Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

A lake with the name “Killamacue” ought to have a compelling story.

Or some sort of story, at any rate.

To be sure, Killamacue, an alpine jewel in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Haines, needs no intriguing etymological tale to justify a visit to its shore.

(Actually the more precise adjective in this case is toponymical, which describes the origin of a place name, not just a regular word.)

The view from Killamacue, which takes in the craggy ramparts of Chloride Ridge to the south as well as the granitic (and rather white, despite the name) summit of Red Mountain to the north, seems to me sufficient reward for the considerable exertion required.

But that name can hardly be ignored.

My favorite reference in such matters (and, if I may be so bold, it should be yours as well) is “Oregon Geographic Names.”

To refer to this as merely a book seems to me insufficient.

I would instead describe it as the life’s work of a father and son to compile the most comprehensive archive of place names, and when possible their origins, in our great state.

Lewis A. “Tam” McArthur started this immense effort in 1928. His son, Lewis L. McArthur, took over in 1974. Tam died in 1951.

Their seventh edition, published in 2003, contains more than 6,200 entries sprawling across almost 1,100 pages. It’s a hefty thing even in paperback, capable of bruising a toe if dropped from even a modest height.

The elder McArthur’s concept is both simple and brilliant.

After all, what Oregonian (or any reader, come to that) wouldn’t be curious as to how a post office came to be called “Legality,” or which items might have been tallied in the naming of “Five Hundred Flat?”

The McArthurs, who must have interviewed as many Oregonians as any pair of authors ever have, and quite likely more, endeavor to answer those and hundreds of other questions — although they’re not always successful.

(Legality was a short-lived post office in Gilliam County (1884-88), but the McArthurs were unable to track down an explanation of its name. Five Hundred Flat, by contrast, which is in Grant County, yielded a story from Al Oard, former supervisor of both the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, that the name derived from the place being a popular site for buckaroos to play a game called mumbly-peg, which involves pocketknives and is played to a score of 500. I’m not clear if that number includes fingers.)

The McArthurs’ information on Killamacue Lake is not exactly encyclopedic.

The sixth edition offers no theories about the name, but in the seventh the younger McArthur writes, “E.W. Coles of Haines told the compiler in 1973 that it was a rendition of a very old Indian name. He added he had once owned the lake.”

The man named in the book is Edward W. Coles, and he was the grandfather of Roger Coles of Baker City.

Roger Coles told me that his grandfather indeed did own the lake — or at least the rights to its water for irrigation, as the land surrounding the lake is part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Roger Coles said his grandfather also helped to rebuild the dam at the lake’s outlet after it was damaged by a landslide.

(There is an outlet valve that allows irrigators to withdraw water from the lake when its level drops. Killamacue shrinks considerably by late summer. The water flows down Killamacue Creek and then into a ditch that starts near the creek’s confluence with Rock Creek.)

I’ve hiked to Killamacue Lake probably 20 times, most recently on June 22 when I was accompanied by my cousin, Ben Klecker.

The trail is in some ways the archetypal Elkhorn Mountains route. It is characteristic of trails in the range in attacking the terrain rather directly, mainly eschewing the grade-easing switchbacks that are ubiquitous on the horse-friendly paths across the Wallowas.

You’ll ascend about 1,500 feet in a trifle over 3 miles, which makes for quite a challenging level of steepness.

The trail for the most part stays on the south side of Killamacue Creek, crossing the stream twice via wooden bridges. The route presents a lesson in the sometimes dramatic differences in vegetation in the Elkhorns between north-facing and south-facing slopes.

The trail generally is on north aspects, and the relatively cool, shady location is reflected in the trees — lots of tamaracks, which prefer such places — and a rather tangly undergrowth featuring a variety of wildflowers and shrubs, among them huckleberries which ought to ripen by late July.

Yet in areas when the canopy opens you can look north and see nearby slopes studded with sagebrush, a desert denizen that nonetheless grows in profusion in parts of the Elkhorns up to and sometimes above 8,000 feet elevation.

Although the trail is short enough for a day hike there is a large area suitable for camping near where the trail reaches the lake at its northeast corner.

The area is, if I may indulge in a bit of understatement, amenable to the production of mosquitoes.

As for the name, I have posed the question of its origin to officials from both the Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes. As of press time I hadn’t received a response, but I will relate what, if anything, I find out in a later column.

If nothing else, I would be pleased to know how close to proper my pronunciation has been all these years.

If you’re going ....

From downtown Haines, turn at the sign for Anthony Lakes and drive 1.7 miles to the first corner. Stay straight, then left on Pocahontas Road for a few hundred yards to a junction with South Rock Creek Road. Turn right (west, directly toward the Elkhorns) on South Rock Creek Road.

Follow this paved, two-lane road, which turns to well-graded gravel after about 3.5 miles. Continue west, uphill, into the mountains. The Killamacue trailhead is not marked, but it is about 2 miles from where the graded gravel ends. From there the road is rocky and rough, and best suited to four-wheel drive vehicles. The trail starts as an old roadbed that heads steeply to the right; the location is where the main road makes a sharp left turn and crosses Killamacue Creek. The old roadbed crosses an irrigation ditch and then continues for a few hundred yards to a flat area. The trail proper heads uphill to the right.