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Home arrow Opinion arrow Columns arrow An amusing scene in the woods; and a new threat in the hills?


An amusing scene in the woods; and a new threat in the hills?

We came across an amusing scene the other day in the pine woods on the north side of Phillips Reservoir.

Although whimsical is perhaps the more apt adjective in this instance.

There is no surplus of whimsy in the world, certainly. And it seems to me that we would be well off were our lives to incorporate a little more of the fanciful and the silly.

It was a Sunday. The morning was chilly but clear and so we decided to hike  the dirt path that traces the reservoir’s shoreline.

This is a nondescript route by local standards. It is in the main flat, a rarity in a county which would make a swell testing ground for the makers of emergency brakes.

The scenery is pleasing, though, with the dark blue water framed by forest green. The trail itself is spared the ignominy of being utterly boring by ducking into the occasional cove, which at least tinkers with your vantage point and lets the weak October sun warm both your front and your back.

(Although not, sadly, at the same time.)

We picked this trail largely because it’s well-suited to the short legs, and unpredictable stamina and attention span, of a three-year-old.

Also there’s a restroom where the trail starts, at the boat ramp just above Mason Dam.

We had quite a nice walk.

Olivia honed her pine cone-kicking skills and asked several thousand questions, most of them having to do with the calls of birds and the possibility of snacks being distributed.

The air had that crystalline quality unique to October, the clarity appearing to magnify distant objects so that each individual tamarack across the water stood out, the burnished yellow needles seeming almost fluorescent.

The wind was gentle and the sun pleasantly mild, but there was nothing of summer in the sensation. When we swung around into the shade of the coves the impending winter felt near.

Our goal was to walk the two miles to Union Creek Campground and then turn back. We had just crested a little knoll, within sight of the campground’s boat ramp, when I saw, maybe 100 feet ahead, a rock cairn.

This piqued my curiosity.

You don’t see many of these piles of stacked stones along local trails, mainly because there’s little need for such markers.

Most of our forest paths are worn into soft soil, like a wheel rut on a country lane, so it’s hard to go astray.

Navigation is a trickier business, though, when the snow comes. Trail-builders deal with that dilemma by using an axe to hack upright rectangles in the boles of trees. These marks, called “blazes,” are effective so long as the trailblazer carved them high enough on the trees that they won’t get submerged in snow.

I became acquainted with cairns when Lisa and I went to Utah on our honeymoon and hiked in the red rock national parks there.

The trails in parks such as Canyonlands and Moab necessarily cross a lot of bare rock. Etching trails in the stone would be outrageously expensive. Hideous, too.

Instead, hikers follow cairns, sometimes for many miles.

We rarely had any trouble staying on course because, with occasional exceptions, when you stood beside one cairn you could see the next one up ahead.

(It takes but a few of those exceptions, though, to prompt your imagination to ponder what might happen if you did lose track of the cairns. And if your imagination is anything like as lively as mine, in no time it’s turned you into a desiccated husk, sucking sand between your leathery lips while a coyote and a couple of salivating buzzards loiter nearby.)

Anyway I like cairns.

In particular I like that each is unique, and that the range in their design and shape is so wide.

Almost immediately on seeing that first cairn from the Phillips shoreline trail we noticed that there were more than a dozen others scattered among the ponderosas.

We all laughed at this incongruous, and to my eyes Druidic, scene.

(Well, Olivia laughed because her mom and dad did. Although she too seemed to fancy the stacked stones.)

Then we saw the signs.

There were two, each nailed to a different pine.

One sign read “Flintstones.”

The single word on the other was — and if you were born between, say, 1955 and 1975 you’ve already figured this out — “Bedrock.”

Which, of course, was the cartoon town where Fred and Wilma Flintstone, and their wacky neighbors the Rubbles, lived.

I’d like to meet the person who constructed the first cairn.

I wonder whether that person built all the cairns, and put up those cunning signs, or whether a single cairn inspired many other hikers to add their own creation.

In any case I appreciate the effort.

I feel a trifle guilty, though, because we didn’t built a cairn.

Although our excuse, I think, is a convincing one.

With a three-year-old in tow and only a sack of dried pear slices to stave off the sort of sitdown that would put to shame the solidarity of any labor union, a two-mile hike is a considerable trek.

Even without hills.

.        .        .

The news that a mountain goat gored a hiker to death disturbed me in a way that similar stories, in which the killer species is a meat eater rather than a strict herbivore, did not.

I have managed, at least a half dozen times, to get within easy goring distance of a goat in the Elkhorns.

And in none of those cases did I seriously consider the possibility that the goat might not only take offense, but express its displeasure by trying to impale me on one of its sharp black horns.

The fatal encounter happened in Washington’s Olympic National Park, but that geographic truth does little to reassure me.

The salient element in this story, it seems to me, is the goat.

National Park officials say they knew this particular billy goat had “shown aggressive behavior” long before it killed Robert Boardman of Port Angeles, Wash., on Oct. 16.

About the most aggressive act I’ve heard attributed to goats in the Elkhorns is gnawing on sweat-soaked clothes to satiate their appetite for salt.

Sweat-soaked clothes that are not being worn at the time, I need to point out.

And the Fish and Wildlife Department seems to have curtailed that behavior, which is annoying but probably not fatal, simply by doling out salt blocks, which I presume taste better.

Plus they don’t smell of deodorant.

Still and all, I’m not convinced, and so not comforted, that this single malevolent mountain goat is unique to his breed.

The truth, of course, is that quite a few species of wild animals, should they have a mind to do so, can inflict all sorts of grievous damage on humans.

A deer fawn or cow elk, for instance, lacks antlers or other stabbing implements. But their hooves are pretty effective blunt instruments.

On further consideration I might take some solace after all in the location of the deadly goat attack.

Olympic National Park attracts about 3 million visitors each year, so the goats probably are accustomed to attention.

Wildlife will endure a certain level of this — especially if food is involved.

But an animal’s tolerance has a limit. The frightening thing is that that threshold is impossible to predict — or, in some cases, even to recognize when it’s been reached.

The first sign might well be a flash of black horn.

In contrast to their counterparts in the Olympics, I doubt Elkhorn goats see more than a few hundred people every year.

Presumably, then, our goats are likely to be curious about, or indifferent to, the presence of humans rather than antagonistic.

But I’m still staying well clear from here on out.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.


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