World War One was over, the rural depression that preceded the great one was at its full surge, and Frank Lantz came to on a sandbar just below Horse Creek rapids. He had just lost all his provisions, his scow, and he had almost drowned. Now all he had was the shirt on his back. Other than that, he was okay.
He had been heading back down into to the Salmon River canyon where he had a homestead before the war, a lovely alluvial flat called Butt’s Bar, across the river from Corn Creek where the road ends today. It was about thirty miles downriver from Shoup, Idaho, where the only telephone line into the canyon ended, where ancient rock shelters spoke of a People’s claim to the country long before thin, fragile lines hung in the sky with a bit of wood and glass.
He probably built his scow in the little ranching and mining town of Salmon, the end the line for the old Gilmore and Pittsburg Railroad, the one that never prospered because the country never attracted enough citizens to justify a railroad anyway. It was harsh and full of sagebrush, canyons, rapids and rattlesnakes. Uninviting to the unadventurous, ideal for building scows. You could get the rough-milled lumber there, load it with the supplies you needed to get through the winter: food, nails, ammunition, a change of clothes, a complete outfit. Then you could set off floating down the wild current to your destiny which, in Frank’s case was about seventy miles downriver.
When he rolled his scow into the eddy at Butt’s Bar, however, he found that someone had jumped his claim while he had been away in the army and then back home in West Virginia until he found he couldn’t keep the oven-hot, snake-infested western canyons out of his blood any more. It’s the same old story, and there’s no reliable record of what occurred between the moment Frank gained the landing and the moment he turned his scow back down into the river’s current. But Brandy says that he was prone to muttering simple things when faced with exasperating situations that, in the end, didn’t seem worth too much of his time.
“T’ hell with it,” was what he probably said, then, and he turned his bow downriver towards a deeper wilderness of a harsh, wonderful canyon where he knew he could find another old village-site of the People, another wide-enough bar to set up his homestead or a village. But it was a homestead Frank had set his mind to do and that's what he did.
His boat, for its part, was the typical Salmon River sweeper. Its design was efficient for the purposes required of it, and in fact it was the only design with any proven record of success in navigating the river’s rapids. Many miners from the gold rush days had tried to float the Salmon with their various boats, some more fragile than others, and of course dozens had drowned.
Then, on December 20, 1902, the Lewiston Tribunereported that: “an odd-shaped flat-bottom scow, twelve feet long and four feet wide, landed at the wharf yesterday with three men—Capt. Harry Guleke, R.E. Dwyer and J.V. Dwyer. They made the trip from Salmon City to Lewiston via the wild Salmon and Snake, a voyage heretofore just dreamed of”.
“The era of one-way traffic on the Salmon”, the paper declared, had arrived, and Captain Guleke was enshrined by a forgotten western journalist as being the Salmon River’s first whitewater thrill junkie.
As often happens with newspaper, they got the facts wrong, while holding impeccably-true to the emotions. Captain Guleke was indeed a whitewater thrill junkie, but his first one-way trip down the river was in 1896, not 1902, and before him the legendary Johnny Mackay had made at least 20 trips down and through with variations of these one-way “sweepers” that were probably evolving even before Mackay took to experimenting with them. Mackay was primarily a prospector, so some of his trips lasted three years or more, which is maybe why the journalist who enshrined Guleke didn’t count them. To be accurate, though, Guleke was in the habit of dynamiting rapids to make them safer for his personal passage, a habit which should have technically disqualified him as well. It’s just an historical footnote now though, which the hordes of modern thrill junkies who float down the Salmon atop colorful rubber rafts on any given summer’s week should take note of nonetheless: that egos can be deflated just like blue, unnatural rubber rafts.
Sweepers were assembled locally and were, by necessity, rustic. A typical one was little more than a narrow, flat-bottomed barge built of rough-cut lumber, and if possible, the lumber was green to lend it the “give” to withstand the shock of the rocks and the rapids. This was beautiful, but what distinguished the sweeper as the singular achievement of high folk art was its long, oar-like rudders that dipped into the water both fore and aft. The shafts were made of peeled lodgepoles that were plentiful in the high country above the river, and the blades on the end of the shafts were made of the same rough-cut lumber as the boat. The blades were “swept” by one or more persons who stood amidships pumping the handles for all they were worth like a Neolithic version of a weight machine. It went without saying that physical strength, not common sense, was the first requirement for such undertakings, because the trick to sweepers was to thread its bulk of crudely-assembled wood through the house-sized boulders and punch through what modern boaters now call Class III and IV rapids, classifications which didn't exist for Frank. He only had the simple one that Captain William Clark dubbed the entire river with when he viewed Pine Creek Rapids just downstream from modern-day Shoup--the River of No Return--and before the advent of rubber rafts and jet boats the river was still living up to that name. So Frank turned his bow into the current away from his jumped claim at Butt’s Bar with all the classification he needed, and his sweeper—like all sweepers--was designed accordingly.
They had a fair chance of making it downriver without breaking up if the pilot was skilled or lucky enough. But whether they made it down whole or in pieces, none of the pieces would ever see the upper Salmon again. They were indeed “one-way boats”, built especially to survive a trip downriver and then to be carefully pulled apart when beached at its destination, its rough boards and nails to be recycled into building materials for the owner’s purposes, for housing an “outfit” whether it be a mining claim, a homestead or, in Frank’s case, both. Sweepers must have appeared as a thing of exceptional utility to those who would go to such lengths seeking privacy, and no doubt their hearts quickened with anticipation as they nailed one together to head downriver with. Taken as a whole, the enterprise Frank embarked on was beauty bookended with beauty, and more than a little bit dangerous for anyone with no previous whitewater experience, even with trimmer boats. Evidence suggests that Frank was one of these, and “foolhardy” is what you might call it today. But it was called “pioneering” then, and still is by those with that little bit of luck, muscle and time on their side, things that have always allowed for successful foolhardiness.
Horse Creek Rapids was less than four quick miles downriver from Butt’s Bar, so it was probably an hour later that Frank was picking himself up off of the bar below the rapid, a typical bar for the river, an alluvial fan at the mouth of a side stream, abruptly cut off from the main current, the river pooling on the upriver side, then cutting a rapid around the bottom, depositing its high-water load of sand and flotsam—Frank in this case--below where a narrow, relatively flat and livable patch of land usually existed.
“T’ hell with it!” is what Frank probably muttered, then, as he picked himself up, and continued on foot, downriver with only his shirt, and maybe his pants and shoes.
To be fair, this is how the story was told to me by Brandy, who knew Frank well back in the old days, but there are other stories about Frank Lantz out there, and you can find them in the most unlikely places if you’re interested in Salmon River lore. I’ll stick to this one, though, told to me first-hand by someone who presumably heard it first-hand from Frank himself. Frank was the only real witness, after all, and this is a good story. No matter then, just picture a man who knew as well as anyone how fast things can change in the Salmon River Canyon, and how good a story those fast things can make if you can just stand yourself up and walk away from them, which is what Frank did.
He hiked about seven more miles until he reached another bar used for millennia by the People, and more recently by early miners as a stopover between the goldfields to the south of the river and the little mining town of Dixie to the north. It was a well-known place, or at least as well-known as any place along this lonely stretch, and Frank decided that it would do. He claimed the few acres of level ground just upriver from Disappointment Creek, which would become known as Lantz Bar, and he lived there for the rest of his life, which would last five more decades.
By the mid-thirties Frank was working for the new Bitterroot National Forest supervisor, Guy M. Brandborg (Brandy, like his son) who had jurisdiction down into that section of the canyon and an appreciation for old-timers like Frank. Brandy Sr. had been rangering for about twenty years by then, in the newly organized national forests of Montana and Idaho. Before the Bitterroot he had been a supervisor on the Nez Perce, the next forest over the mountains, which overlapped with the Bitterroot Forest in the Selway country and stretched west into the most inaccessible reaches of the Snake River known as Hell’s Canyon.
In those days, a ranger’s job was done almost exclusively from a horse’s back, and Guy was constantly in the saddle, building lookouts on the high peaks and points, fighting fires, riding ranges, studying grasses. He didn’t have a lot of formal education, but he read, mostly on “social” topics, the kind which his own father had a passion for. Charles W. Brandborg was a prominent Swedish-American farmer who ran a grain co-op in Hibbing, Minnesota in defiance of the local railroad bosses and merchants. Eventually he ran for governor, in 1910 for the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), which is, as of 2018, the oldest surviving socialist party in America and which, if you know much about the tumultuous history of socialist parties in America, is saying something. Socialism, which has been part of the stitching that’s held America’s fabric together since at least Thomas Paine, was a Brandborg tradition grown and nurtured in each generation like wheat sown annually in the co-op-infested plains of western Minnesota, and making democracy work has been their work of choice. They took it personally, and maybe it’s the sheer tenacity of the SLP against all odds that rubbed off on the Brandborgs. Who knows? But it was Guy’s radical family combined with his farmboy upbringing that polished him into becoming an erudite observer—and an enthusiastic participant--of western life and, almost coincidentally, of the wild country and the people who adorned his mountains.
He had his favorite horse, Sage King, who took him down into the deep canyons of the Snake and Salmon and along their breaks, checking the condition of the allotments, eating dinner with the ranchers and educating them on the latest grazing techniques such as they were understood at the time. His Forest Service grazing manual, printed three years after his dad ran for governor, had scribbles and coffee stains on it. He was typical of his time and place, in believing that better days were just around the next bend. In Guy Brandborg’s case this meant he believed in Gifford Pinchot’s “social forestry”, the new kind, the better kind for the people and the Land.
Despite his lack of public schooling, he managed to finish one of Pinchot’s new Ranger Schools being offered at Montana State University in Missoula during the winters he wasn’t building trail on the South Fork of the Flathead. This schooling took him two winters, and when he was finished he gained his stride, coupling “social forestry” to the social theories of his father. When his intimate knowledge of animals acquired during his childhood years on the family farm was added to this mix, he had all he needed to become a foot soldier in the early service of public lands.
He learned his packing from his outfitter brother-in-law, Ernie Lenoux, who dude-wrangled in Glacier Park, and spent the Great War years breaking horses and mules for the Army, so the ranch people in the deep canyons of his jurisdictions saw him as one of their own, and seemed to like him as much as he did them. It was clear that he knew a thing or two about cowboying as well as modern range management and so they listened to his jabber. By the time Guy came to Hamilton with his young family to head the Bitterroot Forest in 1935 he could recognize guys like Frank Lantz a hundred miles away, cut from his own cloth, and he cultivated them as the kindred spirits they were, who could help and entertain him, just as he would help and entertain guys like Frank, all according to Pinchot’s master plan and his socialist father’s instructions. Guy, in other words, was like most foresters had to be in those days, a true believer in the public domain and other radical ideas.
The rugged Salmon River country was a country prone to frequent fires that were hard to catch in time to be in compliance with a new rule the Forest Service had instituted by the time Guy took charge of the Bitterroot. The “10 a.m. Rule” mandated that a smoke had to be extinguished by 10 a.m. the morning after its discovery by a fire lookout before it got out of hand. The Forest Service was as young as a boy eligible for the draft back in the Thirties, and the idea of putting out all the fires for the sake of all the trees was just as new and, by definition, as radical. Guy’s boss, “Major” Evan Kelly, arrived at the Region One Supervisor’s Office in Missoula in 1929 with a priority that all his foresters were to heed, to stop “that goddam conflagration out there!”
There had been a string of dry summers and big fire seasons in the region, unfightable ones that Kelly would fight nevertheless. He’d been an officer during the Great War with the 20th Engineers, a unit that became famous for converting France’s forests into trench shorings and bridge struts. Forest fires were just another war, another herculean effort that would change everything for the better once again. Kelly tasked his rangers to make firefighting their top priority, with access the key, and the evidence suggests that he was a true believer, in roads and trails and Number 9 telephone wire, which were all seen as progressive management tools by most foresters in those days, tools to tame the fiery Beast of the tough, western mountain.
Not all foresters believed this, though, even back then. Region One’s assistant-supervisor, Elers Koch, for instance, was Kelly’s second-in-command, a native-Montanan, contemporary of Norman McClean and one of Pinchot’s first rangers to graduate from his newly-endowed School of Forestry at Yale. Koch played a crucial role in the Big Burn of 1910, and he was of the opinion that putting out all the fires was not only not practical, it wasn’t economical or even desirable, and especially not worth all the roads that his boss was punching into the back country. Koch didn’t object to the new trails that cut up the old Nimi’ipuu Land in ways the Nimi'i'puu might have objected to, but he didn’t like the roads, particularly the one that destroyed the essence of his beloved Lolo Trail to the north, the ancient highway of the People. He thought it was a sad trade-off, and an expensive one at that, to have such a zero-tolerance policy toward fires that you have to kill what you love in order to save it. His voice, though, along with the voices of fellow foresters like Bob Marshall--and even Guy to some extent--were just the first fresh drops of rain falling on the dry dead killing zones such as the battle-scarred foresters coming back from the fields of France had envisioned forest fires to be: The enemy! In times coming soon enough, those drops would turn to cloudbursts, and then to floods. But people needed work in the 30s, and it wasn’t that time yet.
It happened that Lantz Bar was strategically-located for Guy’s rangering tasks. He needed a contiguous network of well-built trails and No. 9 galvanized-steel phone line tacked to the trees next to those trails for the lookouts to communicate with the guard stations and for the government pack strings heading into temporary fire camps to get through the mountainous country. It was a hard physical job, horrendously-so, and Guy had no choice but to offer it to someone who was tough enough, money-starved and already there. Frank qualified on all counts, and he got the job.
His territory became the middle of a long finger of cow-face steep canyons and ridges about a mile from top to bottom, steep enough to be epic and inaccessible by definition to the very firefighting efforts that Guy was instructed to manage it for.
“My dad”, recalled Stewart eight decades later, “had given Frank the assignment of building and maintaining trails on that strip of the Bitterroot National Forest that extended from the headwaters of the Selway down to the Salmon River. It wasn’t an extensive piece of landscape, several miles wide from the Salmon River to the north into the upper Selway. This became known informally as Frank Lantz’s Ranger District. It didn’t have that title officially but for all intents and purposes it was Frank’s territory. Frank took very seriously the job of locating trails from Lantz Bar up over the Salmon River-Selway River divide. He was given an Abney level that he mastered, which helped him be almost a perfectionist in holding a grade of eight percent, or ten or fifteen percent to fit the terrain, but always gradual enough for a mule in good shape and not overloaded could handle in a day and always a nice change from the straight ups or downs along the jagged ridgelines that the Indians (sic) and, later, the miners, had left. This was to be known as the ‘Frank Lantz Trail Network’.”
“With a (string) of horses and mules,” Stewart recalled, “you could keep a pretty steady walk because the trails were at no higher (grade)…than man and beast could maintain without too many rests going up the mountain. This he did with great expertise and pride.”
In addition to his trailbuilding duties, the 10 am. Rule dictated that a fire lookout (another relatively-new idea) his horse and pack mule must navigate the forest trails such as they existed to the site of a smoke and then chop, saw and dig with hand tools until the smoke was out, the lookout became exhausted, or help arrived which, in the Salmon River country during his tenure in the employ of the Forest Service, was likely to be named “Frank”.
Early in Frank’s career, Guy put out a call to the various ranger districts in the area to pick out a surplus mule or two from their strings to send along to Deep Creek for Frank to do his work with. Most of his rangers were as saddle-seasoned as Brandy was, which meant they had the collective sense of humor of a typical cowboy outfit. Guy’s bulletin, then, was duly understood as an invitation to cull out their worst outlaws and get rid of them, which is what they did. A dozen or so of the meanest mules and horses in the forest were loaded up from various points of Region One, brought over to Hamilton. Then Guy sent word down to Frank that it was time for him to come over and get his string. The animals were loaded up and sent over Nez Perce Pass to Deep Creek (later Magruder) Ranger Station on the upper Selway where Frank could receive and saddle them, and string them over the divide down to his place on Lantz Bar.
This happened in the spring, when the Bitterroot Forest put on a three-day Guard School at Deep Creek for greenhorn lookouts as well as the returning seasonals, and there happened to be some of them loitering around the station when Frank showed up for his animals. The lookouts had just finished with their low-elevation telephone-line repair work and were at Deep Creek waiting for their class to start. Smokechasing was dangerous work, and except for a string of the No. 9 galvanized-steel phone line tacked to trees the lookouts would be mostly on their own once they were turned loose in the mountains. Their actual jobs would start when the weather dried out enough to justify their being sent to their various mountaintops. Then they would hike or ride up their various trails, clearing them of trees that had fallen the previous winter and repairing the broken phone line as they climbed the mountains along the way. It was tough, and maybe the lookouts weren’t in too big a hurry as they gathered around the rough station corral when Frank showed up for his stock.
The animals’ reputations had preceded them, and the loitering lookouts straddled along the unpeeled lodgepole fence rails to watch the show. It was, as Stewart recalls, “quite a display”. The animals not only were known renegades, they hardly knew each other. This made for a toxic mix of dominating personalities with very powerful kicks. Ask any politician during a particularly vicious election cycle how those kinds of dynamics work out and, just like Congress during any typical session since at least the Civil War, they bucked, snorted, bit and did everything they could to forcefully assert themselves while stubbornly refusing to cooperate for the common good. These animals were outlaws not diplomats, in a “situation” no less, and it was three in the afternoon before Frank got them up the trail in a line toward Thompson Flat and home down over the Selway divide. A long trip, almost thirty miles if he went by way of old Swet Cabin along the Shoup-Elk City trail and up and over Eakin Point (8,000’) and then straight down a mile into the breaks, which is what he probably did. It was broken, precipitous, as high and desolate a country as you could pick for no help being available or expected if you had a wreck with such a string of unruly, steel-shod horses and mules who were maybe under the illusion that they were running for political office. It’s not recorded what Frank thought of this joke played on him, but no matter. He got through with these bad girls and boys, and next spring he came back, where another crop of perennial lookouts loitered like the glacier lilies, fighting off nodding heads against the tranquilizing effects of a warm Spring sky by goosenecking toward the light, or anything interesting, gathering once again along the lodgepole rails to enjoy another already-legendary show, which to their disappointment had a slightly different script this time. A string of well-behaved mules and horses were led into the corral where Frank unsaddled them and walked through them, under them and behind them (!) He patted them, cared for them and there were no displays, no ill-tempered kicks or bites. The mules and horses obviously loved Frank as their father, and the transformation had only taken a year. They were his animals now, and even though Frank proudly built his network of trails on a grade so packers wouldn’t have to stop and “breathe” their string, Frank would always let his mules stop and blow anyway, because he loved them, and for the rest of their shared existence in the Salmon River Canyon the mutual relationship continued. This, by the way, is one of the countless ways that horses and mules are different from politicians.
By necessity Frank would occasionally come to town for supplies as well as for a “tear”.
“Somehow (Frank) got involved in the social whirls of the small Bitterroot community of Corvallis,” Stewart recalled. “He attended a dance where he became acquainted with Jessie, a belle of the valley who had been in mourning over the loss of her twin sister. Magically…the two of them got together and made beautiful music, so beautiful that they decided to get married and to return to the Salmon River that very night.
“The story goes that by Sunday after the Saturday night fling…they were headed back to Frank’s place at Lantz Bar by way of the West Fork of the Bitterroot on horses from somewhere on the West Fork over the Magruder-Nez Perce Pass into Deep Creek and then south up the Selway over the top by way of the ridge south of Salmon Mountain into the Salmon River slopes…Frank made a go of it with Jessie and Jessie rarely came out. She stayed year-round there at Lantz Bar with Frank.”
They built their home there, with cabins, a cold cellar, corrals for the stock and a pretty orchard that was producing good crops of apples when Stewart frequented the place in the early 50’s. They had a garden that took up two or three acres of the bar and with the elk meat Jessie canned for the winter they were self-sufficient enough in their basic needs to settle themselves down and become widely known for befriending the “skim diggers” who found themselves in the country during the depression years of the late ‘20s and ‘30s.
“They called them skim diggers, the prospectors who would take up temporary occupancy along the river…The Salmon River was famous for the fine gold the alluvial fans at the mouths of little canyons would hold if you got down to bedrock and worked the gravel with a sluice box, picking up the fine flakes to survive. Some said you might make a dollar a day. But the Salmon River canyon in that period through to Riggins and down to White Bird supported several dozen skim diggers…who would set up a little placer operation and make enough to keep themselves in food.
“Frank valued the wildlife in the lower Salmon River country at that time. He was particularly fond of the bighorn sheep...and Frank was quick to see that the bighorns were easy targets for these meat-hungry residents who’d come into the Salmon River canyon. So it was his unwritten law that the bighorns were not to be taken. If he came upon someone that had shot one of these animals they would settle with him. And if there was anything left after his settlement he would take them to the law if they didn’t end up floating feet first down the river.”
In early November of 1937, Jesse made one of her rare trips out of the Salmon with Frank to visit her family in Corvallis. They came out the usual way: up from Lantz Bar at 2800 feet elevation, then up the Eakin Ridge trail that Frank had built, past the little basin below Eakin Point where some old sweat lodges still stood, over the top at 8000 feet, then down to connect with the old Shoup-Elk City Trail which, before the gold rush was the southernmost thread of the Nimi’ipuu’s Buffalo Trail (the Southern Nez Perce Trail), the easiest path through the heart of this part of the Rockies, the better path than the Lolo Trail up north, the path that the Shoshone war chief, Pikee Queenah (Swooping Eagle or “Old Toby” in Corps of Discovery accounts) didn’t show William Clark for reasons of his own. Frank and Jessie took this old, old path, along the high ridges above the Selway, until he struck Witter Ridge, where he dropped down the steep Witter Ridge trial, one of Frank’s showcases, to Thompson Flat along the river, where another of the People’s many villages once existed. Then out to Deep Creek Ranger Station, at 4000 feet or so and, hopefully, a ride over Nez Perce Pass. Thirty miles of up and down and up again and down again where, if something happened to you you’d have to wrestle with Destiny without expectation of help or witnesses unless you were inclined to pray for company to the old powers that still resided there.