Sun Valley, Idaho: Roughing It In Style

May 26, 1991|By Petey O'Donnell

Twenty miles north of Sun Valley, Idaho, the sun is slowly setting on the headwaters of the Big Wood River. On a little

beaver pond here, about a quarter mile east of nowhere on Highway 75, a trout rises to the shimmering surface. I gently flick my rod, whipping the fly out oh so lightly, 10 yards in front of it. Perfect, I think, as the ripples fan out across the dusky clouds, thick as oil paint, reflecting on the water. A Hemingway moment.

Then guide Ritchie Thurston breaks in: "C'mon, you turkey." He is speaking to the trout -- I think.

No, it's not just me against the elements out here. It's me, my husband and our wallet against the elements. Back in Sun Valley, we dropped almost half of Ritchie's fall tuition at Snug Fly Fishing for today's adventure -- which, at a little over $200, may say as much about tuition at the University of Idaho as it does the cost of roughing it.

But, of course, this is not just roughing it. This is roughing it in style, the reputation Sun Valley has traded on since it became the country's first European-style ski resort in 1936.

With a grand dining room, an outdoor heated pool and the world's first chairlifts, the Sun Valley Lodge began as the vision of Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad. After traveling in Europe, he became convinced that by planting a luxurious destination out West, he could turn the heavy snows from an operating liability into an asset, increasing passenger traffic from the East.

Harriman's instincts were on the money. From the moment of its lavish Christmastime opening, Sun Valley caught on as "society's newest winter playground," according to Life magazine, attracting everyone from the du Ponts and Vanderbilts to Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper.

As a summer playground, the resort received its first publicity in 1939, when Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway swaggered into town. Hemingway found the hunting and fishing so satisfactory that he returned the following year, finishing "For Whom the Bell Tolls" at the lodge.

By then, the faux-Tyrolean Sun Valley Inn had opened its doors, a perfect bookend to the faux-wood Lodge. While the lodge was constructed of poured cement, painted and textured to look like wood, the inn was fashioned to look like a set in Paramount's "I Met Him in Paris," starring Claudette Colbert.

Today, this peculiar pair is the centerpiece of the resort. Around it, a golf course has been added, along with duck ponds, tennis courts, an Olympic-size pool -- which really is Olympic-size -- a shopping mall connecting the inn to the lodge and, in 1972, Sun Valley's sister resort, Elkhorn.

Around all of that is what makes Sun Valley Sun Valley: the Pioneer Mountains just beyond the Sun Valley golf course; Baldy to the west, the best single ski mountain in the world, according to Jean-Claude Killy; and, just north of the village, the Boulders. It is this surrounding wilderness, the easy access to adventure from the easy elegance of the resort, that makes Sun Valley an American original.

The Big Wood River winds through the heart of Ketchum, the old mining town that defines Sun Valley's western boundary. Twenty miles upstream, Ritchie is squatting on the riverbank, eyes squinted to get a closer look at the bugs hovering over the creek. As unaffected and wholesome as you'd expect a boy to be who grew up fly fishing in a state of only 1 million human inhabitants, he's doing everything short of attaching the fish to our hooks.

The headwaters of the Big Wood are in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the 756,000 acres that make up the geographic heart of Idaho. Beginning eight miles north of Ketchum, the area is bigger than Rhode Island, and includes the headwaters of four other major rivers and 1,000 lakes. Parts of four mountain ranges are here, and in the southeastern Sawtooths is Galena Stage Stop Corrals.

You don't have to be Marlin Perkins to see that they know a thing or two about adventure around here. For one thing, 40-degree temperatures and a mild frost are not uncommon at this altitude first thing on a summer morning. For another, our guides wake up to it in an unheated, unwired and unplumbed barn. No wonder they look so mean.

They emerge bowlegged and taciturn from their living quarters: There is Scott McGill, perhaps the only University of Kansas political science major in Idaho leading trail rides, and there is Gator, his tailless Catahoula cow hound.

As the cowboy and the cowhound set out for Titus Lake, more than three miles up in the mountains, four other pairs of horses and riders fall into line behind them, with Spuds and me bringing up the rear. Sitting back in my saddle, I settle into the lazy rhythms of the trail ride. Swaying side to side, moseying forward wordlessly, up and up we go, single file and nose to tail.

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