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La Grande Observer Paper 08/20/14

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WARM COLORS TAKE CHILL OUT OF LATE-FALL HIKING

Sue Coleman of Lostine and her dog Hershey descend the Bowman Trail. (Photos/ROCHELLE DANIELSON).
Sue Coleman of Lostine and her dog Hershey descend the Bowman Trail. (Photos/ROCHELLE DANIELSON).

- Rochelle Danielson

- For The Observer

Recently a friend asked, "Wanna take a hike to Chimney Lake, and maybe go on to Hobo?"

"Nope," I said. "I'm a fair-weather hiker — only do the mountains when it's warm, you know, the summer months. "

"What you need to do is step outside your box," she quipped. "Late fall is a great time to be out there."

I was taken aback by what I thought for a moment to be a sassy remark, and then realized it was meant not only as a challenge, but as encouragement to grow.

"OK, let's do it."

In the clarity of the late-October morning the Wallowa Mountains seemed to shoot straight up from the Lostine River road. Fall hues melded into the forested landscape like a coat of many colors. Mule deer browsed a hay field, and now and then a squirrel darted across the gravel. A coyote, running through a meadow, stopped abruptly to watch the truck go by.

Ours seemed to be the only vehicle headed toward the Frances Lake-Bowman Creek trails. Also, the parking area, 15 miles up river, was vacant except for a lone truck-trailer unit. Horses and mules were tied to the rig, but there was not a person in sight.

A month earlier this solitary scene would have been nothing but an illusion.

The weatherman had predicted a crisp, fall day, but it had turned off much colder. With the low temps came a northern wind that blew scattered clouds across the sky.

Laden in layers of clothing, and carrying the hope that the storm would blow over, we set out to enjoy a hike, and what change of color remained.

Thick leaves covered the dampened trail in the short walk to the road crossing, and to the bridge. There, the Bowman trail carved a 3.6-mile path to Brownie Basin and the Chimney Lake junction.

I could hear the wind in the trees as we ascended the west side of the mountain.

In each long sweeping switchback the Lostine River looked smaller, and the lower Wallowa Valley loomed larger.

Subtle beauty lay in shaded areas of the trail in a carpet of lemon-yellow tamarack needles, and lime-green alder leaves. Thin sheets of ice cracked under our boots in the shallow pools of trickling streams. Silence amplified the sounds of our labored breathing.

Sue had the steady pace of a seasoned hiker, and paused only briefly to let me catch my breath.

Then, like her chocolate Labrador retriever, Hershey, she was off again.

The hillside behind the Chimney Lake junction looked like a field of faded brush strokes in Venetian red, burnt Siena and yellow ochre.

Three solemn-faced outfitters, astride their mounts and leading a string of pack mules, came into the basin. As we moved off the trail they nodded, and continued toward North Minam Meadows to bring out a hunting party.

With only a little over a mile to Chimney, the sun began to dominate, heightening our spirits.

Just beyond Laverty Lakes, two backpackers, descending the mountain, gave a forewarning, "It's beautiful up there, but brace yourselves for the wind."

The lake, supposedly named after a dark chimney-shaped rock face, could have withstood a little firing up. The wind blew such a gale it turned the lake's surface into a ribbon of icy gray satin, and our cheeks as red as apples.

Still determined to reach Hobo Lake, a mile farther, we hiked on. The trail led into a canopy of firs, and then opened to an exposed traverse above Chimney to the top of the pass.

At the Hobo-Wood Lake junction, visibility was poor due to the swirling snow that danced in the roaring wind. The clouds were back — black and ominous. Frost covered the branches of subalpine fir.

Shivering and shaking, Sue and I read each other's mind. "Forget Hobo. Let's get out of here."

Shelter beneath a giant boulder provided some relief — time enough to grab wool caps and gloves.

Three miles down the trail, and in the protection of the mountainside, our stride slowed. In the late afternoon light we relished the fragrant pines and firs, but the winter-like chill still clung to our bones.

It was after four o'clock when we arrived back at the truck.

Sue, sitting on the truck's passenger side and holding her hands to the heater vent, made mention that all the wildlife must have taken shelter — the deer bedded down beneath the firs, squirrels snuggled in their nests, and the coyote curled up in his den.

"Smart creatures," I muttered, as we sped through evening shadows.

I could hardly wait to follow their lead — to crawl back inside my box and warm up.

 
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