It’s a shame that there is a trail leading to Joseph Creek that is left unmaintained, to slowly grow over and disappear. I know there are always open ridges that I can hike down. They are shorter, but they are tough to hike out of with a pack at the end of a weekend of exploring if you haven’t prepared yourself physically. The Chico trail also begins on a pretty good road close to Highway 3. With gas prices as high as they are and no sign of coming down, being able to drive a fuel efficient car to a trailhead is a value not to be overlooked. So I have decided to try and clear the trail to Joseph Creek starting at the Chico Trailhead on highway 3.
I started the job a few weekends ago on May 29, the opening weekend of the fishing season in Northeast Oregon. Saturday I was busy helping my wife shuttle vehicles on the Grande Ronde, but Sunday I headed out with my pack and a chainsaw. I did not have to work on Monday so I took a tent and brought my border collie Molly along with me.
My wife, the boys, and I had hiked a bit of the Chico trail and the Davis Creek trail earlier and in my memory there weren’t that many logs. I took perhaps a half gallon of mixed gas for the chainsaw and a quart of bar oil hoping that would be enough. I did not want to pack a lot of extra weight since it was a long ways to go. I had illusions of clearing the trail all the way to Joseph Creek in a day so I took my fly rod along as well. If things went well I thought I might be camping on Joseph Creek that night.
Mid day I was throwing limbs off the trail that I had cut off a fallen tree when I heard something behind me. I turned and saw what looked like a wolf loping down the trail. My first thought was that it would see me any second now and stop and probably run away as most wild animals do when they find me unexpectedly. It, however, did not stop and as I tried to read its intentions, whether it was going after my dog Molly or me, I tried to decide how far I would let it come before I would shoot it. I pulled out my pistol and then began seeing pink flags on its back. As it kept running down the trail towards us, my brain was rapidly trying to register what pink flags on the back of a wolf meant. Was it tagged by the fish and wildlife so that people would see it easier? But why would they put pink flags on a wolf?
It is amazing how fast your brain can work and my brain was trying to figure out where to place this wolf. Was it going to attack and why the hell did it have those pink tags? I did not want to get in trouble for shooting a wolf, but I’ll be damned if I am going to let one attack me either. As it got closer it did not seem to be aggressive and it looked like it was wearing a harness. About this time I saw hikers appear in the corner of my eye. Now things were making more sense. I put my pistol away a little embarrassed that I almost shot someone’s dog . . . or wolf? As they approached all I could say is “What the hell is that thing? Is it a wolf?” After saying it, it felt a little more antagonistic than I had intended. The man wavered, struggling slightly for what he was going to say. Then said, “He is a northern breed. We picked him up from the pound.” I thought to myself “A northern breed like a Canadian Wolf!” Wolves are a divisive topic and the way the man spoke made me think it was a wolf. That he knew it was a wolf, but he did not want to say it was a wolf outright for fear of starting something.
I tried to change my tone asking the couple more general, less poignant questions. I did not mean to be antagonistic. But my mind was still trying to place the very large dog, whatever its bloodlines and I had a little adrenaline going not knowing whether I was about to enter a struggle for my life or my dog’s life when that thing came bounding down the trail. They moved on down the trail and I went back to clearing the trail.
After a full day of cutting logs and brush off the Chico trail and the Davis Creek trail, I decided perhaps it had been sometime since the trail had been cleared. The first half of the Davis Creek trail is really nice. The canyon is wide enough that there are nice meadows that you are walking through much of the way. The second half of the trail is not nearly as nice. The canyon narrows and steepens and the trail also narrows and climbs the canyon wall until you are a good distance away from the creek. The trail here is often like a game trail and my feet and ankles were feeling the steepness after a full day of carrying my pack, chainsaw, and clearing trees.
Around 6:00 I began to hear thunder although I could not see very far down or up the canyon from where I was. I looked at my Delorme GPS and saw that I still had a mile and a half before I got to the confluence of Davis Creek and Swamp Creek. I picked up my pace. Soon I gained a better view of the canyon downstream and saw black moving up the canyon toward me as the thunder continued to rumble. The canyon was very steep where I was and not very good to walk on let alone try to pitch a tent for cover.
After walking further with the black cloud getting closer I came to a small spring with a moderately sloped bench. I weighed my options for a minute trying to find a somewhat flat spot I could sleep on and then began digging out my tent. I picked up a Sierra Designs Origami 2 this winter and had not even tried to set it up yet. I had planned on setting it up at Minam on Saturday so I would at least know how it went, but there is never enough time for everything. I had thrown it in my pack sarcastically telling my wife “There is no better time to learn how to put up a new tent then in the rain!” “HA!” I now said out loud to my dog Molly.
I quickly began turning the teepee tent around and around trying to decide where to start. I pitched it in a matter of minutes and Molly and I crawled inside as big drops of rain began to shoot down from the sky. Inside I began to have visions of a trip I made into Joseph Creek last spring when it wouldn’t stop raining and the thunder and lightning felt like it was breaking right on top of my head all night. My flashback was interrupted by a few drops of water on my head. I looked up and noticed that the small rain fly that goes over the vent at the peak of the teepee was inside rather than on the outside where the rain was pounding away. “Damn it,” I told Molly “We have it inside out.” Molly didn’t seem to be real concerned about the small amount of rain coming through the peak. She was more concerned with the thunder outside.
The rain weakened to a drizzle after a half an hour and I got out and re-pitched our teepee right side out. I had brought Molly a towel, knowing that it was going to rain sooner or later that day and hoping I could get her mostly dry before she snuck onto my sleeping bag in the middle of the night. Molly looked tired. I should explain a little about Molly here.
She is a working dog by nature, bred to work cows. My brother raised her from blood lines he has been fine tuning for a lot of years. If I remember correctly, some of those bloodlines go back to dogs our grandfather owned and bred as well. So her family tree has been intertwined with my own family tree for longer than either of us have been alive. But as I said she is a working dog by nature and feels the need to work.
I have not given her cows to work, so she has made up her own work. She stalks, pounces, circles, and bites these cows of the mind. It is a little strange to see if you are not used to it. People who see her do it the first time swear she is stalking something real, but I assure them, there is nothing there. Only her imagination. I have grown accustomed to it. It does not bother me much anymore except when I am trying to concentrate on something and she is being excessively noisy as she pounces and circles.
After a full day of stalking, herding, or whatever she imagines she is doing, Molly was wore out. She looked wore out as well and it seemed she had gotten every burr for miles stuck in her hair. She looked a little pathetic; wet, tired, and covered with burrs. I dried her and plucked burrs for a bit while the rain pattered away outside. Once I felt she was pretty dry I made her get up and laid the towel on the ground for her to sleep on. She curled up in a ball and I put the other half of the towel over her for warmth. She didn’t budge for hours as I made my dinner and rustled about trying to get my own bed situated.
I will often bring a magazine to read when I hike in. But this being my first backpacking trip of the year I had forgotten. My body was tired from the work of the day and I was content laying there and was nodding in and out of sleep before the light completely left the canyon. I have been sleeping on a big cushy mattress all winter and when I went to move sometime in the night . . . well I found it very difficult. My thin sleeping pad on uneven sloped ground felt rather inadequate.
Molly began to rustle as well. She tried sneaking inside my sleeping bag a couple of times, something I was completely against since she was still a little damp and covered with burrs and probably ticks. She later tried to sleep on my head, another situation I did not care for at all. She finally settled for sleeping on top of my dry clothes which were lying on top of my pack. I wasn’t real impressed with this choice either, but let her be hoping she would quit moving around and let me sleep as well as I could. Which was not entirely great as I kept sliding down hill and had to work a little of the stiffness out of me each time I needed to move myself back uphill.
I did not pull the door back from the tent with the first light of the morning. Molly had found my dry clothes on top of my pack quite comfortable and I waited until the sun was shining strong before I bothered getting out of the tent. I felt better rested than I should have considering the number of times I had to move back up hill, but what the sleep lacked in quality was made up in quantity I guess.
After feeding myself and Molly I decided I would leave the tent pitched there so it could air out and pick it up on the hike out. I took a smaller day pack and the chain saw and headed down the trail. I reached the meadow at the end of Starvation Ridge and was happy that now at least the Davis Creek trail was completely cleared.
I began making progress down the Swamp Creek trail. Although it was completely clear from where it begins until it meets the Davis Creek trail, from this point on it looked like it had been sometime since it had been cleared last. Single trees are not too bad most of the time to cut out of the way, especially the smaller ones. The trees that get up around two feet and bigger get a little more challenging. When you have a 100 foot long tree laying across multiple things at different angles, it can be a little tricky trying to decide which way it is going to move when you cut it. What was particularly challenging were the parts where there were multiple trees stacked on top of each other on a slope. There were several of these kind of spots that took sometime to clear safely. I luckily never got the chainsaw stuck, although I came close a couple of times. I did not bring an axe to chop my chainsaw out if it did get pinched and I thought I was going to have to take the bar and chain off the saw at one point when a large tree slid down the hill when I cut through it.
A half mile or so below the confluence of the two creeks is a beautiful little spring with a nice meadow near it. There is a gently sloped canyon that the spring draws its water from and a small knoll above the spring that I thought would be a great place to build a homesteaders cabin, should I have arrived there a hundred and fifty or so years ago. I settled for having my lunch under the shade of a tree alongside the spring and had some cold clear water to wash it down. I was beginning to feel a little tired.
After my lunch break along the spring I ran out of gas for my chain saw. I had timed it about right really. It was high time that I began the walk out. I had cleared around seven miles of trees and brush and there was only a few miles remaining to be cleared on Swamp Creek before Joseph Creek was reached. It seemed that the brush and trees got thicker the further I got from the highway though and the last few miles to Joseph Creek could be pretty bad.
Adding a chain saw to your backpack adds a lot of weight. I did not weigh my pack with the saw. I really did not want to know how heavy it was. I had also packed more clothes than I would in the summer because it was supposed to get down into the lower 30’s at night. After two days of carrying my pack, chainsaw, and cutting trees and brush I was extremely tired by the time I got back to my car at the Chico Trailhead. On the last stretch of the Davis Creek trail it began to rain heavily and then hailed on me for a little while. I slowly hiked the last mile out on the Chico Trail, taking many more breaks than usual. I was able to see double rainbows as the rain let off. I was too tired and wet to take out my camera, but it was pretty. You will just have to take my word for it.