It was 1976, and I was invited to float Idaho’s Main Salmon River on an early spring training trip for Western Rivers Expeditions. Those were the days when Jack Curry owned and ran the company. Jack’s son Steve, Joe Van Leeuwen, and a few others needed some extra training hours, so we set out for a leisurely 5-day trip on the river from Corn Creek to Riggins.
A trip down the river was always filled with excitement. Decent whitewater was the main attraction. The wildlife and scenery were spectacular. But the chance to meet and visit with one of the last remaining mountain men in existence was what excited me the most!
The name Sylvan Ambrose Hart might not mean anything to most folks. But like a lot of famous people whose names were changed to fit their image, people simply don’t recognize them by their real names. But in Idaho fifty or sixty years ago, if you asked anyone along the Salmon River if they had heard of Buckskin Bill, the answer would be yes.
In 1932, Hart left civilization and headed for the hills – literally. He found Five Mile Bar on the Main Salmon River and decided to stay. There were no roads, no telephones, no nothing that resembled civilization. The nearest community was 40 miles away, and you had to walk to get there. There were, however, some old frontiersmen living nearby – leftovers from the horse and buggy generation who had settled in the area long before the industrial revolution took over. But Hart was young, and they were old; it wasn’t long before he was the last one living in the neighborhood of thousands of acres of forest and wilderness.
According to one report, Hart took a reporter to the exact spot and pointed out the place where “he had lived when newly come to the Salmon in 1932, sleeping under a tree and doing his baking in a stone oven. His land was a placer mining claim then, and Hart bought 50 acres for one dollar.”
The time lapse from 1932 to when my boat pulled into the back eddy and drifted up to Buckskin’s sandbar was exactly 44 years. In that time, Hart evolved from a newcomer to a legend. It wasn’t long before his fame spread far and wide all along the river corridor and into numerous magazines and books. Even a writer for Sports Illustrated in 1966 had to meet and write about the legend.
Before long, someone started calling him Buckskin Bill and the name Sylvan Ambrose Hart drifted out of memory. According to his own history, Hart spent a lot of time in the early days with those old frontier neighbors, picking their brains for all the information he could gather on living and thriving in a remote, unforgiving environment. He was a smart guy and remembered and applied what they taught him.
Of all the famous people from Idaho, Buckskin Bill is arguably the most unique. Who could argue with that? Anyone who met him, saw his place on the river, viewed his medieval suits of armor, including his Spanish Conquistador helmet, his hand-made flintlock rifles, knives, and cannons, or his specially built rock fortress on the hill above his cabins, they would know he was a man to be reckoned with and respected.
People like Sylvan Hart don’t come along every day. What would make a person want to live a solitary life, alone in the wilderness of Idaho? Every person that pulled-up to his sandbar asked the same questions. What is his story? Where did he come from and what led him to that spot on the river? Humans are social creatures, they surmised. Holing-up as a hermit along the Salmon River, famously known as the “River of no return,” could get dreary and lonesome.
In one of his many interviews, Hart related this story regarding people coming around his place. He said, “Five Mile Bar is the only place on the river with good firewood. That’s because there’s never been a woman here. A woman sets around the stove all day burning fuel.” Besides, Buckskin implies, he doesn’t regard too kindly some of the women he does see.
“I was taking a little bath in the river one day when I heard all this hollering and screaming. I had just had time to get on my long red underwear and these women came round the bend yelling that their rubber boat was leaking.”
“I hauled them out, prob’ly saved their lives, and all the while those frozen-faced women were sitting there looking disapproving. Well, first, I had less hide showing than they did, and then I don’t think they were showing any proper appreciation a’tall.”
“I’ve got six months, from November on, when this place is just like it’s always been,” Hart said. “Nobody visits, and I get mail twice a month. If I want to go anywhere, I put a pack on my back, get my gun, take off and stay as little or as long as I like. What more could you want?” (SI)
As I walked up the sandbar and approached an assortment of log shelters partially hidden beneath a grove of trees, I saw a medium sized man wearing western clothes and topped with an oddly shaped hat emerge from one of the cabins. He was shorter than I imagined. And he looked a lot less intimidating. After all the stories I had heard, I figured Buckskin Bill was as tall as Bigfoot and likely just as ornery!
The man that approached was a kindly looking, aged man with a big smile who welcomed us to his place in a kind, gentlemanly tone. His conquistador helmet seemed as natural as the rock fortress jutting out on the face of the hill above. Buckskin Bill remembered Steve Curry and during the introductions and small-talk, Buckskin commented how pretty Steve’s wife looked. “She’s welcome to stay here with me and you can pick her up next week!” he said jokingly.
“Naw, she’ll stay with me,” Steve said with a wry grin. His wife made no reply, but her eyes and facial expression said exactly what she thought. I made a mental note regarding the oddity of the two men talking about an intelligent, grown woman like she wasn’t even there.
We were all invited into Buckskin’s cooking cabin. He had just finished building a large table made from a flat, granite rock. I wondered how he had maneuvered that giant rock into place with just himself to move it about. I imagined some bloody knuckles and smashed fingers after that job was done. He showed us some of his knives, hand-carved wooden eating utensils, a few pots, pans, and other cooking essentials he was proud of. Then he went off on a tangent about how tough things were before he built all the nice amenities contained in the room where we stood. My mind drifted off as I looked over all his creations. I thought, “When you’re all alone with plenty of time on your hands – no TVs, phones, jobs, or meetings – you can get a lot done.”
Next, we walked a short distance to his armory. Inside was what you would imagine seeing in an 18th century warrior’s inner sanctuary. There were swords, big knives, and old-fashioned rifles that looked like they belonged to a small army from a bygone era. A couple of the guns had the horned barreling known in the history books as a blunderbuss. He talked about the time and talent it took to make a gun from scratch, including rifling the barrel and creating and applying all the detailing and inner mechanisms that made the gun work. I was in awe.
As we parted company and my group began to head to the boats, I recalled a conversation from the previous summer that seemed to define the moment. It was a large group of city folks, all quizzing Buckskin on his primitive lifestyle and how he survived living alone and so far from civilization. One woman chimed-in with a cogent inquiry. “Mr. Hart,” she said, “What would you do if you were out working on some project, for example, or you were up in the forest hunting and you accidentally broke your leg?”
Without missing a beat, Buckskin Bill said, “Ma’am, we don’t get broken legs around here!”
Sylvan Ambrose Hart died in 1980. He had lived and survived 48 years in some of the roughest country on the planet. He made the phrase, “living off the grid” into a doable lifestyle. But the one thing that defined him best in my opinion was the fortress he built into the side of the hill.
“What did you build that for, anyway?” a man in my group asked.
“Well, in that rock structure is a large cannon I specially designed for one purpose only. In fact, it’s aimed directly at where we’re standing.” Then, Buckskin Bill folded his arms and in a serious tone he said, “I let the U.S. Forest Service know if they pulled their boats up to this sandbar one more time to bother me about my place here, I was going to blow their boats and them completely out of the water!”
Nobody should mess with a man who wears an ancient warrior helmet and builds his own guns. I haven’t been past Buckskin Bill’s place in years. But the memories of him and all the relics and stories he left behind will linger on in my mind for the rest of time.
(SI) See Sports Illustrated, Issue, October 3, 1966