Farel Baxter’s dad died almost a quarter century ago but even now there are moments, when he’s deep in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, that Farel feels his father as not merely a pleasant memory but as an almost physical presence.
And once again, however briefly, father and son are together in the place they both loved best.
The place where the man taught and the boy learned.
Where they shared trails and tents and fresh flaky trout cooked in the coals of a campfire as night draped its black cloak over the alpine forest.
“I think sometimes he’s there, laughing at me,” Baxter, who’s 76, said of his father, Reynolds, who died in 1996 at age 84. “I don’t think he’s very far away. I have those feelings.”
These interludes, when the intervening years dissipate much as ground fog clears from a mountain meadow on a fine summer morning, are invariably prompted by an actual event.
Baxter, a retired Baker High School teacher who has lived in Baker City since 1978, will be hiking, say, the trail along Eagle Creek, north of Boulder Park, and the sight of plump purple huckleberries spangling the trailside bushes will remind him of one afternoon with his dad.
They were hiking that trail, and sampling the juicy berries from the same reliable patch, when his dad spotted a sow bear with two cubs trundling toward them.
Father and son watched the trio of bears splash across Eagle Creek and when they emerged from the sparkling stream Reynolds told his son, who was still young enough to be pranked, that he had never seen this species of bear.
The joke, Baxter says now with a smile, is that the bears were black except for their bellies, where the fur was brown.
The brown was from muddy water clinging to the bruins’ fur after they forded the creek.
But Baxter, who grew up in Union, needn’t rely solely on memories to rekindle his relationship with his late father.
When he hikes into the Eagle Cap Wilderness Baxter frequently sees, and indeed touches, tangible evidence of his father.
Reynolds Baxter worked for the Forest Service from 1951 to 1972. And for much of his career he was responsible for trails, bridges and signs in the southwestern part of the Wallowa Mountains that would, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3, 1964, become part of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Today it’s Oregon’s biggest federal wilderness, covering about 365,000 acres.
“I’m so grateful it was preserved as wilderness,” Baxter said.
Reynolds Baxter built 12 bridges in the Eagle Cap. His son knows something about all of them, and it’s always a special experience for him when he steps on a wooden plank that his father fashioned, or puts his hand on a rail, its surface smoothed by time and weather, that his father’s own palms rested on as it was nailed into place.
“I’m really lucky to have had a dad who was actually building these things,” Baxter said.
These are the connections — to a special place and to his father — that prompted Baxter to write “Trails, Bridges & Blizzards” in 2018.
As its title implies, the 148-page book chronicles Reynold’s Forest Service career. But it’s also a memoir of Farel’s experiences on the same trails and at the same peaks, passes and lakes where his father worked and played.
Baxter was able to assemble this collection of anecdotes largely because of his affinity, dating to his boyhood, of keeping every scrap of paper that might later be of interest.
When he was 4 or 5 his mother, Oreta, brought him a box of documents related to family history.
Baxter not only saved the box. He added to its burden.
“I started saving everything that came along,” he said during a recent interview in the front room of his Baker City home. “I always thought I would put all that stuff together some day and write a book.”
He ended up writing more than one.
Baxter has also compiled an extensive family history, as well as a collection of short stories of his experiences in the mountains, titled “The Worthy Hat.”
His master’s thesis at the University of Oregon examines settlements of Northeastern Oregon.
But as useful as the documents in that old box turned out to be, much of “Trails, Bridges & Blizzards” derives from a type of history as old as verbal language.
The book might not have been written but for Baxter, as a boy, badgering his father on dozens of evenings in front of the family’s fireplace.
Not that Reynolds was bothered by his son’s interest in his work.
“Every day when he came home from work I was all over him, asking about what he had done,” Baxter said. “He’d fill me in and I’d take out my maps to follow along where he had been.”
(In the author’s note for “Trails, Bridges & Blizzards,” Baxter wrote that he could interpret contour maps, which show the lay of the land, before he could read.)
“I remember these things vividly,” he said. “I guess I was supposed to.”
As a boy Baxter was enthralled not only by his father’s work in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, but also by tales from the pack trips his father helped lead, guiding groups of Boy Scouts on 50-mile, multi-day treks through one of the most scenic places in the West.
The first of these was in July 1948 and Baxter, just 5, was too young to go along.
That trip, which included 20 youths and seven adults, also inspired the “Blizzards” part of Baxter’s book title. His dad’s group endured a midsummer snowstorm while camped at Swamp Lake.
Several years later Baxter started accompanying his dad on summer trips into the wilderness.
“My cousin Don Baxter and I were packing into the wilderness area by ourselves by our 13th summer,” he writes in “Trails, Bridges & Blizzards.”
More than half a century later Baxter still relishes every journey into those mountains.
He describes many backpacking adventures in his book, including one in 2010 when he, along with several companions, retraced much of the route of the 1948, blizzard-marred excursion his father guided. As his father had, Baxter planned his trip for late July.
Baxter’s group avoided a blizzard, but their trip wasn’t without inclement weather. They had to hunker down on the 8,400-foot plateau above Swamp Lake while a thunderstorm pelted them with rain, and lightning bolts illuminated the gray sky.
“While we dallied here for a bit I reflected again upon the passing here of my father’s group in 1948,” Baxter wrote. “It was at about this point that they began to get snowed on. With the warm temperatures we were experiencing there was no danger we would get snow and I was really thankful for that.”
On July 29, 2010, Baxter’s group, which like his father’s included several teenagers, sheltered from a torrential downpour at Long Lake, the same place, and the same date, where his father had camped in 1948 while 6 inches of snow fell.
“We too found ourselves at the mercy of nature and made the best of our situation,” Baxter wrote.
One major difference between the two trips, he said — besides the passage of 62 years — is that the 1948 group both rode horses and relied on the animals to haul their gear and food. The latter category, according to a narration by Reynolds that’s featured in “Trails, Bridges & Blizzards,” included “enough pancake flour to support at least one of our local farmers for a year.”
But in 2010 Baxter’s group hiked, and they carried their stuff in backpacks.
In the book Baxter writes that he usually had access to a horse to pack some items during wilderness trips when he was a teenager, but he hiked with a pack strapped to his back.
But only in name did those contraptions have anything in common with modern packs constructed of light but sturdy alloys and fabrics.
“As teenagers our backpacks were made out of boards and cord, with heavy canvas sacks,” Baxter said with a rueful chuckle that suggests his shoulders don’t think the memories of their old burdens are especially amusing. “They were the best we had.”
And it wasn’t only the packs that pressed heavily on Baxter and his buddies — so did the food they stuffed inside.
“We took cans of peas,” he said, remembering in particular one trip when his mother insisted that he haul at least nine cans of peas.
The little green morsels were at least tasty — “we ate them all,” Baxter said — but modern dehydrated, freeze-dried meals, which weigh a small fraction of canned vegetables, are much less taxing.
“Those were heavy packs and we were scrawny kids,” he said. “We were tougher than we thought we were.”
Decades later, Baxter remains dedicated to staying fit.
As he sits in a recliner he looks like nothing so much as a venerable alpinist, thin and wiry, the sort of man you might find nursing a beer in an Alpine hut after completing a tough route on Mont Blanc, a coil of rope slung over one shoulder.
A humidifier puffs moisture into the air in Baxter’s living room to compensate for the woodstove that chases the chill on this bright morning in mid-October.
The stove is burning a few of the tens of thousands of chunks that Baxter stacks every year. Retired from teaching, he spends much of his time — when he’s not hiking — cutting and selling firewood. He puts up about 70 cords per year.
The combination of tromping around the Eagle Cap Wilderness and bringing in wood keeps Baxter in fine fettle.
It also helps him control his diabetes.
“I do it because I can, and it’s fun,” he said of his woodcutting.
Although the Eagle Cap Wilderness figures prominently in many of Baxter’s own memories, some of his favorite stories aren’t really about him, or his father, but about youngsters he introduced to the mountains on long backpacking trips much like those his father guided.
“It’s life-changing, I think,” Baxter said of these treks.
He talks of youths who kept hiking despite nasty blisters that left their feet bloody, of older kids who helped their younger companions, of the musical laughter around many campfires.
“Those kids still talk about those trips,” Baxter said. “And I don’t forget. I think kids are hungering for that experience, if they just get a little taste.”
He remembers most vividly a teenage boy from Idaho who lived on the streets with his mother. This boy, Baxter said, arrived for his first backpacking trip with a “chip on his shoulder.”
“He was growling at people, very sullen,” Baxter said. “Not a very happy boy.”
But the first night in camp, Baxter managed to coax a laugh from the boy.
The next morning the boy smiled — “he started feeling good,” Baxter said.
By the time the trip ended six days later, “that kid was 100% changed,” Baxter said. “It was the most amazing change I’ve ever seen.”
Baxter said he never did find out how the boy fared when he returned to Idaho.
But he wouldn’t be surprised if that week in the Eagle Cap Wilderness had a lasting, and profound, effect on the teenager’s troubled life.
Baxter has seen it happen.
“The wilderness teaches you lessons whether you want to learn them or not,” he said.