Wallowa Lake’s east moraine deserves protection

By Jeff Petersen, The Observer September 06, 2013 12:13 pm

Imagine Coney Island on the Wallowa Lake east moraine. Disneyland. Six Flags waving on the horizon line.


It’s not hard if you try.

If Wallowa Lake were in North Dakota, it would be a national park. And the unspoiled east moraine, now held in private hands, would be protected for posterity.

The pristine lake in Oregon’s northeast corner has development along the west moraine. Mountain cabins line the shore, and residents and weekend visitors alike enjoy the majestic scenery and endless recreational opportunities. 

Unlike many lakes in America, however, the east moraine remains unspoiled. It is a geological wonderland worth preserving, and the Wallowa Land Trust and partners are jonesing to do just that.

Most places, such as where I lived in Minnesota, land of 14,000 lakes, 10,000 of which the modest residents claim on their license plates, are not so lucky.

When I moved to my dream home, a log cabin in the woods, as I went about my weekend chores, I heard what sounded like a NASCAR race in the distance. The sound had begun not long after sunrise and continued to not long before sundown. I followed the sound to investigate and found a lake one-half mile away completely surrounded by cabins, some modest, some fit for plantation owners. The noise was coming from motorboats constantly stirring the waters.

On a recent weekend, Wonder Woman, my wife of two years, and I had the privilege of joining the final Into the Wallowas outing of the year for a hike up the east moraine. The hike was led by Whitman College geology professor Ellen Morris Bishop, the author of “Hiking Oregon’s Geology,”  “In Search of Ancient Oregon” and “Best Hikes with Dogs.”

The hike was a doozy. The view dramatic. Even with forest fires burning nearby, the sky hazy, we had just walked into a calendar shot.

The east moraine, Morris Bishop said, is the best example of a lateral moraine not just in Wallowa County, Oregon or the United States but in the world.

Being seismically unstable, it is not particularly suited for trophy houses or resorts, she said. It is suited for the education and enjoyment of future generations who will have fewer and fewer unspoiled lakeshores to witness.

As I stood there, far above the roar of cars on the road to the state park and of boats plying the lake, I imagined what it would be like if the preservation goal is accomplished. Imagine a hiking trail starting from the boat ramp on the north end of the lake. The trail would climb the terminal moraine and then lead to the lateral moraine. Imagine the views of Mount Howard, Mount Bonneville and Mount Joseph unfolding in dazzling splendor.

Interpretive signs could be installed to explain the geology of not only the moraines but also the lake, the Eagle Caps and the Wallowa Valley.

The hike is not for the faint of heart. As a person climbs, he becomes more and more interested in stopping to examine things not previously fascinating, such as lichen-encrusted rock or the flight of the grasshopper.

The thin air, nearly a mile above sea level, taxes the lungs, but this is not a place for one of those spectacular national park roads. Not everywhere needs to be reached with motor vehicles and RVs.

Wallowa Lake already offers a plethora of fun for boaters, campers, anglers, horse and gondola riders, go-cart racers and mini golfers.

The east moraine of the Wallowa Lake is an Oregon treasure. Like the beaches before it, the farm and the forest land, it deserves protection from development.

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