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TRAVELING IN STYLE : BACK TO THE RIVER OF NO RETURN : Few wilderness areas offer the harmony that surrounds Idaho's Shepp Ranch, a refuge of unsullied solitude

October 21, 1990|JERRY HULSE | Hulse is The Times' award-winning travel writer and columnist.

The seduction began the moment the bush pilot maneuvered the little single-engine airplane out of the heavens and into the canyon through which flows the Salmon, Idaho's storied River of No Return. Settling onto an unpaved runway, the plane bounced over potholes while a herd of elk stared motionless from a towering peak and a lone eagle rode a thermal above pinnacles that pierced an incredibly blue sky. As the pilot switched off the engine, the voice of a blue jay called out from the forest and the wind wafted through a stand of ponderosa pine.

Few wilderness areas on earth offer the harmony that surrounds Shepp Ranch, a hideaway in central Idaho that's unrivaled--anywhere in the West--for tranquillity. It is here that runaways from America's crowded cities arrive to recharge their souls in a setting that features Rocky Mountain peaks, Alpine meadows and the soothing song of the Salmon as it wends its way through the second-deepest gorge in North America--a gorge deeper even than the Grand Canyon.

Guests at Shepp Ranch learn the true meaning of solitude, which is why no one is eager to leave. Not after a few days, not even a couple of weeks. This isn't to say that Shepp is one of those country-club ranches. Indeed, it is without television, telephones or newspapers. It is for this very reason that vacationers wishing to escape the pressure cooker choose Shepp with its scattering of rustic cabins and engaging lodge where a friendly mutt named Cotter snoozes while logs snap in the fireplace and guests read or play cards. A bearskin covers one wall, and a bookcase contains a collection of National Geographic magazines dating to 1916.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 28, 1990 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 2 Travel Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Shepp Ranch--In the information box accompanying "Back to the River of No Return" (Traveling in Style, Oct. 21), Shepp Ranch was listed as having an elevation of 22,000 feet. The elevation is actually 2,200 feet.

At Shepp Ranch no one locks a door, simply because it is unnecessary. Without a road for miles, no one gives a hoot about security. Shepp is an experience that haunts the psyche--long after one returns to the restless world of cities and freeways and polluted skies. The ranch is accessible only by the river, or by the Cessna that flies north 150 miles from Boise. The nearest settlement, Riggins (with its 500 satisfied souls), is 43 miles downriver. Beyond Riggins the road comes to an abrupt end--15 miles from the ranch. It is there, at Road's End, that guests are picked up by a jet boat that delivers them through rapids and dark green waters.

Shepp faces the River of No Return at its confluence with Crooked Creek, so there is a rush of water that lulls guests to sleep with its constant song. A haunting, roadless country, the area that surrounds Shepp Ranch represents one of the last expanses of untouched wilderness in America. Moss-covered logs lie in the damp forest; black bears roam the rocky shore; horses graze in the pasture and leaves turn with the coming of autumn.

I have been here three days and the dream is nearly over. Soon the Cessna will be returning and the experience of having known Shepp will be but a memory that began with the flight from Boise.

Leaving that city, we flew above heavily forested mountains and 9,500-foot-high peaks over which the little airplane was rocked by thermals. Below, dusty logging roads led to forests; dozens of lakes and streams mirrored a morning sky the shade of faded denims. Beneath the wing I caught a glimpse of a valley as green as Ireland itself. Herds of cattle grazed in peaceful pastures and farms appeared on the horizon; and after that there was only wilderness--mile after mile of wilderness.

If one is apprehensive about small airplanes and tight approaches--particularly onto an unpaved runway--my suggestion is to drive from Boise and catch the boat at Road's End. For the aerial approach to Shepp Ranch isn't an experience for the faint of heart--nor one that's easily forgotten. Nearing the ranch, pilot Rod Nielsen put the plane into a tight turn and expertly sideslipped into the canyon. Rocky walls spun past like a descending curtain while the plane dropped toward the river on its final approach. Nielsen banked and we came in at near treetop level, touching down to face a scene that would have inspired Jack London.

Rising beside a chestnut tree, the lodge at Shepp Ranch is within earshot of the Salmon. Guest cabins face the river and others are hidden in the forest, where wildlife abounds. Indeed, a couple of years ago a bear was caught crawling out a kitchen window, a sack of flour clamped firmly in its jaws. And only a few nights ago, while a guest stood studying the stars, a black bear ambled out of the trees, peered curiously, then disappeared into the darkness.

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