I would never insult the intelligence of parents by suggesting there is a perfect place to take their kids backpacking.
Children, as a general rule, are much too finicky to justify such a superlative boast.
My son Max, who’s 7, was happily engaged in splashing around in the chilly North Fork John Day River last Saturday afternoon.
But in the span of a nanosecond he was putting on the sort of display that ought to have “grand mal” in its title and be the subject of a lengthy article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The shrill scream that pierced our previously peaceful forest camp injected a glut of adrenaline into my system as I sat reading a book, my back propped against a ponderosa pine.
I figured a drowning was in progress.
Or else a cougar had pounced from a hidden lair beside the river.
Turns out Max had lost his grip on a 2-foot hank of orange baling twine, a product which is surprisingly buoyant.
And surprisingly coveted by a 7-year-old boy.
We were unable to rescue the twine.
I suspect it’s drifting slowly along the Columbia by now, destined to reach the Pacific unless some other inquisitive child snags it.
The episode with the twine was brief — the sort of event that doesn’t mar a vacation but instead becomes one of the hundreds of anecdotal threads that form every family’s uniquely warm quilt.
Within half an hour Max — admittedly a rather more moist version of the boy — was back in the water, working on various schemes involving stones and sticks.
The incident certainly didn’t diminish my appreciation for the place we chose for our first full family backpacking trip, a trip made because Max recently acquired his first real pack.
Our camp was near the confluence of the North Fork and one if its main tributaries, Granite Creek.
I can’t say when people first pitched tents here, but I suspect its utility as an overnight stop dates back well more than a century.
(The rotting remnants of a log cabin nearby offer a clue, as well; I’m no archaeologist.)
Miners tramped all over the North Fork country soon after the Eastern Oregon gold rush started on Oct. 23, 1861, when Henry Griffin found glittering flakes in a gulch near what’s today Baker City.
And in this vast land of steep, narrow canyons, the broad plain just east of Granite Creek’s mouth is so obviously a fine place to camp that even a tenderfoot would recognize its value.
My wife, Lisa, along with Max and his older sister, Olivia, who’s 11, certainly appreciated the site’s accoutrements.
Most particularly its proximity to the North Fork, a fetchingly crystalline stream that tumbles over the boulders in its bed with the inimitable musical trilling that only a wild mountain stream can manage.
We pitched our two tents just 40 feet or so from the river, and unlike at many streamside camps I’ve made, the path to the water’s edge is gentle and so doesn’t require any skin-risking slides, or leaps likely to end in an unplanned, and frigid, dunking.
There is ample flat ground for several more tents than our pair. A fine rock- lined fire pit is conveniently situated, and there’s even an accessory rare in a wilderness area — a crudely constructed picnic table.
Now I don’t much mind dealing with the dirt that is an unavoidable part of backpacking.
But I have no great affinity for wiping dust from coffee mugs and stove fuel canisters and everything else half a dozen times per day, so I treasure an elevated, flat and sturdy spot on which to put stuff. Typically if such is available it’s made of granite rather than two-by-fours.
(Although I’ll concede the table, stacked with our assortment of items, looked rather out of place in such surroundings, a slice of backyard domesticity amid an unkempt landscape.)
I suspect the Eagle Cap will always rank as my favorite Oregon wilderness area, not so much for its size — it’s the state’s largest by far, at 360,000 acres — but for the grandeur of its nearly 10,000-foot peaks and its precipitous passes and its many great canyons.
But over the years I’ve come to believe that in certain respects the North Fork John Day Wilderness, which is Oregon’s fifth-largest, at 121,000 acres, is “wilder” even than the Eagle Cap.
This is entirely a subjective matter, to be sure.
What lends the North Fork its raw character, at least to my eyes, is its lack of the things that make the Eagle Cap so spectacular — peaks which jut above timberline and which shelter snowfields year-round in their stony north-facing clefts.
In the Eagle Cap you can get up high enough that the view extends to the green, cultivated lands of the region’s valleys, the Pine and Eagle and Keating and Baker and Grande Ronde and Wallowa.
The biggest swath of the North Fork Wilderness (it has three other, much smaller sections), by contrast, is dominated by ridge after forested ridge, the summits of which yield vistas that mainly include more forested ridges.
It’s hard to get your bearings, is what I’m driving at. And to me that rather foreboding feeling — that you could wander not for hours but for days, and all the while be surrounded by dense woods — defines wilderness as a mental concept as well as a physical place.
The North Fork is also more remote than the Eagle Cap, which has populated valleys and paved, well-maintained highways on three of its flanks.
I suspect this explains why the North Fork remained wild even though its official, congressionally approved wilderness pedigree is young compared with the Eagle Cap and many of Oregon’s other esteemed wild places, such as the Three Sisters and Mount Hood.
Although the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 (and some areas, including the Eagle Cap, were afforded some level of protection from development even earlier), the North Fork wasn’t designated as wilderness until 1984.
Even so, no roads had by then penetrated far into the area. In a sense, the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Bill merely gave congressional approval to the situation that had prevailed for decades.
The North Fork Wilderness is extensive enough to make week-long backpacking trips feasible. Its longest trail, which follows its namesake river, runs about 24 miles.
But its wild character notwithstanding, the North Fork has decent access in places, and some of its trails are short enough, and with sufficiently gentle grades, that even 7-year-olds who aren’t accustomed to tramping around with many pounds hanging from their shoulders can make the trip.
The Granite Creek trail qualifies on both counts.
It’s an easy drive to the trailhead, with all but the final four miles or so on pavement. And the gravel section is what people hereabouts sometimes call “good” gravel, to distinguish it from the boulder-strewn goat paths that also pass for roads.
From Granite, drive west on the paved Forest Road 10 (the sign points to Fremont Powerhouse and Olive Lake). After about a mile and a half, turn right (north) onto gravel Road 1035 and follow the signs for Granite Creek Trail.
There are actually two routes from the trailhead — one on a footpath, the other on a road that’s gated to limit motorized access to mining claims, but is open to hikers and horseback riders (so long as they stay on the road itself). The two routes meet about a mile and a half from the trailhead, and just beyond the wilderness boundary, by way of a short spur. The junction isn’t marked with signs but it’s distinct; the spur trail heads downhill toward the creek (or uphill away from the creek, depending on your route).
Whichever option you choose, the one-way distance from the trailhead to the Granite Creek/North Fork confluence is about 3.8 miles, with an elevation loss of about 450 feet.
We made our trip into a loop, hiking the trail on Saturday morning, then returning via the road the next day. I recommend the loop because you will have a broader perspective of Granite Creek. The trail stays to the ridge a couple hundred feet above, while the road is mainly at or near creek level.
The trail is brushy in spots, especially when it dips near the creek. Fortunately one of the predominant species of trailside shrubbery is the blue huckleberry. Peak picking season for these succulent treats tends to be the second half of July and into August, although berries are ripening a bit earlier than usual, as we found a few sweet ones on the first day of July.
The trail crosses Granite Creek twice, in both cases by fine wooden bridges. Another bridge, over Lake Creek about half a mile from the North Fork itself, is less substantial — a log cut in half with a hand railing on one side — but it is reassuringly sturdy despite its narrowness.
The biggest bridge in the area, though, is the one immortalized in William Sullivan’s classic “Listening For Coyote,” the chronicle of his 1985 solo hike from Oregon’s westernmost point, Cape Blanco, to its eastern extremity in Hells Canyon. The bridge crosses the North Fork of the John Day a few hundred feet downstream from our camp and just above where Granite Creek adds its considerable volume to the North Fork.
This bridge, with a steel support structure and wooden decking, was under construction when Sullivan arrived there in early October with the season’s first blizzard looming. He expected to ford the river there and was pleased that he could make the crossing without soaking his feet. It turned out, though, that his route followed the North Fork trail, which stays on the south side of the river for a few more miles before crossing — without benefit of a bridge — to the north shore.
This bridge, like the remains of the log cabin and, indeed, even Max’s beloved baling twine, is a sign of human presence that for me doesn’t detract from the wilderness experience but instead accentuates it by its very rarity.
A footbridge lies lightly on such a sprawling landscape. I find the juxtaposition of the human and the wild fascinating; as I examined the notches in one of the cabin foundation logs I pondered the almost certainly unanswerable questions of who swung the axe that bit into this tree, in what year did he strike those blows, and was the day fair or foul?
The 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness, in part, as a place where people are only visitors. But wilderness areas are also public land, and prohibiting visitors from driving in doesn’t guarantee solitude. Far from it, in some places — the Forest Service, for instance, is considering imposing a variety of potential restrictions designed to limit the number of people entering some wilderness areas in the Cascade Mountains.
But unlike those areas the North Fork is a drive of many hours from any metropolitan area.
During our trip we saw no other person.
Which, as the saying goes, was pretty wild.
IF YOU GO....
The Granite Creek trailhead is near the town of Granite, in Grant County about 15 miles northwest of Sumpter. The easiest way to get there is via Baker City, but if you’re starting in Union or Wallowa counties you could also drive the Elkhorn Scenic Byway past Anthony Lakes.
From Granite drive west on Forest Road 10 (Grant County Road 24), toward the Fremont Powerhouse and Olive Lake, for about 1 1/2 miles. Then turn right (north) on Road 1035 at a sign for Granite Creek trail. Follow this well-maintained gravel road (watch for potholes, however) for about 4 1/2 miles to its end at the trailhead.
A few reminders:
• Groups in the North Fork John Day Wilderness are limited to 12 people and eight head of livestock.
• Don’t expect cell service in the area.
• Fishing is not allowed in Granite Creek or its tributaries. For the North Fork itself through the wilderness, trout fishing is allowed from the May opener through Oct. 31, with an 8-inch minimum length, a daily bag limit of two fish and a possession limit of four. The hook gap size can’t exceed 3/8th of an inch. Steelhead fishing is not allowed. Rainbow trout over 20 inches are considered steelhead.