Suddenly, the sting of a nettle seems a small matter in the Elkhorns

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald June 19, 2009 09:33 am

I blundered into a patch of stinging nettles while hiking cross-country in the Elkhorns a few weeks back. This unplanned encounter, which happened in the sort of squelchy spot where nettles often lurk, annoyed me slightly. My bare calves, which bore the brunt of the prickling, were somewhat more put out by my lack of attentiveness.

At the time — despite the short interval, the event has already acquired the nostalgic patina of a bygone and more innocent era — I presumed that nettles were about the most dangerous plant I’d be apt to step on in the mountains.

(And I felt fortunate at that — I’m clumsy, and so prone to stepping on, and in, most anything, including thunderstorms that pelt me with hailstones the size of marbles, except the hail, lacking the smoothness of a marble, leaves welts. )

What I hadn’t figured on, though, foliage-related hazard wise, was marijuana.

Last week County Sheriff Mitch Southwick announced that police, for the first time, had found a marijuana-growing operation in the Elkhorns.

This seems to me a significant, and troubling, development for anybody who likes to ramble about in the hills and occasionally stray from roads and trails but has a thing about getting shot at. Or actually shot.

Me, for instance.

Marijuana plants, so far as I know, won’t irritate your skin if you brush up against them.

Marijuana growers, by contrast, have been known to inflict on wayward hikers wounds considerably more serious than a rash.

The news of the pot plantation arrived just two days before another dispatch which is, I think, related. This latter was an e-mail congratulating Baker City for making Outdoor Life magazine’s list of the 200 Best Towns for Sportsmen.

We ranked 123rd, which is in the bottom half but still nothing to be ashamed about.

Had word of this honor reached me before the sheriff’s press release I suspect I would have gently chided Outdoor Life’s editors for having the temerity to put Baker City behind, for instance, Atchison, Kan. (119th) and Grand Island, Neb. (105th).

I’m sure those places are lousy with stubble fields, but most sportsmen I know prefer to have mountains nearby, a landform in which Kansas and Nebraska are famously deficient. Baker County’s topography is pretty rumpled by comparison. Suffice it to say that if given the choice of  raised-relief maps to fall onto, you’d do well to avoid Baker County. There’s enough peaks in the county that, even reduced to map scale, the points would likely impale every vital organ if you weren’t careful.

Unfortunately, the reality that felonious narcotics traffickers have tried to sow their crops in the Elkhorns has tarnished the view. The snow-veined sedimentary slopes no longer seem to me purely benevolent, nor the opinions of a magazine as meaningful as they used to.

Now, instead of the small hassle of abrading my legs on some nettles, I have to worry about wandering unwittingly into a cannabis field and tripping a booby trap or alerting a sentry who has magnum-caliber ammunition but pop-gun morals.

Worse still, most of the time when I go hiking my wife, Lisa, is beside me and our 2-year-old daughter, Olivia, is latched into a pack strapped to my shoulders.

I doubt the people who get paid to tend illicit and immensely valuable crops — Southwick estimates the 9,000 plants found in the Elkhorns, if raised to maturity, could have fetched $18 million to $36 million — would balk at shooting a trio of hapless hikers.

I read through the criteria Outdoor Life used to rate towns and, as I expected, the magazine was interested in such matters as your chances of bagging a trophy buck rather than your chances of getting buried in a shallow grave by a pot farmer.

(Although perhaps the latter factor wasn’t left out altogether from the formula — Grants Pass, which is close to the area that used to be, and for all I know still is, Oregon’s prime marijuana-growing region, ranked 149th, 26 places behind Baker City.)

 In any case I can’t quibble with the magazine’s conclusions.

Baker City is indeed a fine place to settle if your favorite hobbies require fishing rods and centerfire rifles. I’ve not studied the matter in detail but it seems to me that a significant percentage of the obituaries we publish mention that the deceased, if he or she was a longtime resident, was an avid hunter or angler, or enjoyed cutting firewood or picking huckleberries and mushrooms in the Elkhorns and other local mountains.

Yet this place, for which I harbor a similar affection, seems to me to have lost some of its luster, to have sustained a flaw which I fear can’t be buffed away.

A few years ago the county’s first outdoor marijuana patch was discovered near Brownlee Reservoir. A couple others have been found in that area since.

And now the scourge has spread to the Elkhorns, a range I had hoped was immune due to its higher elevation and harsher climate.

I’ll continue to hike in the mountains; my love for the Elkhorns exceeds my fear of the miscreants.

I hope it always will.

But even if that’s so I mourn what has been lost to so many due to the greed of a few. Fear, it seems to me, even fear of a threat which is statistically improbable, diminishes the joy that enriches such a simple thing as a walk in the woods.

Already I miss those days when the worst that might happen to me was to get caught out in a storm, or to bumble into a bog where nettles grow.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.