A unique basalt formation known as Elephant Rock stands sentry over the Umatilla River canyon 30 miles east of Pendleton. The geologic landmark is most easily viewed when you travel upstream on River Road. A nearby road sign, trimmed in red and showcasing half a dozen bullet holes, serves as a boundary marker for those not familiar with local lore: “Welcome to the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Home of the Cayuse-Walla Walla-Umatilla.”

The three-horse logo — paint, black and appaloosa — remind of the once-great wealth of the three area tribes whose homelands covered over 6,200 square miles, stretching from the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers east to the Grande Ronde Valley, and as far west as The Dalles, where they traded with the “salmon eaters.”

The story behind Elephant Rock connects closely to members of the Cayuse tribe who, known for their fierce nature and expert horsemanship, roamed the hills and valleys of the Blue Mountains. Early fur traders called them “Cailloux,” meaning “People of the Stones or Rocks.”

The nearby remains of three true elephant species, including the extinct Elephas columbi (a formidable specimen that stood 11 feet tall at the shoulder), reinforce how historical narrative often converges with the archeological record.

As recounted by tribal elders, Elephant Rock marks the location where a young elephant was turned to stone after his curiosity got the best of him and he disobeyed instructions given by the trickster Coyote to “not look back.”

Recent rainfall brought welcome relief to the nearby foothills and raised the voice of running water where the spent carcasses of chinook salmon decay in shallow riffles. Their ocean-derived nutrients are part of the circle of life for aquatic creatures and terrestrial wildlife that prowl the river corridor.

Autumn also signals the arrival of mountain whitefish in schools of a dozen or more. They can be taken from deep pools on a No. 18 Beadhead Chironomid drifted deep or with a live stonefly nymph hooked through the collar, although the latter method is considered cheating in some social circles.

When maple trees drop their last leaf and heirloom apples ripe for picking drop to the ground, our cabin’s well pump is turned off. Water must be hauled for washing up and to flush the toilet. “Plan your activities and your diet accordingly,” I remind visitors. But it’s only 50 yards to the river, and I’ve yet to fill more than a dozen plastic milk jugs over a long weekend.

Reading through passages from old journals, I’m reminded that I am alone in carrying on a fall fishing tradition that’s four decades long and counting. There’s no hurry to get on the stream, though. Angling opportunity is best during brief periods when sunlight penetrates the leafy stream canopy and dark-hued trout can be seen rising from the shadows.

Dew hangs heavy on bracken fern when I hike up the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness trail.

Refusing to be seduced by the sight of the first pool I encounter, I wade shock-cold water in old tennis shoes and jeans, favoring a flannel shirt to ward off the chill. New-spun spider webs and overhanging alder restricts casting yet I remain hopeful for a chance at one last trout before the season closes.

The author-naturalist Roderick Haig-Brown wrote, “Fall fishing is a revival after the quieter times of summer.” This change in season leads to aggressive feeding in response to declining water temperature. As if sensing the need to load up on high-calorie morsels, rainbow trout are attracted to oversize fly patterns that resemble the flopping action of October caddisflies. Showcasing vivid parr marks on silvery flanks that flash iridescent purple, native trout are too beautiful to remove from the water. I carefully release them so that others might also thrill to their aggressive strike.

Light is fading after a brief sojourn up the North Fork Wilderness trail. I motor down River Road, park my truck on a narrow shoulder, and clamber up the steep slope to where Elephant Rock stands tall on a narrow grassy bench. Its presence provides permanence in a world where seasons change in response to an evolving space-time continuum. The purple fruit of elderberry hangs like clusters of stunted Concord grapes from tangles of brush crowding the roadside ditch. An upriver breeze tugs at tired leaves that cling tenaciously to streamside alder; their stored-up chlorophyll has long since faded to unmask pigments of yellow and orange. Further upslope, sumac glows blood red in low light.

Leaning into the hillside to maintain my balance, I work up a slanted deer trail lined with lichen-scarred rocks. Elephant Rock appears much larger when viewed up close, stretching nearly 10 paces long and towering twice as high as this 6-footer (in cowboy boots, anyway) can reach. Closing my eyes as if in silent prayer, I run my hand across the craggy surface of its rounded rump and take delight in the hush of a river trapped in the narrow canyon below.

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This column is an excerpt from Dennis Dauble’s newest book, “Chasing Ghost Trout,” to be available in November from Amazon.com, KeokeeBooks.com, and the website DennisDaubleBooks.com.

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