If you happen to follow me on Instagram, than you know that I have a love affair with Idaho. After relocating here to be closer to my parents, I quickly discovered that Idaho is one of the most beautiful and underrated states in the U.S. And my favorite past time of living in my new home state was the ability to simply pack up my sleeping bag, fill a couple of growlers of Barbarian Brewery’s finest and hit the road for some incredibly remote and adventourous road trip with friends.
So when my director buddy Eric Becker contacted me about doing an autumn road trip through Idaho in order to film a field test of the Canon 6d Mark II for DPReview, it didn’t take me long to pack up my favorite thrift shop flannels and head on over to his house. Becker informed me that we were going big time for this production. Since fall in Idaho can get rather chilly, the director Becker and producer Zach Voss got us a sweet adventure camper from Boise-based Wandervans. That loaded house on wheels would become our home for the next five days as we drove over 800 miles chasing fall colors in a state so remote, we had almost no cell service the entire five days.
Day 1: Riggins & Sevin Devil Mountains
Five guys, one van. Let the adventure begin. After getting a late start (we are creatives…we don’t do anything quickly), Becker, Voss, DPReview’s resident on camera hunk Carey Rose, videographer Lou Karsen and yours truley settled in for the three hour drive north to Riggins, a small town of 400 residents nestled up against the Salmon River. The town is especially popular among outdoor adventure enthusiasts in the spring and summer, as rafting, fishing, hiking and horseback riding are easily available, all in front of a stunning backdrop. Being that we arrived in autumn, the town was exceptionally quiet, perfect for the solitude we were seeking. But we didn’t have time to stop in town, as we wanted to make it to the Heaven’s Gate Lookout to catch the sunset on the Sevin Devil Mountains. Being that the lookout is at 8,400 feet above sea level, we greatly underestimated the amount of snow that would be on the road, as well as the cold tempuratures that awaited us up top. We had to park the Wandervan and pile into Becker’s 4WD drive pickup truck to navigate the treacherous road to the top. But once we did, the reward was worth the cuddle party we had to endure in the cramped truck.
After the sunset, we made our way down the mountain, looking for a repurposed church camp that we would call home for the night. We set up our fire and cooked some fantastic meat. The Idaho night sky never disappoints, and the camp like scene made for some great astro photos.
The next morning, I was rudely awakened in my corner of the van by Rose, who promised me on camera to deliver me coffee. To this day I am still waiting for that coffee. So after getting my own coffee, Rose and I went to make friends with the local horses, who played nice as I tried to photograph them in the hopes of making the cover of Horse & Stable magazine.
Day 2: White Bird & Nez Perce National Forest
We left Riggins and drove north along Highway 95 to one of my favorite overlooks in all of Idaho, White Bird. This area is near the point in the Salmon River that Lewis and Clark crossed on their expedition west. But the history isn’t all happy, as this is also the location of the Battle of White Bird Canyon, the first battle of the Nez Perce War. In that battle, Chief White Bird and the Nez Perce tribe famously defeated the U.S. Army before making their escape. The overlook includes historical plaques that document the event and the view is so captivating, you can find yourself just staring off and getting lost in your mind, imagining the history that took place here.
From White Bird, we headed east on Highway 12, a remote road that winds along the often fog covered Lochsa River. At the town of Lowell, we took a right and followed the Selway River until we reached the Fenn Ranger Station, which was filled with helpful people who helped us devise an itinerary for our short time in the Nez Perce National Forest.
Having gotten our excericise for the day in, we headed back towards the Fenn Ranger Station where we found a perfect campground nearby. The camp was perfect for our weary bodies as it was right along the Selway River, which meant we didn’t have to walk far to photograph the sunrise the next morning.
Sitting beside the campfire that night, Karsten brought out his guitar and started jamming. Soon, seemingly, all the other guys started playing too. “Am I the only one here who sounds like a fighting cat when I sing?” I wondered. Yes, most likely. But in this moment, I was reminded why I love Idaho so much. There wasn’t another soul for miles, but yet, here we were. Laughing, cooking, drinking and enjoying the fire all while looking up at the night sky. This is what no-plan roadtrips were all about.
Day 3: Selway Falls & The Drive to Fernwood
Another morning, another broken promise of coffee delivery by Carey Rose. I awoke wondering when our technology would advance enough to change sunrise to 9am. But once I stopped day dreaming, I threw on my favorite Guns and Roses t-shirt and walked down to the river bank where I was greated with dramtic fog hanging over the forest trees as the early morning light lit up the scene. The sounds of the flowing Selway River and the chirps of the birds awaking for a brand new day reminded me that, even though tough to get up for, sunrise is indeed my favorite time of day.
After a killer breakfast by Chef Becker, we packed up the van and began to make the long drive north to the town of Fernwood. We had heard of a pretty cool woman who had a pretty rad project going on up there that we were excited to see, but more on that below. But before we left, we drove to Selway Falls, a small group of cascading waterfalls at the end of Selway Road. After getting lost (as five guys in a van would typically do), we found the falls and disembarked and walked down to the river. While not the biggest waterfalls in the world, the falls have a certain charm to be experienced among the quiet landscape. And also, they photograph very well.
And so began our rainy drive to Fernwood. Having lived off campfire dinners for the last couple of days, we were anxious to have someone else cook for us. When we arrived in Fernwood during the late afternoon, we found Cookie’s Chuck Wagon. I mean, come on. Can you really think of a better place to get a burger and a beer than a place called Cookie’s Chuck Wagon? Upon our walk in the door, an older local gentleman seemed surprised to see five dudes in his small town that hasn’t changed a bit in the last 50 years. His greeting? With a hearty laugh and a smile he said “Good day fellas…why are you boys not with any women?” Good question sir, good question.
The burger and cold beer did not disapoint. We fueled up our bodies and headed back into the van and up the mountain into the heart of the St. Joe National Forest, where we found a cozy turn off on a bumpy dirt road to call home for the night. No campfire here, but for the first time since we left Boise, we got a sliver of 3G cell service, which, when working, allowed us to tell our loved ones we were not only alive and well, but having an adventourous good time.
Day 4: Kristie Wolfe and her Crystal Peak Lookout
Another morning, another empty promise of coffee delivery. But hey, we are walking up to a place with a stove! We had parked on the road below a place now known as Crystal Peak Lookout. This old fire lookout had been purchased by Boise-based entrepreneur Kristie Wolfe with the idea of repurposing the structure to be a completely unique AirBnb. And was it ever! We walked up the steep driveway and met Wolfe outside the tower. Immediatly, I was amazed by her energy, even at such an ungodly hour. “Did she already drink her coffee? Did she have some already made?” I wondered, most likely aloud, and most likely to the annoyance of my compadres.
I quickly come to learn that this isn’t Wolfe’s first foray into a tiny home project. In fact, this isn’t just her passion, it’s also her career. Wolfe is best known for her ‘Hobbit Hole’ themed rental in Eastern Washington and her ‘Dreamy Tropical Treehouse’ in Hawaii. So when Wolfe found this abandon fire tower in a remote Idaho forest, she knew she had something special.
Upon purchasing the property, Wolfe discovered the old call logs from the watchers intact. Probobly our favorite was a call from over 50 years ago, where a woman was going into labor. Without a hospital for miles, the response from the lookout was etched into the call log like it was just another day in the office “Passenger having labor pains. Told the lady she must calm down and stop if she wants assitance”. I think even in this day in age, it would be hard to remain calm in such a desolate section of backcountry while going into labor.
The charming lookout was beyond photogenic, both inside and out. Wolfe hopes to have the listing on Air B&B soon, but in the harsh Idaho winters, the tower will only be accesible via snowmobile. But as soon as it is ready to live in, you can bet that I will be first in line.
Day 5: Snowy RZR Rides in McCall
After leaving Fernwood, we made our way back to Boise, but not before spending the night in McCall, a beautiful tourism driven town on the shores of the Payette Lake. The town is booming mostly year round, as the summer months bring boaters and hikers who enjoy catching some sun while wakesurfing and the winter months bring skiiers and snowboarders to ride the snow-filled mountains of Brundage Mountain Resort and Tamarack Resort. But no matter the time of year, I can always count on my buddy Cody Monroe from CM Backcountry Rentals to show me a wild good time. As we awoke from our awesome last minute house rental at Bear Creek Lodge, we were greeted with never ending snow fall. Just another autumn day in Idaho! Since the snow wasn’t too deep, Monroe suggested we take the Polaris RZRs out for a spin. We headed up the mountains, sliding out and yelping like school kids on a school canceled snow day. After photographing mainly static landscapes for the previous five days, I couldn’t think of a better way to end an incredible week with good friends. After four exciting, yet freezing hours, we headed back to Monroe’s shop before we made the long and tired drive home back to Boise.
Having to ‘work’ as a photographer, I often lose sight of what made me pick up a camera in the first place. I wanted a medium where I could bring people along for the ride on my adventures. But always having to think about the work aspect prevents me from seeing the trees through the forest, so to speak. But this trip reminded me of what I too often take for granted. Photography is STILL DAMN FUN. And here, in an Idaho full of crisp temperatures and autumn colors, the fun is not because of the images I am taking. It’s the crazy adventures and the connections with fellow creatives that makes photography damn fun. Road tripping with friends. Not having a plan or a care in the world for that matter. THAT is what is fun about photography.
So please, as we enter the holiday season, sit back, relax and really enjoy life’s moments. Those REAL moments that are never to be recreated. Be thankful for not only your creativity, but also be thankful for the friends who help you fuel that creativity by doing any absurd, spontaneous idea that you throw at them.
You only get one life. Try not to take it too seriously.