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Canyon Faces Loss of Phones, Way of Life

November 24, 1989|BRYCE NELSON | Bryce Nelson, a Los Angeles Times national correspondent for 12 years, is a journalism professor at the University of Southern California

My parents were not the first in my family who wished to live at the edge of the world. My great-uncle, Ed Gwyther, was so seriously wounded in the first World War that he no longer wanted to be around people. Hearing of land offered free to injured veterans, he put his large iron stove and his tools on a raft at the Idaho town of Salmon and floated down the boulder-strewn Salmon River 58 miles to Lake Creek, where he built a log cabin.

Sixty years later, the vast area west of the North Fork of the Salmon River is still a sanctuary. Some months, you're as likely to see a herd of bighorn sheep or a bear and her cubs on the road as an automobile. From the tiny town of North Fork past the tinier town of Shoup and the place my great-uncle built, traveling west along a steep canyon for more than 50 miles, one sees no power lines, no operating schools, no churches, no libraries. Mail comes only twice a week, and there is no newspaper delivery. The nearest daily newspaper and hospital are in Missoula, Mont., 140 miles north across the steep Bitterroot Mountains.

Salmon (population 3,308), a 90-minute drive from my parents' place, is the closest town with a doctor or a store that amounts to much. In Shoup (population 2), the only post office or town in this part of the canyon, Don and Donna Myers still pump gas from old glass-walled gravity-flow pumps because the canyon has no electricity. On warm evenings, the Myerses and their friends sit out by the pumps and watch the few cars raise dust as they pass.

People come to this part of the world for white-water rafting and tranquillity. The Salmon is one of the last great western rivers to flow freely, unhindered by dams. It is not always benevolent; boaters have been killed on what Indians once called the "River of No Return." In fact, the first white men to attempt it--the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805--found it so intimidating that after a few miles of this rocky, precipitous canyon, they gave up and retraced their steps to find an easier route to the Pacific.

Almost all the people who live along this section of the Salmon River, many of them retirees, once lived down on the flatlands in "civilization." Joan and Hod Groff are typical; they moved here from Montana for a slower life, one where a person can take the time to appreciate, as Joan says, "the different lights on the rocks as the sun changes."

Like most of their neighbors, the Groffs want peace and quiet but draw the line at isolation. That is why they and 16 other canyon families run what telephone experts say is the last hand-cranked telephone system in the nation, the nonprofit North Fork Telephone Corp.

In 1952, the families bought this antiquated "system" from the U.S. Forest Service for $1; it consists of a single line strung between midget telephone poles or riveted into sheer rock cliffs many yards above the river. The users maintain the equipment, an arduous task for 60- and 70-year-olds who must climb the cliffs to repair lines broken by lightning, forest fires, avalanches and the rockslides touched off by rambling bighorn sheep.

Without this primitive phone system, the 17 families would simply be 17 scattered outposts along 31 miles of canyon. "Our phone line is what ties the people up and down the river and makes us a community," says Jack Briggs, a subscriber for 25 years. It also ties them to the 10 women employed as operators in Salmon by Century Telephone Enterprises, a Louisiana-based holding company that acquired the Salmon telephone company in 1981. The women are the ones who must manually connect calls made to and from the canyon phones.

All of this teamwork is an oddity in a rugged area with few social institutions. The biggest event of the canyon social season is the annual potluck dinner and meeting to elect new officers for the North Fork Telephone Corp. When it was held in June, top executives of Century asked to attend. The families were pleased; some had heard rumors that Century was going to announce a system with dial tones, private lines and all that "modern stuff."

Women hugged each other in greeting as the meeting began at the old log school in Shoup. As the families spread out casseroles, potato salad, baked beans and chocolate cake over three tables, the five telephone executives gave them a fancy plate of cheeses. But the air of hopefulness evaporated after dinner, when the executives began to talk from the end of the table. Century had no choice, the executives were saying; it would have to close the operator facility in Salmon in mid-December. Century was pulling the plug on the tiny company: The 17 families would no longer be able to call anyone in the world except each other.

"It was," says subscriber Marsha Smith, "the shock of a lifetime."

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