Saddle up for adventure
By LISA BRITTON
Jeff Artley turns the task of wrapping a cooler in canvas into more of a rodeo event.
He flips out a square of well-worn cloth and lays it on the ground, then plops the cooler right in the middle.
Next he wraps it like a Christmas present, then secures it all up with a thick rope he ties on with loops and knots.
His hands move so fast you almost forget what's camouflaged inside the bundle of canvas and rope that's now fit to be slung over the back of a pack mule.
Unlike those backpackers who count every single ounce they must carry on their back, Mike Grosberg and Carmen Moreno don't have to fret over how many clothes or how much food to take on their week-long trip into the Wallowa Mountains.
When mules carry the load, heading into the wilderness isn't exactly a practice in surviving with only the necessities.
Grosberg and Moreno arrived at the Cornucopia pack station on Sept. 2 loaded with archery equipment, four coolers and three stuffed duffel bags.
Then they watched as Jeff Artley, who manages Wilderness Outfitters with his wife, Sarah, sorted their belongings into piles of comparable weight and made the declaration that they packed light.
Grosberg and Moreno exchanged glances that seemed to say "Why didn't we bring more?"
Artley suggests 120 pounds per person for the groups they pack in the Wallowa Mountains.
Not everyone shows up with light luggage.
"We sometimes wish people would pack like backpackers," Artley said with a smile.
This is the Artleys first year managing Wilderness Outfitters, which operates out of Cornucopia, Moss Springs and Hells Canyon.
"We do Hells Canyon early, April through June," Sarah said.
They can head into the Eagle Caps by mid-June, she said, and then they work to clear the trails of dead trees and other debris.
"That's one of the biggest challenges getting the trails ready for use," she said.
Here's the hitch: you can't use motorized equipment vehicles, chainsaws, generators in designated wilderness.
"We clear all the trails that can be done with a chainsaw first," she said.
Once they cross the wilderness boundary, all the work is done with cross-cut saws, and they clear the sides of the trail as well to make room for the bulky packs balanced on the back of the mules.
If you're a hiker, you might gaze at those pack animals with envy as your own heavy backpack pulls on sore shoulders and digs into hips.
Then, once the pack string has passed, you continue to trudge along the trail, your feet perhaps a little sore or blistered from the many miles and switchbacks characteristic of trails in the Wallowas.
But those who can no longer lug a heavy pack through the wilderness or those who choose not to, or those hunters who require lots of gear can hire guides like the Artleys to provide an easier way into the backcountry.
"It allows a lot of people to get in who couldn't otherwise go," Sarah Artley said.