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.

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