Strenuous hike, busy backcountry would have complicated attempt to hide

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comAugust 10, 2013 

0810 local kidnap07

A search for a kidnapping suspect began east of Cascade, Idaho Friday Aug. 9, 2013 after a car matching the description of one driven by suspect James DiMaggio was found in Valley County. The vehicle was found in a remote, mountainous area near the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Friday morning, according to Andrea Dearden, spokeswoman for the Ada County Sheriff's Office.


The terrain in Idaho's 2.3-million acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, where the search for a California man believed to have kidnapped a 16-year-old girl was conducted, is rugged and challenging.

It’s laced with pack trails traversing steep mountain ridges with elevation gains and losses of between 3,000 and 4,000 feet.

Just to get to trailheads on the boundary of the wilderness requires a 30- to 35-mile drive east of Cascade past the Warm Lake recreation area and U.S. Forest Service outpost at Landmark.

Rough spur roads going off the main, gravel Stanley-Landmark Road twist and turn through deep forests and over ridgelines before they eventually end up at remote trailheads. Some of the roads require as much as eight miles of driving on gravel and dirt, and in some cases four-wheel drive.

From those trailheads, a network of pack trails leads in all directions. Many of them drop thousands of feet in elevation on switchbacks to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which is a popular summer whitewater wilderness river.

Morehead Lake, at about 7,400 feet in elevation, where suspect James DiMaggio was shot and killed and teen Hannah Anderson was rescued, requires about a mile hike off the main trail over a 8,300-foot ridge. The lake isn't even listed in some hiking trail guides.

Nearby Honeymoon Lake is shown in “Trails of the Frank Church — River of No Return Wilderness,” a hiking guide by Idahoan Margaret Fuller. It’s not a honeymoon hike. She calls it strenuous.

Margaret Fuller, of Weiser, who is an avid backpacker and author of several Idaho hiking guides, was interviewed by Fox News and CBS radio. She is an expert on Idaho's backcountry. She speculated that DiMaggio drove east of Landmark on the Sand Creek Road and then took trail 082 south toward a fire lookout and turned east down trail 232, which leads east down Prospect Creek to the Morgan Creek landing strip on the Middle Fork. "On the way down that trail, they could have turned north a short distance to Morehead Lake," she said.

The Frank Church Wilderness is much more popular for horse packing and horseback riders than it is for hikers, because of the distances and rugged terrain.

There are no outposts in the wilderness where you can buy groceries and restock. Backpackers in the Frank Church often have caches of food dropped in by plane at backcountry airstrips. Without arrangements like that, it is difficult to hike long stretches in the wilderness area.

Then there are the trails. They have to be maintained each summer and sometimes trail crews don’t get to them. They can be littered with downed trees, making hiking difficult.

What’s ironic is that the wilderness area is remote, but there is more civilization than you think, and it can be difficult to avoid other people.

Just 4 miles from Morehead Lake as the crow flies is the Sulphur Creek Ranch, with a landing strip. There's another backcountry landing field, called the Morgan Creek airstrip, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River about 3 miles from the lake above Sulphur Slide Rapids. But both require longer hikes downhill on switchback trails.

The trail along the Middle Fork of the Salmon goes downstream about 70 miles before it hits the trail-less Impassible Canyon. Going upstream from Morgan Creek, the trail ends up at Boundary Creek, 2 to 3 miles away.

That's the launch site for those floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The parking area is crowded with rafters and also outfitters.

Anyone trying to be unseen in the wilderness wouldn't accomplish that on the Middle Fork trail with a constant flotilla of rafters going by. There are also backcountry ranches located along the river and backpackers don't go unnoticed.

If a backpacker was to cross the Middle Fork and try to hike out toward Challis, it would require strenuous uphill hiking over another mountain range with elevations around 9,000 feet.

Also in the area are the Bighorn Crags with their rugged hiking trails.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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