The Search For Gold
Outback Idaho, Caribou Mountain, Cariboo City.
Editor/Story/Photo: Eric Bewley
CARIBOU CITY, ID -In the settlement of the west, gold fever played an important role. A vision of the mother lode could send a man searching and dreaming for years. The Caribou National Forest was named for an early miner nicknamed Cariboo Jack, who along with two friends, discovered the first gold in 1870 near what is now called Caribou Mountain. Jesse Fairchild, alias Cariboo Jack, had a reputation as a story teller, a weaver of tall tales about the Canadian Caribou Country.
We began our trip in Soda Springs, Idaho fairly early in the morning. Our goal was to travel the distance to Caribou Mountain and City all on unimproved back-country roads. The valleys we passed on our way to the mountain are incredibly vast and unpopulated. Aside from the occasional cow heard, there is hardly anything out here beside mountains, valleys, trees, rocks, and streams that make up this wilderness.
After only a few short miles we had passed some amazing scenery including the “Narrows” a local angling nirvana and Grey’s Lake a bird refuge most notably famous for being one of only a handful of areas where the Whooping Crane is known to exist.
Getting closer to the mountain revealed even more eye-popping vistas. Just before we began the assent up the mountain we stopped at the Caribou Basin Guard Station. Here there was two charming forest service cabins and a warming hut for Snow Mobilers.
The road to the ‘City’ was quite steep and enjoyable with several creek crossings. We stopped for lunch in the early afternoon under a large shady meadow and enjoyed the nearby babbling brook.
The Sidekick was performing flawlessly on this terrain we were completely impressed with the IFS’ ability to soak up the bumps of this lumpy-bumpy yet typical dirt road.
Then, we were there. Caribou City, the once thriving town of 1500 residence is now reduced to this single cabin. Little is left of the City. In fact, other than the large piles of ‘burden’ it would be hard to even tell that man had worked this land.
Now, we’re sure the miners of Caribou City didn’t have OHV use in mind when they were mining for gold at the turn of the century. But because of their mining techniques, we were able to reap the benefits. On Caribou Mountain, there are literally miles upon miles of ‘burden’ piles that create a landscape of boulders and rocks off all kinds of shapes and sizes.
We were able to spend only a fraction of the time we would’ve like to exploring these ‘ready made’ trails that wandered from valley to valley, meadow to meadow in this veritable play pen for OHV enthusiasts.
After putting around on these rock piles for a couple hours, we decided to head for home. Next time, we will definitely camp on or near the mountain so that we can spend even more time exploring this magical area, Caribou Mountain.
Jesse Fairchilds, “Carriboo Jack”, came to Rocky Bar in the fall of 1869. He told tall tales from the Carriboo Mining District of British Columbia where: “the caribou ran so thick that a fellow could run all the way to hell and back atop them and never touch bare ground. Their breath, which turned immediately into snow and ice, kept the north country covered in white. They would build a mountain in a minute with their breath.”
Of himself, he said, “I was born in a blizzard snowdrift in the worst damn storm to ever hit Canada. I was bathed in a gold pan, suckled by a caribou, wrapped in a buffalo rug, and could whip any grizzly going before I was thirteen. That’s when I left home.” When challenged on his tales he’d respond: “It is so. I will let you know Iam from Carriboo!”
The “Jack” in the nickname came from his mule: “so danged smart he had to change socks once a week or she wouldn’t let him ride her.” She could open any gate built: “she stold a full year of grain, a sack at a time from a Quaker farmer– each night he built the latch higher on the door until finally the mule couldn’t reach it. That only stopped her one night — the next night the mule was seen standing on hind legs telling the family dog standing on her forehead how to open the latch.”
In 1870 Fairchilds was one of several credited as the first to discover gold on the mountain that bears his nickname. Claims were filed (for “Carriboo’s Diggings”) in Lander, because it was thought the area was in Wyoming. Jesse “Carriboo Jack” spent 14 years at the Carriboo mines near Keenan City, till the color played out.
Sitting at a saloon in Soda Springs he heard of a wounded grizzly bear down by Bear River. Reinforced with reputation and plenty of drinks, Carriboo Jack took the lead and walked right into the brush after the bear. The bear attacked, Jack’s shot missed and Jim Call finally killed the bear but not until the bear inflicted serious wounds. Medical help from Malad took several hours but apparently Jack died from blood poisoning within a week when the doctor sewed up his wounds but failed to allow openings so they could properly drain. Carriboo Jack was buried in Soda Springs where a commemorative grave marker has been established.
Near the cemetery at Geyser Park, a visitor center/public restroom commemorates the history of the area and explains the legacy that endures. The Carriboo Jack Memorial was dedicated May 18, 1996, as a central feature of Soda Springs’ centennial celebration. Next time you’re in Soda Springs, take a moment and stop to appreciate the source of the name for the Caribou Mountain, Caribou City, Caribou County and the Caribou National Forest.
Quotes used here come from various sources captured in The Mountain Carriboo and Other Gold Camps in Idaho, by Ellen Carney and Elaine S. Johnson of Soda Springs, Traildust Publishing Co., 1994.
On a side note, we would like to applaud the forest management of the Caribou National Forest for recognizing that OHV travel is a legitimate use of the land and that it can be managed sensibly and responsibly