Breakneck Trail: The River of No Return

Salmon River Country

This story was written and published by Harry L. Hicks in 1977. Harry is my grandfather and loved to tell stories of the good ol’ days growing up in Idaho. This story takes place when he was about 12 years old – so about 1928. It is told in his own words.

I don’t believe there are many people still living who knew the Breakneck section of the old Sheep Eater or Nez Perce Trail. This section got its name from its steep gorges – so steep that a horse would hold back as long as he could, and seeing he was nearly to the bottom would burst into a trot as he began the incline up the other side.

The horse’s rider found if he didn’t become erect in the stirrups, he would most likely think his neck was broken. There were about five miles of these close gulches in the trail, and also soft granite ravines where the trail came around above the cliffs. Cap Guleke and his partner, Hancock ­– Old River Runners – used to talk about the bears and the Blackberries being so plentiful on the trail. “Five miles of big blackberry bushes and a bear behind every bush,” they said.

My father was a storytelling friend of Mr. Hancock’s, and I used to hide in the old kitchen wood box and listen to them in the evenings. I lived those adventures over and over until I knew how to get away from every bear, every way there was.

Boating parties used to climb out of the Salmon River Canyon at Riggins and walk back to Salmon City following the old Sheep Eater Trail along the Breakneck section, then leaving the main trail and cutting down on the north side of the Salmon River, following the descent closer to the river and Sheep Eater Mountain, thence up past the Gunther Mine and through Mrs. Wolcott’s yard, where she had built her house at the Shoup end of the trail.

I understand that part of this trail was the one used by Joseph and the Nez Perce tribe to flee from the Clearwater country. This Breakneck section was also used by the Indians as a hunting trail, as they proceeded from time to time down to the river for fishing and to gather freshwater clams. The Nez Perce trail continued to cross the Continental Divide into the Big Hole country in Montana, where the Nez Perce and General Gibbons had it out.

My father worked for the Forest Service. Mr. Kinney was his superintendent, or as the men called him, ‘Overall Boss.’ Mr. Kinney was the one responsible for me being able to go with my father on his job. My dad was a patient father to his own children, so he may have felt a bit sorry for me. I had had scarlet fever with complications such as rheumatic fever and Bright’s disease, and at the time was just ending up a siege of St Vitus Dance. Mr. Kinney arranged with the Forest Service for a smoke chaser cabin to be built down on the Salmon River below Shoup and three miles below the mouth of Big Creek, which was later changed to Panther Creek.

Mr. Kinney put my father on as smoke chaser, and we lived for three summers in the wilds of Idaho, along the River of No Return. In that time, the summer heat cured my ailments.

When my father was busy, I was under the watchful eye of my pony, Robin. And I mean that seriously; Robin was my playmate and guardian and with me all the time. We went swimming together, and he only left me one time. That was the day I climbed the big chimney rocks to get some bats for pets. Dad gave me an awful scolding, asking me if I wanted to get the plague from the lice the bats carried around on them.

Robin was the only horse my father would trust me to ride when I was to ride the river with him. He would always say, “I’ll bring up old Robin, throw a hull on him, and put you in the lead.” The other horses and Barney, my father’s horse, would follow.

Old Robin could pick his way over the washed-out, dangerous trail or through the rolling, tree-floating, muddy river in high water. He would test the bottom for any washout in the trail and draw back. Sometimes I’d have to lock my legs around the saddle horn and hang onto the saddle strings to keep my legs and feet dry when Robin went deep in the water to hold the trail that was supposed to be there. During high water, dad and I would go down to the smoke chasers’ lonely cabin on the Salmon River for fire season.

Harry Hicks

Ordinarily, Robin ran behind the flighty pack string because he had had his day in the sun and was 20 years old. He began life as a little stray colt born to the mare, Silver, in the spring of 1909. They used to say that Silver had Appaloosa blood running through her veins. We never knew for sure about the Appaloosa blood until she brought in her little colt from the Pahsimeroi salt bogs one sunny afternoon along in the fall.

He was a completely white little colt with strawberry markings on his rump and a black star on his forehead. Silver had him as clean as a whistle because they would bathe in the river quite often, a habit the little fellow was to continue all his life. We never knew Robin’s father.

The mare just wandered into my grandfather’s ranch, heavy with foal, and walked up to grandpa, as if to say, “Let me stay and I’ll be your horse and raise good horses for you.” My grandfather opened the gate and turned her into the pasture. He named her Silver because of her color.

This mare was to present three more fine colts for Grandpa Walker – Silk and Satin for their color; and Twilight, who was not much of any color, just a good cow pony.

Because my sister wanted the little colt so very much, grandpa gave him to her, and she named him Robin. My sister jealously possessed Robin until she grew up and left home. And then he became mine. I loved him as much as I did my own father and mother.

Neil Poiner was my dad’s direct supervisor. A soft voiced, city-mannered fellow, he was a ranger for the district over all the lookouts. The day we were going down the river was also the day Neil was riding his first rounds to check the lookouts, making sure they were ready for the fire season.

The fire school at the Indianola Ranger Station was just over and the men had received their allotments. Nearly a dozen already had made up their packs and gone off one-by-one to their respective lookouts. Ulysses Mountain, Stein, Bluenose, Skunk Camp, Bear Trap, Orofino, Long Tom, and Sagebrush, to name a few.

The Mule Man Government Packer that year was Neil’s roughneck brother, Earl. But of all the roughneck crew, it was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, book-toting, educated and friendly Neil Poiner I respected most of all. If he is still living somewhere, I hope he remembers the day he rode the Breakneck Trail with my dad, Vic Hicks, and me.

We left Indianola with the pack string early one morning along in the spring. By mid-morning we had reached the old Gunther Mine and reined up just short of old Lady Walcott’s house. She was a wrinkled old lady who drew a string of burros with the cross marked over their shoulders. She would drive them down in the fall to the lush meadows of wild fruit and apple orchards on Owl Creek. They would be loaded with bottles and sugar. When she returned home, the burros would be loaded with the fruit she had canned.

When I visited her, she told me lots of stories of the old days. Sometimes dad, to be sociable, took a pot of coffee and we’d go over and have coffee with the old lady. That pleased her very much.

As Neil drew up to Mrs. Walcott’s house, he left his horse standing in the road and came back to where my father sat, still mounted. “Vic,” he said, “I don’t like the looks of the river at all. Too many trees coming down close to the banks. It is dangerously high. Do you think we can make it on the old Breakneck Trail? Do you think your boy can make it?”

“Yes,” my father said. “I’ll put him on the Appaloosa. He may be the only one to make it.”

Victor Hicks

When my father explained to me what we were going to do, I told him that I would rather take a chance on Robin on the cliffs than in the Salmon River. Dad whistled for Robin to come up as he was just following along behind the pack string.

Robin stood there with a “that’s what I expected” look on his face. Well, dad took the saddle off Doll and put it on him, making sure the outfit was in good shape with nothing dragging. Then drawing the reins up loosely, he hung them over the saddle horn, and patting my leg reassuringly said, “When you start over the cliffs, just give Robin his head and leave the reins alone.”

The section of the old trail we were to travel was the most hazardous because the height of the cliffs above the river was over 100 feet and often as much as 300 feet. There were places where gulches and canyons met the river, and at every one of these was a ravine about ten feet wide, filled with decomposed granite rockslides. When your horse was crossing these on a climbing course all the time, the loose gravel would begin sliding down the ravine and pour over the cliff into the muddy river far below.

Because your horse had the thrust in his hind feet, this thrust as he tried to climb would turn him parallel to the running gravel. Thus, it took a pretty good horse to get out of the ravine.

We ran the pack horses ahead of us in the trail, and this made the situation much worse because after the string of horses had crossed the ravine, the gravel would be sliding steadily. Every time we crossed a ravine, the horses were rested on top. I can remember how they trembled from the scare. I remember the gravel plunging into the river and the water boiling from it.

One time, Jimmy Patterson was going to lead his horse across, but it didn’t work. He put a rope around his horse’s neck, threw a half-hitch around the horse’s nose, and then taking the rope in his hands, ran across the ravine and began pulling the rope. The horse went balky and wouldn’t budge, so Patterson undertook to cross back to where the horse was.

As soon as he let some slack in the rope, the horse took off. It jerked the rope out of Patterson’s hands and away the horse went, clear back to Indianola, leaving Patterson to hoof it on his own.

On the day we rode the trail, we had all kinds of trouble with the pack horses. They would not leave the high rest areas. They would pack up in a bunch or try to go straight up the ridge. Time after time dad and Neil had to go on foot and jerk and whip and rock and curse those horses to make them cross the ravine. (Seeing as how Neil didn’t curse this experience was extremely hard on him.) It took us three hours to cross all the ravines and finally make it over the Breakneck section. Most of the time, I just sat up there on old Robin and watched the commotion. We left the ridge when we came to Cove Creek, our destination.

As soon as we kicked the rats out of the cabin, I went rushing out to see if my old pit bull snake was still around. He lived in the blacksmith’s forge among the dead coals.

So far as I know, and I have talked with a lot of old timers, there were a few men who rode the Breakneck section of the old Sheep Eater Trail. Among those who did were Neil Poiner, Vic Hicks, two Forest Service packers, Howard Edison, the Gutzman brothers, Elmer Keith, and Zane Gray (Elmer took Gray over it when he was in this area writing a book), and myself.

Some made the trip just for the thrill of saying, “I rode the old Breakneck Trail,” and sitting back and waiting for the oohs and ahhs. Riding it was considered quite an accomplishment in those days. But there were other good riders who had given up on it who said, “God was willing, but I don’t believe the elements were willing, and I know damn well I wasn’t willing.”

One response to “Breakneck Trail: The River of No Return”

  1. Jeff, this is a glorious story ! Thank you for writing it down as your grandfather told it. The picture he painted with his words, especially of those horses crossing the ravines on the Breakneck Trail, is oh so vivid. And Robin ! What an amazing horse, that your Great-Grandpa and your grandfather could trust him so. Imagine growing up in the mountains with a horse like Robin. Sweet glory ! Thank you !


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