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OF MOUNTAINS AND MEN
A hundred close friends make
Steens Mountain a great destination
By Jim Witty
Wednesday, July 30, 2003, front page Community Life Section
A good backpacking trip is all about people.
In Oregon, we're fortunate to have a bounty of good destinations.
Last week, the place was Big Indian Gorge, a glacier-scoured ravine that swoops down off the western rim of Steens Mountain in a headlong plunge straight from the pages of a coffee-table book.
Six of us trooped up canyon, a half-dozen disparate characters looking for a little adventure, a few fish and a temporary respite from manic mornings and Tylenol afternoons.
There was Tom Moore, a close friend since elementary school and a Southern California builder with a seat-of-the pants bravado that promotes credibility even when you know he's knee deep in horse dung ("Fleas can't live at this elevation because their brains explode").
There was Brad Anderson, who puts up commercial buildings throughout the southland and is Tom's brother-in law. Type A all the way, Anderson's the guy who wants to do the 20-mile loop in one day, then try a little spelunking before it gets too dark.
Dan Sheppard, who owns his own construction company in Orange County, is soft-spoken, likes to stop to smell the sage and doesn't hesitate to just say no when Anderson suggests a mid-morning death march in the 90-degree heat.
Bob Speik, who owns six or seven backpacks along with all the stuff that goes inside and still keeps his load under 30 pounds, is Bend's answer to Ask Jeeves. His head's loaded with 76 years worth of outdoors knowledge and he's not afraid to fire at will.
And there was my son, Kev, who's 16. What can I say? He doesn't care for mosquitoes, likes girls but doesn't much like to discuss it with a bunch of old guys, and thinks Speik's the bomb (The guy's funny, you sure he's 76?").
We arrived in Frenchglen about dusk Sunday with just enough time to hunker down at Page Springs 'Campground on the Blitzen River before the mosquitoes could tear us limb from limb. The next morning we had a wonderful breakfast at the historic Frenchglen Hotel, where we met several charming folks, including a birder from the Willamette Valley who bore a striking resemblance to Rip Taylor of game-show fame.
Then we drove the Steens Loop Road from north to south (more on that next week) before arriving at the South Steens Campground trailhead for a mid-morning launch.
The trail, actually an old Jeep track at first, begins with a gradual incline across a barren tract that can be brutally hot during a heat wave in late July.
Then, just when we began to wilt from all that exposure, we dipped down to the creek and made the first of several stream crossings. The creek isn't too high right now; it can roar in spring and early summer.
The creek is full of feisty little rainbow trout and it's much cooler in the riparian zone.
After the second ford, we began seeing gnarly mountain mahogany, stands of shimmering aspen on the hillsides and cottonwoods down by the creek. We found a shady grove of cottonwoods about five miles up the gorge where we set up camp.
We had the gorge to ourselves that first day.
The next morning, Anderson and Moore hiked a few miles to the canyon's head wall while Sheppard and the Witty boys opted to fish with some hot little flies that Speik's wife, Tommie, had tied up. Speik lolled around camp taking equipment photos for his web site, www.TraditionalMountaineering.org.
But the most exciting moment of the day came when my stream side reverie was broken by a surreal vision. I had crested a berm above the creek headed upstream when I looked up and saw a hiker on the trail. And another. And another. And another. One hundred forty one in total, all the picture of teenage fitness, all headed down canyon on a marathon walk/run; covering both Big Indian and Little Blitzen gorges. They were runners from all over the country participating in the Steens Mountain Running Camp (I half expected to see Anderson falling in behind them for a bracing 40-miler).
The hike out was hot and dusty god we found out that the the temperature had peaked at 106 degrees that day in Frenchglen.
On the ride back to Bend for a date with a cool shower and a Bob Dylan concert the next day, we pretty much all concluded it had been a good pack trip.
No mutinies, no snake bites, no worries.
Just a postcard canyon in one of the most remote spots in the lower 48, a few pesky horse flies and 146 close friends.
IF YOU GO
> GETTING THERE:
From Bend, Drive east on Highway 20 to Burns, then south on State Route 205 to Frenchglen. Travel 10 miles south of Frenchglen on 205 and turn east onto the South Steens Loop Road. South Steens Campground is about 20 miles up the road on the right. The trail into Big Indian Gorge begins on an old Jeep road from the back of the family camping area. Allow about four hours for the car trip.
> ROUND-TRIP DISTANCE: About a 14-mile out-and back excursion. But there are several inviting camp spots along the way and you can tailor the hike accordingly.
> DIFFICULTY: Strenuous.
> ACCESS: Hikers, horses.
> PERMITS: None required.
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Photos of this backpack adventure
A road trip to Steens Mountain
Wedding on top of the world