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I didn’t want to be mistaken for an early-morning weirdo or a hungry bear. So for my 2012 feature on Independence Lakes, I knew that the tent in my sunrise-over-the-lake photo would have to be my own.

When I unzipped the tent door and saw that the sun had just appeared over the tree line, I rapidly shed my sleeping bag. I hopped around framing perspectives on the sunrise and shouting to my drowsy, bewildered husband to come out and walk along the shoreline.

Later in the day, I found plenty of strangers to populate my story and my other photos of Independence Lakes. But I needed that silhouette on the sunlit shore, and Mark was the only one around.

By then, after more than a dozen years of marriage, he was accustomed to sacrifice for the sake of Times-News readers.

I’m the one on the newspaper’s payroll. But Mark has been the unpaid outfitter, sherpa, security guard, driver, researcher and reluctant photo subject.

We’ll both lay down those roles today as I begin a sabbatical from the full-time workforce.

As a new reporter in the 1990s, I used to laugh at outdoors reporter Bill Brock. So many of his photo captions described a “lone hiker” on some southern Idaho trail — and that hiker was always a woman with curly red hair.

Even when Mark started accompanying me to a miner’s mountain cabin above Elba, or to a fiddlers’ jam session in Jerome, or to bridges crushed by the rain-swollen Jarbidge River, I studiously kept him out of my stories.

But when I took over our outdoors coverage years later, I realized what Bill must have known: You just can’t do the outdoors beat alone.

A scenic photo, however remote the location, needs a person for perspective. A one-way float needs a second driver for the shuttle. A reporter on a backpacking assignment needs a stronger companion to carry more than his share of the gear.

At least if that reporter is me.

So in recent years, readers of the Times-News’ Outdoors section have seen a lot of a particular man in a Tilley hat. Whenever strangers were available, I photographed them instead. Still, we’ve published a lot of photos of Mark: Hiking the sculpted channel of the dry Big Wood River. Developing his sandboard technique at Bruneau Dunes. Looking for a geocache at the base of Phantom Falls. Launching our tandem kayak on creeks and lakes and rivers.

Mark is the kind of man who never takes a solo selfie and does a lot more listening than talking. A private guy. So I’m immensely grateful that he’s been such a good sport about my photo needs.

Again and again, Mark arranged time off from his own job to help me with stories — the kinds of stories a small newspaper couldn’t afford if the writer were paid by the hour.

He carried my gear as I joined a Nordic club on a South Hills ski trail significantly more demanding than anything I’d skied before, and as I shadowed a pair of chukar hunters in the Bennett Hills. (Try taking notes while walking the desert at a bird dog’s pace, and you’ll know why I needed logistical support.)

When I reported on opening day of the trout season on Silver Creek, Mark pitched a tent so I could spend a couple of restless hours lying down between campfire interviews and a pre-dawn search for anglers. He even made 5 a.m. coffee for photographer Ashley Smith on his backpacking stove.

Mark tolerated many of our vacations turning into reporting sessions and waited patiently as I interviewed yet another party of backpackers on the Sawtooth Lake trail.

He did the driving when I might not have been safe on my own, like returning in the wee hours from the Bruneau Dunes Observatory or a sage grouse trapping session beside the Jim Sage Mountains.

He encouraged. He celebrated the little victories. And often, he shared the burden of coming up with a continual flow of ideas.

I wanted stories that could surprise even readers who have long familiarity with southern Idaho’s outdoors. And that’s not easy to do.

Often with Mark’s help, I scrutinized maps to search for little-known destinations. He signed up for taxing off-hours adventures — like hiking across rough lava to Carey Kipuka — as I checked out potential story topics. (I’d return to Carey Kipuka later with scientists who could explain its value for native plant research.)

Many of the destinations we evaluated on weekends or vacations I scrapped as too arduous or not rewarding enough for a newspaper story.

One involved an incredibly steep dirt grade into Salmon Falls Creek Canyon and a tight hairpin. At the bottom we found something that only the most generous taxonomist would call a trail. Mark was game, but after a few hundred feet of bushwhacking I announced I wasn’t having fun. I can’t write without crying about Mark’s efforts to get our car up that canyon grade; I’ll just say that we needed a half-hour at grassy, civilized Balanced Rock Park to calm our nerves and cool the radiator.

But we had successes, too.

Three years later, with the help of two friends and a second vehicle, we floated a stretch of creek that ends at the backwaters of Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir. It’s a great scenic float with wilderness-worthy solitude, but I couldn’t find any Times-News stories about it from recent decades. Now there’s one on, and you can look it up whenever you’re ready to give Salmon Falls Creek a try.

That stretch of water includes one long portage — much longer than I can hold up my end of a tandem kayak. And yes, one of the two men in the portage photos wears a Tilley hat.

Today’s photo of Mark is from one of the ideas I scrapped. I hoped our early-July backpacking trip into two canyons off Copper Basin would yield a story, but trail conditions were too treacherous for me to recommend to readers.

Today is my last day at the Times-News, my final byline of more than 22 years in the newsroom. I’ll miss the hunt for outdoors stories, and I’ll miss knowing there are readers waiting for them. But we’ll still share the same varied, surprising, incredible Idaho landscape.

So say goodbye to the man in the Tilley hat, and we’ll see you on the trail.

Virginia Hutchins is enterprise editor of the Times-News and


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