The Salmon-Challis National Forest expands over 4.2 million acres of Idaho backcountry. The wildlands of the Salmon-Challis National Forest are largely roadless; they contain essential habitats for plant and wildlife species as well as crucial waterways for ecosystems and water use across central Idaho. To celebrate the importance of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, ICL will be publishing a blog series celebrating this vital land and the opportunities provided within.

Hannah Spencer is in the business of knowing wild places. Of course, the same could be said of any guide, but that’s not the sort of knowing—or, the one of Spencer’s careers—that statement refers to. As an artist, Spencer is in the business of knowing wild places in the most intimate sense: how they make us feel, how we interact with them, and what we take away from the experience. Spencer puts it this way: “I don’t try to make the images that look like the wilderness. I’m trying to capture the feeling of the wilderness.” 

Spencer is a professional fly fishing guide and a self-taught artist. Her medium of choice? The slow-moving, intentional and tedious process of woodblock printing. Through the process of sketching, carving, printing, and then painting, Spencer looks to capture snippets of life against the backdrop of nature. Living with her husband and two children in North Fork, Idaho, right on the edge of Salmon-Challis National Forest and just a short journey away from the Salmon River, that backdrop is ever-present.

“Being a guide sets the stage for a greater appreciation of how important open lands are. Additionally, having small children, it’s really important to me that we are outside as much as possible… We pretty much can walk out our door and be in public lands without driving anywhere,” Spencer shared.

Courtesy: Hannah Spencer.

Themes of family, artistry, and wild places are all closely aligned in Spencer’s story; the importance of each one does not exist without influence from the others.

“My dad’s an artist, so I always had an art background. Then, when I got married, I made my first wood block for our wedding invitation… I had twins, so I began doing a series of block prints to help my mental state as a new mother. And from there, it blossomed,” Spencer explained. “A year after I started, I collaborated with another artist and we did a series to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. That opened me up to a little bit more of my purpose – to educate, to inspire… To be a steward of the land through a different lens.”

When asked about the moments that have inspired her most in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, Spencer shared a few memories. 

“One of my favorite memories is flying into the Middle Fork with my kids. My husband is a Wilderness Ranger, and he was working on the South Zone of Salmon-Challis National Forest, so the kids and I flew into Flying B Ranch. We hiked up into the mountains, camped, and visited hot springs. To spend a week in the backcountry with small kids is definitely a highlight as a mother and as an artist.”

It’s those special moments that bring inspiration to her. Spencer travels with a journal when in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, or in any other backcountry setting. 

Courtesy: Hannah Spencer.

“When I get that feeling of, ‘wow, this is amazing and beautiful, my kids are experiencing something for the first time,’ we’ll sit down and I’ll start to sketch the moment out in the field.” Spencer then journals about the feelings of the moment, envisioning what she wants to capture. From there, it’s back home to the woodblock, where she transposes her sketches backwards and begins carving out her image. When that’s complete, she uses oil to transfer the print to paper before adding the finishing touch of watercolor paint. 

It’s not all profound moments and sweeping forest scenes that spark inspiration, however. Spencer’s children remind her of how important the little things are. 

“Seeing the kids in the backcountry… When they wake, and they realize we’re outside today, they’re just wild, free children. Watching them really gives you the appreciation of small things, like sand and how it feels falling through your hands and feet. You know, sometimes it’s not the magnitude of the wilderness, sometimes it can be the small pieces of wilderness that have a big impact.”

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Check out Hannah Spencer’ work here.