Category Archives: Oregon

Logan Valley in bloom

June 6-9, 2023.

Photo album

I had a date in Logan Valley to meet up with ONDA, the Oregon Natural Desert Association, to work on a fence-raising project. Aaron and I drove down to the Big Creek Campground, on the Malheur National Forest, a night in advance. We arrived shortly before sunset.

Sunset wildflowers

Day transitioned to evening with a dramatic display of purples, oranges and pinks. In addition, the bloomiferous (is that a word?) meadow sparkled beneath the sky. We frolicked through the meadow. Blissed out, we returned to camp, where our neighbor ran a generator all night. This is why we don’t stay in campgrounds.

Easy rider

The next morning, generator still running, we moved the van up the road so Aaron could work. I hopped on my bike and followed “Big Creek Loop B,” one of three beginner biking routes posted at the campground. It wasn’t much to write home about, but it provided an opportunity to stretch my legs and get a feel for the landscape. I was just excited that anyone had bothered to map out an easy route for beginner riders like me.

Fence-raising

Later that evening, we drove up the road to Burns-Paiute managed land, where we met up with the volunteer crew. As expected, it consisted of a team leader from ONDA and a bunch of retired folks. One younger guy joined us later that night. I can only hope I’ll still be signing up to do physical labor when I’m in my 70’s! I figure the best way to do that is to keep doing it now.

In the morning, we split up into two work crews and began putting up a “let-down fence,” a barbed wire fence designed to be put up part of the year and taken down for the rest of the year. Since cattle were going to be grazing the neighboring property soon, we needed to help put this fence up. The cows would easily trample and destroy the beautiful riparian area on the other side of the fence. The Burns-Paiute were working on restoring the creek for more beaver and fish activity. Cattle don’t mix well with that plan.

It rained and rained as we methodically leap-frogged each other along the fence, raising the wooden posts and securing them against metal beams with loops of wire. It’s tricky work being around so much barbed wire, especially while wearing rain gear that’s easily snagged and torn. My outdoor gear is great for recreating in bad weather, but not for working in bad weather. If I do much more of this, I might need to go shopping.

While driving back to the camp, we saw lots of beautiful splotches of blooming flowers. At one point, we stopped the car to investigate some wildlife. “Do you see that?!” the driver practically squealed. I said, “a deer?” kind of incredulously. Like, why did we stop the car for a deer? But as I panned to the right, I saw two giant wading birds that looked like they belonged in a zoo. I had absolutely no idea what they were. The driver informed us we were seeing a pair of sandhill cranes. She had suspected they were here the previous evening, based on a sound identification from Merlin.

A sidebar: the Merlin app has a sound ID option where you can make a recording of a bird and the app will identify it in real time. It’s surprisingly fast and accurate. We have since become obsessed with using it to identify any squeak. song, rattle, trill or screech.

We finished with lots of time to spare, so in the afternoon I took a walk back up the road to investigate a beautiful patch of purple blur I noticed while driving. Elephant-head lousewort! Plus, some more exquisitely colored paintbrush. This place was a dream.

The next day was a repeat of the first, except the stretch of fence we worked on was a but more cantankerous. There were segments that required tensioning with a specialized fence tool in order to get up. Tangles of barbed wire, missing loops and swampy stretches were among the many obstacles we faced. And that’s not including the soaking rain.

Fortunately we finished earlier than expected, again, and returned by lunch time. In the afternoon I took a short walk with one of the biologists as he walked the property checking bird boxes for eggs. We found several nesting tree swallows and one bluebird. He used a device that looked like a camera at the end of a long cord. On the far side, it was attached to a screen the size of a cell phone. He’d snake the camera into the box and then look at the display to see what was inside. I was enthralled.

Take aways

I signed up for this trip for a few reasons. One, I really wanted to make service a part of our travels. The stereotypical travel story is one of extraction and exploitation. I did not want to make that our story. Instead, I wanted to be engaged in the communities and wild spaces we spend time in.

Second, I’d never even heard of Logan Valley before seeing it on ONDA’s trip list. A place in Oregon that was off my radar? I had to go.

And lastly, I want to learn some new skills as I have this precious opportunity to be unemployed for a while. It was soon very clear that the old-timers in my group were far more capable with hand tools and fence work in general than me. The tools felt clumsy in my hand and it took me longer to solve problems than it did for them. So obviously, I just need to spend more time building stuff and working with my hands in this way. They were all very kind and easy to partner with, so I never felt incompetent or unappreciated. I enjoyed working as part of a team and learning to be patient with myself as I figured it all out.

Whatever I do, I often feel like I get more than I give, even when the purpose is giving. What I got was: new friendships, skill building, bird education, wildflower education, resource management education, great food, smiles and laughter. What I gave? A few hours of labor towards a project. I am grateful for the folks who spend their time coordinating these opportunities and managing volunteers. This experience has made me even more curious about what else I can get my hands into. I’ve already signed up for a fall trip with ONDA, and I’m constantly looking for other ways to give back.

Rabbit Hills

June 2, 2023.

11 mi bike | 8.5 mi hike | 2600′ ele. gain | 7.25 hr.

Photo album

I rarely share details on my cross country routes, but due to the remoteness of this area, extremely low probability of anyone repeating it and the likelihood that no one’s ever Googled “Rabbit Hills” with the intention of locating this area in Oregon, here we go.

Another day, another bike ride

It would be our last day in Camp Hart and I wanted to see as many more wildflowers as I could before leaving this magical place. I hopped on my bike and rode 11 miles of gravel road to the base of the Rabbit Hills. I only found this area because I spent the last few days zooming in on the map at any high point within biking distance of our camp. From afar, it looked like a cluster of boring, barren lumps on the landscape.

The highpoint

I left my bike behind a lone, scraggly sagebrush and began walking across a cheatgrass-covered field towards a break in the slope ahead. The occasional deep purple larkspur poked up between the nodding stalks of grass. As I climbed up the wash, I noticed that any depression in the landscape was choked in tumbleweed. Cow pies littered the ground. It was definitely not my best pick of the week.

But, I had a highpoint to find, so I kept going. I found some large, sun-bleached cow vertebrae. An animal leg with some fur still left on it. Clumps of milkvetch. Buckwheat. A pronghorn raced along the horizon. Okay, I thought, this is getting more interesting.

A cold breeze blew as I crested up to the top of a rocky pile. I looked across a small saddle towards my summit. Based on zillions of trips like this, I knew it looked farther away than it actually was. I took a sip of water and wandered downhill to start the next uphill section. At the bottom of the hillside, I found thousands of reddish bitterroot buds, just waiting for their chance to burst open into beautiful blooms. Plus lots of phlox and buckwheat. I rolled under a barbed wire fence, giddy to find out what else these hills had in store for me today.

My progress screeched to a halt as I found myself in wildflower heaven. Joining the previous lineup was paintbrush. Brilliant red, orange, peach and so many delicate combinations of shades. And every time I thought, it can’t get any better, it did. As I crested the final flat spot before the summit, I found myself in a wildflower garden to rival any I’d seen before. HOW could I keep feeling this deep sense of awe so many times in one week?

At the summit, I pulled out my map, looked around and concocted a plan for what to do next. I’d already given Aaron my pickup point, just not a time. Originally, I thought this would be a quick hike. But once I got out here, I knew I needed time to explore. Across a valley, I noticed an abrupt change in the rock color and type. From there, I could string together all the highpoints on the horseshoe-shaped ridge. I had a plan.

Up and down

I wanted to race down off the highpoint so I could get to the next part, but the rocky hillside with all its grass clumps and holes and dips and sagebrush branches wouldn’t let me. I carefully made my way down so as to not break an ankle, salivating over what cool discoveries I was sure to make on the next section.

Nothing could have prepared me for the profusion of wildflowers I’d find. The number of different species was quite low, but the volume of flowers couldn’t be beat. The largest threadleaf phacelia plants I’d ever seen, with numerous stalks of cheery, purple blooms. Vibrant clusters of paintbrush in even more colors than I’d seen before. Bouncy buckwheat flower heads sticking their necks out as if to compete with the flashier wildflowers. And bitterroot, now with their petals open to the sun. And some with green buds instead of the familiar red. What a treat.

The rock on this hill was so interesting. It was a lighter color, practically white, providing a different color contrast to the vegetation. As I continued along the rolling ridge, the rock became red and then black. The piles of red boulders in the middle section reminded me of places I’d explored in the southwest. Such a diversity of experiences in one short hike.

As I gleefully ascended the last bump to complete the traverse, I saw a familiar sight: a pronghorn. I saw its pointy head rise up above the rocks at the summit, followed by its body…it began coming down the hill in my direction. NOT AGAIN.

With my eyes looking over my shoulder, I slowly descended a bit down the hill. It kept tracking me. This one had big antlers, too. We played this game for several minutes. I’d walk downhill, stop and turn around. He’d continue downhill in my exact direction. And, repeat. Ultimately I determined that this summit was off-limits for this hike, and I began quickly and decisively descending towards the valley bottom. I needed this animal to know that I was not a threat. It was his home, anyways, so if he didn’t want me there then I had to leave.

As I tromped through the beautiful field, I looked towards the road and noticed the van. I had an easy spot to walk back to, but I wasn’t ready to be done yet. So, I found a little bump with a nice view of the surrounding hills where I could sit and paint. I enjoyed watching the shadows of the clouds pass over the landscape and tried to replicate that feeling in my painting. Was it a success? Who knows. But every time I take time to paint, I learn new things.

The walk back was hot and boring, but I was still riding high from the day’s delights. I can never tell what the experience will be by just looking at the topo map and satellite views. However, that’s part of the fun for me. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt with every un-tested hike. Despite a lackluster beginning, this one lives in my top ten list for sure.

DeGarmo Canyon to Warner Peak

May 31, 2023.

14.2 mi | 4110′ ele. gain | 9 hours

Photo album

This route was born out of a desire to get up into the high country while the access road from Warner Basin was closed. From Camp Hart, I hopped on my bike and rode the roughly five miles to the DeGarmo Canyon trailhead. I definitely walked some sections of the dirt access road to the parking area, which was great because I could get a good look at the wildflowers. A preview of what was sure to come.

I ditched my bike, changed into hiking pants and started up the unofficial trail to DeGarmo Falls. Almost immediately I had to do a rock scramble and creek crossing, then at last I had my feet on some semblance of a trail. I couldn’t get far fast; wildflowers bloomed profusely along the path. Blue flax, paintbrush, chokecherry, penstemon. It was glorious! As I walked along, I wondered, how would I know that I reached the waterfall? I know these desert hikes. There’s not much water to see…oh there it is.

DeGarmo Falls

I heard it, I saw it, up ahead a beautiful cascade of water poured over a cliff in the canyon. Spectacular! I sat in the cooling spray of the falls for a few minutes, eating a snack and re-reading the route descriptions I had researched. One from the website Less Traveled Northwest and the other from Matt Reeder’s latest book, Extraordinary Oregon. Based on these write-ups, I knew there was a way to continue a couple miles up the canyon, at least. From there I’d be on my own, routefinding up to Warner Peak. I wasn’t sure I’d make it all the way, especially with impending thunderstorms, but I set it as my reach goal for the day.

Hiking up canyon

From my rest spot, I back-tracked just a little bit to the base of a talus slope, the route up and around the waterfall. There were a few cairns along this portion of the route, but I only saw them when I was standing right next to them, making them effectively useless. It’s hard to see a rock pile when you’re walking on a rockpile.

For the next two hours, I rambled through the canyon, sometimes on an obvious path, sometimes not. I marveled at how much shade was provided by towering ponderosa pine and other shrubs and trees. This was unlike any desert hike I’d done lately.

Among the rocks, the meadows, the shady forest, the dust, the streambanks, were thousands of wildflowers. Here I found Brown’s peony, Columbia puccoon, so much lupine, different varieties of balsamroot, peas and of course, more paintbrush. Paintbrush in every shade of red, pink, coral, orange, yellow, white. Colors I’d never seen before.

As I climbed higher in the canyon, the trees grew smaller and fewer. The stream became narrower and the riparian areas more tame. In order to avoid a random rectangle of private land, I knew I needed to escape the canyon and barrel up a side wall to the south. So, I hopped over the creek and began huffing it up the hillside towards the highest peak on the landscape.

Disbelief while ascending the seemingly dry and dead hill: sand lilies, bluebells, phlox, onion. The spring desert provides.

Toward Warner Peak

And the disbelief continued as I crested the ridge and looked at what was ahead. Now, carpets of tiny, alpine wildflowers bursting from between every pebble. I still had about three miles to go before reaching the summit, meaning a total of six miles of exposed hiking above treeline amidst foreboding cumulus clouds. At this point, I was still not committed to this one and only outcome. I was just thrilled to be up there enjoying the wide expanse of rocks, flowers, snow fields and groves of mountain mahogany.

However, if there was any chance of making it, I had to move. With tired legs, I hauled my butt as fast as I could, avoiding any unnecessary elevation gains or losses. Occasionally I just had to stop for photos, as it was indescribably beautiful. But I was in rare form. In just over an hour, I was standing atop the summit of Warner Peak.

I don’t know what it is about the highpoints that captivates me. I feel like I experience an alternate phase of reality when there’s a chance of standing on top of a thing. Elated, I plop down on my sit pad near a giant cairn and pull out the summit register. It was covered with ladybugs. I recognized a few names as I flipped through the last few years of entries, then I added mine. It sure looked a lot different today than the last time I hiked Warner Peak!

summit of warner peak

After all the work it took to get up there, I figured I deserved a little bit of rest and relaxation. I kept an eye to the clouds and formulated a plan to get back. I dreaded the bike ride back to the campsite, as it would be mostly uphill. And that would make for an extra long day. I messaged Aaron on the Garmin, asking him to meet me at the trailhead with the van. He agreed. Also, there was one more marked highpoint on this ridge (simply called “High Point” on Peakery) that I could hit on my way back down. So…you know what had to be done.

The return

Again I walked with a sense of urgency as I raced the weather, tagging High Point along the way. That small detour disoriented me a little bit, so I got a little off route on the way back. Noticing that error, I quickly got back on track and began my descent into the canyon.

I was almost all the way back down when I noticed a group of three pronghorn on the same slope. I sat down and watched them for a few minutes. Once the group got a whiff of me, two animals started running and one stayed behind. It walked slowly and with an air of purpose. Then, it looked right at me and snorted. This didn’t seem right. The pronghorn kept looking at me, kept walking in my direction. I’d always been annoyed that I can never get a good look at wildlife because they run away so quickly; in this moment all I wanted was for this pronghorn to run away.

Instead, I decided it was me who needed to run away. I stood up and walked down the canyon, angling away from the pronghorn. Once it realized I was not a threat, it bounded up the hillside to re-join the other two.

Back underneath the ponderosa, I bounced back down the creek, looking to see if there were any wildflowers I’d missed. The skies continued to grow darker, and soon it began to rain. It felt more like a drizzle, and honestly it felt good. I didn’t put a rain shell on, instead savoring the lovely desert moisture on my skin.

The colors of the blooms became even more vibrant as the rain fell. My pants and shoes soaked through from brushing past wet sagebrush and tall grass. While annoying, I knew there were dry clothes waiting in the van.

When I got back to the creek crossing, I splashed right through in my already wet shoes and socks. And just like that, I was done. It was a long but extremely rewarding day, and I’m glad the lightning held off for me to complete my hike safely. I felt extremely lucky to be able to experience the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge in peak wildflower season. I’d even call it a superbloom.

Petroglyph Lake from Camp Hart

May 30, 2023.

17.5 mi | 2250′ ele. gain | 7.5 hr.

petroglyph lake

Photo album

We arrived at Hart Mountain eager to enjoy desert quiet time and relax into some natural hot springs. But nature had other plans. When we pulled up to the store in Plush to grab a couple of cheeseburgers, a sign on the door said “Road to Hot Springs Closed.” Shoot. Apparently the road needed repair after a particularly wet winter/spring season plus all the yahoos who think they can drive their vehicles up steep, wet roads. But, ready to switch plans at a moment’s notice, we angled over to Camp Hart, located at the base of the Warner Plateau. There, I had several days of exploring ahead.

Bike and hike

As you well know, I don’t like riding bikes. But, when I have a good reason to get on a bike, I’ll do it. On this day, I had a plan to bushwhack up to Petroglyph Lake. But my starting point was 5 miles away up a couple gravel roads. Hiking that would have been long and boring, but biking it…well that would be shorter and boring!

I rode to the base of a wash and ditched my bike behind a sage bush. I dropped a pin on the map on my phone to make it easy to find on the way back, then started hiking up hill. The wash began as they usually do, broad and dotted with shrubs. I followed the contour of the landscape as it gently ascended towards the plateau. Along the way, I spotted penstemon, mint, paintbrush and thistle. But the balsamroot really stood out; cheery blobs of yellow punctuated the surrounding hillsides. It felt like you would be able to see them from space.

As I approached the top of the plateau, I left the wash and headed straight up a chunky talus slopes. Using my hands for balance, I picked my way up the rocks and emerged on top to find an absolute wonderland of colorful blooms.

At first, the exuberant desert parsley caught my eye. Then the phlox, false dandelion, saxifrage, large-head clover and others. And a balsamroot variety I’d never seen before: serrate balsamroot. These guys had long, flimsy, red stalks attaching each flower head to a rosette of slender, toothed leaves. My hunch about stumbling into a good desert wildflower bloom at this time was correct; this place likely doesn’t look like this too often.

Petroglyph Lake

I slowly made my way to the lake, stopping numerous times for photos. I’d been there once before, in the heat of summer and in the throes of mosquito season. I did not enjoy myself much. It’s fun to read my old blog entry here, and reflect on how much I’ve learned and changed since then. I sure have adapted to bushwhacking in the desert, which was a novelty when I first stepped foot here!

With little knowledge of what the petroglyphs mean, who made them and whether or not they’re old or new, I find it very difficult to enjoy viewing them. However, I made an effort to find as many as I could. To be honest, I was more interested in discovering all the flowers that were growing in the lake basin. It was a far cry from the “brown mud puddle” that I’d seen in July 2011; I wished that I’d brought my packraft. I could have had a three-sport day!

Poker Jim Ridge

Why do an out-and-back when you can do a loop? I thought to myself, while looking between the place in front of my eyes and the topo map on my phone. I had to at least explore the ridge, and from there it appeared that I could follow another wash down to some seasonal ponds and then back down to the road. It would be a couple miles, maybe to my bike from there.

On the way to the ridge, I got to see a couple of pronghorn living their best lives out on the plateau. They’re such beautiful animals and a joy to see while out hiking. I poked around some of the rocky outcrops on the ridge to find a place to sit and paint. Mindful of the storms that were brewing all around me, I worked quickly and packed up to begin the walk down.

Exploring off-trail in new places always feels slow but fun. In fact, the slow to fun ratio is inversely proportional: the slower I go, the more fun I have. It is SO ODD typing that because I used to assess the value of my day with how fast I covered ground. Now, I’ve learned that it’s pointless to race because then you don’t see anything! You have no opportunity to connect to the place you’re in, change plans and go check out that curious thing over there or stop and soak in a special moment. I have lost all interest in trying to beat my previous times. The only reason I am mindful of time is so that I know how much I can do before it gets dark or I need to make dinner or I’m going to get run down by a thunderstorm.

And that brings us back to this story.

In my mind, I would have been happy to get back to the road before the thunderstorm arrived. I just didn’t want to be sloshing down a steep, rocky, slippery hillside with rain pouring down on me. I could handle an annoying and wet road walk. In fact, rain would have felt nice.

Back at the road, I could see the dark gray clouds in the distance. A few rumbles of thunder. I walked as fast as I could. Dang, I had to stop a few times for flowers though. What’s that? SHORTSPINE HORSEBRUSH? I had to take some pictures and look it up. Ahhh, then fields full of deep purple larkspur. Gorgeous. But I had to keep going.

Racing the rain

Pedal, pedal, pedal. It was only 5 miles. I made bets with myself: would I make it? Would I get caught in the deluge? Would lightning strike near me? I rode as fast as I could, taking breaks when I got really overheated. I am not an efficient cyclist, and every tiny hill felt like it was trying to kill me.

Drop, drop. Still a third of the way to go. I felt those raindrops and they felt like a relief. I was so hot! But the rain never came. The worst part was riding up the very last hill to the crest of the road, where the campground entrance was.

I arrived intact but very overheated and very thirsty. The storms came later that night and all through the week. We had no confidence that the hot springs road would open before we left, so I started planning some other adventures I could bike to from our camp…

Columbia River Gorge wildflower hunting

May 22-24, 2023.

Photo album

Tom McCall Preserve

6 miles | 1330’ ele. gain |3.5 hr.

After dropping Aaron off at the airport for a work trip, I pointed the van north and drove towards the Columbia River Gorge. I’d spent countless hours there when I lived in Portland, so I was excited to revisit an old friend. I parked at the Rowena viewpoint, where I could go on two short hikes. I started on the trail that ambled along the edge of the plateau above the Columbia. The wind blew ferociously. I remembered how bad the wind could get here, but this seemed even a bit much for the gorge. I cinched up the hood on my wind shell and began walking.

It was evident from the beginning that I missed the peak balsamroot blooms; the withering yellow flowers looked battered and sad. But there was plenty other things to see: arrowleaf buckwheat, lupine, yarrow, onion, peas. And my old pal poison oak!
I was ready for poison oak now. I could see it from a mile away. Instead of comfy shorts and sandals, I wore long pants, socks and trail shoes. I would no longer brush off poison oak as no big deal. Now on day 2 of steroids after 8 painful, itchy days of a vicious poison oak attack, I gave that heinous plant a wide berth.

The sign at the trailhead implores visitors to stay on trail, but it’s not well-marked and user trails braided this way and that. I did my best to follow the main route plus the side loop, but somehow I veered off onto another path. If you want to keep hikers in line, you gotta let them know where to be!

Back at the parking lot, I reset my trip odometer and headed uphill towards Tom McCall Point. This trail was much more my style, switchbacking uphill through blooming meadows and pockets of shady forest. Here, I saw large-flower triteleia, paintbrush, bedstraw, wild roses, white-stem frasera and the star of the show: sticky penstemon. These gigantic purple flowers stopped me in my tracks as they stood tall and vibrant in the upper meadows. Stunners!

After that hike, I’d pretty much had it with the wind. I drove to nearby Memaloose State Park to find a campsite and relax. I knew I had an early wake-up the next day.

Dog Mountain

7 miles | 3075’ ele. gain | 5:50 hr

I met up with my friend Greg just after 6 am at the Dog Mountain Trailhead. I remembered this place being popular, and I know I’d hiked it a few times before. But its popularity had grown since I lived in Portland. Plus, the flowers were peaking and people lose their minds over this trail. I’d never actually gone for the wildflowers before so this would be a new experience. All of this to say: the 6 am start time would be crucial for enjoying this hike!

A few short steps up the trail and I realized that I’d met my match for photo-taking. It was nice to be able to take our time, identify every little flower, and try to document as much of the interesting flora that we could on the way. We had all day, in fact, so why rush?

Before getting remotely close to the famous yellow blooms, we saw so much: ookow, inside-out flower, spotted coralroot, Columbia anemone, to name a few. Every time I stopped to look at one thing I discovered three more things. The cool, dark forest was resplendent with a staggering diversity of plant life. I know there are plenty more flowers I don’t even have photos of, mostly because I’ve already got a zillion (I’m looking at you, woodland stars).

The famed balsamroot meadows were, in fact, spectacular. And even though I’ve seen the same damn image more times than I can count on social media, it was still really cool to be standing among thousands of cheery, yellow blooms swaying in the incessant wind.

Although the wind was not nearly as bad as the previous day, the sky was overcast and the air was cool. Despite my layers I was chilled to the bone. These conditions did not stop Greg from taking many, many photos. So at one point I headed up to the summit to wait for him as he captured every last thing that needed capturing. I gladly found myself a coniferous La-Z-Boy, downed some food and savored being out of the wind.

Eventually, Greg joined me at the top and he got to take his break as well. It was too cold for me to paint today, and I had other people to see in the afternoon, so we headed back down. We took a slightly different route that detoured into a light and beautiful forest filled with new wildflower treats. Fendler’s waterleaf, vine maple, Hooker’s fairybells, Oregon grape and the very last of the Dutchman’s breeches were on display. In addition, there were more checker lilies than I’d ever seen on a hike before, wow!

Each section of trail had its own joys and surprises. Among the shadows of the darkest parts of the forest, Phantom orchids sprouted in the hundreds. They were not quite in bloom yet, but they were getting ready to put on a good show.
But alas, I had to leave that to Greg for a future hike. Back at the parking lot, I spied a familiar face en route to the trailhead. “Is that Linda?” I cried.

Yes, it was. I had a nice time catching up with one of my old climbing buddies from Portland and remembered that this was my home for a while. I’ve got roots here. And I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting a few more old friends, watering the roots so to speak, and preparing for the next leg of the journey.

Eagle Creek

14.5 mi | 1080’ ele. gain | 6:20 hr.

The last stop on my top Gorge hikes tour came on Greg’s recommendation: Eagle Creek. Again, my only preconceived notions/memories of this hike were something like: this is really popular and ten million people are going to be tripping over each other on this trail. Again, I showed up early, and there were only three cars in the parking lot.
I started at the Fish Hatchery and did the short road walk to the actual trailhead, where I immediately stopped to take a bunch of photos of the wildflowers growing on the vertical walls along the trail. Water seeped down the steep rock and moss, creating a perfect growing environment for arnica (probably), monkeyflower, maidenhair ferns and a new one to me: Oregon bolandra. I knew I had a 14 mile day ahead but I didn’t care. Nature made me stop.

The last time I hiked Eagle Creek, it was during a blizzard that shut down the highway in the Gorge just hours after we drove back towards Portland. I had only a vague memory of this trail, with its narrow passageways and bolted cables. As I hiked, I tried to imagine the work it took to create this trail on the side of a canyon, with vertical basalt walls, numerous waterfalls, inlet creeks and a host of other natural barriers. It must have taken a grand effort to make this come to life.

And how grateful was I at that moment that this trail existed! Every stretch had its own special beauty, despite the fire that ripped through mere years ago. Wildflowers blossomed and stretched up towards the sunlight. Shrubs and tiny trees sprang to life. Among the burned and scarred corpses of trees, many others grew lush and tall. After spending years hiking through the massive burn scars across Central Oregon, this landscape did not feel jarring at all. In fact, it was much livelier and robust than I’d imagined from what I’d read.

After hiking several miles, I finally began to hear the roar of Tunnel Falls. I appreciate a well-named entity, be it a waterfall, wildflower or mountain. The trail literally enters a tunnel behind the waterfall, making for a rather exciting experience. The anticipation grew as the sound got louder and the waterfall spray filled the air. I rounded a corner, walked into the belly of the beast, and emerged on the other side, surrounded by white shooting star and a carpet of vertical green vegetation. The trail was barely wide enough for me to stand, with a precipitous drop down to a pool of churning water. I could see how a fear of heights would paralyze any visitor here.

From there, I wasn’t sure how much further to go. I knew the Eagle Creek trail went on for many more miles. But there seemed to be some more waterfall commotion up ahead. Plus, I wanted to find a nice spot to sit and have a snack. Those opportunities were few and far between on this narrow trail! I was glad to have only seen two other people so far on my walk.

At this point, the dramatic trail paralleled a narrow, rocky gorge. Happy green plants sprung from every crack and crevice, seemingly reaching for the suspended droplets of water from the rambunctious creek.

To my surprise and delight, I came to the also-well-named Twister Falls. It took my breath away. I thought that I must have come here before, but after looking back at my hiking spreadsheet it appears this was my first time.

Occasionally, when out in nature, I am overcome by a feeling that must be described as “awe,” although I find it impossible to truthfully describe. It is a visceral feeling that takes over some part of my body. In this case I could feel a kind of expansion and warmth in my chest. I stood there at the falls, surrendering to this unusual but overwhelmingly positive sensation, as I felt a deep connection to this place at this time.
Once the feeling had passed, I sat down in a small gravel bar near the top of the falls and ate some food. The warmth of the day had begun to set in, and I still had a seven mile walk back to the car, so I didn’t linger long. Plus, I wanted to do some painting. I had scouted a good spot near one of the bridges about halfway back, which would serve as a good painting and secondary snack break.

I opted for a quicker pace on the way back, since I’d stopped for seemingly every wildflower and riffle of water on the way up. But, that did not stop me from discovering a few more flowers and scenic viewpoints that I’d missed on the way in.

Yes, the Gorge hikes are crowded. I did pass a bunch of people hiking in while I was motoring out. But, there are many reasons why these hikes attract so many visitors. I felt privileged to be able to return to the Gorge this week and hike three classics in near peak condition without feeling suffocated by weekend crowds.

But, if the only time you can get out there is on a summer weekend, I say go anyway. Go early or late in the day if you can, and either way brace yourself for an absolute mob scene. These trails are there to be enjoyed. And most normal people don’t abhor crowds as much as I do. Right now, the flowers are absolutely popping!

Illinois River Trail

May 10-12, 2023

Photo album

I decided to take a 3-day foray into the Southern Oregon wilderness along the Illinois River Trail. Conditions dependent, I considered a loop up Bald Mountain, combining the main trail with the Florence Way trail. This loop would have been about 24 miles. In three days, that felt like a reasonable plan.

What I neglected to consider is how formidable the Illinois River Trail could prove to be. For starters, the road to the trailhead is narrow, bumpy, rutted and carved into a steep hillside looming above the river. It was a torturous drive, and we even pulled over before the trailhead because of rumors that the last 2 miles was really bad.

Day 1

On the morning of May 10, I slung on my backpack and began the walk to to Illinois River East trailhead. The first mile or so of road was fairly flat and even, but it ran through private property so we would have had no place to park. After that, it became more narrow and rugged, with some big puddles at the end. I was glad we made the decision to leave the van where it was.

I hiked across the bridge spanning the raging Illinois and met with the next trail obstacle: poison oak. This stuff grows like a weed throughout Southern Oregon. And since I’ve been impervious to it in the past, I was a little nonchalant about walking through it on this trip (this would prove to be a very bad choice a few days later). The hot sun bore down on me as I crossed the burned, open forest. It had an eerie vibe, and as I passed a big pile of poo that consisted mostly of fur, I started singing some Capoeira songs aloud to keep myself company.

The trail was alive with irises, buttercups, mariposa lilies and much more. I frequently stopped to admire and identify the local flora. Far down below, the Illinois River dipped in and out of view. This was no ordinary river trail; while technically the trail followed the river, the water was often several hundred feet down and not visible at all. The steep mountains tumbled and crumbled down into the valley. The slopes were likely made unstable by the wildfires, which devastated many of the existing trees that held the rock and soil together. At times, walking on the trail felt like walking on the edge of a precipice that could give way underfoot. I don’t have much of a fear of heights, but feeling the wobbly overnight pack on my back made me walk a little slower and choose my steps with precision.

I crossed several little creeks along the way, including one that was lined with Darlingtonia, my favorite Southern Oregon native. Near that creek, I also got to meet a new endemic: Kalmiopsis. This pretty little pink flower cascaded profusely down the hillside, a beauty to behold. I only saw it in this one specific location on this trip. I’ll have to learn more about this plant to find out where it likes to grow and see if I can scout some more on future trips.

At last I reached a trail junction that led down to river level. This junction was brushy, obscured and unmarked, so I let my trail map guide me to the right spot. It was very steep and covered with dry, slippery leaves. Several fallen trees made a little obstacle course of the trail but I made it down without falling. Near the bottom, I changed into sandals to wade through a creek before the trail disappeared into the brush. I emerged onto a wide, flat area of bedrock, adjacent to the flowing water. It was time for lunch, so I found a spot near a calm pool of water where I could dip my feet and eat a sandwich.

By now the sun felt really hot. The idea of sitting blissfully by the water’s edge, reading a book and painting, was not going to happen. I put my pack back on and kept walking. I had to see if the Florence Way trail, allegedly brought back to life a couple of years ago, actually existed. This was the questionable link in my planned loop.

The “trail” through this section was more of a suggestion, as I’d find bits and pieces of a route that inevitably vanished shortly later. Clearly, not many humans come this way. As the route led back into the forest and prepared to ascent 4000′ in the next 5 miles, It was again obscured by massive trees down. I looked ahead to see if I could find any semblance of a passable route, but all I saw was ferns and underbrush. There was no way I was going to piece together a route through this unrelenting forest up that much elevation the next day, let alone with an overnight pack. I resigned to backtracking here and scheming a plan B.

Pine Flat was a fine area to camp, with lots of options. I ended up choosing a campsite in the forest on the other side of the creek I’d waded earlier because it was out of the wind and it had a nice use trail to a sweet little rocky spot on the river. From there I saw my first humans of the day: a small party of kayakers and one raft. I painted the river, made dinner and looked for wildflowers.

That night I lay in my hammock, memorizing the map for the next day.

Day 2

I awoke at 6 am, as I always do now, and walked out to my riverfront “porch” to have my coffee and apple pie for breakfast. That little 79 cent hand pie I picked up at Grocery Outlet a few days ago made a delicious, easy and calorie-full meal to fuel my morning. I hiked slowly back up the steep path to regain the main trail. At the upper junction, I dropped my main pack and bundled up a few supplies to take a side trip up the Illinois River Trail, just to see how well maintained it was.

Less than a half mile up the trail, I came across a smooth madrone branch across the trail. It was easy to step over, but I noticed an ominous message carved into it: “It’s f*cked up ahead.” Melodramatic, or…accurate? It turned out to be the latter. I soon came across another madrone down, this one large and filled out with leafy branches. I had done enough crawling over and through blowdown that I heeded the warning and turned back towards my backpack. There was only one more item on my list for today: Nobles House.

Another 0.8 miles back towards the trailhead, the Shorty Noble Way trail led down, on my map, to a spot just above the river. Based on the topo lines, it appeared to end at another flat area like the one I’d camped at the night before. It also looked less steep, and I had nothing better to do anyways. I started down this mysterious trail, curious as to what I’d find.

It began pretty pleasant and enjoyable, considerably less steep than the other river access trail. But soon it fell prey to the same hazards: tons of poison oak, blowdown everywhere. I took my time negotiating all these obstacles and got within spitting distance of an obvious camp. Then, there it was. The biggest and blowiest-down of them all. Madrone. Such a beautiful tree when it’s alive and vertical. But an actual monster when fallen to the ground. I literally just had to get to the other side of it. There was no going around; a brushy creek roared to my left and a dense forest created a barricade to my right. I had to go over. Fingers of poison oak reached up between the twisted branches. I took off my pack, scrambled over the main trunks, then reached back to retrieve my pack and hurl it down ahead of me.

Gosh it doesn’t look so bad in the picture

At last, at the camp. Or, not. There was a ton of historic trash there, plus some modern garbage. Not super pleasant. I found a path to an overlook of the river, with no way to get down to it. When I tried to settle in, it just didn’t feel like the right spot. I found a way to cross the creek and poked around on the other side. There, I found several more camping options, including a primo hammock site with shade and easy access to the river rock outcrops. Perfect.

I spent the day napping, reading, napping, eating, daydreaming, napping and painting. I worked on attributing value to not being productive and not hiking all the miles. This is a major mindset shift. Normally, when we go on roadtrips, the time is ticking. We need to pack in as many things as we possibly can because every minute not spent doing something rad is wasted. But when the roadtrip is years-long instead of days-long, that breakneck pace is not sustainable or enjoyable. I convinced myself that reading an entire book in two days was the most productive I could be, and I happily did that thing.

Day 3

On the last day, I just needed to return to the van. I sadly said goodbye to my lovely campsite and returned to do battle with my madrone. It was a thousand times easier on the way back, maybe because I already had a functional strategy or I was more mentally prepared or ?? I slowly ambled back up the trail, noticing so many more flowers than I’d seen on the way down. I was moving with the intention to see flowers instead of the intention to reach a destination. It still blows my mind how much intention impacts experience.

I stopped to squat and photograph all the flowers, including the secretive marbled wild ginger. So many loaded squats on this trip; I think botanizing will be my new workout regimen.

The early start meant I got to enjoy much more shade on the hike out than I did on the hike in. The temperatures were rapidly rising each day and I do NOT do well in the heat. I appreciated my newly developed 6 am built-in alarm clock. Blissfully, I backtracked through the lilies, kalmiopsis, arnica, monkeyflower, paintbrush, serviceberry, poison oak.

Back in the late morning, I had a quick recap with Aaron and made a plan for the next day. We decided to do part of the drive back out this awful road before there was much of a chance of oncoming traffic, due to the dearth of opportunities to pull off the side of the road. We made it back to Sixmile Recreation area, where we spent the afternoon splashing in the river, relaxing and enjoying the remainder of a perfect spring day.

Based on trip reports I’ve read about the Illinois River Trail, it is a very special place when it is clear and navigable! I knew that taking this on early season, especially in a late snow year, involved a high risk of severe blow down. It’s hard enough to get people doing trail maintenance on busy trails, let alone remote and relatively obscure ones. Maybe the trail was perfect past one rogue madrone? But I doubt it. I’m keeping my eyes open for opportunities to volunteer in this ranger district to help clear some trails. I’m also going to swing by a hardware store to pick up some clippers to keep in my backpack!

A reminder to myself and to you: contributing is far better than complaining. See a problem? Figure out how you can contribute to a solution rather than sitting back and complaining about it. Even better, figure out how to recruit others to help with your solution as well.

One final note: It turns out I am *not* impervious to poison oak. It didn’t start bothering me until the day after I got off trail. And I’m suffering dearly, with huge, itchy, puffy welts all over my legs. Four days later, they seem to be getting worse, not better. So, do what you can to avoid the stuff. Then, wash everything: your skin, your clothes, your gear, once you get off trail. Stock up on Tecnu products ahead of time. When we stopped into Safeway in Grants Pass, they were out of stock in all their poison oak products and Calamine lotion. Obviously top sellers in this area!

Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Area

April 30- May 9, 2023.

Photo album

Southern Oregon is a hot spot for rare, endemic wildflowers. It’s also one of the earliest places to bloom in the spring. I headed this way in to try and see some of the region’s unique and special plant life during its prime. While the Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Area has little for developed trails or viewing areas, the flora are abundant and if you take just a little effort to poke around, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful blooms in every direction.

During this time frame, I went on several hikes in or adjacent to the Botanical Area. Of those, two were on trails: the Eight Dollar Mountain Boardwalk and Kerby Flat Trail. Otherwise I used roadside pullouts, old roads, elk trails and did plenty of cross-country exploring.

Darlingtonia magic

The highlight of my visit was the California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia) flowers on full display. Although the fen visible from the boardwalk was in bloom, the plants were too far away to get a very good look. That was okay, because there were several other areas blooming just up the road. There are several pullouts along the road, making it easy to park and walk to anything of interest that you spot from the car.

Darlingtonia flowers
Darlingtonia flower up close

Before visiting, I downloaded some information from the Rogue River-Siskyou National Forest. They provide suggested itineraries, some background information and an extensive plant checklist. This was immensely helpful in determining which maps to have on my phone and where to begin walking around.

Flower power

Here are some of the plants I found:

Siskiyou fritillary
Western azalea
Showy phlox
Oregon violet
Silky balsamroot
Purple mouse ears
Wedgeleaf violet

This is just a sampling of the impressive array of wildflowers. There are more in the photo album linked at the top, and way more out in the field. I loved taking the time to learn more about each new plant I found instead of racing to capture the miles on this trip. The slower I walked, the more I noticed. And the more I noticed, the more curious I got.

Some of these flowers are tricky to spot. I stepped on a Siskyou fritillary twice, because it blended in so well to the grasses around it. Somehow the maroon and yellow speckled petals creates a greenish hue from above, rendering it nearly invisible. But I learned that the more attuned my eyes became to the familiar flowers, I was more likely to spot something unusual. At the tail end of my Eight Dollar Mountain summit hike, I came across some opposite-leaf lewisia scattered throughout a meadow. I noticed the flowers resembled that of bitterroot (another Lewisia species). So, I pulled out my phone and opened the Oregon Wildflowers app (yes, that’s a thing and it’s free and you need to download it). I typed in Lewisia and it took me no time to identify this rare plant that grows in a very narrow range!

Now, the treasure hunt continues. Onward to explore deeper in the wilderness along the Illinois River…

Transition to travel

April 28, 2023.

During the summer of 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, with wildfires consuming the state’s forests and dark smoke choking the air, I turned to Aaron and said: “I want to take a year off.” He blew off that idea as crazy and changed the subject.

But I kept dreaming, scheming, budgeting and putting that idea out there. “We can do it,” I said, “I ran the numbers. This is how much we’ll need to get a van outfitted and hit the road for a year.” I needed and wanted a break from our routine. Besides, we’d experienced so much death in the family in the past few years. People who didn’t get to live long enough to do all the things you’re supposed to do when you retire. “We’re doing it now,” I thought, “because the only time we know we have for certain is now.”

Fast forward to late April, 2023 and our leave date was barreling down on us. There was still so much to do. Rent the house. Pack up the last things. Move the furniture to the garage. Cancel this. Redirect that. Update insurance policies. Get those doctor’s appointments lined up. There’s so much logistics involved in living a life within a complex web of systems that govern every element about you. I was so ready to simplify, get rid of almost everything and break free of any unnecessary tethers. But we’d just planned and hosted a huge event the weekend before leaving, so many chores had to wait until the last minute. Stress levels maxed out.

On top of that, Aaron got sick. We just got new phones that didn’t import everything correctly. I was missing important calls and messages. I was managing all the things Aaron didn’t have enough energy to tackle. On the day we were slated to leave, he woke up very sick and he was in and out of doctor’s offices all day. We were down to just one vehicle, the van, which still needed a few things packed and organized inside. For me, the meticulous planner, I was really struggling with all these variables completely out of our control that threw our whole itinerary into chaos. Fortunately, I was able to call on my friend Amanda and a neighbor Rachel to help me get through that wild morning. I could not have done it without them.

At 4 pm, we drove to the property manager’s office, only to find the door locked and no one answering the phone. We just had to drop off keys and we’d be free to go. Since my phone still wasn’t working, I missed their return call. The business owner was on vacation, but one of her coworkers though to call me and send me an email, so as soon as I got the email, we got sorted out and hit the road.

It was hot and sunny, a rare turn for such a wet and chilly spring. All I wanted was ice cream. We stopped at Sweet Spot in La Pine to fill that need, a wonderful way to lift our spirits after a really rough week.

Since the next day’s plan included spending time at the Glide Wildflower Show, we drove down along the North Umpqua River looking for a place to camp. Snow filled the woods, blocking access to many sites. But we arrived at a lovely little snow-free campground called Boulder Flat and paid our ten bucks to spend a night along the river. The water poured loudly down the river bank, drowning out the sounds of our neighbor’s radio and screaming baby. It was perfect. I made some ramen with soft-boiled eggs on our induction cooktop and we ate comfortably in the van. As much as I love tent camping, in that moment I truly appreciated how simple it was to park, make food, eat food and retire.

Since Aaron was still very sick, I set up my hammock above a bed of greenery and trillium while he slept in the van. I took a deep breath, looked up at the stars and dreamt of easier times ahead.

If you’ve been following along on Instagram, you likely wouldn’t have known any of this was happening behind the scenes. It’s a place to share the highs and stuff away the lows. But both things can be true at once; we’re enjoying beautiful hikes, delicious meals at the coast and gorgeous wildflowers while also enduring illness, van organization snafus and a lost wallet. Oh, I haven’t mentioned the lost wallet yet!

The next day, in a state of illness-induced stupor I suppose, Aaron lost his wallet. We drove to both places it might have fallen out of his pocket, but to no avail. Feeling utterly defeated and depleted, he got on the phone to deal with all the things you need to do when you lose your credit card, debit card and license. Meanwhile, I ran to the nearby taco shop to get us some lunch. We didn’t need a complete meltdown on the second dat of our trip.

I’m hoping that all the bad and annoying stuff is going to happen all at once and then the universe will leave us alone for a while. No matter how much you plan, anticipate obstacles, prepare mentally and physically for a thing, stuff is bound to go sideways. That’s true of life in general but especially for a mobile life. We hope that our daily readings from The Vagabond’s Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery, and the Art of Travel will help keep us grounded and connected to what we’re doing and why.

As I write this, I’m sipping coffee at a deck overlooking the Siuslaw River. At the table next to me, a couple of 80-year old men are sharing old Hollywood stories. Aaron’s feeling almost entirely better. We’ve gone on a few lovely hikes so far: Wolf Creek Falls, Kerby Flat, Cape Ferrelo, Indian Sands, Floras Lake, Otter Point, the Oregon Dunes, Lake Marie. Look them up! I haven’t decided how much writing I’ll do on this blog, but since I enjoy sharing snippets to Instagram, I’ll keep up on that pretty regularly. Stay tuned for more, as I’m sure I’ll have plenty of stories to tell as the journey continues.

California mistmaiden (Romanzoffia californica)

Elkhorn Peak, Wallowas

August 8, 2022.

Photo album

Mountains majesty.

When I re-planned my trip to the Wallowas, knowing I would now be going solo, I wanted to choose a route that would involve a base camp and day hikes. The first half of my trip was very strenuous, which is not sustainable forever. Ideally, on the second half, I’d be able to have some chill days and at least one summit day. That led me to the Copper River basin and Elkhorn Peak.

Elkhorn Peak, standing at 9238′, is the twelfth highest peak in Oregon. I decided to make this the central feature of the trip and scouted a basecamp from there. That line of reasoning took me to likely the busiest trailhead in the Wallowas, Two Pan. But my solitude-finding-superpower kicked in and I only saw about a dozen people in four days on this leg of the trip.

Solitude in the Wallowas?

I arrived at the trailhead around dinnertime on August 6, drove by tons of cars parked along the road and parked in a spot in the lot. I unpacked my car camping gear, set up camp at one of the free campsites and ate a pint of ice cream for dinner. I had no neighbors that night.

The next morning, I woke up and got my backpack loaded with ALL the creature comforts for a luxury three-night trip. A tenth of a mile off the trail, I turned off the main route to the lakes basin, then a couple more miles up I turned off the trail again to a lesser-traveled area, meaning I saw no one that morning. As Elkhorn Peak came into view, I began looking for places to camp. Despite the trail following the river closely on the map, there were not many great spots with water access. The river often flowed down in a rocky canyon for much of the way.

The trail kept climbing, but eventually leveled out right before a gentle creek crossing and voila! I spotted a beautiful, large campsite just off the trail with multiple “rooms,” plenty of hammock trees, a flat tent spot and easy river access.

The best campsite.

When you know, you know. That was the spot. I dropped my heavy pack and began unloading. Hammock in the den, tent in the bedroom, kitchen on the rocky ledge, bathroom tucked in the trees. I did a few camp chores, painted a creekside watercolor and read my books.

Elkhorn Peak and west ridge scramble

The next day, I left camp in search of the climber’s route that led to the impressive-looking south gully on Elkhorn Peak. I’d read the summitpost description a thousand times and I spent the entire previous afternoon and evening staring at the gully. I felt ready to go.

I discovered the climber’s path pretty quickly. It zig-zagged through the forest, crossed another creek, climbed to a rocky bench with a beautiful miner’s cabin, then descended to the base of the gully. Based on the topo map, I knew I had to climb 2000 vertical feet in about a mile. Here we go, I thought…

Miner’s cabin

Perhaps based on my recent experience or just my experience in the mountains in general, the gully felt remarkable stable and straightforward. It was steep and hard yes, but not scary, not that difficult, and before long I found myself standing at the summit in a tornado of butterflies. I called Aaron to check in and during that phone call I started rubbing my left eye. “Stupid sunscreen must have run into my eye,” I said. And kept rubbing.

elkhorn peak wallowas
Okay views from the top.

In an effort to make a loop, I’d eyeballed the west ridge, which at “only” a mile long seemed like a reasonable connection to a nice trail leading through stair-stepped meadows to my camp. At any rate, it would be more interesting than slip-sliding back down that gully. Or, so I thought.

Dear reader, I am a slow learner. I should have realized that based on the ridge connection I just did, that this was going to be more difficult than at first glance. It started pretty benign, luring me into such an obstacle-ridden cluster of ups and downs that I fell into the sunk cost trap. “Well I can’t just turn around now, I’ve made it this far.”

The ridgeline consists of a junky, blocky series of rocks that are sometimes passable, sometimes not. Either side of the ridge drops steeply into the adjacent basin. I mostly stayed on the south side due to exposure. While it was annoying and steep I was in no danger of just falling off the mountain. But that meant I had to go up and down and up and down on a combination of scree and solid rock in order to stay in the “scrambling not climbing” zone. Several solid rock ribs intersect the ridge at roughly ninety degree angles, and they were almost never traversable. I fought the urge to want to stay high on the ridge for views and joy with the urge to just drop low and get this shit over with.

My ridge is on the left side of the photo behind the tree.

Meanwhile, my eye was still really irritated and weeping uncontrollably. Even with sunglasses and a hat on, sunlight made it feel worse. I couldn’t watch my surroundings very closely through one eye, but seeing with both eyes didn’t help either. Then my nose started running.

Did I mention it was hot? The sun felt extra vicious and I had only packed enough water to do a straightforward scramble, not an exhausting one. There were a few trees along the way that offered small patches of shade; they quickly became my intermediate targets. My body fully resented me from taking on this extra challenge.

Approaching what appeared to be the last major obstacle, I faced a big, loose down climb to get around the last monster rib. I was so frustrated that I stopped to get my bearings and wondered aloud “Is the north side any better?” I looked up, and it seemed so far away, but I knew it wasn’t. I noticed that a solid slab of rock led almost to the top from where I stood. I went for it.

The slab.

That was actually the most fun part of the day’s scrambling! Once I took a look at the other side of the ridge, I concocted a new plan. It wasn’t going to be easy in any sense of the word, but I felt like I had more and better options on that side. Here we go.

Two hours after leaving Elkhorn’s summit, I arrived at a broad, rolling meadow that I knew would drop me back on a trail. I collapsed in a patch of snow, rubbing it all over my skin to cool me down. My water supply was low, but certainly I could ration it in a way that would last til camp. As soon as I found a creek, I dunked my sun shirt and hat in the cool water and put them back on. I felt human again.

My legs moved forward but my brain was toast. Some part of me knew I was moving through an exceptionally beautiful place, but I couldn’t enjoy it. All I wanted to do was get back to camp, change out of sweaty clothes and lay in the hammock.

Once I returned, that’s what I did. I dunked a bandana in the creek and made a compress for my still irritated eye. Now it was puffy, red, weepy and painful. I had no mirror to see if I had something stuck in it or what was going on. I hoped some rest would help.

A note on ultralight backpacking

Let’s start with something you likely know already: I am not a person who follows trends. The ultralight thing is no exception. I come pretty close to despising backpacking altogether. My body does not carry weight well. “Then Jess, shouldn’t you love the ultralight approach?” No, and here’s why:

I can tolerate being miserable while I’m walking if that means I can be comfy at camp. Packing light means carrying a finicky shelter that takes 20 minutes to set up, not having luxury items like books, painting supplies, stoves, nice food, hammocks etc that are excellent ways to spend time at camp. It means stopping to filter water every time you see a source instead of loading up for the day. It’s expensive gear that doesn’t hold up to repeated use. It’s more chores than I want to deal with. Those are simply trade-offs I am not willing to make.

So my rules for backpacking are:

  • There has to be a peak involved, or…
  • There has to be something really amazing on the route that cannot be experienced in a day hike.
  • I need to have something fun to do at camp like paint, read, etc.
  • I must have hot food and hot beverages.
  • Since I’ve learned this is an option, I must have my hammock!
  • I have to be able to keep myself warm.

I am willing to tolerate a LOT of suffering on my outdoor adventures. But a terrible time in a backcountry camp is where I draw the line.

Also, stay tuned for when I roll out my plans for the SKT website: Slowest Known Time. If I could name one trend I find even more annoying and elitist than ultralight backpacking, it’s the Fastest Known Time nonsense :vomit:.

Rest days

After that debacle, I took a full on rest day. I slept in. The clouds looked marginally threatening, so I took that as my cue to lay in my tent all morning doing crossword puzzles and listening to podcasts. Eventually, I rolled out into the world and packed up my painting supplies. I had to return to those picturesque meadows to stop for every wildflower and to paint.

A horrible place to hang out and paint.

A short hike brought me back to the place I scouted on my miserable return to camp the previous day. I found a nice perch with some shade on a rock outcrop. From there, I looked down on the winding alpine streams and delicate meadows. In the distance, jagged peaks rose up at a seemingly vertical angle. Wispy clouds, eventually turning into blanketing clouds, twisted and swirled over their tops.

It was my thirtieth plein air painting session of the year. My goal: fifty. At the start of 2022, I declared it the year of the watercolor and I knew I’d need some sort of direction to keep me on track. I sat and observed the colors, textures and shapes in my view. I struggled with the usual challenges of outdoor painting: changing light, bugs flying into my paint, wind blowing my pages around, the general lack of flat surfaces. It’s all part of the fun and learning.

Painted til the wind got too annoying.

All that was left on my Wallowas adventure was reading and napping, so I headed back to camp to do just that.

Later that evening, water began to fall from the building clouds. A gentle rain fell all night. I tucked into my sleeping bag, pleased with how kind the weather gods were on this trip. And, no mosquitoes either! A short walk and a long drive stood between my current reality and my future reality. I wish the amount of time I spent in each was reversed. And I’m working on that.

Sacajawea-Matterhorn-Hurwal Divide-Point Joseph

August 4-6, 2022.

Photo album

So pretty.

Thorp Creek

My adventure began on the Hurricane Creek Trail, one of the gateways to the Wallowa Mountains in Northeastern Oregon. I’d been to the Wallowas three times before, but never to this particular access point. I had dreamed up a route connecting several range highpoints on a three-day long loop, starting and ending at the Hurricane Creek Trailhead. My vision put together pieces from other people’s hiking, climbing and trail running reports; none exactly matched what I wanted to do. So, despite having one big hole in my plan, I set out to see what I’d find.

I used Barbara Bond’s 75 Scrambles in Oregon book to piece together the first day’s route. About 1.8 miles up Hurricane Creek trail, I was to look for a place to cross the (cold, ragey) creek and pick up the long decomissioned Thorp Creek Trail to access a base camp just downslope of Sacajawea Peak. At about that mile marker, I found the start of a well-worn use trail through the dense cover at the edge of the creek. This quickly disappeared, so I crashed through the brush and made my way to the water. I found a good place to cross, but no trail on the other side. No matter, I mucked around in the boggy grass, stopping to ogle all the pretty flowers, until I stumbled into bits and pieces of trail. Eventually the trail became continuous and I was on my way uphill.

Nice climber’s trail.

Since the trail officially doesn’t exist anymore, it is not maintained by the Forest Service. As a result, I had to step over a lot of downed, charred trees. It was nothing compared to what I’d eventually have to do, but in the moment it felt like some extra work. Where there weren’t downed trees, the trail was surprisingly nice, albeit very steep.

The trail climbed and climbed until it roughly leveled out on a grassy bench. All the surrounding trees were burned and either standing like a charcoal stick or littered across the ground. I could see the elegant north ridge of Sacajawea paralleling my route as I continued. The wind whipped across the bare rock and through the burnt forest, creating an eerie and foreboding sound. I walked alone, into the unknown and towards the Thorp Creek meadows I’d read about online. It was described in a mountaineering trip report as a beautiful place; mountaineers rarely wax poetic about the scenery so I had pretty high expectations.

Cumulus clouds over my camp.

Despite that, reality exceeded my expectations. I wandered along two small, braided creeks in a lush and open valley surrounded by high peaks. When I found a sufficient place to string up my hammock, I called it a day and dropped my heavy pack on the ground. From my camp, I carefully surveyed the surrounding landscape and memorized the features I could see. For the first time, I could see in person all the places I’d just read about online. It was happening.

I used my downtime in camp to paint, eat, recover and plan for the next day.

Sacajawea and Matterhorn

At 6 am, I started hiking. I knew I had a long and challenging day ahead. Sacajawea, the highest peak of the Wallowas, stood 2300′ above me and I’d cover all that elevation gain in approximately 1 mile of walking. With my overnight pack on. With all the water I’d need for the foreseeable future, since I would have no water access until I completed all the highpoints. I grumpily hauled myself up the relentless climbers trail under a clear und unsympathetic sky.

Sacajawea Matterhorn
On the way up Sacajawea.

From my camp, Sacajawea looked daunting. But the climber’s trail continued to provide a relatively easy and safe way to get up there. Before I knew it, I stood on the top. It was a bit disappointing, as the summit was merely a slightly higher blip on a rocky ridge, but oh well. No summit register, no fanfare. I walked uphill until I couldn’t go up anymore, then I started going down.

The gendarme ridge. This is what I had fretted about for weeks before the trip. Everyone talks about how sketchy and scary it is. And those people were mostly wearing daypacks. I agonized over how smart it would be to tackle this ridge with an overnight pack, alone, having never done it before. Exposure. Rock scramble. Knife edge ridges. Oh my. After consulting with my friend Matt, who’d done it himself, I decided I was up for the challenge.

Sacajawea Matterhorn ridge
One of the gendarmes.

On the other side of the ridge, I thought, “that was it?” Sure, there were some sections that got a little confusing, but as long as I poked around enough I found a way. Some spots were even marked with cairns! I moved slowly, intentionally and always took time to look for a reasonable way to go. If I started going over or around something and got uncomfortable, it was not the way. And so, with that behind me, I celebrated on the more interesting summit of 9775′.

This highpoint was smack in the middle of Sacajawea and Matterhorn. I’d return here to continue along the Hurwal Divide, so I joyfully dropped my backpack. With just a fanny pack and a half liter of water, I scampered along the solid and enjoyable ridge to the Matterhorn.

Yet another letdown. Sheesh. It was cool up top, to be sure, but I didn’t feel like I had to do any work to get there. If only I’d known how much work was in front of me, maybe I’d appreciate it more. There were 4 people milling around the summit, all of whom had come up from Ice Lake.

Sacajawea Matterhorn traverse
Matterhorn ahead.

I decided to enjoy myself a little more on the hike back to my pack, marveling at the interesting shapes and colors that some geologist could explain better than me. I stopped to gaze down the mysterious big hole and also made sure to take in the spectacular scenery in all directions.

Hurwal Divide Traverse

Underneath the full weight of my pack, I set off in an easterly direction along the long ridge making up the Hurwal Divide. It was not as scary and sheer as it had looked on the climb up Sacajawea, and for that I was grateful. I had a handful of photos from other people’s trips to go by, but no real sense of what to expect.

I mostly walked to the right of the ridge proper, avoiding the most exposure and traveling on what I dubbed “safe but annoying” terrain. The ground underfoot crumbled under each step. I skidded along the talus and scree for mile after mile, up and down, up and down. I’d scrambled on far more difficult terrain before, but the mental exhaustion of having to choose each step carefully really took its toll. Each time I slipped more than twice in short succession, I stopped to take a rest, sip some water and look around. It was so fun to actually see, up close, my view from camp.

Close up of Hurwal Divide.

Hurwal Divide Southwest (9508′), check. I tapped the top of this rubble pile among rubble piles, then kept going. Back down, again. This part was steep and loose with several gullies to negotiate. My brain was so tired from all the routefinding and my legs were tired from not being on solid ground for 90 percent of the day. I suppose it would have been easier to have better beta for the route so that I would have been able to mete out my energy and expectations over the course of the day.

But, I was in it now, so I pulled out every mountaineering self-talk trick in the book. Calling out moves helps me a lot: “right foot there,” “oh I don’t like that,” “that looks better,” “grab this rock,” etc. That, and singing songs, telling myself stories, faking some positive self-talk and occasionally just yelling “fuck this sucks.” My favorite strategy for keeping things moving is choosing intermediate goals. For example, to keep walking until that red boulder or that flat spot. Once I reached one goal, I’d look ahead on the ridge and select the next one. If I needed a break, I’d take a break at one of the spots I reached.

Despite all these tricks, I still moved slowly. The Hurwal Divide proved to be a formidable challenge!

The next major destination was the point at which the ridge abruptly turned north. I sat down here, took off my socks and shoes, watched the butterflies swirl around me. Buckwheat poked up from between the talus. And below me, Ice Lake glistened in the sun. I briefly considered bailing out to Ice Lake and hiking out to Wallowa Lake instead of finishing my route, but that thought didn’t last long. Let’s keep going, I thought.

Buckwheat and Hurwal Divide, looking towards Point Joseph

Belly full of snacks, I slogged along to the summit of Hurwal Divide. It didn’t look too bad on the map, but at this point in the day I couldn’t be fooled by that sort of nonsense. My journal describes this section as “and annoyingly loose shit pile with several little ups and downs, that at this point in the day, didn’t feel so little.” Fortunately there were a few sections of goat trail that made my life a little easier as I finished up this leg of the journey. I put my head down and walked; in about an hour I saw the cairn marking the top.

Here, I smiled wide at the sight of that cairn as well as something else. Ahead, on the ridge, I noticed a small knoll that had trees and a snowfield. C A M P ! My original plan involved continuing to Chief Joseph Mountain and descending to one of the creeks below. However, this looked incredibly inviting and I decided to shift my plan to spend a night on the actual divide. It’s the happiest I’d felt all day.

I still had to get there. Descending 1000 vertical feet in less than a mile, then climbing back up another 200 feet took some effort. As soon as I found two whitebark pines sturdy enough to support my hammock, I called it a day. I settled in for a painting session, a delicious dinner (and snow-chilled cider) and watched one of the most spectacular sunsets in my life.

Sunset to end all sunsets.

Point Joseph

“Not one mountain goat,” I grumbled to myself as I got up to make coffee. I was sure there had to be goats in the area, but despite all the time I spent at elevation the day before I had not seen one.

As I watched the sun rise and packed up my camp, I noticed a white rock on the hillside that I didn’t see during all the time I spent painting a watercolor of that same slope. Could it be? I zoomed way in on my camera phone and confirmed, in fact, it was a mountain goat! I was excited and quickly finished getting ready so I could see what would be in store for the day.

In the crisp morning air, I dropped off my magical knoll and began climbing up the next bump, a steep slope that got steeper and looser as I went. I followed the goat until the goat moved no more. Two goats, actually. Confused, I paused there to watch their behavior and decide if it would be safe to proceed. Goats have big pointy horns.

Stubborn goats

They paid me no mind, and the larger of the two plopped right down on the ridge. They had no plans to move any time soon. So, I followed suit and sat down too. For the next forty minutes. I put my puffy on, ate another bar, took some photos. I couldn’t believe my day was being held back by mountain goats, and I had some un-scouted terrain to cover!

Suddenly, they began to move…towards me! I found out why; what I couldn’t see was the steep cliff on the other side of them that apparently none of us could descend. So I ended up having to do a hairy downclimb to skirt around the cliff before re-joining the ridge. Ugh, this was already a morning. The rest of the ascent to Point Joseph proceeded smoothly and soon I stood atop its interesting brown cap. The entire mountain, save for the summit, looks like a hill painted in delicate pastels. But dark brown boulders create a fortress shape on the top, strange rocks I hadn’t seen anywhere else on this traverse.

Point Joseph’s fortress cap.

From the summit, I eyeballed my route down and checked the waypoints I’d put in my map. On the hike in, I tried to note good places to cross Hurricane Creek. I just had to work backwards to connect my current position with a reasonable creek crossing. What lay in between was my choice of rocky ridges plummeting into steep forest of unknown quality. From what I’d seen so far, I assumed it would be brushy and/or burned. I was right on both accounts.

Looking down the rocky ridge.

I dropped off the summit, followed a rocky ridge peppered with delightful wildflowers and descended through a steep forest. I ended up in a dry drainage, which I had hoped would be easy to follow. It was not. Back up on the steep, steep hillside.

At each point of the day, I thought I was at the hardest obstacle. I was literally never right. I sat down, took out my map and tried to gain perspective on the situation. I had one mile to go and I’d be at the creek. “I can do anything for one mile,” I asserted. Two elk, hearing my desperate affirmation, spooked and crashed through the forest. I got to watch them for a bit, since even they had trouble navigating the blowdown and tangle of weeds. Great, I thought.

The steep, forested hillside turned into a slightly less steep, burned hillside. It was at the state of the burn where some regrowth had begun. So I alternately was stepping over charcoal-crusted trees, crashing through ankle-grabbing brush, stepping into soft holes, weaving between incredibly sharp, twisted dead branches and looking for some path of least resistance.

Burnt forest.

There was none.

And then, it got worse. The regrowth became denser, taller and seemingly more angry with me. At points I could take a step and not know if I was on the ground or not. I’d step on a solid-looking log and crunch right through it. At one point I stepped down into thin air, dangling over a rushing creek, my hands grabbing for anything solid but the earth disintegrated in my hands. I CANNOT GET HURT HERE, I yelled into the abyss.

My frustration levels maxed out several times on this heinous descent through hell. Each step was carefully calculated, and even then, was often a failure. I had to downclimb, re-climb, backtrack, crawl under, scramble over and pull myself around an endless string of obstacles. Once I somewhat got the hang of the obstacles in front of me, the character of the forest changed and I had new things to figure out. There are no words to accurately express the degree of Type 3 Fun I experienced in that long, long mile. Skipping ahead two and a half hours, I made it to the creek.

Hurricane Creek.

It may be called creek, but it felt more like river. I couldn’t just walk across at any point. It was flowing cold and deep in some narrow channels. The point at which I arrived was not a good spot to cross. Upon checking my map, I learned I was further downriver than I wanted to be. What did that mean? More backtracking. Regardless, I was dying to get my shoes off so I swapped into my trusty Bedrock sandals and hoofed it through the (of course) thick, brushy riverside up river.

I ended up finding a place where the creek split into several broad channels, spreading out the water so it wasn’t so deep. But cliffs lined the other side of the creek, with no way to get up to the trail. Regardless, I went for it. On the other side, with nowhere else to go, I walked in the actual creek bed until the slope above me mellowed out. There was a little bit of bushwhacking and then…

THE T R A I L ! ! ! !

Elation.

I was so elated, I also do not have the words! I felt all the opposite feelings I had just minutes before. My eyes moist with tears, I practically ran along the well-graded trail all the way back to my car. It was the easiest mile of my life.

After changing my clothes and throwing all my gear in the car, I drove to Terminal Gravity brewery in Enterprise for a burger and a beer. I picked up a pint of ice cream at Safeway for dinner. And I drove to Two Pan Trailhead, where I’d camp for the night in preparation for the second half of my Wallowas adventure the next day.