It’s rough country — especially if you’re a boot

By Jayson Jacoby December 28, 2012 08:54 am

I have this pair of winter boots, a stout design made by Sorel, a firm famous for its long-lasting cold-weather footwear.

The breaks of the Snake River killed them.

Limestone fins shredded their thick rubber soles into something resembling the scraps you see strewn about the freeway after a semi trailer blows a tire.

The constantly angled terrain etched fissures in their leather flanks.

Stitches, which probably were sewn by a massive and immensely powerful machine, burst from the constant pressure of uphills and downhills and sidehills and the occasional cliff, simply gave up like the heart of a horse made to haul howitzers across the Somme in 1916.

To describe the eastern fringe of Baker County as rugged country is to indulge in colossal understatement. You might as well call Mount Hood a pretty big hill.

For sheer topographical relief, the land that rises west from Brownlee Reservoir is rivalled in Oregon only by Hells Canyon proper, the deepest section of which lies some ways to the north, in Wallowa County.

I have come to know this ground — to both cherish and despise it, sometimes simultaneously — by way of family.

My wife Lisa’s parents, Howard and Sandee Britton, own a cabin on Brownlee. Lisa spent most of her childhood weekends there, and we visit occasionally during spring and summer.

But it’s during the autumn, usually with a rifle or a shotgun propped against my shoulder, that I’ve learned to truly appreciate the boot-wrecking potential of this place.

For the past several years Howard has invited me to join him and his sons, Chuck and Dave, to hunt elk and chukar in the Lookout Mountain unit.

This is a rather large accommodation, as I have about as much aptitude for hunting as I have for calculus.

Which in the latter case comes to x=0, or possibly a negative number, although I never understood those either.

(Actually I never learned anything about calculus except how to spell it. My high school math teacher, after watching me flounder about amid the simpler concepts of algebra, smiled painfully when the word “trigonometry” was mentioned in relation to my academic future; and of calculus nothing was said.)

But even though I’m helpless at procuring animal protein except at the grocery store, I like to get out in the clean air for the exercise and the views.

And so I’ve tramped around quite a lot of the country near Brownlee.

I have in fact tripped and fallen in every major drainage between Morgan Creek and Soda Creek.

And in many of the lesser ones.

I would claim to have tumbled in “most” rather than merely “many” of these subsidiary valleys — God knows I’m clumsy enough — but as there are literally hundreds of such places the boast would be implausible, if not preposterous.

Besides its capacity to destroy boots, this swath of ground has reminded me that non-topographical maps are at least as misleading as a political attack ad.

And probably more dangerous.

The BLM map for the Vale District, for instance, is accurate enough in showing that the horizontal distance between Morgan Creek and Soda Creek is about nine miles.

Trouble is, unless you’re a bird or a gopher — an exceptionally energetic gopher — you can’t travel between those creeks in anything approximating a straight path.

(And even the bird would have to start by flying high enough to clear the ridges.)

To walk that route you have to cross three intervening streams — Hibbard, Fox and Connor creeks — each of which has carved a canyon at least 1,000 feet deep.

But even that depiction falls far short in describing the scale of this area.

In my estimation its most striking aspect is the how relentlessly crumpled the surface is.

Some landscapes have a certain uniformity to their undulations, with alternating valleys and ridges that repeat, rather like a series of sine waves on an oscilloscope except rendered in earth and stone.

But in the Brownlee country the erosive power of water over the eons has lacerated every ridge in a haphazard way, as if a lunatic had gone after loaves of bread dough with a carving knife.

The result is a tortured topography that can bewilder a traveler on foot, and in short order have him demonstrating a flair for profanity he didn’t know he had.

(Or maybe that’s just me.)

By way of example, on the last day of this year’s elk season, in early November, I was hiking back to where I’d parked the four-wheeler on a road beside Hibbard Creek.

I have hunted here before, and as I crested a ridge, following a line of deer tracks in the snow (I see an awful lot of deer during elk season, most of them trophy bucks) I was certain that the creek was just on the other side.

But it was just a dry gulch, thick with patches of brush that can’t be crossed without making enough noise to alert every elk in the township.

Next ridge: same result.

And a third time.

Beyond the fourth ridge I finally came to the creek.

Only it wasn’t Hibbard Creek, but a tributary.

Here’s the thing: The whole of that country is similarly deceptive. I’ve plotted hunts with the aid of a topographic map, which shows the lay of the land, and then been chagrined to find that even those detailed charts are fallible.

Topo maps indicate ups and downs by means of lines, each of which follows a specific elevation. Their weakness, as it were, is the vertical distance between each line, what’s known as the contour interval. This gap usually is 40 or 80 feet, enough to make it difficult to discern relatively modest land features such as those gulches I mentioned above.

The Snake River breaks are lousy with such features, though. And when I have to negotiate a dozen or more of these in one morning, lousy pretty well describes how I feel.

Especially when I look down and see what’s left of my boots.