Thursday, June 10, 2010

Eastern Oregon Trip, Part 3

Well, drat. Drat-drat. And drat.
A snowdrift blocked the two-track trail.
Bill DeLong walked away from his ATV to study it. I followed, frown in place.
Ears flapping, Nora the Schnauzer raced across it and back.
We had expected some snow on the Bureau of Land Management’s high-country terrain.
But not so much.
A second drift lay on the road ahead, across the canyon. It also could be impassable.
Despite an eye-watering, cheek-chilling wind (I wore my windbreaker’s hood up), the temperature had reached the high 40s at about 6,000 feet altitude.
That made the snow loose, extra slippery.
“We’ll have to find a way around or go back,” Bill lamented. His brow furrowed.
I figured the time at 2 p.m., or almost five hours since we first straddled the Honda four-wheelers.
We’d completed more than half of the all-day trip, so Nora and I awaited Bill’s decision.
“I can get back up that,” Bill said as he peered down the steep, rock-strewn route with old, faint four-wheeler tracks
“I’ll go down and pick up the road below,” he said. “I’ll check ahead. If we can’t make it, we’ll have to turn back.”
Bill’s machine crept like a beetle on a wall slowly into the canyon.
On the road again, he zipped past the second drift and dropped beyond the distant ridge.
I snagged my daypack from my ride and followed Nora into the canyon out of the wind.
Nora explored. I leaned on my pack, munched a box of Goobers and waited.
We had started the day in Bill’s pickup, with the two rides on a trailer. We drove westward from Vale to Harper on Oregon Highway 20.
Bill turned north for another few miles, pulled onto a dusty private road and stopped.
So the ATV journey loomed.
Bill and his wife Jewell unloaded the rides.
I didn’t have the heart to leave Nora behind, so I lifted her onto the 2-inch-thick foam pad in the front basket of Jewell’s automatic-shift machine.
Jewell drove away to leave the pickup and trailer for us at Duane DeLong’s place on Highway 26.
“Drive it like a Volkswagen,” Bill called (don’t lug the engine) and sped away at 9:07 a.m. in a small cloud of dust.
I pushed the starter button and shifted into first gear, as Jewell had explained in a tutorial the previous day.
“Hang on Nora,” I said and pressed the accelerator with my shaky right thumb.
Nora stretched out flat with her head up to watch the passing parade.
A scattering of fluffy clouds scudded ahead as we putted along the rutted road. I guessed the temperature at 40-42 degrees with icy 10-15 mph winds. I guessed the altitude at 3,000 feet.
The orange flag on Bill’s machine fluttered a quarter-mile away. I clinched my teeth, shifted to second and third and skimmed the track at 15 mph.
On the wall-steep, rocky or washed-out stretches, I growled along at 3-4 mph.
Bill waited often.
At our pauses, Bill explained what we saw, including Big Poison Butte, snow-covered Elkhorn and Eagle Cap mountains, Swede Spring and so on. He pointed to deer and antelope.
At about 4,500 feet I asked about the many felled juniper trees we passed.
“The BLM cuts them because they use so much water,” Bill said.
Colorful wildflowers bloomed, including big clover, crimson paintbrush, blue lupine and brodiaea.
For lunch Nora and I shared water, cream cheese on a bagel and jerky treats.
In the chill at 4,800-feet, I slipped Nora into her sweater, and Bill spread his wool sweater on the foam pad.
Then we reached the snowdrifts, and Bill scouted ahead.
In half-an-hour he returned to find Nora and me dozing in the sunshine.
“We can pass the next drift OK, and another one we can go around, I think,” Bill said and smiled.
He climbed the hill on foot and fetched Jewell’s ride for me, and we set out again.
Bill zipped past the next drift and waited.
With a scary drop-off on the right, I looked straight ahead.
At the third drift, Bill turned down a steep incline. I followed, for about 10 feet.
The machine tipped forward sharply. I leaned straight back. Nora braced her feet against the front of the basket.
Whoa! I stopped, killed the engine, locked the brake, dismounted and lifted Nora.
We waited for Bill. He walked back and drove the machine around the drift.
Whew!
The rest of the trip flew by. In a ridge-top windstorm, Bill’s GPS recorded 6,464 feet.
Downhill from there, we stopped often to peruse rock formations, to smell flowers, to hunt ancient artifacts (Bill found, and left, part of a spear point), to watch deer and to contemplate abandoned homesteads.
At a final laser-straight, flat and smooth road, flooded by the sweet scent of lupine, I shifted to fifth gear and cruised at 22 mph.
When we reached DeLong’s place again, we’d put in a solid 12-hour-plus day.
Nora and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Eastern Oregon Trip, Part 2

Bill and Jewell DeLong met Nora the Schnauzer and me when we pulled into their driveway at Vale, Ore., on a recent damp and blustery Tuesday morning.
“I have a proposal,” Bill said. “I hate to change our plans, but I think we should take the pickup tour today and the ORV ride tomorrow,” he said. “Come inside, and I’ll show you why.”
On Monday, we had planned the two activities in reverse order, not that I minded a change.
Bill called up the weather report on his computer.
“We’re going to have 35-mph winds down here today, and they could be 65 mph up on the mountain (at 6,500 feet altitude),” he said. “And it may rain.”
Bill switched to Wednesday’s forecast, which predicted much less wind and mostly sunny skies.
Sounded perfect to me. So, after stowing away Jewell’s lip-smacking breakfast (eggs, hash browns, toast and coffee) we set out at 8:24 a.m.
We drove northwest on Oregon Highway 26, toward John Day. We stopped at Bill’s brother Duane’s place.
Duane DeLong retired after a long career with the Bureau of Land Management as the Vale district’s animal control officer.
Duane, like Bill, knows the Malheur territory (every rock, gulley and tree on it, Bill said), and Duane had doubts about us being able to make the proposed trip on the high-country back roads because of Monday’s rain. So, Bill borrowed a shovel.
From then on, my sense of our location fuzzed up a bit.
We drove a couple of miles south (or north?) on the highway and turned west onto a primitive road.
Within minutes, we saw a golden eagle rise from the ground and skim away over the sage.
Shortly after that we saw a redtail hawk soar above the sage with a squirrel in its talons. It hovered briefly then dropped onto a bush.
Eventually we reached Bully Creek Road, a mile or so from the reservoir. So, we stopped off for Bill to see my pumpkin-colored tent.
From there we followed Bully Creek north and west to an area of hot springs and drilling rigs.
“The owner plans to harness the thermal activity and produce electricity,” Bill said.
He wasn’t sure if it would work.
On the way back, I reached a hand into the water beside the road. Ouch!
From there we headed back toward Vale and turned west on Highway 20. At Harper we turned north and east again.
We stopped and, for an hour, we climbed a sage-covered hill for a better view of a rock formation. It resembled a man-made or fantasy tower, or a Space Needle.
We paused often to gander at other picturesque rock formations along the road (one with a hawk perched high on top).
We also visited the semi-ghost town of Westfall, which still has an operating post office. The shell of its two-story hotel made of stone still stands.
After that we headed north and east. Stretches of steep, rocky road jostled us as we reminisced and discussed the stark beauty, geology and history of the area.
Despite the slippery spots that Duane cautioned us about, we crawled along.
We saw many deer and antelope (one with crooked antlers). Wind walloped the pickup.
At one high vista, we counted seven species of wildflowers.
Twice we stopped to examine ruts cut in bed-rock by iron-rimmed wagon wheels as pioneers headed from Old Fort Boise to the Oregon Trail near Farewell Bend on the Snake River, beginning in the 1840s.
The wheels eventually cut the ruts as wide as pickup tires.
We passed one giant mound of boulders the size of SUVs. The pile resembled an igloo, but the boulders could hardly have been placed by humans.
Could they?
Back at Highway 26, we drove to Ironside and turned eastward. We stopped at a cemetery with births and deaths dating back to the 1800s. Wind blew so hard there that we leaned against it with flapping jackets and watering eyes.
We continued along Willow Creek and past Malheur Reservoir. We passed a gold-mining operation with big trucks and earth-moving equipment.
Finally, after 40 or so back-road miles, we returned to Highway 26 and reached Bill’s home by 7:15 p.m.
Bill assured me that the next day’s ATV trip would travel slower, steeper and rougher jaw-tensing roads (to keep from biting our tongues) with stunning views.
I could hardly wait.

Easter Oregon Trip, Part 1

Nora the Schnauzer and I arrived at Bully Creek Park/Reservoir, near Vale, Ore., in the mid-afternoon on a 52-degree, cloudy and windy Monday.
Half-a-dozen Townsend’s ground squirrels greeted us at camp site No. 3. They skittered every which way and ducked into nearby holes beneath a fire pit.
Nora saw them, of course. Shaking with anxiety, she sailed from the car and stuck her head into the nearest hole. She flung dirt clouds out behind her with her front feet.
She ignored me when I tied the small rope to her collar.
Many signs demanded that dogs be on a leash. I complied, although I saw no other campers in the park.
While Nora dug, I pitched the tent, tossed in two Therm-A-Rest pads and spread the zero-degree down sleeping bag (Nora and I would share).
With Nora on the leash, we walked around the park. We found three rest rooms with showers.
Then I zipped the tent door, leaving an opening for squirrels to visit without chewing a hole, and set out to call on friends Bill and Jewell DeLong.
Bill, a retired educator (science teacher and administrator), has settled in Vale where he spent his youth, honed his interests in nature, area history, the outback and attended high school.
Bill and I go way back. He took me skiing for the first time at Bluewood in the early 1980s.
After my one faltering trip down the bunny slope, he declared me ready. We rode the lift to the top. He helped me up when I fell getting off.
We started down Country Road.
“You’ll make it OK,” Bill said and zipped on down the slope.
Forty-five minutes later, soaked from wallowing in the snow, with one remaining mitten and a broken ski pole, I reached the bottom. Ah, fond memories.
At the DeLong’s I shook hands with Bill and Jewell, and Jewell hugged Nora.
We sipped coffee before glass patio doors and plotted the next two day’s activities.
On Tuesday, after Jewell cooked breakfast, Bill, Nora and I would take the four-wheel Honda ORVs almost 30 miles across the south face of the mountains on the north side of the valley.
I would use Jewell’s ORV.
It would be an arduous all-day trip on roads with “horrendous (steep, rocky) stretches” Bill said, so Jewell suggested that Nora stay home with her and their cow dog Toby.
I hesitated, but more-or-less agreed.
On Wednesday, Bill would take Nora and me into the outback by pickup to see historic sites dating back to the pioneer days, interesting geological formations, wildlife (deer, antelope, elk, coyotes elk, hawks), wild flowers and so on.
On Thursday, Nora and I would head back to Walla Walla.
Plans, of course, often go awry.
Anyway, Bill, Nora and I spent the late afternoon visiting Keeney Pass, the 1852 grave of pioneer John Henderson (who died of thirst near the Malheur River).
We stopped at sites showing evidence of ancient oceans covering the area and the impact of ancient volcanic action.
Bill clearly knows the territory, including the history of many families in the area. Nora and I enjoyed the drive.
Nora especially enjoyed the pause at Henderson’s grave site because rock chucks (yellow-bellied marmots) whistled at her from among the boulders.
Finally, although Bill and Jewell invited us to stay with them, Nora and I returned to Bully Creek.
We made a thorough tour of the park, often leaning into 30 mph winds.
Nora kept her leash taught as screeching Killdeer fooled her with faux broken wings.
I stumbled upon a killdeer egg in the gravel near a picnic table and took a photo with a discarded bottle cap for size comparison.
I counted eight different bird calls, including a loon, robins, killdeer and Canada geese.
As daylight faded, I looked across the lake. One light spot on the water appeared to be a face looking at me from the shallows.
It had a wave of hair and an intent, heavy-browed expression. A chill tingled my spine.
The face looked familiar. It looked like Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Well, I snapped Ludwig’s photo, and we headed back to the tent and turned in.
I awoke when a roaring wind ripped through the trees and blasted the tent with rain.
I used the LED headlamp to check the time (1:37 a.m.). Nora peeked once then covered her eyes with a foot.
“This could change our plans for today,” I said. “You think?”
No comment. I turned off the light and went back to sleep.