Keep going south to the town of Cottonwood, where you'll find St. Gertrude's Monastery and Historical Museum. Perched on the verdant rolling hills above town on hills that yield bumper crops of grain and hay throughout the summer, this early 1900s monastery poses a striking stance against the blue Idaho sky. Here, the Benedictine Sisters have opened a B&B as a revenue stream. This is not rustic lodging: Following dinner with the 65 sisters who live here, we returned to our suite to watch a NASCAR Cup event on an LED flat screen. Five of the sisters came down to watch the race and over a bottle of vino tinto (red wine), I explained to them the nuances of the race, and in return they answered my questions about what it's like to live in a monastery. Just steps from the B&B is the Historical Museum that exhibits tens of thousands of artifacts and art that range from prehistoric to modern. It offers a complete and comprehensive look at North Central Idaho's past.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we drove south on Highway 95 to Grangeville and then up to the top of White Bird Summit. We spent that afternoon and night at the White Bird Summit Lodge, is owned by Terri and Frank Schmitz. Frank, a big game hunter whose trophies from all over the world adorn the walls of the lodge, is also an expert on the White Bird Battlefield, directly below his ranch, where three-dozen Nez Perce warriors defeated an entire U.S. Army Cavalry unit. Frank can tell you how to get to the site, where you'll find signs explaining what triggered the battle and how it ended.
Following a good night's rest at the Best Western Salmon Rapids Lodge in Riggins, we joined Amy and Matt Sinclair, who operate Exodus Adventures, on one of their jet boats. In addition to jet boat tours, they offer whitewater rafting trips along the Salmon River, which range from half a day to seven days long. They host salmon and steelhead fishing trips (in season) and trips that take you out after the huge prehistoric sturgeon that can weigh 150 pounds and may be 100 years old. To protect these behemoth creatures, a catch and release program is in place.
We began early in the morning with a 50-mile drive in our Jeep up a graveled forestry road to Vinegar Creek. There are no roads above Vinegar Creek; this is literally the end of the trail. Local eccentric Buckskin Bill built and lived in a compound for nearly 50 years on the Salmon River, which can be reached only from the Mackay Bar Guest Ranch (also on the Salmon River) where we were staying. From Mackay Bar, a jet boat operated by Whitewater Expeditions comes and gets you and takes you there. Amy and Matt can arrange this. Only a few people know how to navigate this stretch of the Salmon River by jet boat, for it's exceptionally wild, and its rogue nature continuously changes as water levels rise and fall.
Buckskin Bill lived in total isolation, grew all his food, built his dwellings, and even built a fortress and vowed to fight the “Federales" when they told him he had to move in the 1970s. He stayed, and the government left him alone. He handcrafted his rifles and tools from old mining equipment he found, and he loved to host visitors, the few who somehow managed to find him. His marked grave is there, and his complex has been kept intact and is maintained as a National Historic Site.
That night just before a sumptuous dinner at the Mackay Bar Ranch and with steelhead season in full swing, we watched as the Ranch's fishermen guests returned with trophy catches after doing battle on the river all day.
Best Western Salmon Rapids Lodge
Fenn Ranger Station
Mackay Bar Guest Ranch
Nez Perce National Historical Park
North Central Idaho Travel Association
River Dance Lodge
St. Gertrude's B&B
10 Scenic Drives of the Northern Rockies
White Bird Summit Lodge
Yearout Sweetwater Appaloosa Ranch