Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Scenic Byway

Some names along the new Blue Mountain Scenic Byway roll softly from the tongue: Willow Creek Lake, Strawberry Mountain, North Powder River, the North Fork John Day River, Anthony Lake and Elkhorn Drive.
Others? Well, they're a bit stubby for rhythmic pronunciation: Heppner, Granite, Baker and Sumpter.
One or two stubby ones, though, sound smooth and stir the imagination.
Ukiah, for example, suggests soft, summer winds whiffling through streamside cottonwoods. You know, from the great ol' song, ``And they call the wind Ukiaaaahhhh.''
Anyway, at this very moment, signs and markers for the byway are being built. And a ribbon-cutting ceremony has been scheduled for this spring at the Morrow County start of the drive. Officially, the byway takes off from Interstate 84 at Arlington, Ore., (Exit 147) and winds about 130 miles to Baker, Ore. It's a two-lane, paved highway that's usually open from June through November.
From Arlington, you follow the Willow Creek Drainage 44 miles to Heppner. A mile east of Heppner, where I began the drive last week, you turn left onto Willow Creek Road, also called Forest Service Road 53.
At Willow Creek Lake, you can see Heppner, nestled in the valley below the dam.
About 22 miles from Heppner, you pass Cutsforth County Park. Few of the RV stalls were occupied last week, and the picnic area and the playground were empty. The ice-covered pond suggested why.
A few miles past the park, the road narrows. And this time of the year snow often puts a little icing on the asphalt. As a result, this is one of the stretches where you should expect to meet loaded logging trucks and wide-bodied motor homes pulling seven-masted schooners and flatbed trailers filled with 1962 Volkswagen bugs and Honda three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles.
Never, for example, expect to meet a logging truck on the occasional straight stretch. They only roar out of nowhere at the moment you slip across the centerline on a snowpacked curve. Then, there it is! The Phantom Logging Truck crashes toward you. Its square grill gleams as stark as the old drive-in theater movie screen in Cut Bank, Mont. Great slush walls shoot from its 20-foot-tall tires.
When it passes, you breath again and feel great about the byway's small moments of drama that enliven your day.
Then, maybe three more miles up the mountain, you'll pass the junction to Penland Lake. The lake has picnic and boating facilities.
From the top of the mountain, on a clear day, you'd be able to see the Strawberry and Greenhorn mountain ranges to the south. Even on a misty, snowy day, you see a mixture of rolling tree-covered hills and logged sections.
Ukiah is about 46 miles from Heppner (90 miles from I-84). From there, you could turn north to Pendleton (50 miles) or south to John Day. Or, you could follow Highway 244 to La Grande, after pausing a few miles from Ukiah to soak at Lehman Hot Springs.
The byway, by-the-way, turns right at Granny's Mini-Mart onto Forest Service Road 52. At about 13 miles from Granny's, you'll find a scenic viewpoint. From there, on a snowless day, you can see the North Fork John Day area, including such places as Pearson Ridge, Onion Flats and parts of the North Fork John Day Wilderness area.
Fifty miles from Ukiah, you reach Granite. It used to be a gold mining town. So did Sumpter, fewer than 10 miles from Granite. Between the two, you may visit an historical narrow-gauge railroad train and station.
Rows of rock and boulders, six to 10-feet tall, stretch for miles along various creek drainages and indicate how extensive gold, silver and quartz mining was in the area.
Apparently, five ex-Confederate soldiers discovered gold at Sumpter in 1862. And, on the Fourth of July, 1862, a group led by A.G. Tabor discovered gold two miles up Granite Creek. That's in James Waucop Tabor's book, ``Granite and Gold, The Story of Oregon's Smallest City.''
The author was A.G. Tabor's grandson. The first settlement, eventually Granite, was named Independence and located about a mile and a half from the present townsite.
At first the miners worked their claims by placer mining. Eventually they used dredges and high-pressure water hoses.
The dredges, considered very efficient, apparently worked the entire Sumpter Valley, and left many large piles of boulders and gravel. The dredges operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for two holidays a year. The Sumpter dredge, which sits where it stopped in 1954, resembles a Mississippi River boat. It weighs 1,200 tons and recovered enough gold to average $20,000 a month profit.
With the hydraulic method, miners would wash down hillsides with water sprayed from giant high-pressure hoses. The gravel banks would be washed through wooden troughs or sluices. Gold, heavier than dirt, settled behind small slats or riffles. Mercury was placed into the riffles to soak up the gold like a sponge. Later, furnaces vaporized the mercury to release the gold.
Logging became a big industry in the area in the late 1880s, and near Granite I saw a Timberjack 530A in operation. It's a long-necked machine that pinches trees off at the ground, three or four at a time, as if it were picking flowers.
Finally, from Granite to Baker, you drive 30 miles of the Elkhorn Scenic Byway. Incidently, the Elkhorn drive is a 106 mile loop from Baker through Granite, Anthony Lakes, North Powder, Haines and back to Baker.
From Walla Walla, if you join the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway at Heppner, the drive to Baker and back by the freeway through La Grande covers about 350 miles.
That's a good day's outing, if you pack a few granola bars and a thermos of coffee, or if you buy a sandwich at Granny's Mini-Mart in Ukiaaaaahhhhh.
Either way, you'll need plenty of strength to fully enjoy all the sites you'll see.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Night adventure

When the sun sets and the
moon rises, most people head
for the warmth and safety
they find indoors. Author
Vinson Brown, however, says
walking abroad in the wilds
beneath the light of the moon
may result in interesting and
wonderful experiences.
Brown's book is titled, Read
ing the Outdoors at Night.

Fumble along and... Read
the Darkness for `interest and
wonder' Whoo-oo-oo-oo?
Whoo-oo-oo-oo?
Who? What do you mean,
who? Shucks, your feet don't
fit on a limb.
Or, possibly: Who? Shucks,
you've been out of the woods
long enough to know who?
Sure, I could've said those
things. But the critter hooting
Who? Who? actually did have
feet that fit a limb. And, it had
probably never really been
out of the woods.
And, truth be known, it had
a very legitimate right to be
asking Who? Who? I was,
after all, the interloper.
And in the dark.
And all because of an inno
cent enough book, titled
``Reading the Outdoors at
Night.''
``Many people find them
selves in the dark,'' it begins.
And I knew the author,
Vinson Brown, understood
my plight.
The darkness was my old
friend, sometimes at mid-day.
Oh, Brown goes on to say,
``Some have gone for a walk
and found the dark coming
quicker than they imagined.
Others may have a car break
down and so may be on a
dark road for awhile. Some,
such as woodsmen and mess
engers, have to go through
dark areas as part of their
work. Others may be camping
out, and of course, be sur
rounded by darkness beyond
their fire and lamplight. Still
others may be vacationing in
a cabin on the edge of the
woods, lake, desert or some
other wild area. Their cabin
or tent may even be in the
midst of such a wilderness.
Some people go on hikes or
walks and get lost in the dark;
they usually become
thoroughly frightened.''
Yep, Brown seemed to
know me personally. I'd ex
perienced each of those
things, especially the one
about being a messenger who
had to go through dark areas
as part of his work.
``Yet,'' Brown continued,
``how few of these people
realize what a grand and still
safe adventure the dark can
be, and how filled with
interest and wonder!''
That's the line that put me
off my pumpkin.
On a hiking trip along the
Imnaha River, up from Indian
Crossing, in the Eagle Cap
Wilderness, I got to thinking
about how ``interest and won
der'' filled the darkness. And
this light bulb lit up in my
head.
When it got real dark, so
the interest and wonder
would be moving around
good, I'd take a walk. I'd ex
plore the darkness first hand.
On the second night out,
squatting before the tent and
watching the sun drop behind
the ridge to the northwest, I
didn't feel like crawling into
the tent.
Sure, the temperature
dropped 30 degrees, to about
35, when the sun set. And my
cold feet and aching back
said, ``Bed time!''
But my dumb curiosity said,
``C'mon, let's take a stroll.
Remember, the darkness is
filled with interest and won
der.'' And 1,000 eyes.
So, amid some pretty
severe grousing from feet and
back, I re-tied my boots,
pulled the stocking cap down
over my ears, slipped chilled
fingers into wool gloves and
set out across the meadow.
Halfway to the tree line, I
decided I couldn't see diddly-
squat and hurried back to the
tent for a flashlight.
Of course, Brown suggests
covering a light with red
cellophane, which many ani
mals can't detect, and fixing it
to your head to leave your
hands free.
But you gotta go with what
you got, I said, amazed at the
philosophical insight dark
ness stimulated. I checked the
light for fresh batteries the
way all outdoorsmen do. I
shined it into my eyes.
Squinting as I strolled, I
called up from my computer-
like brain the file I'd stored on
Brown's book: Sharpening
the senses. How to increase
vision at night. Being in the
right place at the right time.
Droppings and tracks: clues
to animal whereabouts.
Recognizing birds of the
night in action. Probing the
Nighttime World of Reptiles
and Amphibians (Here, I
quickly shined the light all
around). Meeting Insects and
their relatives at night. Listen
ing to nature's nighttime
sounds.
I stopped, turned off the
light and listened.
``The adventurer in the
world of nature after dark,''
Brown said on page 123,
``must first of all be at home
in the dark and unhampered
by unreasonable fear.''
I cast aside my unreason
able fears and stood there
shaking like an aspen leaf
with the reasonable one
screaming: ``Watch out! You
can't see diddly-squat?''
I snapped the light on
again. Just to check the foot
ing, of course.
Then, I shook myself. I was
missing the whole point of
Brown's book, I snapped off
the light walked slow.
Eventually, I put a foot
down and heard a squisssssh.
A cold, wet sensation seeped
down my ankle, under the
sole of my foot and between
my toes.
Light!
I'd walked into a swamp.
``Quicksand! Run!'' my
reasonable fear shouted.
Succkkkkk. That's the
sound the muck made when I
pulled my leg. Sloooop. That's
the sound my foot made when
it slipped out of the boot.
Ah, nature's nighttime
sounds. Holding the light in
my teeth, I leaned onto hands
and knees and dug the boot
from the mud.
To avoid the swamp, I clam
bered half a mile up the
mountainside.
Eventually I had to tip-toe
across a boulder slide. At the
edge of it, near a gnarled pine, several
angry nose-clearing snorts
shattered the night.
Demonstrating a rare
46-inch vertical jump and
hanging above the rocks with
the hair standing at attention
on my face, arms and legs, I
swept the area with the light.
BIG EYES!
The Brown file whipped
onto my mental screen, page
20-21, Identification Key to
Eyes at Night: Closely set,
large, bright orange eyes:
Bear; Bright yellow eyes, Rac
coon; Yellowish white eyes,
Bobcat or Canadian lynx;
Fiery white eyes, Coyotes,
dogs, wolves; Opalescent
green eyes, Bullfrog. ...
The light swept across dark
brown fur, about five feet tall,
clattering from the clearing
and crashing into the trees.
Ah, elk. My feet settled onto
the ground and the hair on
my face and limbs relaxed to
parade rest.
Eventually, I rounded the
head of the swamp high on
the mountianside, and a wax
ing four-fifths moon cleared
the ridges to the east. Sud
denly, I cast a shadow. Turn
ing off the flashlight I decided
this walking at night in the
wilderness could be fun.
To cool down after so much
exertion and fear, I sat on a log to rest, look and
listen. Soaking up the interest
and wonder I realized that
Brown had a great idea.
Who-oo-oo-oo? Who-oo-oo-
oo?
Who? Who do you think?
Vinson Brown. He wrote
``Reading the Outdoors at
Night,'' published by Stockpole
Books, Cameron and Kelker
Streets, Harrisburg, Penn.,
17105 ($9.95, paperback).
Say, you could even talk to
the animals in the dark.
Who'd know?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Dry Falls Lake

Certain features make Dry Falls Lake, a stone's throw south of Coulee City in Grant County, nearly perfect for fly fishing from a float tube. A rock island divides the lake into north and south sections. The northern section's bank slopes too much for working a fly or spoon from land. And water 30 feet deep below the basalt rimrocks makes wading tough, unless you're very, very tall. Eight-foot tall cattails, shin-deep water and mud deter waders from the southern section. So, Dry Falls Lake anglers need to float. And that makes the wind a factor. On the highway, several hundred feet above the lake's western edge, wind often whips along at 40 miles an hour. On the water, the winds swirl. But only at 36.3 mph. So, because float tubes sit so low in the water, they're exactly what you need for the lake. Therefore, what did I do last week? Of course. I left my float tube in the basement. I'm using it to collect and study rare dust specimens and spider webs. When I rolled into the nearly filled parking area below the leaning toilet of Dry Falls _ with the canoe strapped atop the car _ I counted 15 float tubes bobbing around the lake. A drift boat, a two-man blue and yellow rubber raft and two 12-foot aluminum boats dashed before the winds. And as I rigged up my gear, two dummies in a long-green canoe sliced between the weeds and into the narrow launching slot. ``Too windy for a canoe,'' the older of the two said. ``It skims you all over the place.'' Still, both men seemed to be happy enough. So I probed, using the famed anglers' mind-meltdown perfected by Dr. Sprockett. Employing a jaunty French accent, I asked if they'd ``caught zem all.'' ``We caught some,'' the older guy said. ``My son-in-law caught a couple of 17-inchers. All rainbow.'' Ah, I wheedled, with what? ``He caught 'em on a zug bug.'' Well, I didn't have any zug bugs, not that I knew personally. ``Didn't we see you down at Lenore early this morning?'' the younger man asked. He meant Lake Lenore, maybe half an hour north of Moses Lake on Highway 17. That made it maybe 10 minutes north of Soap Lake and 20 minutes south of Dry Falls Lake. Lenore, of course, has earned widespread fame for its huge Lahontan cutthroat trout. Dry Falls Lake contains somewhat smaller but more feisty rainbow and German brown trout. No, I just come in from Lake Chelan, via Wenatchee, I told the man, shifting to a German accent. That's the scenic route from Walla Walla. But I plan to fish Lenore tomorrow, I added. ``It's a joke,'' he said. And I studied his face. He apparently meant ``joke'' to be ironic. I noticed the car he leaned against bore a Minnesota license plate. ``I've never seen such big, beautiful fish,'' he said. ``I caught two over 20 inches. He (the son-in-law) caught a 24-incher. A gorgeous fish. ``But it's just a joke.'' Well, at that moment, the rainbow of Dry Falls concerned me. My watch said 12:01, so I decided to eat lunch while I rigged up two fly rods. One _ a 9{-foot, nine-weight that I normally use when pursuing whales _ I loaded with fast-sinking-tip line, a 9-foot, knotless, 4-pound test leader and a barbless black woolly booger pattern. Such special fisharies allow only artificial lures and flies with single barbless hooks. One fish may be kept. The other, an eight-foot, 3-ounce, four-weight _ it felt like a toothpick compared to the nine-weight _ I loaded with buckskin floating line, a 2-pound test leader and a gold-ribbed hare's ear. At 12:52 p.m. I paddled onto the lake. Gear nearly filled the 12-foot boat: extra jacket, two fly rods, canteen, 80-pound rock to hold the bow down, fishing vest with fly boxes, fingernail clippers, needle-nosed pliers, camera and a spare blueberry muffin wrapped in a red bandanna. Then I fished. And I fished. I tried fly, after fly, after fly. Nothing. No bites. No nibbles. Only a blister on my left hand, between the thumb and index finger, from paddling. All the while, of course, I watched float-tubers catch and release fish. One guy, about 37 yards away, whooped when he hooked one. He finally lifted it. ``I thought it was a big one,'' he said. ``But it's only about 16 inches.'' Hummmph. ``That's five,'' he added. ``All on a peacock with a floating line.'' Hummmmph. Shuffle. Scramble. Dig. I wouldn't recognize a peacock that hooked my thumb. But I pulled in the sinking line and tried the floating line again with a bright streamer. Nothing. It had to be the float tubes. Or, maybe I just wasn't a very good fisherman? Maybe I'd never catch another fish? Obviously, I'd failed. I'd have to live with that. And pout. So, at 5:38 p.m. I paddled back to the car. With the sinking sun turning the water to gold, I dug my penultimate sandwich from the cooler, poured the last chocolate milk into a cup, set the coffee pot on the camp stove and pouted. Who needed fishing, anyway? By the time my water boiled, virtually every other angler had left the lake and a steady stream of vehicles rolled past the toilet. But the drivers all appeared to wear smiles. A frown etched deeper across my face. Eventually I studied the lake again. The wind had calmed. Two float tubes and no boats remained. Should I? I stuffed the cooler and stove into the car and paddled back onto the lake, lips pressed tight with resolve. Just north of the island in the middle of the lake, a mad impulse led me to tie a black, No. 4 woolly bugger onto the floating line. On the second cast, the fish struck very lighty. I guessed it to be 12 inches when I slipped the hook from its lip. It was 6:22 p.m. and the sun had nearly disappeared. At least I wasn't a total failure, but one fish in six hours didn't make a great trip, either. The next cast produced a 17- to 18-inch rainbow that leaped and flashed its red sides in the failing light. In the next half hour, I lost track of the fish I brought to the boat and released. Seven or eight? One, that appeared to have a six-inch wide red stripe, spit the fly after jumping twice. It was a monster that I had too much line out to control. One, a German brown about 16 inches, dragged the canoe for several minutes and felt like the lunker of the lake, but it was hooked in the side. It eventually became a breaded and baked dinner. By 8 p.m. I beached the boat and packed the gear by lamplight. The 30-degree chill didn't even register on my hands. And, after camping at Sun Lakes State Park, I fished from 7:30 until after noon at Lenore on Monday. I didn't even get a nibble, but I still smiled. Just feeling the canoe slip across the lake, with the sun shining on my face and the light breeze ruffling my locks, well, that was the important thing. Besides, the old, deflated float tube was safe in the basement collecting all kinds of new dust specimens for me to study over the winter.