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Idaho Traplines

Ranches, noisy creeks, and chattering groves of aspen sheltering herds of regal elk beneath the snowy peaks.

By 11.9.03

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As a mere twelve-year resident of Wyoming, I sometimes hear the refrain: "You should have been here when it was good." This refers to any time from the '60s through the '80s, before the '90s technological revolution that has helped make the American West the fastest growing region in the country, sending subdivisions and "ranchettes" spreading to the horizon. John Rember is one of those folks who was here "when it was good." His Traplines: Coming Home to Sawtooth Valley (Pantheon Books, 237 pages, $22) is a craftily written memoir of a vanished time and place.

Rember was born in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1951. Like many western states, Idaho in the '50s was an amalgam of an agricultural economy and a tourist one. Sun Valley had skiing and sheep drives through town and celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway wandering into local barrooms. Nearby Stanley -- where Rember grew up -- had a winter population of 36, and a summer count of twenty times that number. Today, he laments that the true ranch life is gone, and the region is dominated by "a population of caretakers."

The author's roots in Idaho go back generations, and he vividly recounts the lives of an extended family. His Grandmother Alice Rember was an eccentric who collected alarmist books about the Cold War and UFO stories. His father John Rember taught him how to hunt and fish and handle horses and mules, the latter skills useful to the son while working for the Forest Service later in life. And in hard times Rember, Sr. was an accomplished deer poacher, and the subject of many stories about him outwitting local game wardens.

The book's setting is the Sawtooth Range country of central Idaho, specifically Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey, Challis and Stanley. The latter, for instance, is hard up against the Sawtooths, mountains as spectacularly jagged as those other American Alps, the Tetons. It is a region of lush, green summers and ferocious winters. Ranches, noisy creeks, and chattering groves of aspen sheltering herds of regal elk beneath the snowy peaks.

Fish stories are a big part of the book. The region in the '50s was famous for its Chinook salmon fishing, the spawning runs blocked -- or at least impeded-- by the construction of dams on the Snake River later on. Back then the salmon runs even crowded irrigation ditches in the Sawtooth Valley. There were beaver ponds that teemed with brook trout on ranches now subdivided and the ponds drained. The author's father was a summertime fishing guide on the Salmon River, and his clients included Eisenhower presidential adviser Sherman Adams, out on a scouting trip. Ike himself considered the Sawtooth area for a western Camp David, until his first heart attack, when his doctors advised against spending time at high altitudes. Of the vanished fisherman's paradise, Rember writes: "One of the things that happens when we get confronted with no-fish-where-fish-used-to-be is that we remember moments when we looked at wonder at a world not entirely reduced to human dimension."

Rember's "hippie" period in Stanley in the late '60s is chronicled in a chapter whimsically titled "When Fences Fly," when he worked at among other things building a fence for the late Las Vegas casino king Bill Harrah. Harrah had a remote ranch on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River that was wholly bordered by the Sawtooth National Forest, from which he was forbidden to take lumber. So Rember and others cut the fenceposts elsewhere, and they were flown in to Harrah's private airstrip at the ranch in his De Havilland Twin Otter. This was Rember's first experience with someone who had enough money to make his own mark upon the world. As he accompanied the 3,000 pound fencepost loads and marveled at the views on his first bumpy airplane rides, Rember compared Harrah's life to his, and thought that having money "was not just something you had to keep the bank from taking away the house or the farm. Harrah could fly whole fences into his ranch simply because he didn't want to argue with the Forest Service about cutting trees on the Middle Fork." This observation speaks volumes about how the West has changed in the last generation.

John Rember's late father was an expert trapper, an old school westerner who could literally support a family thanks to his deep knowledge of the natural world. Traplines consist of stops at carefully planned sites designed to yield the harvest of an animal valuable for itself. And always an animal -- such as a beaver, a fox, a coyote or a bobcat -- smart enough not to get caught unless the trapper has expertise.

So John Rember's Traplines. Work the line, though the take gets thinner. Change and adapt or get swept out of the way by unforgiving economic forces. But there are the memories; revel in them.

Never forget what a wonderful time it was.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.