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Lone trooper monitors Lolo Pass area for trouble

Idaho Statesman
POWELL — Along the Lochsa River, it´s not the corners that get you, it´s what´s on the other side of them.

“Around any one of those corners there could be something you don´t expect to see,” Idaho State Police trooper Stan Wiggins said. “You´ll see a moose or an elk or kayaker or a snowmobiler.”

Wiggins, 51, patrols U.S. 12 near Powell Ranger Station. The road is a dizzying stretch of blacktop that´s the shortest route between Lewiston and Missoula, Mont. – a distance of 220 miles.

There are plenty of caution signs warning motorists who follow the Clearwater River to its origin at Lowell, where the Selway and Lochsa rivers meet.

But the sign east of town only warns travelers what not to expect: Next gas 64 miles.

The sign doesn´t mention that for the next 76 miles the road climbs from an elevation of 1,585 feet to 5,235 at Lolo Pass on the Idaho-Montana state line. It doesn´t mention there are few turnouts and in late winter, snow piles sit higher than most pickup truck cabs on both sides of the two-lane highway.

“During hunting season, when there´s no place to park, some guys park by the edge of the snow berm and leave their vehicles to go hunting,” said Wiggins, shaking his head.

The ravens that pick at carcasses of elk and deer on the roadside should be a sobering sign to motorists. But there´s not much to prepare truckers from flat, sunny, southern states for Lolo Pass.

“Last Thanksgiving, we had 17 trucks spun out on that hill,” said Wiggins.

Wiggins, who is stationed 162 miles from the Lewiston headquarters, said he´s most miserable when he has to leave his warm, 4-wheel-drive patrol rig and crawl around in driving wind and snow to keep trucks moving. He had helped chain up 35 trucks by the end of December.

“Bad weather surprises people,” said Wiggins, who has worked this stretch since January of last year. “I assist the truck drivers who don´t know how to chain up.”

He said some trucking companies do a poor job of training drivers to install chains once the truck is already stuck. The only way to stay safe on a road like U.S. 12 is to stay slow. That´s where Wiggins makes a real impression.

He lives in a double-wide mobile home near Powell and sets his own schedule, so he is patrolling during peak travel times.

“I make a lot of stops,” he said. “I hate to say it, but I write a lot of tickets.”

The speed limit is 50 mph from Lolo Pass to Lowell. Most citations go to motorists who speed or travel left of center. Wiggins, who is working the area where most of the truck crashes occur on the highway, thinks he is making a difference. And the statistics back his claim.

In 2002, there were 25 truck wrecks on U.S. 12. In 2003, there were only 17. The Idaho Department of Transportation has not yet published last year´s accident statistics, but state police are tracking accidents with big rigs because of a federal grant geared toward reducing truck accidents.

Wiggins´ efforts at slowing down trucks complement an increase in trooper numbers on the more populous west end of the highway. Along with stopping speeders, Wiggins investigates accidents and does what he can as the only trooper assigned to the area.

“Having Stan here is absolutely critical,” said Joni Packard, ranger for the Powell Ranger District of the Clearwater Forest.

The ranger station is the heart of the Powell community, which has about 50 winter residents, because that´s where the mail arrives. The Lochsa Lodge is where people meet for dinner or a drink. In both places, Wiggins is greeted with warmth.

Troopers usually only stay in the Powell area no more than three years. However, Wiggins, who is single, said he hopes to impress his bosses so he can stay longer. After nearly 20 years of service with the state police, he took the posting because his six children had grown up. He wanted a change of pace.

Now, life on the Lochsa suits him just fine. Wiggins is enthusiastic about the 17 elk he recently saw near Devoto Memorial Cedar Grove, eight miles east of Powell.

He´s genuinely happy – for elk and drivers both – that no elk have been hit this winter on Lolo Grade.

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