Mountains, Oregon, 2005
The word "Oregon" usually connotes coastline, mossy forests, Cascade Mountains, and pervasive dampness. That's one Oregon, but then there's eastern Oregon. Eastern Oregon couldn't be more different. It's the other Oregon: vast and nearly empty --an area larger than New Hampshire and Vermont combined. It's the classic American west; the outback: arid, dusty, rocky, hardscrabble cowboy country. Coyotes, cougars, and rattlesnakes thrive there but dampness cannot: it's quickly extinguished by intense sun and scorching temperatures in the summer, or by invasions of arctic air in the winter.
I spent a week pedaling through northeastern Oregon during late August of 2005. My route looped through the Strawberry Range and the Elkhorn Range --compact, forested ranges with jagged, rocky peaks reaching to eight and nine thousand feet-- and crossed the three divides that separate them. It began and ended in the John Day valley, near its eastern, upper end. The days featured tiny, quiet roads and long climbs through the mountains. The evenings featured quiet campsites with vast views. The tiny, old towns and timber buildings from the early 1900's were great highlights. Most of the route was on paved roads, with one notable exception, and most of it was through National Forest, so camping sites were easily found or improvised.
I used my Cannondale road touring bike, fully laden with a massive cargo of food, clothing, cooking supplies, water filter, camping gear, spare parts, repair tools, and so on. It was my motor home: everything I needed to roam and live self sufficiently. Wherever I stopped to camp, it unfurled my shelter and all manner of comforts. And on the road its speed, quickness, and handling were, well … they were motor home-like. The bike was shod with big, fat 37mm road touring tires.
This report describes each day's ride and, hopefully, provides some useful information for anyone planning a trip through the area. The nice photos … they aren't mine. I swiped them from websites and scanned them from postcards.
Day Zero August 23, 2005
Prairie City, population 1195, is located along the John Day River, near the upper end of its valley. The valley floor is 2~3 miles wide at this point. The Strawberry range, featuring the 9038 foot peak of Strawberry Mountain, towers way over the valley and the town, which is at 3540 ft. elevation, creating a picturesque scene.
This is ranching country. It looks just like the west portrayed in the old cowboy movies. People clomp around town in cowboy boots and cowboy hats. These aren't people trying to look cool. I don't see anyone that looks like a tourist. Well … except for me. There's no cell phone service here.
Day 1 August 24, 2005 Prairie City to Sumpter
Today's route crosses three divides. The ridges are covered with healthy, brush-free forests of Ponderosa Pine, and the valley bottoms are flat, open sage and grassland. Although this area is typically a furnace in the summertime, today the air feels cool and at each of the passes a chilly breeze discouraged stopping and dallying. From the second summit, a system of thunderheads was visible to the northeast. I'm headed in that direction, and tomorrow's route travels through the high Elkhorn Range peaks in that area, so all afternoon I was bothered by the specter of riding and camping in thunder and lightning storms in the days to come.
Rolled into Sumpter at ~3:30pm. Sumpter's population is listed as 171, but it seems larger. The main street is several blocks long, and the residential areas extend a few blocks to one side of it. It's an old gold mining town along the Powder River, at ~4400 ft elevation. Its boomtimes were during the 1890's and very early 1900's. The homes and buildings are old, simple, and well kept up. Most are built from timber, with handsome, unpainted yellow pine board-and-batten siding and barn-tin roofs. A few small stores, restaurants and inns line the main street: down-to-earth places, not boutiques. The merchants seem to be local characters, not urban transplants. Four-wheel ATV's seem to be the vehicle of choice for local errands. Deer stroll through town nonchalantly. You see them everywhere: in people's yards, out in the streets, … Along the riverbank is a long city park with footpaths, shade trees, and a few picnic tables.
And then there's the incredible Sumpter Dredge. This enormous, old, rube goldberg contraption, docked along the river, looks like a floating two-story wood building with all manner of booms, scoops, cranes, cables, smokestacks, projecting every which-way. It looks like something a young kid would build from Lincoln Logs and an erector set. Incredibly, this contraption worked. It "worked the valley" productively for sixteen years or so, gouging huge scoops of material from the river bottom and depositing the tailings in neat uniform rows on the banks. This impressive system of organized rockpiles in repeating patterns is still in place for miles up and down the river. The dredge was retired in 1954. It's been kept in nice condition, and a small visitor center now showcases it.
A local woman suggested that I camp at "The Grounds" -- a grassy expanse owned by the town and used for events like flea markets, snowmobile rallies, and so on. I pedaled over to check it out. "Expect thirty-two degrees tomorrow morning", warned a couple of guys who have been in Sumpter all summer building a cabin. "That's what we had this morning".
The Grounds is a quiet, pretty clearing with nice views of the valley and its ridges. A small building has several quarter-operated showers. An odd, Victorian style wooden building stands by itself way out in the middle of the field. It's odd looking because its height overwhelms its small footprint. It's two stories tall plus a lookout cupola on top, but each story is only a single small room … twelve feet by twelve feet maybe. What in the world is it, and why is it out here in the middle of a field?? I decided I'd camp at The Grounds, but first I'd roll back to the main street to search for a giant hamburger for dinner.
Later that evening, back at The Grounds, I met a retired military officer tending to the grounds while he had his evening beer. He moved to Sumpter two years ago and took on the challenge of reviving the town's water supply system, which had been struggling along at a diminished capacity and causing hardships to its users. It's a vast, gravity feed system that draws water from a spring in a side canyon about five miles up in the hills. An eight inch pipe brings the water all the way down to town, to the storage towers and filters on a nearby hilltop. It became his retirement hobby and he was able to solve the problem and restore normal water supply to the town. He also explained the purpose of the odd building in the field: it was built a few years ago to serve as an announcer's booth for the sled dog races held here in the wintertime.
Day 2 August 25, 2005 Sumpter to Anthony Lake
The road heads up into the canyon alongside the river for a few miles, then begins a stiff 4~5 mile climb to Blue Springs Pass at 5864 ft. When I stopped at the summit, a few dozen hornets converged to investigate me, and I had to quickly get out of there. Hornets are definitely not an endangered species here in the Blue Mountains: they show up immediately, and in large numbers, every time I stop. For some reason this pass is especially thick with them. The yellowjackets swarm around but generally keep a distance of a few inches; it's easy enough to ignore them. But the big, black baldface hornets buzz in a lot closer, close enough that I can feel their wingbeats. They really like to make close investigations of faces, eyes, and ears. None of them bit me, throughout the entire trip, but they rattled my nerves constantly.
A long, gradual descent brought me to the tiny, old quartz mining town of Granite (pop. 24) by lunchtime. At the junction, a pickup truck was parked, and three guys sat alongside it relaxing on folding chairs. A small trailer was packed with camping gear. They had just arrived from Wisconsin, a dad and his two young adult sons. They're hunters, here for bow season, which will start Saturday. Each year they take a 2-week hunting trip, and this is their first visit to the western states. Two nights ago, at home, they were getting things organized and packed, preparing for an early departure the next morning. By the time they got everything in order, it was late night but they were too excited to go to sleep, so they piled into the truck, started driving, and didn't stop 'til they got here. It was a 32 hour trip. Now they're kicked back, having a ball, fantasizing about getting an elk, and waiting for Saturday to arrive. Before I rolled away, I pointed to my bright blue jersey and said "If you see an elk that's this color, hold your fire". "Don't worry", they yelled back. "When we shoot, we never hit anything".
In the little general store I ordered a sandwich. A ranger was there doing the same. He's a retired policeman from Boise, now working for the Forest Service during the hunting seasons and living "off the grid" with his wife in Dale, a tiny town about 40 miles from here. Dale is not far from Ritter, and Ritter is where I plan to camp tomorrow night. I asked him some questions about that area, which is teeming with rattlesnakes and mountain lions. He tried to stop me from worrying, but his replies weren't convincing.
About mountain lions:
I decided that if I rode to Ritter and camped there I'd probably survive, but I'd be so jittery I wouldn't enjoy my stay.
A small creek --Bull Run Creek-- runs through this area and, incredibly, native salmon live in it. It seems incredible because we're in such high, arid country, 300 river miles from the ocean. Said the ranger: "If you go about four miles down that dirt road over there, you'll come to a bridge and if you look into the pool down below, you'll see three or four big ones just hanging out. They're here already, just waiting to spawn in the fall." As we talked, a swarm of hornets besieged the front end of his truck, feasting on the dead insects splattered on the grille and bumper.
From Granite, the route climbs for a few miles, then descends and crosses the North Fork of the John Day River. From there it's a 17 mile, ~2000 foot climb up to the pass, up amongst the high jagged peaks of the Elkhorn Range. I'll look for a place to camp when I reach the Anthony Lakes area up near Elkhorn Summit at 7392 ft.
Anthony Lake is a small, shallow, very pretty alpine lake surrounded by rugged, rocky peaks. The campground is small and quiet. While I was perusing it, I stopped and talked with two guys who were unloading an incredible amount of camping gear from their pickup truck. They planned to haul it into the woods to set up their elk camp, from which they'll hunt for ten days. Opening day is still two days away. They've been coming here for thirty-six years now.
Several very nice campsites are scattered around the lake, but I decided not to camp there, preferring to search out a site that would get early morning sun. I filled all my water containers at the campground, then backtracked 2~3 miles along the road, back up to the pass area.
Found a nice, exposed clearing on a grassy shoulder way up above the road, and bushwhacked up to it, shoving and heaving the bike. Cooked a can of split pea stew for dinner, then bundled up as the sun disappeared and the temperature dropped. There's a fantastic view to the east and north. To the south, the highest ridgetops of this mountain are visible, reaching to eight and nine thousand feet. About a mile away, a short segment of the road is visible, snaking along the mountainside. Every so often I can see a car making its way along there, just a tiny spec with the sound of its hard working engine barely audible. I opted to sleep without a tent, since I'm on a dry, breezy ridge where mosquitoes seem unlikely.
Day 3: Friday, August 26, 2005 Elkhorn Summit to Sumpter by
way of Baker Valley
Cooked breakfast and was packed up by 9:40am. Schlepped the loaded bike down the hillside to the road. It was nearly impossible to lift that heavy monster over a couple of big, downed logs along the way. Yesterday I decided not to ride to Ritter, so today I'll embark on a revised route. I'll pedal a couple of miles back up to the summit, then descend from these mountains to the floor of the Baker Valley, notorious for furnace-like summer conditions.
Wow, what a looonng descent! 3500 vertical feet, and about 10~12 intense miles. Rolled into Haines, a down-to-earth, pretty little town (pop. 440) on the valley floor, with the Elkhorn Range forming a dramatic backdrop to the west. Most of the buildings along the main street are made from heavy timbers and plank siding, or from granite blocks. They're old and have aged nicely. A railroad runs alongside the main street, and vast ranchlands extend from the edges of town.
Continued on to Baker City, ten flat miles to the south. Here I encountered something rarely seen in eastern Oregon: a stoplight. Baker City's population is 9870, and it feels like a major metropolis. The downtown is composed of tall, handsome, well-maintained old buildings made of granite or brick, most having some ornate stone trim along their tops.
Rolled out of town after lunch, with the air temperature at 87 degrees F. This is freakishly cool weather, and I'm fortunate to have such comfortable conditions. This afternoon I'll pedal to Sumpter, where I began this loop yesterday morning, and I'll camp there. It's 29 miles away.
The route heads south as the Baker Valley narrows and transitions to a low gorge containing the beautiful Powder River. The road winds along with rugged, rocky walls on one side and the clear, icy-looking river on the other. At ~4000 ft elevation, the grass and brushlands transition to Ponderosa pine forest. At the Philips Lake impoundment, the terrain opens up again for the remainder of the ride into Sumpter.
I was surprised when a cyclist appeared from behind. Cycling isn't a mainstream activity around here and she's only the third one I've seen in three days. She's a biochemistry professor (Brenda Bass) at the University of Utah, studying a protein that somehow gets involved and helps as RNA copies information from the most complex areas of the DNA … or something like that. It sounded pretty interesting but I could tell she was getting exasperated trying to explain it to a layman. We yakked for a long time as we pedaled through the wind toward Sumpter, where my ride ended. She continued on; her agenda was to ride a few more miles up the canyon, U-turn, then try to get back to Baker City before dark. She's driving from Salt Lake City to Leavenworth, Washington, and she's trying to squeeze this bike ride in at the end of her first day of driving.
After a day of riding, Sumpter is a paradise. I walked into the general store and bought a bottle of beer, and drank it on the porch. Yakked with a few fun, interesting locals. Pedaled fifty yards or so to a restaurant, flopped into a booth, and wolfed down a huge hamburger, a big pile of fries, and a milkshake. Then the cook came out from the kitchen to my booth. "Here, have this... I made too much", he said, handing me the big steel mixing cup from the milkshake machine, still about half full.
Three minutes on the bike brought me back to the Grounds. It was evening and deer were everywhere in town, strolling through the neighborhoods and eating in the yards.
Showered, set up camp. Talked with the retired major who I'd met here two days ago. To keep the grass alive through the summers, he has several thick, heavy fire hoses, each fifty yards long or so, that he lays out across the field. These are fitted with industrial strength sprinklers that shoot jets of water in long rotating arcs. Each hose probably weighs several hundred pounds. Every day or so he has to rearrange their layout, hauling them manually from one location to the next.
The setting sun creates nice views of the forested ridges bordering this valley. It's not getting very chilly this evening, so I won't use a tent tonight. And I'll get a big dose of sun early tomorrow morning.
Day 4: Saturday, August 27, 2005 Sumpter to Dixie Summit
Today I'll head back toward Prairie City, which will put me in position to do a two-day ride around the Strawberry Range starting tomorrow. I'm not sure where I'll camp tonight: along the upper Middle Fork of the John Day River, or at a campground near Dixie Summit, where a Forest Service campground is rumored to have drinking water.
The first climb, about four miles long to Larch Summit, exits the Powder River watershed. The descent enters the large adjacent valley through which the North Fork of the Burnt River flows. It's more of a creek than a river this year, but it forms a classic western scene, cutting a twisting channel through the flat grassy floor of the valley, which is a half-mile or so wide. Ponderosa pine forests cover the ridges, with small clusters of Aspens appearing from time to time.
The old lumber town of Whitney was once the focal point of this valley, from which stagecoach routes and railroad lines radiated in several directions. Now it's a ghost town, a cluster of dilapidated wooden buildings down a dirt spur road. A few of the homes look like they're still in use.
The next climb reaches Tipton pass at 5124 ft. The road is actually flat for a mile or so as it crosses this broad saddle. The descent enters another wide valley, this one containing the Middle Fork of the John Day River. I stopped at the general store at Austin Junction to get a sandwich, which I ate amidst a swarm of hornets. Then I backtracked about a mile to the river, turned onto the Middle Fork Road, and began pedaling downriver to look for a campsite. It was still early afternoon so it wasn't urgent.
This is a very flat, very quiet valley. Rocky outcrops jut from the ridgetops. At one point, I had to stop because about thirty cattle were standing in the road. They evaluated me, then organized themselves and started running down the road. I was able to resume pedaling but they consumed the entire width of the road and I couldn't pass. So I stayed "off the back" of their slow moving peloton until they finally veered off the road.
This is open range country, and on several other occasions during the week I was stopped by cattle on the road. Sometimes they yielded the road, and sometimes they didn't. When they didn't, I'd have to slowly walk or pedal through the group. That always got my heart pounding --worrying about those massive creatures becoming spooked and doing something crazy. It was always a great relief to get safely past them.
At a campground along the river, I stopped to check out the campsites. While I was talking with one of the guys staying there, he started tossing sticks into the river for his dog to fetch. After a few retrieves, we continued yakking while the dog explored the river. The next time we glanced toward him, he was rolling around gleefully on a big, dead, bloated salmon.
I continued along the Middle Fork Road, but after about ten miles I decided to turn back and look elsewhere for a place to camp. There were plenty of nice places to camp along the river, but camping in grazing territory didn't appeal to me. I decided to climb up to Dixie Pass, fifteen miles or so from here, and camp there. There's a Forest Service campground that should have water, and camping there would leave me well positioned for tomorrow's itinerary.
From this direction, the ~1000 ft. climb to Dixie pass has a moderate grade. The campground was nice and was sparsely populated. I stopped at one of the occupied sites and asked the couple whether they knew where the drinking water spigot was, and they replied that it was shut off and locked. Apparently the water had tested bad. But they said they had a big surplus, and they filled all my water bottles plus my collapsible 2-gallon jug. That's plenty of water to cook dinner and tomorrow's breakfast. This couple was returning from a two-week trip to Montana. They're retired, and "raising a few cattle and other critters" in Alfalfa, Oregon, a hundred miles or so west of here.
With 2-gallons of water in a musette slung over my shoulder, I pedaled along the gravel road that twisted and climbed through the campground. At a fork, an old wooden sign pointed up a rocky dirt road and said "Fire Tower". Ahah! That might be a great place to camp tonight! That road went on and on, becoming rougher and rockier, and climbing all the while. This was a heck of a lot more work than I was expecting. After nearly a thousand vertical feet of climbing, the road flattened for a while, then began to descend. Where the heck is the fire tower … this descent can't possibly lead to it?! A fork in the road offered an option to keep climbing, so I chose it, but it was like a jeep trail: way too rough and way too steep for my loaded touring bike and its worn out motor. So I collapsed and gave up after a hundred yards or so.
Fortunately, though, a nice clearing was nearby, with huge views to the north: an excellent place to camp and an ample reward for my suffering. A couple of old hunting camps were nearby; they looked like they haven't been used in recent years. I scouted around on foot, but never could figure out where a fire tower could possibly be. It's shown on the DeLorme map but I can't see one on any of the peaks or ridgetops. And the only maintained gravel road near here leads downward.
Cooked a couple cans of stew and watched the setting sun light up all the nearby ridges and the big valleys and ranges extending forever to the north. The local hornet community turned out in great numbers to provide company. No mosquitoes here, so I didn't bother setting up a tent.
Day Five: Sunday, August 28, 2005 Dixie Summit to Canyon Creek.
Today I'll ride down into Prairie City, then begin a 2-day loop into and around the Strawberry Range, an impressive looking range to the south, whose centerpiece is the jagged 9038 foot peak of Strawberry Mountain. First I'll need to survive the steep, rough descent back down off this mountainside to Dixie Summit and the pavement.
Yesterday evening, when I climbed these gravel roads from Dixie Summit up to my camp, I didn't notice how long it took, but it must have been quite a long time because the descent this morning took thirty minutes. You wouldn't think a loaded touring bike could survive the beating dealt out by a steep, rutted rocky road like this, but the bike was surprisingly easy to control. The big, fat 37mm road tires were able to absorb all the rough treatment.
From Dixie Summit, it's an easy ten mile descent into Prairie City. I bought food for the next two days, and took a quick shower at the campground in town. What a fantastic luxury. By 10:30am I was rolling out of town toward the canyon that leads into the eastern area of the Strawberry Mountain range. The John Day River, on my left, flows back toward town, cutting a shallow meandering channel through the flat ranchlands on the floor of the valley.
Twelve miles or so from town, the width of the valley floor, which has been steadily narrowing, has diminished to nothing. It's now a nice, forested canyon and the river is now looking like a mountain trout stream. These are the headwaters of the vast John Day River system; they will meander and tumble through two hundred miles or so of arid territory and eventually reach the Columbia River just east of The Dalles. The forest here is made up mainly of firs. Until today, all I've seen (at similar elevations) have been Ponderosa pine forests, back in the Elkhorn range.
Fifteen miles from town --and about 1500 feet above it-- is the very pretty Forest Service campground named Trout Farm. Spring water gushes from a pipe in the ground, and an interesting pavilion has been built from massive logs and long, hand hewn roof shakes.
Beyond the campground, the road gets a little steeper, and it's a relief to finally reach the broad summit at 5898 ft. a few miles later. The river is way down to the right somewhere ... probably just a spring running down from a small canyon. It's a perfectly clear summer day, but the breeze is chilly and the wind sounds like a winter storm up in the trees.
The road descends a few miles to Summit Prairie, a small, grassy valley where a dozen or so cattle are grazing and bellowing about something, maybe complaining about all the wind. The valley is a mile or so wide and appears to be completely surrounded by ridges, but the road snakes through a cleft in one of them and drops into the tiny canyon of Summit Creek, which drains the Summit Prairie. This trickle will eventually find its way to the Malheur River and then into the Snake River along the Idaho border.
The road descends to the west along the creek, then parts with it and climbs over a ridge into the broad, arid, Logan Valley. Wind and scrub brush are its main features. The 8000~9000 foot peaks of the Strawberry range are visible a few miles off, forming the northern boundary of this valley. Although they abruptly jut ~4000 feet up from this valley floor, this view from the south is less dramatic than the view from the John Day valley on their opposite side.
The road climbs the ridge at the western edge of the valley, then begins a descent into the box end of the Bear Valley. About 12 miles down this valley is the tiny town of Seneca, notorious as the coldest place in Oregon. Fifty-four degrees F below zero is its record; twenty degrees colder than the all-time record low for Minneapolis. Riding through this area in the fall or spring could bring some rude surprises: on September 14, 1970 it was six degrees F here; and on the first day of spring in 1952 it was 11 degrees below zero F (March 22nd).
My route bypasses Seneca, though, and climbs right out of the Bear Valley on Forest Road 15, which then plunges into an adjacent, narrow canyon for one or two steep, twisting, very fun miles. Beyond that, the road gradually descends alongside Canyon Creek at the bottom of its canyon. Tomorrow I'll follow this creek almost all the way down to its confluence with the John Day River. As for today, I'm ready to stop at the first nice looking campground.
Within a few miles, the Wickiup Campground appears, and it will do just fine. Only a few of its 10~15 sites are occupied. Canyon Creek runs through it.
Cooked a couple cans of stew. Decided to use the tent, since the area looked like mosquito habitat. Thinking about mosquitoes made me realize that I hadn't seen a single hornet since entering the Strawberry Mountains this morning. What an abrupt change from the first four days.
Tomorrow will be the last day of this trip: a low mileage day with not much climbing. From this camp I'll descend to Canyon City, then make my way down to the John Day Valley, then pedal the final ten miles or so into Prairie City where my car is parked.
Day 6: Monday, August 29, 2005 Wickiup Campground to Prairie
By 7:50am I had cooked breakfast, eaten, packed, loaded the bike, and was rolling. Whew … no rain yet. The temperature was fifty-five degrees F, and I rode in my jacket and tights for the first time on the trip.
Along the side of the canyon, the entrances to some old mineshafts are still visible, framed by heavy timbers and rocks. Rolled into Canyon City at 9AM; no rain yet but it was still chilly, blustery, and gray. The ridgetops along the sides of the canyon were socked in by the low, dark clouds. The homes and buildings here are built from granite, timber, and logs. They're old but most are well maintained, handsome, and still in use. Some incredible old mining equipment can be seen scattered around town. Some of these are absolutely amazing mechanical contraptions: bewildering systems of gears, levers, waterwheels, plumbing … usually made from heavy iron. Many of these gizmos look like they were sized to be (marginally) portable, and were probably hauled from claim to claim by horses or mules. It must have been impressive to see these "labor-saving devices" in operation.
Canyon Creek continues through town and down its canyon for about two more miles to join the John Day River at the town of John Day. But I'll take a route that heads east from Canyon City. This road, unnamed on my maps, climbs steeply from town for a mile or so, then contours along the south wall of the John Day valley, several hundred feet above the river. This gives a great view of the lay-of-the-land: an interesting system of buttes, side canyons, the river, its main flood plain, and some higher terraces. The weather is starting to look upbeat now: the sky is still gray but the ominous, low black clouds are staying at bay up in the hills and a feeble shaft of sunlight breaks through the overcast from time to time.
Dog Creek Road brings me down to the floor of the valley, where a road sign says the elevation is 3083 ft. It's 10AM now and sixty degrees F. From here it's a ten mile ride up the valley to Prairie City, at 3540 ft. I rolled in at 10:40am, un-rained upon. The trip is over.
Calm prevails here, but it's not an idle calm. There's a lot of hard work to be done, and people are out wrassling with it. There's obviously a flow of visitors through this area, but it's low-volume and of the no-nonsense variety, so the towns haven't become dependent on easy money. The towns are still centers of local, indigenous, productive commerce; they haven't transformed into playgrounds for tourists and haven't sprouted many boutiques, B&B's, upscale restaurants, or other businesses based on frivolous spending. People here are hard at work, but not frantic.
I had a lot of fun conversations during the week. Nearly everyone regarded bicycle touring as lunacy --a masochistic way to spend a vacation. Why would anyone self-inflict this sort of torture: pedaling a heavy bike all day, sleeping outdoors on the ground at night, hardship after hardship, day after day. Really, though, it's very relaxing, with a very simple agenda each day.
To contact Jeff