Big mountains beckon us.
We are entranced by their sheer scale, making even the largest man-made constructions seem the puny playthings of a child.
Climbers scan the ridges and faces and plot potential routes to the summit, imagining the moves they’ll make and contemplating the complement of carabiners they’ll need.
Photographers ponder the time of day that would bathe the slopes in the perfect light.
Painters strive to preserve on canvas the magnificence of a peak in winter, its white point piercing the pale blue sky.
Big mountains are aloof.
They are inscrutable.
Like the ocean abyssals they are places we visit, and then only briefly. Most mountains are uninhabited — indeed, often all but uninhabitable — and they are occupied by humans so infrequently that they might well be considered a sort of hybrid between the terrestrial and the extraterrestrial.
But mountains, as with most things, span a wide range of sizes.
And I realized just recently how much the allure of great mountains had diminished my appreciation for ones less lofty.
It happens that from my yard in Baker City I can see two prominent ranges.
The whole of the northeast horizon is dominated by the Wallowas.
These mountains are not so well-known as the Cascades. This is not surprising. The Cascades extend for several hundred miles while the Wallowas at their broadest span perhaps 45 miles. The Cascades also lie much nearer to metropolitan areas, including Portland and Seattle. The Wallowas dominate a sparsely populated part of Oregon, visible on a fine day to the thousands rather than to the millions.
The volcanoes that crown the Cascade crest have a solitary splendor, soaring many thousands of feet above the nearby terrain and thus dominating the views for dozens of miles around. The Wallowas, mostly the product of stony accretions and subterranean magmatic intrusions rather than frothing, fiery eruptions, are quite different, a rather jumbled collection of canyons and divides with few individual summits rising much more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding land.
And yet, no range in Oregon can rival the Wallowas for sheer extent of elevated ground.
Of Oregon’s 29 mountains that top 9,000 feet, 17 are in the Wallowas. The Cascades boast a mere nine, albeit a roster that includes such famed peaks as Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest at 11,235, and the Three Sisters near Bend (each sibling surpasses 10,000 feet).
Among Oregon’s three 9,000-foot peaks that are in neither the Wallowas nor the Cascades, one is also visible from parts of Baker City (but, alas, not quite from my yard, which lies a bit too far south and west). That’s Rock Creek Butte, at 9,106 feet the apex of the Elkhorn Mountains, a range that much resembles the Wallowas, both in its scenery and its goulash of a geologic history.
(The two other 9,000-footers are Steens Mountain in Harney County, and Strawberry Mountain south of Prairie City.)
I have over the decades developed a considerable affinity for both the Wallowas and the Elkhorns.
I have hiked their trails and driven their roads and relished their wares in all seasons, from the shimmering heat of an alpine rockslide in August to the frigid white silence of January. My familiarity has bred not contempt but an ever-increasing fascination. I never fail to appreciate my good fortune at living so near to such grand mountains.
But my affection for the Wallowas and the Elkhorns also has constricted my views, in a psychological rather than a physical sense.
I came to understand this summer, from a confluence of factors, that I have dismissed other nearby mountains as less deserving of my attention solely because they lack the imposing precipices of the Wallowas and the Elkhorns.
The main thing is that late last summer we bought a pop up trailer.
And once the weather turned warm we naturally started looking for places to park the thing other than in our driveway, which is a pleasant place but is not, strictly speaking, a campsite.
Although there are plenty of spots to haul a trailer in the Elkhorns and the Wallowas, lingering snow — and the incipient infestation of mosquitoes — prompted us to head west, beyond the Elkhorns, to the section of the Blue Mountains where the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests meet.
I’ve come to think of this area as the North Fork John Day, for the river that drains most of the region.
This is mountainous country, to be sure. But the mountains are of a decidedly different sort from the Wallowas and the Elkhorns. There are no great peaks, their shapes sculpted by ancient glaciers into craggy ramparts and U-shaped valleys.
Most summits in the North Fork country barely exceed 6,000 feet — scarcely midslope in the Elkhorns and the Wallowas.
And almost everywhere in the North Fork region the steepness of the terrain, which in places is considerable, is softened — camouflaged, as it were — by the cloak of dense forest. The effect is comparable to a loosely fitting garment obscuring the chiseled biceps of a bodybuilder.
But after spending several weekends exploring these mountains I’ve come to appreciate them for their own attributes.
Most notably is the sense of isolation.
It is, I think, the gentle topography of the North Fork country — gentle compared with the Wallowas and Elkhorns, anyway — that makes it feel so wild.
We humans are, of course, terrifically tiny compared to the world around us. We need only to lean against the bole of an old-growth ponderosa pine to realize how insignificant our stature. And against a mountain we are little more than a grain of quartz on a beach.
But in a curious way, it seems to me, the nature of the Elkhorns and the Wallowas diminishes this effect, albeit slightly.
Most trails in those ranges at times follow ridgecrests or cross passes — high, exposed spots with few trees to impede the view. I feel small when I stand in such places, to be sure. But I can also survey the terrain, and this topographic perspective gives me a sense of security, a confidence that I can master the terrain no matter how expansive it is because I can actually see the ground I intend to navigate across.
By contrast, the forests of the North Fork country, combined with the scarcity of lofty vantage points, deny hikers this advantage.
At the most basic level I feel, while hiking in those mountains, that I am surrounded by wildlands and that I can’t get above them and get my bearings.
The sensation was particularly palpable last weekend when we hauled our trailer to the Winom Creek campground, about midway between Granite and Ukiah near the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway.
On Saturday afternoon we hiked the North Winom trail, and the following morning — for the sake of directional variety — we opted for the South Winom trail.
Both paths follow the namesake stream, a tributary of the North Fork John Day. And both are in a section of the North Fork John Day Wilderness through which the Tower fire swept in August 1996.
That fire, sparked by lightning on Aug. 13, mainly smoldered for almost two weeks, until the combination of hot temperatures, low humidity and a brisk wind whipped the blaze into an inferno. Flames spread through the canopies of trees, some of them older than a century, on about 20,000 acres in a 24-hour period spanning Aug. 25 and 26. The Tower fire eventually burned over 50,000 acres before an autumn-like storm helped firefighters, who numbered more than 1,000, douse most of the flames in late August.
A January 1997 post-fire report from the Forest Service analyzes both the effects of the blaze and its potential aftermath.
One sentence in particular attracted my attention when I read it a few days after we returned. The topic is the prospect for lodgepole pines to naturally reseed the burned areas, particularly inside the wilderness where salvage logging isn’t allowed and tree-planting wasn’t planned.
The sentence: “If 1996 was a good seed year for lodgepole pine stands in the Tower fire area, we can expect adequate to overly abundant lodgepole pine regeneration in the future.”
After hiking about 5 miles of trails through the burn zone I feel confident stating that 1996 was indeed a good seed year for lodgepole pines.
Very good, if I may be so bold.
Lodgepoles grow so thickly in places that a mammal as diminutive as a mouse would struggle to squeeze between the trunks. The landscape is distinctive — a sprawling, light-green carpet pierced by an occasional gray-white snag.
This is characteristic of lodgepole forests following a major fire.
The seed-bearing cones of lodgepole pines in the Blue Mountains are coated with a resin that holds them together. Generally only the heat of a fire can melt the resin and cause the seeds to disperse. And a mature lodgepole forest can produce a bounty of seeds — up to 300,000 per acre. As far as I can tell, the forests along Winom Creek must have come close to that mark.
At times, while hiking through this consistent landscape, with no snow-streaked cirques or plunging canyons to divert my attention, I felt not boredom but a lurking monotony.
But then I would pause, savoring the silence and the warmth of the July sunshine on my shoulders, and realize that this scene, though perhaps not spectacular enough to grace a coffee table book or a calendar, is enticing in its own way.
This place inspires awe not from its variety but from its ubiquity — the sense, and indeed the reality, that you could walk for many hours in almost any direction and still be surrounded by the same slender pines, your situation little different from that of an ant crawling in a well-tended yard.
On Saturday afternoon we drove up to Tower Mountain, where a 92-foot fire lookout tower has stood since 1929. At 6,850 feet, Tower Mountain is the tallest point in the area.
But even here the forests, not the rocks, dominate. Tower Mountain, in common with most summits in the North Fork country, is shaped more like an eraser than the pointed end of a pencil.
Here even the fire lookouts need a boost — 92 feet, in this case, to get above the trees and see what’s going on below.