Sunday, March 25, 2007

Kirkwood Ranch, Hells Canyon

(Written 10/21/1998)
Kirkwood Bar often whispers my name, especially this time of year. It's an easy place to reach on foot, with a six-mile trek along the Snake River Trail from Pittsburg Landing. From Walla Walla, however, you must drive 209 miles, including 17 miles of steep-winding-unpaved road over Pittsburg Saddle, to reach the trailhead. You take Highway 12 through Lewiston to Highway 95 and turn south to White Bird, Idaho. Turn right just past Hoots Restaurant for that final 17 miles. Rumor claims that Idaho keeps this unpaved road open all year, but carry chains if you expect snow below an altitude of 4,000 feet. Sections of the road slant at a 16-degree angle, and that's darn steep. Perhaps that's why from mid-October until spring relatively few people drive to Pittsburg Landing. Anyway, during this period you won't see many others on the trail or on the river. Sure, you'll see an occasional deer, elk and chukar hunter. But the traffic's nothing like during the heat of the summer season when the river and the trails will be alive with nature lovers. Mine was the only vehicle at the trailhead last week, for example. I met two other hikers two days later, as I returned to my car. During the hike, I saw one raft and three jet boats on the river. I met the caretakers at Historic Kirkwood Ranch, of course, since the USDA Forest Service keeps people at the site year around. Wally and Verna Baker of Pollock Pines, Calif., have the October duty this year. And they may do it again next year. More than late fall and winter solitude draws me to the canyon, though. With snow and freezing temperatures imminent in the high Wallowas and the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, I expect relatively balmy weather in the canyon. Wintertime lows seldom drop below the 40s along the river, with its altitude in the 1,300 foot range. And, if anything, fall and winter intensifies the rugged beauty of the basalt-ribbed canyon walls, where you may see deer, elk, bears, cougars, bobcats, lynxes, coyotes and bighorn sheep. Not that I've seen all of those, although I have seen deer, elk, coyotes and bighorn sheep. Bighorn sheep? Yes. Last week I gloated here about photographing mountain goats above Cummings Creek, in the Tucannon River drainage. That's not true. They were bighorn sheep ewes. Several people pointed that out, including Al Stillman and Ron Jackson. You don't sneak an incorrect animal identification by those guys. I should know better. Anyway, besides the interesting animals, Hells Canyon plants wear a variety of hues in the fall to brighten the landscape. I mean, you still see bright yellow balsamroot, blazing star and klamath weed. And the sumac makes beet-red patches that contrast with the yellow-orange of poison ivy leaves and the pale yellow of the showy milkweed stalks. And if all this solitude and natural beauty isn't enough to motivate a hike up the trail to Kirkwood Bar, I think about that clean, dry Phoenix Composting Toilet. It's a marvel of technology, and it sits there on the bar for the public to use. You may say most people don't drive 209 miles through a downpour, including 17 miles over a muddy mountain pass, and lug a 50-pound backpack for six miles along a soggy, rocky trail just to relax in a Phoenix Composting Toilet, no matter how advanced. But some do. Well, at least I did it last week. In fact, I thought of the Phoenix as I passed Hoots and chugged toward the pass. Not that I had to wait. Many primitive toilets dot the Pittsburg Landing area, at the lower and upper boat landings, in the campground and at the trailhead. And that's where I paused. But I opened the door of the trailhead facility, about a mile upstream from the campground, and nearly gagged. This is no Phoenix Composting Toilet. And it needed cleaning. Really. And those two spiders lurking in that upper left-corner web looked very much like black widows. I gritted my teeth and decided to wait. I donned my rain coat and rain pants, put Sadie the Dalmatian's pack on her, and we headed up the trail. Within the first half hour, my chin and my dog dripped rainwater. We reached Kirkwood Bar in a leisurely three hours. By 4:30 p.m. I'd pitched the tent, spread out the Therm-A-Rest mattress and sleeping bags and fetched water from a hose near the Kirkwood Ranch Museum, where a sign warned me to treat the water. My water bag holds 2.5 gallons, and I suspended it with a string from a hackberry tree branch near a picnic table. I pumped three quart bottles full with the PUR water purifier, and set up the stove ready to cook dinner. First, though, I carried the red clothes bag with wool-Polypropylene longjohns, socks, pants and shirt 97 yards to the Phoenix Composting Toilet. With the door open, it's a clean, well-lighted place. It sits in what was, decades ago, a hayfield at a flourishing sheep ranch. It's a combination of rough-hewn wood siding and plastic-like walls. It's a high-tech marvel as one-holers go, which the caretakers at Historic Kirkwood Ranch sweep and mop for about 300 visitors per day during the peak season. A light-colored interior and aluminum fixtures garnish the one-holer's ambience. It's a small toilet, though, with barely enough room for one person to change clothes when the dog also insists on getting in out of the rain. But I managed. My wet clothes must've weighed 20 pounds. In the dry clothes, I immediately felt warmer. I did regret having to slip sodden hiking boots over the dry socks, especially after I'd spent an hour the night before putting two coats of Nikwax waterproofing on them. The boots, not the socks. I wondered one more time if paying $7.50 for 4-ounces of such gunk wasn't as dumb as buying boots touted as waterproof in the first place. And what about that rain jacket and pants touted as being waterproof while wicking away moisture? They'd also soaked through and through and probably weighed 10 pounds by themselves. Ah, well. Such is life on the trail, I guess. Nevertheless, I felt downright snug with dry clothes under my soaked boots and soaked rain gear. I paused and listened to rain patter against the roof. I read the chart on the wall that asked visitors not to toss plastic, metal or matches into the toilet. And it said, ``Within the composting tank beneath the floor, many organisms are decomposing wastes to form a humus-like soil, keeping this area unpolluted.'' Wow. I listened more carefully. Was that a humming sound, along with the rain? I imagined billions and billions of happy organisms humming away, creating new soil beneath the floor. I found the prospect so fascinating that I sat down to rest and to listen. I'd planned to do a little fly-fishing before dark, but I felt no rush to leave a warm, well-lighted place. Perhaps, I concluded mournfully, Kirkwood Bar didn't whisper my name so much as hum it.

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