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Dunes outside the desert

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Dunes outside the desert

I felt almost as though I were struggling through the sands of the Sahara, my lungs and legs straining against the implacable, shifting surface.

But the illusion wouldn’t hold.

The “sand” was the wrong color.

And the wrong temperature.

It was white and it was cold — adjectives not typically associated with the great African desert.

The wind, at least, was appropriate to my Saharan daydream in one sense. Some of the gusts were strong enough to make me pause in mid-stride, halted by the invisible but formidable wall of air molecules.

But the wind was also too cold.

People plodding across the Sahara are supposed to swelter in the terrible heat, their lives trickling away in beads of sweat, their final moments plagued by visions of pools of cool water that don’t exist outside their fevered minds.

I was shivering, not sweltering.

But the scenery all around, at my feet and extending clear to the horizon, was so stunning, on the sunny first day of 2022, that it softened the palpable blow from the frigid gale.

Slightly softened.

A few times, when our snowshoeing route along the Skyline Road, near Dooley Mountain Summit south of Baker City, put me (and worse, my cheeks) pointing directly at the wind, it slashed across my skin, painful as I expect a scalpel wound might be.

(This is supposition on my part, as I’ve managed to largely avoid encounters with scalpels. I’m sure, though, that the wind-borne agony is much more brief. And no stitches or scarring.)

My wife, Lisa, and I return at least one time most winters to snowshoe along this spine of high ground that separates the Powder River to the north, to the Burnt River country to the south.

This is best done on a clear day.

Snow-drifts 2.jpg

Wind-sculpted snow drifts — or dunes — along the Skyline Road in Baker County on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. {div id=”highlighter--hover-tools” style=”display: none;”} {/div}

(Although perhaps not one quite so cold as the first day of 2022; the thermometer on our Toyota showed 12 degrees when we parked, which happened to be precisely the number Lisa had guessed. As to the wind chill factor, sometimes it is best to leave such things a mystery.)

The Skyline Road, as its name implies, never strays far from the crest of the ridgeline. The views here have always been expansive but there are, sadly, considerably fewer impediments since the Cornet-Windy Ridge fire killed most of the trees south of the road in August 2015.

Most of the pines, firs and tamaracks on the shadier, cooler north slopes survived. But they don’t obstruct the view to the northwest, which is dominated by the Elkhorn Mountains. I quite enjoy this vantage point, which puts this familiar range, parts of which I can see from my own living room, in a decidedly different perspective.

The breadth of the Elkhorns, from west to east, is much more noticeable. The mountains, when seen from Baker City, appear as a single, seemingly narrow, chunk of elevated ground.

But as much as I relish the panorama, my favorite thing about this place during winter is its ability to conjure all manner of wind-sculpted drifts.

Drift, of course, is the word most commonly associated with wind-deposited snow.

But to return briefly to my Saharan comparison, I sometimes think of these natural creations not as drifts but as dunes, so varied are their shapes and sizes.

Snow-Dooley Hwy..jpg

Highway 245 winds up the southern slopes of Dooley Mountain toward the summit. {div id=”highlighter--hover-tools” style=”display: none;”} {/div}

Although winter storms aren’t so generous with snow here as in, say, the Elkhorns or the Wallowas, there is most winters quite enough snow for raw material.

And few places, at least among those I’ve visited, are as reliably blustery.

The first day of 2022 was quite still in the Baker Valley below.

And I dared to mention to Lisa, as we drove the serpentine Highway 245 toward Dooley Summit, that perhaps this would be the rare placid day even along the Skyline Road (also known as Forest Road 11).

I really am sometimes embarrassingly naive.

We had scarcely stepped out of the rig before we heard the wind.

And felt it.

There is ample space to park on the west side of the highway, near the shed where the Oregon Department of Transportation stores sand to spread on the snow-slathered highway. Dooley Mountain goes through a lot of the stuff in a typical winter.

(Just don’t park directly in front of the structure.)

The drifts — or dunes, if you prefer — started immediately as the Skyline Road climbs a moderate grade, heading west toward Bald Mountain.

I know nothing of physics, or whatever scientific discipline it is that would explain how the interaction of wind, snow and terrain combines to create these features, so fascinating and so temporary.

I can grasp the basic concept of a snowdrift. If something interrupts the wind it necessarily loses some of its capacity to propel the snow. This is how cornices form on the tops of ridges.

But I am hopeless to understand why, along a road that’s maybe 15 feet wide, the wind would scour down nearly to bare ground in one spot, while a few feet away the snow forms a fin four feet high, its crest as narrow as a pencil, rather like a fluff of meringue atop a lemon pie.

The road is far from flat, to be sure.

I’ve driven it in summer often enough to know that it’s littered with rocks, ruts and the occasional scorched limb.

I can’t fathom, though, how any of this detritus could serve as the foundation, so to speak, for these elaborate, powdery pieces of natural art.

But appreciating art, of course, requires no special knowledge. This is one of the great attractions of art, it seems to me.

We hiked just a mile or so, to a saddle with a fine view of Bald Mountain’s east flank.

The truly heroic drifts/dunes form a bit farther to the west, where the Skyline Road was hacked out of the stony brow of the ridgecrest. We have snowshoed up there in the past and found veritable walls of snow, taller than a basketball hoop.

The remnants of those drifts some years block the road until Memorial Day, or perhaps even a bit longer. The first time I no longer see a white glint on that ridge, while driving through Bowen Valley on Highway 7 just south of Baker City, is for me as sure a sign of summer’s imminence as the roar of a lawnmower or the prick of a mosquito’s proboscis.

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