Drawn to a Mountain Town Like so many of us not born here but who now call McCall and surrounding towns home, Karin Didisse and her husband Bob came here for the mountains, forests, rivers and lakes, and long winters with deep snow. A big change from San Diego, where they met and married. They figured the deep winter snow would keep their new home town from getting too crowded. Bob had always wanted to live in the mountains near a ski resort. After driving to several Northwest areas, they settled on McCall, in part because it also had an airport. Bob is a certified airplane mechanic.
Also like many newcomers, both Karin and Bob worked multiple seasonal jobs to stay afloat. They arrived in 1993, and in addition to working on airplanes during summers, Bob groomed snow at Brundage. Karin worked as a janitor at Brundage for four winters, finding other part-time jobs during the summers. Yet there was time and energy to enjoy the gorgeous terrain they’d adopted, in all seasons. Both still enjoy downhill skiing every winter, and Karin loves hiking. Soon after moving here they picked up water sports, starting with a two-person inflatable kayak, what Karin says is aptly nicknamed a “divorce boat.” Then they each got whitewater canoes, which is challenging enough but even more so when, like Karin, one wears contact lenses. About the time Karin got Lasik surgery to correct her vision in 2007, one canoe broke. Just as well, Karin felt. Karin got a kayak and Bob a cataraft; eventually they added a more traditional raft to their collection of boats so they could take their dog Clipper with them on river camping trips. “Bob says we have a Class 2 dog; he likes camping but is not a whitewater enthusiast,” says Karin with a laugh. They enjoy rafting on the Lower Owyhee in springtime and the lower Salmon in autumn, and when their work schedules and permits allow, the Main Salmon and Middle Fork of the Salmon in shoulder seasons.
Healthy Food, Healthy Lifestyle In 1997, Karin bought Huckleberry Garden Health Food Store and has been running it ever since. Originally, the store was called Cascade Co-op and located in Cascade but was eventually moved to McCall and renamed Mountain Co-op. Soon after purchasing the store, Karin moved it to its current location for more space and better signage, and renamed it. “I’ve had the same landlord for 21 years,” says Karin. “Luckily, she’s content to leave things the way they are.”
Karin remembers that for the first year or two she operated the store, business was steady month-to-month. Then she noticed a summer spike of customers in July and August, with a slow-down in December. The McCall Farmers’ Market had started operating so Karin had to adjust what she offered in terms of produce during those months (like bananas and other things not grown locally). Fast forward to today, and Karin says the opening of Albertsons near her store reminds her of that time 20 years ago, having to adjust to new competition, to find a niche to fill that the competitor doesn’t. “I roll with it, find what works,” says Karin, adding that she has also had to economize where she can. She had six employees during the real estate boom just over a decade ago, four often working at once during busy days. Today it’s just Karin and one employee, Karin doing all the administrative chores and working some hours up front as well. “I don’t think there’s another boom going on in McCall, not yet. There are lots of new people in town, but others are moving out,” says Karin. She doesn’t seem worried, boom or bust. There are always those who prefer to eat healthy food. She has many loyal customers.
Huckleberry Garden offers organic produce, natural local meats and eggs, foods for special diets, bulk bins, bulk herbs, supplements, environmentally friendly soaps and shampoos, and natural chemical-free foods. Karin stocks tinctures made locally from wildland plants harvested in our forests, and locally-made honey. There are several types of organic cooking oils, including grapeseed and macadamia nut oils. It’s fun to simply wander the aisles, checking out products not seen in traditional grocery stores. “One of our best-selling products is Barbara’s Cheese Puffs,” says Karin, amused. She also stocks organic herbs and spices in bulk. “If a customer can’t find what they need, we can probably order it for them.” The store is open six days a week, and is located at 903 1st Street, next to McCall Pet Outfitter. Learn more on the Huckleberry Garden Health Food Store Facebook page.
Orienteering Karin’s love of the outdoors started early, nurtured by her parents. One of Karin’s long-time hobbies is orienteering, which is defined as a competitive sport in which participants find their way to various checkpoints across rough country with the aid of a map and compass, the winner being the one with the lowest elapsed time. Karin has been participating in orienteering since age 12 and has competed nationally. Her parents started an orienteering club in San Diego when she was a kid, giving her an early start in the sport.
(An interesting aside: Karin’s father – Bill Gookin – was a marathoner who in the 1960s found the new product Gatorade wanting; it made him sick. A chemist and biologist who taught high school science, Gookin set out to create something better that delivered electrolytes to hard-working athletes. He brought Gookinaid to the market in 1973 (the company is now called Vitalyte Sports Nutrition). The Urban Dictionary offers this definition of Gookinaid: The gnarliest drink ever created. Formulated by Bill Gookin. It comes in a powder like Kool-Aid. That’s all. Karin managed Gookinaid for a decade starting in 1982, quitting only to move with Bob to McCall in 1993. She sells Vitalyte products at Huckleberry Garden.)
After moving to McCall, Karin continued participating in orienteering meets through a Boise club (City of Trees Orienteering Club) even though that meant having to drive to Boise. She hosted a couple of meets here, in Ponderosa State Park and Bear Basin, but folks in Boise didn’t enjoy the drive either so attendance was low. “It turns out orienteering skills are useful for search and rescue,” says Karin. “I had to learn to use GPS, but there’s still lots of map reading and navigating. A search is like an orienteering meet except you don’t know when it ends or where the coordinates are. And you’re out at night. In a sleet storm!”
Search and Rescue Volunteer Despite working more hours at Huckleberry Garden these days, Karin still finds time for volunteering in a specialty that utilizes skills acquired from her years of orienteering and a new interest in ham radio: search and rescue. Karin’s start volunteering with Valley County Search and Rescue in 2014 came about in an indirect way. Upon learning that a friend was involved in an airplane crash and help was needed to search, she and Bob volunteered. “It was sleeting and snowing,” Karin remembers. “We climbed a steep hillside. There was a low cloud ceiling so the helicopters were searching in the canyons between ridges. It was interesting to watch them operate. I offered to go out the next day; they needed people who could hike.” A National Guard helicopter located the plane, which unfortunately had been destroyed in the crash.
Joining Valley County Search and Rescue wasn’t as arduous as Karin thought it might be. After passing a criminal background check and being certified in basic First Aid and CPR, there’s no additional formal training required, although one can get training if they desire. Instead, says Karin, search organizers utilize the existing skills of local volunteers, whether that’s the ability to hike in the backcountry in all types of weather, taking a pack string into remote areas, operating ham radios, or providing support at a mission’s base location. Karin has been volunteering for four years and has become a ham radio hobbyist after seeing their utility during searches. “You don’t need a ham radio operator’s license to use the Sheriff’s frequency during a search,” says Karin, and that’s how she started. Now she is licensed, has her own call number, and belongs to the local club, Central Idaho Amateur Radio Club, which has its own repeaters (the electronic device that picks up incoming radio signals and re-transmits at a higher power).
In addition to helping local search and rescue efforts, radio club members volunteer to handle radio communications for local events such as the Cascade July 4th Parade, Winter Carnival in McCall, jet boat races on the Salmon River near Riggins, and local trail running events. Karin says there’s a lot of cross-over of people volunteering for both search and rescue and local events needing ham radio support.
A month after the crash involving Karin’s friend, there was another airplane crash in Valley County, this time near Yellow Pine. On December 1, 2014, five members of the Smith family from California were flying from Baker City, OR to Butte, MT when pilot Dale Smith radioed a distress call that he had ice on his wings. “We couldn’t find it,” Karin says. “It was snowing and snow covered the crash site. It was a white plane. That was a tough search, not finding them. We searched several days before it was called off. The family kept at it and five weeks later the pilot’s brother found it in an area where one helicopter and one foot search track had been nearby but just couldn’t see it.”
“One thing I’ve learned from searches for downed airplanes is there can be phantom ELT (emergency locater transmitter) signals,” says Karin. In both of the crashes she helped search for, the airplanes had transmitters. But the older transmitters only gave radio signals and only for a certain number of hours, and only in certain types of impacts. “In one case, it turns out where we thought the signal was coming from was a different ridge two miles away from the crash.” Newer ELTs transmit GPS location and send signals in all directions, making searches easier and faster.
Of course, not all searches involve downed aircraft. Many involve finding lost or injured hikers. Karin remembers one search and rescue call that had her hiking into Boulder Lake on a mid-June Sunday night. As can happen in our mountains, the weather changed, bringing wet, freezing and snow conditions above 6000 feet. “It was bad timing for a novice backpacker with bad weather. There was nobody else at the lake to help. His attempts to get a fire started to warm up failed after he got exhausted and wet and became hypothermic.” The man was able to make a cell phone call to 911 for help, but rescuers were hampered by incorrect coordinates from the cell phone carrier. Karin and Search and Rescue volunteer Jim Pace located the backpacker’s tent at the east end of the lake around 2:00 am. “He had tried unsuccessfully to make a fire to get warm,” says Karin. “We found him in his tent in a lightweight sleeping bag with no insulating pad. Exhaustion and dehydration were factors. After we started warming him, he was able to communicate that he had a stove, but because of the effects of hypothermia he hadn’t been able to operate it.”
A Life Flight helicopter was called in. Karin and Jim were able to locate a safe landing site not too far from the backpacker’s tent. “When the Life Flight arrived at 5:00 am at the landing zone a third of a mile from the campsite, we realized that as a result of hypothermia the subject had difficulty walking, and other symptoms such as severe headache and nausea, and needed a lot of assistance to make it to the helicopter.” After watching the helicopter depart, Karin and Jim helped haul some of the backpacker’s gear back down to the trail head. “I had just enough time to change clothes and go to work for the day,” says Karin.
Taking to the Air One might wonder whether volunteering to search for crash sites of private aircraft would turn Karin off of flying. The short answer: No! She’s working on getting her private pilot’s license. “I’ve flown with friends a lot,” she says. “I enjoy flying. Mainly I just want to get places quicker.” In fact, when she and Bob lived in San Diego he got his pilot’s license and acquired a 1952 Piper Pacer. When they moved to Idaho in 1993, they flew the Pacer up here. They didn’t have a hanger for the airplane, though, and the weather was hard on it. The Pacer is now in pieces in their shop at home, Bob working to restore it to flying condition.
Maybe by the time Karin obtains her pilot’s license – she estimates another year or so – Bob will have their Pacer back in flying condition. Then Karin might have another way to assist in searches, flying overhead to help locate lost recreationists or downed aircraft.