I love Idaho Hot Springs! But on this trip, while mid-winter Ski resort hopping, I really did not expect to see many. So, I was delighted when I found some hot springs right up the road from Sun Valley Idaho. Frenchman’s Corner is a true hidden gem at Sun Valley.
Also known as Warfield Hot Springs, these are a set of idaho hot springs that feed into both sides of Warm Springs Creek. One feeds into the road side of the creek and there are two on the other side. To access them you need to take a chilly wade across the creek. The springs are a set of pools that have been built up over time. Temperature is controlled by changing the amount of cold water entering the pools from the creek.
When I visited it was very quiet, and there was only a little bit of traffic. When I arrived it was early, and the sun had not reached the bottom of the canyon yet. Steam from the springs and creek had iced up all of the bushes and small trees next to the creek. This adorned them with light splitting ice prisms, and when the sun peeked into the canyon it lit this ice up like Christmas lights. No one was using the springs when I got there, but a couple of people showed up after I got out Although not far from town, the springs have a nice sense of solitude, and I enjoyed a nice long soak.
All of these places have their own stories, frenchman’s corner is no exception. The Moss Man and his experience with this Idaho hot Spring is one such story.
As reported from the Wood River Journal, March 15, 1984: “A 20-year-old Hailey man was found soaking in a hot mineral pool at Frenchman’s Bend last Saturday after having apparently lived there for several weeks. [Name withheld to protect the guilty], was discovered by two cross-country skiers, according to a Blaine County Sheriff’s Department report. The skiers observed that some of Becker’s skin was peeling and that moss was growing on his back. The semi-conscious victim was taken to Moritz Community Hospital, according to the report. His clothes lay frozen on the ground nearby. A Moritz physician estimated that the victim may have lost 60 pounds while living in the pool. [Becker’s sister-in-law said that] the man stood six-two and weighed 210 pounds prior to leaving for Frenchman’s Bend, and that he took a lot of amphetamines. ‘His brains are really scrambled,’ she said.”
If it were not for the newspaper article from the Journal, I would have dismissed this as a rural myth. It does appear to have happened. And probably because of the bizarre nature of the 28 day event, it inspired a annual, but short lived ceremony to commemorate it, as well as to acknowledge and steward the springs. For a brief period the locals created the “Moss Man Commemoration and Pagan Fun Fest of Ketchum, Idaho”. It was a ceremony to celebrate the symbolism and visions of the Moss Man, and even more importantly to clean up the hot springs after a winter of use.
This is a great example of commemorating a bizarre event with a ritual of good intent.
These places where water, warmed by the earth, bubbles up and provides a scenic, serene, and peaceful spot for a hot bath are truly special. There are extensive indian stories about the origination and use of these place. The myths are not limited to idaho hot springs either. In Arkansas there is a place of profound spiritual significance and and good evidence of our government’s efforts to erase these beliefs. There are also the various scientific studies and explorations. One such description about the hydrothermal systems of this area is here.
Frenchman’s Corner Hot Springs is like many such places. It is unique in its own way, but also similar in that it is a wonderful place to decompress and meet other travelers. A comfortable spot to take in breathtaking scenery, and sit in gratitude.
To find this spot so close to where I was visiting was a gift. And the story of Moss Man served as an amusing highlight. It is not too hard to see how it could have come about, and its significance is a bit of a head scratcher. Moss Man was stranded for twenty eight days. He saw a white wolf kill a deer. And he was entombed and assimilated by the warm waters of the spring. Knowing this, I suspect there are other older stories about this place, and I would love to hear them. If you know more about this place perhaps and would like to share it, contact me through this blog or add your name to our email list.
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The road had become hostile. Traveling North through Utah I had been wondering about the huge, brown, low hanging cloud in the distance. As I got closer the winds picked up. The gusts started hitting the truck like waves in the ocean. As they slammed into the truck we would rock back and forth and it was a struggle to keep the truck in its lane. The goal was to reach Nevada, so we kept going. We drove slowly hoping the wind would not tip us over or push us into a ditch. Eventually we reached highway 50 and turned West. This brought us into Nevada and it was time to find a place to spend the night. A quick internet search brought up Great Basin National Park. It also brought up an obscure article named, “Prometheus, killing the oldest living thing” .
Glad to have shelter from the relentless gusty wind, we decided to spend the night in the park. I had been working to advocate for the return of fire to the environment and for its use as a restoration tool. Because of this, the term, “Prometheus”, caught my eye. Prometheus is a Greek God who brought down the wrath of Zeus by helping humans. He did this in several ways, but most notably, he stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to the human race.
Great Basin National Park is located in far Eastern Nevada. The beginning elevation of the park is about 6500′, but the majority of the park is much higher. Wheeler Peak campground is the last campground on the road and it sits just below 10,000′. Wheeler Peak looms over this area, its summit above 13,000′. It is a tough hike to the top.
Much of this country is above treeline and the climate is very harsh. Even though it is a difficult environment to live in, it is home to a diversity of plant and animal life. Quaking aspen, mountain mahogany and small, cold, clear streams punctuate the rocky ancient landscape. There are cougars, bobcats, marmots, rock squirrels, and mountain sheep. Other animals that can be found here are elk, mule deer, spotted skunks, shrews, ringtail cats, and ermine. The weather can be extreme, and can change in the blink of an eye. The park is busiest in the summer after the majority of the snow has melted. Cold winters and hot summers make this an area of contrasts.
This high place, with its harsh beauty is the unique environment of the Bristlcone Pine.
Bristlecones, The Oldest Living Thing
Gnarled and stunted, bristcones mostly live at high elevation. The trees grow in six states and the best known groves are in the White Mountains of Eastern California. The White Mountain groves of bristlecones are a favorite for academics and scientists studying the climate and the environment. These trees were thought to be oldest living things. The White Mountains are popular and relativley easy to acess. Because of this and the acknowledged scientific value of these groves, the trees and area where they live is protected.
There are lesser known groves in Great Basin National Park. In the shadow of Wheeler Peak there is a grove that was home to a bristlecone pine tree named Prometheus. There was a small group of people who frequented this area. They knew it was a special place and because of that, they had named many of the trees. This is how Prometheus had been named. Unfortunately, the groves in Great Basin National Park did not have the same protections of those in the White Mountains.
In 1963 a graduate student field researcher named Donald Currey was working on understanding how climates change over time. Mr Currey became convinced that the trees living in the white Mountains below Wheeler peak were very old. His plan was to utilize them to gather data for his research.
At this point the details of the story of Prometheus diverge. Most of the versions follow a common theme however. Mr. Currey was using a boring tool to study Prometheus’s tree rings when his tool became stuck. Efforts to remove it then broke it off deep in the trunk. One version of the story is that Currey was unable to get a replacement tool in time to finish the season, so he asked the Forest Service for permission to cut the tree down. Another version has the Forest Service offering to cut the tree down.
Permission was granted. This was not without some challenges however. The first tree feller refused to fell the tree, citing its unique nature and age. There were others who voiced serious concerns over the killing of Prometheus. And more would have objected had they known of the plans. Eventually they found a willing tree feller and Prometheus was cut eight feet above where it had germinated. Afterwards, the tree was cut into slabs and those were sent to several research facilities for evaluation. The first person to analyse one of these slabs was Donald Currey.
Mr. Curry’s first task was to count the growth rings on the slab he was analyzing. The first day he counted over a thousand. The next day his count passed 3000, and he began to feel sick. One can only imagine the pit he must have felt in his stomach as he counted the tree rings well past 4000. It must have been awful to realized he had just killed the oldest living thing.
It took some time for the world to realize what had happened in this remote place. The Wheeler Peak bristlcones had eclipsed their cousins in the White Mountains of California. The oldest living tree had been chopped down, and it actually lived in Great Basin National Park.
There was a substantial outcry. As accusations flew, Donald Curry was attacked and many versions of what actually happened began to circulate. Currey himself was wrecked. The loss of Prometheus changed his career. He refused to work with living things after that, and became very private. Once, while being interviewed about unrelated research, he literally ran away from a reporter when he was identified as the man who killed the oldest living thing. I believe his actions support the idea that he really had no idea about the age of the tree. But he was fully aware of what an affront this act was to science, research and environmental preservation. The killing of Prometheus had a profound effect on him.
This is a sad story. It is a tale with many human elements: arrogance, integrity, ignorance, curiosity, impulsiveness and hubris. This also makes it is a story of great value.
It was dark when we finally reached our destination, Great Basin National Park. I had only discovered a small part of this story and I was excited to explore the landscape and learn more. The next morning we drove to the end of the road, which is just below 10,000′. I set out alone, up a narrow winding trail to learn more of the story of Prometheus. I hoped even to find the stump.
The trail was a rocky path that led into the shadow of Wheeler Peak. It was an interpretative trail and as I went, I eagerly read the various plaques about the environment, animals and plants. I knew soon I would learn more about the oldest living thing, and the epic tale that had played out here fifty two years before. But there was no mention of Prometheus. I looped the trail twice thinking I had missed the sign. But nothing, not a single word about any of it. When I got back to the camping/picnic area I searched everywhere for some mention of Prometheus, but there was nothing. The killing of the oldest living thing had become a secret.
Re-Killing The Oldest Living Thing
It was fortunate to find the tale of Prometheus right before staying at Great Basin National Park. The story piqued my curiosity and inspired me to go look for the old tree and learn more. As I searched the park in vain for more information I was more aware of my environment. The tale helped me find a deeper reverence for the ancient groves and high country where they lived. I was reminded of the history of those who had come before. And this started me thinking about those who would come after.
The Park Services’ argument for keeping Prometheus a secret is that people will come and do more damage looking for the tree and taking souvenirs. This has happened many times making it a very real concern. They may have other reasons to try and erase the memory of the killing of Prometheus. The most benign and likely is apathy. Regardless, the failure of the Park Service to acknowledge and embrace this tale guarantees that it will be repeated. And worse, institutional secrecy has eliminated the best stewards of this land.
A Better Way
For an eternity we have protected and enhanced many places and things by educating people. And as there are more and more of us, the likelihood of people looking for, finding and defiling our natural treasures for fun and profit seems increasingly likely. The agencies charged with protecting these treasures often are the ones who allowed the damage in the first place. So the final line of defense are the people who pay for the protection and upkeep of our public lands. Our best stewards are the public, in who’s best interest it is to preserve and protect our treasures.
Immortality Through Storytelling
This is a cautionary tale. It teaches and serves as a warning to others and reminds us of the principles guiding science and exploration. The telling of this saga connects us to the land and to each other. It connects our past to our present, and its message will shape our future. The story fosters appreciation and accountability for the creatures and plants that we share this world with. The retelling of the events leading up to the killing of Prometheus, (and after), present opportunities. It presents a chance to encourage thoughtfulness, to highlight the scientific process, to promote discussion about responsibility and teach principles. In short, it is a teachable moment.
So the story of Prometheus continues. Will this ancient tree disappear from the landscape of our memory? Or will it continue as a verbal and written history of the messy business of humanity finding its way through the universe?
We don’t know those answers yet. However, because of Prometheus I have come to believe in the process of telling stories about the places we visit. Sharing the myths, the histories and the science can only bring us closer to the land and its inhabitants. With this connection comes accountability and stewardship and we can begin to become the voice for those who have no voice.
I hope to see you out there as we travel, learn and relate our experiences. If you would like to contribute to these stories, please sign up as a contributor, if you would like to read more stories as they are posted please become a subscriber.
For most of us there is an urge to see new places.
Seeing new places is hardwired into our genes. It is linked to other really great attributes we share; exploration, curiosity, inventiveness and bravery. Seeing new places helps us to find new friends while enjoying new experiences. These are turned into stories and taken back home to share.Continue reading
In the fall the ancient burly pines release the pine nuts they have been harboring. The sappy pine cones open up to reveal the dark brown nuts encased in the cone flower. I try to be there when this happens. In these old forests the wind moves the thin garnished air, still fragrant from the scent of sun baked wildflowers that live in the high places. The breeze mixes with the aroma of scoured sage and desert dust. This is the essence of the high desert; the smell of pitch mixed with the perfume of the mountains. It is intoxicating and welcomes me home.