A life in the saddle
photography: Jim Fowler
(page 1 of 2)
Early outfitters were a rare breed in Idaho, perhaps because there seemed to be no need for the moniker.
Informal guiding, on the other hand, dates back—at least—to the first time a stranger stepped onto the soil, long before statehood, and asked a Native American to point the way. If you lived in the Idaho wilderness, you found your own paths through it and shared them with anyone who may have asked for directions. Licensing? Why?
If you could stay alive out there, well, that seemed like license enough.
Nonetheless, in 1954, Idaho did license its first guides and outfitters—a few hardened men whose way of life evolved naturally into a way of making a living. Primarily fishermen and hunters, they emerged from the backcountry, the heart of the land, to share outdoor skills and local knowledge with “outsiders,” helping them bag a trophy elk or land an impressive rainbow, but also sharing a unique brand of Western personality, companionship, and wisdom. More than 400 licensed outfitters operate in Idaho today, employing more than 2,000 licensed guides; but, fifty years ago, they were few and far between.
Although many of these men are gone now, their stories, handed down by those who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the backcountry, are still being told. The legend of hunting guide Del Davis, one of Idaho’s early outfitters, lives on through the words of fellow hunter, guide, and devoted friend, Jim Fowler, who says, “Del was tough as nails, sinewy and strong.” Davis was rugged, a reflection of the landscape in which he lived.
As Fowler recites the stories of Del Davis, it’s obvious that he treasures the days spent with this remarkable man. Fowler is excited and animated as he speaks, an endless stream of memories bubbling to the surface, one tumbling over the last. He can’t get the words out fast enough. It is clear that life in the mountains with Davis was a gift, a nearly mythological snapshot of life as it will never be again.
One of Fowler’s favorite memories is riding back into camp late at night, following a hunt. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” he says. “You held onto the reigns and saddle horn with one hand, and shielded your face with the other so you didn’t get your eye poked out as you rode through trees, around bends, over humps, down trails, across creeks, and up ridges in absolute pitch black. It was never scary, though. You knew that you were ‘going for it’ on this horse in the middle of nowhere, but you also knew that you were going to be okay, because Del knew his trade. His horses had ridden these trails for years.
“He would always say, ‘Trust your horse. He knows the mountain better than you do. He’ll lead you back to camp.’ Del had this quiet hint of knowing what he was all about, and he always had this knowing smile on his face—not a smirk, but the smile of a very self-assured person.”
Fowler first learned of Davis in the 1980s, when he asked a man digging postholes in Hagerman if he knew of “any good old boys” who hunted elk. “The best man, period—the only man—is Del Davis,” affirmed the post digger, a man from Filer, Idaho, not just many miles away from the Davis Ranch, but worlds away.
“Del had such a reputation,” Fowler says, “that even the ‘average Joe’ had heard of him.” And that reputation spread well beyond Filer. When taking a break from the filming of the 1950s classic River of No Return, Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum found time to relax with Davis, pitching horseshoes and fishing the waters of the South Fork.
In the1960s, when only 700 people lived in Ketchum and sleeping dogs easily outnumbered trucks on Main Street, Davis carved out a life on his ranch and in the wilderness of the remote and far less populated Salmon River Mountains, to our northeast. A native to Idaho, born in 1921, Davis worked his father’s ranch as a youngster and learned how to ride, mend fences, and drive cattle. During Davis’s ranching days, his closest neighbor, a hermit, lived three miles downriver. The nearest town was Yellow Pine, six miles away as the crow flies, but easily around 30 on the ground, over extremely difficult terrain. The town’s 2004 census reads: 42 people, 21 dogs, 6 horses, 2 mules, 12 cats, 4 rabbits, and 8 elk. It counted even fewer inhabitants nearly a half-century ago.
Resting along the banks of the South Fork of the Salmon River, the Davis Ranch was originally known as the Willey Ranch. The family of Norman B. Willey, Idaho’s first Lieutenant Governor, homesteaded the property in 1921. Davis is gone now, but his 240-acre ranch, surrounded by the Payette National Forest, remains one of the largest in-holdings on federal land in central Idaho.
Access to the ranch was difficult, as none of the roads leading out of Yellow Pine cut a straight path to the property: Williams Peak and the surrounding mountains blocked the way. An old dirt road, 12 miles long and built in the 1950s, did lead from the more distant mining town of Warren, but it had not been maintained for years. Using a bulldozer, Davis took the task upon himself. “If something needed doing, even a Herculean task,” says Fowler, “he got it done.”
Over the years, Davis found the road challenging to maintain. He carried two logs in the bed of his pickup to span frequent washouts, carefully maneuvering his truck over the makeshift bridges. Trenches dug on the uphill side of the road trapped the tires, forcing the truck to hug the steep hillsides to avoid a tumble down the cliff to the valley floor. >>>