Tall proud mountains, a pristine lake, laced with history and quaint mountain towns, this is the gateway to the Wallowa Mountains and the mighty Hells Canyon
We travelled east through Oregon toward the border with Idaho. This boundary is set by the Snake River which starts its journey in Wyoming at Jackson Lake and ends when it joins the mighty Columbia River in Washington State. At the point, we meet the Snake River is the start of Hells Canyon. This is the deepest river gorge in North America, at a mile deep and it also 10 miles wide. It is deeper than the Grand Canyon. Before reaching the Snake River we turn north on a seasonal road (it is cut-off with snow during the winters and is not ploughed). Up we go into the mountains through thick coniferous forests. 20 miles along this road is a turn-off to a view point of Hells Canyon. The view is spectacular with panoramic views across the canyon, but truth-be-told it is not the Grand Canyon and disappointingly you cannot stare a mile down into the gorge and see the Snake River rumbling and tumbling below. So, time to move on and get to our campsite at Wallowa before night sets in.
Although neither of us had the greatest night sleep it was lovely to wake up in such a beautiful place. Our site is perfect – it is large and on the outer edge of the park, so we back onto a lovely wooded area complete with a bubbling brook. After breakfast, we decided to break out the kayaks and take a turn out on the lake. This was a mid-week morning and still early so we had the lake more or less to ourselves. We paddled up and gazed with curiosity at the homes that line the banks of Wallowa Lake. As we turned back towards home we got to see the stunning backdrop to the lake, the Wallowa Mountains. At this time of the year, the snow has receded but they nonetheless looked spectacular, making this a very special place.
We had not finished our exertions for the day since we had decided to head into Joseph, some 6 miles away, on our mountain bikes. The City of Joseph is not huge but it is very quaint, especially the main street which has a Western theme. The town has fostered a community of artists who work in bronze and there are several examples of their work lining the streets of Joseph.
There are a few small stores selling knick-knacks of various kinds catering to the tourists. Fueled by a chocolate ice cream float from the chocolatier we spend a merry hour or so perusing the shelves of these stores.
As we often do in a town we fall in love we stop to look in the windows of real estate agents to dream of a life in the community. Most times this is just a casual passing look but two properties caught our eye, one was an RV park and the second was a former railway station. Well, we have documented our love of all things to do with steam trains – so this was too good to miss. Even more attractive was the fact the property came with a converted rail car caboose which could be rented out. It was all too tempting so we had to go and at least look. The realtor, who was a real sweety, agreed to take us out. The building itself is the original rail depot (station house) from Enterprise, Oregon which is six miles down the road. It was moved wholesale to its current location back in the 1970s and was used as a gift store for several years. We got very excited when we first entered the main room on the ground floor – it still had the original waiting room benches and ticket counters! This got us dreaming even more. We toured the rest of the building and it needed a lot of work to restore it to its former glory. Outside there were several out-buildings which were not in great shape. Then there was the caboose which was small but perfectly formed. Personally I was sold – but Karen who is usually more level headed in these situations bought me back to reality! It was a couple of days before I really let the dream go and moved on.
On our cycle back to the State Park, we decided to stop at the memorial to Chief Joseph the Elder, whose son the city is named after. Originally named Silver Lake and Lake City, the city formally renamed itself 136 years ago in 1880 after Chief Joseph’s son, also called Joseph, of the Nez Perce people.
The younger Chief Joseph was a real hero of his people. He led his band during the most tumultuous period in their contemporary history when they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in the Wallowa Valley by the United States federal government and forced to move northeast, onto the significantly reduced reservation in Lapwai, Idaho Territory. A series of events that culminated in episodes of violence led those Nez Perce who resisted removal, including Joseph’s band and an allied band of the Palouse tribe, to take flight, to attempt to reach political asylum, ultimately with the Lakota led by Sitting Bull, who had sought refuge in Canada.
In 1877 they were pursued eastward by the U.S. Army in what became known as the Nez Perce war. For 1,170-miles, in a fighting retreat, the Nez Perce skillfully fought and the manner in which they conducted themselves in the face of incredible adversity led to widespread admiration among their military adversaries and the American public.
Today followed a very similar routine to the previous one – which is often the case when you relax. Things slow down and time starts to stretch and blur. A bit like being on a rocket heading into a spinning black hole without the spaghettification (for more reference read some books on Einstein and special relativity).
We take the kayaks out on the lake again, once again following the shoreline but this time going a little further. This gave us time to think about how to spend the rest of our last full day at Wallowa Lake. One option was to take the gondola ride up to the top of Mount Howard. In general, I don’t mind a gondola ride but this is one steep ascent; 4000 feet to the summit of Mount Howard at 8,200 feet. Although I am sure the views would have been spectacular, looking at cabs going upon, what is the steepest ride of its type in the US gave me the tummy wobbles. So, I declined the trip – and although I offered Karen the opportunity to go up alone, she decided to support my chicken-heartedness and stayed down at base camp with me. I have not got close to many chickens in my life – they have been more acquaintances than friends, but in general, I have found them to be of great moral fibre and for the most part brave. So, it does seem to be unfair and stereotyping to equate the bravery of a complete genus to a retreating Italian tank division. Chickens’ have pluck!
After lunch, Karen decided to return to the water, this time on a stand-up paddleboard. She had tried this once before and enjoyed it, so she decided to give it another bash. And she loved it.
To round out the day we drove to Enterprise, Oregon. We went boldly where no man has gone before (well sort of). The only potentially redeeming feature of Enterprise was its brewery – Terminal Gravity. Great name, not so great beer! Brew stout young man!