The Powder River is a modest stream, as streams go.
Or, rather, flow.
Along its 153 miles the Powder boasts neither towering waterfalls which beckon photographers nor great whitewater rapids to entice adventurous rafters and kayakers.
And although the Powder has over many millennia gouged two canyons of some eminence — one below Thief Valley Reservoir and the other just upriver from its confluence with the Snake River — the significance of these landforms is diminished by their proximity to even deeper and more precipitous chasms.
There is of course Hells Canyon of the Snake.
But several other nearby river gorges, including those of the Imnaha and Grande Ronde rivers, also surpass the Powder’s in sheer topographical stature.
Retiring though it may be, I harbor an affinity for the Powder — and not merely because the stream flows through Baker City, where I live and where I often stroll beside its banks.
I also appreciate that I can go see where the Powder is born.
The river’s birthplace in the venerable Baker County ghost town of Sumpter is an easy walk over gentle terrain, and through fetching scenery in any season.
I prefer winter, though, mainly because snow, which so reliably blankets Sumpter, doesn’t so much recast the landscape as render it all but unrecognizable from balmier months.
The Powder’s headwaters also have the noteworthy attribute of being on public land that’s accessible year-round.
The spot is within the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area, on the southern edge of the town about 28 miles west of Baker City.
Although the park’s centerpiece — the monstrous, 1,240-ton three-story dredge that scavenged the river’s gold-strewn gravels from 1935 until 1954 — is closed during winter, the park grounds are open.
And it’s an ideal place for inexperienced snowshoers to try to get their sea legs under them.
My wife, Lisa, and I took our daughter Olivia, who’s 11, and our son Max, 7, to the park last Saturday to see what February’s parade of storms had wrought.
Quite a lot, as it turned out.
The snow was around 3 feet deep, as near as I could figure — I had, inexplicably, neglected to bring along a tape measure or a yardstick.
There was plenty enough snow, at any rate, to hide completely the reality that the park’s network of trails was hewn from meandering lines of stacked rock disgorged by the dredge decades ago.
The trails generally trace the flat tops of these sinuous stony piles, which makes easy going.
Well, as easy as going can be when your snowshoes are sinking about half a foot into the powder.
We stopped at the sign denoting the headwaters of the Powder River.
(A sign that might require some digging to get at if the wintry weather pattern continues.)
The spot, just a few hundred yards from dredge, is where two streams — McCully Fork and Cracker Creek, both of which head high in the Elkhorn Mountains — come together.
From here on the waterway is known as the Powder River as it absorbs dozens of sources, ranging from rivulets that carry water only briefly, to considerable streams, such as the North Powder River, Eagle and Pine creeks, that during the peak of the spring runoff can swell the river’s volume twofold.
Just downstream from the headwaters we crossed a bridge that was nearly filled with snow, making the safety rails rather less effective than engineers no doubt intended.
We saw in several places evidence of beavers.
The industrious rodents have made deep ruts in the snow, rather like bobsled runs, during their apparently frequent trips between clumps of willow, which bear the species’ distinctive tooth marks, and the river.
When we had last hiked here, in early September, a section of trail was inundated by a pond created by a beaver dam.
But the frigid temperatures and snow have solved that dilemma, making it possible to snowshoe most anywhere within the park (it borders private property, but the boundary is amply provided with signs — and signs rather taller than the Powder River headwaters sign). We did avoid the obvious ponds among the dredge tailings, neither trusting the solidity of the ice nor wanting to make even a short hike back with a drenched child.
Because the entrance road to the dredge visitors center and parking lot is blocked by snow, parking is limited.
There is a small plowed area on the left side of the highway, just before you reach Sumpter’s business district, where a State Parks Department pickup truck is usually parked, that has room for three or four vehicles.
From there you can walk west to the dredge. The route crosses a busy snowmobile trail, so make sure the way is clear.