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May 14 2010

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75 male
 Joined Dec 07 2010
 Phoenix, AZ
Hells Canyon Bench High TrailNortheast, OR
Northeast, OR
Hiking avatar May 14 2010
Hiking21.00 Miles 5,000 AEG
Hiking21.00 Miles
5,000 ft AEG
1st trip
Linked none no linked trail guides
Partners none no partners
After spending 3 months of the winter in AZ hiking the deserts I was ready for some Oregon
Scenery. The middle of May is a good time to hike in Hells Canyon if you can pick a reasonable window in the weather pattern. I had wanted to backpack on the Bench High Trail for some time and the weather looked promising for at least 4 days starting May 14. This trail follows a series of benches along the western (Oregon) side of Hells Canyon starting in Saddle Creek Canyon and going all the way to Dug Bar, approximately 63 miles including 4.6 miles on the Saddle Creek Trail to get to the High Trail. The best way to hike this trail is to arrange for a shuttle at a pre-planned takeout point but I decided to do an out and back trip. I loaded up my backpack with provisions for 8 days. The plan was to follow the High Trail for 4 days or until the weather started to deteriorate, then turn around and return.

The starting point is the Saddle Creek Trailhead in Freezeout Canyon. The trailhead is on FR
4230 which branches off the Imnaha River road about 13 miles upriver (south) of the village of Imnaha. The best driving route from western Oregon is to go through Joseph on the north side of the Wallowa Mountains to Imnaha but I chose to go through the town of Halfway on the south side because I hadn't been to that area in several years and was looking forward to seeing it again. My plan was to take FR39 north through the mountains up North Pine Creek and then down Dry Creek to the Imnaha River road. I had taken this route several years ago and remembered it to be a well maintained gravel road so didn't bother to check on road conditions (big mistake).

On arriving at Halfway late in the afternoon I saw lots of snow still remaining in the Wallowa Mountains so decided to stop at the Cattlemen's Lounge and Restaurant in downtown Halfway to ask about road conditions and have dinner. It was still early for dinner and the restaurant was empty but the bartender in the lounge was friendly, the beer was cheap, and I could be served dinner at the bar - what could be better. A group of locals gathered at the table behind me and their conversation soon turned to fishing at nearby lakes. Years ago I had stumbled upon Duck Lake up in the mountains and had phenomenal luck fishing this little lake for two days without seeing another fisherman. I had always been puzzled as to why I'd seen no one fishing there when it was fairly close to Halfway. I posed this question to the gathered locals. The more vocal member of the group answered: "That's because there are no fish in Duck Lake." I replied: "How could that be, I caught many trout there over 18 inches long." He replied: "YOU AREN'T LISTENING, THERE ARE NO FISH IN DUCK LAKE!" At that point I decided it was best to change the subject and asked the bartender about the road conditions on FR39. He asked the group of locals who responded that the road was still closed for the winter and the snowplows wouldn't clear it for at least another week. That meant I would have to drive all the way around the Wallowas to Joseph, about 110 miles. Oh well, the locals had gotten more friendly once I stopped talking about Duck Lake, the home cooked lasagna was good and the beer was still cheap. Better yet,
when I asked the bartender if there was a nearby place where I could stay overnight he said they had rooms upstairs for $25 a night, not fancy but clean. Early the next morning I had breakfast in the restaurant before hitting the road. A group of locals were having morning coffee before going to work. I looked out the window and here came a customer to join them driving an early '50s Ford tractor down main street - his chosen vehicle for the morning commute. I love small remote Oregon towns.

That morning I drove back to Baker City then around to Joseph on the north side of the Wallowas. It's a beautiful scenic drive so I didn't mind the extra few hours to reach the trailhead. I reached the trailhead shortly after noon and started the 2.8 mile, 1700 ft climb up to Freezeout Saddle. There were great views from the saddle of the Wallow Mountains to the west, the Seven Devils Mtns in Idaho and Hells Canyon. It was getting late in the afternoon by the time I arrived at the junction of the Saddle Creek Trail and the High Trail so I decided to camp overnight on a small knoll overlooking Saddle Creek Canyon. As I was setting up my tent I looked over my shoulder at the canyon bottom and there was an elk herd strung out single file making there way toward a side canyon. Evidently they had gotten wind of my presence and were headed for a hideaway. I nice end to my first backpacking day.

The next day I took my time hiking north on the High Trail - there was lots to see and I
had plenty of time. There was a bench in the distance with open grassy meadows which protruded out into the canyon about a mile to form a point. Later in the day as I got nearer to the point I could see an elk herd grazing on the meadow near the tip of the point. Upon reaching the bench I decided to camp there for the night and explore the bench the next morning hoping to sneak up on the elk for some closeup photos. It was a good place to camp with water nearby in Rough Creek.

The next morning I walked out on the bench on the downwind side of the elk staying just out of their sight below the brow of the edge of the bench. As I got close I would periodically hold my camera up above the brow of the hill and snap a picture - I had muted the sound on the camera so there would be no simulated shutter sounds. The herd was grazing when I started out on the bench but by the time I got close they had lain down to chew their cuds. After taking a few pictures I ducked back down and carefully crawled a little closer staying out of sight. Unfortunately the camera has a battery saving feature that retracts the telescopic lens if there's been no activity and as I crawled closer it did this with a low whirring sound from the drive motor. I reactivated the camera and held it up to take a picture and there was the entire herd up on their feet looking in my direction about 150 yards away with a look on their faces that said "Who's that over there?" Shortly after that they took off down into one of the many side canyons. When I followed them over to the edge of the bench I saw one lone elk part way down the side of the canyon looking up to see if I was following. When he saw me, that clinched it and they were gone. I never saw them again that day or the next when I left.

Around noon that day I noticed there were storm clouds starting to form in the distance and I
was getting antsy to explore other areas of eastern Oregon. So I cut short my planned 8 day trek and started the hike back. That night I camped again on the knoll overlooking Saddle Creek Canyon. The wind howled down from the saddle above all night making it difficult to sleep with the rustling of my tent. I had made a wise choice to leave the canyon four days earlier than planned.

WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.


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