Thursday, June 30, 2011

going to the river

It's a relief to leave the canyon heat, poison ivy and ticks behind and travel into the river country, just waking up from winter.

If a wilderness can have a soul it would be like the Minam River, a powerful pulse of energy flowing from the melting high lakes down through the forest. Right now it is at flood, and impressive.

Ain't nobody crossing this puppy.

I was in the Minam river country to walk the hot ridges. That's my name for the broad-backed spines that tower above the river and loop down to its banks. They are beautiful but broiling, the only water far, far below. You have to carry water with you if you ascend the hot ridges. You have to be prepared.

Dana on a  higher ridge a few days back.  This time I was on my own, on a parallel ridge below this one.
This is ultrarunner territory without the ultrarunners and if I didn't have to carry so much pesky work gear I would be tempted to break into a run.  You could go for miles and days up here, making long loops down to the river and up again. It's so undiscovered, and I'm glad.

I was checking contractor work but I was also letting the ridge and river country do their magic after a week of trying to make unhappy people happy. At my job I catch a lot of weather: people venting about everything under the sun and wanting me to fix it. Sometimes I feel like I absorb their unhappiness like a sticky dark cloud and I have to unwrap it somewhere, let it go. That's really why I come here.

Sometimes I think that the complainers are way too entitled. I'd love to shove a pulaski in their hand or put them at the hard end of a misery whip and have them clear trails for a week. Clearing trails is the hardest work I've ever done and it puts everything into perspective.  But since I can't change anyone, just myself, I come here.

 Tally: Days: 2. Miles: Lots.  Elk: 2. Bears: 1. Thunderstorms: 2. Scary water crossings: 2. People: Zero.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

solo on the western rim

Every so often, a woman needs a solo trip. Solo, you can pick your own campsite. You can decide how far you want to go. You can get up as early as you want and hike before breakfast. While I like hiking with a group, sometimes I get bogged down by its complexity. It's easier to go alone sometimes.

I am always amazed by how few women will backpack alone. Ones that do often say it is "empowering." I respect their feelings, but I have never felt un-empowered,so going on a hike doesn't change the way I feel about myself.

When I was a wilderness ranger in Idaho, other hikers would often approach with questions. "Aren't you afraid of bears?" they would ask. Or just, "aren't you afraid?" They would never ask this of Andy, or Doug. I never understood that line of thinking.

This weekend  I went for a quick solo hike on the Western Rim Trail. It drops steeply off a mountain road down to a saddle outrageously decorated with flowers.

Snow patches still dotted the north-facing parts of the trail. I found a nice campsite on a ridge and settled in to watch the sun slowly drop over the canyon.

It's bittersweet, spending the night alone in the wilderness. I want this, to be under the robe of sky, to fall back in love again with wind and trees and silence. There is a pull though, now, to the person I love and miss. I used to say I could never love a man as much as I loved the mountains. I am beginning to believe that this is no longer true.

Readers, men and women alike, do you backpack alone? If you do or don't, what are your reasons?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Now kids, what have we learned?

My nemesis, the wheel.

So let's recap from the last two days in the canyon. What have we learned from Cow and Horse Creeks, Summit Ridge and Fingerboard Saddle?
1. Pushing a wheel uphill (to measure trail length) can result in face plants because you are holding the wheel in a death grip (don't want to make the contractors clear more trail than is in the contract) and bouncing over every obstacle in the path, not to mention steep, eroded terrain.
2. If someone tells you, "Oh, you can drive that road, no problem," get a second opinion. The next person might say, "Oh, we never drive that road," which would be good information to get before you terrorize yourself driving that road.
3.You can't hike 14 miles when it's 100 degrees. Don't be overconfident in your ability to hike three miles an hour. In the canyon, this is not possible. Also, it is possible to sweat more than you ever thought was humanly possible.
4. If you look away from the trail to contemplate some nice campsites, there is a good possibility you will step on a rattlesnake. (Yes. I did. I felt something squishy, heard a rattle. Dana said, "You just stepped on a rattlesnake!")
5. If your work partner sees something and yells "Ostriches!" there's a good chance that they are not ostriches, but only large turkeys. Try not to laugh too hard.
6. Don't trust the map when it looks like only three miles. It will be 5. At least.
7. The trail signs will inevitably seduce you into dreams of going in a completely different direction. Tryon Ranch, anyone?
8. There's good swimming holes near the abandoned ranches. This is the Litch Ranch, owned by the Nature Conservancy.
9.  Water is powerful. This is only a small section showing where Horse Creek, a very large stream, changed its course completely and charged down the trail, obliterating it completely.

10. While racing down the trail, take time to appreciate small butterflies.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

looking for legore lake (and other things)

In my many outdoor adventures, several things have befallen me. I've been charged by a bear. A mountain lion came and snarled next to my sleeping bag. I've walked in alligator-infested swamps. Fire has chased me. I've crossed big rivers, hunkered during lightning storms, run out of water, and gotten lost.

Now for something truly scary:

It's easier to commit to the John Muir Trail!

In my brief first marriage (still feels kind of weird to write that) my husband preferred to hike only as a means of killing something. He wouldn't bike in the rain, wasn't a backpacking fan, and the kayak I got him hung unused on the house. In another relationship my BF thought the relationship was doomed because we "didn't talk" when we hiked. It is really hard to find that balance--someone who likes some of the same things but not all. I don't want someone stuck like glue. J likes to backcountry ski. I don't. I like to trail run. He doesn't. It works out.

Three weeks, folks. We are wavering between a spot by the (flooding) Hurricane Creek or a (trespassing) tramp to the moraine behind J's house. It's simple, the way it should be.

Yes, I wish I had found him when I was younger. I wish I could erase all the dumb mistakes I made, all the people I thought would be my outdoor companions and who sadly proved not to be. But I can't. I had to learn some things first. It's like the hike I took today up Falls Creek. Somewhere way up there is Legore Lake, the highest lake in Oregon. This is what I saw:

I floundered through snow at about the three mile mark after gaining 2000 feet or so in elevation. I really wanted to get to the lake even though I knew snowshoes would be needed and perhaps more winter clothing. And more food than a Clif Bar. But I've learned patience. So I turned around. It'll happen. August maybe.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

two days at the end of the world

Dug Bar is a long way from anywhere. You have to want to go there. No, you have to need to go there, enough to put up with hours of teeth-rattling, hope-I-don't-meet-another-car-and-have-to-back-up road that goes to sticky clay in the rain. You dive down to the end of the road to an anticlimatic set of drowsing old buildings, remnants of the flush times when there actually was a year-round Hells Canyon trail crew. Heck, when there even was a Hells Canyon trail crew. And before that, when it was an actual ranch, the Dug Bar Ranch.

It was quiet at Dug Bar, the only sound the river, high and chocolate-covered, and a stray meadowlark. We hiked far into the hills, gaining several thousand feet in elevation.
It's a late spring, the hills still green, the creeks still running. We hiked ten miles, short of our plan of 14, but we had forgotten: in the canyon you throw out all the rules. Your normal pace does not apply here.
We were looking at an area that has been free of cattle grazing for some time, but the proposal is to put them back in. I can't lie, I don't want them back. The streams were clear and cool, the bunchgrasses long as hair.
But of course it's not up to me, so I enjoyed what is here now, not what will be or what was.
Well, enjoyed some things. After a sound sleep on the riverbank we all headed our separate ways. I decided to check out a connector trail that leads to the Snake River. After a mile of swimming through poison ivy, I called it quits and Technu'd up by the river. I hope it worked...
The prickly pear cactus was in bloom!

In the end, you always have to go home, so we packed up and left, back to the world of computers and meetings. We left Dug Bar to the intrepid tourists who somehow find their way there, the kind of tourists I like because they are willing to seek out places like these.

I like finding these little cups of silence, these places at the end of the world.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

the same old thing

When your life is the road, you don't have time to get used to anything. Everything is always new, exciting, not tinged with repetition or the insidious curtain of boredom. I spent most of my life as a seasonal worker and even in the last two places I alighted, five and seven years each, I spent much of that time on the hunt for new places, in jobs that involved frequent floatplane travel, camping and kayak trips. I was rarely home, and when I was, I chafed at the reasons that kept me there. Surely I was wasting those hours, I thought.

Now that I have decided to stay in Wallowa County, perhaps forever, it is a struggle to break out of the current I am used to swimming through. Often I run the same trails. I paddle the same lake. I see the same people. It is taking me time to appreciate familiarity, a view that rarely changes. The excitement of something new is gone but something else is slowly taking its place: layers and layers of experience, the kind that you need to really know it. In the past, I passed through places at a gallop, sure that I had seen them. Now I know it takes forever.

I pulled my kayak out onto the grass yesterday. "I have to kayak the same old lake," I complained. After the ocean, it seemed small, hardly worth the effort.

J, who has lived here 24 years, looked worried. "The same old lake," he said. "Are you going to get tired of me, because I'm the same old person?"

But he's not, of course, and neither is this place. It is more subtle change, the drawing of snow across the face of Ruby Peak, the waterfall I had never noticed before on this morning's trail run. And just like with people, it takes years to discover everything. On Friday Dana and I hiked Cougar Ridge, a sprawling, open spine of land that drops precipitously down to the wild Minam River. Snow was just giving up here and flowers taking its place. Unseen, a river gurgled below us. Beyond us many more unexplored ridges stretched lazily.

In my travels, I always wondered about the locals who were dug in happily near the parks. Naively I felt sorry for them. Didn't they ever want to just pack up and go? Didn't they see that their lives were passing them by?

Now I am beginning to appreciate those who stay. I won't ever be completely one of them--I have plenty of traveling plans, and I'm not one to broadly proclaim that where I live is the best place in the Universe. I also have moments where I have to go somewhere, anywhere, just to get out of this valley. But it is a rich life when you plant yourself. The same old thing isn't really that at all. It is a friend, changing slowly with the passage of time but still capable of surprise.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

the strange world of cold springs ridge

This week I got to go to another place I've never been: a long, wide ridge poised over Hells Canyon at 5,800 feet. Though only fifty miles from town, it seemed like another world. Strange and mysterious things lurk there. For example:

This is called Frog Pond. It is a teardrop lagoon. Actually I think it's a stock pond, but I can pretend it's an amphibian palace. The froggy chorus is deafening.

The trail signs are weathered and sometimes unreadable, a mute testament to when we used to have a trail crewin the canyon. A victim of budget cuts, that crew is gone and the trails are vanishing.

Often the map and the GPS were both wrong. The trails go down entirely different drainages. You have to tease a faint blur of ancient trail out of the landscape.

This stream was called "Dry Creek". Hmmmmm.

Up on the ridge, someone left me a toilet! Sweet! (not)

And then as I dragged myself back to the Liberty Sport after a 4000 foot elevation gain, after not seeing anyone for 24 hours, I looked up and saw this:

This is Bart Smith, and he is walking the neemeepoo trail. It's 1000 miles and he will end up in Yellowstone. This is the route Chief Joseph's band took when they were chased out of the Wallowas. There are actual trail sections and road sections. Bart's website is

You just never know what you will find out here.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

backpacking the hells canyon wilderness

The window of Hells Canyon is closing. It usually is only a sliver, a brief slice of time where hiking is not dangerous. Before the creeks have dried up, the heat turned up so you bake in an oven of brown, waterless slopes. We made a run for it before it was too late.
The trail heads down from this high point and then winds along mid-canyon, two thousand feet above the Snake River.

Freezeout Saddle, about 4.3 miles and several thousand feet above where we parked the truck.

Just as had been predicted, summer came with the flip of a switch. It snowed Thursday. Saturday it was 80 degrees.

We set up the tent on a grassy knoll with a spectacular view. There were several cars parked on the road but we only saw one group. This wilderness is big enough to absorb multiple parties; it swallows you up.

We're in Oregon. The snowy peaks are in Idaho.

We wandered along the bench trail and finally just sat, taking it all in. I could stare into the canyon for hours.

Some pink alpenglow from our campsite.
Harsh, rugged, serious country, Hells Canyon is. It's not for everyone. We passed a group clearly unprepared and hating life. Clad in unbreathable clothes, gaiters and gloves, they toiled uphill, most certainly deluded about their final destination. When I first got here I looked at the trail mileage and thought, eleven miles to the Snake River? No problem! Elsewhere, maybe. Not here. You have to respect this landscape. You make few miles here.

Amy on the saddle, homeward bound.
 So long, Hells Canyon. See you in the fall.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Stormy weather

I'm lucky that I spent seven years in a rainforest because I am okay with rain. Rain and me, we get along just fine. This spring has been spectacularly rainy here in the Wallowas, and people are pissed off.
The creeks are rising, lawns are growing, everyone wants the usual sunny days we are known for here. But for seven years I lived with near constant rain and the other side of the coin, sun mania, so I can adapt.

Today I inspected a trail contract over in the Buckhorn area. It rained softly most of the day. Because I descended and then ascended three thousand feet it was easier to just get wet rather than sweat miserably in a raincoat. There were a lot of creek crossings, and I forgot my sandals (I always forget something). At first I tried to tiptoe across the creeks....

But it's kind of hard when they turn into waterfalls...
So I just gave up and sloshed across.

Then I drove  a rocky road that was a challenge for the Liberty Sport, in search of the contractors. This is a long, spectacular ridge but you would not know it because it was completely encased in fog. It drifted in and out and it felt like I was the only person alive in the world.

The fog and drizzle made it hauntingly beautiful. Deadhorse Ridge, you are one of my new favorite places.

It will be sunny soon enough.