A Personal Look at Bill Francis

By Ron Watters

"To affect the quality of the day that is the highest of arts."
       --Passage by Thoreau underlined in one of Bill Francis books.

Bill Francis, a good friend and outdoor companion, died in 1985 in an automobile accident while on the way to receive the Idaho Wildlife Communicator of the Year Award for his reporting on Idaho wildlife issues.  It was probably Bill's least desirable way to go, but, unfortunately, when it comes down to it we don't have much choice in such matters.

A reporter for the Idaho State Journal, Bill was an astute observer and incisive writer.  His friends, of course, had known that for sometime, but he was just beginning to be more widely recognized in the state and the award was indicative of the growing power of his pen.  Besides his nonfiction writing and reporting, he was deep in the process of writing a novel.  There's no telling where he might have gone and what he might have done, had he lived.

Joseph Conrad has written that "a man's real life is that accorded to him in the thoughts of other men."  My view of Bill is necessarily tainted by my own biases and imperfect recollections.  Others who knew Bill will probably remember him in different ways, but this is the Bill Francis that I knew and with whom I spent many fine days in the outdoors, and who did much to affect the quality of my life.

Bill Francis came to Idaho from New York City.  He had been living on the East Side and worked as a headhunter for an agency hiring executives for corporate clients.  But his heart wasn't in New York.  He dreamed of wide open spaces and distant mountains.  Gene Winters, a lanky, laconic friend who thought much like Bill, called him one day and suggested that they go west together.  That's all the incentive Bill needed.  Not long after, Bill packed up, and he and Gene were on their way to new lives.

I met Bill in the mid 1970s, not long after he made his western pilgrimage.  At the time he was working for the Pocatello Public library.  Eager to learn everything he possibly could about the outdoors, he joined me on hikes, cross-country ski trips, and river trips including one down the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

On one backpack trip we took to the Big Horn Crags, Bill saw his first western rattler.  The rattler was situated uncomfortably close to trail, and Bill, always chivalrous, suddenly appeared like a eager warrior and chased it away with a stick.  Sometime later that day one of the members of our party pulled a muscle in her leg, and Bill immediately offered to help--although later, struggling under the combined 90 pound weight of both packs, he may have had second thoughts--and he managed to carry the load all the way to our camp.

In the early 1980s when we were starting the winter hut system in the mountains near Pocatello, Bill was always the one person I could count on for help.  He volunteered time and time again to carry heavy loads the 1,500 to 2,000 foot climb to the hut sites.  He'd work hard all day, cutting fire wood, carrying, splitting and stacking.

On one work trip to the Inkom Pass Yurt, Bill and I were hiking down together.  It was raining and had gotten dark.  A fog had settled into the higher elevation.  As we got down lower and began to dropped out of the fog, we could see the lights of the small town of Inkom, far below tinkling like stars through openings in the moving clouds.  We slowed, taking in the sight enfolding in front of us.  I still have a vivid memory of that scene: just the lights of a small town, but it stopped us both dead in our tracks.  I'm not sure if either one of us said anything the whole time.  It was just one of those silent and uplifting moments of beauty that you sometimes share with a good friend.

Each Christmas in the late 1970s, I organized an annual outdoor program trip to a cabin in the Sawtooths.  The idea was to have a place to go for students and other community members who weren't able to make it home over the holidays, a sort-of old fashion Christmas in a snowbound, mountain cabin.  Bill joined me on several of these trips.  On Christmas day, we'd cook up a turkey, drink hot, spicy wine and afterwards go for a ski tour.

One highlight of the trip was a drive down the Salmon River road to Sullivan Hot Springs.  The hot springs was surrounded by a rustic, old rickety plank deck with a broken and leaning dressing room.  Invariably it was dark when we got there.  We'd undress in the subzero air and then quickly tip toe through swirling steam, our bare feet sticking to frosted boards.

Bill had a pair of surplus Navy wool pants that he used for cross-country skiing.  They must have had 15 buttons on them, and he was always the last in the dressing room, struggling with buttons in the dark.  The rest of us would all be settled in the warm water, when suddenly a rapid pounding on the planks would divert our attention.  We see a flash of flesh, hear the sound of slipping feet and then a blood curdling shout as Bill's ample form cannon balled into the water.

After Bill had passed away, his sisters, going through his possessions, found parts of the novel that he had been working on.  The theme of the novel was the decline of wilderness which he symbolized with an animal that had always had held his fascination, the Grizzly Bear.  There was one scene from the novel that caught our attention, a scene which, between the lines, says much about Bill.  Here are his words:

When I think of Bill, I think of that grizzly and the North Fork country and the bowl carpeted with bear grass and huckleberry bushes.  Bill's journey from New York to the North Fork country was long one, but one that he never regretted.  In the people and wilds of Idaho, Bill found his true home.

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