Yellow Pine: Pioneer perfection
Yellow Pine, Idaho, is rooting into in my heart.
It’s a modern pioneer town of about 50 people, 70 miles from the nearest town, carved out of the wilderness on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River as a stopping point for miners. Its post office opened in 1906.
Every time we visit, we learn to love it a little more: its remoteness, its natural beauty, its unique residents, and its quirky rituals.
You get here on a 35-mile one-lane road. It’s three hours from Cascade, four from McCall. And this summer, the road is closed from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day for repairs, so travel must be planned accordingly. Either come early or late, or drive in on the rough dirt back road.
During the summer, the weather can be perfection, and tourist dollars trickle into town from motorcyclists driving the back roads and the town’s Harmonica Festival in July, which draws about 2,000 people to fill the inn and rental cabins and camp in the woods.
We’ve been to two Harmonica Festivals, and loved the music and energy, but seeing Yellow Pine in its non-festival mode lets you in on its true nature.
The people here are self-sufficient. They have to be. They build their own houses, monitor their water supply, make their own fun, and drive with chainsaws in their car in case a tree falls across the road. In times of crisis, they come together.
All the roads in town are dirt and best covered by ATV. There’s two watering holes on the block-long main drag, and a grass strip for the airport. Groceries here come by plane or from a friend who calls from Cascade or McCall before coming up the hill.
Winter is brutal, and almost everyone heads for lower altitudes. But a handful of die-hards stick out the months of ice and snow.
We were introduced to this microscopic spot on the map by Jeff and Ann, a paramedic/former ambulance company owner and nurse, who found it one year on a motorcycle trip and stayed. They help coordinate the volunteer fire department, share decades of education, training and experience, conduct wilderness search and rescues and go on 911 fire and medical calls. Ann also works shifts at the hospital in Cascade. Through fundraising efforts, the town has equipped the fire station with sophisticated rescue gear and, this year, built a helipad for patients who need to be medivaced. Some also get flown out by plane.
There are heart attacks, ATV accidents, hiking falls, and all the regular health issues that can be deadly in a remote area. The volunteer crew is always on call, sometimes hiking the surrounding mountains in the dark to find patients, stabilize them and get them to “civilization” and hospital care.
A walk around town takes you past the Devil’s Washtub, where the East Fork has scoured huge boulders into smooth basins. Along the way, you’ll see the town cemetery and, just outside its gate, the pet cemetery where loyal companions like Molly, Poco, Emmett and Baily rest.
In late August, we arrived just in time for the annual charity golf tournament, played through the pine trees, rocks and brush. We stomped through the dust and pine needles, whacking away with our two allowed clubs, our balls careening off tree trunks, hiding under fallen logs and landing far off the “greens,” flat circles graciously raked of needles by the ground crew the day before. The tournament rules call for two-member teams playing best ball. Jeff and Tom paired up, and I teamed up with Ann, who has a sweet swing. Suffice it to say, we were usually playing her ball. Sue, who runs the local inn and restaurant with her husband Steve, rolled through the course with her grandson on an ATV stocked with beer, hard cider, sodas and meatloaf sandwiches for the players. Donations went to the fundraising effort. We didn’t win any trophies, but we were assured we didn’t come in last.
In the evenings, we sat on the broad porch on the side of Jeff and Ann’s house, watching the light ebb, the deer come to munch on the grass, playing Mexican Train by lamplight.
One night, we made chicken tacos, Mexican street corn, coleslaw, and beans for an outdoor dinner on Ann and Jeff’s lawn, and met new friends, Chuck and Teri, whose family has lived near Yellow Pine for generations and whose grandfather built a fox barn on their property near the airport with dreams of selling fox pelts, and Diana and Barry, who own and manage a set of rental cabins in Wapiti Meadow Ranch on Johnson Creek.
As we licked our coconut palettas, luxuriating in the cool breeze, Sue and Steve and their daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons came by. More chairs. Then a couple who run Highland Games, featuring saw and strength events, stopped by. More chairs. More conversation while the boys hunted bugs in the nearby ditch.
The next day, we visited Teri, to see the fox barn on Bryant Ranch. We headed off on ATVs, stopping at the town transfer station to drop off the day’s trash. Along the way, as we drove past the airport, we ran into Barry by his just-parked plane, back from McCall where he was doing errands.
Just up the hill is the charming original house on Teri’s place, called The White House. It still has the tiny wooden “door” hung on the outside of the real kitchen door, where Teri could put a note for her grandmother, the original wood stove, where her grandmother baked goodies for her, antlers of deer that unwittingly crossed their paths, and a picture of her two uncles crammed in a clawfoot tub outside, taking an al fresco soak. The basement is filled to the ceiling with wood for the winter.
The house is shared among descendants, who choose their favorite time to come back. Teri and Chuck have built a new house up the road, with a cathedral ceiling, rock fireplace and shop, where Chuck is restoring his family canoe from the Poconos.
The dream of selling fox pelts was dashed after one year when the foxes died from distemper, and the beautiful, three-tiered, birthday-cake fox barn, built in the 1920s, is slowly disintegrating, its weathered wood giving way to the elements, no way to save it.
According to the Emma Bryant, a member of the family quoted in the Yellow Pine Times, the first floor housed an ice house and the area for butchering horsemeat, slaughtered for the foxes. The second floor had a wood-burning range and sleeping area for the help. And the third floor was the watchtower, where men watched during mating season because a certain number of days after mating, the female was fed a live chicken so she would not eat the kits after they were born. Teri has bits and pieces of the history of the place, old tools, stoves, furniture, reminders of that Idaho pioneer spirit.
When the road opens up, we head down river, away from Yellow Pine, but in January, we’ll visit Yellow Pine South, Sue and Steve’s place in Yuma, where a quorum of Yellow Piners plan to gather. We been adopted as Yellow Pine mascots and graciously invited.