Marveling at the magnificence of the Crest Trail

By Jayson Jacoby July 13, 2012 10:11 am

If you asked a random sampling of local residents to name the most significant manmade objects in Baker County, I’d wager a lot of lists would include Brownlee Dam, Hotel Baker and the Sumpter Dredge.

Fine choices, all.

(Hells Canyon Dam is quite imposing too, but alas, it’s in Wallowa County.)

My choice is, I’ll admit, unorthodox.

The Elkhorn Crest Trail.

It is of course, technically speaking, not a structure at all.

Nor did its construction serve any great purpose.

You can’t live in it.

 (Nor would you want to — The trail, as its name implies, is quite exposed to the weather.)

It doesn’t impound water to prevent floods or irrigate crops.

Compared with those crucial matters, the reason the Crest Trail exists seems trivial.

It allows hikers to go from one end of the Elkhorns to the other with a reasonable certainty that they won’t fall off a cliff or take a skin-grating slide down a talus slope.

As someone who likes to walk but is prone to stumbling, I appreciate this.

I also respect the skill that its designers and builders needed to blaze a path through what surely ranks among the more inhospitable pieces of real estate in Oregon.

In the simplest sense, of course, making a trail requires nothing more than walking.

Even animals as bereft of intelligence as cows can craft pretty respectable routes across rough ground.

And you hardly ever see a heifer carrying around a transit or a shovel.

Nor do livestock routinely work with dynamite.

And it took a considerable amount of high explosives to make the Crest Trail.

The best way to understand the scale of the builders’ task, it seems to me, is to go to an especially vertical section of the trail, then find a vantage point from which you can see the surrounding terrain but not the trail itself.

Now imagine building a two-foot-wide, more or less flat, path across what you see.

And keep on doing it for 24 miles.

I don’t mean to imply that this feat ranks with, say, building the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Elkhorns, though rugged indeed, are just rock. And any rock will yield to the raw muscle of modern chemistry.

Still and all, whenever I hike the trail — which is as often as I can reasonably manage — I am impressed anew that it exists at all.

There is, I’ll concede, a unique joy in striking out cross-country, in relying on your own sense of bearing and agility to make your way through hard lands.

But it’s pretty nice, too, to be able to take a rest and know you can put down your pack without worrying about it plummeting 1,000 feet into a ravine, leaving the slope strewn with beef jerky, clean socks and matches.

The Crest Trail tames the wild Elkhorns, but only superficially.

To my eye, the trail lies lightly on the land, in the same way a thoughtful highway engineer can ensure a ribbon of asphalt compliments, rather than intrudes on, the surrounding landscape.

My lone regret is that I didn’t get to watch at least one short stretch of the trail under construction.

Probably because I rarely build anything — and never well — I am endlessly fascinated by the exploits of people who really know their job.

The last section of the Crest Trail — the 3.3 miles from the Anthony Lake trailhead south to Dutch Flat Saddle — was built in 1984.

The rest was carved along the Crest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the southern seven miles, from Pole Creek Ridge to Marble Creek Pass, done in 1981.

This last bit, incidentally, owes its existence in large part to the efforts of Moose Stephens, a retired Forest Service employee.

In 1979 Stephens, who worked for the Baker Ranger District, nominated the Crest Trail as a national recreation trail.

Congress made the formal designation in 1980. I doubt it was a coincidence that a year later — and a decade after the last bit of construction — work resumed on the Crest Trail.

In some file cabinet, no doubt gathering a patina of dust, there are plans for extending the trail from Marble Creek Pass south to Phillips Reservoir.

I’m skeptical that this will ever happen — the federal government, despite its financial interest in a vast number of trivial pursuits, seems disinclined to build hiking trails.

But even if the Crest Trail never gains another foot of tread, I’ll be satisfied with what we have.


Coyotes are equipped, like all canines, with claws and teeth quite capable of inflicting grievous wounds.

Yet I can’t think of coyotes without imagining a particularly hapless one, plunging into a desert canyon and landing with a soft thud and the inevitable puff of white dust.

And so I read with great amusement a recent press release from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

The basic story is no joke, to be sure.

A five-year-old girl — I have one of those living at my house right now, so I’m pretty partial to them — was roughed up slightly by a coyote at Nehalem Bay State Park on the Oregon Coast.

Her injuries were limited to scratches, but parks officials got pretty riled up.

Which is reasonable — nobody goes to the beach expecting to be mauled by a wild animal.

The parks department called in a crew from the agency that might have the most Orwellian name in the whole federal government — an outfit not known for clear language.

It’s called Wildlife Services.

Which is appropriate only if you consider killing a kind of service.

Anyway, the agents arrived and dispatched the coyote. I think that was reasonable.

What struck me as funny is that press release.

It reads, in part: “(Agents) set live traps and snares, and used imitation calls to attract coyotes. One 20-pound adult coyote responded to the call and was safely taken from the park by lethal means.”

Only a publicist accustomed to indulging in the murkiness of government jargon would have thought to use the words “safely” and “lethal” to describe the killing of a coyote.

It’s not inaccurate, exactly.

“Safely,” I presume, refers to the operation being carried off without any injury, except of course to the coyote.

But to a discerning reader who truly cares about the subtleties of our language, that passage suggests nothing so much as the offending coyote being gently escorted from the state park and delivered to the executioner.

And, presumably, given a last meal. House cat, with an appetizer of field mouse, perhaps.

As for me, I envisioned Wile E., clutching some device with the Acme brand, and giving that rueful look in the instant before gravity took him down yet again.