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Cold Day in Hell('s Canyon) Part 1 (May 2019)

May 22, 2019.

Summer in the Pacific Northwest is hard to beat. So, I wouldn't blame you for wondering why - with a week of sun and 75°F in store before Memorial Day - we were headed for the inclimate weather of the Oregon-Idaho border and Hells Canyon.

So let's start there.

In what I believe to be a tradition that I've stumbled into, Monte @Blackdawg and Mike @Digiratus generally get together for a trip every Memorial Day, and this year the plan was go meet up in Lewiston, ID for a few days of puttering around and enjoying ourselves in the outdoors.

And - always looking for a way to get the most value for the mile we can - @mrs.turbodb and I decided that we'd head over a few days early to explore a place that she'd been bugging me to go for quite some time.

And that's why we were headed to Hells Canyon - where the forecast was iffy - our fingers crossed as we pulled out of the garage; our craziness confirmed.

As it turns out, this was by far our closest destination in a long time - the entire drive doable in 7-8 hours, even at the great-grandpa speeds we'd be travelling. Along the way we passed through the Palouse - a land of rolling hills reminiscent of Windows desktop backgrounds.

We eventually found ourselves on the outskirts of Starbuck, WA, at the Lyons Ferry crossing. There, built in 1914 was what was once billed as the highest (240'), longest (3920') trestle in the world - and it was spectacular.

Was it as amazing as what we'd seen in Anza-Borrego? Well, size isn't everything - the wooden trestle there still takes the cake in my opinion - but this one was definitely worthy of a stop for a few photos.

Even having departed reasonably late in the morning, it wasn't quite 4:00pm when we pulled off the highway and onto a scenic byway that ran along the Grande Ronde (pronouced "Grand Rond") river. Expecting the road to turn to dirt any second we were caught a little off-guard when the pavement continued for the first several miles.

Not that we had anything to complain about - the views were still stunning - and perhaps more importantly, the temps were in the mid-70's, and despite the clouds in the sky, it looked like we weren't at any risk of rain...at least for the time being.

Our departure from the Grande Ronde came just before the town of Troy, OR - and as we turned east towards Hells Canyon, we finally hit well-graded dirt for a short stint up and out of the canyon and past what was quite clearly becoming the ghost town of Flora, OR.

It was at this point that we found ourselves in a very unfamiliar situation. It was the same day we'd left home, we'd reached the location we were going to spend a few days exploring, and it wasn't dark. In fact, not only was it not dark, but we had a few hours until sunset.

Should we just find camp and wait until the next morning - when we'd planned to head up Forest Road 46 - or should we just plow ahead now? It was decisions like this that we were unaccustomed to, with most trips being 17-20 hours away from home; our arrival after midnight an expectation.

Flush with our new-found time, we pushed forward. Surely - we thought - we wouldn't travel very far before we found camp for the night. And then tomorrow we'd continue to Buckhorn Lookout - the reason we'd taken this road in the first place.

Into Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and up in elevation we climbed. The clouds were actually getting thinner here - a great sign - though the winds were picking up and the elevation seemed to cool things off rather dramatically.

Still feeling a bit out of place - or like we needed to find a place to stop for the night - I realized at some point we were just driving by things that we'd normally stop to explore or enjoy. And we nearly did it again with an old barn along the side of the road - likely private, but un-fenced and beckoning us to see what was inside.

Turned out to be not much, but along a small creek just behind it, and something had caught my eye.

A wheel. One that looked like it might be connected to an axle of some sort. And one that didn't have the normal construction I think of when I think of a wagon wheel. And as it turned out, this was no wagon wheel.

This was an early Buick. Constructed of wooden spokes between a steel hub and steel rim, a little research after-the-fact showed this to be from a 1920's vintage machine, the differential just visible under the "pile of wood."

Excited with the find, we headed back to the truck and continued our climb to the top of the ridgeline - full of anticipation of what we'd see when we got there - sure that the views of Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America - would be jaw-dropping.

As we did, we admired spring all around us - the hills green, the flowers plentiful.

We'd marked a short off-shoot of the main FR-46 to Red Hill Lookout and you can imagine our surprise when we came upon it - still well before dark. Surely - having reached an official lookout - this would be the place we'd camp for the evening. It did, after all, offer views of the Wallowa Mountains, even if they were shrouded in clouds.

With the wind blowing, and not much shelter, we made the call to push on. Spending the night with the tent flapping and the possibility of a lightning strike if there should be a thunderstorm wasn't our idea of the best way to start a trip, and it looked like the trail might offer a couple nice places to camp just a few miles up the road toward Buckhorn Lookout.

But nope, it didn't. Now up on - and following - the ridge as we wound our way first north, then east, and eventually south, it was clear that we found ourselves on the outskirts of Hells Canyon in the very eary spring. The ground was wet, the trail was muddy, and the creeks were bursting their banks, flowing over into the lush mountain valleys. Not really an ideal place to pitch a tent and then slosh around making dinner.

And that is how we found ourselves at Buckhorn Lookout, a little after 7:00pm. Now - essentially - a full day ahead of schedule.

Of course, I didn't let on my concern - that we wouldn't have enough to keep us busy - to @mrs.turbodb, as we got out to look around. In the distance, the Seven Devils rose up along the south-eastern edge of Hells Canyon - the sun highlighting them under some ominous clouds.

It was cold. 500' higher than we'd been at Red Hill Lookout, this too wasn't where we wanted to camp - and that meant we had to keep pushing forward. Or, at least we had to keep pushing.

We headed off down an offshoot that looked promising. Trees, and a bit of road that appeared to be sheltered by a ridge from the easterly wind, were visible on our GPS, and when we arrived at what turned out to be the end of the road (due to a locked gate), we were very pleasantly surprised.

It was near perfect. The wind was held at bay by the ridge, the site was elevated and dry on some gravelly terrain, and there were views. I wondered quietly - of the dozens of spring bear hunters we'd seen so far, how was no one here already?

As I got to work on the tent and some guacamole, @mrs.turbodb set about making tacos on the tailgate. Yeah, this was going to be a tasty dinner.

We made quick work of our meal and pulled out our Kindles to relax a bit before hitting the sack. As we did, the sun began its descent towards the horizon, the colors of the sky seemingly vibrant and muted - depending on the direction of view - in these last few minutes of light.

Eventually the fireball retreated out of sight, it's orange glow to the west slowly fading away.

It'd been a reasonably long day, but still shorter than what we're used to for the first day of a trip. We were tired, but only just, as we climbed up into the tent - fingers crossed that the weather would hold, and full of anticipation for what the next day would bring.

One thing was for certain - what we got was not what we were expecting...

 

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