A major mountain range that gets no respect from the mapmakers

Written by JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald October 16, 2009 03:07 pm

Mountain ranges, it seems to me, ought to be depicted on maps as something more noteworthy than a handful of the highest summits.

The ranges tall enough to cast shadows across most of a valley should, at the least, have names.

There’s a lot more to the Cascades than Mount Hood and the Three Sisters, for instance.

And so I think it qualifies as an oversight that one of the more imposing pieces of elevated topography that’s solely within Baker County’s borders remains anonymous.

The loftiest of the local mountain chains — the Elkhorns and the Wallowas — were given their names decades ago. Yet Baker County residents can’t rightfully claim either as our own. We share the Elkhorns with Grant and Union counties, and the Wallowas with Union and Wallowa.

The nameless range I’m referring to, though, belongs every acre to Baker County alone.

It takes in the spine of high ground that separates, for most of its roughly 40-mile length, the Powder and Burnt rivers.

This montane belt, never wider than 10 miles, spans almost the whole of the county’s midsection, running approximately northwest-southeast from near Sumpter most of the way to Huntington.

Although the range’s crown — 6,683-foot Bald Mountain — is of trifling altitude compared with the 9,000-foot-plus Elkhorns and Wallowas, its relief, as measured from the floors of its adjacent valleys, is significant.

The average elevation of the ridgecrest, excluding peaks such as Bald, Black, Dooley and Beaver mountains, is perhaps 5,700 feet — almost 2,000 feet higher than Burnt River to the south, and about 1,700 feet higher than the Powder River to the north.

That these mountains remain unnamed seems incongruous to me in part because, despite its modest height, the range is breached by only one major stream — the Burnt River, which cleaves the mountains between Durkee and Bridgeport.

Otherwise the range epitomizes the geographic notion of a divide, an uninterrupted length of mountainous terrain where all the major waterways rise high on the ridge and flow either north into the Powder (Clear, Dean, Denny, Trail and Beaver creeks) or south into the Burnt (China, Cornet and Mill creeks).

I’m most familiar with the section of the range that lies between the two highways that ascend its flanks: Highway 7, which crosses at Larch Summit near Sumpter, and Highway 245, which goes through Dooley Summit.

The area fascinates me largely because of its contradictions.

This is wild country, where snow lies deep for half the year, where the forests are quite dense enough to muddle your internal compass (or mine anyway), and where you might well see a cougar or a herd of elk.

But it is hardly wilderness.

A detailed road map of the range resembles a kitchen floor after a two-year-old has gotten through a plate of spaghetti.

The range even harbors Baker County’s most improbably situated subdivision. Although given the absence of paved cul de sacs — or paved anything — the neighborhood will not likely be confused with Beaverton or West Linn.

These mountains bear attributes of the alpine (and actual bears) but they aren’t, from an ecological standpoint, as alpine as are the Wallowas.

Bald Mountain, for example, is aptly named — there’s not a tree, even a stunted juniper, within 200 feet of the top.

But the peak’s appearance, I suspect, is the result of scanty soil and prolific wind rather than a climate so inhospitable that trees simply can’t survive it.

It may in fact be that Bald Mountain is bald not because it’s too high to nurture trees, but because it’s not high enough.

Whitebark pines, after all, thrive at much higher elevations in the Elkhorns and the Wallowas; yet the species rarely grows as low as Bald Mountain’s apex of 6,683 feet.

This range also divides more than two rivers.

It’s backbone serves too as a sort of unofficial, and not quite absolute, boundary between arid Southeastern Oregon, where sagebrush and juniper reign, and the state’s more moist northeast corner, where diverse forests of pine, fir, spruce and tamarack grow.

(I feel compelled to use the hedging phrase “not quite absolute” only because similar forests, although they’re much less extensive, cap the crests of two ranges farther south — Ironside Mountain and the ridge between Burnt River and Willow Creek.)

The Burnt-Powder divide has been the scene of significant history, as well.

A century ago the narrow-gauge tracks of the Sumpter Valley Railroad penetrated every main draw between Black Mountain and Larch Summit.

And although the rails were pulled decades ago the Stump Dodger’s imprints remain in the roads, such as the one that follows Clear Creek upstream from Phillips Reservoir, that were laid in abandoned railroad grades.

About a dozen years ago I interviewed Ron Harr, a railroad aficionado who believes “ghost locomotives” of the Sumpter Valley line might yet be decaying in some gulch, obscured by a screen of juvenile firs.

I’ve not found one.

I have, though, seen enough discarded Keystone Light cans in the area over the years that if you melted them all you’d have enough aluminum to cast a scale model of a wood-burner.

As for the name that I believe these neglected mountains deserve, I nominate the “Burnt Powders.”

Which sounds rather like a botched high school chemistry experiment but which is at least picturesque.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.