Shy Of Izee

by Bruce Patterson, July 27, 2016

Ochoco: “Willow lined creek” in Northern Paiute 

Ever since I read that in recent years three radio-collared wolves of Northeastern Oregon’s Imnaha pack have come up the South Fork of the John Day on their ways to California, I’ve been meaning to get Trish, Jeff and myself up there to sniff around some. With sources coming off the north face of the north rim of the Great Basin, and some of its westernmost headwaters kissing those of our Crooked River, the canyon of the northbound South Fork is one of Oregon’s most important animal thruways. On our way we’ll be crossing over the Crooked River divide and getting mighty close to the Great Basin, and triple divides are extra special places. Then to this day my favorite landscapes remain those I’ve never laid eyes on.

If there’s a capital of the Crooked River’s “Upper Country,” it’d be the settlement called Paulina (pronounced Paw-line-ah). Named after the Northern Paiute warrior, renegade and horse rustler, it’s also home to one of the West’s oldest amateur rodeos and about the last one standing. What with the drought and “the market,” in recent years it’s been hard times up that way, and a couple of winters ago a chimney fire burnt down three shacks representing maybe a third of Paulina’s housing stock. Then last summer at the rodeo an old-timer got stepped on and killed by a bull. Since Western amateur rodeos resemble gatherings of Scots Highlander Clans more than a day at the ballpark, the fellah’s extended family was hanging on the fence when it happened and, hands down, that was the worst luck of all.

We’ve only been to Paulina once and never have gone past there. Commercial-wise, there’s nothing for the traveler except a wobbly-kneed general store sporting an antique gas pump and, on the inside, hot coffee, refreshments and Saran-Wrapped grub to go. Those things plus, through a door-less interior door, a short bar that, about 95% of the time anyway, is so quiet that popping a bottle cap startles the horses out back.

While Paulina is at least 80 river miles upstream from (and 830 vertical feet above) Prineville, the highway up and over the Pup Mountains bypasses the river’s big bend and so cuts about 20 miles off the trip. After leaving Prineville, it’s a straight shot up a super-two-lane State Hwy 380 that comes complete with fog lines (but no reflectors) and, here and there, shoulders and even an occasional compact turnout. But, after crossing over the summit, we’re coasting down the skinny old two-lane that had been laid atop the old wagon road. Negotiating the squiggles clinging to the side canyon leading to the river’s bottomlands reminds me of coasting down “the snake” on Hwy 128 from Mountain House down to the bend on Dry Creek, that stretch too having been laid down atop a wagon road.

Across the way stand the timbered Maury Mountains. Not only is Crook Co. distinguished by having virtually all of its 3,000 square miles inside a single watershed, it’s also one of the few counties in the USA that has three mountain ranges situated entirely within its boundries (So. Cal’s San Berdo Co., the country’s largest by area, has a couple dozen).

Now I admit the Muaries ain’t much of a range, the Pups might more rightly be called a hog-backed extension of the Ochocos and little old Barnes Buttes are a cinch to go around or get over. Then when exactly does a row of hills become a mountain range? At any rate, the Mauries are an isolated parcel of the Ochoco National Forest (Pronounced “Oh-Cha-co” unless you’re from Oklahoma, or Baja Oklahoma, in which case it’s “Oh-Chee-co”) that’s been set aside for timber production, hunting and fishing.

Before, in the 1950s, massive superhero bulldozers made it possible to extend superhighways by obliterating the existing topography, wagon roads heading up and down valley bottoms followed the toes of the hills. And so it goes with us as we meander 40 miles up the gradually shrinking river and widening valley. At first hemmed in by smooth silver green hills dappled with sage and juniper, bunch grasses, lava rocks and the speeding shadows of billowing dumpling thunderheads, we’re flanked by the river, irrigated pastures and side canyons decorated with lines of creek willows, painted hills, rimrocks and crags.

Though the day is cool and we never do see any lightning, a single cloud, its flat bottom invisible, dumps on us with so much ferocity that my windshield wipers can’t keep up and I slow from 50mph down to 30. Then, blink, we’re back in the sunshine and the squall is receding in my rearview mirror.

We pass by the ancient eroded basalt tooth called Eagle Rock for its clifftop nests (to advance to the 11th Grade, I had to go to summer school at an Eagle Rock HS). We pass the private pasture hiding the 19th Century USGS monument marking the exact geographic center of the Great State of Oregon. We pass the decaying ruins of the old Stagecoach stop, its scattering of log, plank and split-shake buildings and corrals shaded under fat decaying cottonwoods and given over to the cattle and the magpies, prairie chickens and rock chucks. We pass the mysterious old lone grandpa Ponderosa and the mouth of Camp Creek where the parched and half-starved members of the Lost Wagon Train of 1845 dropped to their knees in thanks for Salvation in the form a river heading their way. We pass by a textbook-perfect rim-rocked mesa listed as Flat Top Butte on 2016’s Official Oregon State road map (yes, Oregon’s place-namers were so fixated on the word “butte” that they must’ve thought it was short for “beauty”).

From the summit of the Pups all the way to the John Day, we see three pickup trucks and an empty hay truck coming at us and no kind of vehicle heading our way. As for local people out and about (it takes extra big ranches up there to have any chance of making it), we saw only two. Sitting on lawn chairs in the bed of their pickup in the corner of a freshly cut alfalfa field, they were plinking rock chucks and ground squirrels with 30/30’s.

I never guessed that, beyond Paulina, we’d get to ride on a brand-new looking super-two-lane highway. I’d also assumed we’d be climbing back up into the Ochocos and soon be sequestered within forest. But boy was I wrong. As we continue up what’s now Beaver Creek, I realize we’re not in a valley anymore but have entered gently rolling, naked, mile-high tablelands dappled with colors and drained by watersheds shaped like foxtails. When we leave Beaver Creek and start up a vast gentle grade toward the divide, the view lengthens and the land we’d passed through disappears behind a long, low-swung mesa. Just below the pass, the map shows a settlement called Suplee but none of us notice it. When we return a couple hours later on our way back home, we miss seeing it again.

The road over the divide sits in a saddle and we stop there to enjoy our bagged lunches in the total silence. The thunderheads have moved northward and we needn’t worry about getting rained on anytime soon. Southward beyond a tall roadside embankment stands a pointed peak wearing a crown of rimrock cocked back like a hat (it’s called “Funny Butte”) and, hoping to get an expansive view southward, I take off on foot with my camera while promising to be back pronto. About a dozen miles southeast stands Snow Mt. (7,163ft.) and I’m hoping to catch sight of it. Easily the tallest mountain in this part of the Ochocos and located on the north rim of the Great Basin, Snow Mt. once marked the boundary between Oregon’s Northern and Southern Paiute tribes.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Having no intention of bagging the summit of Funny Butte, once over the embankment I head for the lowest bit of southerly skyline. Underfoot are mummified cow pies, brown basalt rocks painted with lichen and patches of little red, white, blue, yellow and purple wildflowers. But the next “summit” is a false one and, above the next one stretches a sky-scraping ridgeline substantially taller than little old Funny Butte. “To hell with that,” says I, suddenly feeling hungry and thirsty and reversing course. Remembering how the first white men known to have crossed over this pass were Canadian fur trappers led by Peter Skene Ogden back in 1826, and how getting through the country we’ve just driven through had reduced them to eating their horses, made me feel grateful for my wheels, pastrami and Swiss.

Back in the car and dropping down out the saddle, we come into sight of pointy-headed Little Funny Butte and start overlooking Swampy Creek with its wetlands and oxbows signifying meltwaters “in equilibrium” with the land. After joining Little Funny Butte Creek and then picking up wise old Swampy, it’s called Pine Creek and its tumbling waters lead us into the hole hiding the John Day.

We park at the confluence and stretch our legs and necks. There’s a ranch HQ there but no signs of life: no roosters, dogs barking, animals pastured or machines operating. Downstream lies a V-shaped canyon that’s obviously rapidly descending and, upstream, it’s forests and flattish bottomland meadows, bull trout and butterflies, swallows as stunt pilots speaking in Morse Code, stereophonic birdsongs and, way up high, a soaring osprey, buzzard and raven. Above the bushy creek willows flickering in the upstream breeze, a falcon streaks.

I’d been meaning to get us upstream as far as Izee (pronounced Eye-Zee) but it’s still a ways and we’ve seen enough for one day. Besides, all I really wanted to see in Izee was whether there’s any there there. Plus I’d already found out what I’d really wanted to know. Up ahead is the Great Basin at the headwaters of Silvies Creek in the mountaintops above a sprawling subalpine meadow called Bear Valley and, just 25 mile away, the junction with US Hwy 395; a junction that’s just southwest of the soaring Strawberry Range (Summit: 9,038ft). And I’ll be damned if 395 is any better than this here road. . . this wondrous stretch of super-two-lane connecting nowhere to nowhere.

To properly sniff around these parts requires an overnighter, I decide. Next time, after reaching Hwy 395, we’ll either lay over down in John Day or down in Burns. Since I love visiting real desert, I’ll vote for Burns. It’ll be quicker and safer getting home and I bet I can find us a view of Snow Mt. from the south. Maybe from Wagontire Junction; Maybe from a road leading up in there.

NEXT: If you build it.

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