The Frank Church Wilderness, often referred to as “The Frank,” has captivated many of our guests, some of whom have experienced the unique thrill of starting their Middle Fork journey with a flight into this remote haven. Whether you’ve observed small planes gracing the dirt airstrips along the riverbanks, encountered them in our promotional content, or read about them while planning your adventure, aviation is an undeniably integral part of the wilderness experience—yet not always a component of every trip. Let’s not forget the occasional aerial delivery of beer that has been known to brighten spirits on the fourth morning of a six-day excursion! Like river rafting and horseback riding, aviation boasts a long and storied history within the Frank Church Wilderness. Encompassing 2.3 million acres, it is the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states. Its rugged and hard-to-access terrain was once frequented by cattlemen, homesteaders, miners, and ranchers who, despite the absence of roads, laid claim to its expanse. They traversed the single-track stock trails carved out during the Thunder Mountain mining boom, bringing in supplies on mules—yes, even disassembling and transporting cast iron stoves. Rafting emerged in the 1920s, but was initially more about braving the rapids than logistics or reliability. Then came aviation. By the same decade, the United States Forest Service and private parties began constructing airstrips. Clearing trees and grading the land with mule-drawn equipment, they created runways for small aircraft. At one point, up to 22 airstrips were operational within the Frank Church. These projects were often a collaboration between the Forest Service and the private landowners on whose land the airstrips were built. The primary use for these airstrips was fire management. From the 1920s to the 1960s, fire suppression was a significant focus. Fire lookouts peppered the wilderness, supplied mostly by mule train, yet aircraft were crucial for dropping supplies and smokejumpers to extinguish fires. This approach shaped the region’s fire ecology and ensured well-maintained airstrips. Landowners with airstrips leveraged this for transportation and supply deliveries. The debate surrounding airstrip regulation was fiery during the designation of the Frank Church Wilderness. Interpretations of the Wilderness Act varied, and user groups clashed over the legality of existing airstrips. Ultimately, they were allowed to remain unregulated—making the Frank Church Wilderness unique in the lower 48 states for its unrestricted aviation. This was justified by the area’s pre-Wilderness Act history and the historical precedent of aviation. Today, aviation stirs debate in the wilderness. Some airstrips have been decommissioned, and disputes and protests have arisen over the creation of new ones. Yet, many former ranches have transitioned into recreational sites, and aircraft bring in hunters, families, and anglers, as well as supplies like food, propane, and even small livestock. For many, the wilderness experience includes the thrill of flying to and from these rustic runways. Boaters are among the most frequent fliers in the Frank Church. When water levels drop on the Middle Fork, we adapt by flying clients into Indian Creek Airstrip at mile 23. With 25 outfitters operating in summer, the volume of flights starting mid-July is staggering. In August, Indian Creek sees more air traffic than Boise’s airport! The flights transport not just clients but also gear, making it feasible to navigate the low-water stretches. Over the past two years, river obstructions have necessitated flying in entire trips—boats, frames, oars, and all. In August alone, we conducted over a hundred gear flights—a significant increase from the usual half-dozen. While the use of aviation within the wilderness comes with its controversies, its utility is undeniable. Piloting small planes in rugged country requires exceptional skill, and our pilots are among the best. The pioneers of aviation in the Frank Church left a legacy of colorful tales, and it’s an honor to continue this tradition of wilderness aviation. Whether it’s an emergency extraction or the convenience of reaching remote locales, airstrips along the river enhance safety and access. And though seldom needed for urgent matters, they provide peace of mind—a gateway to the wilderness that can swiftly reconnect us with the world beyond. In essence, aviation in the Frank Church Wilderness is not merely about practicality—it’s an integral part of the narrative. Our pilots, adept at navigating the wild terrain, carry on the colorful legacy of those aviation pioneers. It’s a tradition steeped in the spirit of the wilderness, binding the past with the present, and it’s one we’re proud to be a part of. Whether it’s facilitating the joy of discovery or ensuring a safe return, aviation continues to be a thread in the rich tapestry of the Frank Church Wilderness experience.
Airborne in the Wilderness: The Legacy of Aviation in the Frank Church
Nov 16, 2023 | News