TWO AIRPLANES AND A MULE WITH TRAINING WHEELS
by Karin Harmon
It was 2005. I was a wilderness ranger on Rock Creek in the High Uintas Wilderness, Ashley National Forest. I was clearing the trail into Daines Lake, Four Lakes Basin, to remove old aircraft wreckage from the scree field above the lake. This set the stage for the Rocky Mountain Mule Association to remove the wreckage. There is lots of folklore about when and how it went down.
The bulk of the summer was spent cutting trees to open trails inside the High Uintas wilderness. By late August, I was rehabing an old Forest Service base camp in the wilderness, digging through a burn pit, when a couple of horsemen rode up. Since the old base camp was off the trail, I was surprised they knew where it was. They were disappointed that the old structure had been burned down. I explained that the camp was illegal, according to wilderness regulations. The older horseman explained that he had worked up there in the 70s as a horse-mounted wilderness ranger. I had plenty of questions for him. He explained that before the wilderness designation they could use chain saws until July 4th. Forest visitors were encouraged to stop in and visit with the ranger. He told wonderful stories about taking folks to his favorite fishing holes and returning later to find beer cooling in the lake for him.
When he said he worked up at the Black Lake camp for three seasons, I asked about the plane wreck at Daines Lake. He paused. “You mean the one at Squaw Lake?” Stunned that there was another plane roughly 12 miles due east, I quickly forgot about the Daines Lake plane and pressed for details. He said this plane had gone down in the early 70s. A scout troop made an annual trip to Squaw Lake and someone would fly over their camp and drop the scouts ice cream sandwiches. The old ranger said that the pilot usually came in from the south end of the lake, made the drop and then climbed out and flew home. He told me the pilot, realizing he couldn’t get high enough to avoid the trees, had turned east at the end of the lake-- taking him roughly northeast toward Cleveland Pass. He said the plane didn’t clear the trees and went down, killing all aboard. He thought that someone had come up later and made a small memorial by pouring concrete around the propeller.
I spent the next few days working at the old base camp, moving the ash and covering the burn scar. I also removed the old latrine, all of the spikes in the surrounding trees, and the trash. But all the while, I was plotting how to make the long sweep to the east on my way out so I could find the wreckage by Squaw Lake.
The day before my tour was up I moved camp to the back side of Squaw Lake. It took me about an hour to find the engine block up a small drainage that fed the lake, pretty much in line with Cleveland Pass. In front of the engine block was a medium-sized granite marker engraved with the names of the victims. The wreckage included a seat and the landing gear.
I took numerous pictures. I’m not superstitious, but when I tried to gauge the size of the marker for the packers, I got the heebie-jeebies. Digging around the block felt a little like disturbing a headstone in a cemetery. It looked as though no one had been in the area for the last few years.
Fast forward to the next field season. The Rocky Mountain Mule Association went after the Squaw Lake plane wreck. The only item that gave them trouble was the heavy and awkward landing gear. They managed to move it down to the junction with the Rock Creek trail and the Forest Service packer lashed a wheel to each side of Mongo, the mule with training wheels.
This is my favorite picture from my time working in the High Uintas Wilderness. It shows the profound difference I made in improving wilderness character.