Wilderness Within Reach

A plane takes off from Sulfur Creek Ranch, Courtesy Matt Evans

The Frank Church Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness might not exist today, were it not for the many airstrips that were grand-fathered into the original legislation. Still, the notion of aircraft flying into officially designated wilderness is difficult for many folks to accept.

Pilots know that they have to work diligently to keep those airstrips accessible to the public. "We pilots were under significant pressure to justify the privilege of using aircraft to access the public and private airports in the wilderness areas of Idaho," explained pilot Joe Corlett. "Many individuals, primarily from out-of-state, were pressuring the Forest Service to limit or cease operations in these areas."

Joe Corlett

That's when Corlett and his fellow pilots came up with the idea of flying the physically and economically challenged into the wilderness. They call it "Wilderness Within Reach."

It started out as a day trip in 1988. Today it's a three day event at Sulphur Creek Ranch near the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. And that's where we caught up with Corlett and others in July of 2010.

"So the idea is that Idaho is rich in aviation history and if there weren't airplanes there would be roads to all this wilderness area, all these in-holdings back here," said Corlett. "But because of the airplane the wilderness has stayed fairly pristine; and it allows people that normally can't take two weeks off to hike 25 miles back into the wilderness to come back with an airplane, spend a few days and then leave.

Guests at Sulfur Creek Ranch enjoying a campfire, courtesy Joe Corlett

"In the past we've had elderly and physically challenged people that have come here to see the wilderness. It is all donated by the charter operations, like SP Aircraft, Arnold Aviation and McCall Aviation. The entire general aviation community is really supportive of this program, and it allows people that are not pilots that have challenges in getting back here to get back and see the wilderness.

"The idea is to leave without a trace. The Idaho Aviation Foundation adopted this program, and it has been going many years now. I think we found a home here at Sulfur Creek, and we will hopefully perpetuate this program for a long time."

A plane's propeller in the foreground and a camper petting the horses in the distance, courtesy Matt Evans

Of course, few things seldom go exactly as planned, and Corlett remembers one of the first excursions. He had put all the wheelchairs in one plane and all the passengers in other planes. "Well, it ended up the passengers got there before their equipment, and so I had them stacked up against trees at Chamberlain Basin waiting for the equipment to get there, which finally got there about half an hour later. So I learned to keep the equipment with the individual, and that way we don't have any bad situations like that."

He also remembers some of the folks who have benefited from Wilderness Within Reach. Last year it was a veteran who brought a tear to his eye.

"He had had a stroke several years ago, and he told me, 'Joe, I sat in a rest home for about three years feeling sorry for myself, and when you guys got me up here, I never thought I'd see this country again.' He used to guide on the Middle Fork before his stroke and he thanked me profusely."

Veteran Albert Tunilla

In 2010 most of the guests were veterans, and they all had something good to say about the program. "It's an important program because you give other veterans like myself an opportunity to communicate with each other," said veteran Robert Stephens. "It's just a great opportunity for fellowship and to meet other people and just hang out with regular people. And to be accepted as who we are. Even though we're veterans, and we've had some hard times, we're still part of society, you know? It's very enjoyable. It's awesome. I really appreciate it."

Veteran Albert Tunilla agrees. "Everybody needs recreation and especially guys coming back from combat zones. Anybody who suffers from any kind of stress – from any kind of disaster that you experience in your life – you need a period to recoup, and there's nothing better than coming out here and just relaxing and having a good time and being comfortable."

Sulfur Creek Ranch guests pose for a group photo, courtesy Joe Corlett.

If the goal is to help keep Idaho's 50 or so backcountry airstrips open, these efforts do seem to be working, says former Idaho Aeronautics director Bart Welch. "It is kind of a constant battle, and I spent a high percentage of my time keeping these strips open."

"We like to compare ourselves with Montana. About 40 years ago Montana had almost the same number of airstrips that Idaho has, and they have slowly allowed people to close them. They have four open to the public today, and those are somewhat controlled by how many airplanes can be there, and what times they can fly, and when they are open.

"So it's a serious thing that we have very successfully made a good program, and people believe that they're important, but it is not an easy battle and it is constant."