NF Umatilla Wilderness Getaway

February 18, 2007.
NF Umatilla Trail #3083 past upper viewpoint? est. 15 miles | 2000′ ele. gain | 6 hours

The North Fork Umatilla Wilderness is out there. Perfect for a nice venture into the woods away from the city and far from the nearest person. I had originally planned to check out another trail here but blowdown on the road changed my plans. After about 4 hours of driving, I hit the trail at 9am.

The weather forecast looked lousy. I expected to be walking through the rain all day. As I drove in this morning, I passed from beneath a perfect blue sky in the flatlands to a blanket of gray stratus clouds over the mountains. Clouds or no clouds, I was going hiking.

The first 4 miles or so follows the North Fork Umatilla River, climbing only gradually as it rolls smoothly along. There were human footprints for the first 100 yards or so, which promptly disappeared. The occasional patch of snow reminded me that it is winter, but much of the trail was clear. The only sounds in the air were the river rushing by and the squish of my boots on the muddy trail. This place would need lots of love come springtime. I got to do a bunch of climbing over and under and through trees. It was like nature’s jungle gym.

After an hour and forty-five minutes, I reached the switchback that would send me up to Coyote Ridge. Up to this point the forest had a tight grip on me, and I was anticipating an ascent out of the trees. I picked up the pace as the trail began to climb, and before long I reached an open, grassy meadow. The wind steadily increased and the views kept getting better and better. Then came the hail. Tiny balls of ice came tumbling down from the clouds, some nailing me in the eyes. Fortunately it didn’t last long, although the hail would reappear several times during the day.

Looking across the river to Ninemile Ridge, I admired the treetops that looked as if they’d been dipped in powdered sugar. A few raptors and crows circled overhead. The trail intermittently dove into tree cover, then back out again. Finally it disappeared into the woods for good, and the shade of the trees combined with the elevation caused more and more snow buildup on the trail. It was wet, heavy and deep. As it was about noon, I decided I’d had enough and turned back down the trail.

Back at the canyon viewpoint, I sat and had lunch until the wind got too chilly. I enjoyed the spectacular views as long as I could, and began getting slammed with hail once again. Upon re-entering the woods, my feet slipped into a steady rhythm and my mind began drifting aimlessly between thinking nothing at all and wondering about every little thing. Solo hiking can be a zen experience.

I cleared as much blowdown as I could on the way back, since I had plenty of time and I figured that wrangling up a trail crew in these parts must be pretty tough, so I may as well help out a little. I surprised a great blue heron fishing in the river–the only good glimpse of wildlife I had all day. On the way back, I noticed the jittery, tinkling chatter of several chickadees as well as a few unfamiliar bird noises. It’s that time of year again. I’d better start studying West Coast birdsong. It’s curious how the avian soap opera is so appealing– the alarm bells, booty calls, territorial assertions, and devious mockery all in a bird’s day. I wonder if the human drama is equally as attractive to the bird brain. Do they listen with joy to couples arguing, children screaming, and rappers rapping?

When strange thoughts such as these compose the most complicated thinking of my day, it’s a good day.

At the end of the line, I found an empty 40-oz Budweiser bottle sitting just beside the trail. Not in any rush to meet its owner, I quickly made my way back to my car. Mine was the only one in the lot, so I suppose someone stopped by, walked 50 feet, drank booze, caught a fish, and left. It doesn’t seem right that someone who would choose to spend time in a lovely forest such as this would leave a mess behind. Oh well, what do I know?

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