Idaho History February 21, 2016

Wilbur Wiles

(Edwardsburg and Big Creek)

Part 1

Wilbur Wiles in Europe WWII


Wilbur Wiles is our long time neighbor in Big Creek — he came into the back country after being in the WWII invasion of Normandy. He bounty hunted for lions for a number of years, then got involved with this [cougar] study because of his abilities. He is now 100, still summering in Big Creek and has a wealth of stories — many of them involving lion hunts. – Jim
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Wilbur Wiles

by Carrie Ellie Pitts

Wilbur Wiles of the Yellow Gem opal mine in Valley County, Idaho, is among the last of the wilderness pioneers. He made his living deep in central Idaho’s Rocky Mountains and had covered just about every ridge and valley of its rugged backcountry on foot prospecting, trapping, tracking cougars, and working remote gold digs such as the Sunday Mine near Big Creek and the Sunnyside in Thunder Mountain. At 94 years wise, his rules are still straight forward: never lie to him, don’t ever accuse him of lying, and pull your own weight. He is a quiet hard working man of integrity and chose his life in the Idaho mountains. Raised on a farm in Iowa, he became an expert trapper and moved west to live and trap in the backcountry.

While working during summer months for various mines, he learned to keep an eye out for good prospects on his own. During the 1960s, his knowledge of the area and reputation for tracking led to his being asked to serve as houndsman and guide for conservation biologist Dr. Maurice Hornocker. Over several years, they conducted an extensive mountain lion study which was published in National Geographic’s November 1969 issue.

In 1960, he was prospecting on the Big Creek drainage and followed chips of a mysterious yellow stone in the creeks to their source high on a rugged bluff in the Primitive Area. After combing the mountain, he spotted some bigger pieces in the roots of an upturned tree. He carried them out to learn what the stones were; it was facet grade honey opal. He hiked back in and staked four claims. He spent much of the next 30 years digging for the opal in its rhyolite host rock. His hand dug trenches can still be seen today and would amaze any observer: some stretch 100 feet long and most are 15 to 25 feet deep. All muck was removed with shovel and wheelbarrow, and the series of dumps is an impressive sight. Most of the picks, shovels and wheelbarrows were carried in on his back.

But a braggart he is not, and you have to prod him a little over a cup of joe to hear stories of his adventures in the wild. Some of them would make you shake your head and wonder how he survived. “I’m like a cat with nine lives I guess,” he answers, “but figure I better be careful because I’ve used most of them.” One of his closest calls happened when he was attacked by a cougar while hiking back up Big Creek in the snow to his cabin. He had a cougar dog-in-training with him, and remarked, “If I’d had a timid dog, I wouldn’t be telling the story.” At the turning point of the struggle, the big cat had grabbed Wilbur’s left hand in its mouth; his dog went for its soft underbelly giving Wilbur a chance to slug the cougar with his right fist. He knew from trapping that a solid blow straight into the nose of an animal can actually kill it, so he began pounding so hard he dislocated his own knuckles. “I knew only one of us would leave the mountain alive that day,” he stated. The blow dazed the cat long enough to pull out a knife and cut its throat.

When he was 89, his arthritic hands and various stiffness’s made him decide to sell the opal mine. “I figure I can’t run the gas jackhammer anymore,” he explained, holding out his scarred hands and flexing his stiff, swollen knuckles. Now he is content to care for his home and land in Big Creek, and tend a large garden.

Story told to Carrie Ellie Pitts by Wilbur Wiles.
excerpted from “Pans, Picks & Shovels, Mining in Valley County, Idaho”, Valley County History Project, pages 276-278
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Big Creek

Wilbur Wiles getting supplies from Roxie Minter at the Big Creek Store.
(photo – Idaho Statesman)
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In Search of the Perfect Prospector

Mining History March 2006

During my early field years, 1960s and 1970s, I frequently depended on prospectors to serve as guides, especially in mining districts that were not familiar to me. Most of those I became acquainted with were hard working, adamantly independent, rugged individualists, who loved the out-of-doors. A few were dishonest and nearly all exaggerated the size and worth of their “discoveries”. Characteristically, they were dedicated, one might even say ‘driven’, to explore for mineral deposits that they clairvoyantly knew were out there somewhere. I met very few young or married prospectors; most were middle-aged and possessed the physical endurance of a marathoner. Having been “stung” a few times by promoters, claim jumpers, and “officials” who administer the public lands, prospectors tended to be suspicious of all outsiders; I learned very quickly not to say things like, “I’m with the government and I’m here to help you.” In general, prospectors are an interesting and unique group and I would like to tell you about all of those I have known, but time and space will allow for just one.

Wilbur Wiles was unique; he had all the qualities but none of the vices of a typical prospector. Therefore, in my mind, he will always rank among the very best. It was probably the summer of 1967, or at least that was the year I started the mineral appraisal of the 1.5 million acre Idaho Primitive Area and Vicinity (IPA). When I inquired about local prospectors, Wilbur’s name always came up. along “with seemingly mythical tales about his prospecting and cougar hunting adventures. It was several weeks before I finally meet the legendary mountain man and it probably took even longer to gain his confidence. He was a raw-boned, six-footer, probably in his late 40’s and a man of few words, especially around women or strangers. He had a cabin near the Big Creek Ranger Station, just outside the west boundary of the IPA. His cabin, dog pens and horse coral were almost as clean and well kept as my mother’s kitchen. He had another cabin on Monumental Creek, near his opal mine, situated well inside the IPA boundary. His area of prospecting included Stibnite, Thunder Mountain, the old mining camps around Big Creek and Yellow Pine, as well as a lot of under-explored areas that stretched eastward to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It is a region of favorable geology, impressive histories of past metal production (Sb, Hg, Au, Ag, W & Cu), and good potential for the discovery of new mineral deposits. Wilbur was a smart veteran prospector who was physically adept and familiar with most of the western half of my study area. What else could I ask for? I had found the “perfect prospector”, in a “perfect area” for the discovery of new ore deposits.

The Perfect Prospector.pdf
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1969 National Geographic Wilbur Wiles

Wilbur_1969_Mountain_Lion.pdf (10 meg file, article starts on page 4)


Picture of Wilbur taken by Hilda Hansen in the 1950s / 60s

photo shared by Jim C


Wilbur Wiles, Maurice Hornocker and others.

photo shared by Sandy McRae

Feb 15 update from J. Collord re: group photo:

A bunch of us met in Salome, AZ for a January 19th [2016] celebration of Wilbur Wiles’ 100th birthday. The party was organized by Maurice Hornocker.  Wilbur worked with him on the cougar study in the late 1960s.  Needless to say, Wilbur was surprised and pleased.
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Letters to Wilbur on his 100th Birthday

“There Has Always Been Wilbur”

Reflections about Wilbur on his 100th Birthday

Wilbur has always been part of the McRae-Collord’s life, and as I rapidly approach the “young age” of 70, Wilbur has certainly always been part of my life. I was born in the mining town of Stibnite, an ephemeral community that was most active during World War II when antimony and tungsten were produced for the War effort. Stibnite is located in the central Idaho mountains not far from Wilbur’s humble home in Big Creek — and next to our cabin that has been in the family since the 1950s. Of course, my grandparents and parents were good friends with Wilbur and visits were frequent.

My first remembrance of Wilbur was when I was pretty small — and that was knowing that he was a “bounty hunter” for cougar, and listening to his cougar hounds baying in their pen next to Wilbur’s cabin. For some reason, that was intriguing and left a strong impression on me.

In 1952 or so, I spent a year with my folks when they worked the McRae tungsten (Wolfang) mine located out of Big Creek and at an elevation of around 9,000 feet. I remember the deep snow most of all, and trips to the working mill and to the mine. In the winter, mom and I traipsed through the snow for a Christmas tree, and I celebrated my sixth birthday with a cake decorated as a merry-go-around that one of the ladies in the camp made for me. And Wilbur worked at the mine for part of the time my family was there.

After that period, my family took off on mining ventures in other parts of Idaho, then Nevada, California and Colorado. We made it back occasionally to the Idaho backcountry, but Wilbur became somewhat of a distant memory for me. That until my parents, who lived in California at the time, retired and started spending summers at the cabin in Big Creek. I was working in Nevada at the time, but my wife Leta and I had wonderful times at the Cabin with my folks and their neighboring friends. It was a unique time in Big Creek during the late 1970s and 1980s as those neighbors had a great time with each other. Wilbur was part of this friendship.

My life became even more intertwined with Wilbur when he, dad and I went down Big Creek in 1979 to repaper the Golden Bear mining claims. This was a time that the mineral entry into the Frank Church was to be withdrawn, and Wilbur offered the claims to dad. The rest of that is history when dad commenced a 20-year “battle” with the forest service on claim validity. Dad eventually won, but not before making it to the Ninth Circuit — and winning — twice.

At the same time, Wilbur was particularly concerned that the agencies were going to take away his Yellow Gem opal mine located on Monumental Creek in the heart of the Frank Church. Dad’s basic comment was, “…like hell they will — let’s patent the claims..” Dad and another Big Creek neighbor put up the money and effort to patent the claims — and it was completed in 1982; it was one of the last patents granted in Idaho. Wilbur was then able to continue mining now private land until his physical condition disallowed going in regularly. During this time, my niece Carrie spent a great deal of time in Big Creek, and became close friends with Wilbur — and took and active interest in the Yellow Gem.

In 2004 Wilbur and I hired a helicopter out of Boise to haul equipment to the Opal and set up his camp for the season. A total of five trips were made from the Big Creek air strip and the Yellow Gem, and Wilbur was set for another round of mining. This was one of his last trips in.

A few years ago Carrie purchased Wilbur’s share of the mine. I obtained the other portion and Carrie and I became co-owners. Carrie has made yearly treks to the mine and has, with Wilbur’s suggestions on where to dig, come back from the wilderness with some very nice stones — always ready to share her prizes with him.

So, you see, there has always been Wilbur in my life. And I am very thankful for that.

Happy Birthday, Wilbur.
Jim Collord, January 19, 2016

(photos with letter)

1979-Big-Jim-Collord-and-Wilbur-aOn the Golden Bear gold vein, down Big Creek, September 1979 Big Jim Collord and Wilbur.

Wilbur-with-Uncle-Bob-McRae-1952-aWilbur with Uncle Bob McRae, McRae Tungsten Mine, ca. 1952

Wilbur-panning-for-gold-aWilbur panning for gold, Monumental Creek (?)

Wilbur waiting for helicopter for flight into Yellow Gem, 2004
WilburHelicopter2004-aBig Creek Airport, 2004. Getting ready for flight into Yellow Gem. Made five trips in from Big Creek hauling Wilbur, helpers and materials for the camp and mining.

WilburYellowGem2004-aWilbur on the Yellow Gem, 2004. Jeff Fereday holding up the tree.

WilburCampYellowGem2004-a2004 helicopter trip in. Setting up Wilbur’s camp at the Yellow Gem with Jerritt Collard helping. This was one of Wilbur’s last trips into the mine.
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… When did I meet you? You won’t remember, but I do. I was a scrawny little sprout of a kid, with Grace McRae and my mother Kay at our cabin. I first set eyes on you when I was hanging my nose on the window sill watching for my Mom to come back after fishing behind something she called the Hogs Back. I had no idea what a Hog’s Back was, or why there were fish behind it, but while I was watching, I saw you walking up your driveway from the mailbox. They had told me stories about you, so you were a wonderful mystery. I remember wishing I could have adventures like yours. Well, not like ALL of yours, some of them were pretty wild.

My next memories of you are when Marge & Jim Collord started bringing me to the cabin every summer, and I began to learn more about you and your mountains. They became my mountains too. I learned to explore the high lakes and fly fish, and never looked back — but my favorite fishing trips ever were the ones you and I hiked to together. They just made my summers, that you would hike with me to fish. I loved it.

As I got bigger and dumber, I also recall that you were always the first one to be ready with a loaded pack to hunt for me after I botched a hike and didn’t come in when expected. That said a lot to me. I’m sorry if I ever worried you. And I hope to be the kind of person who would also load a pack and go hunt for a friend, too.

I especially recall early one morning after messing up a fishing hike; you came to check with Marge about whether I’d made it back. I was resting upstairs. You were ready to go hunt for me, of course. She said I got home very very late, and pointed to my backpack on the floor. I remember suddenly being wide awake upstairs and listening. I heard you walk over to my backpack, pick it up, and then thump it heavily back on the floor. Then you said to my Grandma, “I knew she was tough, but didn’t know she was that tough.” My Grandma laughed, but I was upstairs with a huge goofy grin all over my face, thinking well you should have felt it with all the fish in it. (Hah hah.) I felt like I had just received “the Wilbur Stamp-Of-Approval” and boy was I proud. If you thought I was tough, then I must be OK and to hell with what the world said. It meant a lot to me, because I respect you. You’re a quiet person who lived through many challenging things and chose not to brag or shrug hard work. For you to think I was solid, well maybe I could think so too.

Remember the time I threw my neck out? (It was from swinging a sledge hammer sideways.) You noticed I had no smoke in my chimney and came down to find out why. I could hardly move, and you built a fire in the heat stove. My world is better because I know you. Do you remember when I ran up your driveway all out of breath as your car horn was going off? Well that’s why. You matter to me. A great deal.

Another memory for me was late one fall when I was trying to close our place out for winter. You were walking down to get your mail, and saw me sitting on the ground near the little sleep cabin, and we ended up talking. I was not looking forward to going back to the city, and confided, “I just don’t fit out there, Wilbur.” You said the only thing that could have made a difference right then: you said, “I don’t either.” And somehow it made everything alright.

When we were standing in your oldest trench together at the opal mine in 2004, I was so tickled. I asked where you found your first pieces of opal. (I knew the story but wanted to hear it from you.) You looked straight up and said matter-of-factly, “About 10 feet above your head.” I looked toward the sky and grinned. That was too cool. I’m so glad I hiked in to see you up there. I’ll never forget trudging up that hill covered in dust and sweat, then smelling the smoke from your fire. As I got closer, the strangest sound began to drift down the canyon, I was puzzled. It was a ball game on the radio. That makes me smile to this day. Sometimes if an evening gets long up there, I dig out your radio and string up an antenna.

After we hiked back out, you cracked me up the next morning; we had camped on the airstrip and woke to heavy frost. I was heating water on a little stove and asked if you wanted something hot to drink. You said NO. I asked if you wanted hot soup. You said NO. Plain hot water? NO. I asked if you’d like to just hold hot water. You declared, “No. I’m just going to stand here and pout this morning.” I tried to keep a straight face and said, “Fine, be that way.” Then you smiled, just a bit. So I tended my water, and next thing I knew, you were gone — you hiked up the side of the hill to meet the rising sun. It was one of my favorite mornings ever. …

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Dear Wilbur,

On the occasion of your hundredth birthday, I thought I would explain how you have been a part of my life in one way or another for about sixty years, long before we ever actually met. I first heard about you from my grandparents, Horace and Evelyn Fereday, who owned the Big Creek Lodge for a time in the 1950s. They spoke of you fondly, along with other residents of that remote area, such as Napier Edwards and John Vines. I was a young boy and I imagined rugged backcountry trappers and solitaries living mostly off the land. You had a place in my imagination.

When I was in ninth grade in the mid-1960s, I read a news story that mentioned you prominently in connection with the innovative cougar study then underway in the Idaho Primitive Area. It was reported that you were the trapper from Big Creek whom scientist Maurice Hornocker engaged to track and tree the cats so they could be collared and weighed. As I recall it, Dr. Hornocker had asked around and quickly learned that “if you want to track cougars in that backcountry, Wilbur Wiles is your man.” That study of course became famous, National Geographic featured it, and Dr. Hornocker went on to do large cat studies all over the world. You stayed in Big Creek, living a quiet but vigorous life in your beloved wild country.

As a smokejumper in McCall in the early 70s, I passed through Big Creek many times and again heard your name occasionally. But somehow we never crossed paths. The Primitive Area became the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness; I stopped smokejumping, went to law school, married Kay Hummel, worked in Washington, D.C. and Colorado. The next time I heard about you it was from your friend Jim Collord, Sr., whom I represented in the late 1980s when I defended the validity of the Collord family’s Golden Bear mining claims on Little Ramey Ridge. They were in the Wilderness and the Forest Service wanted them voided. You actually had staked the claims and did assessment work for some years before conveying them to Jim. Jim spoke of you often, but still I had not met you.

That two-week trial on Jim’s mining claims is something of a blur now; it was a stressful time. But one vivid memory I have is this: At the end of it I was packing up my papers when I was approached by an older gentleman, straight and lean and with piercing blue eyes, who had been in the audience during the trial. “I’m Wilbur Wiles from Big Creek,” you said. “I appreciate what you’ve done for Jim, and I want you to have this.” You handed me a small box. Inside was a beautiful silver pocket watch. “This was your grandfather’s. He traded it to me in 1956.” That watch is one of my dearest possessions. But more valuable by far is the friendship my family has developed with you, Wilbur. We are so lucky and so privileged and so grateful to know you.

Jeffrey C. Fereday
Boise, Idaho December 2015
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A Salute to Wilbur Wiles – Idaho Pioneer, Miner, Woodsman and Soldier

Forty-some years ago I was dropped into the Big Creek area to help with radio-tracking on Maurice Hornocker’s mountain lion study; 1 was twenty, footloose, and available. I’d had a year of college, some time on drilling rigs, and a liking for climbing and skiing, otherwise there was not much to recommend me for the job – but like I said, I was available.

Radio-tracking was often an exercise in frustration. The collar transmitters were at the end of their batteries’ lives and mountain lions are sparse, well-hidden, and can cover a lot of ground, with line-of-sight signals only sometimes detectable. All the same, I knew right away that I was in a special and wonderful piece of country and that Bill Dorris’s Cessna 185 was really not an airplane, but a time machine: once you step past the runway’s end you’ve landed in another century – the nineteenth century. On foot or horse with what’s carried on your back, walking alongside the prospectors, miners and pioneers of a hundred years ago. But great luck gave me the most wonderful mentor and guide, Mr. Wilbur Wiles.

Wilbur, who was key to the success of the lion study, leading his three dogs, three horses and me, packed in and set up the half dozen camps around Big Creek that the lion study used throughout the year. In those weeks Wilbur taught me a lot of things that were completely new – the kind of knowledge that I didn’t even know I didn’t know. Each day brought a new clue that I was in the company of a truly remarkable, amazingly skilled, and very fine man.

For one, Wilbur, then in his mid fifties, was just about the hardest and steadiest working guy I’d ever seen. From before dawn to after supper he was always doing something, whether it was catching horses, packing horses, handling and feeding dogs, fixing tack and equipment or just striding on up a trail like an absolute engine — he put John Henry to shame. Wilbur did not stop, did not waste a single motion, and at the same time was always watching, hearing and sensing everything ahead, behind, underfoot and overhead. No sign of wildlife or geology escaped his attention – while I, young and strong, labored with one foot in front of the other just to keep up.

Wilbur is thoroughly courteous, with a reserve and politeness that is part his nature, and probably also a product of being one solitary soul sharing a huge country with just a handful of others. His neighbors were a long way off and not often met – over the ridge, in the next valley – but all the same, keeping on good terms with the neighbors was always worth his effort. Wilbur extended the same good-naturedness and humor to me, as my general ignorance would present itself daily, but Wilbur never criticized, or rolled his eyes, or huffed, “Here, I’ll do that myself.” Instead we’d just continue the job without comment, but later in the day, usually after supper, I’d ask about ‘the right way to do so-and-so’, to which Wilbur would grin and say, “Oh, well, that’s okay. The way a feller usually does something like that is….” At the end of which I’d be a little wiser but with my tail feathers still intact.

You can tell a great deal about a person by the way he understands and behaves around animals. In this Wilbur is so far ahead of the rest of us that there is no comparison. Dogs, horses, lions and people (including twenty year old upstarts) are all more-or-less equals on the face of the earth, and each with its own character, level of comprehension, plus a job to do. All are respected: some are tolerated, some are admired, and some are dearly beloved friends.

Among my favorite recollections of Wilbur are of being on a steep trail with the string of three packed horses and one of them – Charley, I think – lurching aside to grab a stray bite of grass, and stepping cross-legged over his lead line, bringing all to a halt and possibly to a dangerous spill. Wilbur, calm but exasperated, gave Charley a complicated lecture and instructions that would have put an air traffic controller to shame, pointing to one hoof while tapping the other. Holding one horse and the dogs while this was happening, I was amazed to see Charley drop his head, tilt one eye up to Wilbur’s, and as if he somehow understood it all, make a slow motion ballroom dance, scooting, lifting and then dropping one hoof and then another.

Another that will stay forever is of Wilbur feeding the dogs. Inside the tent or cabin after dinner would be the three bowls with their chow. Scraps and grease from our dinner would then be divided among the three: “Well, a little more for Red. No, those other two will see that he has extra, better put some back. Now then, Red should get some of that back….” All the while, the dogs were staked outside, yards away, but THEY WOULD KNOW!

And Wilbur is far too honest and fair to trifle with the feelings of such good, hard working dogs.

Finally, Wilbur Wiles, at one hundred years and counting, is a storehouse – no, a treasure house – of just plain wonderful stories, some dealing with extraordinary events, and others of ordinary times that are now long past and nearly lost. He has seen and done an awful lot in those years.

Wilbur talked mostly about times in Idaho and not much about being away in the service and war. All the same, it’s clear that as a member of the Second Armored Division, through Normandy, the Ardennes and Germany, Wilbur was on the frontline for many months of tough fighting. Compared with many he was an old guy, at twenty-eight or twenty-nine, a platoon Sergeant among young men and teenaged boys from cities, towns and farms across the country. Few of them would have landed in Normandy with the knowledge and skills needed to cope with the danger, cold, fatigue and fear of that campaign, and certainly very, very few would have been as well prepared by experience and character as Wilbur. Like they say, “The backbone of an army is the non-commissioned man.” Wilbur has always had backbone to spare! There’s no doubt many of these soldiers owed a measure of their survival to Sergeant Wilbur Wiles.

I don’t know anyone with whom I’d rather share a foxhole.

Matthew Symonds
Farmington, New Mexico
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I’ve known you for close to 50 years, even though we met personally when I visited you at Big Creek with Jim Akenson a mere 25 years ago or so. The monographs that Maurice wrote on the seminal cougar studies you and he accomplished were a part of my lectures and my students read them as well. I never forgot to point out that that fellow who had the dogs and the know-how of corralling a lion in a tree was a very integral part of the work.

I have had a lot of good visits with you and your hospitality is very much appreciated. I say this on behalf of my mules as well! I always look forward to our visits because the history you talk about is so informative. Those conversations always give insight into events and issues in the Big Creek drainage that leads to my better understanding and appreciation of the country. Your knowledge of all the nooks and crannies in the area really helps.

And I appreciate your study of the slopes around your place, when the snow melts first, what game and sign you see. It was always fun to know how the current weather pattern differs from the usual, if indeed it does.

The rhubarb and strawberries from your garden are always welcome and we thoroughly enjoy them, knowing where they came from and who grows them.

So here’s a hearty wish for a happy 100th birthday!

Jim Peek
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Expedition in Search of a Wolf Den


I vividly remember that late April day that Janet Hohmann and I flew to Big Creek from Taylor Ranch. Janet and I were going to backpack down the length of Big Creek to see if any harlequin ducks nested on Big Creek. You were the only person at Big Creek and Edwardsburg at that time of year. Although the snow was melted off the airstrip, you still had to hike the 3 to 4 mile round trip to the airstrip once a week to get your mail and groceries, because icy drifts blocked the road. We stayed overnight with you at your cabin and enjoyed hearing stories of your life on Big Creek. Always an attentive host, in the morning you cooked us up a hearty breakfast of pancakes and Spam.

I had the radio telemetry receiver and antenna along, because I did aerial tracking for the radio collared wolves and cougars while on the flight from Taylor Ranch, to collect additional information for the wolf and cougar study Jim and I were doing. Wolves were fairly new to Idaho, but you pointed to an opening on the side of the mountain where you had spotted a wolf from the cabin just a week before. It was a place where you had often seen elk feeding, but not anymore. I turned on the telemetry receiver and got a signal from the radio collar on the alpha male of the Wolf Fang wolf pack – right from inside your cabin! It was in the direction of the wolf you had seen.

Tracking wolves was suddenly the priority; Janet and I could do the duck survey when we got done. The local wolves typically gave birth around mid-April, so I thought there might be an active wolf den in that area. All three of us were eager to follow the wolf signal and search for a den. You led us over to the base of the mountain. Most of the snow was gone, but the vegetation was still dormant. We searched around the opening where you had seen the wolf, but didn’t see any sign of wolves. The loud telemetry signal indicated we needed to continue along the hillside into the open forest, but we were definitely getting closer to the wolf. I described what the wolf dens looked like that Jim and I had found before. The den entrances are so big and deep that there is usually a large amount of dirt piled below the two foot wide opening.

The three of us spread out across the hillside, so we could cover more area as we searched for a den excavation. The radio collared wolf howled from several hundred yards away in the direction we were walking. Then Janet gave a whistle, so I walked over to see what she had found. It was a huge mound of bare ground, eight feet across with an opening on the downhill side. “Is this what we are looking for?” she whispered. “Yes!” I exclaimed quietly as we stood on the mound. “This has been used as a wolf den,” I said, thinking we weren’t to the active den yet. Then, to our surprise, we heard the soft sound of whimpering and suckling wolf pups – right under our feet. We quickly and quietly retreated off the mound where you joined us, Wilbur. All three of us crept close enough to the mouth of the den to hear the sounds of nursing wolf pups. We quietly moved away from the den without seeing the alpha female (mother) wolf. As we hiked down the hill back to the cabin, the radio collared male wolf howled again from his
previous location and the female howled from the vicinity of the den. It was an exciting day on Big Creek. I am so glad we shared the adventure of discovering an active wolf den together.

Your backcountry friend,
Holly Akenson
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Monumental Idaho mountain man turns 102

Very few can be considered legendary Idahoans. But one man, who moved to the Gem State during the Great Depression because he wanted to see some mountains, makes a strong case.

by Brian Holmes

Wilbur Wiles wasn’t planning on turning 102 here at the Brookdale Senior Living Center in Boise, but driving a winding road on the way to Arizona three months ago changed that.

“I come around a curve pitch dark, and I didn’t see it coming around, you know?” remembers Wilbur, sitting in a chair in his room.

A truck was parked in his lane with the lights off.

“And boy, I hit it before I seen it,” he says, detailing the broken bones in his chest that are recovering.

In fact, Wilbur would rather be spending his birthday tomorrow (Friday) where he has spent most of his other days – in Idaho’s mountains.

“I don’t know, I always wanted to go to the mountains,” says Wilbur.

Well, he didn’t just see them, he rarely left them.

Wilbur came to Idaho from Iowa in 1933 at the age of 17, trapping fur in the Tetons and finally settling in the middle of the Payette National Forest in 1938.

Living a life of somewhat solitude was everything Wilbur had hoped it would be.

“I don’t know it’s just quiet,” he laughs, explaining why he loves living in the mountains. “I’m just kind of a loner, I guess.”

In 1941, Wilbur entered World War II and crossed Omaha Beach three days after D-Day as a member of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corp.

After a few years in Europe, Wilbur was back in Idaho’s backcountry. He is one of the few to call this wilderness home, living off the land and seasonal supplies for the last 80 years, creating a life many consider legendary.

“I don’t know why I should be, (I’m) just an ordinary average guy,” Wilbur says.

In the 1960’s, he was part of Idaho’s first statewide study of cougars, tracking and tagging large mountain cats for 10 years. He even survived an attack from one that had trapped his dogs.

“There’s where one of his canines went in there,” Wilbur says, showing the scar that is still on the top of his hand.

Over the years Wilbur married, built a cabin in Big Creek, and even owned an opal mine.

But even after turning 100, Wilbur has made no plans to walk away from his home in the wilderness.

Tomorrow there’s a party planned for his 102nd birthday.

“If there’s gonna be cake and stuff I’ll be there,” he says.

But as soon as the snow melts Wilbur will make his way back to Big Creek.

Says Wilbur, “I don’t plan to do nothing except get enough wood in.”

Setting himself up for another four seasons in Idaho’s mountains.

“When I come to Idaho, I come to stay,”

source w/video: KTVB January 19, 2018
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Outdoor Idaho Segment on the late Wilbur Wiles on Big Creek for “Where the Road Ends”

FB link to video:
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RIP Wilbur Wiles April 17, 2019

Wilbur Wiles’ cabin in Big Creek / Edwardsburg
WilbursCabinBigCreek-aphoto shared by Marcia Franklin courtesy Jim Collord

Link to Wilbur Wiles (part 2)


Wilbur Wiles : master of the River of No Return Wilderness
Author: Richard H Holm; Heritage Program (Payette National Forest)

Wilbur Wiles interview, 1996 June 24.
Author: Wilbur Wiles; Carolyn Rucker; Idaho State Historical Society.

page updated October 10, 2020