Here's the thing that impressed me while researching the history of the Frank Church wilderness. It wasn't the politicians who were the prime movers, as it seems to be with, say, the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness proposal.
No, it was a small group of committed individuals, led by outdoorsman Ted Trueblood, who pushed for this wilderness. They came up with the boundaries as early as 1973, and then refused to budge from the 2.3 million acre number until their bill passed in 1980.
The major politicians of the day — most notably, Democrats Senator Frank Church and Governor Cecil Andrus and Republican Senator James McClure — thought that locking up that much acreage was just not going to fly.
Another thing that impressed me was the generosity that Republican Senator Jim McClure showed to his colleague Democrat Frank Church. After Church was defeated in 1980 — in part because of his support for the River of No Return wilderness — and as he was dying from cancer, Senator McClure asked his Senate colleagues to rename the area the Frank Church River of No Return wilderness.
President Reagan signed the name change into law in 1984, a few weeks before Church's death. What a gracious thing to do and one of those bipartisan gestures that, unfortunately, you don't hear much about these days.
For our program, some of us hiked into the Bighorn Crags area of the Frank. And two of my friends took small cameras and hiked from the western side of the Frank to the eastern side, a journey of about 60 miles. You'll see some of their trek in our show.
Both Church and Ted Trueblood wanted people to be able to use and enjoy the area. I'm guessing they would have had a hard time with some of the purists of today who are emphatic about no airplanes or jetboats in the Frank.
“I think this is something the nation looks at as their magical wilderness,” said biologist Isaac Babcock, after spending a year in the Frank. “Things happen all over the place out there, these really unexpected things, and you can't see that anywhere in the world anymore.”
And certainly part of the “magic” of the Frank has to be that it even happened at all. “The right people came together at the right time,” explained attorney Jeff Fereday. “There was certainly serendipity there.”
How else to explain the largest forested wilderness in the lower 48, in a conservative state like Idaho?
Ted Trueblood and Cabin Creek airstrip in the Frank Church wilderness.
I said, “Dad, don't you have some slides or something?”
And he said, “Daughter, dear, you know not what you ask.”
It turns out that her father, Audus “Red” Helton, had thousands of slides and films he had taken of Idaho in the 1950s and 60s. They were shot while he traveled the state as a plant pathologist and professor for the University of Idaho, and during family trips into the backcountry.
“I needed a camera right from the beginning to record the shape and size of symptoms in the leaves,” says Red.
“I started taking them up and holding them up to the light, and I knew,” said Helton. “I mean, I knew in seconds. It's gold.”
For her, the images represented a bygone era that shouldn’t be forgotten, one in which families hiked, camped, rode horses and talked together, without the need for technology.
“We didn't drive Winnebagos and big huge rigs to go camping with satellite dishes,” she says. “We carried our stuff in, you know, and we walked. Let’s not forget this little piece of history when we used to gather our sticks in the woods and build our own little fires.”
“I have this feeling that if we knew our history better we might be smarter,” says Rifka. “I think the art of historical storytelling, multimedia with music, is really a powerful experience.”
Helton projects the photos on a screen while she sings and plays the piano and guitar. She has also turned some of the images into notecards, and enlarged versions of many of the photos are also hanging in the Glenns Ferry Historical Museum.
We're still looking for more stories for the show, so if you know of other Idahoans who are doing their part to be “history keepers,” especially preserving stories of the Idaho outdoors, please let us know.
For his part, Red is proud of his daughter's efforts to save and share his photos.
To watch “History Keepers: My Father's Idaho,” click here.
For more information on Rifka Helton's project, click here.