Seven years ago, a beloved lodge in Idaho’s backcountry burned to the ground. The Big Creek Lodge was built in the 1930s in a remote spot in the Payette National Forest. For decades it welcomed people as they headed into the Frank Church Wilderness. A grass airstrip next to the lodge meant many of the guests at Big Creek were pilots.
Now, a group of pilots is rebuilding the lodge.
J.V. DeThomas is one of those pilots. On a clear and bright Saturday morning at the Boise airport, the retired Navy pilot preps his 1968 Beechcraft Bonanza for takeoff. The summer heat hasn’t yet set in, so the air is a little crisp - perfect for flying into the woods.
“[The] Bonanza is kind of unique in that it’s got a v-tail on it which was designed to cut down on the drag to make them faster,” says DeThomas.
He’s been flying his four-person 1968 Beechcraft plane over Idaho’s mountains for about eight years.
After checking the fuel gauge and the outside of the small plane, DeThomas climbs in and gets out a map. He points out the day’s destination: Big Creek airstrip, where he’ll attend a groundbreaking for the new lodge. Pilots from all over the country have raised $700,000 so far to help the Idaho Aviation Foundation purchase and resurrect the outpost.
After a 40-minute flight, DeThomas radios his fellow pilots in the area to to say he’s preparing to land on the Big Creek airstrip, a grassy runway tucked into a valley. Once they’re all safely on the ground, the pilots greet each other over coffee and donuts.
Colleen Back with the Idaho Aviation Foundation says the non-profit has been fundraising to rebuild the lodge for everyone to enjoy – not just hobby pilots.
“Thank you guys for driving in, flying in, hiking in, camping," Back tells the group. "We’ve got horseback [riders]; and that’s exactly what Big Creek is all about, multiple uses for the public.”
The foundation has a goal of raising $900,000 to bring the beloved outpost back to life. Back says the reconstruction is about more than just the building.
“Here’s a place where supplies generally need to be flown in, that people have to be rugged and independent," she says. "Even today, animals can do damage up here, the weather can do a lot of damage here. You’re not in control; and there’s a romanticism to that.”
There’s one person who stands out among this group of mostly pilots, in his head-to-toe green uniform and work boots.
“It means a lot to the Forest Service because it’s a unique partnership,” says Anthony Botello, a district ranger on the Payette National Forest.
“The land is still national forest land, it’s not private property" says Botello. "It’s owned by the people of the United States, and the Big Creek Lodge – the foundation who are owners – have a special use permit to occupy the land for recreation purpose.”
Botello says there are other lodges like this on Forest Service land around the country, but it’s hard to find one as remote. Big Creek is three hours by road from McCall, and a five hour drive from Boise.
“And as people come here as sort of a gateway or a stopping point into the Frank Church Wilderness, it makes sense to have a place where they can resupply, where they can get a bed, they can get a shower as they transition from the backcountry into the front country.”
On the flight back to Boise after the groundbreaking – with the craggy Sawtooth Mountains in the background and the Frank Church Wilderness spilling over to the north – pilot J.V. DeThomas points out alpine lakes and remnants of mining activity from decades ago.
“There’s just so much beautiful country around here and a lot of it you can only see if you hike for a couple of days or fly over with an airplane," says DeThomas, "so that’s why a lot of folks love to get back here.”
The new Big Creek lodge should be open next summer. Colleen Back says it will be a place for people who love and respect the wildest parts of Idaho – and are willing to put in the effort to get there.
“When you want to get here that badly and make that effort, it’s all the more special,” says Back.
Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill
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