South Fork of the Salmon Wild and Free
An On-line Book by Jerry Dixon
Published by the Idaho State University Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Opinions expressed herein are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.
Text and photographs © 2001 Jerry Dixon and used by permission (see permission notes).
JULY, 1972. Tall yellowpines march up the flanks of the steep river breaks. Pilot Peak lookout stands as a sentinel against a radiant blue sky across the deep gorge of the South Fork of the Salmon River.
That was my first impression of the South Fork, and it's an impression that has stayed with me ever since. So too was the impression of fire. I was smokejumper, and we had parachuted into the canyon to extinguish a burning tree. With our work now complete, and the tree smoldering as a harmless warming fire, I was able to enjoy a view of the South Fork country and reflect upon the close call getting there.
Earlier when I exited the Twin Otter I had tried a "spread eagle" instead of the standard exit and badly twisted my parachute. Spinning like a top, I wound in one direction and then unwound the other way. I had only untwisted a few hundred feet off the ground just in time to steer between the towering yellowpines before landing on the steep river breaks.
While untwisting I had gotten above Carl's chute which caused his to take my air and mine partially collapsed. When this happens near the ground, smokejumpers have broken their backs. I fell into his chute and actually slid down his canopy and off the edge until mine inflated again.
It was an exciting entrance to the spectacular country. Later as we talked around the fire I told Carl how I wanted to do graduate work. "Go somewhere you really want to be when you do your study," he admonished.
"I am where I want to be."
* * *
The next day we loaded up our 120 pound packs and hiked out to the South Fork Guard station. There we met the Forest Service guards who knew all the old timers from the area. One who particularly interested me was a resident who had lived on the river at Fritser Creek for 70 years. The following summer, July 1973, I hiked in with fellow smokejumper, Jeff Fereday, to meet him.South Fork of the Salmon River. Looking upriver, Porphyry Creek comes in on left and above is Chicken lookout.
"Is your name George Fritser," Jeff inquired when we arrived.
"Used to be," was the laconic reply.
* * *
The Fritser homestead still lies on a sandy bar 50 ft. above the pellucid waters of the South Fork but it is empty now. It is rimmed in by steep mountains that allow only three hours of sun to filter in during December but there is no old timer that comes out to feed "his deer" and "chickens" (spruce hens) on brisk winter days. The large orchard with apple, plum and cherry trees is a remnant of what it was, the branches having been broken by foraging bears and the large beautiful garden is gone. Above the home where two large hay fields once were and livestock grazed is only a harrow that was carried in almost a century ago.
When George's father, Harry Fritser Sr., came to the South Fork from Oregon in 1898 it was still a wild and perfect country. The river was teeming with Chinook salmon and wolves as well as brown bears roamed the steep mountains or river breaks as the locals referred to the canyon walls. Two Canadian miners Hollaway and Dunaway were mining the site that would become the Fritser homestead. They in turn had leased it to Chinese who mined but could not legally own land in America. In the 1980's archeologists would find "spectacular" Chinese gardens that George knew about his entire life.
Harry Fritser Sr. claimed the bar where Hollaway and Dunaway had mined. The two Canadians had taken off down the river in a boat after their claims played out. They lost 500 feet of rope in the first rapids (probably Devil Creek). We can only speculate how far they got in a raft as the South Fork is a Class IV+ or V- depending on water level.
George was the first born to Harry and Charlotte Fritser, coming on a cold January day in 1902. After that followed 10 brothers and sisters, all brought into the world without the help of a midwife or doctor. The nearest town was Warrens which was a day's ski away out of the gorge that is deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Charlotte Genant was living with her family on the South Fork when she married Harry Fritser. Harry took his bride and moved to a log cabin he had built on his homestead. The nearest neighbors were the Willy's two miles upstream or the Hinkley's one mile down river. In either case it meant getting across the South Fork which until recently called for rowing a boat or fording during low water.
* * *
Nonetheless, the Fritser children grew up in the serenity and beauty of the spectacular river gorge. Life was hard but Harry and Charlotte Fritser provided a stable family life for them. Then tragedy struck when Charlotte Fritser died during childbirth bearing her eleventh child. George, then 17 years old, skied to Warrens to get a doctor.
The only "doctor" he could find was Chinese so George brought him back to the river by descending the 5000 foot breaks (this historic trail is very close to where I jumped in 1972). The "doctor" administered herbs but could do nothing about the real cause of the problem which eventually led to Charlotte's death on May 28, 1919. She was buried above the ranch on a shady knoll overlooking the river.
That fall (1919) the county superintendent of schools, Tersey J. Wayland, rode into the Fritser homestead on a borrowed horse. She had heard of the Fritser children (10 now, one daughter had died) living on the river with no mother and no school near. It was the law that all children had to go to public school. Mrs. Wayland wanted to bring them out to Boise to give them a chance to have a formal education. When she arrived at the ranch there was apprehension among the siblings because for the children to leave the ranch meant that Harry Fritser Sr. would be left alone.
George was in Cascade at the time fighting a fire. A vote was taken by the children when the school marm explained whey she had come. Some wanted to stay on the ranch and others wanted to see what life was like outside the canyon walls. They all eventually decided to leave with the superintendent. George later said that because of the law, the children's vote was probably moot.
Traveling by horseback, the caravan of nine children and Mrs. Waylaid rode down the South Fork and up into Warrens where they spent the night in the old Warrens Hotel. Then they traveled to Boise where the children were all put up for adoption. It would take two years before they would all find a new home. George returned home to the South Fork after fighting a forest fire and left that fall for Boise, where he enrolled in school. When he tried to find out where his siblings were the adoption home denied him the information. It was 19 years before he found out where all of them were.
George stayed in Boise with the Witlock family until February 1923. He found Harry Jr. in Cascade staying with the Tersey J. Wayland family. During the time the brothers stayed there they had talks with a pastor in town who told the Fritser brothers they were working hard and receiving little in return. They would plow with four horses out in the Wayland's field and then go to school. George remarked, "They would work us like slaves and never paid us anything."
On a clear summer night in July of 1923 the brothers stole away from Cascade and the Wayland home. They only had a small sack of sugar between them and one rifle. They had planned to make it to the South Fork of the Salmon River in one day almost 67 miles. Sleeping at Scott Valley at the foot of the Salmon River Mountains, the next day they rose before the sun and crossed Big Creek summit and dropped into the headwaters.
The usually clear river was high and brown, and they had to descend to the '49 ford before they dared cross. Even then they were in chest deep water. It took three days to reach home and a joyful reunion with their father. These were the only two of his children that Harry Sr. would ever see again . The sons stayed with the father until his death in September of 1927.
George and Harry Jr. became two of the earliest Forest Service employees. Harry Jr. died of "tick fever" in 1936 while packing horses in the Salmon River country. George said, "When they pulled the tick off his back it was as big as your thumb and the welt on his back was as big as your hand."
* * *
Except for brief periods when he served in WWII or worked as a watch repairman George has lived on the river. The conflagration of 1949 burnt down the original log cabin George was born in. The fire can only be compared to the ones that torched Idaho in 2000. Directly across the river, all that remains of the dense Douglas fir stand are small trees. But the two 50 ft trees shading his house he remembers as saplings in his youth. In 1951 he drug enough wood to build his house over the South Fork breaks. The entire house was built with $200 of lumber.
George was 70 years old when the first kayakers led by J. Cal Giddings kayaked the river in 1972. During the next decade I would be able to spend much time on the river with George and a part of every month. The last time I saw him was with Jeff Fereday and family in 1987, and like the river, he seemed to have changed very little, except that he was more ornery. Then in the winter of 1992 I received a call to my Alaskan home from Jeff, "There was a house fire, George could not get out."
He had been staying three miles upriver at the Willy ranch, when a house fire started on a sofa spread quickly. George's memorial is above the ranch where he spent his life next to his mother, brother and infant sister.
A weathered marker stands at the grave site.
One summer after his death as I stood there with the South Fork shimmering
beyond, I realized that something happens to people like George who come
from pioneer stock and live their lives in places like this. They
become a part it. George Fritser is as much a part of that shimmering
river as salmon and steelhead.
End of Chapter
1 . . .
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