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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Tuesday, June 2, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Wreck of the Firefly

By Carl Gidlund Correspondent

In 1911 the headquarters of the Kaniksu Forest were in Newport, Wash., but in those days the essentials of a supervisor’s office could be hauled in a lumber wagon, so that is just what was done each summer. The office was loaded up and hauled to Coolin, Idaho.

Coolin was a city of maybe 15 year-round residents, two summer hotels … (and) a tiny general store, located at the foot of Priest Lake.

The pride of the forest was the Firefly, a 24-foot launch which was good for about 10 knots when running free. With the available waterway the trails naturally radiated from the lake. The pack train would come down to the shore, telephone the office, and the Firefly, with a barge lashed alongside, would go pick up the horses and either bring them to Coolin or move them to their next point of departure.

The prize seasonal job on the forest was that of “commodore,” the operator of the launch. This was, you might say, a job in name only, for the supervisor, Willis N. Millar, practically always went along on trips, and when he was along he always handled the boat from the bow controls. There were also controls, including a steering wheel, alongside the engine.

Mr. Millar asked me whether I would take the job (as commodore). Now I was raised in the Snake River desert … and the Firefly was probably the first launch I had ever seen, but since the question of qualifications was not raised, I jumped at the job.

It was getting pretty close to suppertime of a perfect fall day when Millar came down to the launch. He said Clarence Swim (ranger from Sullivan Lake district on the Washington side) had just pulled in at Sniders (about six miles up the lake), and that we would go up and get him.

It wasn’t far from dark when we got to Sniders, where Swim and his five horses and their loads were hungrily awaiting us. We were in a hurry, so we got the horses aboard (a barge) and in the well deck which was down to about the waterline. The packs and saddles we piled on the bow and stern decks, which were about a foot higher. I believe there were five horses, with three tied to the rail on the Firefly side, and two on the far side.

We pushed off and started down the lake. Soon little plumes of fog began to rise … the first ones a foot or three or four feet high. It was a queer and beautiful effect, but they were coming thicker and taller, until they had us fenced in and we couldn’t tell where we were going. We had about five miles to go and, with the loaded barge, were making maybe two knots.

Now there were some light rushes in Priest Lake at a few points. One of the places was along a bad stretch of shore, precipitous and rocky, right across the lower end of the lake from Coolin, our destination. All of a sudden we were in the rushes. It looked like we were going ashore right now. Millar … threw the wheel hard over and we started a sharp but slow and cumbrous swing.

Just then Swim yelled, “The barge is sinking. The horses are climbing in (to) the launch,” and sure enough they were. Millar yelled, “Cut ‘er adrift. Untie the horses.”

Suiting action to the word, Millar jumped into the sinking barge, then about up to the horses’ bellies in water, and started cutting them loose. Swim cut the bowline and I cut the stern line. We got Millar off the barge and it, the horses and packs were lost in the fog.

We weren’t left long to wonder whether the horses would succeed in getting ashore or would swim aimlessly in the fog and drown. Very quickly we heard the bell of the bell mare and knew she, at least, had made it.

We eased the engine in gear and she stalled. The reason: We had a tent in the propeller. We worked it out of the prop and got it aboard – that much salvaged anyhow. And to Swim’s lament that there went his new $30 saddle, we started the engine, began a slow swing which … would lead us to Coolin.

The morning broke clear, but no barge anywhere in sight, so we manned the Firefly. I was in my usual place alongside the engine, idly looking down through the clear water. Suddenly I saw a packsaddle on the lake bottom. I yelled, and Millar said, “Mark something on shore, and I will too.”

And I did and he did, but that’s all the good it did us for each of us had noted only one thing, instead of two, in line to give us an intersection. After breakfast we rousted out all hands … With six or eight rowboats out we still weren’t finding the spot … when Al Pelke, the old-time trapper … came down to the shore, stood in the back of his canoe and paddled right to the spot where I had yelled and there was the stuff, scattered over an area of an acre or so and in 16 feet of water. Al was high on the ridge back of Coolin when my yell came to him in the still, clean air, and he naturally did what Millar and I failed to do. He picked him plenty of line markers.

We recovered everything except Swim’s new $30 saddle, and spent a lot of time looking for it. That afternoon when Walter Slee, a paraplegic who made a trip around the lake with his steamer every day, got in, he reported that he had seen the barge in Soldier Bay. We went up and got the barge and there, in the well deck which was awash with water, was Swim’s saddle.

Incidentally, the tracks showed that the horses took the shortest possible course from where they were dumped in to the shore, clearly indicating that when it came to navigating in the fog, all our technical training, experience and instruments were nothing compared to a little horse sense.

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