Abundance of beauty

Written by Jayson Jacoby, WesCom News Service July 04, 2014 08:38 am

Baker City Herald Editor Jayson Jacoby and his son, Max, 3, hike through one of the many meadows along the Crane Creek Trail in the North Fork John Day Wilderness. (LISA BRITTON for The Observer)
Baker City Herald Editor Jayson Jacoby and his son, Max, 3, hike through one of the many meadows along the Crane Creek Trail in the North Fork John Day Wilderness. (LISA BRITTON for The Observer)

Hiking along Umatilla’s Crane Creek gives glimpses of diverse fauna, wildlife

The elk weren’t quite the accommodating photo subjects that zoo animals usually are.

But for wildlife — and wildlife that live in a wilderness area, no less — the elk were pretty patient.

The herd of about 20 — one bull still in velvet, and an assortment of cows and calves, the latter still sporting the white spots of newborns — were gobbling the lush, late spring grass beside Crane Creek when we came tromping along the creek’s namesake trail less than half a mile from the trailhead.

One of the cows raised her head and glanced at us with that somehow haughty expression unique to a big game animal that knows hunting season is still weeks away.

Then, maybe half a minute later, the whole bunch galumphed off into the lodgepoles, the cows communicating to their calves in the distinctive squeak that is one of the species’ trademarks.

 I can’t promise that the residents of the North Fork John Day Wilderness will always be so nonchalant in the presence of hikers.

But there are few better places to look for elk during summer than this section of the wilderness that’s managed by the Umatilla National Forest.

And even if the megafauna don’t reveal themselves, there’s much else to recommend either a short, easy stroll beside Crane Creek, or a longer and more arduous trek through the northeast corner of this 122,000-acre wilderness.

The creek, naturally, ranks high among the attributes.

Crane Creek, which begins at a spring on the northwest shoulder of Mount Ireland, is one of the major tributaries of the North Fork.

The stream flows west, crossing the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway at the mile-wide meadows known as Crane Flats, about six miles north of Granite.

It is a classic mountain stream — water so clear you can easily see the bottom even in the five-foot-deep pools, and so cold that your feet ache the instant you step in.

Which you probably will do, unless you’re only out for a short hike.

Water is abundant in the North Fork John Day Wilderness, but bridges rather less so.

The trail fords Crane Creek twice, plus hikers have to splash across two other substantial tributaries before reaching the North Fork itself.

I’d suggest bringing an old pair of sneakers or perhaps flip-flops to facilitate these crossings without soaking your hiking boots.

The first of the fords is about two miles from the Crane Creek trailhead, or roughly halfway to the North Fork.

This makes for a hike well-suited even for kids. Both the round-trip distance — four miles — and the grade — an elevation change of about 300 feet — are modest.

Remember, though, that you’ll be following the creek downstream, so most of the climbing happens on the way back to the trailhead.

The topography and the scenery change after the first ford.

Up till then the trail meanders through finger meadows and an occasional patch of lodgepole, Engelmann spruce or, more rarely, ponderosa pine and tamarack.

The tread is obscured by the knee-high grass in a few places but the route, marked by the hoofprints of elk as well as horses, never disappears.

Wildflowers are plentiful, and likely will remain so for another month or so even at this relatively low elevation — about 5,500 feet at the trailhead.

For the full story, see Friday's issue of The Observer