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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idahoan completes solo winter ski of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, uncovering a forgotten history

Skiing and hiking started simply enough for Dan Noakes. It was a way to spend time with his father. But then it got complicated.

In Noakes’ freshman year of high school, his mother and father divorced. He moved to Utah, his dad stayed in California, and connection was intermittent, a week of two each summer. But Noakes continued to hike and ski, gravitating toward thru-hiking and other physically challenging, even painful, endeavors.

“Why am I doing this?” he asked himself years later. “And it kept on going back to my dad. I came to the conclusion that I’m doing this thing to connect with my dad.”

In college at Brigham Young University, he dove into backcountry skiing, an activity that combined hiking with skiing. After graduating, he expanded his exploits, summiting and skiing all nine of Idaho’s 12,000-foot peaks and backpacking the length of Idaho on the 950-mile Idaho Centennial Trail in less than two months, doing much of the trip solo.

In 2021, he set his sights on another objective – skiing alone 105 miles across the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Pure adventure, the thing of glossy advertisements for new gear, right?

Sort of, although things got complicated.

During the 12 -day traverse, which he started by the South Fork of the Salmon River near Warm Lake and ended near Challis, he saw firsthand the complicated history of public land and wilderness designations in the western United States.

“When you’re walking in the Frank Church, you see remnants of a civilization that was once there,” he said.

This story – both his personal one and that of the Church wilderness – is told in a new docuseries that Noakes, a Donnelly, Idaho, resident, filmed and produced. Titled “Ghosts of the Frank” it covers the complicated themes of connection, history and what we’ve forgotten.

“Seeing the remnants of this civilization, that’s why I called it the ghosts of the Frank,” he said. “It feels like there are ghosts in there whispering to you.”

Specifically, he references the homesteaders, miners and trappers who lived on the land before the wilderness area was created by an act of Congress in 1980. Wilderness designations must be approved by Congress. According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness designations are for forests that have kept their “primeval” character, showing little influence of human activity. Logging and mining are prohibited in wilderness areas, as are chain saws, motor vehicles and mountain bikes.

Noakes said his goal isn’t to advocate a political position. But he does want to examine the consequences of the creation of the Frank Church, an act which he readily admits benefits him. Noakes released the first episode in a planned five-part series Jan. 5 (see sidebar).

“I’m trying to keep it super neutral,” he said. “I’m just telling the story.”

And that story – both the personal one and the political one – is complicated. But it’s also a good adventure yarn.

Noakes said the trip was the hardest he’d undertaken. Each morning, he’d wake up and jam his feet into frozen ski boots. For the first four hours, he wouldn’t be able to feel them. Weather was a constant concern and he abandoned the project six days into it out of fear of an incoming storm. A pilot plucked him from deep in the backcountry. But once he returned home, the unfinished business ate at him and he returned a week later.

“I was solo and its just cold,” Noakes said. “I think it’s 90% mental. It was the only trip that I would wake up in the morning and say to myself, ‘I’m going to come home. Maybe.’ ”

Why watch the docuseries? To learn and to imagine what’s possible, he said.

“Not many of us get to experience what it’s like to walk in these wild places,” he said. “But many of us want to. It’s appetizing for those who do crave that.”