We’ve been out on a variety of adventures over the past few months: rafting a section of the John Day River with friends, hiking in the Badlands Wilderness (doing part of the Badlands Challenge), and I spent a long weekend in Arizona /New Mexico for the Continental Divide Trail Kickoff in Silver City last month. Kirk and I also spent a few days backpacking in the Spring Basin Wilderness so I could scout the area for my first ONDA volunteer trip of the year.
The Spring Basin Wilderness is surrounded by the John Day River on two sides near the small blip of a town, Clarno. It is also a short sightline away from that infamous former cult site of the Rajneeshees. All cults aside, it is a beautiful small mountainous area that is absolutely covered in flowers in the Spring, and it just happens to be 10 years old as a wilderness area (thanks ONDA!). I would be leading this first trip of its kind to talk more at length about hiking off trail (there are no trails in Spring Basin… Just a few old 2-track roads that have almost disappeared), discussing responsible recreation, and hiking a series of routes to document some loop hiking options for the BLM to potentially publish in the future.
As most of eastern Oregon lacks trail systems, hiking off trail is often the only way to explore an area, so why not spend some time trying to help some folks get more comfortable with it? It could only lead to future adventures.
I drove down to the area on Thursday night, slowly navigating the curves of the highway amidst a thunderous lightening storm. Flashes struck on all sides (the rain could have been described as torrential) and at one point hail covered the road in white. Oh joy… What a start to the trip! I slept in the car at the trailhead, and by morning all was calm and the lightshow from the night before had moved on.
The plan was to meet my 11 volunteers at noon, but even though this wilderness was called Spring Basin, there was no reliable water to be found. I loaded up my backpack with 4 gallons of water, grabbed a shovel (for digging a group latrine) and hiked in the 1ish mile to a camp spot I had scouted on the previous trip.
The climb up into Spring Basin is a brisk 800’ of elevation gain in 1 mile, and if that won’t get your blood flowing I don’t know what will! Almost as good as coffee.
Morning mission accomplished, I hiked back to the car to wait for the volunteers to arrive from around the state. By noon we were sitting in camp chairs and orienting ourselves with maps, then with maps and compass, then with gps devices. In a place like Spring Basin, it is fairly easy to orient yourself without any extra devices as the views are extensive. We loaded up packs and hoofed it into our camp spot with lots and lots of water on our backs.
The volunteers were a mix of thru-hikers, section hikers, avid photographers who often go off trail for that perfect shot, and some folks new to off-trail hiking and navigation. All in all, a good mix of skill levels, experiences to share, and a willingness to learn.
That night we talked all about responsibly recreating in an area with no trails or no infrastructure… a lot of the best practices revolve around responding appropriately to the terrain and conditions, making good decisions, and trying to travel with respect for intact habitats and those that live in them.
Saturday we broke up into four groups and each hiked a loop of sorts through the wilderness. The rain came back, and we tried to celebrate with the cupcakes I had packed in to celebrate the wilderness birthday, but rain blew out the candles, and my packing job smushed the frosting. They still tasted good after a day of hiking, and we toasted with a couple small boxes of wine I had packed out for the occasion.
A long night of rain had us hunkering in our tents, but a brief reprieve in the morning provided a dry hour for breakfast and packing up.
A few of us hit the Antelope Café for coffee and pie on the way home, and helped to bring the fun weekend to a close! I hope to do more trips of these kind in the future…in the high deserts of Oregon the best exploring is off-trail.