Saturday, July 30, 2011

Idaho! - Summer Trip 2011 Part 1

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We had some definite set plans but we also built a little time in for days with no set destinations. Some things worked out, others didn’t, but we sure got our feet wet and discovered new places we will return to. This trip approached epic adventure status.

Our two fixed plans were a backpacking trip into the Frank Church Wilderness followed by another into the Sawtooth Wilderness of central Idaho. We enjoy the travel to and back almost as much as the main destinations. We hate the Interstate so we devised an interesting route to get us to McCall, Idaho and our rendezvous with our companions on our trip into the “Frank,” brother “Fastshot” from Colorado and my cousin from Washington, “The Big Guy”.

We headed out early and did our first breakfast on the road at the Roadrunner in Dayton, Nevada. From there we headed through Fernley, Nixon, past Pyramid Lake, made a stop in Gerlach, and on to lunch in the central park in Cedarville, California. From there we headed through Vya, Nevada and across the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge. If you’re thinking about visiting Sheldon, I’d hold off until the pipeline project is done. Driving down a graded dirt road with a posted speed limit of 40 mph and being caught and passed by many construction vehicles, including 18 wheelers, going 60 to 65 mph was a bit of a distraction. We stopped at Virgin Springs and decided to go a bit farther. Topping the gas tank off at Denio Junction with expensive fuel was worth it to visit with the folks having their evening beverages outside and listening to them swapping stories with one another. The Lady talked with the women folk inside the bar (a bathroom break) and came back with the information that the county road we wanted was not marked with the number but was called “White Horse Ranch Road”. We were looking for a spot for the night high up in the Trout Creek Mountains of southern Oregon. We hit the top and spotted a two track dirt road that headed down a line fence. The gates were posted as BLM land. We drove about 3 miles and came to a plateau that offered a view to the northwest of the eastern escarpment of Steens Mountain. This would do!

We set up and enjoyed dinner. On our evening walk we watched a large thunderstorm moving to the north. Overnight we were hit hard with an impressive storm that was still lingering at sunup the next morning.

First light on Steens Mountain.

As much as we enjoy our customary first breakfast on the road in small town café, nothing beats a breakfast spot like this watching a sunrise all alone.

From here we headed down past the White Horse Ranch

and continued to find historic spots to stop at along the way.

We filled up the gas tank in Jordon Valley and headed north on the dirt road to Succor Creek, one of Dirty Dog’s recommended spots.

It is an interesting geological area so we settled in and spent the night. We were up early enough before sunup that a photo of the setting full moon was in order over our campsite.

It was now Sunday and time to head to McCall and rendezvous with the boys. There must be a brew pub in McCall. We figured that’s where we’d find them.

Ospreys are about our favorite birds. They fish with reckless abandon. Getting the fish is their main focus. They plunge into the water. Getting back out and getting airborne again looks secondary. They are so successful, bald eagles, our national symbol; get most of their fish by stealing from osprey. That just seems fitting on so many levels…………..

Our most memorable osprey experience was in Cooks Lake Basin in the Wind Rivers several years ago. A pair of osprey were teaching their offspring to fish. When the young ones would hesitate to dive a parent would knock them out of the sky into the water. We roared with laughter as it happened over and over and delighted in witnessing this event.

McCall sits on the south end of Payette Lake. It is beautiful country and an incredible location for this small city. Late afternoon after meeting up with our companions, we were sitting in Rotary Park right on the lakeshore. Motorboats running across the lake, families enjoying the water at the beach, people disregarding the “no dogs on beach” signs, and ospreys picking off trout all caught our eye. The ospreys would rotate their catch in their talons until the trout was head first and aerodynamic as they headed toward us and flew overhead. As we sat we could hear the distinctive osprey “chirp”. Investigating, we saw the nest was in the highest fir, right in the park. You got to like a town with an osprey nest right in the middle of the park where, without concern, the adults rip fish apart and feed their young.

The next morning we had a long drive to the trailhead at Big Creek. The estimate I had heard for taking the 65 mile drive was 2 hours. It took us 3.5 hours to go the 75 miles.

Do this drive. It is spectacular. We took Lick Creek Road east out of McCall. Soon it turns to dirt and then gets narrower and narrower as it climbs. It crosses the divide between the Payette River drainage and the Salmon River. We were stopped at this pass as a grader opened the road. The long hard winter snows we had here at home was also felt here in the Idaho high country. From the top the road makes a long descent until hitting the South Fork of the Salmon River. We were heading to the small hamlet of Yellow Pine so we took the road up the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon. All rivers were high and roaring. There is much opportunity for dispersed camping in this area of the Payette National Forest. This would make a great place just to wander in, explore, and enjoy.

More on Yellow Pine later.

Just past Yellow Pine we turned northeast on Big Creek Road. This road climbs out of the South Fork drainage and crosses a high pass and then down into the Middle Fork Salmon River drainage. It is a steeply climbing dirt road. We were stopped by a road crew with an excavator repairing damage caused by two huge landsides. This road was just opening up also.

Go to Big Creek. The road drops into Big Creek Valley (a major tributary to the Middle Fork of the Salmon). It is really pretty country far away from anywhere. There is opportunity for dispersed camping.

You come to the settlement of Big Creek itself and at the end of the road is the airstrip. This is a different world, a backcountry grass airstrip in the bottom of a remote canyon, and incredible mountain homes that people who pay tax attorneys rather than taxes access with their private planes. It is a hell of a long ways out there.

Our destination was the Big Creek Trailhead just past the airstrip.

Big Creek is special water for wild native cutthroat trout, catch and release only, all 34 miles of it below the trailhead before it joins the Middle Fork. This is why we were here.

Unfortunately, we picked the wrong year. Big Creek was not a big creek; it was a huge roaring torrent of a river. It was dangerous as others had apparently found out.

Wade into this river to fish, if you got knocked off your feet, you could die. It was six miles down before we found the first fishable water.

And, it was here we met the two characters, one from Spokane with his buddy from Tennessee. They had their backpacking camp set up above this spot. As the Big Guy and I approached, they were in a loud, friendly conversation with each other. They each were enjoying a can of beer.

“Oh, were sorry!” one of them said when they saw us. He said it in such a way that I was more than a little curious about the subject matter of their conversation we had missed.

The Big Guy has a nice way about him and soon had them chatting. We learned they had been here two years ago. One of the fellows gave a long and impressive list of places he had fly fished in the west and he concluded with the statement, “On our last trip this was the best fishing of my life, but, not this year! The river is more than twice as high. The brush along the river is three times as high and awful to get through and then you don’t dare go in the water, you could die. Did you see that kayak trapped in that log jam?”

“This spot below you is the first fishable spot we’ve seen. Can you get down to the water here?” I asked as I looked at an apparent steep trail over a huge downed log.
“Oh, it’s awful dangerous but you might be a bit spryer than me.”
“Big Guy, we can make it. Let’s give it a try down here.” I said after I dropped over the top of the log.
At the water’s edge we found a corral of sorts made out of rocks that held four floating cans of beer, cooling in the cold river. After we passed and moved out to the main river, one of the fellows easily climbed down, grabbed the beers, and headed back up.

The Lady and Fastshot joined us. The Big Guy hooked a stout feeling trout that he got a fleeting look at. It easily broke off in the heavy current.

As we climbed back up, we saw that, indeed, the cooling beers had been saved from possible theft, but we also saw hidden back in the brush three 18 can cases of Coors Light.

Big Creek looks like it could be an incredible wilderness fly fishing Mecca, unfortunately, not this year. The Lady and I will return.

I kept being reminded of one of my favorite lines from the movie, Tremors, “We picked the wrong damn day to leave Perfection!”

At least below our campsite was an osprey nest.

These two parents were not as accustomed to people as the McCall osprey. We all got strong warnings not to come too close.

The Lady was our navigator with the 7.5 quad on our Big Creek adventure. Showing on the map about a half mile below our camp was a small “x” and the word “Grave”. On our last evening we went searching.

Not bad for a final resting place.

Fastshot noted the small flintlock pistol impression adorning the concrete headstone.

One word of warning about this area, several fires had burned through in the past and trees are falling everywhere, even green ones are falling over or breaking off. Even with little wind we heard and saw trees just come down. On our final night in the canyon a small thunderstorm went through. The sound of falling trees was as loud as the thunder. This is a dangerous and scary place. We decided to go out a couple of days early.

This brings us to Yellow Pine. As we left the beer camp, the Big Guy chatted more with the two characters. They told us about Yellow Pine and hearing that we had just driven by on our way in, said we really needed to stop and to be sure and check out the nine hole golf course.

“You have to ask at the general store where it is and you have to check at the Silver Dollar to find out when the general store will be open,” they told the Big Guy.

Main Street Yellow Pine, Idaho

The General Store……………..

……..wasn’t open but there was a fellow and his border collie sitting outside at a table.
“How you doing today?” I asked.
“I love border collies!” the Lady added.
“Thanks, she’s a good dog,” the man replied.
“Full of energy? I bet she can jump! She’s pretty!” the Lady continued.
“Yup, you got that right,” he answered.
“What you working on?” The man had his laptop open.
“Oh, checking my emails.”
“What?” I was surprised.
“Yeah, who’d have thought? It was just a few years ago Yellow Pine got phone and electricity out here. Now they have Wi-Fi.”
“Know when the General Store will open?” I asked
“Gotta check up the street at the Silver Dollar. I’m just down here using the Wi-Fi.”
“Where’s the golf course around here?” I asked.
“I don’t know but I do know they got a bunch of clubs there you can use if you didn’t bring yours.”

The Lady and I had already stopped and talked with two women in front of the Silver Dollar Bar & Grill. They had asked where we were from, what we were up to, and if those other two fellows were with us. We filled them in and then walked down Main Street. We noticed right away that after we left other locals walked over to the women to find out about us. They were filling in one gentleman about us when we returned from the General Store.

Yellow Pine is just a fun town.

“Your two buddies are inside having a beer and Joyce is making them a burger. Joyce might know if the General Store might be open sometime today if you need something,” one of the women filled us in as the other finished up telling the gentleman we were from California.

We joined the boys inside the Silver Dollar.

After lunch we said good bye to the two nice women outside as we left. They hadn't moved.

“You coming back for the harmonica festival? It’s the first weekend in August,” one woman asked.

As we continued our Idaho adventure we were occasionally asked, “You going to the Harmonica Festival in Yellow Pine?”

We really liked Yellow Pine.

Well, what to do? We had come out of Big Creek early and we still had a couple of days to spend with Fastshot and The Big Guy. We spent one day on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon down from Yellow Pine. It was high but somewhat fishable. Small steelhead smolts would hammer our flies, but none of us brought up any big fish.

We headed back to McCall via the South Fork of the Salmon River and the road to Cascade. It’s a longer drive but not as rough as the Lick Creek Road. In McCall the boys hit the brew pub and the Lady and I hit the grocery store for fresh grub and bag of briquettes. The fellow at the fly shop suggested we fish the North Fork of the Payette River just south of McCall.

There is a piece of public land, BLM, and dispersed camping is allowed. We found a nice campsite, the water was warm, the fishing not so good, but we roasted fresh sweet corn on the coals, had a crunchy salad, and we provided the boys with Bitch Creek beer brewed in Driggs as the osprey kept watch.

The next morning we said good bye to the boys. Fastshot was heading home and then to his father-in-laws’ ninetieth birthday party in southern California. The Big Guy headed to central Oregon in search of serious trout where an eight pound, 23 inch wild rainbow counted as the high point.

The Lady & I hit the Laundromat to freshen up our backpacking clothes, repacked our packs, and got ready for the second phase of our trip. We headed out from McCall about midmorning with a full tank of gas. Our route was the Warm Lake Road east from Cascade, past Warm Lake and over the divide to Johnson Creek where we would hit the Landmark Stanley Road. This is mostly dirt and about 100 miles to Stanley. It was an enjoyable drive through beautiful country. It was also busy with people camped in almost every dispersed site along the way. The country was particularly nice over on the Stanley side, especially Elk Creek and Bear Valley Creek. These are creeks that flow into the Middle Fork of the Salmon and are all a wild trout and salmon fishery. Elk Creek and Bear Valley Creek are meadow creeks with good spawning habitat for Chinook salmon that are able to make it up over 700 miles from the Pacific.

We found a great campsite along Bear Valley Creek.

Tribal fishing is allowed for salmon. I’ll let these pictures speak for themselves.

I asked for and was given permission to take these photos. The Lady was brewing us a cup of coffee when I noticed the Indians arrive to fish. She heard the yelling but did not know what was going on. They moved on and I showed the Lady the photo of the two young men with the Chinook.

“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh! I have never seen a fish that big! I want to see a fish that big alive in this beautiful water!”

After dinner we quietly wandered the meadows and along the creeks. It was a beautiful night in beautiful country.

Although we searched a lot of water, we were unable to find a salmon for the Lady to see.

The next morning’s sunrise over Bear Valley Creek.

I don’t know if the structure is a frame works for a sweat lodge or if it is a rack for drying salmon. There is a rock fire pit in the center.

Continued in Part 2 - Click Here

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