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The American West, Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Stanley, Idaho, and the Sawtooth Mountains


By —— Bio and Archives--April 3, 2011

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imageThe American West is vanishing. Authentic old towns in attractive natural settings with strong ranch and mining heritages have succumbed in great number to theme park facelifts; refurbished cowboy and hard-rock miner motifs that pander to Hollywood’s notion of what the good old days must have looked like.

Quaint “western” makeovers of main street are invariably followed by boutiques and upscale eateries, the finest galleries and lavish lodging for the well-heeled. Affluent enclaves are close behind - the big second homes and block condominium complexes that crowd out the view and displace wildlife habitat as sprawl runs rampant like a festering case of smelly gangrene.

As enjoyable as that might be to some, little Stanley in south-central Idaho, thankfully, is not like that due in large measure to the federal government’s efforts back in the 1970s. They could have turned the area into a National Park and brought in the masses, but chose instead to designate 750,000 surrounding acres as the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). They also restricted development throughout the valley, purchased scenic easements that guarantee unobstructed views in perpetuity and added 216,000 wild and wooly acres west of Stanley and the Sawtooth Basin to the national wilderness preservation system.

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Clustered at the junction of three national scenic byways, surrounded by open rolling meadows, extremely rugged mountains and jaw-dropping scenery, this tiny log hamlet of 100 full-time residents that swells to 300 during the bustling summer and dares to call itself a city, remains true to its rustic roots.

In many ways it’s what the American frontier used to look like, from a distance. Dirt streets are wide and gritty, the grid is skewed, and many original older structures remain. Buildings in Upper Stanley are bunched together at the north end of Sawtooth Basin leaving spacious views of split-rail fences and green pastures and standing cattle, for this continues to be ranch country.

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Located sixty miles north of Ketchum and Sun Valley, the popular drive north from there over Galena Summit (8,901’) into Sawtooth Valley is spectacular and hasn’t changed all that much when transient fur trappers in search of beaver first entered the country.

The White Cloud Mountains and bulk of the SNRA dominate the east with forty peaks in excess of 10,000 feet. 300 alpine and sub-alpine lakes, and countless crystal clear streams of melting snow that water open pastures and sage, flow into the mighty Salmon River that bisects the long valley on its lengthy journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Hovering to the west are the craggy Sawtooth Mountains. Like the name implies, it’s a near vertical protrusion of stone pillars, cliffs and sharp pinnacles that have entranced the recently appreciative for decades, and native-American Indians for centuries.

Unknown to many, these mountains, and those to the north, comprise the largest block of de facto wilderness in the lower-48 of the continental United States. Directly north of Stanley, the Salmon Mountains and designated wilderness areas like the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness, plus world famous waterways such as the highly popular and very floatable Salmon and Middle Fork of the Salmon combine to make this area of central and south-central Idaho one of the greatest and least visited outdoor meccas in America. No wonder Stanley has become a home base for outfitters, horseback riders, backpackers, mountain climbers, canoers, fishermen, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and RV recreators.

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Although relatively unpopulated and quiet today, there was a time during mining’s heyday, when lust for gold in the late 1800s drove sane men crazy, and when the basin and nearby tributaries and canyons were loud, crowded and industrious. Sawtooth City (pop. 600), Vienna (800), and Custer and Bonanza (5000) on the Yankee Fork tributary of the Salmon turned the quiet you find now upside down.

After the gold played out the towns’ populace likewise vanished leaving the ghosts of their inhabitants to care for the rotting infrastructures and broken dreams of wanton wealth. Though a thing of the past, the search for gold reared its head again from 1940 - 1952 when entrepreneurs, including one potato magnate, operated a 112’ x 54’ dredge using the highly effective, albeit destructive, mercury processing technique that made investors a handsome sum but tore up the Yankee Fork something terrible and wiped out salmon and trout in the process.

The gold dredge continues to fascinate. Now a part of the Yankee Fork Historical Area and State Park nearer to Challis, the old relic and a couple of ghost towns devoted to pioneer mining history are open to the curious public.

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Stanley was never a mining town per se, but catered to the passers-by and miners that populated the surrounding districts. Fortunately many of the original buildings still stand. Pick up a copy of the free Historic Walking Tour Guide at the local chamber for a snapshot of those who called this lonesome outpost home. Some of the old structures are the Old Shaw Cabin (1902), the Sawtooth Hotel (1931), the Beaver Hotel (1912-1942), Rod n Gun Club (1936), Casino Club (1935), Ace of Diamonds Club (1921-1970), Damer’s Cabin (1930s), and more. For detailed information on the history of Stanley and the Sawtooth Basin, make it a point to visit the Stanley Museum, free of charge, in Lower Stanley off Highway 75.

Alaskans can develop an indifference to migrating salmon where reds are scooped out of local rivers by the bucket load and fed to sled dogs by the ton. But even such cynics would be impressed by the heroic efforts of Sawtooth Valley salmon whose returning numbers dwindled to a paltry ten during the 90s after a 900-mile trip down to the Pacific and back, the longest such migration in the lower-48.

What makes this feat astounding is the obstruction of numerous dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers. It sounds silly and a waste of resources, but the downstream travelers are routinely barged and trucked around these river impediments to ensure their successful migration. Thanks to the oft-maligned Endangered Species Act the numbers are making a small but gradual comeback. In their honor Stanley holds a yearly Salmon Festival open to all.

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Like many before me, I fell in love with Stanley and craved a mere acre for a summer getaway. After all, look at all that open space for the taking. When I discovered that my desired acre in 2006 went for a cool million, and even after the Crash, $40,000 shacks were listed at $250,000 and modest hovels were selling for three-quarters of a million, I choked and turned a tad blue. I mean, Stanley’s in the middle of nowhere, right?

Only later did I realize the outlandish asking prices were a response to simple supply and demand arithmetic, with a little greed tossed in for measure. Due to the all-pervasive surrounding Sawtooth National Recreation Area and other development restrictions, very little private property is available for purchase, and much of that is highly encumbered. Such is the price of beauty. We’ll have to leave ownership to the Sun Valley crowd.

And then there’s winter. As challenging as it might be for the handful of Stanley’s current residents who struggle to survive dark days and nights of bruising, bitter cold where trapped mountain air has no place to go, I can’t imagine what it must have been like in 1883 for 28-year-old Adolf Schnitzel-Wiener, that hapless, whiskered, illiterate Bavarian immigrant who was talked in to leaving the old country of bratwurst and Lowenbraus for the gold fields of the American West and the good life he was certain would follow.

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Stuck in a 12x12 log cabin somewhere in the Sawtooth Valley, all by his lonesome with no wife, no Internet, no warm toilet seat, no sunlight and only a pot to spit in, one can only imagine what coursed through the frustrated miner’s shrinking head as he waited for summer and warm weather.

Sitting on a chunk of firewood twiddling his thumbs and staring into the smoke of his rusty pot-bellied stove, Adolf waited patiently in the low light of a flickering candle as winter howled beyond the leaky front door and snow piled in drifts against the outside walls.

With a low grunt the short man in dire need of a bath staggered to his feet and studied the cabin’s east wall, hewn logs stacked and chinked and coped to imperfection. Clearing a way, he slid his bed to the left, shoved his honey-bucket to the right and searched for the perfect spot on that wall, a knot perhaps, a protrusion, that strategic slab of wood right about head-high and preferably peeled of all bark. Placing both hands against the wall for balance and with calm demeanor the young Bavarian started banging his head against the wall with a determined thump that carried through the night and sent gentle vibrations about the warm interior of his cozy cabin. Thump ... thump ... thump. Thump ... thump ... thump.

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He might not have been able to read or write, but Adolf could count, and so he began in the guttural tongue of his Fatherland; one, two, three, four, .... counting out one thump for each of Stanley’s 286 days when the temperature stays below freezing, making it one of the coldest places in all America. Thump, thump, thump. He rotated his noggin a little to the left, a little to the right, still determined, relentless in rhythm as he kept track of the boinks and thumps and wasted hours and lost days, dreaming of sunny dry summers and gold bullion and greasy lederhosen and tasty blood sausages his mother prepared for him in the old country, and all that should have been.

And when Adolf finished this last thump, give or take a few, bleeding soundly and somewhat tender up top, he sucked in a big gulp of smoky air and looked for handholds and footholds in the wall’s uneven surface and began climbing, up and up, inch by inch, log by log, as he ever-so-slowly went permanently and undeniably insane like many frustrated immigrant miners over the years in their failed search for the yellow stuff they thought would adequately define their person and place in the grand scheme of things.

He might have gone nuts, but our imagined Adolf couldn’t have picked a more beautiful place on planet earth to unravel, the stunning grandeur of Stanley, Idaho, and the voluptuous Sawtooth Basin and the jagged Sawtooth peaks that continue to enrapture the adventurous to this day.

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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer


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