Hells Canyon 2.0

Snake River, appropriately named

Ahh, once again I sallied forth to the hells of the nearby appropriately named canyon to spend a couple of weeks gorging on asparagus and test my new system of poison ivy avoidance.

The start of the trip was less than auspicious due to heavy rain causing a road to partially slide off the mountain thus, and rightly so, necessitating the closure of the only road to the trailhead from which we start our journey. Being a person who firmly believes if there is one way to do something, there are a thousand ways to do it, I began to consider options to the “wait and see” attitude of the people in charge of fixing the road. Wait and see as in, wait and see if the road slides further (it did, about 6 inches when I went to see for myself), wait and see if the rain will start up again or if conditions will dry enough to let heavy equipment up there. Regardless of what might come, the authorities were saying it could be a week or more before the road was actually open. After some discussion, the don mentioned an alternate route to get to the Snake River, one much less popular because, instead of starting at river level like the preferred trailhead does, this starts at mountaintop level, thus necessitating a 4,000 foot drop to the river which is done practically in one straight line following a creek. Have you ever taken 2,000 steps straight down? Boy, there were some shin muscles tweaking out at the end of that, I’ll tell you!

Ready for Antler hunting. Finn sports her GPS collar with the antenna

Leah also got to do what she was built to do, haul mules up a winding one-lane mountain road. Doesn’t she look grand?

Leah doing her job as a real ranch truck.

Here is an example of how harsh the terrain is here in Hells Canyon. This knife edged ridge looks crazy-sharp! And the weather was slightly ominous.

Heading out from Cow Creek. That is Oregon across the Snake River with all the snow on that seemingly flat horizon.

Okay, let’s see if Monty can remember that mules are not his friends and one cannot walk between the pack line.

Monty and the pack line

Here is one of maybe two switchbacks during the entire descent to the Snake River. It was a bit on the steep side, as per usual around here.

Never thought I’d wish for more switchbacks

And all that rain made the difference between creek and trail somewhat undetectable.

Trail IS creek

Finally we made it to Kirkwood Ranch on the Snake River. Lots of green grass for the mules to enjoy while we took a 3 minute break to stretch those shins. Only 11 more miles to go so better not dilly-dally. I’ll write a later post on the old homesteads I found in this area.

Lovely Kirkwood Ranch on the Snake River

We took turns walking and riding Stella, the don and I did. With Monty’s “issues” around me being on top of a mule, I rode only on the wide and flat spots where Monty could have space to make different choices if he found himself drawn to the mule’s legs. With a bit of babysitting, Monty only once cut in front of a mule during the whole trip and thankfully the mules were paused. Monty is definitely getting better but since he is who he is I don’t think I can ever relax when he is around mules. He just doesn’t believe they can hurt him. It’s so funny to watch how different the other two dogs are from him around the mules and also just being on the trail. The other two are hunting dogs, they roam hundreds of yards away up and down the hillsides and stay far away from mule feet. Monty does not get far from “his” pack, always running between people if we are not all together to check up on everyone. He also checks up on the mules though they don’t seem to appreciate his concern for their welfare.

Stella and the don

Here is my view from atop Stella with Monty safely following the don. No, the picture isn’t crooked, it just there are few flat spots around here.

My view from Stella

Hell’s Canyon is also the only place I’ve ever been where one has to be wary of poison ivy and rattlesnakes in the same place. I don’t mean along the same trail, I mean in the exact same place. Here’s a rattler. He’s little and not inclined to move fast but still I chose not to goof around with camera angles to try and get him and the poison ivy in the same shot this day. But see here, this photo is from a couple weeks later nearby and you can totally see the ivy. I swear, if it isn’t one thing it’s another… and I’m thinking I need to look into that rattlesnake vaccine they have for dogs.

Though the day started out cool with storms threatening, it cleared and became quiet warm as we headed up from the river to our base camp. By the time camp was reached, the mules had walked maybe 18 miles and the dogs had probably done twice that. Everyone was ready for a rest.

Sweaty ass

Boy, it’s amazing how quickly those dogs recharge! Especially Finn, who is not even 2 years old yet. You might remember her from last year, the puppy who runs through poison ivy all day and then wants to climb into your sleeping bag at night. Sorry, Finn, no snuggles from me this year. Finn had a GPS tracking collar to wear this year as she can sometimes roam a bit too far afield. She was actually tracked running 32 miles per hour on this trip! Now you see me, now you don’t.

One warm day the mules and I stayed in camp. Just watching these guys napping in the shade can make you feel sleepy. That is, until they start yawning. How can you not laugh at those faces!

This is me in every meeting ever held. “Try to keep the eyes open, c’mon… okay, close them but have a thoughtful look on your face so you appear to be really focused on what the speaker is droning on about… don’t yawn, don’t yawn, don’t yawnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Rats.”

Being so far removed from light pollution, we can see zillions of stars in our little slice of sky. One very early morning I decided to capture the gorgeousness of the darkness. With the full moon lighting the canyon walls, I held my breath and tried to channel complete stillness to take this photo of what I think is Sagittarius over the ridgeline. The nights are so mesmerizing one hardly notices the chill.

Stars over the canyon

And finally, the whole reason for this trip, imo…

Gatherer!

Asparagus! Freshly gathered. It would appear the animals here do not eat asparagus. See in this photo below how the green stalk is surrounded by dead dry stalks that, if not flopped over would be 4-5 feet tall. Those are last year’s asparagus. No one ate them. It was pretty early so the majority of asparagus hasn’t yet popped up enough to pick but I still got plenty to keep us in green veggies for the trip.

Growing wild

While basking in the glory of fresh tasty vegetables for dinner, I looked up and noticed a plane drawing lines across the sky.

Have you ever noticed that the contrails break up and begin to look like condensed chromosomes during metaphase? No? What, that’s just me that sees this? Must be all that biochem. Well, now you’ll start seeing it too, next time you see a contrail.

Metaphase

The advantage of traveling with the mules is that we can have good food, not just that dried stuff. I am terribly spoiled by the don, I will admit. He makes a great cup of coffee and then follows that up with a breakfast that would rival any fancy brunch restaurant.

In addition to asparagus,  the “purpose” of this trip is to find antlers. I’m not very good at that yet. In part because I’m still so overwhelmed by the newness of everything around me and I’m distracted by so much awesomeness. It’s also because I still have to look where I am walking so I take 10 steps looking at the ground, then stop and look around for antlers but then I see a waterfall, a burned log, a beautiful flower, my dog being cute or bored. But, strangely enough, I did find an antler all by myself! Sadly, it had sat out in the sun for many years or perhaps it had been engulfed in the fire that went through here a few years ago but either way it was beginning to “rot” and become chalky. I enjoyed the thrill of discovery and left it where it lay.

However, the don had spied an antler near camp and we took a morning walk to get it. I went down the hill to retrieve it, Monty got excited and wanted to help. (As an aside, in Houston these would be called mountains so I can honestly say I walked down a mountain to get this antler.)

Sadly the trip came to an end and it was time to pack up and head back to civilization and daily showering. Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper HC trip without a photo of the don shirtless. To be fair, by the end of April it does get very hot in the canyon and no sense getting one’s shirt all sweaty when you can’t easily wash it. I don’t mind at all.

A cowgirl’s dream

Spring makes a booty call

For a few glorious days I got to see what warmth and natural Vitamin D was like. It was as if the Olympic Peninsula weather had a nasty breakup from Winter and went out on a rebound date with Spring. There were a few days of well-above-freezing nights and afternoons that hit 70 degrees; truly such a lovely dalliance. Alas the OP realized that maybe it wasn’t done with Winter just yet and rainy-day 50 degrees returned to try and make things work.

Dazzled by the sunshine and digging out T-shirts, shorts, and, oh yes, a razor (I had sort of let No-Shave-November drag on a bit), I was again smitten by this northwest paradise. While walking in the sunshine I was remembering a hike I took late last summer. I’ll let this be a bit of photojournalism.

Moon and Monty

How does an Idahoan get anything done? There’s so many delightful distractions from the To Do list during the summer. I am a firm believer that one should strive to have accomplishments each day AND that one should absolutely not miss out on the amazingness of the world while in the pursuit of checking off that To Do list. Maybe you should have two lists, a To Do list where you get to feel productive and a Tah Dah! list where you allow time for the miracle of the world to unfold before you.

Figs in the Northern Rockies?

I had some lucky inside info from the don on a location of a fig tree. Figs in Idaho? This place never ceases to surprise me. I was able to find the tree and so much more! I surmise this spot must have been a former homestead along the river and a tiny orchard was planted. First I saw the fig tree, its leaves are unmistakable, even if you have never seen a fig tree before in your life, even if the only exposure to a fig leaf might be the pictures of Adam and Eve with a leafy bathing suit, you will instinctively know a fig leaf when you see it.

Wasps also like figs.

As you might remember if you read the Ponderosa Pinecone picking blog story, the wasps here have well earned their reputation for being aggressive. I was disbelieving of this reputation at first because the wasps in my yard in Houston were so mellow that we never had a negative encounter, even if I accidentally bumped them or soaked them with the water hose. The wasps out here in the harsh and wild West are just plain mean and will sting you just for breathing. Luckily these wasps on the figs are virtually drunk with the sugar and can hardly stay on the fig they are eating. Yes, those boogers eat figs. They poke holes in the figs and nibble until in a sugar coma. Look here.

Wasp-made holes in this fig

So this is probably a good time to mention that whole “figs aren’t vegetarian because they have dead wasps in them” thing. I am not an expert on fig varieties but as far as I can tell, this is just a common fig that doesn’t need another tree or wasps to pollinate (lucky for it because I don’t know how many miles to the next fig tree it might be!) And these wasps are not the fig wasp I saw pictures of on Google. You can tell by the head shape, these are just normal mean wasps that will sting you as soon as look at you- except for one thing… they are apparently happy drunks

Since they are so satiated with sugar, the wasps hardly even notice me or Monty and so we were able to safely pick all the figs we desired.

The grasshoppers also were hanging around the fig tree. The grasshoppers eat with more gusto than the wasps. I identify more closely with them in the eating style department.

Grasshoppers are big and gusty eaters

Near the fig tree was a tree with a fruit hanging on it that I hadn’t noticed before. I grabbed a fruit off the tree and opened it up because for some reason I had an inkling it might be interesting and low and behold…

What is it?

A walnut!

Although doesn’t the walnut fruit look kind of like a small apple? But it pulls away cleanly and leaves the giant nut we love to eat.

By now my collection bag was getting heavy. I do make a point to only take no more than 10 per cent of the food on a wild tree so the animals who can’t go grocery shopping have plenty to eat. Even so, my bag was getting full with the figs and walnuts when I spied a tree with little orange baubles dangling from it.

Drawn to it, I stepped under the tree and plucked one of the salmon-colored beauties. Admiring it for a moment, I ripped it open like a hawk on a starling and checked the seed. I wasn’t sure at first if it was a plum or perhaps an apricot. Once I saw the seed, I tasted the flesh. It was bright and tart and I still couldn’t be 100% sure if it was plum or apricot. Or could this be a rogue plum-apricot hybrid? It was textured like a plum but tiny and orange and tart like an apricot. But the seed lended itself more towards plum. I might have taken a bit more than the 20% on this tree. Plums are famous for having the whole tree ripen at the same time and you have about 36 hours to harvest them or they fall off and rot. Okay, maybe a bit more than 36 hours but it’s not far off the mark. Ask any plum grower. And these guys WANTED to come with me. They were literally falling off the tree and hitting me on the head and shoulders trying to leap into my bag. And they were so soft and squishy and at the peak of ripeness this very moment. It was heavenly and the wasps hadn’t discovered them or maybe they just didn’t have the sugar the figs did so I was all alone picking, or perhaps the better word would be ducking, the plums.

Now Monty, who was not as impressed as I with the extraordinary bounty of the river valley, was getting rather thirsty. However, being the protective fella he is when we are out walking alone, he wouldn’t leave me to go down the 50 feet to the river and get a drink so we walked down together. It was so lovely on the river with the cool fall wind blowing gently balancing the sunshine. I could have stayed there all day.

The wonders never cease! Right near where I parked my car was a group of pear trees and, as luck would have it, there was plenty of fruit on them that was within my reach.

Coming up from the river I came across a blackberry bush. Around here the berries are ripe about July to August and this is in late September so these were well past ripeness and were actually dried on the bush. I picked a few and they were delicious! Kind of like Nature’s fruit leather and I didn’t mind all the seeds in the least, it was sort of like chia seeds. I was entranced by the yumminess, enough to brave all the tiny thorns that are so stabby so I grabbed about a half cup of the dried berries. I probably ate as much or more while collecting.

And if all that wasn’t enough, then, in a cool spot on the walk back I spied a blackberry bush that had berries just beginning to ripen! Honestly, this is the most amazing spot, just when you think you have a handle on it, another surprise rounds the corner.

Here are a couple of photos of the bounty from this Eden.

Pears, figs, walnuts, and berries!

This one includes some items from the don’s garden. It’s a great time to be a vegetarian!

and plums/pluots, kale, tomato, cucumbers…

Gosh, all that remembering has made me hungry!

My days now will be divided between Idaho and Washington. Both of them are coastlines, if you look far enough back in the geologic record. I am quite lucky to have such extraordinary beauty surrounding me and these current cold and gray days are just a time to remember the bounty of summer.

And perhaps begin to plan this year’s garden!

Hell’s Canyon

 

Monty gazing out over the mountains of Hell’s Canyon

“The grandeur and originality of the views presented on every side beggar both the pencil and the pen. Nothing we had ever gazed upon in any other region could for a moment compare in wild majesty and impressive sternness with the series of scenes which here at every turn astonished our senses and filled us with awe and delight.” Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, an early explorer of Hell’s Canyon, wrote about the place I was getting ready to spend two weeks camping and hiking.

Sunset from the Cougar Basin campsite with a view into Oregon.

The area has seen much since white men entered its waters, from its early days of exploitation for copper and gold ore to inciting national division in the 1950s and again in the 1970s on damming the river to present-time recreational pursuits. For many years Hell’s Canyon was hailed as the deepest canyon but that is now contested. Regardless of the numbers, I was about to walk into a place of no outside contact. Not that this is a new experience as I have been solo hiking sections of the Continental Divide Trail for a number of years, but this time was different. I was heading into the area with three mules, three dogs, my friend I call the don and his brother. Would Hell’s Canyon live up to its name and reputation? What hellish fate might await, i wondered?

Could it be anymore perfect for a Texas girl than to have PURPLE bluebonnets?
Okay, technically a cousin to bluebonnets but that can be overlooked.

Obviously I have lived to tell the tale. And share some photos…

the don and his mules

Monty had never been around mules so it was with some slight trepidation that he was introduced to them. He did live through the two weeks but only through the grace of God who looks out for little white dogs.He was disbelieving these creatures were not just big dogs thus he continued to try and befriend them by getting too close to their feet. He would also try to insert himself in the mule train between two mules if I was riding a mule so I ended up in the saddle about 100 yards and then walking the remaining 18 miles into camp the first day. Monty did finally learn, mostly anyway, not to get underneath the mules and would walk very close to the back of the last mule. Thankfully the mules were very patient with this city boy who was just learning the ropes when it came to mule packing. Monty and I had that in common on this trip. One mule was particularly patient with me as I learned to halter and saddle and lead the mules and even let me braid his tail.

Monty learned to stay out of the mule train and trailed along behind. Can you see his tiny white body there?

Otis sporting a fancy tail-do. Definitely a sassy ass!

Hells Canyon will extract its pound of flesh, no doubt ’bout that. Just so you know, there are TWO different manifestations of poison ivy in these parts. There is the normal, vine-trailing-on-the-ground type found in moist areas like near creeks and under trees. Then there is another type that does not resemble a vine or a bush. This nasty and tricksy mo-fo is a stick about three feet tall with lovely white to cream dried-looking berries on it. At least that is how it looks in early spring, maybe in June it gets leaves or hairyness or something but in April it is just a lovely berry-topped stick with delicate red undertones hanging out with all the other grasses that looks like it is begging to be in a floral arrangement.

DO NOT BE FOOLED BY IT

A tricksy mo-fo , this poison ivy, growing along the trail and hillsides in very dry areas and with no leaves.

Another tip, if you are traveling with animals or some companion that goes tromping pell-mell through the grasses, DO NOT LET THAT BEING INTO YOUR SLEEPING BAG, even if it is a skinny puppy shivering in the cold night. That shivering puppy will run through the tricksy poison ivy sticks ALL DAY LONG and then, in the wee hours of the darkness, will bring all that urushiol into your bag and onto your skin. Just imagine what the results of hours and hours of laying in the poison oil will do to your skin as she cuddles up so sweetly to you. All the weight you have lost from so much lovely exercise will not be evident due to the horrible sores and swelling from the blisters and your new trail name will be Scritchers.

 

Only 6 months old, Finn already loved to run the hills all day and snuggle all night.

Three dog night. I finally learned to keep the dogs out of my sleeping bag yet they still loved to snuggle up to me. Here you can see Q, Finn, and Monty’s yellow coat.

Poison ivy legs. The rash was everywhere on my body except my upper back due to a snuggling puppy in my sleeping bag. So much for wearing skirts anytime soon.

This concludes my public service announcement.

Now for the good part, and if you heed my advice above, you can skip the icky and go straight to the good part. People tried to settle the canyon years ago and planted gardens. Most of the people and settlements did not last but some of their food-stuff is still there. If you go in early spring (as for this area, not the early spring of Houston) you will be fed well from the coffers of the canyon. the don knew of several spots where yummies were growing and shared them with me. Sadly I did not get photos of the morel mushrooms the don gathered and then cooked in butter on the wood stove (yes, for real. this is my life now) but i promise they were exquisite. The same day as the mushroom gathering, he showed me where asparagus would grow. Only a few stalks were showing then but when I went back a week later, JACKPOT!

Asparagus growing in the wilds of Hell’s Canyon. Can you believe the luck!?!

I gathered a quart ziplock bag and nibbled on quite a few stalks as I gathered and only took about 20% of what was showing. There is also an area where watercress grows and we enjoyed fresh greens pretty much every day of the trip.

Watercress growing along a creek just waiting to be made into a delicious salad.

Can you imagine a two-week camping trip with fresh asparagus and watercress and mushrooms? and all cooked over campfire or woodstove. Hard to believe yet I offer photographic proof.

Watercress salad with beets, coconut, and mango. The latter two were rehydrated since I have yet to find a mango tree in Hell’s Canyon.

Cooking asparagus over a campfire. Also on the menu this evening was polenta with tomato sauce which you can see in the background.

Monty was his usual majestic self and struck a pose on every rock formation he saw. Truly, I do not pose him and rarely do I even try to arrange a photo. Mostly he gets his vogue on and waits until I finally realize I should take a picture. He even photo bombs and, as usual, his version is much more interesting than my own. Do you think Ansel Adams might come back as a photogenic master in a dog body?

Monty photobombing as I try to shoot landscapes. As usual his version is way more interesting than my boring ol’ flower picture.

I’ll put more photos at the end of this post. At the time every single view was breathtaking and so I have tons of pictures of Monty posing with some dramatic view.

As you may know, I am a former city girl who has decided to try a completely different lifestyle. I am learning so much every day! For example, do you know where the antlers for those awesome chandeliers in hunting-themed lodges come from? Out here it is a hobby to collect the ginormous antlers that are shed naturally every spring by the elk. the don and his brother engage in antler hunting and I began a little hunting myself.  I was better at finding asparagus.

“Glassing” the hillside looking for antlers.

I spy an antler!

Here is one of the smaller antlers. Some were almost as big as me!

Fresh mint- perfect for adding to salads and also to a bit of rum

Waiting for snow to melt and getting a suntan at the same time

Still waiting

Dinnertime in Hell’s Canyon

A fresh and cold spring at just the right height for bottle filling. Hell’s Canyon will extract its pound of flesh but will also provide

Another awesome view of Sheep Creek

Spider on flower. I was so intrigued by this little guy hanging out in the flowering bushes just waiting for bugs

I forgot my hat one day and ended up making one from my bandana and some of the branches from the bush behind me. The branches were to make the brim and I have to say this worked out very well for the entire day!

Rose hips. Reminded me of chinese lanterns

Pictographs!

Curious Otis

the don and mules near suicide point. Can you see them on the trail?

My boy

A view into Oregon

Bear claw marks on pine. I promise, Mom, I never saw any bears this trip!

Brain freeze

Monty near Old Timer

Monty on the mountain

I don’t need inspirational quotes
I need coffee