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French Creek: A Lost Drainage

I

Rocky Barker, a writer for the Idaho Statesman, and I were up in the air over French Creek in central Idaho in 1995 after the major Blackwell and Corral fires burned through the drainage the year before. I assumed that the absolute Vee of the drainage hadn’t burned because I had hiked the upper part of French Creek after the 1994 fires and it was burned in a typical mosaic pattern: here charcoal, there green trees, and in riparian areas the devastation was spotty. On the airplane flight I was surprised that all of the lower portion of French Creek was burned like it had been set on fire with a welding torch. It was a high intensity fire area and much of the upper portion was scorched as well.

Many snags looked like matchsticks in what was once my favorite forest in Idaho. I wondered about what might have happened to all of the wildlife in that drainage. I guess they run away if they can. Rocky gave me a “sorry man” sort of look and I don’t even remember what he wrote for the Statesman. A bleak story of a lost drainage is what I expected, but I know he has a more complicated view of fire having experienced the Yellowstone fire years before. Mine is that every forest burns and every forest will recover in time. And soon it would be time to hike once again along French Creek to fish, enjoy the scenery, and watch wildlife in solitude.

French Creek logging was planned by the Forest Service in the 1980s. The watershed was surveyed for roadbuilding at least twice and in 1995 Congress and Sen. Larry Craig passed legislation suspending preparation of any Environmental Analysis for the French Creek roadless area immediately after the fires. That made timber sales easier to log and impossible to challenge with a legal appeal. I figured that the environment would be the long-time loser with roads and clearcuts covering the landscape. The French Creek timber sales, when it was suspended from NEPA’s (National Environmental Policy Act’s) rules, ended up on the fastest track at the time was when I asked Rocky to fly and look at French Creek. I assumed that the press would be a powerful voice for protection.

As I flew, the landscape below me looked bleak with all of the timber burned except the big Ponderosa pines in the upper drainage. They had to be the real target of the French Creek salvage timber sale. Pumpkins, big pumpkins, as the big Ponderosa pines were termed by foresters, were surely the high-money logs that the timber industry coveted. These were big pines with a rich ochre color in their bark and the trees which exuded a sweet vanilla smell throughout the forest. The trees looked stately and elegant standing in the otherwise burned forest. They survived the fire just as you might suspect of thick-barked pines. Now they would be offered at bargain prices as a salvage timber sale. But is a salvage timber sale worse than a large burn? I had an opinion.

I developed a plan with key supporters to oppose the most recent French Creek sale which twice before had been defeated. Both times appeals had delayed the logging but in all honesty the landscape was so hard to log that the timber sales received no competitive bids. This time it might be easier to log with no opportunity to write an appeal to the values of the land and wildlife. There is a great deal of elevation loss from Black Tip Mountain to the Salmon River and thus the land supports a wide variety of animals and plants. But this landscape could simply be cremated with a big fire, roadbuilding, and logging; its essence would be altered.

I took a Meadows District Ranger to see the Ponderosa pines that were slated for logging and tried to convince her that the trees had not grown to the point where they had “culminated,” a term that tells some foresters that the trees have begun to slow down their growth and were therefore ready to cut. It was a tough point to make but, by-and-by and for whatever reasons this timber sale was not approved by the Forest Service. French Creek would again remain the pristine place it had been for millennia.

That was more than twenty years ago. And that is how the environment is protected in Idaho these days: plodding step-by-step and maybe you get a break. French Creek got many breaks and now seems only to be threatened by motorcycles and mountain bikes. That is no threat at all by comparison to when French Creek was quartered and drawn by surveyors and survived thrice, by hook or by crook. I wanted to hike my long forgotten friend and see what time had done with the drainage.

I talked to three people to hike with me but all were busy on this Fourth of July weekend so I planned to hike alone down Little French Creek and then cross over and hike up main French Creek.  The trip would be thirty miles and I would end up where I began, at Fisher Creek Saddle. This was a neat circle, except that I’d never hiked the point from Black Tip mountain to Fisher Creek Saddle. It looked a little dicey on the topo map but I’d negotiate it if need be. Maybe I would.

II

The view from Fisher Creek Saddle was superb as it looking out to the headwaters of Little French Creek. Beyond that was Center Ridge and French Creek proper. Dropping down a ways you could look up at the severe cirque of 8,700 foot Bruin Mountain, several other carved out mountains beside it, and at the valley cascading down from the saddle. Shooting star flowers and avalanche lillys told me that snow had left this point relatively recently, maybe two weeks prior to my trip. The flowers were everywhere, along with elk and deer tracks. A decent trail headed south and precipitously downhill. Within half a mile I found trickling water and a large cougar track. There the trail became hard to follow. Buck-brush up to my armpits was the main feature between occasional trailettes.

A trailette, in my book, is one of those bits of trail that keep you hoping that it will lead to somewhere useful but which dies off after about 100 yards in a tangle of brush, a stack of fallen trees, or typically, at an impasse: a cliff, a river, a marsh, a meadow, or a nearly passible descent that offered a temptation to at least try that route. Someone had cleared intermittent parts of the trail for a mile or so but it seemed that they soon became discouraged at finishing their job. Perhaps the person dissolved or was eaten; I couldn’t say with any accuracy. However, I began to see regular cougar tracks ahead of mine and several piles of bear feces that could have discouraged that intrepid trailblazer or been parts of the last remains of him or her. Regardless, there was not a hint of a trail for the next 8 or 9 miles of the downstream route. The route was criss-crossed with burned and fallen trees, sometimes laid in two, three, or four levels against my progress. I could see why no one wanted to get to Little French Creek, but that, of course, was its main charm. It was remote and untraveled by anyone but a driven fool. For wildlife it was paradise.

I can hear you saying, “Why didn’t you walk through the 7 miles of meadow along Little French? They are beautiful and look much easier to negotiate.” Wrong-Oh, my friend! The meadowland in the Little French Creek drainage is difficult to travel without a trail. The first problem is that the magnificient, hip deep grasses that swayed most entrancingly, hid many fallen trees and invisible, but deep, rivulets. That’s not such a vast problem unless you’re crossing several miles of meadow with trees like big-assed slithering snakes occurring at odd intervals of roughly six feet. These green mambas will catch your shoelaces sending you headlong into the grass. The invisible creeks made me stumble and with my 40-pound pack, I was thrown ass-over-tea-kettle more than a few times winding up face-first into the quagmire.

In the grassy meadows, Little French meanders substantially and presents a classic trout fishing opportunity. But that opportunity is limited to 3 to 6 inch Brook trout, which disappointed me greatly. Beaver ponds have flooded much of the meadow and the meanders are not surmountable as they’re deep and crossed by rotted, burned, slimy trees. Moreover, these meanders wind from forest edge on the west side of the meadow to the forest edge on the east side of it so they filled the meadow, forcing a hiker back into the forest. You might find a trailette running through the forest for a while but be forewarned, it’s a damned trap! My choice seemed to be climbing over fallen trees or climbing over fallen trees with water underfoot. From Fisher Saddle at 7,500 feet in elevation to trail 504 at around 6,000 feet, this was my experience of hiking Little French Creek and my shins left a sorry tale: they were scratched, poked, pumiced, scarred, abraded and otherwise bloodied until I found a cross trail. Trail 504 was managed by the users of motorcycles and took me on down to 4,500 feet.

May God bless the fucking motorcycles. I have never been so delighted to find a walkable trail. When I slept beside the creek at the end of the meadow and called out with my best wolf howl it was answered by a pack of wolves on the west side of Little French. We traded howls until I felt hunted, at which point I shut up and went to deep sleep.

III

The next day I was on motorized trails that run up and down this 90,000 acre roadless area and came to Jenkins Crossing. Jenkins Crossing is the pace where logging trucks would have rolled to cut the trees along French Creek twenty years ago. The road stops, thankfully, at the bluff high above the creek and a trail bobsleds down to the creek. I hiked down from Jenkins Crossing to Jenkins Crossing bridge about 1,500 feet below to where the trail crosses the larger French Creek. The Jenkins Crossing bridge was one of the major reasons that I chose to hike in this drainage. This bridge was built by acquaintances of mine about twenty years ago and it has run its course. I mean that it is dilapidated and threatens to fall down every year. It only exists by the grace of god, the people who originally built it, and those who have repaired it over the years.

The Forest Service plans to replace it with an engineered metal bridge that would be flown in place and will last damn near forever. That sounded absurd to me and I challenged the Forest Service’s plan for this “flying bridge” as it is mainly useful for motorcycles. Others could wade the creek when it was not at flood stage. However, all that needed to happen was for a group of people to focus on rebuilding the bridge with logs and boards to create the treads. I hope that my challenge will force the Forest Service and all of the bridge users to consider the alternatives to this bridge. However, bureaucrats insist that the bridge must be engineered and that the best way to guarantee its safety is to support the flying bridge. This bridge in the wilderness, however, could be rebuilt with the sinew, strength, and moxie of its users. In that manner its many users could talk about the use of the bridge, how it will be paid for, and who will maintain trails for hikers as well as motorcyclists. All that is needed is a well-designed wood bridge that can carry people, horses, and motorcycles. The bridge should be the work of the people who plan to use it and they should accept the liability of using it.

After Jenkins Crossing I hiked up French Creek on a fine but steep trail (#116) about four and a half miles to what had been designated trail 308. The trail went for ¼ mile and then became a classic traillet and then it had vanished. Trail 308 has not been maintained for many years so that trees have fallen across it and brush has grown over it. I slept on the decision of whether to go up French Creek or to bail out to Jackson Creek and the road to McCall. If I bailed-out I would have to hitchhike back to my truck at Fisher Creek Saddle and that would take me the bulk of the day. If I continued hiking I had two choices: the first was to bushwhack up the French Creek drainage; the second was to take a high-country route and hike cross-country to Black Tip Mountain at 8,290 feet and then simply drop down to my car from there. When I awoke I felt like hiking, so up I went.

I will not bore you with the harrowing events that the trail presented other than to say that the French Creek route was nearly impassible. It was no longer a trail and the way was steep. The high-country route was possible after tramping through 6 miles or so of annoying cross-fallen trees and up some hideous elevation gain. About the latter point, however, I have to admit that I never took the time to calculate how much elevation I would lose and then gain to reach Fisher Creek Saddle from French Creek. I would lose and regain about 4,000 feet. Eight thousand feet in total, most of it off-trail. I was tired, moved slowly up to Black Tip, and hiked all day (with long breaks in the hot weather). I certainly felt it more than I would have in the halcyion days of my youth twenty years prior. I passed trail 504 on its merry way motorcycling over Center Ridge and continued trudging towards Black Tip. Finally, the forest gave way to alpine terrain and easy hiking.

Right. Up and up I went dancing through piles of dead trees. I stopped to get water from several snow patches and saw an expansive view of the Salmon River Range stretched out from horizon to horizon: Bear Pete Mountain, Storm Peak, North and South Loon Mountains, Beaverdam Peak, Lick Creek Summit, Fitsum and Nick Peaks, Buckhorn Mountain, and on down the line to the south. This is what some called the Salmon River Crest, but in anyone’s view it is fabulous.

Still, Black Tip, rising like an isosceles triangle, couldn’t be climbed by me so I had to go down and around Black Tip and rise again on its shoulder. The scree down and up would cost me another 1,500 feet, but it was pretty to be sure. Pretty damned tiring is what it was. Pretty damned depressing. In a pretty remote place. But with that climb behind me all that I saw before me was my truck. I had a choice: to go downhill or to follow this ridge around several mountains and go down at what I figured was my truck. Not that I could see it; it was a bright figment of my imagination. I knew it was only three heartbeats away.

Of course I chose to hike the easier route–downhill and the way was paved with flowers: pentstemmon, lupine, sego lilys, and Indian paintbrush. At one point I rode on bending willows in the way that Robert Frost, the poet, saw a child doing with birches. That was joyous if painful, and soon I would be at my truck. But I found no road at the end of my rainbow and with no end there would be no tuck. With no truck there would be no beer. I felt confused and was unwilling to accept that I had made a mistake that left me in the wrong drainage. I had turned the wrong way and the evening was quickly bringing darkness. Now seemed an opportune time to look at my map and compass and figure out where the hell I was. I defined a cone of land that I might be in and planned to head up toward Black Tip and retrace my steps. But first I looked around for the road. No dice. No road. Still the same mistake. No hope to get out before tomorrow. Another thousand feet up. Tomorrow.

My girlfriend would worry and my boss at work would be angry. Shit. I was out of water and food. I had to come up with priorities. Water. Place to sleep before dark. Climbing up to call with my cellphone would wait. So would the beer. Unfortunately.

It was dark as I lay down in a meadow, beside a small creek, below the ridge that I would climb tomorrow. I slept the sleep of the fool, but in comfort. I woke at dawn, stuffed my gear back into my backpack, and got walking. When I reached the ridge it looked a lot longer and bumpier than I had anticipated. Glad I didn’t try that one last night. Today I ridgewalked, left a message for my girlfriend as my phone worked by soe modern-day miracle as I hiked the ridge. I moved forward until 9 am, then 11, then noon. Still no road and no car. In a couple of places I stopped to wetten-my-whistle on snow patches. I knew that this was the right way to my car. I knew it. I just knew it. It had better be… Several unnamed mountains lined-up along the ridge and at last a fairly level patch of land and the road came to into being as if out of the clouds. Then the truck.

I drank two of the beers with incredible relish, ate some peanuts and M&Ms, sat thankfully in my truck and thought about my four day hike. French Creek was a tough stroll because it was heavily burned and trees fell down across the “trail” making it a lost drainage for more than 20 years. But French Creek is a treasure that should be bragged about—it should be a wild river, trails should be managed for motorized and nonmotorized users, and the land should remain wild rather than be roaded and logged. It should not remain a hidden paradise, if a paradise it is to you. I held the dregs of the last beer in a coffee cup, turned the key and headed down the long, bumpy road towards civilization.

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