The cowboys of the skies call Idaho their home on the range.
Outside of Alaska, Idaho is the nation’s last great place for backcountry pilots and outfitters who have the skills and aircraft to take advantage of nearly 60 remote landing strips.
Sixteen of those strips are within federal wilderness areas after being grandfathered into legislation that otherwise prohibits motorized use within official wilderness boundaries.
Some of the strips are managed by the Forest Service while several are maintained by outfitter lodges that also were allowed to continue their operations after the wilderness areas were designated.
“People come here from all over the country for these strips,” said Dick Duricka, an Air Force veteran and retired airline pilot who lives in Troy, Idaho.
“The availability of backcountry airstrips is the main reason we retired in Idaho,” added his wife, Nancy. The couple had flown their two-seater Piper aircraft to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary with a modest camp at one of the sites along the Moose Creek airstrip in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
“We debated on whether to come here or go on a cruise for our anniversary, and we decided to come here,” she said, noting that their travel time from home to the heart of the wilderness was 55 minutes.
Moose Creek is a pilot’s Mecca, with a 4,100-foot strip cleared in 1932 to become the first Forest Service backcountry smoke-jumper base. A second strip was built in the 1950s and Moose Creek was a hub of Forest Service aerial activity until the Selway-Bitterroot was listed among the 54 wilderness areas originally designated by 1964 Wilderness Act.
The law approved by Congress allowed the airstrips to remain open, but required the Forest Service to re-direct its aerial activities. Administrative flights were reduced from 170 in 1983 to fewer than 20 a year, with pack stock picking up the slack to service the work based out of the Moose Creek Ranger Station.
The tractor once used to mow and maintain the airstrip was idled to comply with the wilderness rules. Nowadays, the work is done by a mower pulled by a mule.
But airplanes are still allowed to come and go, and private pilots and outfitters flock to the Moose Creek strip.
“You can expect 30 planes to be in here on July 1 when the fishing season opens on Moose Creek,” Dick Duricka said.
The pilots tend to land in different communities based on their choice of aircraft. At Moose Creek in late June, a group of five Maule planes was congregated at one end of the airstrip. The pilots were clearly into performance, from their choice of planes to the lightweight backpacker-style camping gear.
“We are cowboys with wings,” one pilot said, noting that a moose once chased him back and forth on a strip for 20 minutes before backing away and letting him take off. “We go where others can’t.”
Their aircraft, based on designs originated in the 1950s by B.D. Maule, is revered as a “go-anywhere” tail-dragger with short takeoff and landing capabilities.
The Maule pilots scoffed at the twin-engine Beachcraft that was parked at the other end of the wilderness strip.
“He can get into Moose Creek, but he can’t go hardly anywhere else,” one pilot said. But the pilots were quick to point out that even their specialized planes don’t make up for the practice and experience required to handle dangerous backcountry circumstances.
“A friend came in too hot at Shearer and went over on its nose,” the pilot said, referring to the 2,000-foot strip with a “one-shot” landing approach off the Selway River a few miles upstream from Moose Creek. “He’s lucky nobody was hurt, but the worst part was the expense to helicopter out his plane.”
“I check out new strips very carefully, and I always come in alone and light the first time,” another pilot added.
“This is wilderness and there’s no room for error and no help if you make a mistake,” Duricka said. “Nine people died in backcountry accidents last year in Idaho.”
A recreational industry is based on many of the airstrips, which are used by Idaho outfitters to shuttle in clients for activities such as hunting, fishing and river rafting.
“We like to emphasize that these airstrips aren’t just for pilots,” said Darla Christiansen of the Idaho Transportation Department. “Besides being important for search and rescue, they help make the wilderness accessible for anybody. You can hire a pilot to take you into the wilderness for a weekend and it will cost less than hiring a horse packer. It’s actually quite affordable for a wilderness vacation.”
Nancy Duricka considers wilderness fly-in camping, hiking and fishing the perfect fit for her retirement lifestyle.
“We used to backpack, so this is pure luxury,” she said, noting that the limitations of their Piper aircraft are an incentive to continue staying trim and fit.
“We can only have so much weight in the plane when we fly into these wilderness airstrips,” she said. “If we don’t’ get fat, we can bring in more gear, and more goodies.”
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