Thursday, August 20, 2020

Packrafting and Backpacking the Wallowas

In the posts about my mom Ginny Diegel I talked about how much she loved the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon; indeed, for an Oregonian, it's a "real" mountain range.  Not that the Cascades is not a range, but with craggy peaks and jagged ridges, deep valleys, rivers, and pristine mountain lakes the Wallowas offer a lot of alpine bang once you make the long entrance into them.  They are known as the "American Alps," which I think is actually a bit unfair:  they don't actually look much like the Alps and they are far wilder than the over-developed Alps, but I get that it's a magnificent little range that probably deserves more notoriety than it gets so people (back in the day) wanted to apply an impressive-sounding moniker.  Generally they seem more akin to the Wind River range, the Sawtooths, or the San Juans.  But regardless of what they are similar to (and who really cares?!?), the Wallowas have always loomed on the eastern horizon as Ashley and I have driven I-84 past LaGrande, and she had never been in those mountains and it had been....a lonnggg time since I'd been there.  

circa 1975?

Different dog, circa 1980?   

It turns out that I was apparently into Great Snags even before I knew that I was into Great Snags:
On that trip I had the opportunity to take probably the best - at least, the most fortuitous - picture i've ever taken:

Like some of the bigger/wilder ranges of the West, if you wanna access the Walllowa's goods, you can't drive, ride, or even day hike into them.  You gotta sling a pack on and march for a solid day up one of many long drainages to get to those idyllic mountain lakes.  Back in the day we had big frame packs and huge sleeping bags; now we can go with 1 pound sleeping bags and packs that weigh 2# empty and are essentially oversized day packs:

Though to be sure, there are still folks who eschew the light is right ethos:
At least they aren't wearing big boots!  And that sleepover sleeping bag looks pretty comfy....

But a new development over the last few years has enabled the ability to not have to hike out:  you can float!
The Wallowa's drainages are big enough to support several rivers, and we realized that we had the opportunity to add packrafts to our journey.  The Minam Lodge is an amazing place on the Minam river (more on that later) and is 23 miles upriver from a highway, so before we launched on foot we stopped by the Enterprise, Oregon international airport:
And dropped off our packrafts and paddling gear at the check-in counter:
Yes, we could have carried our boats in (they are "packrafts" and all), but we hoped to hike 60 or 70 miles with a lot of vert, and the Minam Lodge folks were kind enough to fly in our boat etc for only $50, so it was hard to pass up that opportunity to offload the poundage of the river gear.  

In addition to getting the boats into the lodge, we also had to deal with our car; we needed to get it from the trailhead to the end of our first section of paddling, and then get it to the takeout.  But if you have a car or gear or body that needs to be shuttled around, there is almost always someone willing to take your money and move it where it needs to go.  In this case it was the Minam store, which was very professional and accommodating:
once we got the logistics sorted, it was off into the simpler life and pace of rambling through the mountains:
Bridges like these help to keep the horse traffic down....

I got a little carried away on the "tilt the camera to make it look steep" thing!

the butt crawl is a proven successful log-crossing technique

A long cool spring made for a lot of snow for us to cross, and we had to change our route choice a bit to account for it. 

this photo is worth a bit of a tale.  As we were heading up to a pass we saw two different couples coming towards us. The first said "The trail to the pass is impassable!  The couple ahead tried it and said it was impassable!"  Okay, we said, we'll take a look for ourselves.  We came upon the 2nd couple who  - not surprisingly - also said "the trail is impassable!  My wife fell 250 feet!"  Okay, we said, we'll take a look for ourselves.  Our new benefactor declared, in a bit more panicky voice:  "THE TRAIL IS IMPASSABLE!"  Whoa dude, take it easy.  We aren't gnarly, but we will take a look for ourselves.  Indeed, the trail appeared to lead to a steep snow slope that had a big glissade track down the middle (visible in the lower left of the pic).  But if one turned about 80 degrees, one would see that the trail actually avoided the steep snow and switchbacked back into melted-out terrain, switched back a coupla more times, then a quick shot over the snow on top of the riege, which we traversed pretty easily.  While we tried to appreciated the good intentions of the advice, it was a good reminder that what one person perceives is not necessarily what everyone perceives.  

Onward through the mountains, we got into the popular Lakes Basin, but the snow pushed us down in elevation a bit:
We had hoped to climb Eagle Cap, but with only running shoes and no spikes we didn't.  

But we were able to go to Ice Lake and the Matterhorn.  Ice Lake is one of the Wallowa's most iconic lakes; it's big, crystal clear, deep, and at the base of the Matterhorn; a nice granite-domed peak that's just a walk up.  

The 1975 picture at the beginning of the post was taken looking down at Ice Lake, and we were keen to get on top for sentimental reasons, since that's where this great pic of Ma Ginny was taken on that same trip:

It's a nice little walkup, and though it seems like many things get less-big and less-beautiful as we get bigger/older, the Matterhorn and Ice Lake are still as great as ever. 

To continue our traverse of the range to meet up with our boats and avoid a lot of snow we had to drop down into a drainage and then back out.  The Lostine River drainage is quite steep in the neighborhood of the trailhead, so even though we didn't necessarily want to camp at the trailhead where there would undoubtedly be more people/vehicles, that's where we ended up.   As we were setting up camp alongside the roaring and chilly stream, a guy came wandering over from his camper van with a glass of wine in his hand.  Turns out that Bill - from Portland's suburbs - was a fascinating guy who regaled us with tales of "I hitchhiked to India - and it took me a year to get there!" and the like for hours.  He's the retired director of a Christian-based Doctors Without Borders-type of organization, so he turned a wanderlust into a career that helped people around the globe.  And in an era where it seems that the word "Christian" has a connotation of social and political conservatism, it was great to meet a guy like Bill who truly personified the thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic ethos that Christianity should embody.  
Bill sharing his wine and knowledge of the area.  
Another day and a half of hiking - again, with plenty of vertical and plenty of snow - we rolled into the Minam Lodge.  

The lodge was originally built in the early 50's as a hunting/fishing lodge, and after a number of ownership changes in the 80's and 90's it fell into a bit of disrepair.  Around 2010 it apparently struck the fancy of a financial dude in Portland who embarked on a very ambitious project to not only revive the lodge, but make it into a super nice, high end lodge parked literally in the middle of nowhere (it's a tiny hole in the wilderness that was grandfathered in).  The shortest access is an 8 mile hike, so it was basically built with materials helicoptered in, and it was clear that the owner spared no expense; it was almost too fancy, but it was also pretty "cool".  They have a great greenhouse:
Ash went straight to the greenhouse before heading to the lodge, but it didn't take long to throw the pack down on a deck and enjoy a nice beer after 5 days of marching.  

We didn't give them any notice of our arrival (we were tromping through the mountains) so we weren't able to have dinner, which was very much "presented" to the diners by the chef, whom we found out from other guests is apparently some sort of "celebrity" chef from Portland.  But they did have enough breakfast:
Homemade bread, huckleberry jam, wilderness chicken eggs, and strawberries from the garden were a nice change from freeze dried eggs and oatmeal!  The Lodge isn't cheap, but it doesn't take very many napkin calculations to understand that they aren't making much/any money with the investment in quality that they've put into their place that likely only sees visitors 6 or 7 months a year.  

After breakfast we headed down to the "hangar" (a shed), grabbed our boats,  and headed for the river.  We love hiking, but a more or less flat 22 mile hike through the woods was easily foregone for a nice float down the class 2-3 Minam river. 
There were a few rapids, but generally it was swift water. Apparently there are some class 4 gorges upstream from the lodge for the more ambitious.  

Soon enough we were back at the Minam Store where the Minam and Wallowa rivers join.  Our car had magically made it there from the trailhead, so we were able to refuel our trip with food, and then merrily carried on down the river.  The Minam/Wallowa confluence is actually the common start for floating the Grande Ronde river, which in turn joins the Wallowa 10 miles downstream.  The Grande Ronde is very easy and is simply a boat-based camping trip with beautiful beaches tucked into Ponderosa pines that stretches 40 miles more to the remote town of Troy, Oregon.  

It was great to be able to follow a river from its humble beginnings coming out of mountain lakes and  small springs bursting out of hillsides all the way down to a rolling desert river. 

Thanks again to the nice folks at the Minam lodge, and to Ash for being a great pard on yet another great little adventure.  

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Ode to Ginny Diegel number 3.

It's now been a month since mother's day, but Paul and I haven't forgotten to do the final chapter of our ode to our venerable mom.  Summarizing an active and social 90+ year old's life is a daunting task!
Back to the tale.....

Life for Ginny as a 69 year old newlywed seemed to just keep getting better.
a smashing wedding couple
Husband TomB was overjoyed to have a new fishing partner and cool old camper van to tinker with and they quickly racked up miles gallivanting about looking for fish. Ginny had always more interested in traveling the rural West than going overseas, but gradually New Zealand, Belize, the British Virgin Islands were added to their carpet-bombing all the fishing spots they could find around the Western US and Canada.
Pretty sick tropical look!  

Readying for a BC fly-in.
The latter has a guiding company featuring a fish processing ship converted to a high end floating fishing  resort in the Queen Charlotte Islands called the Salmon Seeker, humbly described as The Last Frontier of Fishing, that they visited annually, and from our perspective it seemed to be indeed the salmon and halibut seeker and destroyer as they always returned with a copious supply of monstrous fish.  She was beside herself one Christmas, unable to figure out a good present for us and exasperated at our lack of interest in giving her ideas. She finally mentioned that all she had as the holiday shopping came to an end was a freezer that was just overflowing with salmon and halibut that they had caught and blueberries they had picked. That led to about the best Christmas present a mom can give her Utah sons.

Ginny had raised us to be trout snobs, but Tom B had grown up fishing in Oregon, done some commercial fishing, had a 19 ft jet boat that he and his son built themselves, and was passionate about anything involving water, a boat, underwater creatures, and a thermos of coffee. Sturgeon, bass, steelhead; if it had fins, he was up for a road trip to check it out. One classic trip involved driving away from Portland midwinter with a canoe and no real plan aside from seeking sunshine and fishing and eventually finding themselves on the Gulf Coast of Texas.  “Any fish here?”   
too much snow in Flagstaff for fishin; let's head for Texas!

They also developed an affinity for a beach alongside the Snake River called “Dug Bar” that may be among the remotest places you can drive to in the lower 48, but that didn’t stop Tom B from taking that old 2WD van down the rugged and precipitous track with his boat and trailer bouncing along behind, and more than once he had to stop to fix a flat on one or the other in the middle of that road in the bowels of Hell’s Canyon (We once asked him if they had a communication device for any major problems, and he replied “Hell yes!  Got one of them fancy cell phones!”  We didn’t bother to point out that they were hours from a signal….).  Once at Dug Bar with Tom’s son Sam they set up a compound that would make any car camper envious, and the morning coffee time stretched late and the cocktail hour started early, with copious bass-slaying happening in between.  Life was good. 

At this point, we (Tom D and Paul) were living out of state. Ginny and Tom B visited us when they could, but their busy travel schedule kept them on the run. Inevitably, their lives began slow bit by bit, with Tom B remarking over a strong gin and tonic at his 90th birthday party that he just wasn’t the man he was at 89. This after recently receiving a freeway speeding warning and explaining to the Oregon State Trooper that at his age momentum was all he had and that he couldn’t afford to slow down.

In the fall of 2008, TomB passed away, characteristically annoyed that he was about to miss the Eastern Oregon steelhead run. We were both settled into Utah and Ginny decided it was time to get away from the rain once and for all by moving to Utah.  On the drive out, she was lamenting that she had grown up being known as Ginny and that the somewhat-formal husband PC had always called her Virginia, which then stuck with their Portland friends. Upon being told that she could create a new identity in a new location where a few of us knew her, she brightened up and said that from now on there was no Virginia, only Ginny.  So it has been.
Ginny with her namesake niece Ginger.  both names so much more fun than "Virginia!"
When Ginny left Illinois in nineteen hundred and forty six she was bound and determined to live in the mountains, and was never quite sure how she ended up living at an elevation of 350 feet in western Oregon, so she was excited to have consistent views mountains and the ability to head up into them from time to time.  For her first 6 years or so here, her 3rd floor east-facing window provided a straight view of Gobbler’s Knob, and she was able to use her binoculars give us a report on tracks on the NW face and watch us ski.  When given one wish for her September birthday, she has picked a picnic with us and Janette and Ashley up in the canyons every year since she arrived.

We spent a number of long weekends with her at Utah Avalanche Center forecaster and former Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger Drew Hardesty’s National Park Service cabin on the edge of Lupine Meadow where she found she could spend full days on the Best Front Porch In The World with a book, sandwich, iced tea, watching Mt Teewinot go by.  Her ability and desire to fish has diminished a lot, although when we rented a canoe to fish along the shoreline of Jenny Lake, she found the fishing a lot more interesting than the grizzly turning over logs 40 yards away on the shore.

Her 94th birthday is approaching. Diminishing mobility and fading memory changes life a lot and her primary entertainment has become reading, time with the family, and going out for breakfast. Life in assisted living under the pandemic regime is rugged, with her travel limited to the inside perimeter of her tiny apartment and a no-visitation order. We bent the rules a couple of weeks ago and snuck her out for a long breakfast (take out at a local neighborhood park) where she was overjoyed at the simple pleasures of warm sun, cold breeze, slightly runny eggs, homemade apricot jam, and people and dogs of all sizes walking by and giving her a cheery hello.
Like a lot of people, she needs a haircut!
Like the earlier ode to our dad PC, much of these three posts about Ginny have focused on what she’s done, and it’s very much worth talking a bit about who she is.  Our mom has always been eternally positive and easy going, even as she has aged and more acutely over the last few months of what has effectively been solitary confinement.  She also has been just stubborn and fortunate enough to say, get, and do what she wants, and for better or worse has blissfully ignored much of the challenging aspects of American life/history; she doesn’t really remember the Korean or Vietnam wars, the civil unrest of the 60’s, or any other major social upheavals, but she sure remembers well the many hiking, fishing, dog training, and mushroom hunting adventures that she did with her family and friends. 
The entire Denecke-Diegel clan (and Martha!) celebrating Ginny's 90th.  
She claims to have had kids without any real intent or strategy for raising them but it somehow it (barely!) worked out okay. Her natural ability to chat anybody up is legendary, yet as she aged that chattiness didn’t devolve into droning on and on the way some old folks tend to do because she still has maintained a keen interest in other people and much prefers learning about what others are up to rather than talking about herself, a quality that made her a good newspaper reporter and writer.  In her 10th decade she is quite comfortable with her mortality, with the knowledge and satisfaction that – like her two husbands who went before her – she’s led exactly the life that she wanted to. 
"I want to go to Zion!"  

Mountain Mama in the Wallowas, mid-1970's.

"Sailing?  That'd be wonderful!"
Life in our new Covid-inspired reality is hard on someone her age.  She is in a nearby assisted living facility with a strict lockdown and no visitation policy, which raises the question of whether social isolation or the potential vulnerability to a likely fatal (at her age) disease is the greater risk.  There are no easy answers right now. Certainly we all miss our regular 2-hour breakfast outings and face-to-face time greatly.  But in true Ginny fashion she is still – in her words – “just fine!”

Ginny Diegel’s been a great mom; the best we ever had! 

Thanks again to brother Paul who wrote the majority of this post and dug up a lot of great pics for this series from some buried treasure chest!