November 14, 2002 11:00 pm

By Mark Highberger

For The Observer

As its waters flow from the Rockies to the Columbia, the Snake River changes both its face and its job many times. From alpine stream to desert canal, from canyon carver to flaccid reservoir, the Snake slides and curls its way through the West, entering Oregon as a watering trough for high desert farms, and leaving it as a roiling runaway from Hells Canyon dams.

The roughest stretch of water, some of the old rivermen claimed, flowed between Farewell Bend and Lewiston, Idaho; now the dams make a long section of that run one of the tamest. Even so, a journey along the Snake River Road offers one of the longest and closest views of the river you can get by car.

"The drive along the Snake from Richland to Huntington offers some beautiful geology and geography," says a woman who lives near the road and knows the country. "It's fun, too, to imagine living out there in the old, pre-highway days."

Fun to imagine but tough to do, for this is raw, rugged country built from steep rock and deep water. The best view along the road's 42 miles begins just outside the town of Richland in Baker County. From here the road heads south through Eagle Valley and up toward the flat-topped hills bordering Eagle Creek and leading to the Snake.

Three miles from Richland the pavement ends, and from near the summit you can look down into the creased bottoms of hills rolling brown and gold with grass and sage and wildflowers. In the distance are the green sparkle of Eagle Valley and the white caps of the Wallowa Mountains.

Just up the road lies the Richland Overlook, which gives you a striking view of the river, its banks etched with high water marks like the rings circling a bathtub. But even if the water here is calmed into a gray-green reservoir by Brownlee Dam, the canyon is still untamed—deep-cut and far-reaching, its walls folded into draws and buckled beneath ridges.

Down and across one of those slopes cuts the road, and you'd better have good brakes for the drop to the river's edge, which you reach 10 miles from the end of the pavement. Once off the rim, you may find the drama of the canyon diminished, for the river seems to crawl instead of flow, though it still pushes enough current to gouge the banks and scar its flanks.

The next five miles upstream takes you through a monochromatic land of brown, the air carrying the scents of dusty alkali and still water, the scenery seeming to sag along — the power lines over the road, the road along the river, the river through its canyon. Then when the river bed widens, its water forms into a long lake with a serpentine shoreline holding campgrounds, cabins, and boat launches.

In spite of the development, you'll once again find the wild mixing with the tame: Sipping from hillside springs are sumac and locusts, Russian olives and cottonwoods; swooping along the slopes are chukars, doves and kestrels. Still, from this point on lies a section of the road that people can't seem to agree on.

"It's not nearly as wild down here," says a woman driving the road. "The people who camp here must like it open, barren and hot — though the ground would be soft beneath a sleeping bag."

"Looks like the place where old trailers go to die," says a man stopped along the road and gazing over the trailer-cluttered slope leading to the river.

But others have a positive — and practical — view of this part of the Snake. "I always envied those rugged, adventuresome homesteading women," says a woman who lives in Richland. "But no doubt it had some downsides along with the mystic. For instance, some of those cranky old husbands must have been like broncos with a burr under their saddle when they ran short of booze."

No matter how people react to it, the Bureau of Land Management thinks this road is important enough to list it as part of its National Back Country Byways program. One of its attractions, says the BLM, is that you can "wet your line in one of the best warm water fisheries in the West." Those fish can include bluegill, crappie and perch — but this part of the Snake is catfish country.

Because they enjoy a typical year-round season with no catch limits, many catfishers visit the slackwater Snake during all four seasons. You can recognize them by their traditional equipment. For sitting they pack along lawn chairs and rod holders; for fishing, spark plugs for weight and chicken livers or night crawlers for bait. Although it's enough to make some flyfishing purists wince, catfishing has it share of staunch devotees.

"There's nothing better than fresh catfish cooked outdoors over an open fire," says a woman who fishes the Snake. "But you can't be in a hurry. You plunk your bait out there and wait, and you never know what's going to be on the end of the line when you reel it in. That's what makes it fun."

Some think it's so much fun that the downstream town of Huntington — the other end of the Snake River Road — bills itself as "The Catfishing Capital of Oregon." In addition, a few years ago a petition circulating in Huntington businesses argued that the river's catfish would be threatened if the government went ahead with plans to restore the Snake's salmon.

Maybe the river can never be again what it was in the time of the salmon, in the days before the dams rose and the river slowed. But a leisurely drive along its banks can still show you signs of the Snake now sleeping beneath its own still waters.