Category Archives: Mountain life

Working on the trails

Last Saturday I got to ride a mule as part of ongoing volunteer work to open up local trails in the Wallowas and Hells Canyon. Alas, I don’t have pictures, except in my mind.

I’ve been wanting to ride a mule for some time now, so when one team leader said he had an opening for a mule rider, I jumped for it. The mule in question was Bat, female, a half-Belgian sorrel mule from a Belgian draft mare and a standard jack, trained to drive, pack, and ride. She stands about 15.2 hands high (that is, 15 hands, two inches), probably weighs about 1300-1500 lbs, has big bones, and is an older mule.

We went up the Wing Ridge stock driveway which is on the east side of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. The trail is not meant for most hiker use–it goes straight up a steep ridge with only a few switchbacks. As it were, we stopped frequently to let our party of three mules (two ridden, one packing, all mature older equines) and one horse (three-year-old gelding, big and stout, working on getting wet saddle blankets and experience) catch their breath. And trim a few annoying branches here and there as well. During one stop, a mated pair of ruby-crowned kinglets landed in the lodgepole thicket just a foot away from me, so close that I could have touched them had I wanted to. The female had some sort of fluff in her beak and the male’s ruby crown was flared out in mating display. It took me a moment to identify them because I’d only seen them in winter coat before, not spring and summer. They didn’t seem to be bothered by a rider so close to them.

The area burned in a hot fire thirty years ago, so it is full of skeletal, whited snags and young lodgepole and Ponderosa regrowth. In one place, the wind blowing through the snags moaned and howled in a convincing imitation of wolf calls–something the team leader pointed out with a chuckle, because while there are wolves in the area, it was clear from the equine calmness that what we were hearing was trees and not wolves.

Bat and I had the brief discussions that come along with experienced equine used to carrying riders of all skill levels, that is to say, she threw some brief tests at me and I let her know that while I deferred to her judgement on some things, it wasn’t all going to be her way. She wasn’t happy about the young horse coming close to her hind end and pulled faces at him, tossing her head at him with pinned ears as a warning. Except for the bigger head and longer ears, Bat’s expression was darned near identical to Mocha’s in a similar situation. There’s something both comic and yet more threatening when that facial expression comes from a longears, though. Mules seem to have more expressive and comic faces, but those big pinned ears are a definite threat–until they flop. Going downhill, she also kicked at him several times, popping up her hind end for a double-barrel warning.

But she was also calm and sturdy, and definitely sure-footed. More sure-footed than Mocha? That’s not the difference. What really shows up as the big difference between Mocha and a mule or the stouter horses preferred here is durability and stability. Mocha is much smaller than Bat at 14.2 hands high and about 1000-1100 lbs at her heaviest. Her feet are tiny in comparison and she lacks the support of a sturdy, solid frame of a standard-sized mule like Bat or even the typical frame of the stout phenotype of horses preferred in these canyons. She’s not bred to work this country, and even though she’s catty-footed and strong, she would break down a lot sooner than Bat. Not her fault. Bat’s extra bone and sturdiness makes her more stable when going downhill and rider balance is not going to throw her off too much. Mocha needs a more experienced rider who can keep their balance because she’s so light in comparison. Seriously. I’ve ridden Mocha down similar steep slopes and I could tell that I needed to work much less with Bat where I would have either dismounted or aggressively maintained my balance with Mocha. Bat has the body to compensate for a bad step in those conditions. Mocha doesn’t. There were moments when I really noticed that difference with Bat.

So that was interesting.

That wasn’t all I learned from this work trip. The team leader is an experienced packer and the son of an experienced packer. He used the Decker packsaddle with clip-on canvas bags (carrying hard hats, clippers, axes, backpack, and pulaski), then dropped ropes on each side to secure the loads and tie a four-foot crosscut saw on top. I had lots of questions about packing and watched, wishing I’d had a camera to take even more pictures.

And I got to use the crosscut saw! First time for that. We had to leave the stock after about two miles and continue on foot for about another three-quarters of a mile due to snowbanks with uneven consistency. For the most part, humans could walk across the top of the occasional snowbank without sinking in, but there still was the occasional postholing moment. Not at all safe for stock, even led instead of ridden. The young horse Had A Moment in one snowbank but all came out well. Our goal was to eyeball one nasty fallen log just before the wilderness boundary and decide whether hand tools would be sufficient, or if a chainsaw was needed (okay because it was outside of the wilderness). The verdict was that the chainsaw was needed, especially since there were several other tough logs that would be best done by chainsaw before we got to that one problematic log.

We ended up cutting 7-8 big logs. The most challenging one was about 12 inches in diameter and had fallen across the trail to hang up in trees on the other side, at about 8 feet high. When we passed on doing the other log by hand we decided to do this one instead.

Then we headed downhill to a waiting barbecue. The mules and horse got their own version of the barbecue by getting to hand graze for a little bit before the humans went off for burgers and beer.

Dang, that was fun.


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Falls Creek hike and Zumwalt drive and writing oh yeah

The day started out kind of gloomy and moody and slow. I needed to work on edits for a short story so that’s how I spent my morning. By the time I was finished, though, the sun had come out. Husband and I were ready for an Adventure, so we decided to go hiking up Hurricane Creek. As we started up the trail, though, we decided to give Falls Creek a try. I’d read that it was both easy and difficult…well, we opted for the difficult hike up the slope, not bouldering along the creek bottom.

Hmm. All the photos loaded at once. Well the first and sixth shots are of Falls Creek Falls. The last three are on Zumwalt Prairie.

Anyway, we hiked uphill a bit over a mile with at least a 1000 foot and probably a 1500 foot elevation gain. Then we decided to go for a cruise out to the Nature Conservancy preserve on Zumwalt and see what we could see.

We ended up taking the old road from Midway to Imnaha, and saw nearly two dozen deer, at least one eagle, northern harriers, a rough-legged hawk, a number of kestrels, several meadowlarks, two chukar, and three turkeys. The road was such that I was glad we were in the truck and not the Subaru, as we had to ford water running over the road in several places (clear, seasonal creeks with rocky bottoms, no problems).

A glorious day.

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I’ve taken up a new transitional ritual every time we return to the Enterprise house. After we’ve unloaded, done our evening stuff, and had dinner, I go into the bathroom, pull out the jar of Fango facial mud, and give myself a facial. During this hot, muggy summer it’s felt like purging the grime and stress of the big city and beginning a lovely period back up in the mountains with clean air and fewer people. I don’t know that it makes that much difference in my skin but it definitely helps me relax back into the pace and rhythms of Enterprise as opposed to Portland.

But transitions are happening everywhere. It’s the season for wrapping up summer chores and finalizing winter food prep for humans and creatures alike. The wheat threshers work long hours harvesting fields while those of us who can and freeze are busy. Most of the most recent cutting of hay is already put up, but those ranchers who haven’t finished with the hay are hustling. This week alone, while juggling novel, back-to-school prep, and other stuff, I put up zucchini relish and a lot more applesauce than what I want to think about. Between canned applesauce and frozen applesauce we’re in good shape–the trees were quite productive. We’ll be going back to Portland and Clatskanie and I’m already planning what to do with cabbage, corn, and zucchini (relish and pickling ahead). This was my first canning in Enterprise, and the kitchen passed the canning test with flying colors, even with adjusting for altitude.

Just through this week I’ve noticed the arrival of fall. The angle of the sun. A damp coolness in the air. A late summer thunderstorm briefly grumbled over us last night, processing from Ruby Peak over town and continuing northeast toward Idaho. The leaves on the burning bush add a little bit more red every day.

Today Mocha and I jumped up a whitetail buck by the road. As he bounded away, I noticed that his antlers were the bright white of freshly sharpened horn. Hunting season has opened for archery and gun season is a month off. No more bucks in velvet, I guess. Our late afternoon ride was cool, and I realized that this might well be the last shirtsleeve ride of the year, if not one of the lasts. Mocha’s been hairing up the past couple of weeks, winter coat starting to come in. One doe I saw today already had a winter coat coming in.

We also marked yet another transition today as the last construction project on the house wrapped up. Today the contractor put the last touches on the front porch. For the first time since March, 2014, we no longer have construction projects pending on this house. We do have some plans for future things to be doing, but nothing as big as what we’ve already had done or are doing.

More warm days may return…but autumn is here. High autumn, with the hopeful promise of early winter and a good snowpack.

I think I’m ready for it.

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Adventures in woodcutting and hunting

Dang, the days are getting away from me again. We did a whirlwind trip to Portland, then came back to Enterprise for a whirlwind of prepping for hunting season and hunting camp. Our friend S. brought his wall tent that has a small portable woodstove in it and we did all the food prep. It’s been nearly thirty years since we last did this type of camping–nearly glamping in some respects–so there were some real questions about if it would work. Especially since last time we did it S and his late wife L lived here and did most of the prep. This time we were the ones prepping.

Camp turned out beyond our wildest dreams in many ways, except for one thing. The long hot, dry summer and warm fall meant that there were a lot of yellow jackets out and about. As long as there was daylight a low, persistent hum throbbed around the campsite. The yellow jackets weren’t attacking but they were persistent. I ended up eating some daytime meals in one of our pickup trucks to be safe since I’m allergic. But we ate well, slept well, and had a lot of fun for five days out in the woods. Granted, we ended up making a daily trip into town either for meetings, checking on the horse, or bringing a deer into the meat locker because the yellow jackets were just too aggressive. Still, that’s also one advantage to camping out near the house–being able to run into town during the day to take a shower and pick up other things we need.

In any case, we explored a couple of areas within our hunting unit. Another objective was scouting out locations for firewood cutting. We found some stunning views, some rough roads, and one opportunity to master some nuances of four wheel drive. Let’s just say I’m much better at shifting the pickup into four low now. Climbing a short steep hillside where I can’t look over the top of the hood helps, because you sure don’t want to run out of steam when attempting something like that.

This year we’ve seen more deer in our hunting unit than ever before, to the point where we’re recognizing family groupings of does, fawns, and yearlings. The bucks, of course, are more reclusive and have been that way all along. Until today, when we took a different route, we’d average seeing about twenty does and fawns. The buck spottings have been less frequent, but we’ve seen six of them…and killed two. At least out here where we’re hunting, it’s more of a challenge to find the bucks. And then when you find them, you have to hit them. Of the shots taken, only two made contact–the others were too long, or through brush which deflects a bullet, or a quick shot made while the buck was fleeing. Sometimes you don’t even get a shot, like what happened to my husband this morning. A forked horn hopped across the road, in a dense stand of young lodgepole pine. He jumped out and stalked it but was unable to get a clear shot (stand hunting is not as common when hunting mule deer; walking hunts or road hunts are the usual).

Still, we’re happy to even see the bucks, as we haven’t seen this many deer in years. Part of that is due to the reality that this year we spent a lot of time in our unit scouting for deer while cutting wood and looking at potential campsites. Being able to spend that time over several months as opposed to coming in for three days makes a huge difference. The mild winter is a factor in the deer presence for certain. The two bucks we got were yearlings, in good flesh. One of them might not have survived a harsh winter as though he was a sizable fellow, his horns were still in velvet.

Camp went from Sunday to Thursday. I had a reading on Friday night, so we didn’t go out that day. The last three days, though, we’ve gotten up at oh-dark-thirty and headed out for a morning of woodcutting and hunting. We got to see a dusting of snow on the mountains Saturday morning, thanks to evening rain. Some of it still lingers, but otherwise it’s been a warm hunting season. We’ve brought in a cord and a half of wood for a total of five and a half cords, and plan to cut at least another cord and a half if not two cords (we have permits which allow us to harvest up to eight cords). Our woodcutting has been going on around our campsite, because there’s a lot of dead lodgepole pine there which is the best burning firewood available in this area.

And…I’ve gotten some worldbuilding stuff done with a Weird West novel. Given the positive reception to a Weird West short story excerpt at the reading on Friday, I decided that maybe I should just get to work on that now.

So things are going along fine…just busy. Winter is coming, and we’re hustling to prepare for it. Deer meat is going to be in the freezer, which is good, and we’ll have a full compliment of wood for supplemental heat when things get really cold here.

There will be a picture post. I promise. Just…brain dead and tired. But that will be coming.

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Sandy River Flooding pix

Interesting lessons learned from doing the photo shoot yesterday:

1.) Moving water closeups get blurred unless you have a rill of whitewater for the autofocus to work (I wasn’t playing with apeture/speed settings, could have but I was trying to get in, get shots, get to work).


2.) Framing through trees can be hard:

(actually, this one isn’t too bad)

3.) But sometimes the magic works

4.) During big weather events, pack the damn camera!

I could have gotten much more impressive shots than this:

Last night I was standing on the bank about thirty feet behind those sandbags in the picture above, with the river up about a foot higher.  I had permission then; I didn’t have permission in the morning.

Following this Sandy River flooding story is…interesting.  Thinking very hard about it.  It’s a shallow glacier-fed river and the biggest impact on flood levels during the winter is the freezing level up on the Mountain.  A combination of a Pineapple Express weather event, sizable snowpack, and freezing level retreating up the Mountain means a lot of water gets dumped into the river.  The river bed is gravelly and sandy (ergo, “Sandy River,” as William Clark dubbed it) so it’s not inclined to stay in its bed.

Meanwhile, after last winter’s disastrous floods, there’s rumors of scandals in the wake of flood restoration and repair.  It will be interesting to watch how this shakes out.

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