Folks start strolling into the Elk Creek Station and Cafe here early. Two topics dominate the conversation: The source of the latest power outage and the landslide that has left the mountain hamlet all but cut off from the rest of Idaho.
Early risers say they heard a pop and saw a blue flash just west of town an instant before their lights cut out. It turns out one of a flock of about 100 turkeys clipped a high-voltage line.
Residents here hold Avista linemen in high regard and even toss words like “heroes” around to describe them. When a hillside about 10 miles west of town liquefied on Feb. 18 and poured massive boulders and other detritus across Idaho 14, it also took out several power poles. Some feared electricity would be out for many days or a week or more. It was back on in a day and a half. The turkey-triggered outage was restored within a few hours.
The same can’t be said for normal access to Elk City. It could be four or five weeks before the slide is cleared and safe passage is restored. In the meantime residents of Elk City, Dixie and Orogrande, perhaps 300 people in total, have increasingly restrictive access via a goat trail of a Forest Service road that climbs into the mountains and snakes around the blockage.
Its surface is a mix of ice, slush and mud, depending on weather, aspect and elevation. What started out as twice-a-day openings of the road on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays has now been reduced to morning trips only. If you leave Monday, you can’t return until Wednesday.
Idaho County and Forest Service officials are working to make sure the road becomes neither impassible from frequent traffic nor a financial burden for the county to maintain.
“The locals are really good with protecting the road. They understand it’s our lifeline,” said Idaho County Sheriff Deputy Mike Chlebowski.
Folks describe him as more peace officer than cop, meaning he enforces the law but isn’t quick to write citations for every little infraction. He normally works nights, spending much of the time patrolling the highway. Since the slide he’s been working long hours and doing his best to coordinate with state and federal officials and answer questions from residents. The problem is nobody has answers.
A public meeting is tentatively planned for Thursday at the Elk City School. Idaho Transportation Department and county officials are expected to attend and perhaps give a cleanup timeline.
“Everybody is trying to work together to get the road open again within their ability,” Chlebowski said. “The public has been really understanding, they’ve been really good.”
We are not stuck in, you guys are stuck out.
Pamela Perryman, bartender at the Elk City Saloon
A WAY OF LIFE FOR RURAL RESIDENTS
Folks here are used to being isolated and to some degree they prefer it that way. Most would rather be on the far side of the slide.
Because they live in such a rural locale, residents are prepared for inconveniences like this. Scott Ward, a welder who works in Dixie and the North Slope of Alaska, said self-reliance is a necessary quality. Locals hunt deer and elk in the fall, put up food before winter and keep full pantries. And when they need something, neighbors are quick to provide it.
“Everybody helps everybody,” he said. “If you need something people will give it to you and they don’t expect payback. You feel proud you have something they need.”
Many people say life really hasn’t changed much since the slide.
“To me, it’s no different than every day,” said Margaret Robinson. “It’s just one of the things we deal with. You just make it work.”
Kathy Knutzen, the teacher at the Elk City School, said the routine for the 11 kids who attend kindergarten through eighth grade there is essentially unchanged.
It’s life as normal up here.
Elk City School teacher Kathy Knutzen
One of the big concerns immediately following the slide was making sure the school had adequate supplies for student lunches. Knutzen said Chlebowski and the school district worked to make sure food was delivered.
“The first day they were all asking, ‘Do you need us to get lunch for the kids?’” said school cook Sharon Boyd. “I think people here are pretty awesome.”
A convoy of pickup trucks has been making food runs on Tuesdays and keeping businesses like the Elk City General Store well provisioned.
“We have tons of volunteers, everybody has been just wonderful,” said Jessica Montgomery, owner of the store.
“PAYING BILLS WILL BE INTERESTING”
Despite the positive attitude, some business owners are anxious. They count on outsiders to visit and spend a few bucks while in town.
“Business is always slow in the winter but it’s probably about half of what it should be,” Sims said. “Paying bills will be interesting.”
Carmen Williams, a trapper, depends on filling his trailer with skins and pelts he’s accumulated over the winter and driving them to Boise or Salt Lake City to sell this time of year. But trailers aren’t allowed on the bypass road.
“I’ve got to get them to market,” he said. “The longer I wait the less I get.”
Williams looks the part of a trapper with a full mountain-man beard, tanned face and a ball cap printed with the words “Cowboy Hat.” He’d like to see officials move with more urgency to dispose of the massive house-sized bolder that is slowing efforts to clear the slide.
“They should get the National Guard and pop that rock and get it over with,” he said. “Some of it might end up in the river but so what.”
There are 300 people trapped and 298 of them couldn’t care less.
Pat Doherty, retired mining engineer
Anita Mae Johnson, owner of the Elk City Saloon, normally sponsors a steelhead derby that helps draw anglers to town as the fish make their spring push up the South Fork of the Clearwater.
“My business is not booming this time of year, but (the roadblock) could cripple the hell out of us,” she said. “We don’t need cases of water and we don’t need the Red Cross. We need for them to open that road.”