I’ve been involved with the Oregon Trails Coalition, a cooperative body of broad-based, statewide trail interests dedicated to supporting, promoting, and advocating for the preservation, development, and stewardship of trails in Oregon, since the group started about five years ago. This year I joined the steering committee as the incoming chair, and look forward to adding to the great work that has already been done to elevate and steward our long trails!
The big project the group has been working on has been to develop Oregon Signature Trails. Throughout 2022, the Oregon Trails Coalition and the Signature Trails Inventory Steering Committee engaged a broad group of stakeholders across the state in sharing their vision and priorities for existing and potential signature trails in Oregon. The resulting work was compiled into a report where 15 trails were determined to have the existing infrastructure and support or most potential and momentum at this time to provide access to iconic places and scalable, world-class trail experiences with further investment.
The great news??? Several of the trails I’ve been working on or have hiked are on that list, including:
And what that also means is that there are more trails for me to hike! 🙂 Of course some of these systems are just in the planning phase and have a long way to go, others are water trails which I definitely want to paddle, and yet others are biking-specific trails…I haven’t gotten into biking as much as hiking, but I can see a future where I do spend more time on two wheels.
Today was the day, and despite constant rain all night, the early morning hours were dry, and when I unzipped the tent, I could finally see an emerging land below.
It had gotten cold overnight. Nothing had frozen, but I could see fresh snow on the far peaks.
I was up and walking by 7am, which has been my usual this trip. The objective was to walk the rim, 4-5ish miles to the very top of the mountain at 4,694′ and then drop over the top for a smattering of cross country hiking and some roads all the way into Mitchell and my shower. Ok!
This type of hiking is strange. It feels like you are making no progress at all on the large flat expanse of earth, but then you look back and see how far you have come. I stopped periodically to gaze around, down, up, and everywhere. It was a brilliant morning, and I felt so lucky to be up here.
Sutton Mountain is a Wilderness Study Area, and you might remember a hike I took up here last year from the Black Canyon side. As I mentioned in that blog post, this is an area that is being considered as a national monument. As a place to recreate, it was ideal… several trailheads to the top, rugged, yet approachable hiking, incredible terrain, lots of wildlife, and…it’s relatively safe. What do I mean by that? Sutton Mountain is surrounded on all sides by roads or the John Day River. Certainly, one could get lost in the almost 30,000 acres, but hike in any direction long enough, and you will make it to a road. The good thing about national monuments is that the management can be fairly flexible. The county and nearby communities like Mitchell and Twickenham can be involved, conservation groups like ONDA can be involved, and ranchers and recreators can be involved too when deciding how this area should be managed. The Painted Hills across the street is already a National Monument, and so are the Fossils Beds that I hiked by when I restarted my hike at Clarno. It will be exciting to see what happens!
I hiked and hiked and finally made it to the top. I really couldn’t have planned a better morning.
Then over and down. It’s all downhill from here!
I took a break by some springs and took off my soaking wet shoes and socks. The grasses had soon soaked my feet this morning, making for an unpleasant squishy feeling. I put on my chacos for the next few miles of a closed dirt road within the Wilderness Study Area, but the recent rain combined with the soil to make a nasty slurry that quickly got between my toes and straps and was just not going to work. I transitioned back to shoes.
Soon, I was in an area I recognized! Last fall, after a trip to the Greater Hells Canyon Gala, I had stopped at Sutton Mountain and climbed up from Meyers Canyon for a night. I was disappointed, though, to see tire tracks on the road. This was a closed road, and someone had ignored the signage and deterrents and had driven up here anyway. 😖 not ok.
I continued on to cross Meyers Canyon itself, a deep dry ravine, to the other side and one last cross country climb up to another road. On this road, I walked through a trashed campsite. Large piles of trash were scattered about. I took a few photos to share with the BLM. Who does that? Why? The disrespect was sad.
Then walk, walk, walk, and I popped out near an old abandoned ranch (I later learned it was the Owens place) framed by the most stunning butte I had ever seen: Bailey Butte. The highway goes right by Bailey Butte, but I had never seen it from this angle. Incredible!
Once I made it to the highway, I had about a mile left to go, and it started raining so hard that I had to pull out my umbrella. Then…town.
I made a straight line for the Tiger Town Brewery for lunch. In the seven hours I had been walking (with one sit-down break), I had eaten one granola bar and a few almonds. This hunger was hungry.
Soon, I was devouring a ruben sandwich, curly fries, washed down by a tasty amber beer. Soooooooooo delicious. My next order of business was heading next door to the general store for snacks and to see if they had any clothing that I could wear after taking a shower. I bought a Mitchell sweatshirt and some long john bottoms. Perfect! Then to the hostel. Sure, I could have had someone meet me this afternoon, I was only two hours from home, but I love trail towns, and Mitchell looked to have everything a hiker could need or want after a hike, and I wanted the full experience!
The Spoke’n Hostel is a hot spot for bicycle tourists. In addition to being on one of the cross-country bike routes, it was on several smaller road ride routes, too. Hosts Jalet and Patrick have renovated an old church into a beautiful and relaxing spot for travelers. Now, my experience was complete!
I got that shower, had clean clothes to put on, and the rest of the day, I truly reveled in not walking.
By the end of the day, I am peak disgusting. The rain means mud, and in addition to my dried sweat-covered mud gear and body, the last few days, I’ve discovered a few patches of poison oak on my legs. I saw a smidgen of poison oak on a river-side bushwack day 2, and here it is popping up now. Perhaps something I’m wearing has some of that poison oil on it? It’s kind of not even worth wondering about it. There’s nothing I can do now. I’ll keep touching that poison (or not… depending on where it’s coming from) until I take these foul clothes off, shower, and have something else to wear. Might as well embrace the disgusting.
The funk doesn’t take away from the hiking, though…in some ways you become fully committed to the experience when it doesn’t matter anymore whether you are sitting on the ground or on your tyvek. The mud has already touched everything. Is this what Pig Pen from Charlie Brown feels like?
Thoughts of that shower, though, and clean dry clothes… When it gets to this point in the hike, a break better be coming up soon, and mine is tomorrow! And by break, I mean the end 😑. For now. There will be more hiking this year, oh yes! But this chapter has come to a close. The chapter where I am handily ego-checked and roughned up a bit, but have the start to powerful legs and the ability to grind for an hour or so (walk up hill without stopping, no matter how steep and long).
I had a successful grind this morning, first thing out of the wet tent. Up 1,000′ in 0.84 miles. Ah yes, just in time to go home and not hike like this again for a month or two.
The views were amazing, and the clouds were thick overhead again. I made it off the rocky peak and into the trees of Pat’s Cabin WSA for a morning break. I would have a mellow 4-mile hike down an old road for the next stretch….that kind of hiking is almost a rest itself!
Soon I after I started down the road I saw that this is a big drainage. The road/trail disappeared under flood debris in some areas, and the size of the side canyons ripping out was impressive.
I hunted for the trail when it got washed out, over and over, but it didn’t really matter. The only place to go was downhill, and the flood walking (no water to be seen BTW) was easy, too.
At the bottom, I am faced with yet another obstacle to cross if I am to go forward.
This time, a swollen Bridge Creek. Either moving fast, deep, and narrow, or wide, meandering, and marshy. Neither looked good as I hunted for the place Scott said has boards that cross the creek for “dry feet,” but as you’d expect, those boards are long gone.
I decided I have to do it one more time: inflate the packraft.
This time in the all-day drizzle. I transition to boat phase for the quick, narrow crossing… and am easily across.
I packed up in the rain and started walking along the paved road to my trailhead that climbed 2,000′ up to the flatish expanse of Sutton Mountain.
My secret hope was that someone would pass me on the road walk and ask what I was doing, and then I might have the opportunity to ask if they had any extra snacks. I was just about out of snacks and will be finishing the hike with an empty food bag. I wasn’t starving by any means, but I was interested in any road trip snacks that might be in one of those cars checking out the Painted Hills a short distance away.
Alas, no cars passing meant no snacks, and it was too chilly to doddle today anyway… I had to keep moving to stay warm thanks to the constant wet. I went into a reallll slow grind up the mountain, so slow I didn’t break a sweat.
There is legit trail here with footprints and recent trail work and all! It’s a most excellent hike with running springs on the way up!
At the top, I was in trees, and it took me a while to make it up to the rim of this large fault block mountain. It wasn’t quite as big as the top iconic fault block mountains of the Oregon Desert Trail (Abert Rim at 30 miles long and Steens Mountain at 50 miles long), but Sutton is dramatic. I’d be walking near the rim for about 7 miles to the very top where I’d drop over the edge for my 9-mile walk down to my shower, I mean Mitchell.
But first, I stopped for camp a few miles in on the rim. If I hadn’t been in a cloud, I would have seen the Painted Hills and mountains that stretched on into the horizon to the west.
I was protected from the wind (but there really wasn’t any) by a few juniper trees and spent the next while enjoying the feeling of dry for the first time in hours.
I had it all: incredible views, easy walking, cliffed out river-side navigating, three packraft ferry trips, and thousands of feet cross country hiking to my next Wilderness Study Area: Pat’s Cabin…a little known piece of land just down the road from the Painted Hills and across the street from Sutton Mountain (last big climb of the trip).
The weather held off for the morning, and luckily enough, I was ridgewalking on top of the world.
But by early afternoon, the heavy clouds that were sitting just over my head let loose with a little rain, then some thunder. It made the walking a gooey mess of 10 pound mud boots, but the rain felt good. I ducked down under my umbrella for one particularly heavy shower.
So, we covered the weather…lets talk about the river.
It was lovely to walk down to the water again. These are long dry spells without reliable water sources! And it would be again after this next stretch. After my last crossing today, I wouldn’t meet the John Day River again, only Bridge Creek, an important tributary, and – you guessed it – beaver habitat.
Today, my river adventure looked like a three-mile walk along the north shore, then a ferry across to Burnt Ranch boat launch. The dry-land portion of the day involved a 2,400′ climb and another afternoon of heavy hiking with a dry camp.
Ok, the river.
I started my walk and soon came to the first of the cliffed-out-puzzle sections. I followed game trails with success…I’m getting better at these, I thought.
The next one was not so easy. I made it halfway through and looked at the next bend in the river with dismay. It looked daunting. I looked at my map. I knew exactly where I was. I have camped on the other side of the bend many times…it’s only 2ish miles from the Burnt Ranch boat launch, and is a good first camp on the water if you make it out for a quick weekend float of the Wild and Scenic section.
So, I decided in the spirit of a route, that I would go my own way again, and packraft across the river to a nice calm eddy and exit, walk across a flat along the public/private fenceline, and launch on the other side for said camp I had just mentioned. From there, I would cut across the flat to my last launch of the trip and across to the boat launch.
The river was fast and flowing. And wide!!! Oh, so wide now. I had no idea about the cfs, but the rain certainly had it going up.
I launched all three times, and even with an upcurrent bit of eddy, it still deposited me about 200 yards downriver despite my best paddling efforts. My breakdown whitewater paddle is so much more efficient but heavy.
I took advantage of the picnic table at the deserted boat launch to recoup and try out the skippy squeeze tube of peanut butter I had been carrying. Not bad! Of course, I’m a week into an arduous hiking adventure, and I can feel the generator of my body buzzing and burning off some of my extra “fuel.”
Then hiking uphill in the rain with mud boots. It’s all good though, the landscape seems incredibly healthy…after the mud section, the ground was covered in microscopic succulent plant life, the bunch grass was very bunchie, and the big picture was one of life and growth…the mud boots were short lived, thank goodness… the ground was too rocky for mud in many places.
I stopped short of the last big climb, another 1,000′ up in less than a mile. I’ll save that for the morning when I have used up more of my water and the food bag weighs a bit less…
I’m just now feeling like I’m getting into the flow of this trip. The hiking today exemplifies my happy place: open terrain, tons of views, a bit of a bushwack challenge, lots of old roads in various states, and epic geology. Wow. This day.
The first order of the day was to trace a ridgeline that bordered the eastern edge of the Spring Basin Wilderness up to Sheep Mountain. Since I was now a bit ahead of schedule, I had plenty of time on my hands to lollygag and wander through the incredible day.
The weather was sunny and clear, but a storm was due to move in later, (rain and lightening, oh my!) so the air was warm, thick, and humid….for the desert (for dessert?) Later in the afternoon I would call it molasses air. I’ll let you imagine what it felt like to push my way through that air, uphill on a never-ending old road. The incredible canyon made up for it, though…
I ended up climbing an unnamed rocky summit a short distance away from Sheep Mountain that was actually 200′ higher. When looking at the scramble it would take me to get to the top of Sheep Mountain, I decided to pass, and instead wrapped around the western side of the peak to catch up with the ridgeline route on the other side. On a route, there are no rules, so do what you want!
Then I followed a stunning Rhodes Canyon down (shout out to my girl Melissa Rhodes in Illinois!) and contemplated one of two route options that skirt some private land. I followed a pretty little drainage up (it would have waterfalls and pools when there was acutally water). The saddle I was aiming for wasn’t too far away, and soon I was up and over and back to the John Day River in about a mile.
Then shade and lunch. I don’t see any boaters, but then again, I’m only by the water for half a mile today before I start hiking up the next canyon. And I’ve wondered about this canyon the many times I’ve passed it from a boat. The rock pillars guarding the entrance to Rattlesnake Canyon are imposing, and I don’t have to wonder how it got its name. As I walked up the drainage, I could see this would be the perfect road for an ambush. Rocky outcroppings and dramatic pillars rose up on either side of the old grade, and for sure there were bandits lurking behind the next bend.
How did this road get here in the first place? What was up here? My maps show miles of road that spider web out through the canyons and ridges of this area…but than again there are a maze of old roads almost everywhere in every desert. Humans have been everywhere. Today my road would circle the dramatic Amine Peak, was there a mine to find?
The upper reaches of the canyon had running water, running water! I have been regularly lugging 4-5 liters of water around with me because of my dry camps and one water source a day….this water was a welcome sight, but alas, I didn’t need any.
The clouds that were bringing the storm were gathering by mid afternoon and I wanted to make camp before the rain, so I pressed on, looking for a nice camp spot near the top of the canyon with some tree cover. I kept going thinking my options would be better, and oops, now I was walking on the eastern shoulder of Amine Peak closer to the clouds than ever, with no tree cover. But the storm was holding off, and the patchwork blue and thunderhead sky looked like it could go either way….sunny or stormy. So I motored on (its sooooo beautiful up here) and soon spied a little skid road that dropped a few switchbacks to some trees that would be well protected.
I’m sleepy and horizontal well before dark, my body has never felt this good lying down.
By late morning I was back on “trail” and digging through the resupply box I had packed myself the week before. My wonderful ONDA coworker Beth had dropped it off at the Clarno Nursery last week, and will be back in a few days. That means I can leave things like the borrowed life jacket and the extra food I don’t need anymore after my stint in Condon. Beth even left a cooler with some cold drinks (Rootbeer!!!) and a water jug. Magic. Beth is a backpacker. She knows.
But I didn’t make a wish and suddenly appear on the flooding banks of the John Day River, 45 miles upstream from where I turned around a few days ago, I was dropped off by my new and very interesting acquaintance, Max.
K’Lynn from the chamber connected us. It has been a trail magic kind of morning, and I was able to christen two more trail angels.
First, K’Lynn. It was her birthday today! She paused a meeting to say hello, welcomed some other visitors, sold me some new locally made earrings, and arranged a ride for me to Clarno with Max. Thank you SO MUCH K’Lynn!
Then Max. Max drives up in an old Ford pickup the most beautiful color of blue. He retired to Condon a few years ago from bigger cities, and we had lots to talk about on the hour drive to Clarno. We talked books – he knew all the backpacking greats (A Walk in the Woods, Wild), and was a student of regional history, so he will going to email me with a list of suggestions about the area. We talked about the Rashnish (their compound bordered the banks of the river across the way from Spring Basin Wilderness where I will hike today. If you are not sure what I’m referring to, watch Wild Wild West on Netflix.), and other such topics like the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Alaska, and fossils.
I’m so glad I went into Condon. It was such an unexpected perk to the trip. The lesson of a thru-hike is that it sometimes happens to you. You can assert your will about how the trip will go, but ultimately you are not in charge. You have to go with the flow…there are always obstacles: fires, too much snow, injuries, weather…expect change!
After packing up at the nursery (five more days of food, ooofta), I tottled along a short pavement section for a few miles, passing the permit box for Pine Creek Conservation Area, and saying hello to a family from BC who had pulled over to stretch their legs and pick up cool rocks.
I filled up my water at a bridge over Pine Creek and kept thinking about the Ren and Stimpy cartoon I watched in high school. One memorable line goes: “Don’t drink that, you’ll get beaver fever! Beavers do their business in that water!” Beavers do, in fact, do their business in this water… another of my ONDA coworkers for over seven years is JJ, who has been planning and implementing years of restoration work on this very creek. Well, he has been developing projects that would restore the beaver habitat and encourage them to move back into the creek. It was the beavers who would restore the creek. Their dams hold back the water, that water spreads out in the drainage, and it becomes more surface area for trees and vegetation to grow. The pools of water as a result of the dams get deep and remain cool – the kind of coolness that fish need to live. Beaver are indicators of a more resilient landcape ….resilient to drought and fire, those kind of things.
So yes, there might be beaver fever in that water (I believe they mean gardia), but I’ll filter it out. 😉
Ok, my break was also across the way from the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (This section of the route is GREAT!)
From there, I was on an old road grade that climbed at a very chill level up into Spring Basin Wilderness. I took a break with an incredible view and soaked in this very welcome section of the trip. I’ve hiked and camped in Spring Basin about five times before and was excited for the terrain, views, and spring wildflowers. The air smelled sweet with all the blossoms about, and bird song was the soundtrack to the afternoon.
I made an early camp. I didn’t need to go far today, so did some more of that reading and relaxing that I love so much. I guess my style of hiking has mellowed over the years, and I’m here for it.
My eyes closed well before dark. The afternoon of relaxation in the face of the last few days left me in a wet noodle state, and I wasn’t fighting it, but what that meant was I had achieved a full 8 hours of sleep well before sunrise.
So, I made coffee and wrote about yesterday’s excitement. I was ready for a nap by the time I was finished, so I rested a bit more before it was time to prepare for the day.
The water had come up again (15,000 cfs by this point), and the sky had clouded – adhering to the forecast from a few days ago. A windy overcast day on snowmelt is very different from a hot sunny day on snowmelt. I didn’t have warm boating clothes, so my strategy was paddle consistently until I reached the boat ramp at Cottonwood Canyon.
I rounded a bend and saw the BLM rafts in front of me….the crew I met up with yesterday was inventoring the last few campsites of this section, so I made a beeline for them and asked if I could hitch a ride the last few miles to the end.
I think Monica was relieved that I asked, it was a riskier situation to be a tiny boat in the river today, I definitely felt that. The wind had started blowing gustily upstream, something that often doesn’t happen until the afternoon and is an indication that it’s time to get off the water. It’s hard to battle an upstream wind in an inflatable boat with a delicate paddle.
I jumped in the boat with Monica and Austin, Mark was in another raft, and volunteer Kirk was in yet another. (Fun fact: Kirk had originally inventoried the river about 20 years ago when he worked for the BLM….now the crew was doing it again and preparing an updated boater’s guide).
My plan when I got to the boat ramp was to hitch from Cottonwood to Condon, about 20 miles away. The BLM folks were going to Maupin (the other direction), but Kirk was going home to Sisters, so he offered to give me a lift. Brilliant!
I helped the boats unload and then load, and before I knew it, I was in Condon waiting for their burger place to open for lunch. Oh baby!
After I had demolished lunch, I walked over to the historic Condon Hotel and got a room. This is a wonderful hotel, and when I walked in my room to see white everything, I made sure not to transfer my dirty funk all over the place. I promptly took a bath and put on one of the hotel’s robes. (A white hotel ROBE???? I am definitely in a different universe than two days ago!)
I spent the afternoon catching up with friends, family, and the internet. I napped and watched cable. This day was so valuable because I could almost feel my body healing itself. The sore muscles and achy calfs were melting away and leaving the starts of a hiking machine in the wake. I would use all those muscles on the second half of the trip. This was just an unexpected interlude!
Kirk and I made plans to come back to do some of the parts of the route I was now skipping. Scott says the highlight is the North Pole Ridge Wilderness Study Area just south of the Thirtymile boat launch. We will definitely return at some point to check that out. As I was explaining the route challenges to Kirk, I could tell he was perking up…he will happily be my plus one for the skipped sections. He loves this exposed mountian-goat type of scrambling.
So what I haven’t done a lot of so far on this trip is read some of the history that K’Lynn and Brooklynn from the Condon Chamber of Commerce had sent me, so I spent some time with the pages yesterday and read about the John Day Queen I – a 50′ long pleasure craft that was in operation at Clarno from 1892 to 1899 when it was washed downstream in a flood and destroyed. This free-flowing river floods a lot, as it should.
I’m not too worried about getting myself to Clarno (50 miles away) tomorrow, it is a long ways away, but I’m going to do what is in front of me, and now that’s sleep in this wonderfully soft white bed and be grateful.
The next step forward isn’t revealed until you take the next step forward.
Countless times in the past few days I haven’t been able to see more than a step or two in front of me. Whether in the scree, or on the steep grassy slope, with every step forward the next one always appeared. Mostly. There were a few times when I had to back track, like when faced with a 20′ cliff I couldn’t downclimb. I picked my way back and around the obstacle (30′ above the river) to instead push my way through a skin shredding gauntlet of brush, and my path forward was revealed. And I had to WORK for it.
I had a great morning. I psyched myself up with some ra-ra music, enjoyed my coffee and put on my legs (achy and scratched legs….but well rested). I could get stronger as I hiked. Watch me.
The map showed another 3 miles of walking along the river where I would need to tank up. I was due to climb and descend over 1,400′ in 5 miles. I knew I would need a lot of water. That could take me all day (just trying to be realistic). I decided to make it the 3 miles before deciding on my water strategy ahead. One thing at a time. Do what is in front of you.
Some game trails, some walking through a huge grassy flat and behind a boater camp. I kept my distance but waved. Yesterday I would have been offering them money for a cold drink. Today I was good, and was making time!
For a while.
Cliffs and talus.
I made one of those wrong decisions when faced with trying to choose the right game trail to follow, and found myself cliffed out. I walked back and around and see my option is to climb up a 6′ wall. There seem to be plenty of handholds and it’s soild rock, so I start to climb, trying to keep my body (and backpack) close to the wall so the extra weight won’t pull me off. I find myself needing to brace my knees at a certain point, and when I pulled myself up, I had a nice gash where skin moved over pointy rock. I should have worn pants! The blood trickled into the top of my gaiter and I looked ahead and kept going.
It took about 2 hours to hike 2.5 miles and I felt defeated. That next 5 miles up and back down to the river could take all day. I needed as much water as I could carry.
The blood from my backcountry bouldering sesh had dried, and I gave voice to a niggling feeling I hadn’t acknowledged yet.
I have a boat.
I had been seeing boaters by this point. I had been a boater on this stretch multiple times. I couldn’t tell you HOW DIFFERENT the experience was between floating it and hiking it.
I could be that boater now.
I was trying to think realistically about my options:
– If I continued move at an 8-10 mile a day pace (the maps revealed rigorous terrain ahead), and I rationed my food, I would be fine to make it to my resupply in Clarno, but probably wouldn’t have the time to finish the trail in Mitchell.
– If I inflated my boat, I could paddle out to Cottonwood Canyon State Park, hitch to the nearby town of Condon, get a hotel room for the night (!!!), talk to K’Lynn who runs the chamber of commerce who may able to help me get a ride to Clarno the next day, and I keep hiking from there on to catch up with my original schedule.
Was that really a choice?
But it was more than that. I also didn’t want to continue to hike this type of route alone. That slick move I pulled back there on the rock could have gone another way. Scott’s notes about the next section (the one with the 1,400′ of climbing) had some class 3 scrambling – if that was your thing.
I decided it wasn’t my thing, not as a solo hiker at least.
What was in my control?
I text Kirk on the InReach to run my plan by him. He reminds me that I don’t have a life jacket.
So many boats, it’s about 9am by this point and I figure the rafts will start floating by soon. I gather up all my stuff and move to a spot close to the water. I pack up so that I can place my pack in the bottom of the boat and sit on top of it. Pokey things get tucked inside. Thank goodness I decided to line my pack with one of Six Moon Designs’ dry bags. These bags were part of their Flex Pack (packrafting specific backpack…Kirk and I helped with the redesign!). It was light, and it worked a million times better than a trash compactor bag.
I look up from my repack to see a raft! I wave them close and shout my life jacket request. They have one! The boat has to land downstream where the shore is visable, so I grab all my stuff and start walking to meet them.
Karyn and Brenden from Bend. Wooo!
I can’t talk fast enough.
They hand me a life jacket and a few cold drinks. I’m beside myself. The trip did a complete 180 in a matter of minutes. And I am so relieved. I’ll admit, my ability to move efficiently through this rugged terrain had me a little down, but for me this would be something to return to after my legs had come in (usually after about a solid month of thru-hiking).
I make plans to reconnect with Karyn in Bend to return the life jacket.
The trail (river) provides!
I sit down when they pull away and collect myself.
I now have all day to inflate the packraft and make the 23 miles back to the start, or where I want to stop for the night. Actually I see an immense appeal to the proposition. This was how Scott scouted and explored the area when putting this route together…by boat. The brilliance of the juxtaposition had to be experienced in a shorter section hike/float.
I could feel the impact of my decision through my whole body. Once I was sufficiently sure that the packraft wouldn’t sink (its so light!) And the paddle could get me where I wanted to go on the water (crazy light!), I relaxed.
I watched the cliffs float by. Cliffs I couldn’t believe I had hiked over. Canyons I couldn’t believe I had traversed, and hills I couldn’t believe I had climbed.
I ate cheddar pretzel bits and open the Coors Light Karyn had given me. This was bliss.
I came around a corner and saw some boats I recognized from yesterday. I had waived at them from a steep sidehill section above the river. They had seen what I had been doing. I paddle over only to find out it was the BLM River Ranger Monica, who I knew! Monica and her crew were monitoring all the campsites on the river…many had been reclaimed by vegetation. I tried to explain what I was doing…and knew Monica would understand – she is a fellow packrafter and even though we had never paddled together before, I was pretty sure she would get it.
We chat some more and I launch off again. By this point I decided I would make camp soon and float out the next day. I had time and food, so I might as well make the most of this unexpected river trip.
I make camp in the shade of a tree. Snacks, naps, and reading…I love this part!
The last three days have been so all consuming that I can’t remember what I was doing before the trip.
The quiet sunrise didn’t give the secret away: today was going to be HARD.
Instead, I sat blissfully unaware as I drank two cups of coffee and listened to the sounds of the birds waking up and singing their songs.
It’s better not to know anyway.
Was it the terrain? Yes, partially. This was going to be a day of knee shaking descents, a 1,400′ climb in a mile, and picking each step very carefully on narrow game trails above the river.
Was it the heat? Today I remembered what hot was. Radiant heat in the 80’s would reflect off the numerous talus fields to cook me from the inside. I had to take afternoon breaks every hour or so where I would just lie in the shade of a giant ponderosa pine (the trees have started!) and try to calm my racing heart.
Was it me? I was not route ready, that was sure enough. My feet haven’t hardened yet and are feeling the starts of hot spots. Oh yeah. And I’m 45….does that mean anything?
The reality was I could only go as far as I could go. No use moaning that I wanted to make another eight miles today. It is what it is, and I can certainly stretch my food out if it takes longer for me to get to Clarno and my resupply. I can’t seem to put a dent in my food bag, so I’m not too worried about it.
AND the weather is going to cool 15-20 degrees tomorrow with the possibility of a cloud cover on Monday….hiking in 60 degrees is infinitely easier than cook-your-brains-early-summer-sun. So I might be able to make up some time…and Scott says the second half of the hike is easier.
My age and fitness? Nothing I can do about it now, so might as well try to treat myself well and make the time to do what I want to do out here (enjoy the trip), and move forward again tomorrow.
But wait! I didn’t tell you about the first river crossing! I got to the gooseneck about 9am just in time to blow up the boat and have my first break. I had the very light packraft, a tiny usb-powered electric pump, and a carbon paddle that weighed about 3 gummy bears.
The water was trucking, so I put in a short ways upstream of where I wanted to land so I had a better chance of making it to the other side. There was an alternate Scott had drawn out to cross a bit upstream which would save me a lot of climbing another mile or so downriver, but that was a real short ferry, and I didn’t trust myself to make it across in time….no run-out – only cliffs, and if I didn’t make the ferry landing on the other side, I would go backwards.
The river is so wide now, and swift. I decided to wear the backpack and crouch-sit in the boat so I could have one leg free to lurch for land when I got to the other side. You want to look for an eddy or slow water for your landing so that you actually have a chance of getting out of the boat…flood stage waters means the beaches and most cobble-stone benches are gone.
Moment of truth. I’m paddling in the snow-melt (I wonder what the cfs are today with the first 80-degree day?) and the boat is moving. The water is fast, I have to paddle hard at times, but soon I’m across and spreading out on an elusive rocky bench.
Now for the good stuff:
There were some fun features today:
I saw a snake all coiled up in the sun, but it didn’t even move. There were a couple of snake sightings yesterday too, but no rattles to be seen.
My speed of operation this week has been hovering near overdrive, but the promise of meadowlark serenades and long deep days of not talking are on the horizon, and I keep going. All the hustle is a very good and welcome state given that I’m less than two months into my life as a self-employed expert in a very small niche of the world (woohoo!). I’m following my own lead, and that took me to the banks of the John Day River, and I’m so grateful.
Getting to the start of the Columbia Plateau Route at Cottonwood Canyon State Park was aided by my longtime friend Cindy. I drove up to her place in Portland the night before last, and we caught up over tacos and margaritas. In the morning, she drove me to the park, and I was delighted when she ended up hiking in four miles with me… even 1,000′ up the first climb. You rock Cindy! Thanks for your help!
The weather was due to be consistently warm and sunny the next week or so, and the river had already started shedding some of the snow from its upper extremities. It was flooding baby, the question would be how much? I was hopeful that a swollen river wouldn’t affect my plans too much, I had a parkraft for crossing that river, no matter how much extra water was coursing through. The riverside walking though…how would that be impacted?
No matter, it was happening, and I would deal with it when I had to.
Cindy left me high on a rocky outcropping after we enjoyed snacks… or rather I left her….walking away into the tall green grasses. There were flowers! Oh yes! These warm days would be a boon to the blooms, and I had them as my steady companions as I contoured around the fingers and folds of the river basin.
When I was walking high above the water, the wind turbines could be seen along the horizon. When I dipped to the river, it was rimrock and hot, rocky slopes. And brown flood water.
Things got a little spicy when I traversed over pillars of basalt on a scree/grassy game-trail bench 50′ above a roiling eddy of snow melt. I was thankful that I wasn’t too nervous about this kind of exposure. It was an acceptable level, and aided by the fact that Scott had been here before and told me the line goes. I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
At the bottom of the Ruggles Grade I found myself in the land of unusually large sagebrush. The knarled ancients towered over me and I proceed to scratch my knees and thighs real good. Pants would be the better choice here, but I’m a devotee to my purple rain adventure skirt and tall snow gaiters. That left my knees to the mercy of the sun and poky sagebrush, but that’s how I roll.
The dirt roads I’m following out here are really more like hints of dirt roads. The vegetation, though deserty and scrubby, is thick and has done a good job of filling in the grades…all except for the man-made constructed rock berms that lined the tread as it steady climbed or descended a ridgeline. Those were a permanent reminder of industry, even if only until the next rockslide took them out. I was grateful for them. The animals were too. These roads were now wildlife through-fairs, and the plentiful tracks and poop were soild evidence of that.
As this was my first day and I was feeling a bit soft and out of “hiking all day every day shape, ” I took things slowly with the following mantra ticker-tape tracking through my mind:
Go slow to go fast.
This was a hike of intention, and I needed to be intentional with each step on the rocky, remote terrain.
When there were still a few hours of daylight left, I stopped for camp high on a ridge, nestled in a little grove of waist-high sagebrush. It was a good spot…all the cow poop confirmed that.
While my hiker hunger can be minimal on some first days of a hike as my body adjusts to the sudden change from all day computer sitting to all day desert bushwacking, I ate gleefully and with gusto on day one.