Central Idaho's stairway to heaven

November 24, 2006 

Sunset over the Sawtooths near Stanley.

CHRIS BUTLER / IDAHO STATESMAN

People come West looking for the postcard picture. Not to buy it, but to be in it. Fill the senses with it.

As one approaches the tiny mountain town of Stanley from Idaho 21, the iconic Sawtooth Range rises in full view on the northeastern horizon, forever ready for the postcard rack and relatives back East. The sight of its jagged peaks, reminiscent of Wyoming's Tetons, is enough to induce a gasp, even if you have seen the Sawtooths a hundred times before.

For many, the Sawtooths define Idaho, and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is their vast playground. Hikers and climbers have 750 miles of trails and dozens of 10,000-foot peaks to traverse. Rod-and-reelers have the crystal clear headwaters of four major rivers and more than 500 lakes to fish. Hunters have a vast wilderness full of elk, mule deer and other game to stalk.

It's a place where an outfitter can lead you on a remote, off-trail adventure. Or that you can experience without getting out of the car. Skiing, biking, boating, backpacking, camping, picnicking, kayaking, whitewater rafting, wildlife viewing, horseback riding — recreation knows no limit in the three-quarters of a million acres that the federal government has protected as playland with national recreation area and wilderness designations.

The Sawtooths are, in fact, a postcard picture you can see, hear, smell, feel and taste firsthand.

"I think the thing about the Sawtooths and the whole area in general — not just the mountains — is the opportunities here for outdoor experiences," said Julie Meissner, owner of Sawtooth Fishing Guides. "It's the opportunity to ski and fish and whitewater and hike and go out your back door and be in the mountains, just to have it all right there."

Some find it hard to leave. Meissner, a year-round resident of the Stanley area, moved to the Sawtooths from central Oregon 25 years ago to work as a backcountry ski guide. Now she runs a guiding business from March to October, leading fishing expeditions on the Salmon River and tucked-away alpine lakes.

Carol Cole is another Sawtooths convert. An outreach coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, Cole moved to Sun Valley in 1989. She was drawn to the mountains.

"I don't know what brought me here, but it's hard to leave," she said.

Stanley sits at the base of the Sawtooth Range and in the heart of the larger area known as the Sawtooths. The town's 100 residents live with a deliberate, sometimes hard-nosed intent. While tracking elk around Little Redfish Lake, Perry Arehart Jr. explained why he left Burley two years ago for the gateway to the Sawtooths.

"Quietness," he said matter-of-factly. "Being up in the mountains, you get away from all the headaches of city life. Even 20,000 people is a lot compared to 100."

A few hours later, he and fellow Stanley resident Ben Hurd got their kill, a 600-pound elk they had to cut in half to drag with them as they hiked out of the woods.

It is the mixture of solitude and splendor that attracts people to the Sawtooths, and why an organization like the Sawtooth Society works to protect them.

Spearheaded in 1997 by Bethine Church and a board of conservationists, politicians and municipal officials, the Boise-based Sawtooth Society is the only advocacy group, public or private, devoted solely to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

"We focus exclusively on the boundaries of the 756,000-acre SNRA," said Robert Hayes, Sawtooth Society president, executive director and founding board member. "It gives us a unique perspective and a unique role."

Think of the Sawtooth Society's 1,200 members as the protectors of the playground — the guardians of preservation and recreation. They work, in essence, to keep playing.

An avid outdoorsman, Hayes built a cabin near Fisher Creek with his wife, Donna-Marie, after being "blown away" by the Sawtooths 35 years ago. Once a getaway for their family, the cabin is now home for most of the year.

"There's no place like it in the United States," Hayes said. "There's no place that combines the beauty with the solitude and relative lack of human development outside of a wilderness area. We've spent virtually every minute that we weren't here in Boise there with our kids. To have this at your back door, what a deal. It's worth protecting."

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