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A joke leads an independent into party politics


Ryc Rienks’ foray into partisan politics started as a joke.

And although Ryc, who lives in Baker City, hasn’t lost his sense of humor, he’s pretty serious about his new role in the political system.

Ryc, 69, had been registered as an independent.

So had his wife, Penny.

But last year, feeling a trifle disenfranchised by Oregon’s sometimes restrictive primary election system, the couple decided to consider registering as either Republicans or Democrats.


Authors dig into a big piece of Baker’s history


There is no pleasure quite like slouching into the embrace of a soft chair, flipping to the first page of a book, and realizing, in that instant, that the whole of the tale awaits, as faithful as the best dog you ever knew.

It’s like starting a vacation.

Or standing on the front porch of the girl’s house who you finally forced yourself to telephone, and she said sure, she’d love to go to the movie with you.

This glorious anticipation seems to me especially rich when the book has to do with real places that I’ve been to, and plan to visit again.


We need to fight fires, but is the cost too dear?

I fought fires on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest for three summers, 1989-1991.

About the worst thing that ever happened to me was once I had to stay out overnight unexpectedly and I had little to eat except a package of Wheat Thins of the size the stores would sell for Halloween, if homeowners often handed out crackers as treats.

Which, fortunately, they do not.

There’s nothing funny about fighting wildfires, though.

Firefighters die.

They die in van crashes while driving to fires.

Trees fall and crush their skulls.

Helicopters and slurry bombers crash.

And, perhaps most horrible of all because it seems so personal, so terribly ironic, sometimes the flames, which are nothing so much as a tornado of combustion, turn and strike at those who would corral them.

On Sunday, 19 firefighters, members of an elite Hotshot crew from Prescott, Ariz., were overcome by flames while trying to stop a fire advancing on Yarnell, Ariz.

Firefighting gets into the news often, of course, and much of the public debate has to do with whether the federal government, which has been racking up billion-dollar firefighting tabs in recent years, is spending too much.

I don’t care.

A billion dollars is a pittance in federal terms.

What I wonder is whether we’re spending too many lives, most of them young lives, on this campaign.

My gut answers yes.

But the question, I fear, is too complex for simplistic answers based on emotion rather than reflection.

The Prescott Hotshots weren’t engaged in a dubious enterprise, weren’t trying to prevent flames from killing trees 10 miles from anywhere.

They were protecting a town, people and houses.

We won’t cease sending firefighters into such places, nor should we.

The real conundrum, though, is that it’s well nigh impossible to recognize, hours or even days in advance, which fire is likely to transform from merely dangerous to deadly.

When that transformation depends on factors as fickle as the winds of a thunderstorm, well, we’d as well consult tea leaves or goat entrails.

Tragedies on the scale of the Arizona disaster are exceedingly rare, to be sure.

Sunday’s death toll of 19 was the highest, for a wildfire in the U.S., since 1933.

Yet the balm of the actuarial tables is cold comfort, indeed it’s no comfort at all, when you’ve just watched a procession of vans carrying 19 bodies to the coroner’s office.

. . .

When the first drop of sweat slides into the corner of your eye before you’ve made even one full revolution with the socket wrench, you understand that you picked the wrong time for the job.

The wrong hour.

Quite possibly the wrong year.

I winced at the slight sting of the sweat. The socket, which I had been tugging on with considerable force, leaped off the nut with all the stupid suddenness of a tool (tools, I am convinced, do not like me, probably because I’m mechanically inept, and that they delight in every bruise, gash or puncture wound they can inflict).

I rapped my knuckles on the gate hinge I was trying to set straight so that it would latch properly. This hurt more than the sweat in my eye, and was infinitely more annoying besides.

It was scarcely past 9 in the morning. When I stepped outside wielding a wrench and a hammer, it seemed to me not terribly hot.

Warm certainly, but nothing like the inferno the forecasters were predicting for the afternoon.

I pegged the gate repair as a five-minute job requiring the two simple hand tools and, fortunately for my fingers, neither motors nor reciprocating parts.

What I didn’t count on was breaking out so quickly into that flop sweat.

This prompted me to consult my array of meteorological instruments, which is not so much redundant as it is ridiculous.

Anyway the devices told the tale: The humidity ranged from 55 percent to 75 percent.

These of course are figures more typical of summer in, say, Savannah, Ga., or St. Louis than in Baker City.

 We suffer here from what’s known, with a certain affection, as a dry heat.

I’ve never much cottoned to that term, mainly because it seemed to me misleading.

But my painful experience at the front gate was something of an epiphany.

I used to bristle at references to dry heat because it implies that even when it goes over 95 around here that’s not so bad because the humidity, like as not, is less than 15 percent.

Well, that’s about what it’s like inside a lumber kiln, and I daresay there’s nothing pleasant about being inside a lumber kiln.

Or any kind of kiln, come to that.

But now that I’ve experienced, albeit in a brief and minor way, the combination of heat and humidity that’s endemic to the Midwest and the South, I concede that the defenders of dry heat make a pretty compelling point.

The older of my two sisters lived in Southern Virginia for seven years, returning to Oregon last August, and she tried to explain to me how uncomfortable truly sultry weather can be.

Her husband, Bill, told me about having to run his windshield wipers on clear days because the air was so heavy with moisture even though the temperature was in the 80s.

Try to fix a gate in weather like that — try to open a gate, for that matter — and you’d probably need to hook up an IV to ward off dehydration.

I stand by my belief that beyond a certain threshold on the thermometer — 90, maybe — it’s a scorcher no matter how low the humidity.

Death Valley’s even drier than Baker City, but you don’t see people frolicking around there on summer afternoons.

And I’m not talking about convulsions.

Still and all, I’m more respectful than before of the power of humidity.

It laid a few of my knuckles low and that only took a few minutes.

If I had to perform even my modest household chores anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, well, I’d be a repeat customer at the prosthetics store.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.


Story’s not about Snowden: It’s about the truth


I don’t think Edward Snowden is a traitor.

Nor am I convinced he’s a hero.

But I’m far less interested in the man, and in any meaningless labels which might be affixed to him, than I am in the information he made available.

And it seems to me that the details Snowden has divulged about the U.S. government’s domestic surveillance programs are details which we, the American people whom the politicians are always prattling on about as though we’re all the best of pals, deserved to know.


Families brighten day for Powder River inmates

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

It’s easy to forget that there’s a state prison in Baker City.

The Powder River Correctional Facility would be much more conspicuous, I suspect, if it closed.

Doubtless the local economy would notice the loss of about 100 jobs (roughly two-thirds are state employees, the others contractors).

The minimum-security prison, which has 308 beds and could add 30 more, opened almost a quarter-century ago, on Nov. 9, 1989.

The building, at 3600 13th St. in north Baker City, attracted quite a bit more attention during its first several years of operation than it has since.

This is due in part, I imagine, to Powder River being a new and somewhat controversial — as prisons inevitably are — addition to the community.

The more noteworthy characteristic during that early period, though, was that Powder River inmates got loose pretty frequently.

In its first six years or so, 44 inmates either escaped from the prison or walked away while part of a crew working outside the walls — one every couple of months, on average.

But since February 1996 just 14 inmates have gone missing — and only two of those were in the past decade.

So what happened to explain this sharp decline in escapes?

Well, razor wire happened.

Workers topped the prison’s 12-foot perimeter fence with coils of the skin-shredding stuff in February 1996.

Of the 44 inmates who had escaped before then, 26 of them had scaled the razor-free fence.

Since 1996 just three inmates have escaped from the prison itself (as opposed to fleeing from a work crew), and one of those slipped out the front gate rather than trying to negotiate the razor wire.

Considering that escaping is the most common way in which inmates of any prison get noticed by local residents, it’s little wonder that Powder River generates rather less publicity than it used to.

But it would be overly simplistic to conclude that the fear of getting sliced up is the only deterrent keeping Powder River inmates in their cells.

Another important change, this one dating to 2003, was the arrival at Powder River of a program by which inmates who are being treated for drug and alcohol addiction — Powder River has won awards for the success of its treatment program — can qualify for early release.

The efficacy of the treatment program itself, which predates the early release option, has surely motivated inmates as well, most of whom are within two years of release when they arrive at Powder River.

And I’d like to believe that a third element — one that was tried for the first time last weekend at the prison — will give inmates yet another powerful reason to avoid the temptation to shorten their sentence by extralegal means.

On Saturday, June 15, Powder River put on its inaugural “Family Day” event.

Inmates’ relatives were invited to the prison not just for a regular visit, but for an afternoon in which inmates could share a meal with family, play games, or paint a flower pot. Veronica Johnson, correctional rehabilitation manager at Powder River who helped organize the event, estimated that 250 family members attended.

Inmates paid for the food with money they’ve earned from work while in custody.

I concede to a certain ambivalence when it comes to anything which could be construed as coddling convicted criminals.

But as I looked at the photographs that the Herald’s Kathy Orr took at Powder River on Saturday, I remembered that inmates aren’t the only ones who suffer from their own misdeeds.

I looked at the faces of children whose fathers are incarcerated here, noticed how broad and how bright their smiles were as they got to spend an afternoon with dad’s arm around their shoulders.

It’s a perfectly valid question, of course, to ask, if having wives and children didn’t persuade these men to follow the law before, why would a barbecue on a sunny June afternoon influence their behavior in the future?

I don’t know the answer.

However, a recent study commissioned by the Minnesota prison system showed that inmates who have visitors are much less likely to re-offend, said Liz Craig, communications director for the Oregon Department of Corrections.

This makes sense, since visiting with a loved one ought to remind a prisoner what he’s missing, and why he doesn’t want to go back once he’s served his time.

Which is pretty much the goal, as I understand it, of the penal system.

I don’t mean to suggest that scheduling a “Family Day” once a year will eliminate recidivism.

But neither do I see any downside to the practice — the more so since inmates, not the taxpayers who already give them room and board, have to buy the food.

Sentencing someone to prison is supposed to be a punishment, of course, and I believe that, by and large, it should be.

But if, for the paltry cost of giving inmates a few hours in the sunshine with the people who love them, we can prevent even a relative handful from returning to the wrong side of the fence, I would consider this a sound investment.

As for a little girl’s or a little boy’s smile, well, you can’t put a value on that.

. . .

On the morning before the solstice my furnace was up before dawn, puttering around the house and rifling through my wallet, like a teenager looking for lunch money.

(Which makes me wonder: Do kids still get allowances in currency, or via electronic transfer to their smartphones?)

This is to be expected, of course, in our climatological purgatory halfway between the equator and the North Pole.

And at least this chilly interlude was accompanied by beneficial rain — albeit perhaps too much rain in a single day.

Still and all I felt a twinge of financial pain when I heard the familiar whisper of air issuing from the grates.

I relish these shoulder seasons that separate the frigid and the torrid. It’s a fine thing to sit in temperate comfort, with no machine burning through your BTU budget.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.


A bigfoot tracker makes a little girl’s birthday


I have in the past expressed some doubt as to whether “Finding Bigfoot,” the cable TV program, is wholly devoted to scientific rigor in its pursuit of the hirsute beast.

The four hosts of the Animal Planet show, which is supposed to start its fourth season this fall, seem to know an awful lot about a creature whose very existence has not been confirmed.

From here on, though, my skepticism will be tempered by a personal bias in favor of one of the show’s stars, Cliff Barackman.

He gave my daughter, Olivia, a gift I expect she will always cherish.


Internet highlights my shortcomings, again


The Internet has brought a world of information to, well, the world, but it also has made it easier than ever for a person to feel inadequate.

And I’m not talking about all those male enhancement ads.

Not completely, anyway.

When I first learned to play guitar, back around third grade, the way you added a song to your repertoire was you went to a music store and perused the sheet music that was displayed next to the 45s.

(45s are thin, doughnut-shaped vinyl discs that have music stored on them, by the way. Sort of like CDs, but even lower-tech. No lasers).


What’s worse in water? Fluoride or sewage?


I watched with no small measure of amusement this spring as Portland whipped itself into a frenzy over fluoride.

The frothy mixture of hyperbole, conspiracy theorizing and contempt for the scientific establishment, topped with the peculiar irascibility of Portlanders, was for me as irresistible as a root beer float.

I wasn’t surprised that voters in Oregon’s largest city rejected a proposal to add fluoride to their water supply.

They had done so three times before, for one thing, dating back to the Eisenhower administration.

I don’t often go to Portland, and neither do my teeth, so I had no real stake in the outcome.


Even with help from space, I can get led astray

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

From 12,000 miles up in space — a place I’ve never actually visited except in a figurative sense — I can plot my course with ease and precision across a goodly portion of Baker County.

On the ground, though, I get fouled up after the first intersection.

Give a bunch of brainiacs millions of dollars and they can toss satellites and cameras and other cool stuff into orbit.

What they can’t do is iron out Baker County’s topography, which is as rumpled as Charlie Sheen’s shirt after a hard weekend.

Although the two things, so far as I know, aren’t otherwise alike. I doubt Charlie ever smells strongly of sagebrush, for instance.

The risk in exploring the nearly tree-free hinterlands along the divide between the Powder and Burnt rivers east of Baker City, an area that includes a section of the Oregon Trail, isn’t that you’ll get lost.

The scarcity of trees, and the expansive views it affords, makes this unlikely except perhaps in a pea soup fog or a blizzard.

What I’m talking about is the navigational purgatory in which you never seem to get where you’re trying to go because there’s always a ridge or a knob or a draw between you and where you want to be.

It’s the place where you don’t trust the roads, which veer about in an unpredictable, sometimes unfathomable, way.

This wasn’t such a problem, years ago.

You figured on taking a lot of wrong turns, except you didn’t think of them as “wrong,” exactly, because even if you brought a map you knew better than to rely on it.

But these days we have GPS satellites, which follow us around like a crew of attentive butlers (complete with a snooty British accent, on some models.)

Moreover, we have Google Earth.

And in part because its photographs were taken from the middling height of a few hundred miles — much closer than the GPS satellites — the detail, as anyone knows who has sampled this program, is stunning.

Especially out on the Powder-Burnt Divide, where only an occasional juniper interferes with the orbiting cameras.

Take a tour of the area on Google Earth and you’ll see that the roads, many of which consist only of a pair of tire-width lines through the sagebrush and grass, show up as distinctly as a six-lane freeway.

Even fence lines, which involve considerable pounding but little in the way of excavation, are pretty easy to pick out.

The result of which is that it’s easy to convince yourself, after taking the interstellar bird’s eye view from Google Earth, that driving from one place to another is as simple as making it through the sort of maze they print on the side of a McDonald’s Happy Meal box, the sort any competent first-grader can finish without having to go back even once.

All you have to do is stay on this tan squiggle and you’ll be fine.

It was with this sense of confidence that I set out on a recent Sunday with my father-in-law, Howard Britton.

Last spring we drove from near Pritchard Creek west to the White Swan mine and then across Virtue Flat to Highway 86 near the Interpretive Center.

My goal that day was to stay on a road that I believed, after an extended study of Google Earth, stayed near the spine of the divide. 

I still think it might.

But I failed to find the right way last year.

This year I failed again, except in a different place, or, rather, places.

We were going along well for a few miles. Each of my navigational aides — GPS,  paper map, seemingly clear memory of the Google Earth view — was in agreement. But then we came onto a confounding boundary where several fence gates convened. We tried a different route, which led us to a windmill I was certain I had been to before, until it became obvious that I hadn’t.

Eventually we made it back to the “main” road — as I said, you have to work awfully hard to actually get lost in that country.

Still and all, I was, and still am, a trifle dismayed that a seemingly straightforward task devolved so quickly.

I’m no John Fremont, but neither has my inner compass ever let me down so completely that I had to spend a night hunkered under a tree, munching on pine needles and wondering how awful my own urine would actually taste.

I did gain a newfound respect, though, for those pioneers who came this way more than a century and a half ago.

Their maps, if they had any, were crude. Their version of Google Earth was to climb the tallest tree nearby, which along much of the route wasn’t very tall at all.

Yet they crossed most of a continent by a route that survives yet.

In fact the section of the Oregon Trail we followed must be unusual in that none of it has been paved over or erased by city or farm.

Someone with a more educated eye than mine could, I’m sure, still detect in places the rut of the wagon wheel from that of the heifer.

Probably get more use out of Google Earth, too.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.


Obama’s bad week a cornucopia for his critics


President Obama has had better weeks than this one.

Pretty much every week, actually, including many when he didn’t even win an election, sign a healthcare reform law, or have Osama bin Laden killed.

First, the White House press corps has roused from its months-long slumber about last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, reporters having detected the scent of scandal much as sharks recognize a splash of blood in the sea.

Second, with the revelation that the IRS has been acting the way the IRS acts in movies and novels but hardly anywhere else, the Justice Department is looking into whether tax bureaucrats’ targeting of tea party groups was illegal as well as politically idiotic.

Even by the lofty standards of the presidency, where public relations crises arrive with metronomic regularity, the two preceding blunders would constitute an especially troublesome period.


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