The trailhead for Lick Creek Trail is cleverly hidden.
A year ago I got lost here. Not on the trail — or off it in some mosquito-infested, bear-hair-draped bramble thicket.
Instead, I was in a car, driving back and forth on Umatilla River road, looking for the trailhead. I found nothing but thick vegetation and frustration.
This July, though, I got my bearings by working with the Blues Crew, volunteers associated with the Blue Mountain Land Trust who rehabilitate trails.
That Saturday we worked the lower portion of the trail in torrid 95-degree heat and 9 percent humidity.
I limped off the mountain soaked in sweat and the feeling of accomplishment.
The Blues Crew had worked the top portion on an earlier and cooler day, but unlike the transcontinental railroad, the two crews hadn’t met in the middle, gave long-winded speeches and ate celebratory cake.
As the heat rash on my chest began to fade, I forgot my Blues Crew misery and decided to hike the trail bottom to top.
I couldn’t wait to explore the middle, untamed stretch and do some bushwhacking — my own personal jungle adventure.
In early August, I drive about an hour, finally reaching the trailhead sign, which is about the size of a can of Spam,
The trailhead lies on a beautiful bend of the Umatilla River a couple of hundred yards upriver from the Corporation trailhead and its horse-unloading ramp and about a mile below where the South Fork and North Fork merge. It’s less hot this day — 90 degrees — yet still warm enough for chickens to lay omelets.
I gaze longingly at the cool river and consider my options.
Sit in the rapids?
Hike the trail?
It’s a tough choice, but hiking from bottom to top has captured my imagination.
Besides, I want to see how much progress the Blues Crew has made on the top of the trail.
And I’m happy the trail vaguely follows a creek, although I worry Lick Creek got its name because for water you have to lick a rock.
Soon I am charging up the mountain, or at least keeping up with most slugs.
Most of the trail, to my relief, is in deep, dark woods, where you’d hardly know the temperature out on the exposed hillsides is hot enough to fry eggs on basalt ledges.
The trail begins at river bottom, about 2,300 feet elevation, and soon enters the petite 20,200-acre North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, finishing near the ridgetop a couple thousand feet higher.
As I plod along, in deep woods, I admire work done by the Blues Crews crosscut saw team cutting out numerous bigger logs blocking the trail. The trail graders have leveled uneven patches, and the brushers have trimmed the vegetation, which grows about as fast as a beard at a job interview.
The trail curls past giant ponderosa pines and emerges briefly onto an open hillside with basalt outcroppings and the occasional defiant tree exposed to the burning sun.
Soon the trail re-enters blue-hued fir and pine-clad woods. There, a blue jay plays hide and seek and a woodpecker orders up buffet at the lunch counter.
Surprising me around one bend are robins who have left behind lawn work in town to become wilderness hermits.
Then I emerge once again onto a rocky hillside. A baby snake skis by, doing the slalom.
Scat on the trail is filled with fur — evidence of a lucky coyote and an unlucky rabbit.
Deep in the draw thick with shadows, a raven caws frantically as if a thief has stolen its lunch.
The raven is filling the air with avian swear words.
About a mile and a half into the hike, I reach the end of the Blues Crew’s work on the lower trail. Suddenly, I am chest deep in ferns and other vegetation trying to rip a hiking pole from my grasp. Unfortunately, for all the gear I am carrying, I have forgotten the most important piece — the machete.
At my next water break, I sit on part of a rootwad — a moss-covered wilderness La-Z-Boy chair.
Luxuriating, I eat Bing cherries and zucchini bread — among the 100 uses for zucchini at my house — drink water and listen to forest sounds. Mainly I hear buzzing flies.
I see the basket on the walking stick is missing. Apparently, some particularly thuggish bush has taken it hostage.
Rested, I continue on.
Even here, in the jungle, several logs crossing the trail have been removed by the crosscut artists.
Two other logs await their handiwork. I crawl over the logs, glad no audience is present to witness my lack of grace.
Even though the brush is thick, I have no trouble finding the trail.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I finally reach the upper part of the trail worked on by the Blues Crew.
What a difference!
Huckleberry bushes tempt me with tiny, succulent berries.
A swallowtail butterfly flits by as I follow the trail ever upward.
My legs are beginning to feel like steel fence posts.
At an opening in the forest I look west and see a rocky ridge.
It’s the trail up Grouse Mountain, which is more formidable, and I’m glad my destination this day is the more modest intersection of the Grouse Mountain and Lick Creek trails.
Finally, after more climbing, I reach the top where the Blues Crew has installed new signs.
I take a long break, contemplating moss, Indian paintbrush and human weakness.
Soon, fortified by water and more Bings, I am ready to head back down the mountain. Whereas most folks would be eager, I don’t do downhill well, thanks to perpetually whining toes. I proceed gingerly, one step at a time, remembering days working for the Forest Service summers during college when I would have descended the trail like a slalom skier.
I see a raptor soaring overhead.
Feeling as old as basalt, I wish I could hitch a ride to the bottom of the canyon.
I re-enter the jungle.
The bushwhacking goes quicker this time.
Amazingly, near the end of the chest-high brush, I find the basket for my walking stick.
I put the basket in the rear pocket of my shorts.
I reach the lower part of the trail, where the Blues Crew has worked, and pick up my pace.
Even my toes shut up for once.
The river and cool water awaits.