SECESH, Idaho – It’s tempting to complain after nearly an hour of wading through the lake, climbing over fallen trees, hopping from rock to rock and scraping legs on snags.
Then you remember why you’re here.
Seventy-five years ago, a B-23 Dragon bomber crashed on the south shore of Idaho’s Loon Lake in the middle of winter. The eight men aboard all survived – some waiting for rescue at the plane while others hiked for help for more than two weeks through the unfamiliar, snow-covered terrain.
Yeah, better to keep those complaints to yourself.
The bomber is challenging to reach, somewhat by design. The hike to Loon Lake, tucked into the Payette National Forest north of McCall at the base of North Loon Mountain, is an easy (but lengthy), family-friendly trek that attracts backpackers with young kids.
But the bomber is on the other side of the lake from where you arrive – and there’s no official trail to reach it. Loon Lake is inside the Secesh recommended wilderness, so preserving a sense of exploration is part of the management plan.
“We try to encourage a lot of self-reliance and allow people to have their own risks and challenges in order to traverse the landscape,” said Susan Jenkins, recreation program manager for the McCall and New Meadows ranger districts on the Payette.
There’s a proposal to add an official trail to the site, but it’s unclear whether that will make it through the Forest Service approval process. A real trail would allow more people to experience a unique piece of Idaho history – but that also would open the site to more vandalism and possible looting.
“My last monitoring trip was in August of last year,” Jenkins said. “There was a heavy amount of vandalism with people who had chiseled their name in the side.”
The hike to Loon Lake begins at a trailhead outside Chinook Campground, 37 miles northeast of McCall. There are two well-maintained routes to the lake, which provide the opportunity to hike a loop instead of an out and back. The forested west side is 4.6 miles to the lake with 540 feet of elevation gain. The canyon trail on the east side is 5.7 miles with about 450 feet of elevation gain.
The views along the two routes are completely different. Both are open to mountain bikes, horses and motorcycles.
“It’s a gorgeous hike,” Jenkins said, “and it’s open to a variety of user types. … From my experience, it’s a relatively easy hike in terms of elevation gain and loss.”
My group took the shorter route to Loon Lake on the way in – preserving the option of a shorter overall hike if necessary. Much of the climbing occurs in the first mile. After overcoming the shock of stepping out of the car and getting right into the uphill grind, the walk to the lake seemed to go quickly. The views of North Loon Mountain provide a glimpse of what to expect at the lake.
Loon Lake itself is a stunning destination. If all you did was hike there, you’d be pleased.
But if you want to see the bomber, it’s decision time at the lake. The shortest route is to wade across Loon Creek on the north shore (we carried water shoes for that purpose) and bushwhack about 0.8 of mile along the shore to the bomber. But the fallen trees, boulders and soggy ground were such a bear that one member of our party opted to walk in the lake. My 10-year-old son was sinking to his waist, so that didn’t work for us. We battled the rocks and logs and – eventually – won. It took nearly an hour, partly because we were so unsure of where we were going. It was Oliver’s favorite part of the hike; it was my least favorite.
The other option is to take the Duck Lake trail along the western shore and bushwhack about 0.4 of a mile from there to the bomber. But that route is longer overall – 1.4 miles from the Duck Lake junction to the bomber. Plus, the trail was littered with fallen trees (I got my worst cut of the day there) and there’s no sign telling you where to leave the trail and go cross country. If you take this route – we used it on the way out – you’ll cross the creek on the south end of the lake. You can test your balance on some well-placed logs, or wade.
Either way, the destination is worth the effort.
Two interpretive signs share some of the story of the B-23 Dragon that crashed while returning from practice in Nevada to its base at McChord Field in Tacoma. The bomber was built in 1939 with a 92-foot wingspan and 58-foot, 4-inch total length. It was the first American airplane with two .30-caliber flank gunners and a .50-caliber tail gunner. Only 38 were manufactured and none was used in combat because of the quick advancements in the military fleet.
The Loon Lake bomber crashed Jan. 29, 1943, because of a snowstorm that led to iced windows, a loss of radio contact and low fuel, according to Forest Service research. Lt. Robert Orr tried to land at Loon Lake because it looked like an empty field, frozen and snow-covered in winter, but the plane came to rest in the trees. The crew built a lean-to and fire, using the bomber as part of the shelter, and cared for the one crew member who sustained broken bones in the crash.
Three men eventually hiked for help – a total of 35-40 miles through the snow across 15 days.
Before the hikers got out, 16 days after the crash, backcountry pilot Penn Stohr spotted the crash site. He returned to fly the five men out. The three hikers were rescued days later.
Later in 1943, an Army officer and Forest Service employees hauled out 1,200 pounds of equipment from the crash site, according to one of the interpretive signs. The army destroyed the flying instruments.
One of the crewmen, Edward Freeborg, wrote a book about the ordeal – “Crash in the Hills.” He was one of the men who hiked out, starting by climbing a ridge.
“Hills, hills and more hills in every direction,” he wrote. “Believe me, I firmly believed that we looked in the face of death.”