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Lingering snow idles Eagle Cap hikers, horsemen

Hikers looking to venture into the loftier reaches of the Eagle Cap Wilderness will have to exercise patience as they wait for snow to melt. - Observer file photo/ROCHELLE DANIELSON
Hikers looking to venture into the loftier reaches of the Eagle Cap Wilderness will have to exercise patience as they wait for snow to melt. - Observer file photo/ROCHELLE DANIELSON
The Fourth of July will come late for outdoorsmen who backpack or take trips with stock animals in the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area.

Later than any year since perhaps 1949.

The Fourth of July is traditionally the day Old Man Winter’s footprint is considered erased from the Eagle Cap’s trails — when they are finally clear enough of snow to make navigation possible without skis or snowshoes.

Not this year, though — not by a long shot.

Many of the trails are still choked with snow, a remnant of the hard, extended winter Northeast Oregon experienced. A season that, figuratively speaking, ran through June 10, when the region received extensive snowfall.

Snow is now rapidly melting. But at least a month likely remains before some areas will be clear.

“Higher trails on north-facing slopes may not be open until August,’’ said Bill McDowell of La Grande, a member of the Blue Mountain Back Country Riders, formerly known as the Blue Mountain Back Country Horsemen.

McDowell and other outdoorsmen agree that this is the latest trails have been closed by snow in the Eagle Caps in many years. Some people are saying that trails in the Eagle Caps have not been so clogged with snow this late since 1949.

Fred Barstad of Enterprise, the author of many regional hiking books, said that most lakes in the Eagle Cap area are inaccessible because the snow line is at 7,000 feet. Virtually all Eagle Cap lakes are above 7,000 feet.

Conditions are further exasperated by stream flows unusually high for this time of year because of a late snow melt, Bardstad said. Many trails are inaccessible because the streams are impossible to cross.

Taking stock animals across high streams is not a good idea. People taking horses and mules over snow are putting them at risk, McDowell emphasized.

He explained that snow is now hard on top but often soft below because it is being eroded by water. Stock animals can seriously injure themselves by falling through and then struggling to get out of the snow.

Dick Walker of Union, also a member of the Blue Mountain Back Country Riders, agrees that snow poses a significant hazard for stock animals this time of year. People can be deceived because they can easily walk on the snow but their heavier stock animals can’t.

Walker said snow is usually not a problem for stock animals in the late fall and early winter when it is softer and they can easily step through it.

Conditions are also poor for stock animals because there is little for them to eat, McDowell said. Grasses and other vegetation have been slow to appear because of extended winter-like conditions.

Once things green up, snow disappears and stream levels fall, conditions will still be far from ideal. Many trees are blocking trails in the Eagle Cap due to intense windstorms during the fall and winter.

Walker said that in some areas there are 25 downed trees within a 250-foot-long area.

He attributes this in part to “freak wind patterns’’ during storms in recent years.

Walker has mixed feelings about the snow that remains on the trails. While bad for trail use, the snow is providing badly needed moisture.

“It’s good for the environment. It’s recharging the aquifer,’’ he said.

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