Take Yosemite National Park around Tuolumne Meadows and environs, combine it with the best of the mountains of southern Colorado and you have Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. Yosemite for the granite rock and southern Colorado for the high alpine valleys cut by meandering crystal clear streams.
Far from being undiscovered, the Wallowa Mountains, as a group of us found out when we got to the trailhead at the end of the road up the east fork of the Lostine River, are very popular. The trailhead lot was as packed as the one in front of Best Buy two days before Christmas.
But somehow, all the hikers, backpackers and the stock animals ferrying people and loads into the backcountry dispersed and rather than find ourselves in an alpine ghetto, we had plenty of room to camp without feeling cramped.
Once set up in camp, it was time to let the mountains take control.
John Muir wrote about climbing the mountains and feeling their warmth and having one’s, “cares drop away like leaves off the trees in autumn.”
How true. It took one day to start to flow with the sun’s daily cycle, two days to become relaxed and feel the cares of the world start melt away. Three days to begin to feel one with the world. Four days to think that this really is what life is all about.
Every sense is enhanced. The simplest day hike becomes an experience in readjusting those senses. At night, lying in a sleeping bag the sliver of a new moon looks like it’s ten feet away, the stars like you could gather them up put them in a water bottle and take them home.
Muir put it thus: “How hard to realize that every camp of men and beast has this glorious starry firmament for a roof! In such places standing alone on the mountaintop it is easy to realize that whatever special nests we make-leaves and moss like marmots and birds, or tents or piled stone- we all dwell in a house of one room-the world with the firmament for its roof-and are sailing the celestial spaces without leaving any track.”
Come morning and a new day, there were hikes to be made, fish to be caught, peaks to bag. The hikes were wonderful with wildflowers still blanketing meadows. The peaks were slogs rewarded with spectacular views. The fishing was, in short, lousy. Lousy, particularly if you prefer casting to fish over eight inches in length and not of the Brook Trout clan.
The weather was brilliant, the mosquitoes pesky but not maddening, the horseflies slow but powerful in bite. Swimming in a cold lake or the upper reaches of the Lostine River took the sting out of any bug bite and made an afternoon nap a necessity.
There were small moments that stood out much like the one experienced by the explorer John Charles Fremont in 1842.
“During our morning’s ascent we had met no signs of animal life, except a small sparrow-like bird already mentioned. A stillness the most profound and a terrible solitude forced themselves constantly on the mind as the great features of the place. Here, on the summit, where the stillness was absolute, unbroken by any sound, and the solitude complete, we thought ourselves beyond the region of animated life; but while we were sitting on the rock, a solitary bee (Bombus,the bumble bee) came winging his flight from the eastern valley, and lit on the knee of one the men.”
It is small wonders like this that made the mountain magical for Fremont and for us as well 168 years later.
Yet despite all the wonderful things about the Wallowa Mountains and the efforts by the Forest Service to keep alpine meadows from being trampled and campsites and fire rings from taking over the landscape, the environment is fragile and perhaps limits to the number backpacking and horse travel into parts of this great wilderness will soon be enforced. Man’s impact is evident and hard to gloss over despite all the good just being in the mountains does for one’s soul.