Even though it is far from bake-oven hot, children and wildlife are water-seeking missiles.
A boy and girl at Red Bridge State Park, in the Blue Mountains 18 miles west of La Grande, Ore., are targeting a sprinkler. They ignore the adjacent Grande Ronde River and continue their boisterous game, shrieking. The winner is who gets the wettest — and both are as wet as fish.
Several miles down river, a fawn zips across lightly traveled Highway 244, slips through brush and hops into the stream. Half running, half swimming, it rides the current down river, looking like a cat in a bathtub.
A few minutes later, I ease the Prius into Interstate 84 eastbound traffic. The 40 mph meandering on nearly deserted back roads suddenly becomes 70 mph — with an avalanche of cars and trucks whizzing by. Out of the corner of my eye I spy a forked-horn buck in velvet wading in the middle of the now-larger river. I’d stop and snap a picture, but I fear becoming roadkill.
Wife Wonder, my traveling companion this day, and I agree to take pictures with our mind’s eye. These pictures are always in perfect focus and calendar worthy. Then we continue in the avalanche of traffic down to La Grande.
We are on a loop tour. The drive heads south from Milton-Freewater through Pendleton and Pilot Rock and over the Battle Mountain summit (4,285 feet elevation) to Ukiah. We then turn east, crossing one more pass before reaching Starkey and La Grande. We finish with a swing through Elgin and over the Tollgate Pass to Weston and home. It’s 215 miles all told.
On this brilliant summer day, we stop at Battle Mountain Forest State Park, 25 miles south of Pilot Rock on Highway 395. It’s serene today. But not so much in 1878 when the decisive battle in the Bannock War, among the last between American Indians and the U.S. military, occurred on the hills and draws nearby.
Just over a half-century later, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp of young working men was located here. It was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plan to help America survive the Great Depression. A granite fireplace built by the CCC, still in use almost 90 years later, stands as a tribute to their craftsmanship.
Today, a crowd has gathered for Sunday church services. Wind stirs the towering ponderosa pines, larch, Douglas fir and spruce that decorate the sanctuary. Barbecue smoke from a potluck serves as incense.
Not wanting to interrupt the festivities, we leave and cross the Battle Mountain summit at nearly a mile above sea level and descend to the high plains north of Ukiah. The area was originally called Camas Prairie for the camas plants harvested by Indians. Early settlers said the area would turn so blue with camas flowers it could be mistaken as a distant lake.
Today, hundreds of cows wade through the former camas fields in shoulder-deep grass. We stop for a picture to give a herd of steers their 15 minutes of fame, and they line up shoulder to shoulder in a “West Side Story” New York street gang defiant pose.
Across the highway, lupine, Queen Anne’s lace and blanket flower bloom in profusion.
Soon we turn east on Highway 244 and drive through Ukiah, a sleepy town along Camas Creek. Far off the beaten track, Ukiah is famous for bone-chilling cold. For almost a century, Ukiah has been tied with Seneca (54 below zero) for the Oregon cold record. Ukiah lists a population of 200, possibly counting a couple of dogs.
We follow Camas Creek upstream, passing basalt outcroppings, evidence of ancient eruptions where the lava has cooled and hardened. Soon we enter thick forest with blue-hued fir and ridges wearing fine pine jackets.
We stop at Lane Creek campground for lunch and have it to ourselves, as if we had made reservations. This is a Sunday. Imagine the quiet of weekdays.
Traffic on Highway 244 is light. We enjoy our apple and cheese and listen to the living forest. The tops of ponderosa pines stir in the wind. A woodpecker works overtime. Ants, Wonder’s arch enemy, scurry on the picnic table, and we improvise a game of hockey, flicking ants to score goals.
Not far up the road we stop for a modest after-dinner hike. Seeing a bear on the Bear Wallow Interpretive Trail, I assure Wonder, is as likely as seeing an Indian in Indian Valley, farther ahead on our tour at Elgin. Still, Wonder claps her hands as we meander beside the small salmon spawning stream that courses through swampy terrain. We see no bears. Or fish.
About 16 miles east of Ukiah, we pass Lehman Hot Springs. At 4,300 feet elevation, the springs were popular first with Native Americans and then pioneer settlers, who founded a resort here in 1871. At last check, Lehman Hot Springs is no longer available to the public for daily swims but is now a limited-use facility for private organizations.
Five miles later we roll past the Starkey Experimental Forest and Range. Here, 37 miles west of La Grande, on a mind-popping 40 square miles of bunchgrass scabland and mixed conifers, inside an ungulate-proof fence, research is conducted on rangeland improvements for cattle, mule deer and elk. Some of the researchers come from as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska.
Ten miles later we arrive at Camp Elkanah. Here, 27 miles west of La Grande, conservative Baptist church youth camps, women’s and men’s camps and pastors’ prayer summits go on all year. The camp dates to 1930, when Mount Emily Lumber Company established it along Meadow Creek for timber harvest. The church camp got its start when, in 1956, the Mount Emily Division of the Valsetz Lumber Co. donated 12 acres and buildings to the Blue Mountain Conservative Baptist Association of Eastern Oregon. In 1986, the camp acquired 170 additional acres from Boise Cascade Corporation to reach its present size.
We continue down the road and soon enter a meadow where an air-conditioned barn sits, living out the end stages of life with the snowcapped Elkhorn Mountains in the background. Looking back to the road, we see cows. Lots of them. Some hugging the centerline. Much of the drive is in open range, with cows occasionally trading grazing for a rousing game of Dodge the Car.
Unlike cows, most wildlife seeks shade in the afternoon heat. But along the Grande Ronde River life abounds. A water ouzel, also called a “dipper,” the favorite bird of naturalist John Muir, bobs in the river. Downstream, a family of Canada geese take swimming lessons.
We soon reach familiar stomping grounds — La Grande, where I worked for 20 years. We take the side road through town to see what’s new, as if we are tourists visiting for the first time. The city of 13,000 is on the west side of the Grande Ronde Valley with familiar landmarks — mounts Emily, Harris and Fanny — looming in the hazy distance.
We turn north toward Elgin through mint and wheat fields and climb over Hamburger Hill, infamous locally for deer-car collisions, before dipping into Indian Valley.
We turn north at Elgin, with its tourist train and historic opera house, and climb the Blue Mountains past deep canyons to the almost mile-high summit east of Tollgate. I look for huckleberries — they look even smaller when traveling at 55 mph — and see nothing edible except Euell Gibbons’ pine bark.
Soon we are descending Weston Mountain. Through the heat haze, we see a forest of wind towers and the Columbia River’s right turn at Wallula Gap. Before long, we are cruising the last downhill with its million-dollar views of the Walla Walla Valley.