I have cursed the wind far more often than I have credited it.
Its list of transgressions is lengthy, its attributes comparatively few.
Sure, rapidly moving air can spin turbines that generate electricity without unpleasant byproducts such as carbon dioxide.
But besides its capacity for clean kilowatts, wind is pretty generally a plain nuisance.
If not outright dangerous, as it can be during winter if the air temperature is low enough.
It’s no coincidence that the terms “wind chill factor,” “hypothermia” and “frostbite” often share space in a paragraph.
(Sometimes along with even less savory words such as “amputation” and “gangrene.”)
Among the places where I have raged against the wind are multiple repeat offenders.
A heap of wind passes through Virtue Flat, for instance, in the sagelands east of Baker City.
Marble Creek Pass, a notch in the sedimentary ramparts of Elkhorn Ridge, also acts frequently as a funnel for the prevailing winds.
But when I ponder particularly blustery places — it’s not a habit, exactly, yet I am easily bored — the area around Dooley Mountain Summit comes to mind as readily as any other.
Specifically along the Skyline Road, Forest Road 11, west of the summit on Highway 245.
This spine of high ground, part of the divide between the Powder and Burnt rivers, is nearly perfectly situated to catch just about every gust that the atmosphere can conjure.
Ridgetops, of course, tend to be windier than their slopes or the intervening valleys.
(Although in Northeastern Oregon some of our valleys, notably the Grande Ronde and the Baker, can have the perverse effect of accelerating the wind, sometimes well beyond the velocities on nearby elevated topography.)
The Skyline Road, as its name suggests, runs near the top of the ridge, and because it trends east-west it’s perpendicular to the two most typical wind directions, north and south.
The bottom line, then, is that it blows a gale up there often as not.
I have more than once, while hiking or snowshoeing along the Skyline Road, been stopped for no gain, like a running back who collides with the granitic chest of a chiseled linebacker.
Yet the same blustery barrage also brings me to this place every winter.
Because wind, for all its annoyances, is also quite an accomplished artist.
This is my favorite spot — at least among those that can be reached by something less than a full-fledged winter expedition — to wander among snow sculptures that can reach house-size scales.
My wife, Lisa, and I, along with our son, Max, strapped on snowshoes on Saturday, Feb. 18 and headed west on the Skyline Road, wondering what changes recent storms had wrought on the snow.
We had our answer within a few strides.
The wind — no doubt with a major assist from recent freeze-thaw cycles — had consolidated the snow so thoroughly that our plastic and metal shoes were, in many places, superfluous appendages.
I don’t pretend to understand the physical processes, but the result is obvious even to a scientific dullard, which I am. The wind acts rather like a pair of giant hands, or paddles, pushing down the snow grains and squeezing out, as it were, the spaces between — the spaces that give fresh powder snow its fragile consistency.
And, of more interest to a snowshoer, the consistency that allows shoes to sink in.
Our shoes, on that day, mostly did not.
On a few sections of road, only the metal crampons, which resemble some sort of medieval weapon deployed when a sword was too unwieldy, left an impression on the hard, white surface.
But the firm snow didn’t surprise me much — that’s not an uncommon condition in late winter if there hasn’t been a major storm recently.
The shocking part of our hike was the wind.
There wasn’t any.
At least not anything more than an occasional zephyr, which in that normally buffeted location barely registers.
Yet we could hear the wind.
The Cornet-Windy Ridge fire of August 2015 did for most of the trees, but the wind still moans, in its inimitable way, as it wends between the gray skeletons, most having shed their blackened bark in the ensuing seven years.
Actually the moan was more of a dull roar.
I suspect that had we veered away from the road and climbed to the crest of the ridge the situation wouldn’t have been quite so placid, or pleasant.
We didn’t make it to the section of the Skyline Road where the most prodigious drifts typically form. That’s about 2 miles from the highway, and we turned back about a half-mile short. The road, which climbs at a relatively gentle rate otherwise (and even descends briefly), ascends steeply for the final quarter-mile or so before it reaches the top. There, a series of rock outcroppings conspire with the wind to form drifts that some years persist until late May and block a 50-foot section of the Skyline Road even while the rest of the nearly 30-mile road is clear.
(The Skyline Road’s western terminus is along Highway 7, a mile or so south of Larch Summit.)
Even though we didn’t see any great drifts, it was an unusually fine day for snowshoeing on the Skyline Road.
The temperature was in the low 30s — not frigid, but cold enough that the snow wasn’t at all sticky, as it was the previous weekend when we went up to the southern Wallowas around Lily White Guard Station. That day our snowshoes gained a couple pounds each as the glue-like snow clogged the frames.
There were clouds but they weren’t thick enough to block the view, which from the Skyline Road is expansive, including the Elkhorns to the north and the mountains south of Burnt River Valley, including Ironside Mountain.
And with the absence of wind it was easier to take in those views.
On a more typical day up there I tend to walk in a sort of slouch, my head down and my eyes squinting to keep the gusts from creating a constant light flow of tears.
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