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Jim Campbell

Jeff Kropf

Jim Campbell (left) and Buckskin Bill on the Salmon, 1980, shortly before Bill’s death/Judy Lemmon

The river guide and travel business in Central Idaho’s River of No Return-Frank Church Wilderness seems as though it has been around forever, but floating and guest ranch activity is actually fairly young as a major tourist business. It kicked into high gear in the 70s when a number of central players figured out how to make it work in a very effective way. With float permits in Hells Canyon, the Middle Fork, Main Salmon, Owyhee and Lochsa rivers, the Wild Rivers Idaho business that Jim Campbell created and developed was one of the handful of businesses that contributed to building float trips into a mainstay.

Campbell was a researcher at what is now Idaho National Laboratory in the 60s before the backcountry drew him in. With two of his work associates, he started river trips which grew into operations in river running and resort ranches, and those were among the central activities in turning the region into such a popular visiting location. With his love of the country and its history he gathered a group of premier river guides outfitter/ranchers who taught him the back country history. (Two of the people in that group were Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley, who went on to tell those stories in a series of books about that area.) Few guests departed the rivers or Shepp Ranch without an appreciation of those who originally settled that rugged, inaccessible area.

After selling Shepp Ranch, Jim moved across the river to the Polly Bemis property where he built what he’d planned as a retirement home – but retirement was not on his agenda, and he began the development that became the Polly Bemis Resort. He left the backcountry in the 90s, and spent time after that in Las Vegas and Phoenix before settling, in this decade, in Costa Rica. He died there this week.

Linda Watkins, who spent time with Campbell in the backcountry in the 70s and 80s, has a recollection.

It’s hard to know where to start, or what to say about Jim Campell’s death last Thursday. He’s been a part of my life for over three decades (more than 2/3 of my life) – in some ways, more of a family member than most of my own blood relations. I think of his death as I did of my father’s: Relief that he’s finally free of the pain and frustration at growing old that he’s lived with for the last several years.

Jim was an extrovert who drew his energy and strength from others; he didn’t like to be alone, but in order to keep people near him he promised more emotionally than he could deliver. When he met you, he had that politician’s gift of making you feel that you were the most unique person in the world. He was a wonderful host, and even on our last visit to him in Costa Rica he displayed remnants of that gift: providing guidance and ideas for things to do without intruding or “managing” our activities.

Running Wild Rivers Idaho, Shepp Ranch, and finally the Polly Bemis Ranch, Jim perfected his talent for hospitality. Sadly, the alcohol eventually took over and at the end of his tenure on the Salmon River the man his old acquaintances experienced was not the man they’d met several years before.

Jim was one of those larger than life figures; people who knew him had different perspectives on him, but nobody ever was indifferent to him – Jim could not allow that. It was his need to be something more that drove him, both in business and relationships. Sadly it drove him to make some poor decisions that often pushed people away and left them with less than fond memories; and it’s what drove him to make some really bad financial decisions that left him dying virtually alone in a hospital in Costa Rica while his daughter in Idaho Falls was frantically trying to make arrangements to get down there.

There’s usually some mention in obituaries of the family a person leaves behind. If you’re talking about blood relatives, the list for Jim is short: his daughter Kristy, and grandson Mikel; an aunt and a cousin. Those who preceded him in death: his mother and father. But when I think of Jim’s family, I think of all the people he touched in his lifetime. Kristy – definitely. No relationship with Jim was ever simple and theirs was one of the more complex. I also think of the many others that have survived him; none left untouched. We know who we are – and we know that in some way Jim’s presence in our lives was not insignificant.

And there is the “family” that preceded him in death: Paul Filer, Johnny Carrey, Homer Rhett, Charlie Clelland and the others of their generation: the story tellers, the boatmen, and the cowboys; men Jim admired for being what he was not.

Say what you will about Jim Campbell; whether you loved or hated him, admired or reviled him, whether or not he owed you money – this world is a little less interesting, the sun shines not quite so bright with his departure.

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