Program Transcript

Bruce Reichert, Host: It's a time we won't see again. When Idaho was new and the world seemed somehow a little more innocent, a little smaller, a little less well known, waiting to be explored. Outdoor Idaho does a little reminiscing. So sit back and enjoy some Idaho Recollections.

Reichert: You know, almost any Idaho school kid can tell you about the major figures in Idaho history. But for every Senator Borah or inventor Farnsworth, there are dozens who have been forgotten. Hi, I'm Bruce Reichert. These folks are the groundbreakers - the first ones to climb our mountains or to float our rivers. Their adventures are also part of our heritage, our rich outdoor heritage. And their stories tell us a lot about our past.

Few did a better job of documenting early Idaho than Robert Limbert. In 1911, Limbert moved to Boise to open a taxidermy shop. Immediately, he began exploring the countryside. Camera in hand, he photographed landscapes few had ever seen. But Limbert's real claim was trick shooting. Calling himself "Two Gun" Bob Limbert, he traveled the country, demonstrating his marksmanship.

Frank Hibben, 1929 Expedition: Bob made no secret of the fact he was the pistol champion of the world. And I remember he regaled me with many stories of challenging the Chicago Police. He out shot the Chicago Police and they had some of the world's best marksmen.

In 1929, Frank Hibben met Robert Limbert. Hibben and his boss, A.B. Fuller were in Idaho to collect birds and animals for study and display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. At the time, scientists knew little about the wildlife in the Rocky Mountains and Robert Limbert was the man to help fill in the blanks. They found him in Ketchum, Idaho.

Hibben: The mines all were active at the time and Ketchum was a big booming place and, of course, all of this was a source of wonderment to me because here I was this 17-year old kid who came from Ohio where we didn't have cowboys and these real miners and this was the real thing. Anyhow, Bob Limbert was in his cowboy garb and the Smokey Bear hat and had some pistols and he was putting on an exhibition which I have never forgotten. With the plaudits of the crowd, and these were mostly miners yelling and betting on him, he would get a bottle of beer and, of course, they didn't have cans of beer at that time. And preparing himself and then throw the bottle end over end up into the air, pull his pistol and shoot the cap off of it. Catch it as it came down and then drink it to the plaudits of the crowd.

Reichert: For the next three months, Limbert, Hibben and Fuller explored Idaho, cataloguing the wildlife they found. Their first stop, Craters of the Moon.

Hibben: I was fascinated by the terrain. I mean, you think you're on the Moon, except for the vegetation. I'd never seen anything like that before.

Reichert: Next, Limbert took them to a swamp near Mountain Home, where they found an abundance of wildlife.

Hibben: We found in and around this swamp, more species of birds than any other place else in North America. We got about 150 species of birds right there in that one collecting area.

Reichert: The trio was also told to collect grizzly bears and bighorn sheep to mount and display at the Cleveland Museum. And for that, Limbert had a plan. Staying at Limbert's lodge at Redfish Lake, they prepared for a three-month journey that would take them down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and through what is now the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area.

Hibben: This whole area, especially up in the Sawtooth area was just a big blank. We didn't know anything about it. According to Bob Limbert, we were the first ones to ever go from Lolo Creek to Pistol Creek and maybe we were. I don't know. We didn't see any sign of old camps or see any ax cuts on any trees or anything. It looked wild and it was certainly wild country.

Reichert: It still is, and is now the largest wilderness area in the lower 48. While the landscape is unchanged, much has changed in Central Idaho. In some cases, for the better.

Hibben: We saw very few elk. We saw one bunch of cows and one young bull and, if I recall correctly, that was the only elk we saw. And now, of course, that country is full of elk. So, in other words, in certain respects, there's more game there now than there was then. See, they had had market hunters up to then and every mine had a paid hunter. Every lumber camp had a paid hunter. All the miners had to have something to eat and wild game was the cheapest and easiest to get. So I think the wildlife of all this western country, with exception of a few spots like the Middle Fork, was at an all time low.

Reichert: Still, the expedition was a success. They discovered a handful of new species in Idaho and collected 5000 specimens for the Cleveland Museum. And, it was the trip of a lifetime for Frank Hibben.

Hibben: I was fascinated by the miners and by the life that was around there. I not only was in the Wild West, but about the wildest part of the West you could find.

Reichert: Hibben went on to become a leading archeologist, a world renowned big game hunter and author of more than two dozen books and countless articles. It's a career remarkably similar to the man he met that summer in Idaho.

Hibben: I got a lot of this from Bob Limbert because see, he was a great writer and he put words together very well. I realize all this now. I just thought he was a wonderful guy at the time and I tried to be like him. And I read some of his writing. I think that's part of what got me started. I'd like to write about nature and do it that well. Of course, Limbert had boundless enthusiasm. He loved these places and I do too.

Reichert: Where others saw only desolation, Robert Limbert found beauty. One of his favorite locations was the Bruneau Canyon in Southwest Idaho. The steep walls of the so-called "Canyon of Brown" had discouraged other explorers, but not Limbert. In 1922, Limbert and a friend decided to explore the canyon on foot. 30 years after Limbert's trip, another group set out to explore the canyon. Equipped with a World War Two surplus raft, sleeping bags and just a little food, Leonard Miracle and two other young men hoped to do what no one had done before - float the length of the Bruneau River. They started their expedition on a summer morning in 1950 on what is now known as the Jarbidge.

Leonard Miracle, Bruneau Explorer: I was curious to know what was down here. And my buddies were rather gullible about the whole adventure and had very little idea what they were getting into but decided that they would go along. We had heard tales that you could pan gold in the sandbars and there wasn't any particular reason to believe that, but it was an interesting idea. And we heard that the canyon was full of caves and we thought we might find Indian relics or that sort of thing and we knew we could catch a lot of fish and see some interesting things.

Reichert: What they found was a rugged canyon in one of the most remote areas of Idaho. Today, it's one of the most demanding white water trips in America. Massive rocks, knocked free from the cliffs, choke the river, creating a series of Class 4 and 5 rapids that challenge even the best boater. With steep cliffs and narrow banks, there are few places to pull over in high water and even fewer places to walk. Miracle had another motive for the trip. An aspiring writer, he hoped a magazine article about the trip would launch his career. A half century later, he's back on the river. As the river miles pass by, bits and pieces of the story are told about how these novice rafters conquered a river that today challenges serious boaters. And how everything went fine until the third day, when their raft came too close to a canyon wall. The raft was pinned. Their meager supplies washed downstream and Miracle's story of conquering the canyon turned into one of survival.

Miracle: It would probably be easier to list the things that we still had. Our matches were wet to the extent even after they were sun dried, we could build a fire by taking 22 cartridges in our teeth and pulling the bullets and pouring the powder on grass and brush. And you could get just a little spark out of those matches, but with the powder, it would go enough of a little poof that we could get a fire going that way.

Reichert: Today, Miracle floats the Bruneau in relative comfort. The World War Two surplus raft traded in for a state of art cataraft piloted by Chuck Elliott - a veteran of many river adventures, but none as exciting as Miracle's .

Chuck Elliott, Rafter: That must have been quite an adventure - coming down with just one set of clothes, very little food, no knowledge of the river. And now, to do those same types of adventures, you've got fleece and waterproof equipment and you survey it by helicopter. And at the very least, you've got topographical maps. So it must have been quite a gut check at times for them to come down at that particular point in time. Miracle: We had a lot of apprehension about coming around a curve where the walls closed in tight and being confronted around the bend with a 100-foot waterfall, which was a kind of a nervous thing since you could hear the water roaring around the corner and you didn't know what was there. And there wasn't much you could do about it with the walls in tight as they often were.

Reichert: Today, the rock walls bring back memories, an occasional flash of recognition. But it is a hot springs, just below the confluence of the Jarbidge and Bruneau, and a bridge, a few hundred yards downstream, that bring back the clearest memories.

Miracle: When we hit this spot, it was a place that we did know something about and we had some notion that the bad part of the rapids would be behind us that the river would be faster. And we were thinking that it's unlikely there was going to be that sudden 100-foot waterfall from here on down. Prior to that, we had never been quite sure. This also offered an opportunity for my rebellious partners and helpers to walk out if they wanted to mutiny. You know, they could take this road out to Castleford - what 40, 50 miles? They didn't really intend to do it, but they did discuss it.

Reichert: Finally, after a week on the river, the group reached civilization. A newspaper article about the "explorers" gave the trio some notoriety. More importantly, Field and Stream magazine bought Miracle's story. His writing career was launched and for the next half century, Miracle gave little thought to returning to the river that started it all.

Miracle: There was never any interest expressed by either of my buddies. They never again spoke of the prospect of going again down the Bruneau River. It was not considered, ever. Not for a second. And I didn't plan to do it again either. It was hard work. My wife had some reservations about my age and one thing and another and whether or not there was any sensible reason to do this as compared with mowing the lawn and weeding the garden. But I was very curious to do it. I was much younger and tougher and that sort of thing, but I think I'm a little smarter now.

Reichert: Not all adventurers were men. In fact, one of the most ambitious trips in Idaho was headed by a widow from Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1939, 58-year old Edith Clegg harbored a secret dream. A fan of Lewis and Clark, Clegg hoped someday to undertake her own voyage of discovery. Her plan - to cross the United States by an all water route. To help put her dream into reality, she hired "Buzz" Holmstrom, one of the best boatmen of the day.

Cort Conley, Author: There were other people who had more Grand Canyon experience at that point and certainly had a lot of rowing experience, but no one had the depth of knowledge about so many watersheds in America as he did.

Reichert: Holmstrom hired three other boatmen including Willis Johnson. In 1992, author Cort Conley interviewed Johnson, the last survivor of the journey.

Conley: Do you remember about how much she paid you? Willis Johnson, Clegg Boatman: She gave me 150 dollars. It was about a month trip. That was very good. That was actually more than I made at the mine as I think about it now.

Reichert: For the trip, Holmstrom built and tested two 14-foot boats. Their 10 horse power outboard motors were just barely enough to push the boats up the Columbia and Snake Rivers and, from there across the country to New York. On April 23, 1939, the group left Portland and began heading up the Columbia River. The crew quickly fell into a routine - up early for breakfast and then on the river.

Reichert: For Clegg, the trip was anything but boring. Her diary is full of entries about the routine and the scenery. She was particularly impressed with Celilo Falls, where colorfully dressed Native Americans on platforms speared salmon. As the boats got closer to Lewiston, the crew prepared for the most difficult part of the journey – up the Snake River through Hells Canyon - a feat accomplished only once before.

Conley: 120 years earlier in April, Donald McKenzie had taken 3 bateau and pulled them and pulled them with a small crew up through to see if it was a possible route for fur trappers to bring their furs down to Fort Walla Walla. And he indicated in his journal afterwards that it was possible, but he never attempted it again. So, realistically, I think he saw that it was not a feasible route, that the overland route made more sense.

Reichert: Once in the canyon, the crew quickly developed an exhausting routine.

Conley: They would motor up to the head of a rapid. Then they would tie the boat up, unload everything and put it on primitive board backpacks. Portage everything to the head of the rapid. Then they would line the boat through, probably one guy in the boat pushing off from rocks and the other three on the line that secured to hooks that they had on the boat. And then once they got it up to the top, they would reload it, motor up the flattest water to the next rapid.

Reichert: The work was backbreaking and dangerous. One morning, as the others carried supplies around a rapid, Holmstrom was knocked from his boat. Without a life jacket, he was quickly sucked under.

Johnson: Buzz would come up and go down. Sometimes just a hand would come up. And he said it took him so deep that it was dark. And when Buzz did come up again, he was right close to the rear end of the boat and he got ahold of it. And then Doc was able to drag him into the boat over the rear and lay him across and get to shore.

Reichert: Once on shore, Holmstrom lay exhausted, unable to move. Grateful to see that Holmstrom was alive, Clegg swore to Saint Christopher that she wouldn't smoke for the rest of the trip. Finally, after nearly a month in Hells Canyon, the group reached Weiser. Although still thousands of miles to go to reach the Atlantic, the worst was behind them. Johnson and the others were dismissed and Clegg and Holmstrom continued to the Atlantic. Three months later, Clegg and Holmstrom reached New York - 141 days after leaving Portland. Clegg's dream of a cross country voyage was realized, but her enthusiasm was dimmed by news that war had broken out in Europe. In a private dockside ceremony, Clegg gave the remaining boat to a Girl Scout troop and sailed for England. When she returned a year later, little was ever said about her amazing cross country voyage. Much of Clegg's route across Idaho is underwater today - flooded by a series of dams on the Snake River. But what does remain in Hells Canyon makes the magnitude of Clegg's accomplishment even more incredible.

Conley: Even today, when you're in there and you look at the rapids that are left and imagine trying to carry these boats that weighed about 450 pounds, empty, around those rapids, it makes you take your hat off.

Reichert: Sometimes our sense of adventure prompts us to try something different. It's that spark of creativity that has led to some of today's favorite past times. Now, early this century, one of those "sparks" popped up in Coeur d'Alene and according to one family legend, led to a craze that is still popular today and fond memories for many.

In the 1920's, powerboats were still fairly rare on Lake Coeur d'Alene, but Jack Finney had one. Now, Finney was an inventive fellow and had adapted a car engine to power his boat. Now, after seeing how fast the boat was, they tied a board to the back and began riding an "aquaplane" - a popular past time in those days. But soon, that wasn't enough and the family began performing tricks.

Marlene Faulkner, Family Historian: My grandfather had a tremendous sense of balance. And he'd get out there and balance one of the kids on an arm or he'd hold one of them up, put them on your shoulder, sort of horsing around, but they'd do it on the aquaplane. We have a picture of Dad, swinging from his father's teeth with his arms out. If you think of gymnastic stunts, where people made human pyramids and that sort of thing, that's what they did while on the aquaplane behind the boat.

Reichert: Soon, even aquaplane acrobatics weren't enough to entertain the Finneys, especially the eldest son, John. So he decided to try something a little different.

Faulkner: He was quite an active mountain skier and cross country skier. He wanted to try skis behind the boat. So he took some boards from the barn and steamed them over a wood stove. Steamed the tips up. And the shoes, they look very much like track shoes or early basketball shoes nailed to them and they'’d put their feet in and lace it up and off they went.

Reichert: And so, because of boredom and a little inspiration, waterskiing was invented in 1922 at Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Faulkner: My Aunt Harriet, who is now deceased, was quite fascinated with that part of the family history because she had been part of it. She had been one of the aquaplane acrobats. And she had contacted the Water Sports Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They could not find anyone in the United States who had ever waterskied before Dad.

Reichert: The waterskiing Finney's were soon in demand. They traveled the country performing their "aqua-acrobatics" and were even invited to entertain at the Olympic Games. But performing wasn't enough for John Finney. Capitalizing on his water skiing fame, he began using the family boat to take paying customers on tours of the lake. He soon realized the potential and began searching for a bigger boat. In 1932, he and his new bride took a gamble.

Faulkner: When he went to buy her her wedding ring, she said "Lets not spend the money on that. Lets buy the boat." And it turns out she had $10,000 in her savings account - in 1932. I mean, this is the Depression and she gave him the money to buy the boat.

Reichert: They christened it the Seeweewana - "traveling across the water" in the language of the Coeur d'Alene Indians. For the next 50 years, "Captain John" and the "Seewee" traveled the waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene and the Saint Joe River. During World War Two, the business boomed. Military men from nearby Farragut Naval Training Center at Lake Pend Oreille and Geiger Field in Spokane came to Coeur d'Alene to relax.

Faulkner: He had a contract with Farragut. We have lots of really fun pictures of sailors in their blues hanging out of the windows of the boat as it goes across the lake. Sometimes it was just a little short tour, but it was a chance to go out on the water to have some free time. I don't think there are probably very many people in the Northwest who have lived here for a long time who haven't at least been on the boat or know somebody who has because Dad ran the boats on the regular tours. He took fraternities, sororities and residence halls from the University of Idaho and from Washington State on their spring cruises. They did conventions. They did company parties. Coeur d'Alene has always been a place where tourists came and there was always a desire to be out on the lake. When the sternwheelers and steamboats were no longer there, Dad was the one who did that.

Reichert: While the Seeweewana and Captain John no longer cruise the lake, they live on in many memories. And it all started with one little idea - at least according to this family's recollection.

Faulkner: My father also used to claim that he helped to invent Levis, but, he was, as I say, a very good storyteller.

Reichert: Well, you probably won't see any statues in any city parks for these folks. And they don't have any mountains named after them, but you will hear about their exploits around a warm fire. And perhaps, that's the appropriate way to learn about this part of Idaho’s history.

Thanks for watching. We'll see you next time.