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Ralph Harris Commemorates SNRA with Colorful Paintings
Ralph Harris, who painted this portrait of Castle Peak, says the Sawtooth National Recreation Area has been a place of contemplation, exertion and artistic fascination. PHOTO: Karen Bossick
Thursday, August 4, 2022


Thirty years ago, Ketchum artist Ralph Harris painted a poster commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The painting featured Cowboy Joe Piva, who owns range land near Stanley, on horseback with the Sawtooth Mountains behind.

Harris just unveiled a new one commemorating the SNRA’s 50th anniversary. The new poster is a colorful one featuring Castle Peak, which served as the impetus for the preservation of the 756,000-acre SNRA when Idahoans feared it would be mined.

Harris will have original art work on display, along with limited edition prints and notecards for purchase, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug.5, outside the ERC at 471 Washington Ave. in Ketchum. The event is being held in conjunction with Gallery Walk and will also feature activities for youngsters. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the ERC’s youth environmental education programs.

Ralph Harris painted this painting of Cowboy Joe Piva in front of the Sawtooth Mountains to celebrate the SNRA’s 20th anniversary.

"Ralph is a local treasure, and we are so lucky as a community to have him here to bring an artist's eye to the places we love," said Lindsay Mollineaux, the ERC’s executive director. "When we work with kids, our focus is always to spark a love of nature that they will carry throughout their lives. Art is a wonderful way to do that.”

Harris painted Castle Peak from the northeast side using photos taken by longtime trail worker Jay Doerr  and former wilderness ranger Ed Cannady. He included a golden eagle to represent central Idaho’s indigenous people and to pay homage to the people of Ukraine.

“I started working on this just as the war started and I wanted to represent freedom, to pay homage to people fighting against oppression,” he said. “I call it ‘Warrior Eagle and Castle Peak.’ Castle Peak is not necessarily one of the most gorgeous mountains but it’s an important iconic one because of its history.”

In all, Harris has made five commemorative posters celebrating the SNRA. He painted the first—of Cowboy Joe Piva in front of the Sawtooth Mountains--for the SNRA’s 20th anniversary. He painted one of elk standing in front of the Boulder Mountains for the SNRA’s 30th anniversary, and it eventually found its way onto one of Sun Valley Resort’s gondola cars.

“Boulder Splendor,” looking from Baker Creek, was later incorporated into the first gondola car at Sun Valley Resort to be wrapped in art.

He painted one featuring two Native Americans, including the direct descendant of Sacajawea at Redfish Lake, for the 35th anniversary. “I had them pose so I could get the exact feel. It was like looking at 10,000 years of indigenous history looking at them standing there.”

SNRA officials let the commemorative posters lapse for the 40th and 45th anniversaries, but the Sawtooth Society’s executive director Kathryn Grohusky argued that one had to be done for the 50th anniversary and that it needed to contain Castle Peak.

The SNRA, which covers 756,000 acres stretching from an area just north of Ketchum past Stanley has played a large role in Harris’s life and that of his family.

His great-grandfather Charles Edward Harris came by rail to Blackfoot, then took a horse to Hailey during the summer of 1881, four years after silver was discovered at the headwaters of the Big Wood River. At that time, it took two days to travel by horse and wagon from Hailey to the mining town of Galena, which then had 300 residents.

The mural Ralph Harris painted for the SNRA’s 30th anniversary featured Stanley Lake.

Harris, who opened a furniture store and embalming service in 1891, would make a stop at Russian John’s Ranger Station. Then he had to pay $1.50 toll fee to drive the road up and over Galena Summit, tying a log to the back of the wagon to slow it down on the downhills. The fishing was worth it, Harris said.

His mother’s family came from Spain’s Basque country in 1907, trailing sheep into the Sawtooth Valley each summer before herding the flock back to Ketchum where they boarded a train bound for Omaha or Chicago.

“My grandmother Pia said some of her most glorious times were during her honeymoon summer spent in a sheep wagon near Alturas, Pettit and Redfish Lakes,” he said.

When Ralph was young his family drove their 1949 Buick up to the North Fork store where Marilyn Monroe made “Bus Stop.” The pavement ran out there so it was an arduous, tire-blowing  trip to the Sawtooth lakes.

The 35th anniversary poster featured Redfish Lake and Joyce Hayes, a direct descendant of Sacajawea now living at Fort Hall Reservation near Pocatello.

Ralph waterskied by standing on a piece of plywood tied to his father’s motorboat. And the salmon were so plentiful that Harris and his best friend Jerry Davis would lay on their stomachs and try to grab Chinook out of the creek, often falling in the creek themselves.

“The limit was 20 fish a day, and these were good-sized fish,” he recounted. “We’d watch Native Americans stick long lodgepoles with a piece of cord tied to end and a hook and stick it in a hole and pull on the cord. They’d smoke them on racks right alongside the river. We were afraid of them so we would watch from a distance.”

Harris began working for the Forest Service, which was then based in Hailey, in 1958 when he  when he was 18. He accompanied physics teacher Chet Arndt on 10-day horsepacking trips, cleaning campgrounds, monitoring visitors, clearing hiking trails and maintaining watering troughs.

“There were a few people out in the wilderness then but nothing like now when you need a reservation a year in advance at Redfish,” he said.

Harris participated in a pilot Helitack program providing quick response to fires.

“We used one of those Bell three-passenger helicopters with a bubble top—the type used in the TV show ‘MASH.’ The pilots were out of Vietnam—wild and crazy—and they’d sit us down anywhere.”

Harris has been disheartened to see the salmon that once were so prolific nearly vanish. But he sees more elk, deer and antelope in the SNRA today than he ever saw as a youngster.

“In those days every guy had a rifle in his pickup truck,” he said. “It’s better for the big game today. I’m just thankful they took steps to preserve the SNRA, although I know we still have to be vigilant.”

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