From our wet campsite along Canyon Creek below Pinyon Peak, my three brothers and I ride over Loon Creek Summit to visit the Yankee Fork Dredge then, deviating from earlier plans, we take lunch in Stanley before finding our way to camp high in Washington Basin.
I hear it in the depth of night, that steady patter between dreams, almost a dream itself. Indeterminate ages later, it seems, I find myself lying snug against the morning half-light until I hear my brothers’ voices and realize the rain has stopped.
Donning a jacket and pants in my small tent requires a series of horizontal contortions. I emerge from my flourescent chrysalis to find Joel and Jesse starting a fire and coffee while Jeremy remains under his tarp in taoistic breakfast meditation.
Leaves glisten; camp chairs and jackets harbor lilliputian pools. We work slowly through our gear between sips of coffee, bites of hot mash, wiping down, draping, a curl of steam, no hurry. Savor these moments.
Sunshine has sundered the morning ambiguity by the time we finish packing. We continue our descent from Pinyon Peak along Canyon Creek. It’s notably more autumnal than where we’ve been, as if we’ve travelled ahead weeks in time. Yellow leaves glitter along the road and low clouds cling to the peak ahead. We ride slowly, savoring air that is crisp and full of damp mountain smells.
Sagebrush mingles with pines, a reminder of desert proximity, a metaphor of middle age.
Instead of fifteen it was twenty minutes ahead, that ideal campsite just beyond our evening ventures, a grassy area centered on a fire ring under open sky, next to the wide Loon Creek. We can only smile at these vagaries of fate.
Loon Creek Road is characteristically (for this ride) delightful, flowing in and out of forest shadows along the creek running between steep, burnished ridges.
We reach Loon Creek Summit fifteen miles from our campsite, motors and minds both running well.
From the summit we can see the bared earth of Grouse Creek Mine, its operations suspended, the land in reclamation these last seventeen years after just three fruitless years of digging. Like the Kinross DeLamar open pit silver mine I saw this spring,¹ which shut down about the same time, its mark on the land is made doubly distinct by otherwise unmolested majesty.
I wait for my brothers at the intersection with Yankee Fork Road after coming off the summit. Left will take us west to Challis, our plan, but first we’ll visit the old Yankee Fork Dredge, just off to my right, and figure out what to do about our fuel situation. Since we didn’t bring that extra can for the Husky, we’ve been siphoning between bikes to keep the team going. But now I’m about out too. My fuel light came on a while ago.
Jeremy is more outspoken than the rest of us. “Let’s just stop and ask someone if we can buy some gas from them,” he suggests.
Perhaps it’s because I know we aren’t far from Stanley that I don’t feel so assertive. But when, by another quirk of fate, I recognize the guy next to us in the dredge parking lot as Glenn, who I just met casually at an Eagle, Idaho, dinner party with several other people a couple weeks ago, I see on my brothers’ expectant faces the gas-asking mantle has fallen to me.
“We’re going to look at the dredge here then I’m running into Stanley for gas,” I mention to Glenn after greetings and chit-chat. “We don’t have enough to get to Challis.”
“You guys need gas?!” he asks. “I’ve got two cans with six gallons back at my trailer just up the road. They’re supposed to be five,” he laughs, “but my son really filled them. No way we’ll use all that. Just leave a gallon or two.”
We express our gratitude while Glenn gives us quick directions to his enclosed trailer. This will help a lot.
Two other local guys were also a big help to this trip, Ryan Cantrell¹ and Mike Anderson.² When I shared concerns I had on Adventure Rider³ about getting the Husky ready in time for this ride, each sent me a private message offering their own motorcycle. Though not ultimately needed, having that option was a big load off my mind — very appreciated.
Glenn enjoys chatting so it’s a while before we’re able to break away to the dredge tour.
“You want to hear the spiel?” asks the man at the counter before launching into what seems like a single, ten minute long sentence. He’s obviously said that a few times.
“My dad brought me here as a boy,” says the control room guide. “He used to work up here. All I remember is the noise.”
We learn some about dredges. The seventy-one iron buckets, each weighing a ton, dug into the creek until they hit bedrock where gold particles tend to settle. All that material was lifted into the dredge and separated mechanically, hydraulically and chemically — shaking, spraying, dissolving, noise compounding noise.
The guides like to point out that the dredge would have rejected gold nuggets, discharging them into the piles of stones lying throughout the valley. Maybe we’d like to hunt for some?
It is time to find that fuel. I can’t remember if Glenn said “white” but calling it “enclosed” makes us think of a typical white utility trailer. We speed south on Yankee Fork Road looking for his setup.
The first campground has three camper trailers, nothing else, so we continue on. The next has a white utility trailer but it’s part of a Shoshone-Bannock fishing camp. Tribespeople lean against the trailer, watching me quizzically while I look to be sure this isn’t it.
Continuing south, I have to pull over and tip the bike to get fuel to the pump after the motor dies. I won’t be going much farther.
The next campground we pull into is empty, leaving us perplexed. Have we missed it? How could we? “Let’s just keep going,” I suggest. “If we see it, we see it, if we don’t, I’ll run into Stanley.” None of us know how we could have missed Glenn’s trailer. It’s frustrating but no sense burning more time over it when town isn’t far.
After a few miles we arrive at Sunbeam Village just off Highway 75 — no further campgrounds. It looks like the Stanley option wins. Using the fancy siphon I bought at the Pierce, Idaho, hardware store amidst last year’s misadventures, we transfer enough gas to the KTM so I can run to town, top off and siphon back to the others.
starPhoto by Jeremy Abbott
I ponder our route while riding the eleven highway miles to Stanley. As much as I’d like to check the box that says “highest road in Idaho,” I think we’ll have to give up the side trip to Railroad Ridge.¹ It’s already afternoon. As I think more about it, I realize the planned Challis-to-Trail Creek Road, now that we’re heading the opposite way into Stanley, is also unfeasible.
After I’m back and gas is shared, Jeremy wonders, “Are we still gonna check out those trails Glenn told us about?” I see he’s excited by the idea.
“No,” I answer, sounding more terse than intended.
Glenn is from the Challis area. He spent time back at the dredge sketching trails in the dirt and describing how to get between little lakes. I’d love to explore the area too but in my mind’s eye I see it on the map, our farthest point from Boise. Extra time spent there would mean unpleasantly long travel days afterwards.
Before refueling, we stop in Lower Stanley at the Bridge Street Grill along the Salmon River for beer and burgers. A couple days of freeze-dried food in the mountains makes the restaurant fare doubly delicious.
Stanley views are world renown — the Salmon river meandering along the rustic, wood plank town in the grasslands at the foot of incredible Sawtooth Mountain spires. Adjusting our route to come this way is not dissatisfying. It was actually my first draft intention.
Last night’s rain has driven away some campers. We saw open spots and packed-up cars while riding here. Even though it’s famously hard to find a spot there, we’re going to roll the dice and try for a campsite at Redfish Lake.
starPhoto by Jeremy Abbott
From town to the lake is just a few minutes. There are indeed open campsites but only if you don’t mind wedging in with a thousand other campers, live music on the lawn at 5:00 — not our cup of tea for this trip.
The next option relies on my memory of Michael’s ride to Washington Basin.¹ I think he said Pole Creek Road gets you there. We leave Redfish on Forest Road 210, avoiding the highway, over and around low, thinly forested hills, roller coaster fun, until we descend to Decker Flat, high desert scrub, and top speed along fence lines bordering the salmon river.
We are stopped to regroup along the river before a final stint on the highway when a lady and her son approach from their camper down the road. Kimberly is her name. She’s interested in sharing trail maps. It’s very kind of her but I wonder what she saw to make her think, “these guys need my help.”
Back on the first draft of the Brother Ride route, when this way was the plan, I’d found all the off-highway options. Rather than figure that out again, we settle for Highway 75 the rest of the way to Pole Creek. It’s only about ten miles.
Pole Creek Road is fairly level, straight or gently curving, taking us from the high desert scrub back into forested foothills.
After seeing nobody else for the twelve miles from the highway there are suddenly several vehicles in a small meadow around Germania Creek. I splash across and stop to get pictures of the others coming through the water.
More cars are parked half-mile farther on where the road turns from Germania Creek to follow Washington Lake Creek up into the basin, only about five more miles. These will be slower miles, though. This part of the road is steep and rocky.
starPhoto by Jeremy Abbott
I am not positive I’ve matched Michael’s route¹ until I see the unmistakable view of Croesus Peak at the mouth of the basin. Joel arrives a few minutes later.
“Why don’t you hang out here in case the others show up while I explore farther on?” I suggest. Shadows are growing long. I hope to get a campsite lined up.
Ten minute later, when I return, Jeremy and Jesse still haven’t arrived. I’m the one with tools to fit the Husky, if that’s the issue, so Joel stays put while I begin back down the mountain.
I find Jesse and Jeremy only about a mile down. The Husky is being onry, acting like it’s starving for fuel again. This is disappointing. It’s too dim and steep to work on it here.
“I have a tow strap,” I mention. “It’s not much farther. How ‘bout if I just tow you? We can figure this out later.”
Jesse is not a fan of the idea. It does sound sketchy if you’ve never done it, like you might get your head yanked into rocks. My friend Brett and I had to do it several times as kids so I don’t think much of it.
Aversion to towing motivates vigorous kick-starting and soon Jesse has the Husky running again. Except it doesn’t go far. At this rate it will be dark before we get him into the basin. I argue again for towing and Jeremy offers to be the towee.
So Jesse trades places with Jeremy and off we go. Except “off we go” really only means the KTM is spinning rocks at Jeremy. It takes throttle finesse to finally get us both moving up the bumpy grade. We’re doing alright until we reach larger, embedded rocks around a bend — slack, taught, slack, taught, snap goes the strap.
It was a good idea for a minute. Jesse goes back to kicking while we mull what to do. And it starts!
“Just go!” I yell at him. “Stay left! We’ll catch up.”
Apparently the Husky got over its tantrum. It rides fine to our chosen campsite in a grassy area next to a small dry lake surrounded by ten thousand foot walls. Woo-hoo!
Decrepit cabins and equipment tell of Washington Basin’s mining past, a past pioneered by George Z. Blackmon, said to have been a fiddle-playing, emancipated slave who came from Kentucky in the 1870s armed with only a mule and pick axe.¹ He filed his first Washington Basin claim in 1894. A nearby peak bears his name.²
One John H. Thatcher wrote to Scribner’s Magazine in 1930¹ of encountering George Blackmon in 1897 on a trip with Princeton schoolmates. They found him here in Washington Basin, “ten thousand feet up in the peaks” in a “sod-roofed cabin” where “he was accustomed to pack in his supplies in the last of August and remain for the winter snowed up until the opening of spring enabled him to pack out a few tons of ore to buy another season’s provisions.”
Thirty-two years later, Thatcher was drawn back to that “wild and savage district in Idaho; a land of bear and wild sheep and goat … primitive savagery, the pristine wilderness, unspoiled nature just as it was in the beginning.” When Thatcher learned Blackmon was still living, he arranged passage to Washington Basin where
familiar old cathedral peaks began to loom; a known grass meadow, an old mine-working and then a sod-roofed log cabin, and beside it a sturdy, familiar figure, a little grayer, perhaps a whit more bent, but strong and hearty, no doubt … The effect of it all was somehow a little breathtaking. To find a human mind that spanned the years with such instant precision; a memory that functioned so perfectly.
starPhoto by Jeremy Abbott
Scribner’s Magazine, “What You Think About It,” Vol. 87, No. 3, March 1930, pp. 54, 56, 64. This document was supplied to me by Lynna Howard. As a letter to the editor, it is excluded from some magazine archives.
Places like these, where time collapses and space expands, promote a perspective unfettered by yesterday or tomorrow. It’s understandable Blackmon would find home here after life as a slave.
starPhoto by Jeremy Abbott
“Move your headlamps around,” I ask after we’ve had our dinner and sat around the fire a while. “I’m making one of those long exposures.” Some heads move more than others.
When the moon plays peek-a-boo, only briefly rising above the horizon, we know the stars will shine bright tonight. We sit facing the fire, necks bent to see the universe unfurled.
In spite of long days on the road, we persist late around the fire, laughing, cajoling, savoring one of the highlights of our year.
“If one of you wakes up before sunrise,” I request, “please wake me up too.” We’d all like to watch morning light pour into the bowl around us.
Sleeping well until then may depend on staying warm. “I’m keeping my socks on tonight,” we all seem to say. We’ve noticed how dramatically the temperature drops away from the fire. It’s a gear testing kind of night.