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Wednesday, May 12, 2004


‘Better than I am’

SNRA ranger born for Idaho mountains

Express Staff Writer

Ed Cannady has been nurturing a love affair with the mountains of Central Idaho for three decades. It’s a give-and-take relationship that has shaped his life.

"I wasn’t born in this place, but I was born for this place," he said. "There’s never been a doubt."

As the Sawtooth National Recreation Area's backcountry recreation manager, Cannady has what he calls "an intense 30-year relationship with the backcountry of the White Clouds and the Sawtooths." There’s not a mile of trail in either range he hasn’t hiked. He’s climbed Castle Peak—the highest point in the White Cloud Mountains—eight times and plans to scale the massive monolith at least eight more.

He has explored many more basins, peaks and creeks that are off the beaten path, and 75 to 80 percent of his time in the mountains has been spent by himself.

"The Boulders, my God, there are places in the Boulder Mountains that are stunningly beautiful, and they don’t have trails to them. There’s one lake—I go there, and there’s no evidence that anyone else has ever been there. It’s so primeval. My greatest pleasure is the off-trail places.

There’s a flash in his eyes when he speaks of the wild wonders of Central Idaho. But there’s more to his relationship with the mountains than a simple passion for remote and rugged places. His alliance with the mountains is partially out of necessity. In his formative years, life was difficult, and the mountains gave him the strength to look inside to answer difficult questions.

"In a lot of ways, the Sawtooths and White Clouds saved my life," he said. "I did my best to escape into the mountains, and the Sawtooths were the finest mountains I found.

"When I go there and find a nice spot with a view or flowers or whatever, I’m able to slow down, breathe and slow my pace a little bit. There’s a magic quality to that. These places make me want to be better than I am."

When life was difficult, Cannady said he dabbled in detrimental avenues of escape. The backcountry, beginning with an extended excursion to Alaska, helped to change that.

Following his graduation from high school in Parma, Idaho, Cannady went to work in the Alaskan bush. For extended periods of time over the course of two years, he had very little contact with people.

"I had a lot of time to look inside. I was well on my way to feeling sorry for myself," he said.

The time in the bush turned his focus around. He looked inside for the strength he needed to become a better man. "That’s what spending that time in the bush did for me. I was the answer to my problems."

Though he lived until his sophomore year in high school in Okahamoa, Cannady discovered the mountains at an early age. "My earliest memories, really, were getting any book I could get my hands on with pictures of mountains."

In 1971, he was 14 years old, and he was driving through the Northwest with his father. That’s when he saw the Sawtooth Valley for the first time. It was June, and the wildflowers were blooming. He recalled that they were purple and blue and swept the valley floor in a giant turquoise mat.

"It was like a love at first sight thing. I turned to my Dad and said: This is where I’m going to live."

It was like that with his wife, too.

"What more do I need?" he asked.

Though he often composes words about the mountains, he usually does not write them.

"It seemed such an act of hubris to me to put it on paper," he said. "That would indicate that it’s worth reading." He appears, however, to have a good grasp on literature and can readily quote from a number of classic authors.

"Wallace Stegner wrote that the West is the "native home of hope." Well the Sawtooths and White Clouds are the native home of beauty and peace," he said.

Another example emerged when he talked about looking inside for the strength to move in positive directions. He quoted William Ernest Henley’s poem, "Invictus:" "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." It’s a mantra he discovered as a boy in Oklahoma, and he said he remembers the lesson in the words when times are difficult.

But rather than words, one of Cannady’s creative outlets is photography, which he took up when he began visiting the wilds of Idaho. He said he used to take print photos without a good idea about what he was doing. But the art of photography wasn’t his goal.

"In times when I couldn’t go, I could look at those photos and be there," he said.

As the years in the mountains mounted, his photography progressed, and he now possesses a collection of slides, some of which have been featured by some of Idaho’s outdoor-oriented organizations.

"I really enjoy helping other people have the same kinds of experiences I have," he said. "My photographs, as amateur as they are, can help other people have a good experience there."

Finally, Cannady said that, out of his passion for the mountains of Central Idaho, a sense of obligation to the place has grown. Any relationship needs to be reciprocal, he said.

"We take from the land incessantly, but we rarely give back," he said. "We are obligated to give back."

Cannady said he is excited to share his love of the mountains with others, though he rarely offers up a secret, secluded location. He said he frequently receives telephone calls from people looking for a special spot to visit.

"Most of the time, they’ll call and say, ‘That changed my life. I realized what was important.’ They’ll send books, photos and say how special it was. That’s the best payment I can get for what I do."

Pondering the freedom of thought the mountains afford, Cannady offered up another quote.

"Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that a great man, in the midst of a crowd, can enjoy the greatness of solitude.

"Well I’m not a great man."


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.