Bob and Monica's Westward Journey:  Pocatello  

TOPIC: Pocatello

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Date: Sun, Oct 12 2008 1:45 pm


What follows is Monica's and my trip write-up about Pocatello, ID. The next one will be on Yellowstone NP. The one after that on the Grand Tetons, then Theodore Roosevelt NP, and a final one on the remainder of the trip home after we left Theodore Roosevelt.


Pocatello and Surroundings,

After Monica and I settled in at my daughter Celeste’s and son-in-law Dale’s home, a short nap was on the schedule. The drive of 3,000 miles with post-herpetic neuralgia had left me wondering what I had been drinking when I persuaded Monica to agree for us to make the trip by automobile. Flying would have been simpler and far less wearing, but sitting on a commercial airplane is not my cup of tea. I loved flying in the Air Force, but do not love flying on civilian aircraft. Regardless of the military versus commercial aspect, when flying, you miss the changes in the countryside and you cannot stop at forests and parks along the way to measure trees. Point made.

After our nap, we would be ready to talk with Celeste and Dale about exploring the local area. One thing was obvious to me. I needed a few days rest from the long trip, so any drive to a destinations requiring several hours needed to be placed on hold, at least to the end of the week. Besides, the immediate area offered enough scenic spots to keep us occupied until the weekend. The Pocatello area should not be taken lightly in terms of outdoor sites to visit, but before getting into our side trips, let us take a brief look at Pocatello, itself.

Pocatello is a small city in southeastern Idaho. It began partly as a rail hub and still is, to a degree. Since its early days, Pocatello has grown into a town of about 52,000 souls living within its city limits and 84,000 in its metropolitan area. The closest large population center to Pocatello is Idaho Falls, which has about 58,000 people within the city limits and 120,000 in the metropolitan area. Idaho Falls is about 45 miles north of Pocatello. Beyond Idaho Falls, there are no other large population centers until Boise is reached, 236 miles to the west. The Union Pacific operates a sizable rail yard in Pocatello and trains regularly rumble through the town and valley. The sight and sound of trains is a feature I find most attractive. My father was a railroader and I grew up riding on trains. As a consequence, I like “choo-choos,” big choo-choos. Pocatello is a very livable place. In 2007, Pocatello was ranked number twenty on Forbes' list of Best Small Places for Business and Careers.

The city is named for Chief Pocatello (1815-1884), a Northern Shoshone who was originally from Utah. He fought the incursion of white settlers in his native homeland, but lost the battle, and he and his tribe were moved by the U.S. Army to the Fort Hill Indian Reservation in southeastern Idaho. Today the Northern Shoshone share Fort Hill with the Bannocks, an offshoot of the Northern Paiutes. I should point out that the Bannocks gained national fame as a consequence of the Bannock war of 1878, a war that resulted from white settler encroachment onto the un-ceded lands of the Bannocks and Northern Shoshone and also due to the failure of the federal government to fulfill treaty obligations.

Although Pocatello would stretch the definition of city for a New Yorker or Bostonian, in Pocatello there is a sufficient population to support all the amenities that reasonable people require. People in Pocatello are friendly. When they ask you how you are, they genuinely mean it. As a specialized kind of benefit to Pocatello, those of us who need space never get a hemmed in feeling, the kind of feeling that is an integral part of life in the greater Salt Lake City region to the south. In Salt Lake City and environs, the population has exploded over the last decade and the attendant development has spread as a cancer across the land. Much of the development is extremely unwise. Developments have expanded far upon unstable mountain slopes, creating dangers to the inhabitants as well as being an eyesore. Hopefully, Pocatello will avoid a similar fate, at least for a few decades, and now with the burst of the housing bubble, runaway development may settle down.

In terms of topography, Pocatello sets at an altitude of 4,462 feet in the Portneuf River Valley and is surrounded to the east and west by mountains. Pocatello enjoys a semi-desert climate. I say enjoys because the dry air is preferable to most people to high humidity, especially in the summer. Daytime heat in the summer is quickly dissipated in the evening, so one can always look forward to enjoying a cool and comfortable evening. The city receives about 12 inches of precipitation per year. An average of forty-one inches of snow falls per season, although this number is likely recorded at the lower-lying airport. A couple thousand feet higher, the average is likely to be more by a factor of at least 50%.  As for the customary temperature statistics, Pocatello’s average annual temperature is a relatively cool 46.4 degrees. The average January temperature is 24.4 degrees and the July equivalent is 69.2 degrees. Pocatello’s all time high is 104 degrees and all time low is 33 degrees below zero. Compared to the Wyoming towns to the east, Pocatello’s climate is noticeably milder, but it is colder than Salt Lake City to the south.

As previously mentioned, Pocatello is located in a river valley on the Portneuf River, a tributary of the Snake River. The Portneuf joins the Snake just west of Pocatello at American Falls. The Snake, which begins in Yellowstone National Park in the Absorakas, flows westward to eventually join the Columbia River. The Snake is 1,040 miles long and register around 56,000 cubic feet of discharge per second at its mouth.  Serving as natural barriers are the Pocatello and Bannock mountain ranges that lie on the eastern and western sides respectively of Pocatello. The Pocatellos and Bannocks are modest-sized mountains, rising at most 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the valley floor. However, this is sufficient relief to give the area a mountainous appearance, but the valley-to-summit contrast is nowhere overwhelming. The mountains exhibit an overall smooth-flowing, gentle appearance, which contrasts to mountains to the east and south. Examples will provide the needed perspective.

The Wasatch Front to the south in Utah provides a dramatic relief of 5,000 to 7,000 feet above the broad Bonneville flats to the west. There are many craggy rock cliffs that make Wasatch appear intimidating. Another example is the Big Horn range of the Rockies in north-central Wyoming. Thos mountains rise 8,000 to 9,000 feet above the Tongue and Powder River basins to the east and are very dominating, and lastly, the mighty Front Range of Colorado rises between 8,500 and 9,500 feet above the South Platte and Cache La Poudre Rivers to the east. On these scales, Pocatello’s mountainous terrain is friendly. The slopes seem to be saying: “Come walk on me. I won’t hurt you.”
Geologically, Pocatello actually lies in an old lava field formed around 600,000 years ago. As a consequence, the valley soils are light and fertile (potatoes love a well-drained soil) and this has led to the surrounding country becoming potato-land U.S.A. In fact, the annual output of Idaho potatoes is remarkable, ranking second behind Washington State on some lists and number one on others. In many ways, Idaho is associated with the Idaho potato and the quintessential Idaho potato is the Russet Burbank. However, over 30 varieties are grown in the Gem State. As a side note, the Russet was developed in Lunenberg, Massachusetts by Luther Burbank sometime between 1870 and 1874. He moved to northern California in 1875.

Pocatello has a historic, old part of town and a modern extension. Idaho State University is located in the town, which adds a touch of culture that would otherwise likely be absent. Pocatello even has a small food cooperative that Monica fell in love with. She supports efforts to use locally-grown, organic produce and we frequented the fledgling cooperative a number of times while staying in Pocatello.

For Celeste’s and Dale’s corner of Pocatello, they live in a modern, comfortable, upscale neighborhood in the outskirts of town. Their neighborhood lies on the up-slopes of the Bannock Range. The slopes are gentle, disguising the overall elevation change from valley to summits. The mountains reach altitudes of over 7,000 feet and are literally loaded with game. Mule deer are a common site and mountain lions lurk in the higher country, unnervingly close by.
From Celeste’s deck, located at the rear of her kitchen, one can look across the Portneuf River Valley and to the top of the small Pocatello Range to the east. Chinese Peak dominates the scene. That peak rises to 6,791 feet and is bare of trees except for spotty areas of juniper following the ravines. Monica calls the Pocatellos the naked mountains, a name she also applies without prejudice to the other small ranges in southern Idaho. She has mixed feelings about the naked mountains. She prefers a covering of trees on her mountains, but acknowledges that in the spring and early summer when the wildflowers are at their peak, naked mountains take a back seat to none of their tree-covered brethren.

As for me, I admit to a fondness for the naked mountains. They provided me with unobstructed views, which I often thirst for. I am fundamentally a big sky, long view person. I secretly admit to getting frustrated when I am hemmed in for long periods of time by trees. On mountain hikes, I want more than a miserly view at the end of a trek. I certainly can be distracted by big trees, but long stretches of very ordinary forest leave me yearning for openings and long vistas. This preference for open ground would seem to stand in contrast to my chosen avocation, but the ideal for me has always been a mix of trees and open land and that mix is provided in both the Bannock and Portneuf ranges in southern Idaho.

After our rest, my daughter tempted us with a visit to what was supposed to be a very scenic area, so our first side trip was to nearby Scout Mountain in the Bannocks. From my daughter’s home, the trailhead on Scout is only about a 35-minute drive. So Scout was put on the schedule. The mountain is visible from Celeste’s front yard and has a pleasing, somewhat rugged, but not intimidating profile. Scout is a modest-sized mountain compared to Idaho’s real high country to the west and north. Still, it rises abruptly 4,000 feet above the valley of the Portneuf River to an altitude of 8,700, which it achieves at a lone point along its summit ridge. Scout’s sides feature flower-laden meadows, old growth Douglas fir, scenic rock outcroppings, and long, unobstructed views once an altitude above 7,000 feet is reached.

One of our earliest side trips that we took was a drive up to the top of Chinese Peak in the Pocatello Range, as previously described. Dale drove us up a narrow, rut-filled, winding utility road to the summit in his powerful trunk. Fortunately Dale is an expert driver and very aware of situations that might unnerve a passenger. Consequently, the ride to the summit was most pleasurable and the wildflower display continued with arrowleaf balsam root stealing the show.

Chinese Peak has a few widely scattered junipers growing in ravines. Outside those tenuous little plant communities, the covering of the peak is sagebrush, grass, and many varieties of wildflowers. Unfortunately, the mountain’s summit is defaced with an antenna farm, but such is the price of what we consider progress. The late evening views from Chinese Peak were a shade short of spectacular, but only a shade. Across in Portneuf River Valley and into the Bannocks, we could see the housing area where Celeste and Dale live. From this vantage point, the amount of wild country behind the housing community clearly revealed itself and was indeed impressive. Celeste and Dale live on the edge of a wilderness. Above the boundary of the housing development, there is not a single sign of a human presence. It made me think about western expanses and what they mean to those who need them. Spaciousness is a difficult sell to make in today’s cellphone, text-messaging, multi-tasking environment. I think about that a lot. Basically, I think the human race is divided into two camps: those who need plenty of space free of human congestion and those who do not. I clearly belong in the first camp.

Our first hike was on a forested trail, actually an ATV route to the summit of Scout Mountain. Several large old-growth Douglas firs immediately captured my attention. A couple were in the 12-foot circumference class. Heights of the firs were 95 to 110 feet and they were all gnarly. Celeste had told me about the big trees along the trail and thought I would be pleased. I was not disappointed. There just were not enough of them.  Through the trees, the looming form of the Scout Mountain summit gave me a taste of the big western mountain look we had driven through in Wyoming. The trail was dusty, as was the vegetation along the sides of the trail. The dust results from passing ATVs.

During our stay, Monica and I took walks on two separate trails on Scout Mountain. The walks were made on two different days. Both days were hot and reminded me that July is not the best month to hike on Scout Mountain. If you get out early enough, you can beat the heat, but much past 10:00AM, you are going to fry.  Monica and I took several other hikes in the Bannock Range. One, along a narrow stream named the west branch of Mink Brook, featured even more impressive old growth Douglas fir than I had seen on the Scout Mountain trail. This stream-side trail featured more wildflowers than either Monica and I could have imagined. The abundance of wildlife, wildflowers, grassy meadows, old growth, and scenic views reminded me of how just how many small, mountain ranges exist in the vastness of the West that are virtually unknown to the general public. One need not go to the famous places to enjoy the West and all its charms. There are literally thousands of hideaway places that provide scenery and solitude in combination with interesting geology and fauna and flora.

From my daughter’s home, I could stroll around the neighborhood and enjoy relatively unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains. I never knew when I would see mule deer browsing in the surrounding fields and there were reports of mountain lions lurking in the ridges. Mountain lion population in Idaho is quite high. In addition, there is black bear, elk, moose, bald eagle, coyote and other fauna that reminds one that wildlife is an integral part of the surrounding landscape, not just an occasional novelty. Apparently, Idahoans around Pocatello like their wildlife. The culture is an interesting mix of urban, semi-urban, and rural folks, but the urban appear not to have lost their connections to nature the way people in the metropolitan Salt Lake City area have. That was refreshing to see.
One walk in the neighborhood that I frequently took followed a street that overlooked the Portneuf River valley. I was able to view from a distance the crest of the distant Portneuf Range, home to three 9,000-footers and the Pebble Creek Ski Area. Those mountains attracted me. Their contours were pleasing and they rose abruptly above the valley. One of our early side trips was onto the slopes of Snow Mountain, one of the 9,000-footers. Monica, Celeste, my grandson Stephen, and I followed a ski path up to a huge old growth Douglas Fir that measured 13 feet in circumference. The views from the ski slopes were extraordinary. I wanted to explore more, but the weather was too hot to spend much time on the exposed areas of the slopes. In a narrow, steep ravine, we found patches of white columbine. I had seldom seen the white variety. Most of what I had seen was blue columbine.

Monica was not as drawn to the Portneuf Range as I was, and particularly the Peeble Creek Ski Area. Basically, Monica steers away from places that have been modified by humans. Artificial reservoirs, dude ranches, ski resorts, and landscaped parks as substitutes for natural areas constantly remind her of the human manipulation that robs a place of its naturalness. She did acknowledge that the view across the Portneuf River Valley into the Bannocks was expansive, although those mountains were of the naked variety. I was apparent that she was not ready for a conversion to naked mountain terrain despite my best efforts to persuade her to the beauty of the unclad peaks.
I should point out that one of the great enjoyments for both Monica and me was our time with my grandson Stephen. He is Dale’s son by a previous marriage, but I have a strong bond to him. Although he is only 10 years of age, his communication and social skills surpass those of most adults. He is concerned, sympathetic, wants to please, and is very interested in all aspects of nature. Importantly, he and Monica got along very well. Stephen wanted to learn birds and that fit in well with Monica’s interests. Monica is an excellent birder and she quickly took over the job of schooling Stephen on the avian species in the area. She bought him identification books and helped him start a life bird list. The process was especially fun for me to watch. Stephen wanted to please and played Monica like a fish. She was hooked from the start.

Monica is the first to tell you that she is neither the motherly nor the grandmotherly type. For her to develop a special interest in a child, be it a relative or offspring of a friend, that child needs to be attentive and responsive and Stephen is both. Both Monica and I feel extremely lucky to have Stephen as our grandson.  One feature of Pocatello that I have not talked about is the adjacent Indian culture on the Fort Hill Indian Reservation. Monica and I did not visit the tribal areas. There were no special events such as powwows going on during our visit. I personally knew little about the culture of the Bannocks and Northern Shoshone. I had heard of the Bannock War of 1878, but did not know the details. What follows is a quote from Wikipedia about that war.

“The tribe, having been restricted to the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho by the Fort Bridger Treaty Council of 1868, were suffering a famine due to white poachers killing cattle and rations which were served just three days a week. A proximate cause of the Bannock War was European settlers' encroachment onto lands that the Bannocks and Shoshones had never ceded by treaty, particularly the Great Camas Prairie. In the spring, Shoshones and Bannocks congregated there to dig the tubers of the camas (Camassia quamash), which they then dried for winter provender, as well as eating them fresh.[1] When they arrived in the spring of 1878, they discovered that the settlers' hogs had rooted up and eaten much of the camas. Because the Bannocks and Shoshones were already on short rations, this increased the animosity and conflict between them and the settlers.[2][3] General George Crook, a contemporary United States military officer, commented that " was no surprise...that some of the Indian soon afterward broke out into hostilities, and the great wonder is that so many remained on the reservation. With the Bannocks and Shoshone, our Indian policy has resolved itself into a question of war path or starvation, and being merely human, many of them will always choose the former alternative when death shall at least be glorious."

Led by Chief Buffalo Horn the tribe escaped and soon joined with Northern Paiutes from the Malheur Reservation under Chief Egan and the Umatilla tribes. Chief Buffalo Horn would have known that success was highly unlikely, as he had served as a scout for General Oliver Otis Howard during the Nez Perce War the previous year. The two procured food by raiding settlements of the white settlers. The United States government of the time sent General Oliver Otis Howard to aggressively quell the raids: he achieved victory in two battles. Following a massacre in present-day Charles' Ford, Wyoming, of 140 Native Americans, the tribes surrendered.”

I was struck by the observations of General Crook who appeared to have recognized the unjust hand being dealt the Indians throughout his distinguished career. Crook fought in campaigns against Native Americans from Montana to Arizona. However, he was a soldier who did his duty regardless of the justification of the cause.  The proximity of Fort Hall to Pocatello made me think about the true nature of Idaho and indeed the West from Canada to Mexico. It is my belief that the indigenous peoples much more reflected the character of this beautiful, but demanding, land than did the hoards of white settlers conditioned to European schools of thought. The only way whites could exist in the harshness of the western landscape was to change the very nature of the land, to exterminate its competing animals, to dig up its minerals, and to destroy its precious coverings of grass and timber. White civilization has not been kind to the West. It is not necessary to romanticize about or idolize Native American culture. It is only necessary to consider what white civilization has done to the land and promises to continue doing at an ever-increasing pace.
Monica is currently reading a book on the life of Sitting Bull and is gaining good insights into the complex nature of Indian culture. Our western excursion sparked her interest, beginning with the Akta Lakota Museum as well as other museums and displays along the way. To truly connect to the West, I believe it is important to understand the plains and mountain Indian cultures

I hope this gives the reader a little feel for the Pocatello area. In succeeding installments, I will cover the side trips we took to enchanting places.