Pioneering a 1,200-mile Hike

The Idaho Centennial Trail
By Stephen Stuebner

It was 1986. The first golden ray of sunlight bounced off shiny columns of basalt in Black Canyon, deep inside the Owyhee Desert on the Idaho-Nevada border. Syd Tate rose with the sun and made coffee in his trail-worn charcoal-colored aluminum pot. Tate had a slight knot in his gut that morning, a natural extra dose of adrenaline in anticipation of the monumental journey ahead.

He looked at the soft-yellow light on the brown canyon wall. Somehow he knew that he and Roger Williams were going to make it. After five years of preparation, they finally were about to begin the first-known south-to-north trek through Idaho. By Williams' plan, they would cover 10 or more miles a day for three months to hike 1,200 miles through one of the most rugged and mountainous states in the nation.

It should come as no surprise that Williams, 59, and Tate, 52, were the first two human beings to pioneer a north-south crossing of Idaho. They started backpacking in the late 1950s and early 1960s—well before it was the vogue thing to do—and Williams knew the states backcountry better than almost anyone.

Williams, a retired research wildlife biologist for the Idaho Fish and Game Department, and Tate, owner of Tate's Rents, an Idaho home-grown chain of rental equipment stores, would begin the journey at the Nevada-Idaho border in the blazing hot, clear days of the Owyhee Plateau, at an elevation of 6,100 feet. They would hike along the west side of the West Fork of the Bruneau River, a deep chasm with rare access. The canyon is rimmed by rhyolite and basalt lava rock, a magnificent display of spires, columns, vertical walls, and waterfalls.

Walking along the rim of the canyon is a fantastic experience. It's quite easy to feel totally and absolutely alone. In the uplands of the Owyhee Plateau, there are no roads, powerlines or development, only endless slopes of sagebrush and juniper rolling into infinity. It is just you, the canyon, and the sagebrush.

That was how Williams and Tate wanted it. Williams had selected a route that traced through the wildest, most remote and least developed parts of Idaho. He had intentionally picked a route that would avoid civilization to the maximum extent possible, and course through the states many wilderness areas and scenic jewels.

They could have started the hike in May, but they didn't want to run into snow in the Sawtooth Mountains, to the north and some 5,000 feet higher. Once they hit the Sawtooths, they would be hiking through the gnarly interior of Idaho?the Salmon River Mountains, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, the craggy Idaho-Montana divide above the St. Joe River, and onward into the wettest region of Idaho, the white pine and cedar forests of the Panhandle. Waiting for the snow to clear made sense.

By June 21, the first day of summer and their journey, it was sizzling hot.

"We hiked in the mornings and evenings and shaded up in the middle of the day,"

Tate recalls, grinning at the memory of the challenge. This backpacking duo had a ton of experience. They possessed a strong can-do type of attitude. A little heat wasnt going to set them back.

"At no time did I entertain the thought that we were not going to make it," Tate says."We were going to make it. It was a given."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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