It's my 15th wedding anniversary. I lay my fly line on the East Fork of the Salmon River at sunset. I help cook dinner on my truck's tailgate turned table. I mingle with every man in camp, but my husband. He's not even here. I'm on the road with Outdoor Idaho. We're heading into the White Clouds to shoot scenics from every route, angle and way possible. It's not exactly the anniversary I had in mind, but it will do.
When Outdoor Idaho producer John Crancer called with the invite, I couldn't say yes fast enough. I rattled off my strengths to prove myself an asset on the crew. I'm running a wilderness race in that area. I'm floating the Middle Fork and chasing salmon close by. I'm in shape on water and on ground. I can carry my fair share of weight while I work. I know how to shoot with four different cameras. Crancer liked what he heard. My husband didn't, but he gets it. We usually have to celebrate our anniversary in the winter because summer is peak shooting season and my production schedule is always in the way of our actual wedding anniversary.
I said ‘I do’ to the trip, met the crew for dinner at Little Boulder Creek trailhead then started hiking the next morning. The first few miles are treeless and steep. It's hot and dusty. I quickly realize the White Clouds kick the endurance right out of you. The elevation, the distance, the bugs. All three try my patience, but I don't give in easily.
The terrain changes about mile four. It's still hot and buggy, but trees start shading our trek and the ground is meadow green instead of desert brown. I'm studying the changes in the landscape when I spot the Cloud's crown jewel—Castle Peak pushing almost 12,000 feet in elevation.
Castle Peak looks like home. I always point myself homeward when I feel lost so I give myself a moment to stare at home before I go into pro mode and dig a camera out of my pack to start shooting footage.
Castle Peak doesn't sidle up on you with a shy introduction. It shoots out of the ground with a look-at-me presence just like Utah's Wasatch Mountains. That's the playground of my childhood. The trunky tug on my heart pulls instantly. I wouldn't trade the Snake River for the Wasatch, but I relish seeing peaks that look like home. That's a comforting feeling when you're the lone woman on the White Clouds crew.
As an outdoor journalist and filmmaker, I spend a lot of time in the woods with men. Most of them hunt and fish and that's the talk around the fire, but the Outdoor Idaho crew talks of more. We all enjoy the outdoors in various forms and tall tales run rapid through basecamp, but we are also lens lovers. We see the world as frames of visual perfection. We compare tips and tricks, brilliance and bumbles. That's our fireside chat until it rains and we all run for cover.
I'm seven unlit miles from the trailhead. There's no easy out so I give myself a pep talk and crawl in my tent. I'm thinking of home as I prepare for a solo sleep in pitch dark. I don't like the dark. Mother Nature must know that. She distracts me with a 12-hour thunderstorm. Lightning illuminates the fabric walls of my tent, rain pours, hail piles, but I stay dry with eyes wide open and limbs unmoving until the White Cloud's and its Castle come calling at daybreak.
We all emerge from our soggy tents with bed head and bad breath. The bed head stays. The bad breath is brushed away as talk of the day brews like camp coffee.
In true shooter fashion we are all grateful it rained during the dark hours. A downpour during daylight shooting hours is heartbreaking. We have no rain when the sun comes up. The shooting festival in the White Clouds is glistening with potential.
We divide into three teams and go our separate ways for the day. I climb closer to Castle Peak to shoot in a meadow. Along the way I mentally wish my husband a happy anniversary. It's a good thing he doesn't mind me spending our wedding anniversary in the woods with seven other men. I decide we should spend an anniversary in the White Clouds together. My husband needs to see peaks that look like home too.
“Why are you including the White Clouds in your upcoming “50 Years of Wilderness” program? It's not wilderness.”
The White Cloud mountain range is definitely not designated wilderness and probably never will be. It came close several years ago, when Congressman Mike Simpson pushed a wilderness bill through the House of Representatives; but he couldn't get Senator Jim Risch to support him, so it died.
Now a new idea is taking hold — a national monument — and the smart money says a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument will happen, perhaps in 2015.
Why? Because all it takes to create a national monument is a signature from the President, thanks to the Antiquities Act of 1906.
American presidents have used the Antiquities Act more than 100 times, starting with Teddy Roosevelt, to protect places like the Grand Canyon and most recently, the Organ Pipe Desert Peaks National Monument of New Mexico.
Back then the cool solution, agreed to by Senator Frank Church, was a “National Recreation Area.” And for many Idahoans, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (the SNRA), administered by the Forest Service, has been a reasonable success.
But look to the leaders of the Idaho Conservation League on this one. They worked closely with Congressman Simpson on his wilderness proposal but have decided that nothing will get through Congress any time soon. So they have pivoted toward the national monument idea, and they seem to have the ear of this president.
The persistent argument one hears in favor of a national monument is that it will somehow protect the White Clouds better than the current arrangement. Let's hope so, because calling something a ‘national monument’ will likely attract even more visitors.
The ICL understands that official wilderness is a tough sell for today's mountain bikers who can’t ride in designated wilderness. Our recent trip into the White Clouds found quite a few mountain bikers on the 10,400 foot Castle Divide trail. In fact, we saw more mountain bikers than hikers on that trail!
Interestingly, none of the ones we talked with favored either wilderness or a national monument. They liked the status quo. But at least a national monument concept doesn’t exclude mountain bikers outright.
Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, put it this way: “The Boulder-White Clouds have extraordinary wilderness values and world-class recreational access. We are working together to protect both.”
The argument against a national monument? Bob Hayes, a founding member of the prestigious Sawtooth Society, puts it this way: “It's going to create confusion and conflict and invite litigation. It deprives those stakeholders of the opportunity to fully participate in a land-use decision that is of critical importance to them. It's going to upset the balance of the working relationship among people who have learned to adapt to each other and use the resource.”
Recently, I talked with an outfitter from the Challis area. He's convinced the national monument idea is primarily an attempt to buy out the ranchers along the East Fork of the Salmon River. There's a large part of that watershed that is currently not in the SNRA but would be in the new monument; the area is a stronghold for salmon and steelhead and other wildlife.
So, back to the question posed at the beginning of this post... why include the White Clouds in a program on ‘50 Years of Wilderness’?
I guess because the White Clouds have been in the thick of the wilderness debate for at least 30 years.
Because my generation hikes; this younger generation bikes.
Because what happens in the White Clouds may tell us something about the future of wilderness in America.