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Wheels Down in the Wilderness

Four disabled children experience Idaho's backcountry for the first time

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Welcome to Sulphur Creek

Sulphur Creek Ranch was built in 1948 as a destination for the Hollywood elite. Situated five miles from the Middle Fork of the Salmon River near Boundary Creek, the only way to access the ranch is by foot or plane. Most people arrive by plane.

Pilots look over views like this while they eat breakfast. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Pilots look over views like this while they eat breakfast.

Pilots call it the "$300 breakfast." They take off from Boise, Twin Falls or McCall in two- or four-seater Cessnas and they enter the world of backcountry airstrips, far beyond the reach of any air traffic controller. They fly in on cool mountain mornings, shred across the dirt airstrip, park their planes like most people park cars, jump out and order the Sulphur Creek $20, all-inclusive breakfast. It comes with a pile of scrambled eggs; crispy hash browns; homemade biscuits drowning in thick; white gravy; three strips of bacon; blueberries and vanilla bean yogurt; endless refills of black coffee and the best scenery a backcountry pilot could want with breakfast.

The menu says "YES or NO." You either want it or you don't.

Kiere and ValDean Schroeder took over management of the ranch a handful of years ago. ValDean looks like he has never known any other life, with his well-worn straw cowboy hat, spurs on his heels, a long white mustache and stiff knees. He rolls his own cigarettes and he has only had to shoot a cougar in this country once: She crouched down in front of him and lowered her ears.

Kiere considers her guests family. She calls everyone by name as if she's known them her whole life. She razzes the new pilots who fly in for breakfast and shouts at them when their food is ready. She leaves the ranch "only for deaths and lawsuits."

The couple, as well as their employees, run Sulphur Creek six months of the year. In November, after the last hunting party has gone, they board it up and pack their 20 horses out.

Throughout the day, planes constantly take off from and land on the airstrip. When a plane touches down or takes off, everyone stops their conversations to watch. After it lands or leaves, the talking resumes.

Alex, Ehnayah and their parents watched planes land and take off all day at the backcountry airstrip. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Alex, Ehnayah and their parents watched planes land and take off all day at the backcountry airstrip.

"It's like someone picking the needle up off the record," Kiere said, "then putting it back down."

On a recent Friday in June, Kiere served up 75 breakfast plates as more than 30 planes came and went. In other words, business is booming.

Emily Rigg was ecstatic every time a plane lands. She was quick to introduce herself and ask everyone their name—along with asking if they have a dog and also, one time, asking how they cut their dog's toenails.

Emily has congenital microcephaly: Her skull fused together when she was 11 months old, something that is supposed to happen at 2 years old. Emily's brain was never able to fully grow, giving her disabilities across the board. She struggles with fine motor skills like eye and tongue movements, and she walks with an awkward gait, but she loves talking to everyone around her and is filled with questions. She's 15 and starting at Boise High School in the fall.

Her mom, Joan, started enrolling her in Parks and Rec programs five years ago. Emily has been rafting on the Payette River and has taken many bike rides, art classes and a snowshoe trip. Joan has always wanted her daughter to experience the Wilderness Within Reach trip but because the program only takes five participants, it usually fills up fast. Finally, this year was their chance.