Community January 15, 2009
Del Davis
A life in the saddle

Early outfitters were a rare breed in Idaho, perhaps because there seemed to be no need for the moniker.

Informal guiding, on the other hand, dates back—at least—to the first time a stranger stepped onto the soil, long before statehood, and asked a Native American to point the way. If you lived in the Idaho wilderness, you found your own paths through it and shared them with anyone who may have asked for directions. Licensing? Why?

If you could stay alive out there, well, that seemed like license enough.

Nonetheless, in 1954, Idaho did license its first guides and outfitters—a few hardened men whose way of life evolved naturally into a way of making a living. Primarily fishermen and hunters, they emerged from the backcountry, the heart of the land, to share outdoor skills and local knowledge with “outsiders,” helping them bag a trophy elk or land an impressive rainbow, but also sharing a unique brand of Western personality, companionship, and wisdom. More than 400 licensed outfitters operate in Idaho today, employing more than 2,000 licensed guides; but, fifty years ago, they were few and far between.

Although many of these men are gone now, their stories, handed down by those who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the backcountry, are still being told. The legend of hunting guide Del Davis, one of Idaho’s early outfitters, lives on through the words of fellow hunter, guide, and devoted friend, Jim Fowler, who says, “Del was tough as nails, sinewy and strong.” Davis was rugged, a reflection of the landscape in which he lived.

As Fowler recites the stories of Del Davis, it’s obvious that he treasures the days spent with this remarkable man. Fowler is excited and animated as he speaks, an endless stream of memories bubbling to the surface, one tumbling over the last. He can’t get the words out fast enough. It is clear that life in the mountains with Davis was a gift, a nearly mythological snapshot of life as it will never be again.

One of Fowler’s favorite memories is riding back into camp late at night, following a hunt. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” he says. “You held onto the reigns and saddle horn with one hand, and shielded your face with the other so you didn’t get your eye poked out as you rode through trees, around bends, over humps, down trails, across creeks, and up ridges in absolute pitch black. It was never scary, though. You knew that you were ‘going for it’ on this horse in the middle of nowhere, but you also knew that you were going to be okay, because Del knew his trade. His horses had ridden these trails for years.

“He would always say, ‘Trust your horse. He knows the mountain better than you do. He’ll lead you back to camp.’ Del had this quiet hint of knowing what he was all about, and he always had this knowing smile on his face—not a smirk, but the smile of a very self-assured person.”

Fowler first learned of Davis in the 1980s, when he asked a man digging postholes in Hagerman if he knew of “any good old boys” who hunted elk. “The best man, period—the only man—is Del Davis,” affirmed the post digger, a man from Filer, Idaho, not just many miles away from the Davis Ranch, but worlds away.

During Davis’s ranching days, his closest neighbor, a hermit, lived three miles downriver.

“Del had such a reputation,” Fowler says, “that even the ‘average Joe’ had heard of him.” And that reputation spread well beyond Filer. When taking a break from the filming of the 1950s classic River of No Return, Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum found time to relax with Davis, pitching horseshoes and fishing the waters of the South Fork.

In the1960s, when only 700 people lived in Ketchum and sleeping dogs easily outnumbered trucks on Main Street, Davis carved out a life on his ranch and in the wilderness of the remote and far less populated Salmon River Mountains, to our northeast. A native to Idaho, born in 1921, Davis worked his father’s ranch as a youngster and learned how to ride, mend fences, and drive cattle. During Davis’s ranching days, his closest neighbor, a hermit, lived three miles downriver. The nearest town was Yellow Pine, six miles away as the crow flies, but easily around 30 on the ground, over extremely difficult terrain. The town’s 2004 census reads: 42 people, 21 dogs, 6 horses, 2 mules, 12 cats, 4 rabbits, and 8 elk. It counted even fewer inhabitants nearly a half-century ago.

Resting along the banks of the South Fork of the Salmon River, the Davis Ranch was originally known as the Willey Ranch. The family of Norman B. Willey, Idaho’s first Lieutenant Governor, homesteaded the property in 1921. Davis is gone now, but his 240-acre ranch, surrounded by the Payette National Forest, remains one of the largest in-holdings on federal land in central Idaho.

Access to the ranch was difficult, as none of the roads leading out of Yellow Pine cut a straight path to the property: Williams Peak and the surrounding mountains blocked the way. An old dirt road, 12 miles long and built in the 1950s, did lead from the more distant mining town of Warren, but it had not been maintained for years. Using a bulldozer, Davis took the task upon himself. “If something needed doing, even a Herculean task,” says Fowler, “he got it done.”

Over the years, Davis found the road challenging to maintain. He carried two logs in the bed of his pickup to span frequent washouts, carefully maneuvering his truck over the makeshift bridges. Trenches dug on the uphill side of the road trapped the tires, forcing the truck to hug the steep hillsides to avoid a tumble down the cliff to the valley floor. >>>

 

 

Fowler delivered supplies to Davis along this road as late as the 1980s, loading food, guns, refrigerators, stoves, and loads of hay into a high-clearance four-wheel-drive truck. Lashing the goods down tightly to prevent spilling, Fowler negotiated the rough, roller-coaster-like road, a four-hour journey that averaged speeds of two or three miles an hour and never exceeded a top speed of eight. Fowler recalls passengers opting to get out and walk rather than risk the drive.

Access wasn’t easy four decades ago, and it’s even more difficult today. “After Del died, the road went to hell,” says Fowler. “He was the only one maintaining it.” Today the road is impassable, completely washed out.

To create easier access to the ranch, Davis hopped back into the seat of his bulldozer and plowed an airstrip on his property. “Easy” is a matter of perspective, however. The new airstrip required a very skilled backcountry pilot to make a landing on the 20-degree slope. The takeoff, even more challenging, resembled an air stunt: a plane had to launch downhill off the 600-foot strip, and then bank steeply to avoid the cliffs directly across the runway. Bush pilots not only delivered ranch supplies to Davis, but also dropped off his mail, literally—tossing it out the window in a bag as they flew over the property.

Growing up in the Idaho wilderness, it was natural that Davis also learned to shoot a rifle—with such skill that it raised a few eyebrows when he joined the military, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. During basic training, Davis repeatedly fired bullet after bullet through the bull’s-eye of a target 1,000 yards distant. His superiors took notice and asked him to repeat the exercise. Davis effortlessly drilled the bulls-eye with a volley of shots a second time. “He was a true ‘deadeye,’” says Fowler.

The officer pulled the young Davis aside and said, “Son, we have a special job for you.” That marked the beginning of Davis’s days as a sniper, instructed to “take out” key German officers during World War II.

During basic training, Davis repeatedly fired bullet after bullet through the bull’s-eye of a target 1,000 yards distant.

In all the days Fowler spent riding the mountains on horseback with Davis, he recalls only a few times that Davis shared his war experiences. “He didn’t like to talk about it,” says Fowler. “He was a sharpshooter, but he wasn’t boastful.” According to Fowler, Davis once said simply, “I did things during WWII that I’m not proud of, but they [his superior officers] told me to do it, and I did.”

Following military service Davis returned to Idaho, married his sweetheart, Bonnie, and settled on the ranch, which had belonged to his wife’s family. “Bonnie was very much the maverick woman,” remembers Fowler. “She was like Annie Oakley, and she loved being in the mountains.” They, along with their children, lived on the property year-round.

The ranch orchard produced peaches, apples, and pears. A cow provided milk. Davis also grew grapes, alfalfa, and vegetables. For meat, he hunted elk, mule deer, black bear, and chukar. He was also a fly fisherman and enjoyed catch-and-release fishing for steelhead on the Salmon River, but “caught-and-kept” native cutthroat and bull trout, which were plentiful at the time. Davis had great respect for the balance of nature, fully aware that his existence in the backcountry depended on it.

Multiple skills are required to live on an Idaho mountain ranch, then and now, but Davis fully embraced the challenge. He bred and broke his own horses and served as veterinarian, electrician, plumber, carpenter, logger, gardener, cattleman, cowboy, outfitter, and packer. He generated cash by many means, including mining for gold, recovering more than 300 ounces from his claim. Davis also built a house with timber he logged off the property. Using horses, he dragged the downed trees to the sawmill—which he configured to operate on power provided by a truck engine—and cut the logs into dimensional lumber suitable for construction. A mile-and-a-half-long trench, dug by hand, provided irrigation and delivered potable water to the house from Sheep Creek. Using gravity, PVC pipe, and creek water, Davis engineered a Pelton-style water wheel to generate electricity for the ranch.

Not averse to a little wilderness luxury, Davis flooded two porcelain tubs with the thermal waters of a nearby hot spring. Slipping out of a pair of dusty cowboy boots and into a soothing hot tub, blanketed by a starlit sky, must have felt like a step toward heaven after a long day’s work on the ranch. “Being a rancher and a mountain man,” says Fowler, “he had to do everything. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Del, at sometime during his life, had delivered a baby!”

Without a telephone, the only link to the outside world was a ham radio—and that was just fine with Davis, a man who preferred the quiet mountain life. He cherished his privacy, but did enjoy talking to others living in the backcountry. “At night,” says Fowler, “he talked to ranchers and outfitters in Oregon and Idaho, giving support, or helping someone solve a problem. It was one big backcountry family, a world unto itself.”

Davis was a superb hunting guide. “He was always giving friendly advice to help a person ride better, or shoot straighter,” says Fowler. Davis was very observant and had a great knowledge of the outdoors, particularly the habits of elk. In summer he led his horses into the high country, leaving them at the headwaters of Sheep Creek to graze beneath the tall peaks flanking the valley. This grazing strategy served two purposes: the horses were prevented from devouring the scarce feed closer to the ranch, saving it for later in the year; and, when Davis returned to round them up in early September, he always found them near the elk. Knowing the elk’s location greatly increased his odds for a successful hunt when the time came. “He just had a lot of horse sense,” Fowler says, deadpan.

“Del was a very calm man,” adds Fowler, “but you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him, because then he was like a stirred-up hornet.”
During hunting season, Davis established a camp high above the ranch house. One evening at the camp, he discovered that an elk hide he’d hung on a sapling had been dragged into the woods. As if setting a mousetrap, Davis hung another hide, tying one end of a horse’s lead rope to it and tethering the opposite end to a mare’s bell hung just outside the cook tent. He waited patiently until the rope pulled taut and the bell rang. Then Davis, the “the stirred-up hornet,” flew out of the tent, jumping and shouting at the thief like a man who had just stepped on hot coals in his stocking feet. A?startled?bear sprinted into the darkness, leaving the hide behind.

“I miss the man who is responsible for many of the best times in my life.”

Davis was naturally concerned about losing another hide, but his greater concern was for the others with him in the tent, and for the?horses hitched nearby. He returned to the tent and, in the light of the full moon, aimed his rifle through a small opening in the tent toward the hide. Bonnie had a flashlight steadied along the barrel, prepared to turn on the light and illuminate the rifle’s sights, and the culprit, at the ring of the bell. Davis and Bonnie waited in darkness as the others slept. The bell clanged once more, and for the last time. Bonnie lit up the target, a single gunshot echoed off the cliffs, and the bear was dead.

Another bear, years before, had made the mistake of challenging Davis. He and his hunting clients were horseback, riding a trail bordered by thick bushes as they tracked a bear wounded by an errant shot the day before. When they least expected it, the injured bear burst from the brush, ambushing the men. Surprise didn’t delay Davis’s reaction. Like a dueling gunfighter, he swiftly and without hesitation drew his pistol and mercifully dropped the charging bear, perhaps saving himself, his hunting partners, and his horses.

Davis was a quiet man. He would spin a tale or two for entertainment, but he didn’t brag about his sharpshooting, his role in World War II, or his run-ins with bears. These were just the hard facts of war and living in the West. Crafty, intelligent, skilled and aware, he simply did what had to be done. It was all about survival—but that’s not to say that every day represented a threat.

“He lived hard, partied hard, and loved his Coors,” says Fowler. “If you showed up at the ranch with a case of beer, you’d better plan on drinking the whole case right then and there, except for one six-pack put in the stream and kept cold to nurse hangovers the next day.” Fowler describes Davis as “the original Marlboro-type man, capable of moving mountains, but also just a great guy with a great heart. He’d do anything for anybody.”

Living in an isolated and remote part of Idaho, where it’s tough for Santa Claus to make his rounds during Christmas, Davis lent a hand, as most ranchers do. Dressing up as Santa, he mounted his horse for a ride through the mountains, singing Christmas carols for the other ranching families, his children following on horseback dressed as elves, spreading good wishes and cheer.

“I miss the man who’s responsible for many of the best times in my life,” muses Fowler, “whether it was riding the trails and returning to camp after dark, unsaddling and grooming the horses, or talking over the prospects of exploring new valleys. Sitting around the stove in his tent at day’s end, we would share a whiskey and listen to the tales of this man’s man.”

Davis guided into his sixth decade, but his lifelong habit of smoking unfiltered cigarettes eventually put him down. When he died in 1990, Bonnie continued to run the ranch until, 14 months later, the family home caught fire. A neighboring rancher died in the blaze. The house went up in smoke, marking the end of an era, a lifestyle, and a man’s dream. The wind scattered the ashes, leaving only the stories behind.

 

Greg Wilson is currently working toward a Master’s degree in English Education. Greg is captivated by the art of storytelling and, when he’s not studying or writing, one of his favorite pastimes is to spend time trading good stories among friends.

 

 

This article appears in the Summer 2004 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.