Bruce Reichert, Host:
They were the instrument of choice for many emigrants to the West. Now they’re making a comeback.
That’s what we’re doing here at Yellow Pine is re-establishing the importance of the harmonica in Idaho and the West.
With the closing of the Stibnite mine, can harmonicas and tourism save this old mining town?
I tell everybody Yellow Pine is a half step from heaven, as close as I’ll ever get.
For others, that vision of heaven is a little different. They find it in the swirling madness of the South Fork of the Salmon River.
The South Fork of the Salmon in my opinion, is the best overnight river trip a person can take in Idaho. This is my number one favorite. This is Idaho’s gem.
Outdoor Idaho explores the Yellow Pine country in the heart of the Idaho wilderness.
Well the harmonica contest is over and I’m more determined than ever to learn how to play one of these things. Hi, I’m Bruce Reichert and welcome to Outdoor Idaho. This is Yellow Pine Idaho, population 60ish on a good day. Yellow Pine is a mining community but recently the mines closed, leaving the community to contemplate whether Yellow Pine will go the way of Quartsburg or Bayhorse or any of the other ghost towns that once enlivened the Idaho backcountry.
But Yellow Pine may be different. Yellow Pine may be saved by the sweet sound of music.
It’s the 10th Annual Yellow Pine Harmonica Contest. And folks have braved 30 miles of dirt roads to pay homage to the much maligned mouth harp.
Dozens more have flown in to nearby Johnson Creek Airstrip to attend the three day event.
Some from as far away as Canada, Colorado, and Arizona.
It may look a bit chaotic here on Main Street, Yellow Pine, but nobody seems to mind too much, as competing musical styles waft through the air.
Dale Colebank, Harmonica Player:
There’s the blues players and the chromatic melody players. The blues players, they have a fantastic bag of tricks. And they’re able to make all kinds of sounds with, you don’t go away humming the melody. With my chromatic, why I can play all the sharps and flats. And if you’d like me to show you one of them here, I’ll do a line of "Give Me a Little Kiss Will Ya".
Just down the street, at the Community Hall, harmonica players perform before an appreciative audience as three professional judges mark their ballots.
Okay, welcome. Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. You’re what make this possible because we could have all kinds of contests and everything and if nobody came, it wouldn’t be very good.
So you’re what make it actually happen and you’re what make it worth while. All right. Let’s do it.
This afternoon, the chromatic players are performing. The ones who play those recognizable melodies.
The judges have traveled a long way to get here from Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Chicago. They’ll perform later in the day after they critique their fellow harmonica players.
Don Allen, Harmonica Judge:
If they express themselves well, if they put a lot of expression into the song at the proper time, loudness, softness, just emotion more than anything actually. That’s probably what we’re looking for plus all the proper notes timed. We’re not looking for showmanship or flamboyancy, you know. Because you can’t really judge on that. This is my tenth year. Through the ten years it’s just been pure joy for all of us and everybody that attends it. And it’s, Yellow Pine is so unique in its location and really what they’re doing. And I know people ask me, they’ll say, "Well what’s Yellow Pine like?" I say, "There is no way I can describe Yellow Pine. You’ve got to go there."
The past few years have seen more and more younger players at the contest. The ones who prefer the diatonic or the blues harp.
John Elliot, Harmonica Player:
My style is kind of born out of competing with electric guitars. I played in a rock band for a long time and, you know, I had to learn how to make my harmonica sound as appealing as our lead guitarist’s guitar playing. So I think that’s kind of the birth of my style. I have a lot of, I’d say my influences are people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. And that’s the kind of music I like, and that’s kind of where I’m coming from when I play. I’ll give an example.
Keith Darling, Harmonica Player:
Once you advance your ability then you’re able to play a different style of music instead of just straight notes. You start bending the notes and that’s when you’re able to create the uniquement. Just to give you an example.
But basically that’s just bending the notes that creates a completely different sound.
Yellow Pine wasn’t always known for its musical talent. A hundred years ago the founder of Yellow Pine supposedly walked into this valley pushing a wheelbarrow. He had grand hopes for his new town becoming a booming metropolis, something that never happened.
Fast forward to 1990.
The Governor in 1990 put out a proclamation that all of the communities in the state should do something to support the Idaho State Centennial. And a group of us were sitting around talking, just thinking about what we were going to do and we first thought about a parade. Well, in Yellow Pine a parade would consist of about 3 or 4 maybe 5 kids, 15 dogs, a couple of wagons with dolls in them and that would be about it. So one person mentioned that back in the old days the miners usually had two instruments, one of them was a violin and the other was the harmonica.
Why not have a harmonica contest. And so that’s how we decided on having the harmonica contest. We’ve been told that in the 10 years since we started this, Yellow Pine has now grown into the third largest harmonica festival of its type in the nation. It’s been great. Not just for our community but for the people come too, they enjoy it and we enjoy it.
For much of the Twentieth Century the fortunes of Yellow Pine have been tied to those of nearby Stibnite mine.
In the 1920’s it was gold, which brought miners to these mountains above Yellow Pine. But it was the discovery of tungsten, in the 1930’s, that really put Stibnite on the map.
Nancy Richter, Geologist:
You find gold, arsenic, antimony, and mercury typically occur together. And that was a much younger mineralizing event. The tungsten mineralization in concert with the gold is the oddball occurrence.
Blame it on that massive block of granite, known as the Idaho Batholith, and the huge fault that rips through central Idaho, the Trans Challis Fault.
It’s all part of the big picture here. That Trans Challis Fault zone is the reason why the Idaho Batholith is where it is. The fact that the sedimentary rocks were engulfed by the batholith here at Stibnite is the reason why the mineralization is here. It doesn’t occur everywhere. It is very unique. There’s a few settings that we know of around world where there’s comparable mineralization, none of which that I know of occur in the United States.
That’s why, during World War Two, the miners of Stibnite played such a critical role in America’s national defense.
The government subsidized the mining here, of Bradley Mining Company, and you were able to serve your military time here. So this was a very significant time during World War Two. In excess of 80% of the tungsten used during the war effort came from this site. Tungsten is used as an alloy of steel. It’s a hardener of steel. The antimony mineralization occurred in the form of a mineral called stibnite, hence the name of this site Stibnite. And they reduced that to an antimony oxide mineral, which is used in munitions.
Several thousand people lived up here. They had their own hospital and a lot of people were born up here at Stibnite.
Sandy McRae, Former Stibnite Resident:
Isn’t it great that we have something left over from that time where we have the pictures and the papers that we can refer to, to tell us what life was like in a place that no longer exists.
Sandy McRae grew up in Stibnite. His father was the chief metallurgist.
The community kind of guided your efforts as a child. In general it was an idyllic place to really be a part of as a child. And I think that the parents of those children would tell you that it was an idyllic place for them to live and work for most part.
They had a school lunch program that was maintained in the recreation hall. They had about 175 students and all of the students were fed school lunches. It was a celebration of a way of life that was maintained there through those years and that was one of the reasons why people were so very loyal.
It was the largest taxpayer in Valley County for many, many years. The community was just an interesting place to be. It was a relatively highly educated community because of the nature of the work. Although not everybody had college degrees certainly, but you had to have a native talent, how to do things and how to fix things, how to get the job done. And that community spirit continues on now even though those folks have not lived there for almost 50 years.
Some mining activity flared up again in the 1980’s with the rise in the price of gold. But today almost nothing remains of the once populous mining community. As the State of Idaho, the Forest Service, and Mobil Corporation work to clean up the potential superfund site.
Depending on how you look at it, the closing of mines can be a good thing for the community as well as a bad thing. It means that the people who run businesses are going to perhaps have to be a little more creative in advertising and providing the services for people, but that’s not bad. Change is always good.
It’s just a beautiful area and people are going to come to Yellow Pine regardless of whether the mine is running or not.
Today, the Yellow Pine Country attracts a new breed. Where prospectors once searched for gold and silver, some now search for a different type of treasure. They come seeking adventure and their search takes them to the South Fork of the Salmon River.
Alan Hamilton, Rafter:
The South Salmon is normally known for its heavy duty white water. But in low water it becomes extremely fun technical water as well as very good fishing water.
In the late 1980’s Alan Hamilton was one of the first to raft the South Fork. Since then he has run the river many times, even in high water. This time the river is running at two feet. Even in low water it’s a river where precision counts, where technique is everything, where a missed or even a late oar stroke can mean trouble in rapids like Devil Creek.
Devil Creek is a classic rapid. But what makes it tough though is right below it, in higher flows especially, there’s another Class IV plus rapid. So you’ve got to make your move in Devil Creek or otherwise you’re going to have a nasty swim.
For Hamilton and his friends, the South Fork is worth all the effort.
In places the rapids give way to deep pools at the bottom of dramatic canyons, where the stillness is broken only by the shouts of excited anglers.
In low water, the South Fork’s cutthroat, rainbow, and bull trout seem to snatch almost anything thrown their way.
Ben Reingold, Rafter:
As soon as we drift into the pool you just start throwing your line out on the edges. Just lay that fly right out there, let it hit the water. A lot of times if they see it hit the water they’ll respond to that. And just try to get a natural drift on it. And before you know it.
Some of the ones I was catching were 14, 15 inches, and I had a couple on, I think, there’s definitely, you can catch some 18 inchers in here for sure.
Chuck Elliott, Rafter:
And one of the unique things about this river is that the water is so clear you can see the fish before they even strike. It’s, you know, it’s just a big thrill to be able to cast in and watch the fish come up from the bottom and whack your lure.
It’s great because I can go down here and I can catch some great big fish. But the fishing to me is just a bonus. I’m more of a white water person. I’m more here for the white water thrills and spills of the trip.
And there’s plenty of that on the South Fork.
It seems around every bend there’s another big rapid.
There are dozens of Class IV plus rapids. You can’t approach this river with a lackadaisical attitude. You have to be on your mark.
But sometimes even the best boater can have trouble, a missed stroke, a miscalculation, and the river takes revenge.
Mark Lisk, Rafter:
I had to pull back, get a couple strokes before, to get over in the right hand channel. I missed it by about a foot. And that just spun my back end over and took me into the left hand channel and pasted me onto the rock.
The water is really strong. I mean, my boat was totally, totally vertical pinned on the rock and I was hanging on the bottom of the boat looking eight feet, probably eight feet straight up.
Every oar stroke counts in a lot of these rapids. I mean, if you miss one oar stroke you’re going to be on a rock, or broached, or possibly swimming. This little river packs a lot of punch. And we all found out that if you’re not quite on, you can have some problems.
Mark, what the heck happened on your run today? I mean you started out with Mark, you cruised into that middle shoot and the next think I know all I saw was cattails sticking up in the air.
I just tagged a couple rocks.
And then it threw me way off.
Hours later, after the clothes have dried, the debriefing begins.
And like any story, it gets better with the telling.
You know I hadn’t really scouted the lower drop that day so I just cruised down, hit the right hand chute, you know, and ran up on the cushion just the way the text book says.
Just like you drew it out in the sand?
It was just, you know, boom. Just like that.
So you didn’t need a throw rope to get off of that rock.
No I really didn’t need a throw rope but at the time I could see the guys on shore needed my help.
I’ve boated with these guys a lot and each trip we have differing experiences that seem to bring us closer together. And when you go through ordeals like we went through yesterday with flipping a few boats and some life threatening situations, that bonding experience is really strong. It’s got to be similar to a war experience with comrades.
War-like or not, floating the South Fork of the Salmon is an experience one isn’t likely to forget.
Nor is it one many will have. The river is just too wild, too difficult, and simply too dangerous for all but expert boaters.
But for those with the skills, and the courage to try, it’s worth it.
The South Fork of the Salmon, in my opinion, is the best overnight river trip a person can take in Idaho. This is my number one favorite. This is Idaho’s gem.
We’re here at the Yellow Pine cemetery and felt that this was a good place to play a spiritual.
Transcript by Kelly Roberts