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Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm – A stay in the Idaho woods

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm (1993) French title: Indian Creek. Translated by Denis Lagae-Devoldère.

Pete Fromm was born in 1958 in Wisconsin and Indian Creek Chronicles are the memoir of the winter 1978-1979 that he spent on his own, in a tent in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho. The book opens on his first moments alone in his new lodgings:

Once the game warden left, the little tent we’d set up seemed even smaller. I stood in front of it, shivering at a gust I thought I felt running across my neck. Could this really be my home now? My home for the next seven months? For the entire winter? Alone? I glanced up at the river canyon’s steep, dark walls, already cutting off the mid-afternoon sun. Nothing lay beyond those walls of stone and tree but more of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I was alone, in its very heart.

The shadow of the canyon’s wall fell over me and I hurried away from it, into the sunlight remaining in the meadow. My steps rustled through the knee high grass and the breeze soughed through the towering firs and cedars hemming the small opening. The river’s whispering rush ran through it all, creating an insistent quiet that folded around me like a shroud.

I stopped at the phone pole the warden had said would link me to the outside. Yesterday we’d discovered the phone didn’t work. I picked it up anyway, listening to its blank silence, the voice of the rest of the world. With the receiver still against my ear I turned and looked back at the shadowed tent, far enough away now for perspective.

The canvas walls closed off an area fourteen by sixteen feet. The wardens had told me that, bragging it up, making it sound spacious. On the phone, sitting at a college swimming pool, when I’d been accepting this job, it had sounded palatial.

Fromm explains that he went to the University of Missoula on impulse, after stumbling upon a brochure. He had been camping and hiking with his family but he was not familiar with the West. He read a lot about frontiermen, fur trapper and other mountain men. He knew about Hugh Glass through books like Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred and had loved The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie Jr. He was definitely attracted to life in the woods and solitary exploits.

He was on the swimming team at college and when the program got canceled, he was angry and jumped on the opportunity to take on a job with the Fish and Game department in Idaho. His mission consisted of monitoring salmon eggs during a whole winter for a science experiment.

The mama bear in me had a surge of empathy for his poor mother, who had to live several months with the knowledge that her son was on his own, in the Rocky Mountains, in a tent, in winter with snow and temperatures dropping to -30°C, with roads closed and without a phone. The only comforting thought is that bears hibernate and wouldn’t be around.

Pete Fromm has a lot of humor and we follow his preparations for his trip. The warden gave him almost no guidance. His roommate Jeff Rader helped him pack. He had to decide upon which camping gear to take with him and buy his own food.

Imagine that when he went there, he didn’t know how to drive with a stick (The Fish & Game truck had one), he didn’t know how to use a rifle and he had never spent so much time in the wilderness on his own. He didn’t know the codes of his new environment as we understand it when the wardens leave after settling him in the woods:

The wardens climbed into their truck, ready to leave. ‘You’ll need about seven cords of firewood. Concentrate on that. You’ll have to get it all before the snow grounds your truck.

’ Though I didn’t want to ask, it seemed important. ‘What’s a cord?’

I thought “Wow. How can you be so bold as to go and live in the woods with so little knowledge of life in the wilderness?” I’m in awe for this mix of confidence and carefree attitude. I wish I were more like him.

He’s here to tell the story, so we know from the start that all is well that ends well, but still.

Pete Fromm writes about his experience and we see a young college guy become a mountain man in front of our eyes. The job of monitoring the salmon eggs lasts about fifteen minutes per day but must done daily. The goal is to ensure that the water around the egg farm is always running, so breaking the ice everyday in winter is a necessity.

With so little to do for his actual job, his quotidian is made of activities to ensure his daily life. He talks candidly about his months there, the mistakes he makes and various episodes that could have really taken a bad turn. Fortunately, he’s intelligent and fit, he understands what he did wrong and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He must have had real frights sometimes, though.

He walks a lot in the woods, observes the wilderness around him. The wardens check on him once in a while, to bring him his mail. The visits don’t last long. He doesn’t hide that it was hard to adjust to the loneliness and he was glad when his roommate managed to come and visit him on a snowmobile.

I won’t tell any episodes of his stay at Indian Creek, you’ll have to discover them yourself. I’d rather write about the atmosphere of the book.

I’d already read his novel A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do and I found in Indian Creek the same steady voice as in his novel. His prose is lovely and progresses at the rhythmic and peaceful pace of a hiker. One word after the other, carefully chosen. One foot after the other, carefully put on the trail, so as not to stumble.

The quiet observation of nature pervades in his reflective thoughts and he shares with us moments in the wilderness that he was the only one to witness. He takes us far away from our daily lives and through his eyes, watch with awe the miracle of nature.

Very highly recommended.

  1. June 5, 2022 at 10:13 am

    It sounds very interesting, I love this kind of story.
    It reminds me of the song “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver.


    • June 5, 2022 at 10:20 am

      If you love nature writing, check out the Gallmeister category on my blog. They are specialized in American nature writing and crime fiction. All the books they translate and bring to our attention are excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. June 5, 2022 at 11:06 am

    The observations on nature and time spent in the wilderness do sound appealing in this one.


    • June 6, 2022 at 9:27 am

      It’s really worth reading and it’s a good companion read to The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. June 6, 2022 at 10:34 am

    I know nothing about snow, and I couldn’t imagine -30 deg (F or C). 14 x 16 ft sounds like a big tent, much bigger than the army tents we used when I was a scout. I wonder if that made it harder to keep warm.
    I would be thinking of all that pay piling up in my bank account while I couldn’t spend it (and praying I survived).


    • June 6, 2022 at 11:13 am

      I know nothing about that kind of snow either. Road closed, truck grounded, no way to move around but snowshoes, skis and snowmobiles. (and he only had snow shoes…)
      He had a stove in the tent, plus food for several months, and all his gear…It must have been small after everything was in. He didn’t complain much about the cold in the tent.
      True, his 200 USD per month pay stayed untouched during those months but he had to buy his own food and gear. I checked out on a website (for what it’s worth) 200 USD of 1979 had the same buying power as around 800 USD today.


  4. June 6, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    Wow, this sounds a brilliant read, and shocking that he knew so little yet committed to so much! Is it very “nature red in tooth and claw” or reasonably gentle and un-horrific (I ask because I’ve had a run of pretty intense nature reads, like Christine Ritter’s A Woman in the Polar Night …


    • June 6, 2022 at 9:06 pm

      I think that he downplays his difficulties a bit. It’s un-horrific, you can go for it. (contrary to Into the Wild) It’s very well-written, too. He has such a beautiful and steady prose.


  5. Derrell Craig
    June 8, 2022 at 9:15 pm

    A great, great read and a must for anyone coming up to the Bitterroot to enjoy the outdoors. Stumbled across your write up while trying to find the original publish date. So happy that you wrote this and are sharing with others. I just suggested the book to one of my coworkers today. He’s visiting in August.


    • June 8, 2022 at 10:54 pm

      Thanks for your comment.

      Lucky coworker! One day I’ll go to in this area. I was supposed to visit in 2020 and the pandemic happened.
      Another great book is The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass.
      Check out my Gallmeister category for more billets about Nature Writing books.


  6. June 11, 2022 at 9:37 pm

    Thanks so much. I didn’t know about this book, and it sounds totally like something I would really enjoy


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