In praise of Pine Cr. Reservoir, and its ‘road’
Pine Creek Reservoir is the best place in the Elkhorns.
It’s one of them, anyway.
I just gutted a tenet of grammar, I know. Best is a superlative adjective and thus, technically, bestows on its subject exclusivity.
The phrase “one of the best,” then, is colloquially appropriate but linguistically clumsy — cousin to another common construction, “very unique.” Something unique, by strict definition, is one of a kind — the “very” is implicit and thus superfluous.
I don’t care.
Well, I do care about grammar and its sometimes stuffy conventions, as anyone who writes ought to care about those matters.
But the thing about the Elkhorns is that they’re so rich in places of astounding beauty, and since I can’t visit any two of them simultaneously, it seems to me reasonable to brand the place I’m visiting as the best if, while I’m there, it feels that way.
We’re dealing in subjectives here, of course — personal taste, in other words. And since our tastes can change, in everything from flavors of ice cream to what constitutes a great novel or movie, I think we need to allow a certain malleability in our definitions of what’s best.
It seems to me unfair, and even a trifle silly, to demand consistency in such matters. If you asked me, for instance, to name my favorite Beatles song I might say on that day that it’s “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Next month, though, it’s quite possible that I’ll have recently listened to “Sgt. Pepper’s” for the 1,724th time and that I’ll go with “A Day In The Life” instead.
My affinity for Pine Creek Reservoir, as for the Beatles, is a relationship of long standing.
My affection for the reservoir extends beyond the place itself and includes the road that leads to it.
Although I’ll concede that quite a lot of people would argue that by describing this route as a road I have not so much stretched the definition of “road” as ripped it apart.
But then people tend to be argumentative when they’ve just bashed in their oil pan or ground their rear differential into a mass of metal shavings.
Perhaps “trail” is more apt, with its connotation of a narrow path more appropriate for feet than for tires.
I’ll concede that the Elkhorns have several trails that are far smoother than the Pine Creek Road.
But I’ll defend my description of this as a road on the grounds that although you probably won’t want to, you can drive to Pine Creek Reservoir.
And in an actual rig — one with doors and a roof and an air-conditioner and everything.
The road is better suited for four-wheelers, to be sure. With their diminutive weight, balloon-like tires and supple suspension they don’t batter your kidneys the way a full-size SUV or pickup truck does regardless of how carefully, and slowly, you navigate the multiple boulder fields along the four miles or so between where the county stops maintaining the road, and the reservoir.
Or you can just walk.
Which is good for the lungs and the heart, and poses no risk to oil pans or other expensive machinery.
Simply put, Pine Creek Reservoir epitomizes the attribute of the Elkhorns I like most: flexibility.
You can get there by pretty much any legal means — including, I suppose, by helicopter or jetpack, although few of us own either type of aircraft.
When you get to the reservoir you can fish or camp or watch mountain goats gambol across the great east wall of Rock Creek Butte, highest peak in the range at 9,106 feet.
Or you can follow the increasingly wretched road to the head of the basin and then climb over the limestone fin to Cougar Basin or Rock Creek Lake.
Pine Creek Reservoir feels to me as a wilderness ought to feel. What I mean is that the sylvan beauty seems a veneer over the cold, hard, impersonal thing that is nature.
You can see it in the swathes of subalpine firs just northeast of the reservoir, all of them either bent or snapped at mid-trunk by a winter avalanche that nobody saw.
You can sense its awesome power in the sedimentary cliffs that shed boulders on no schedule.
Yet this is a wilderness more accessible than those which have the blessing of Congress and the president.
I relish those “official” wilderness areas, too. I think the Eagle Cap, a wilderness bigger than Multnomah County, is as vital to the character of Northeastern Oregon as the Elkhorns are.
But I believe this would be a lesser place were all wild areas managed as the Eagle Cap is — which is to say, places where motor vehicles, and even bicycles, are outlawed.
We’re lucky, of course, that among the Elkhorns and the Wallowas (and the Strawberrys and the Greenhorns and Hells Canyon) there is ample space for both kinds of wilderness.
I like that I can test my tendons trying to get to the top of Sacajawea, highest peak in the Wallowas, and test my 10-ply tires on the way to Pine Creek Reservoir.
The terms “multiple use” and “land of many uses” once were ubiquitous but it seems to me the Forest Service, BLM and other agencies have grown slightly ashamed of those monikers, perhaps because those “uses” include cutting trees and digging up minerals.
Which are not only uses, but also useful.
But I think those terms still resonate, and that we ought to celebrate what they represent — the idea that these vast lands that ostensibly belong to all 319 million Americans ought to be managed with the same goal of diversity that our society strives for in other arenas such as employment and education and marriage.
We’re lucky to have places such as Pine Creek Reservoir — and the “roads” that lead to them.
Jayson Jacoby is editor