Of the Baker City Herald

Karen Spencer never knows what she'll encounter when she slips on her and heads out to explore the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area.

Spencer, a park ranger, might see tracks of the animals that visit the park at night, or beavers gnawing on trees or the tell-tale trail of a snowmobile that left the groomed track because the operator was too enticed by the hills and valleys of the park.

andquot;Snowmobilers don't always stay on trails,andquot; she says.

Suddenly her steps cease as she pauses to peer over a snowbank and points to a trail that starts at the edge of the creek.

A beaver left that track, she says, identifiable from the sideways swish left by the animal's flat tail.

andquot;They do logging in the park,andquot; she says with a smile.

Then she's off again, crunching across the crust of snow that has transformed this park from a landscape of rock piles into smooth hills that are perfect for exploring.

andquot;It's really a different view in the winter than in the summer,andquot; she said.

Even though the park's main attraction the hulking gold dredge that extracted $4.5 million of gold before operation stopped in 1954 is closed for the winter, the park's 80 acres are still open to the public.

When the landscape isn't covered in snow, visitors can explore the park along 3 miles of trails that wind through the tailings and ponds.

But those trails vanish when the snowflakes fall, and visitors can get a whole new perspective by exploring the park on snowshoes or cross-country skis.

andquot;On snowshoes it seems a lot bigger,andquot; she said. andquot;You could just pick a ridge a tailing pile and go.andquot;

And winter is the only chance to see the view from the top of those tailings because those rocks aren't very conducive to climbing in the warm weather.

andquot;It's so hot out here in the summer,andquot; Spencer said.

A landmark is always in sight

Though the park is located near the town of Sumpter, the signs of civilization fade as you hike up the dredge piles and tour around trees that stick up through the snow.

andquot;When you're out here, you feel like you're miles from town,andquot; Spencer said.

But no matter where you wander in the park, the dredge is always in sight.

andquot;It's great you have a landmark. You can see the dredge from anywhere,andquot; she said.

The park property is long and narrow, and stays beside the Sumpter Highway. You're in the park as long as you don't wander into the timber or cross the highway, she said.

And access is easy parking is free, and the highway is always plowed.

andquot;As easy as it is to get here, I don't think people think of coming here to snowshoe,andquot; Spencer said. andquot;You don't even need a trail you can go anywhere.andquot;

And the weather is usually decent, she said.

andquot;We usually don't get the high winds, and when Baker's socked in, it's usually sunny up here,andquot; she said.

Mark Luker, manager of the Sumpter Stockade, is so far the only snowshoer who heads out into the park on a regular basis.

andquot;Karen says, 'I saw you in the park last week,' and what she means is she saw my tracks,andquot; Luker said.

He's explored the park in every season, at every time of day.

andquot;I'm always at the dredge winter, summer, it doesn't matter,andquot; he said. andquot;You've got a state park here, you might as well use it. We want people to know this place doesn't shut down in the winter.andquot;

He also enjoys walking the tracks of the Sumpter Valley Railroad from Sumpter to McEwen a six-mile trek only possible when those rails are covered by snow.

Luker wants to generate more interest for snowshoeing around the Sumpter Dredge and the valley, so he's starting up a snowshoe club that is open to anyone interested in the sport.

The club, he said, will be multi-seasonal snowshoeing in the winter and hiking during the warm months so everyone can see how the views change

andquot;It's a whole different landscape,andquot; Luker said.

He's currently working on a Web site for the club He said that site will be available soon.

In the meantime, both Luker and Spencer are more than willing to take visitors out to explore the state park on snowshoes or cross-country skis.

andquot;There's going to be good snowshoeing out here for two, three weeks, maybe longer,andquot; Luker said.

Spencer can be reached at the park office, 894-2486, and Luker's number is 894-2253.