Dagger Falls

A Long-Ago Frenzy of Fishing

By Rob Greenfield

Photos courtesy of Rob Greenfield

My twin brother Rick and I had no idea what to expect as we listened to Dad’s friend Jackson, the local mechanic, persuade him to take a fishing trip into backcountry for a sight that, according to him, everyone who could get there should see at least once in a lifetime. It entailed an eight-to-ten-mile hike into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River to fish at Dagger Falls.

Such a long walk was not our idea of a good time and, more important, not Dad’s. He was a stockman, a row crop farmer, a horseman, and hunter—but not a fisherman. Farming in the Huston community, halfway between Caldwell and the Snake River, we grew quarter horses, hops, seed crops and feed crops, and we fattened seventy or so head of livestock. The only way Dad could justify Jackson’s fishing trek was on horseback. 

This was the summer of 1958, when Rick and I were eleven years old. We loaded five horses into our 1948 twelve-foot dualed Ford F4 stock truck. Tightly packed into the truck bed were a stallion for Dad and mares for Rick and me, both of which were nursing, so we had to bring their foals as well.

With three passengers in the cab of the truck, there was no room for storage. We strapped saddles and tack onto the top of the side racks of the truck bed. Two five-gallon army surplus gas cans went into a Dad-built carrier over the cab, which was bolted to the front rack.

We must have loaded some hay bales, but what we didn’t load was fishing gear, because we didn’t have any. Jackson supplied it as an incentive to lure Dad into the wilderness to fish for Chinook salmon.

This was before interstate highways, so we had no choice but to drive a truckload of horses from Caldwell east on Highway 26 to Garden City, through downtown Boise, and across Capitol Boulevard to Warm Springs Avenue. Fortunately, there were a lot fewer cars and drivers to contend with back then.

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The collapsing cable bridge at Dagger Falls, 1958.
The falls as seen from the fish ladder.
The contemporary bridge.
The truck and horses on the 1958 trip.
The "real" fishermen with their catch.
Ruins of the old bridge.
From left, Vernon Greenfield with his boys Rob and Rick.


We drove past the then-brand new Lucky Peak Reservoir to Idaho City, topped the ridge that goes from the drainage of the Boise River to the Payette River, and arrived at Lowman Lodge, which seemed to me like the end of the known world.  We bought a lunch of candy bars and a soft drink in the dimly lit lodge, which I thought probably had no electricity. 

From the edge of the known world, Dad kept driving, not up the more established road along the South Fork of the Payette, what is now Highway 21, but up the mountain on the north side of the river at Lowman. This dirt road climb of thirty-six miles was rocky and steep up to Bear Valley, where the road ended at a creek.

Lacking a loading chute, we backed into a bank to unload the horses. We used dead branches and rocks to bridge the gap between the truck and ground where the footing was firm. There were no other people around, only vehicles. I guess Dad must have recognized Jackson’s car, because he proceeded as if we were in the right place.

We saddled our horses and packed sleeping bags and food, consisting of a box of raisins and a small can of pork and beans for each meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—which was customary on our trail rides with Dad. Now we were in our element, riding good horses into beautiful new country.

Everything was exciting and fresh, and all went smoothly, although sometimes one colt or the other would park itself crossways in front of its mother, hoping for a stop and a chance to nurse.  Rick or I had to give them a swat, so as not to impede progress. They would have plenty of time to nurse when we got there.

On the way, we horsemen met a few small groups of real fishermen trudging back to their cars. They seemed fascinated by us. Fish out of water, maybe? One guy asked what we were going to do with the colts, use them for bait?

It was a really nice little ride and we got to Dagger Falls before dark. When we topped the ridge that evening and moved down to the falls, the scene before us was more impressive than I can adequately describe. The river was wild, foreboding, and beautiful. The falls were a cascade of white, churning water and big boulders.

At all times, it seemed two or three salmon were in the air, trying to fly over the falls. Some fish tried to swim up the water faster than it was falling. I don’t think I was sympathetic toward those huge fish then, but, from sixty-five years’ distance in time, I am now.

My eye couldn’t follow a fish to the top, because its climb couldn’t be done in a single leap. I could only see them fail and fall back to where the fishermen worked frantically to snag them out of the water and into someone’s pack. There must have been twenty to thirty lines in the water at all times, being cast from the left bank of the Middle Fork. Jackson and his sons Cecil and Mancil welcomed us into camp and then went right back to fishing.

We unsaddled the horses and staked them for the night.  However, one of the fishermen asked us, with not much civility, to move the horses downriver, farther away from camp, which we did, of course.

The next morning, with our Jackson-borrowed poles and lines, we joined the throng of busy fishermen on the bank in pursuit of those hard-working travelers. Often, a fish that was snagged in a fin or tail would put up a good fight. We had very little success at first, and the real fishermen explained to us that salmon in traveling mode were not very hungry. 

Dad, who was more interested in adventure than fishing, soon grew frustrated and bored.  A partially-failed cable bridge high over the river beckoned to him. The river was too swift to swim and too deep to wade, and the bridge looked like a sure way to die, which was why no one was fishing on the opposite bank. Besides, to take the time to cross the river would mean they would have to quit fishing for a while.

The bridge consisted of four cables, two upper and two lower. Originally, parallel boards stretched from one bottom cable to the other, forming a deck, but most of the connections had come undone from their moorings. The boards dangled from one of the cables and some were missing.  When the bridge was in its prime, it looked to be about six or eight feet wide, big enough for a pack mule maybe, but not a vehicle. 

Dad figured he could stand on the intact lower cable of the bridge and hold onto the intact upper cable to sidestep across the river. A good knotted rope on the other side’s sheer cliff would allow him to get back down from the bridgehead to the river bank.

I remember a serious discussion ensued about the questionable intelligence of trying to cross the bridge, especially with two young boys, but the decision was made.

Jackson and his boys, who were older than us, crossed first. Rick and I weren’t trusted to inch over the bridge by ourselves, thirty feet above the river. We had to submit to being tied to Dad’s back, one at a time, with our arms around his neck, while he carried us across.

My brother remembers that Dad’s hands were raw at the end of that day from holding onto the cable. In hindsight, it was very risky to cross that decaying bridge as we did, but at the time, it was fun!

The Jacksons and the Greenfields had better luck by ourselves on the other side. I don’t recall if Rick or I caught a salmon. Fishing was never the point, but some of us must have had success, because we have a photo to prove it. 

When we returned to the F4, we realized our adventure was far from over. Dad discovered the first real problem of the trip—the brake pedal went to the floor and was completely useless. We waited for Jackson to walk back from the falls.

He diagnosed the problem and confirmed that the brake fluid had drained out from a worn steel tube. It was our good luck to have made the trip with a mechanic, but even so, he had no reserve fluid and no way to mend the tube.

We couldn’t leave the horses tied for two days while we brought tools and parts back to Bear Valley, and we couldn’t turn them out to fend for themselves. Plus we had to get home to feed the stock and irrigate. Having driven up a mountain, we now had to get down it with no brakes. 

After we loaded the horses and gear into the F4, Rick and I were relegated to the back seat of Jackson’s car. The plan was that Jackson would drive ahead, stop uphill traffic when he met it, and warn the people that a load of  horses in a truck with no brakes was not far behind him. He’d tell them to give it a wide berth.

Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic, only two or three cars. The elevation loss from Bear Valley to Lowman and then from Lowman to our home was more than four thousand feet, with a lot of ups and downs in between, but good ole Dad had confidence in his driving skills.

I remember Jackson dropping us off at home and telling Mom that Dad should be along soon. I wasn’t worried, but I was eleven.  Mom must have been beside herself until Dad and the broken truck appeared. All I can remember him reporting was that it was a slow but uneventful descent. I wish I had asked him more.

With the brakes repaired, the F4 continued to haul horses and cattle for years. It still sits in our barnyard. When I drove the truck later myself, I came to appreciate its tight transmission and the flathead-six engine’s good compression. I imagine when Dad hit the long, steep sections, he would drop to low or at least to a lower gear, never allowing himself to miss a shift, and thus never letting the vehicle freewheel.

Had that ever happened, no amount of double-clutching would have been sufficient to get it back into a gear in which engine compression could slow it down. Freewheeling would have been like rolling a basketball off a roof. Saddle horses, truck parts, and a farmer would have been strewn down the rocky mountain road.

With such a heavy load, an emergency brake, if it was working, would have been of little to no use on those steep slopes at any speed.  Unless the handbrake did hold, I assume that to navigate the traffic lights and stop signs through Boise and beyond he would have had to slow to a crawl and then cut the engine.

Ever since, I’ve thought of those two days as a real adventure, a gift from an adventuresome dad. Fifteen or so years later, I ran into Cecil Jackson by chance at a service station. “Hi, Greenfield,” he said. “Wasn’t that quite a trip we took to Dagger Falls?”

Yes, that was quite a trip we took to Dagger Falls. But we never went fishing again.

A few years ago, we took our family back to the falls, and the change we witnessed was jarring. It’s no longer a wilderness. The Middle Fork at Dagger Falls is now easily accessible in the comfort of your car or RV.  Gone is the decrepit bridge, replaced by a new one. The site has an unused fish ladder, toilets, and a platform for viewing the falls.

Downstream is a launching site where you can put in your raft and float to Lewiston if you want. Reportedly four hundred to five hundred Chinook still survive the long, difficult trip from the ocean to fight and jump their way up the falls. But that number pales compared to what we trail-riders saw. I have to admit, I liked it better in the 1950s.

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Rob Greenfield

About Rob Greenfield

Rob Greenfield is a third-generation Idahoan who has always lived and worked in rural Canyon County. He started his formal education at the two-room Huston School and graduated from the College of Idaho. After briefly teaching junior high science, he returned to farming and raising horses. His story of a trip to Dagger Falls is in memory of his late twin brother, Rick.

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