Idaho History June 30, 2019

Big Creek Lodge History

(part 2)


by Kitty Widner IDAHO Magazine July 2017

When I arrived in Idaho as a World War II bride in 1945, my husband was eager to show me the beauties of his home state. One of our first ventures was a long loop trip from McCall to Cascade through the back-country to Big Creek. We stopped there for lunch, and then traveled a treacherous mountain road which took us to Warren, a historic mining camp where there was just a store with a post office and a few people. Over forty more miles of mountain roads, we completed the loop to McCall. For a southern girl who grew up in the bayous of Louisiana, this was an experience of a lifetime, and to this day, my love of Idaho and the rugged mountains includes an enchantment with the majestic beauty of the backcountry.

Seventy years later, I sat in a beauty shop in Middleton, talking with my hairdresser, Lisa Minter Pack, about when we used to live in McCall.

She said, “For three years my dad flew my two brothers and me from Big Creek to school in McCall and back from Big Creek.”

“That’s unbelievable!”

“He was a commercial airline pilot and had his own plane,” she replied calmly. “And we do have an airstrip at Big Creek, you know.”

Actually, I didn’t know that, but from then on, every Thursday as I sat in the beauty shop chair while Lisa skillfully tamed my hair, she also expanded my mind with information. Call it Big Creek 101.

Knowing I was a paint-for-fun artist, one morning she asked if I would paint a picture of Goat Mountain for her, explaining that when her family flew in and out of the Big Creek airstrip, they circled Goat Mountain. She was hesitant when she asked, and had tears in her eyes, so I knew it meant a lot to her. No one with any painting skill could have refused. She was happy with my effort, which hangs in her bedroom. “I see it every day, every morning, and every night,” she told me.

Like many Idaho mountain settlements, Big Creek began as an outpost for trappers, miners, and outfitters. Today its a mecca for backcountry pilots, big game hunters, fishermen, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Winter provides snow mobiling, sledding, cross-country skiing, and relaxing by the fire.

9BC-aCourtesy Idaho Aviation Foundation
Big Creek [Lodge] in Winter

About six months of the year, Big Creek is accessible by the narrow road from Yellow Pine over the 7,500-foot-high Profile Summit, which generally is open after July 1. The settlement, at an elevation of 7,750 (sic) feet, is seventy-eight miles by road from McCall. It can be reached by air throughout the year, weather permitting. Big Creek, at the trailhead to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, is not officially listed as a town or city, but the settlement is shown on Idaho maps.

Mining began in this part of Idaho in the 1800s. Deep canyons and rough country delayed mining at Big Creek until about 1903, when droves of prospectors began digging in the wilderness of the Salmon River Mountains. Minerals from these early mines included antimony, gold, silver, quartz, lead, and copper, affirming Idaho, nickname of The Gem State.

In Idaho Mountains, Our Home (V.O. Ranch Books, 1997), Emma Cox wrote, “Napier Edwards was a son of William Edwards and his wife Annie. In 1904, when Napier was two years old, they came to Big Creek, where they acquired a mining interest. The predominant metals were gold, silver, lead, and copper. It was a forty-mile horseback ride from Warren over Elk Summit, at an elevation of 8,670 feet, to Big Creek. The family were real pioneers,”

Willie and his wife established Edwardsburg in 1904, which provided a general store and post office. This was during the Thunder Mountain gold rush days, and the settlement must have been welcomed by prospectors and others in need of supplies and a bit of civilization. Its name, which soon changed to Big Creek, was described in a pamphlet as “the center of commerce during the gold rush days.”

[Note: Edwardsburg is about a mile south of the Big Creek Lodge.]

4BC-aRoxy Minter serves Big Creek resident Wilber Wiles, 1976.
Courtesy of Lisa Minter Pack

The oldest living resident in Big Creek is Wilber Wiles, age 101. He was interviewed for an Idaho Public Television show on Outdoor Idaho entitled, “Where the Road Ends,” which aired in March 2017. Seven communities were featured, among them Big Creek, an aerial view of which was shown while the program described the place as “so remote that an airplane is the best way in.” Wilber said he had been in Big Creek since the “gold rush days.” The settlement, oldest known person was 113, and Wilber hoped to reach 114 to beat the record. His other claim to fame is that when the University of Idaho’s Maurice Hornecher (sic), the world, foremost authority on cougars, conducted a study of them in the Big Creek area, he hired Wilber and his dog to assist in treeing and tagging.

In 1920, the U.S. Forest Service established a ranger station at Big Creek. The pasture in which pilots were challenged to land was gradually improved. Working with local miners, Forest Service employees extended the Big Creek landing field to a smooth thirteen hundred feet. In the 1940s, major drainage improvements were made and in 1957 the airstrip was rebuilt to nearly 3,600 feet in length. It is maintained to this day, although backcountry flying remains a feat only for the skilled and experienced pilot.

No story about Big Creek would be complete without stressing the importance of the mail planes and their valiant backcountry pilots. The mail plane’s arrival was always a cause of excitement. Children ran to tell their moms and dads when it appeared overhead, clapped their hands and yelled, or simply stared skyward. For forty-two years, Ray Arnold of Cascade served the people of Big Creek. Once a week, weather permitting, he flew the mail, groceries, freight, animals, or whatever was needed or ordered for the Forest Service and others. The Arnolds hired someone to shop for the requested groceries and supplies. Ray Arnold is an Idaho icon, loved by many, a legend in his time. He plans to retire in September 2017, but Arnold Aviation will continue the service with his son, who is the aviation mechanic and business manager. The pilot who flies for them now will keep at it.

Just as I don’t think I could overstate the importance of the airstrip to Big Creek, the 1933 completion of the road to Yellow Pine was also vital. A paragraph from Idaho Mountains, Our Home, illustrates the situation. “After hunting season [1939), we all made a trip to Boise with two pickups for supplies for six months: groceries, stock salt, grain, and horseshoes. We buy a lot of flour, as we bake our own bread and pastries. Returning from Boise, we hauled the load as far as Snow Shoe Mine. We had ordered truckloads of hay from Cascade to be delivered to Big Creek headquarters. A big snowstorm came in, so the driver unloaded on top of the summit … The next day, the driver came in with the second load. It had snowed all night … he spun out and skidded off the road. He tried to keep the truck from turning over, but most of the hay landed in the creek … The storm continued … Stibnite Mine had a crew working at the head of Smith Creek on Dan McRae’s claim. They were all snowed in, so the mining company got their Cat to open the road to Stibnite. We went from Smith Creek to Big Creek and on over Profile Summit. There were seventeen vehicles that needed to get over the top.”

I’m often impressed by the bravery and courage of the Oregon Trail pioneers, yet on a smaller scale the miners, trappers, and settlers in the backcountry coped with many similar hardships.

In the Big Creek area, much activity was centered around Big Creek Lodge, built by Dick Cowman in the mid-1930s on leased Forest Service land. Dick and his wife Sophie operated the business until the late 1940s. A number of owners followed but, sadly, the building was destroyed by fire in 2008.

5BC-aCourtesy of Lisa Minter Pack
The Minter family at the old lodge (clockwise from top left): Scott, Roxy, Bruce, Robert and Lisa.

The story of Bruce and Roxy Minter, who became owners of the lodge in 1976, is especially meaningful. Bruce, a retired commercial airline pilot, had been working in the Hillsboro, Oregon, police department at a very stressful job. He developed bleeding ulcers, which led his doctor to recommend the he find a different occupation in a peaceful place where he still could support his family. The search was on. Reading about a place In Montana that might meet his needs, Bruce set off flying to it with his brother-in-law. En route, they saw an airstrip called Big Creek on the map and decided to in land for a rest stop. While talking with people in the lodge, Bruce learned that the business was for sale. He was impressed, and decided to fly back to Oregon, where he discussed the matter with his wife and family.

Roxy and the couple’s three children, including Lisa who would become my hairdresser, drove from Oregon to Big Creek to give the place a look-over. Roxy found it rundown, but could see the possibilities. The Minters became the new owners, initially sleeping on a balcony in the store with their children, ages twelve, eight, and three.

For eight years, the Minters owned and operated the lodge. They began with no experience but soon learned how to order supplies and handle the myriad chores, especially during hunting season. Roxy rose early to make breakfast and sandwiches. Daily she made cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, and bread for the store and guests.

The parents resolved the problem of school for their children by hiring a live-in teacher. Two other children came from Yellow Pine to be taught as well. A 1976 edition of The Oregonian carried an article headlined, “Smallest Idaho school teaches 3 R, to Five” In it, the reporter wrote, “Marti Cooledge, who has experience in backcountry schools, got the job as schoolmarm … they used resources in the area for physical education … the new school uses the McCall system textbooks and curriculum.” Lisa fondly remembers cross-county skiing when the lessons were completed.

6BC-aCourtesy of Lisa Minter Pack
The Minter family with the plane used to fly the children to school in McCall from Big Creek.

Bill Erickson took over as the children’s teacher in 1977 but in the family’s third year in Big Creek, Bruce started flying his kids to school in McCall. The Minters’ eldest son, Scott, had reached high school age, so the family rented a house in McCall, which made the remaining school years easier for everyone. After a few years as dual residents, the family sold the lodge. Bruce’s ulcers never caused him trouble again – Big Creek had done its magic. After twenty-three years in McCall, the Minters finally moved down to the Boise valley area.

When the Minters purchased the lodge, a herd of horses was included in the sale. Horses always have been an integral part of settlements like Big Creek, first for their essential role in transportation and more recently for recreational purposes, such as packing, pleasure riding, or getting to fishing and hunting spots. Lisa had her own pony, Thunder, which she described to me as her “best friend.” After hunting season, the horses were herded to Cascade, and then were brought back to Big Creek in the spring. Her second spring there, Lisa rode Thunder with the herd from Cascade to Big Creek.

13BC-a1Courtesy of Lisa Minter Pack
Lisa gets help with her pony Thunder from lodge ranchhand Shawn Lee.

She described her childhood at Big Creek with one word: “Unbelievable.” She had freedom to explore a mountain paradise, finding old mines and deserted log cabins, riding horses, cross-country skiing, waking up to the aroma of cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip cookies baked by her mother each morning. All this in beautiful surroundings, with loving parents who were always there for the children.

“My parents raised well-adjusted children who manage pretty well,” Lisa said.

She also had a sister-like cousin who stayed with them every summer and a friend who spent summers in a nearby cabin. The summer friend was Robin Murphy, who, with her sister Tammy and sometimes their mother Bev, spent summers at the cabin of the girls’ grandparents, Hilda and Walter Hanson. These visits to Big Creek started when Robin was just three years old. When I talked to them about their Big Creek escapades, I saw the joy on their faces.

11BC-a1Courtesy of Bev Murphy Larkin
Bev Murphy floating Big Creek with her Granddaughter, Ashley, in the back and her friend in the middle.

Although their days were filled with swimming and floating in Big Creek and with many other activities, the nighttime adventures seemed most important to them. Before the Minters moved to Big Creek with their horses, the Murphy girls and their friends sneaked horses out of the packers’ herds for nighttime riding.

One night, Lisa, Robin, and a friend were taking a walk down to the lodge road when they came around a corner to confront a huge black bear ambling nonchalantly across the road. The startled girls raced home.

13BC-a2Courtesy of Lisa Minter Pack
A bear in the woods near Big Creek.

There was no electricity or television, although they found diversion with an old crank-style telephone hanging on the wall, and they did have radio reception.The girls’ grandparents enjoyed Mystery Theater, so family and friends settled in regularly to listen, with a very large bowl of popcorn.

Later, the sisters’ friend from the cabin a half-mile down the road confessed to them, “When I walked home, I thought there was a cougar behind every tree.”

By the time they reached their early teens, they literally had a little night music, and everyone danced by the light of an old Willys pickup. One of Lisa’s favorite memories is of evenings spent sitting around a huge campfire, especially when someone had a guitar and a good voice.

Bev Murphy Larkin wistfully remembers activities with friends, such as climbing into 4WD vehicles and heading up to Beaver Creek for a day of picnicking and huckleberrying. Tammy Murphy fondly remembers the wildlife, especially the chipmunks. When Tammy was eleven years old, she wrote a poem called “Big Creek” for her school newspaper:

Big Creek is such a nice place to be,
Where we spend our vacation, my sister and me,
The cute little chipmunks with pouches so full,
They fight over bread and they pull and pull.

The eldest Minter child, Scott, and Tammy Murphy were teenage sweethearts. They parted, reunited much later, and now are married.

When I was discussing the Murphy girls’ Big Creek escapades with them, Robin said sadly, “It was years before I could even look at a picture of the Big Creek Lodge burning.”

11BC-a2Courtesy Idaho Aviation Foundation
The old Big Creek Lodge burning, 2008.

For about five years the big scorched spot just sat there, but then in 2015 the nonprofit Idaho Aviation Foundation set to work raising funds for construction of a new building that literally would rise from the ashes of the old – because covenants stipulate that the replacement building must be in the same location and be the same size as the previous structure. A lease was obtained from the Forest Service for use of the land, and the enormous undertaking began with a cost estimate of eight hundred thousand dollars, which eventually rose to a million dollars.

In the early stage, an architect from Boise volunteered his services, a volunteer from Oregon put in a new septic system, an engineer from Boise designed and built a new hydro-electric plant, and an extensive fire system was installed. A log builder from Grangeville put in the walls. A stonemason built a huge fireplace of the many-colored rocks found in the area. Thousands of volunteers helped in innumerable ways. May Hardware in McCall contributed generously, as did American Standard, donating fixtures and plumbing. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation made a big donation, and many others around the country contributed money. Idaho Aviation has sponsored a variety of fund-raising events, such as fly-in breakfasts and even raffling off an airplane.

14BC-aCourtesy Idaho Aviation Foundation
The new Big Creek Lodge

Now the structure of thirty-six-hundred square feet plus additional loft space is almost finished. It has five bedrooms, four of them for guests and one for the manager, and food will be served from the full kitchen. Idaho Aviation Foundation president Jim Davies hopes the lodge will be completed in late September. [2017]

“Big Creek Lodge is a unique and iconic backcountry treasure, as the only mandated public access facility of its kind in Idaho,” Jim told me. “Big Creek is a challenging yet forgiving aviation destination, as well as a base camp for a multitude of outdoor activities and public services. It is a vital part of Idaho’s heritage and future.”

16BC-aCourtesy Benjamin Sanford, NOAA/NMFS/NWFSC
Scientists study salmon near Big Creek, 2005.

For me, writing about Big Creek has been a serendipitous learning experience. Through my friends, I’ve made many accidental discoveries, all of them fortunate. Thinking about my trips to the backcountry, I feel grateful for the opportunity to have experienced the grandeur of the mountains and the beauty of Big Creek.

source: pgs 36-45 IDAHO magazine July 2017
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Minter Kids at Lick Lake

“The photo with the horse is Scott Minter, obviously Lisa on a horse and little guy is Rob Minter at Lick Lake. We used to saddle up and go for picnics and this day happened to be to Lick Lake.” c. 1977 or 1978

RobMinterLickLake-aphotos courtesy Maggie Butterfield Wright

Link to Big Creek Lodge (part 1)

Link to more Big Creek / Edwardsburg history stories

page updated September 29, 2020