Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Backpacking the St. Joe River Wilderness

          One other soul joins us in Idaho’s Heller Creek Campground this evening—Frank A. Heller, buried in the grave next to our campsite.  According to the plaque by his gravesite Frank was a mining prospector here in the early 1900’s.  He died in his cabin during the harsh winter of 1936; his body was found by a forest service employee that spring and buried here by the creek which bears his name.
  Despite the nearby presence of Frank A. Heller’s corpse Tim and I sleep soundly on this clear and calm July evening.
Our peaceful campsite next to Frank A. Heller's grave.
  The following morning we wake at 6:00 a.m., load our packs and start down the backpack trail.  Heller Creek joins the St. Joe River a few hundred yards from the campground.   After 2 hours of hiking we climb a steep hill and spot a gravel bar far below.  We descend from the trail through heavy timber and then to the gravel bar at river’s edge.  We drop our packs, happy to have found a home for the next two nights.  We put up the tent and then Tim dons his fishing gear to try his luck in the St. Joe.  He immediately catches a couple fish and walks upriver while I build a fire ring on the beach and gather wood for tonight’s bonfire.
  Tim returns a couple hours later and reports that the fishing is good.  We cook our dinner of potato-cheddar soup with ham on our tiny backpack stove, then make lemon pudding for dessert.  After dinner we light the fire and Tim scrounges the hillside for more wood.  He returns dragging the trunk of a dead 20 foot pine tree;  foot by foot we feed the tree into the fire until it’s time to crawl into the tent under a star-filled sky.
Evening on the St. Joe River.
  We awaken at 7:00 and sunlight finally reaches our campsite at 9:00 as we prepare to leave for an all-day hike downriver.  The trail starts uphill and immediately begins an undulating climb.  We enjoy sweeping views of the river but don’t find many places to access the St. Joe for fishing.  We finally choose a spot where the trail nears the river; a large table-top rock at river’s edge provides a perch for me.  Tim enters the river and casts into a deep pool near the rock where the trout are jumping for his flies.  He then walks up river for an hour while I sit and read a mystery novel about a woman who was murdered while on a camping trip—hmmmm, maybe not the best choice of reading material for this type of vacation?  
  Tim returns and we eat our lunch on the rock.  During lunch I notice wispy mare’s tails clouds floating by, portending a change in the weather.
Our Wilderness Kitchen.
  After lunch we start back to the campsite and pick another nice spot—after a steep downhill hike—for Tim to fish more of the scenic St. Joe.  Once again Tim catches a few nice cutthroat trout, including a big fish that breaks his line.  Tim walks upriver while I settle in with my book.  The afternoon heat is sweltering and when Tim returns a couple hours later he suggests we cool off in a nearby waist-deep pool.  We shed our clothes and hop into the river, enduring the icy water just long enough to wash the grime from our bodies.  Cooled and refreshed we return to the campsite and cook a dinner of beans and tortilla soup.  
  We start tonight’s fire with kindling and large branches and soon have a roaring blaze going.  We feed the fire with the rest of last night’s dead pine trunk and enjoy the fire until midnight.
  Last night we noticed a few wispy clouds obscuring the stars and this morning we wake to higher humidity and cloudy skies.  We rehydrate a freeze-dried Mexican omelet and cook it, along with bacon and grits, for breakfast; we’re eating well on this backpack trip. 
  Tim builds a small fire and after burning our trash we drown the fire with river water, making sure that not a single glowing ember remains.  It’s time to load our packs and hit the trail.  
  After a two hour hike through intermittent drizzle and light rain the red pickup truck, parked in Heller Creek Campground, comes into view.  It’s a welcome sight.  Ten minutes later we toss our packs into the back of the truck, share a light lunch, then drive back to civilization...leaving Frank A. Heller’s soul to rest in the peace and solitude of the Idaho mountains.
For more information on the St. Joe Wild and Scenic River check out these sites:  


  1. Rita,

    What a beautiful piece of wilderness area! Would you have perhaps taken a picture of Frank A. Heller's gravesite that you could share? He was my husband's great grand uncle. Regards, L. Roholt

    1. I'm sorry to say that I did not take a photo of the gravesite. I'm usually vigilant about documenting all aspects of my trips and so I regret this oversight. I believe it was just about dark when we discovered the grave; then the following morning we left very early for our backpack trip. I do remember a small plaque and marker—so sorry that I don't have a photo to share with you.

  2. Old entry, but timeless as far as Google is concerned :). Did you drive in from Superior or from Red Ives? Most curious as to what the road is like between Heller Creek and Red Ives. Reports are hard to come by other than general statements such as “not suitable for passenger cars.” Admittedly thing may have changed since your trip!

    1. Hello Kirk,

      "Timeless" is what I want my posts to be!
      To answer your question I had to refer to my journal entries from that trip. We drove from Red Ives and stopped at the ranger station to get a road report before we started out.
      We were told that the road is very rough and narrow but that if we took it slowly we would be okay. We traveled in a Ford F-150 (high clearance) and had no trouble driving the road in 4-wheel drive. You're right though that it WAS a long time ago and conditions may have changed.
      My advice would be to contact someone from the nearest ranger station in the St. Joe National Forest to get the most up-to-date road report.
      Hope this helps.
      We really enjoyed our stay along the St. Joe River.
      Have fun if you go!

  3. Thanks for the speedy reply, Rita. I fish the Joe every summer with a small group of buddies, staying at Spruce Tree, and hiking upriver. We have long-pondered driving up to the Heller creek CG for an sideshow attraction but haven’t gathered the intel necessary. I’ve got a big 4wd van and my concern is not so much the roadway itself but the degree of low, overhanging brush lining the road. I don’t want to totally trash the ‘Man Van’ navigating the road. Maybe I’ll send one of my fishing buds up the road first on a recon mission.

    1. Hi again Kirk,

      My husband would say "lucky you!" for being able to fish the St. Joe every year!

      I recall that the road was particularly narrow in spots but can't remember whether or not the overhanging brush was a problem. Again, this is something that could have gotten worse over the years.

      I'm always in favor of a reconnaissance run over an unknown back-country road!
      Good luck!