring their fawns out into our viewing, we often see them in the evening as we enjoy an adult beverage on the terrace area in front of our cabin. It is fascinating to watch the sweet curiosity of the fawns when they notice us. I know I am projecting my interpretation of their behavior but first they seem astonished, opening their big eyes even wider and freezing in their tracks. If we remain still, one might begin to approach, lowering, raising, and cocking its head as it studies us, moving forward on slow, tentative hooves. I wrote about one such encounter in my journal:

A second fawn appeared, and like the first one, stopped in its tracks to examine me. I sat perfectly still. This fawn was much smaller than the first. In fact it was the smallest fawn I 2Fawnshave seen out here. Its delicate legs looked no bigger around than my fingers. It slowly and deliberately walked toward me, its eyes locked on mine. It moved in slow motion, exaggerating each lift of its leg and setting it down cautiously. It would move toward me a few halting steps and then stop….and repeat, until it came within 10 feet of me. I remained still. When it dropped its head to graze I noticed something that I had not seen before. Not only did it have spots but also white stripes on either side of its spine from its ears to its tail. I recalled being a first grader in Germany when our gardener brought a very tiny fawn, barely walking, to our house for me to see. I don’t know if he meant it as a gift but, in any case, my mother would not let me keep it. Mother told me he had probably killed the doe, which made me very sad. Now that I know more about deer I think it is possible that he found the fawn in a spot where its mother had left it for safekeeping, which somehow makes me sadder still. Somewhere I have a photo of the fawn beside me on the carpet in our living room. Coming back through the years to where I now sat on the hillside with the fawn in front of me, I thought about how past memories cycle through you and pick up riders of new memories as they pass. I have never forgotten the little fawn from my childhood but now the memories of this one are linked to it.

Twice I have had the joy of watching what may be my favorite “National Geographic Moments” at the Ferry. The first time I was working in the cabin when I happen to glance out the window, my eye caught by movement on the hillside. A fawn and a wild turkey gobbler were engaged in what I first took to be a kind of faceoff. As I watched, the scenario became a dance duet. The fawn would move toward the turkey with an exaggerated high stepping stalk. The turkey then spread its tail feathers, shaking them at the fawn and moving toward it with mincing steps. At which point, the fawn would prance side-to-side, dancing backward several steps. The fawn advanced once more and the turkey shuffled right and left as it retreated with rippling tail feathers. This duet was repeated with minor variations in choreography for more than a quarter of an hour before the fawn scampered off to join her mother, leaving the turkey without a dance partner. Several years later I saw a similar dance reenacted down in the orchard but of course, with a different cast.

We do not miss having television in the wilderness. Each spring we look forward to the antics and frolics of the Whitetail fawns at Campbell’s Ferry. Each year we watch them grow into yearlings, then, year after year, into mature deer that bring their offspring to entertain us for another season. The Ferry Serengeti live performances continue to receive rave reviews from the limited audience.

Women of the River: Part Two

Women of the River: Part 2

Although we seldom see each other, river sisters share a generous spirit of helping each other. Because of our isolation and common roles, we depend on one another. Several who live in the canyon all year have green houses to jump-start their gardens. When Doug and I come in April, we bring seeds and must wait until warmer weather to get them started. Each year a passing jet boat or the mail plane delivers extra seedlings from Barbara at 5-Mile Bar, Lynn at Shepp Ranch or Sue, up river at Yellow Pine Bar, all sharing their bounty with neighbors. Unexpected treats and gifts often arrive by plane or jet boat. Questions, answers, and advice flow back and forth, although it is usually me asking the questions and being the beneficiary of their wisdom. If there is any kind of emergency, an email to the river sisters always finds someone who is listening and can get help.

Most recently some friends were getting ready to float the river. On the day of their departure, the wife received word that her father was ill. They gave her family our email address so that they could stop at our place to get an update on his condition while on their trip. The day our friends were due to arrive at Campbell’s Ferry to check in with us, we received an email that her father was in serious condition and failing. When our friends arrived we relayed the message and it was determined that she should immediately fly out from the Ferry to Boise to get a plane home. I emailed the air taxi service in Cascade but when 30 minutes passed without a response I knew that Carol, who handles their email, must be doing something away from her desk. At Campbell’s Ferry email is our only quick and reliable communication with the outside world. We have a satellite phone but one can wait for a long time for a signal. Most places on the river are connected by backcountry radio but, for some reason, we cannot get reliable radio reception. After waiting for a response I sent an email out to the river sisters explaining the situation and asking for assistance…”Would someone please get on the radio to alert Arnold Aviation that they need to look at their email and get back to me.” Almost immediately I had a response from Barbara. She had contacted Arnold Aviation and let me know that a plane would be on its way within minutes. Our friend was able to get out in time to be with her father before he died.

Sometimes it is not an emergency but just the knowledge that someone else is facing the same challenges and concerns, struggling with the same issues or sharing the same joys is comforting.  My friends in the “outside world” often find it hard to relate to life in the wilderness…”What do you DO out there?” A recent email from my friend, Sue, perfectly captures a day in the river sisters’ lives. I felt Sue had entered my brain, captured my thoughts and expressed them far better than I ever could, so I gained her permission to share it.

First, a few cues to the short hand and river language in Sue’s email:

The inverter…. converts direct current electricity from solar or hydro-power stored in a battery bank into household 110 current. We all have systems to generate electricity. When they act up you can’t call the power company. YOU deal with it.

 

Ypb…short for Yellow Pine Bar where Sue lives.

 

Float groups…white water rafters coming down the Salmon River, either self-guided or outfitted groups. They regularly stop at our places on the river and come up to talk or look at the natives.

 

Fire Suppression Reservoir…AKA, the swimming pool at YPB.

 

Sun oven…basically a black metal box with a glass lid that lifts and aluminum panels that fold out like the Mars rover to direct sunlight through the glass into the black box where you put the food to be cooked. Depending on the weather, temperatures can get up to nearly 400 degrees but typically range from 250 to 300 degrees. Since the sun oven sits outside, it doesn’t heat up the cabin like a stove and it is not eating up your electricity. You have to remember to keep repositioning it to keep the best angle from the sun for a consistent temperature but, should you forget, at least nothing will burn because the temperature will drop as the sun angle changes.

 

Shepp…Shepp Ranch, a place down river where river sister Lynn lives.

 

Sue is a brilliant writer. See for yourself:

Salmon River Sirens!

Every day, this is what happens.

I say to my sweaty self…..”TODAY I will email my girls……………

…….once the power at ypb is stabilized enough to dare USE any sacred electricity.” Major Inverter/Battery drama is ongoing with daunting messages on the display panel and excessive zingy, colorful flashing lights all I can think of is “alien abduction!”

…….or….”I’ll email river sisters after this float group leaves.”……then another one or two follow and I’m talked-out (yes, that can actually happen to me! :)………

……”I’ll email canyon broads when I’m finished cool-morning weeding … harvesting …. choring …. laundering ….. mowing”…… but either there’s zero power left to compute after fridge and freezer have their way with it, OR a group arrives, OR I’m grumpy from the heat and all digits on hands and feet are puffy like Vienna sausages even if I worship shade and guzzle lots of water……….

So at this moment, I’m not checking the power panel to see if there’s enough juice to compute. I’ll just wait for the smoke billow or an alarm to go off 🙂

If floaters show up, they can wander around since they do anyway. And so what if there’s a big basket of peas to shell, strawberries to top, and beets that need their skins’ slipped in hot water……(oh god….is it just me or is it hotter than Satan’s basement and who even wants to THINK about stirring hot jam in a steamy pot unless it’s dark-dark….or JAM-uary?)

Just had to check in and say HELLO! MISS YOU! HOPING ALL IS WELL DOWN RIVER!

Thought of you all last night as I made my way to the Fire Suppression Reservoir. Haven’t dipped into that holding tank of chlorinated water yet this year, so why not a midnight submersion?

Tossy-turny sleeping these days, right?

Even if I’m fairly certain I’m on the other side of the plenty-long adventure of hormonal heat waves, beads pool up even when a body is still and supine.

To the pool she goes to ooh and aah over the moon and splendor of water, knowing the odds of strangers showing up are minimal, and that “hooray! it’s dark enough to not spend even a second screening the 1/4″ layer of dead whatnot’s from the surface.”

The only thing that would have brought it over the top would have been if you guys had been present with chilled Prossecco, and maybe some of those Alabama dark chocolate bites of dreaminess Lynn shared with us this spring at Shepp!

We would have given the crickets a run for their chirping money for sure with giggling in free-style water ballet, or just plain splashed and jawed!

Pretty sure this nocturnal reprieve out yonder will become a habit. Slept like a Disney character afterwards.

Garden-wise, I’m sure you all have the same things going on – weary looking plants by early afternoon, some things WAY ahead of the normal or abnormal (garlic is out and cleaned up by June 30th?).

Everywhere you look, something needs to be tied, picked up, harvested, freed a bit from the biggest-leafed purslane I can recall, or otherwise hydrated (if you have H2o) so the layin’ down plants can make it to sun down.

I’ve already pulled some fried flowers & pea vines that succumbed to the determined triple digit marathon.

The dream I had of 2015 being the year of ‘not’ weeding the ever-so-long flower beds flanking the garden by way of weed fabric and heavily mulched perennials with random barrels and pots of annuals hither and yon. (always wanted to say that:) isn’t quite what I originally envisioned.

Now it’s crystal clear that, in my attempt to fill the fuel barrel “pots” Greg cut in sections for me, I shouldn’t have been so skimpy with the dirt involved in filling them.

That’s what you get for cheating. I thought it was genius, saving on potting soil and/or dirt mix by loading up the bottom 2/3rds of the barrel sections with feed sacks filled with non-toxic trash – aluminum and tin cans, balls of discarded chicken wire, bunched up newspaper or old weed-guard fabric, flakes of straw……anything with bulk to take up some space to ration what I thought was an ample amount of amassed dirt from all kinds of sources.

But now, the top foot or so of skimpy-dirt piled atop “trash” has wiggled and settled down into the crannies of bulk below.

It’s like looking down a man-hole in order to see the annuals down there in the dark, sunk to bottom.

Feel like I should throw them a rope:)

But there’s still plenty of unexpected beauty and bounty – all so jungle-like at this stage with the squash vines traveling like you know they will but can’t “see” that at planting time……..and how, as much as you convince yourself that you’ll stay ahead of the trellising, deadheading or harvesting game, and that you’ll pick ALL the cucumbers that are the best sized baby dills so there’s not that jalopy that magically appears a day later…………..

Whoosh!

It’s just “plants gone wild” cause you’re too preoccupied with playing tag with water, chit-chatting with visitors, troubleshooting inverter woes, sweating in motion or while idling, nursing an injured tourist, putting something in, or taking something out of the Sun Oven, trying to be efficient (as in “not lazy”) in all things domestic (okay….who has vacuumed or washed windows everywhere else but their own domicile?)

And how can you not stare out into space to think about Winter or pass up on a hot minute of laying in the sun-burned lawn to look for animals shapes (or Jared Leto) in the clouds?

All I know is, wouldn’t it be so humbling, entertaining, and most likely mildly (or wildly) embarrassing, to be able to play back the audio version of thoughts, revelations, and conversations we have with ourselves in just one day?

That’s why I’m a HUGE fan of the fresh slate of morning – to have another stab at making it the best day it can be, promises made to take things less seriously in some respects and more seriously in others.

There’s just so much promise and optimism in the AM – in all the seasons, but especially summer when most days feel like a fire-drill even if we “live for a living” for the most part.

Don’t you love the welcomed humidity in the garden after the plants have sucked in their 10 minute drink?

I swear song birds sing the happiest they’ll sing all day. The air is clean and filled with butterflies, giving no indication of fires that burn in the canyon or mayhem that ensues out there in the big world.

To me, the simple act of re-filling the hummer feeders feels like the most satisfactory thing a person can do while holding a coffee cup.

And so, I just had to send you girls a cyber hug to let you know that, through the hundreds of things that go on in a day and how it isn’t always possible to connect as often as I’d love to, you are the people I’d most like to share my hundreds with – telepathically or typingly:)

May all be “morning” in your worlds down river.  I’ll meet you at the pool at midnight!

oxoxo sue

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.