Home Away From Home, 2020 First Place Youth Division

By Bailey Coleman

I woke up to the sound of fire crackling and the scent of bacon cooking over an open fire.

“It’s time to get ready,” my mom said. Some of my family and I had finally made the camping trip to Big Creek, Idaho. Big Creek, Idaho is a small town in the Frank Church Wilderness of No Return where my ancestors used to live and mine for gold. My family and I chose to camp here because it is where my Great Great Grandpa and Great Great Grandma lived. I have heard all kinds of stories and seen all kinds of pictures about Big Creek, and couldn’t believe I was finally here. I was excited to be away from the distractions of modern day life and hoped to somehow get a glimpse of what life was like for my ancestors a hundred years ago. Big Creek is about 85 miles northeast of McCall, Idaho. The drive from home took a little over six hours with four of those hours driving over the roughest and steepest roads you can imagine.

“Everybody load up,” my grandpa yelled. All together there were 15 of us that filled the front and back of two pickups.

“The drive is only four miles, but it will take about an hour,” my grandma said. I was shocked that it would take that long but soon enough I realized why. The road was narrow and very bumpy. We were also driving along the edge of a cliff. You had to drive very carefully in order to not go off the side of the mountain or hit big boulders. Everyone was staring at the trees and mountains because it was so pretty to look at. Until this point we hadn’t seen any sort of wild life other than the normal things that we usually see like birds and deer. As we kept driving along the road all of a sudden an enormous wolf ran across the road. I was shocked at how big the wolf was and how quickly it ran up the hill out of sight. 

My grandpa said, “Dan did you bring your gun with you?”

My dad said, “Yes I brought it with me.”

My grandpa said, “Can you fire a couple shots off to scare any other animals that might be in the area?” I plugged my ears as my dad shot the gun. I thought that plugging my ears would help with the noise but it still left my ears ringing.

We continued on our way down the bumpy and rocky road. Any minute I thought that we could get a flat tire. Along the way we got to see  some old buildings that had been there for hundreds of years. We kept going and the forest kept getting thicker and the mountains kept getting taller and the roads kept getting worse.

Up ahead the road got steeper and my mom said, “the house is right around the corner.” We turned the corner and the forest became clear. I could see all of the buildings and the mill that up to this time had only seen in pictures.

“What do you think?,Can you believe it?” my mom said.

“It’s indescribable,” I replied as I stood there with my mouth wide open.

 We finally got to the buildings and parked our cars. Everyone was excited to get out and walk around. Seeing the buildings in real life is nothing like seeing them in the pictures that my family had shown me. I couldn’t believe that I was finally there looking at those houses and seeing the mill. Of course the buildings were not the same as they once were, but it was still amazing to see and hear my grandma talk about the childhood memories she had of this place. My great grandpa was born in this wilderness and it is a lifestyle that you just can’t understand unless you’ve lived it. I couldn’t wait to see what we were going to do next.

We spent time exploring the old home and tried to imagine what it would be like to be a kid that lived here like my ancestors. We got inside the mill and saw the big rock crushers used to crush the ore out of the rocks. There was also a spiral staircase that went to the top of the machine. As I climbed to the top I noticed that the wood was starting to rot so I had to get down. After looking at the mill and talking about what we should do next, we decided to take the long hike up to the mine.

To get to the mine it is a long, steep walk on shale rock. It is so steep that my family and I had to get walking sticks. It was a very challenging hike for the average person so I was surprised that the youngest kids and my grandpa and grandma were able to hike it.  With lots of resting breaks it probably took about an hour to get to the mine called the Werdenhoff mine.  “Your relatives that mined up here did this hike multiple times a day,” my grandpa said.

 The view was breathtaking as we  overlooked a mountain called Elk Summit.

“That summit right there is the place that my Grandpa packed the mail from McCall, Burgdorf, Warren, and then here to the area of Big Creek. He did it even in the winter time, wearing snowshoes and using a dog sled,” my grandma said. I had always heard her talk about it, but to actually see it made me realize how really tough people used to be. “No one could out walk or out hike a Routson,” my grandma said. Routson was the last name of her family and seeing and hearing about all they did I believed that was absolutely true.

“Right here where you’re standing is where the accident happened,” my grandma continued. “A freak accident caused 10 sticks of dynamite to explode by my Great Grandpa. His whole body was filled with copper and he was bloody and unconscious.

His son had to carry him all the way down the hill over his shoulder. When he got to the bottom, his other son took off his bulky work boots and sprinted barefoot a mile down the road to wire a call for help. It took probably a day or more to get my great great grandpa to the hospital in McCall by horseback, someone had to ride behind him to stabilize him. It was a miracle that he survived and the story was even published in many newspapers.  After many weeks, he recovered and spent the rest of his life with a glass eye.” 

After we heard that story we looked to see if we could get into the mine, but it was locked. The mine is still owned by some of my relatives, but unfortunately we did not ask where the key was before we left. All we could do was look through the cracks in the door. When you stuck your hand underneath the door you could feel about a 20 degree difference in temperature. We all wanted to go into the cave really badly.

“Hey, I think I can squeeze through this crack in the top of the door,” my cousin Colton said. He was able to do so and at least got to see what it felt like inside. When my mom was little she was able to go inside and watch them mine for gold.

After a while we went back down the hill and looked at the homestead so that we would have a memory of it. It seemed like a quicker ride down than it had been going up. We were able to do some fishing and enjoy the many other stories from my grandpa and grandma. All of the pictures and stories that I saw and heard from my family all made more sense now that I had seen it in person. Looking around and envisioning my ancestors working and walking where we walked was a comforting feeling. To other people this is just another place, but to me and all of us it had a special feeling, sort of like it was home.