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The Sumpter dredge: A place where eras collide

Baker County’s embrace of its history is one of the county’s defining traits, but in a few places the boundary between its past and its present is a membrane so thin that it hardly seems to be there at all.

Here the decades share close quarters and I fancy I can hear voices long since silenced, can see faces compress into that crystalline focus peculiar to photographs made from glass plate negatives.

The Sumpter dredge is one of those places.


From shivering to sweltering: We call it October

The season of the sleeve length conundrum has lasted longer than usual in Baker County.

We deal with this dilemma every autumn — and occasionally during spring — but this year’s version seems to me especially fraught with difficulty.

The trouble, as anyone knows who has passed more than a few falls around here, is the temperature.

Specifically the daily temperature fluctuations — what meteorologists, who like all specialists cultivate a jargon that’s as useful as hieroglyphics to people outside the field, refer to as the “diurnal range."


Walking pace reveals the heart of any community

The best way to see a town — any town, whether it’s the one you’ve lived in for decades or one you’ve never before visited — is by walking its neighborhoods.

You won’t cover a great deal of ground, of course, at the placid pace of a mile or two per hour.

But this strikes me as a clear case in which quality, in terms of what you’ll see, hear and smell, trumps quantity as expressed in miles traveled.

Because from a car, or even from a bicycle, you’ll inevitably miss some of the details that reveal themselves to a pedestrian. 


Climber’s fatal fall, and memories of a mountain

The headline grabbed my attention with considerable force.

“Climber dies on Three Fingered Jack.”

Any reference to that colorfully named volcano, which juts from the crest of the Cascades a few miles north of Santiam Pass, piques my curiosity.

But my interest is especially keen when the story involves people who try to ascend the pinnacle of crumbly lava that crowns this peak that Ice Age glaciers gnawed down substantially from its original bulk.


The Donner Party: Famous for the wrong thing


What would it feel like to know that the only way to avoid death by starvation is to eat the flesh from a corpse who was recently your friend, or even your relative?

This morbid question remains, beyond any doubt, the most persistent legacy of the Donner Party.

This seems to me a pity.

What distinguishes the tragedy that befell these 87 emigrants in the Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846-47 is not the societal taboos they were forced to ignore in order that 48 of their number would survive. 


A pressing problem: Which urine protects best?

Should I douse my wife’s garden with the urine of a wolf or a cougar?

As you can imagine, this conundrum is cutting into my sleep.

Nor are my choices, in the realm of liquid produce protection, limited to apex carnivores.

Maybe I can confuse as well as frighten the tomato-gobbling deer and the blackberry-pecking robins by sowing the place with the excretory scent of the fisher, a diminutive but apparently quite vicious type of weasel.


Touring the burn: Fire’s effects are haphazard

I spent a few hours last week having a look at a small part of the biggest wildfire in Baker County history. As with every other blaze I’ve toured, I was intrigued by the random nature by which flames inflict their marks on the land.

On the afternoon three weeks to the day after the Cornet fire roared through on its way to link up with the Windy Ridge fire, I walked a couple miles on the ridge between Trail Creek and the Dooley Mountain Highway.

Two mornings later I drove the Trail Creek Road up to the Skyline Road, then west across Dooley Summit and down the 1130 road through Stices Gulch and back to the highway.

I know most of this country pretty well.


After a century, the fire lookout is still a key spot

The fire lookout is one of those rare analog anachronisms that remain useful in the age of the app.

Vital, even.

We have cameras in space that can peer through the Earth’s atmosphere and focus on a single tree.

We have airplanes that can scan a million acres of forest for smoke in a couple hours. 

Yet none of our wizardry has managed to make obsolete the individual sitting atop a mountain, binoculars in hand and surveying the land rather like a raptor waiting for a careless ground squirrel to peek from its hole.


Unforgettable: The Baker County fires of 2015

Fifty years from now, when the 21st century is on the wane and the black scars have long since healed to green, we’ll still talk around here about the great fires of 2015.

Over backyard fences and over plates of pancakes at the cafe, we’ll remember the August afternoons when acrid smoke draped over the valleys like a Dickensian London fog, and the dusks when the sun set as if in blood.

We’ll recount the heroic tales of people who stayed to protect their homes and their land and the animals.

We’ll recall when we first learned how a Level 1 evacuation notice differs from a Level 3.


Economics: Pie charts, booze and video poker


The economists have had a go at gauging Oregon’s commerce, and they’ve examined the usual entrails of tax revenues and workforce trends and seasonally adjusted jobless rates.

The daunting columns of statistics that define the science of economics are well enough for its practitioners.

But I think the layman gets a sharper sense of how things are going in our state by looking at data that are more, well, organic.

How many gallons of Fireball cinnamon whisky Oregonians are downing, for instance.

Enough to incapacitate a city of modest size, as it turns out.

The spiced spirit was Oregon’s favorite tipple in 2014, accounting for about $13 million in gross sales and barely edging out Jack Daniel’s, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC).

(My theory about Jack’s runner-up finish is that fewer heavy metal bands made tour stops in Oregon last year than is typical, but I haven’t had a chance to test this hypothesis with anything approaching rigor.)

All told, booze brought in better than half a billion dollars to Oregon last year, which was 4.3 percent more than in 2013.


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