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South Fork of the Salmon Wild and Free
An On-line Book by Jerry Dixon
Published by the Idaho State University Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Opinions expressed herein are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.
Text and photographs © 2001 Jerry Dixon and used by permission (see permission notes).

Chapter 4: Coming Down to the River

EARLY IN THE MORNING morning while on my kayaking trip with Peter Walka and Dana Olson, I hike the trail to Johnny Lawrence's log cabin just above the Hettinger Ranch. 

The trail, like most others here, needs work.  I remember hiking it in the early 1970's when it was in great shape.  The government can find money to build roads in granitic soils that continue to wash out, but the can't find enough for the upkeep of trails. 

As I hike, the sun climbs the South Fork breaks as the river slides towards Porphyry Creek and Colomia flowers are blooming in the soft morning light.  My thoughts turn to past friends and journeys, all of which connect me with this amazing place.  I remember flying over this section in the early 1970's on fire patrol.  We would chase thunderstorms with a jumper load of 10 in 148 Z, the tail number of our McCall DC-3 plane. 

McCall jumpers, June 1971: We were young and near 
the wild heart of life. Jumping out of airplanes into 
the Salmon River country was the best job in the world

These planes had seen service in World War II, and I once was able to fly one from McCall to Boise. As often as I could I would go to the back of the plane and sit in the open door because I just loved looking out at the river.  I would sit with one foot on either side of the open door and feel the air rush over my face as mountains and clouds passed by.  Whitey Hachmeister, our pilot, would crank the WWII vintage plane around thundercells looking for lightning strikes. 

When the plane banked right I would be looking up into the towering cumulus clouds and sometimes see cloud to cloud lightning strikes.  It was rough flying but the jumpers loved it.  If you couldn't take the turbulence of an aircraft in vertical country you were in the wrong business. 

When Whitey would crank left I would look straight down into the awesome gorges of the South Fork.  Had I brought my legs together I would have slid right out the door, so by habit I kept my hand on the reserve chute.  Most of us thought smokejumping the greatest job in the world and it was a privilege to be young with a parachute ready to jump into such a wild and perfect place.

*                    *                     *

Above Lawrence cabin there are pictographs on rocks now scared by modern fire rings.  The rapid has moved river right and is a straighter shot with bigger holes. 

Johnny Lawrence, for whom the cabin is named, came down to the river in 1939 in a Model T ford.  He was with a friend driving on the recently completed Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) road that wound through stately yellowpines.  They spent a summer on the river and Johnny knew he had to come back.  After returning the car, he made his way back to the South Fork and wintered in a dugout at Porphyry Creek.  "We lived on bull-trout," he told me, "And it was good living." 

Through the 1970's when I would kayak or hike through, he would always treat me to his homebrew and stories, "You have to spend one winter on the river.  If you do, then chances are, like me, you will never leave." 

When I kayaked the river in 1982 during my last jump season, he had just taken his own life, and his cabin became Forest Service property.  Folks said that Johnny was getting too old to live alone and was afraid that they would take him out to a rest home.  He lived on the river most of his life and preferred never to leave. 

*                    *                     *

The next rapid is below Hettinger Ranch which is unmistakable because of the cone shaped incinerator next to the river.  A sawmill was actually brought down to the river and constructed in 1967 with the idea of clearcutting the surrounding forest.  Fortunately the catastrophic road failures of 1965-66 convinced even the hardened timber proponents that the South Fork was being destroyed and large scale logging was halted.  Much of the mill was dismantled and hauled out in the early 1980's. 

Recent floods (1974, 1982, 1997) have had water lapping at the edge of the incinerator cone.  It would be catastrophic if it washed into the river, spreading twisted shards of metal throughout the canyon.  The Forest Service should demand its removal. 

The river here is crystal clear flowing over white grandiorite rocks.  It is the river I knew in my youth, and I still feel young here even though I have since dealt with a dislocated shoulder and herniated discs.  I carry rapids that once I ran while younger boaters like Pete and Dana show me creative lines. 

*                    *                     *

We kayak shimmering waters around Smith Knob.  Three thousand feet above the river is where four of us jumpers landed in July of 1972.  It was so steep that we could not get to our gear and stopped the fire by cutting brush with pocket knives and using our hands to throw dirt. 

Across the river is Chicken Peak where we dropped Wayne Webb on his 250th jump in June 1973 and I was next in the door.  Wayne, the jumper's jumper, who had parachuted into France during World War II, was still jumping 30 years later with men who were younger than his grown children.  He jumps fires now on a much wilder forest, but surrounded by family and jumpers when he left this one, he knew how much we loved him. 

As I kayak below these shimmering mountains, faces of old friends continue to flood through my mind.  Murry Taylor, with whom I jumped in Alaska, remarked in his recent book Jumping Fires, "My buddies are the greatest heroes that ever lived." I reflect on the two McCall jumpers who were lost on South Canyon fire and six pilots I flew with who have winged through the far horizon and left us in the line of duty. 

June 11, 1979 at 09:50 A.M.  McCall's DC-3 (148 Z) was on assignment to pick up Forest Service personnel and fly them to the Selway River.  Taking off from Grangeville, pilots Whitey Hackmeister and John Slingerland were still in power up when one engine caught on fire.  They cut power and gave the other engine full throttle. 

Then the second engine, which like the first had recently been overhauled, exploded.  Whitey tried a deadstick landing in the Selway River and almost made it with only six feet of one wing snagging a tree.  The plane cartwheeled into the river and 11 souls were lost (one survived) including two of the finest pilots I had ever flown with. 

I believe that if it would have been a plane full of jumpers (and 95% of the time it was our jump ship), we could have cleared the gear, all bailed out and the lightened load enough to have allowed Whitey and John to survive.   I'll die believing that. 

*                    *                     *

We paddle past Porphyry Creek and through Chicken and Rooter Creek rapids.  I remember paddling this section in fiberglass boats stopping to lift our boats on shore, pour water out and then religiously duct tape them back together. 

Marsh Jones and I had to stop and repair boats when it got dark in 1975.  He finally had to eat a freeze dried dinner that he had carried for years and never touched because he was able to catch fish or eat his deer, elk or moose steaks cut for especially for river trips. 

Further downriver we were so excited we didn't scout and got suck into a hole that flipped both of us.  We rolled up looking each other in the eye and laughed until the tears mixed with Salmon River water rolling off our faces.  I caught the glint of the evening sun in his sparkling eyes and it is a moment I shall remember as long as I run rivers. 

Like my friend Cal Giddings, who went on to do the classic first descent of the Apurimac, (the headwaters of the Amazon in Peru, chronicled in Demon River Apurimac), Marsh did not live to see the new millennium.  Cal died in 1996 of cancer. 

Big Marsh Jones had retired after 30 years of teaching and was fishing and hunting; spring, summer and fall then going to Baja to free dive.  He had a technique where he would dive deep without tanks and spear fish in the azure depths.  One winter day he dove solo but too deep and was found on the beach naked except for his fins having pushed too far that personal envelope in pursuit of his dream. 

End of Chapter 4 . . .
To continue with the story: Chapter 5
To go to the previous chapter: Chapter 3
To view maps of the South Fork: Maps
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The book South of the Salmon Wild and Free is copyrighted (© 2001 by Jerry Dixon) and has been used by permission. Links to these pages are welcome, but if you wish to reprint or reproduce significant portions of it, you should first obtain permission from the author Jerry Dixon at: [Return to top of this page]


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