“Just Let Me Fall”: A Deeper Look Into the Main Salmon Icon, Buckskin Bill

April 3, 2023

Written by Nyima Ming

Thinking back to my first trip on the Main Salmon I can vividly recall, a moment of bewilderment a couple of days into our trip. We were floating lazily through rolling hills and past pristine white sand beaches that are reminiscent of the Bahamas or some other tropical beach oasis, when I thought to myself “I wonder what it would be like to live out here?” I pondered the question for a little and tried to imagine how I would survive. Just minutes after I concluded that I would definitely perish in some kind of horrible manor our captain piped up “Buckskin Bill’s is around the corner, excited for some ice cream?” Ice cream, where in the world would we find ice cream out here? Yet sure enough we rounded the corner and Buckskin Bill’s compound came into view. We hopped off the boat and immediately beelined it for the little general store to get, yes you guessed it, ice cream. After that we wandered into the Buckskin Bill Museum where we ogled at the many historical artifacts that Bill had left behind. It only then dawned on me that this is exactly what life would look like living on the Salmon river.

For those of you who haven’t yet visited Buckskin Bill’s let me try to describe it. Rounding one of the many corners of the Salmon you are greeted with the sight of a little oasis nestled between the towering hillside and the river. There is a medieval looking stone and wood tower that immediately stands out and below that, a little compound of two or three buildings. Nowadays Buckskin Bill’s compound is a place where rafters can reup on water and ice and there’s even a small general store where some of the creature comforts from home, like ice cream, soda and beer can be bought. 

But before all of this, Buckskin Bill’s compound belonged to one person, Buckskin Bill. Sylvan Ambrose Hart otherwise known as Buckskin Bill was one of the last true mountain men in the west. He was born in 1906, one year before Oklahoma became a state and lived among civilization until 1932. During this time he attended McPherson College, continued his studies at the University of Oklahoma in petroleum engineering and worked in the oil fields in Texas during the Great Depression.

Seeking a life of subsistence from the land and complete isolation, he eventually made his way to Five Mile Bar where he lived out the rest of his life. Buckskin Bill fished, foraged, trapped, hunted and planted crops as means to sustain himself through the years. He also intricately crafted his own guns and knives and every other household item he needed.

 Remember that medieval tower I mentioned? Well he also built that to serve as a gun tower. Means to defend himself when the Forest service planned to designate the Salmon river as a Primitive Area; a place where no human inhabitation was allowed. The government ultimately concluded that a single man living off the land earned his spot and allowed him to stay. Not to mention that there would have likely been blood shed in any attempt to vacate him. Buckskin Bill remained on Five Mile Bar for the remainder of his years and passed away at the age of 73.

Visiting Buckskin Bill’s compound is one of many highlights of running the Main Salmon. There is a small museum dedicated to him and showcases many of the amazing knickknacks he made over his lifetime. And after my visit, answered my question of what it would be like to live in such a beautiful yet isolated landscape.