Idaho boasts thousands of miles of trails in some of the most beautiful land in the country. Who blazed the trails? Read more to find out.
The following story was published in the Idaho Magazine May 2020 issue and was sponsored by Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel
Idaho magazine has been publishing stories directly from local Idahoans since 2001. These stories illustrate the roots of our state and help connect us all through the history of our communities. You can order a printed copy of Idaho Magazine here.
TEENAGERS WHO FORGED OUR WILDERNESS HIKES
BY DAN EATON
When you read the logs of backcountry trips in the Big Horn Crags area of the Salmon River Mountains, they describe Beaver Slide Trail as beautiful but hazardous in non-summer months because of ice. I guess the good news is that more than a half century after we built the trail, it’s still worthy to travel on. In the 1960s, when my brother, three cousins, and I were in high school and college aged, our trail-building partnership had a number of challenging wilderness jobs—but Beaver Slide was a beast. The work started on top of a ridge at nine thousand feet elevation, and we had to cling to the side of a granite chute. The trail was actually a reconstruction project, because a previous trail that had linked the Beaver Slide chute with Harbor Lake had been built on the chute’s loose shale, which meant it required constant maintenance to combat the effects of winter snowfall and runoff. Our job was to cut a new trail through solid rock around the slide area.
The residential camp was on the nonworking side of the ridge, which required a hike to the site each morning of four hundred feet in elevation, straight up. We used dynamite to blast the first five hundred feet of the trail out of a granite wall, which required scaling down the face with safety ropes to drill holes and place the charges. The rest of the 5,600-foot trail had to be cut out of a granite side slope ranging from ten to forty-five degrees. Shortly after we started our assault on the first five hundred feet, we came face-to- face with three bighorn sheep licking salt from the newly dynamited rock. The rock was sheer above and below the trail, providing no clear escape route for men nor sheep. After a brief stare-down, the sheep turned and went straight up the wall, displaying amazing footwork.
During the work, my dad visited to see how we were doing. One day, he slipped off a rock and tumbled down the steep side of the mountain, bouncing from one rock to the next, followed closely by a large boulder. It caught up with him but miraculously bounced up just as he was going down, and went right over him. Many times, my cousin Dennis has looked back on our trail building experiences and thought we must have had a guardian angel nearby.
One of his most frightening experiences happened that summer, when he took a chain saw to town for repairs. He drove Old Yeller (our 1953 pickup) on a road that had a deep ravine on one side and a steep mountain wall on the other. He hit a pothole and the pickup took an immediate right turn, hit the wall, and bounced about ten feet, its back wheels stopping about two feet way from the ravine’s edge. He took a deep breath, thought about that guardian angel, and got the pickup out of trouble. But the radiator was leaking. He walked down the road and came to a path that held several houses. In what seemed to him like a scene from Deliverance, a young man came out and challenged him. But after Dennis explained the situation, the young man towed Old Yeller back to his shop and welded the radiator. It took two hours but, surprisingly, he would accept no payment. Dennis learned a great lesson from that experience about prejudging people.
One of my most dangerous stunts that summer was when I was preparing to blast rock but didn’t have any electric blasting caps left. I found a fuse blasting cap and igniter cord, but had no crimping pliers to affix the cap to the cord. So I went John Wayne-style: I carefully measured the cap depth, inserted the cord into it, and secured it with my teeth. Later, I realized that technique was too dangerous.
We started work on Beaver Slide in the summer of 1966, our third year in business. What we were doing was made possible by a significant increase in U.S. Forest Service funding, primarily to upgrade roads but also to a lesser degree for trails in national forests and wilderness areas. For example, Congress authorized a funding increase in 1967 for forest service road and trail construction from $85 million to $170 million.
It all started for us when my father, Jim Eaton, and my uncle, Earl Nielson, accidently got into the trail-building boom. They owned a family business in Wendell called C. B. Eaton’s and Sons. During the 1960s, the company primarily drilled wells, sold and serviced pumps, developed irrigation land, and constructed small roads. Jim and Earl were keen on giving us boys work during the summers, as they wanted us to earn our way through college.
In the summer of 1963, their company was approached by several acquaintances to partner in building wilderness trails. Our dads provided the construction bonding and working capital, while their partners bid on trail construction projects that summer. The caveat was if a bid was won by the company, then we boys would be part of the crew. That fall, the company was awarded several trail construction contracts, which meant we had employment for the summer of 1964.
In reality, we built trails for the next six summers, encamped in wilderness areas in Idaho and California from mid-June through Labor Day. When we started, Jerry Nielson was eighteen, while Dennis Nielson and I were sixteen. My brother Bill joined us in 1966, when he was fourteen. Larry Nielson became part of the team when he returned from the Army in 1967. The last construction job we completed was in the summer of 1969.
Beaver Slide was the first job of the new team that we owned and operated, Eaton and Nielson Trail Construction, which went into partnership with our dads’ company after they dissolved their earlier partnerships. By then, we were getting proficient at trail-building techniques. I think our dads also saw it as a way to keep their teenaged boys out of mischief in the summers—and it worked.
All the trails we built were in wilderness areas of national forests. The contracts were either for reconstruction of existing trails, which probably had been created by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or for new construction. Generally, the specifications required a grade of no more than ten percent, a minimum tread width of thirty inches, and provisions for draining water from the trail to reduce erosion. Trees and brush had to be cleared for ease of pack animals’ use of the trail. And since each trail was in wilderness, no heavy equipment was allowed. Hand-held, gasoline-powered chain saws and jackhammers ruled the day.
When we started in the summer of 1964, Jerry had just graduated from Wendell High School. He was assigned to help a team rebuild the Welcome Lake to Reflection Lake section of the Puddin Mountain Trail in the Salmon National Forest. Dennis and I, who had just completed our sophomore year at Wendell High, went with a team to construct the Barney Lake Trail out of Mono Village, California.
We all were new to this type of work, so there was a lot of learning over the ensuing two summers, such as chain saw and jackhammer maintenance, and the art of using a crowbar to pry big rocks out of a trail. The five pound sledgehammer was a favorite tool, as was the grub hoe. Then there was the use of dynamite and other explosives products.
The Barney Lake Trail was designed to cut through a boulder patch about a half-mile long, after which dirt would be wheelbarrowed in to cover the trail pad. The boulders were the size of trucks: ten to fifteen feet in both height and length. At that point, our teenaged crew had never handled explosives before. We had to do a lot of experimentation to finally find the right combination of drill hole placement and level of dynamite charges to efficiently create the trail pad through the boulder patch.
The supply line from the outside world into the wilderness area work site was always critical. Local hunting outfitters and guides usually acted as packers to make sure the supply chain functioned properly, because a lack of resources could cost valuable construction time during the limited summer season. For example, in July 1964, our team working out of Bridgeport, California sent several jackhammers into San Francisco for repairs, with instructions to ship them back via bus. The repaired hammers didn’t arrive until the first week of September: they had been sent to the wrong Bridgeport, in Connecticut.
In 1965, the second year of our trail-construction work, we completed the picturesque Imogene Lake Trail out of the Stanley Basin area of the Sawtooth National Forest, which connects to Hell Roaring Lake Trail. In 1966, Dennis and I graduated from Wendell High School, and Jerry had just completed his sophomore year of engineering at the University of Idaho. Bill was an eighth grader who would start at Wendell High in the fall. Hardrock trail construction had become our specialty, so we bought two new jackhammers and a lifesaving portable generator-powered electric jackhammer that would run for days without a break.
Provisioned with camping gear, fuel for the drills and chain saws, other equipment, food, and explosives, we headed out to the Big Horn Crags in June to start work on Beaver Slide. Albert Lamper, a local legend as an outfitter and guide, ran the pack horse supply line for the summer. The trail site was accessible by a gravel road that went approximately sixty miles northwest of Challis to the Big Horn Crags Campground, and then we hiked six miles into the wilderness area. Needless to say, there weren’t many trips to town that summer.
The crew always worked sixty-five-hour weeks with Sunday afternoons off. We cousins took turns cooking, and the daily menu was basically the same for all six summers. Breakfast consisted of hot cakes, eggs, bacon, or ham and an orange-flavored drink. Lunch was usually either Spam or corned beef sandwiches along with canned fruit and Kool-Aid made from fresh creek water. We stirred up the Kool-Aid in our hard hats. Dinner was steak and potatoes. The meat was stored in a snowbank during the night and then wrapped in canvas and hung in a tree during the daytime. When green mold started to grow on the meat, we simply cut it off to preserve the remaining meat.
As the summer proceeded, drill bits wore out and the drills themselves were in need of repair. By mid-July, the bits had been sharpened so many times there wasn’t much left of them. When Albert arrived with his weekly pack train, we sent out a request to order more bits and repair parts. The order was to be air-freighted to Twin Falls, but it turned out that on July 6, the airline industry’s machinist union had gone on strike, which grounded sixty percent of U.S. commercial air traffic for forty-five days. The parts were shipped by bus instead, which slowed down construction by about three weeks.
After being encamped for six straight weeks with no drill bits left, our team faced a progress engineering review by the Forest Service’s managing engineer at the end of July. We decided it was time to get back to civilization for a few days in Wendell. After a good weekend in town, we headed back to the construction site with a few new parts and supplies.
About thirty miles outside Challis on an isolated gravel road, Jerry’s car got a flat tire. We jacked it up but while while we were changing the tire, the vehicle fell off the jack. We improvised to get the tire changed but a few more miles down the road, someone noticed the back seat was getting very warm. Then the back seat was on fire. We started a bucket brigade with our hard hats to get water from a nearby creek and put out the fire. Afterwards, we realized the car’s rear axle had broken.
Jerry and I hitchhiked to the Big Horn Crags Campground to meet the managing engineer. Dennis and Bill hitchhiked to Challis to get a tow truck. When they finally made it to town that evening, they discovered they had only five dollars between them. So they bought a bag of chips and some cookies for dinner and slept under a park bench. Their breakfast and lunch were meager the next day, but the car was recovered and a few days later it was fixed.
I guess you could say the rest of the summer had a happy ending, because what else could go wrong? We completed two-thirds of the trail and finished it the following summer.
Prior to the start of the 1967 construction season, Jim and I located some crates of World War II surplus TNT blocks in the Kuna area. Not knowing what to expect, we carefully loaded the crates in the pickup and returned to Wendell. Each block had a warning in red: “DO NOT ATTACH TO YOUR HELMET.”
We used the TNT for several summers as an alternative to wrestling big rocks out of the trail with crowbars or drilling and blasting with dynamite. We’d place a TNT block on top of a boulder and ignite it, which would result in an explosion that reduced the rock to rubble. That year, Larry joined the team after his return from the Army, and we cousins headed back to Beaver Slide to finish the final two thousand feet of trail. We started early in the season, since the winter’s snowfall had been light and the summer was dry. But these weather conditions also created an abundance of unfriendly bear activity at the encampment.
After one busy day of rock drilling and blasting, Bill went down to camp to start dinner. Before we knew it, he had scaled back up the four-hundred-foot rise to the ridgetop, his eyes as big as silver dollars. He stuttered that a bear was in the camp. Startled, we all quit early to check it out. By the time we got there, the bear had ransacked the supply tent and punctured cans but, luckily, it had not reached the stash of beef, bacon, and ham we had tied in a canvas ball in a tree. A couple of days later, when we arrived at work on top of the ridge, we found that a bear had torn through our explosives tent, scattering its contents.
The battle with the bears continued until mid-August, when a bear came into camp early on a Sunday morning and brushed against our sleeping tent. A bear paw pushed down the corner of the tent next to where Jerry slept. Slowly, we passed a .30-30 rifle from one person to the next, and finally to the person at the tent flap. The bear moved down the tent, brushing against the tent ropes. Shots were fired, but the bear escaped that gunfight. About a week later, he was back in camp, again setting off alarms. This time, we got the better of the situation. Mr. Bear became a bear rug.
Later that summer, the team bid on and won the contract to rebuild the Toxaway Lake Trail, now famous as the Toxaway–Twin Lakes Loop Trail in the Sawtooth National Forest. We hired some of our friends and split up construction crews for the rest of the summer.
Meanwhile, the end of the Beaver Slide Trail job was coming into sight, but we determined that more dynamite was needed. We sent out word to the explosives supplier, and it was arranged that the product would be picked up at the Cobalt Mine in Cobalt. Greg, a new arrival on the crew, was dispatched to hike the six miles to Old Yeller, try to get it started, and then go to the Cobalt Mine.
When he arrived, he just said, “ I’m here to pick up the dynamite,” and no questions were asked. Then he met up with Albert to pack it in by horse. My, how times have changed!
Our team had become very proficient at drilling twenty-five-foot to thirty-foot sections of the sloped granite rock and getting the perfect results for laying down the dirt trail pad. We successfully completed the two-year Beaver Slide Trail job at the end of August 1967.
During the next two years, we built three more trails, two in the Sawtooth National Forest and the third in the Salmon National Forest. My dad made an arrangement with a local rancher in Stanley Basin that allowed us to use one of his old pack horses for shuttles in the summer of 1968. So our new best friend was an aging white horse named Dutch, who had a mind of his own.
On August 16, a big snowstorm hit the construction camp and Dutch abandoned the team to head for town. We looked for him for several days, but he remained MIA until Thanksgiving of that year, when he showed up at his ranch. Later, the rancher told my dad he was surprised the team was working that late in the fall, but he appreciated they had kept Dutch in such good shape. No more was said—for good reason.
After we completed the Toxaway Lake Trail, we went on a bidding inspection trip to the Sand Mountain Pass Trail that now ties into the Toxaway-Twin Lakes Trail. These trails are described in Lynne Stone’s 1990 book, Adventures in Idaho’s Sawtooth Country, as the number one weekend backpacking loop in the Sawtooth Range.
We gathered for the inspection trip with other prospective Sand Mountain Pass Trail contractors and a Forest Service engineer. The other parties all had horses, but our team walked the whole twenty-six miles that day. Of course,this gave us a big advantage, because the other bidders couldn’t ride their horses where the new trail was to go. We saw that twenty-six switchbacks, plus blasting of solid rock outcroppings, would be required for this project.
At the end of the day, some of the others bidders were not able to fully evaluate the job, so we shared our views of these difficulties. Naturally, we talked up the hard work that would required. Our crew won that bid and started construction in the summer of 1968. We almost finished before everyone had to return to school. Red Wilson, the Sawtooth National Forest engineer in the Stanley Basin, said he wanted the trail to be completed that fall—so Bill volunteered to hike in for several weekends during the high school year to get it done.
Our team’s final job, in the summer of 1969, was a 3.5-mile portion of the Waterfall Trail to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The trail started at Terrace Lakes and headed towards the river, about seven miles away. Today, hiking guides often speak of how memorable it is to hike the Waterfall Trail to the Middle Fork.
One evening on that trail, Larry and Dennis stayed late to finish the last boulder-clearing explosions of the day. They placed a TNT block on a rock but failed to consider a fifty-foot spruce tree on the uphill side of the rock. When the TNT exploded, a flash flame shot straight up and caught the tree on fire. Larry ran the quarter-mile back to camp and yelled, “Fire!” We grabbed buckets, chain saws, and grub hoes and sprinted to the site. As we rounded the hill, we found Dennis sitting under the smouldering tree, sweating from exertion, but grinning ear to ear. Disaster had been dodged.
We seldom had outside company, but once after a heavy rainstorm, a party visited in deep distress. One of them had fallen into a creek, and the group couldn’t get a fire started to warm themselves up. It was so humid, we couldn’t get our stick matches to strike, but Jerry had a plan.
We filled an empty food can with two-cycle gas, disconnected the spark plug from the jackhammer, held it just above the level of the gas, and pulled the jackhammer’s cord. A spark emerged to ignite the gas and soon we had a nice bonfire for the hikers to warm themselves.
Another unforgettable event happened that summer. Albert, our packer, showed up with a big smile on his face. He handed us a copy of Life magazine, where we read about the moon landing.
Thinking back on those days, I believe the key to our success was our youth, which helped us to work sixty-five hour weeks throughout each summer. We enjoyed the great outdoors so much that Dennis, Jerry, and I even scaled the 11,386-foot Crown Point in Yosemite National Park, while Larry and Jerry scaled the 10,600-foot Snowyside Peak in the Sawtooth National Forest. Another key factor was that whenever our luck seemed to have run its course, we improvised.
By 1970, Dennis, Larry, Jerry, and I had graduated from college and had begun to pursue our professional careers. Bill finished Wendell High School and started college at Idaho State University. Dutch never left his owner’s ranch again, and we cousins shied away from camping, as our summers in tents seemed like enough for a lifetime!
More than fifty years later, our trail-building stories are still family favorites.