Posted on March 28, 2017
Moved by the Wallowas
Six hundred pounds of Oregon Elk thundered up the small freestone creek in a desperate dash for life as a pack of gray wolves gave chase. Two or three wolves were closing in on her flanks in the shallow stream as the rest of the pack ran just behind them on the high banks of the small tributary. In a final powerful move to avoid the wolves at her heels, she wheeled left and attempted to jump up the six foot bank from the bottom of the creek bed. Her fate was sealed when her front legs sunk to her shoulders in four feet of deep snow. The trailing wolves, running lightly on a thin layer of crust, caught her quickly and ended the struggle for life at the top of the bank in a flurry of fangs and flesh.
Less than twenty four hours later we approached the scene on our snowcats not half a mile from our destination by the river in the heart of the Wallowa Mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Northeast corner of Oregon.
Snow prints told the story.
It was a solemn moment in the middle of a remote area that had taken us several hours and a variety of vehicles to reach. Our destination was a cabin by the river, owned by my friend and river running brother, Jim Whitney who led our overland caravan of three through a maze of trails, locked gates, logging roads, switchbacks and abandoned railroad tracks in some of the most breathtaking country in Oregon. Steve Corey was with us – a good fisherman, great outdoorsman, and fantastic cook.
We reached the little cabin, started a fire, unloaded gear, and propped our wet boots by the stove to dry out. Steve’s Danner Boots were the same model as mine, with 50 more years of stories to tell. I slipped on my waders, grabbed my fly rod and headed upriver to pursue steelhead on the fly just as it started to snow.
A mile upriver, I started fishing for steelhead in the familiar two-step of a determined fly fisherman committed to the old school style of swinging flies with a single handed rod working the pools, tail-outs, slicks and likely looking pockets where those elusive fish might be holding. Four fishless hours later and I was ready for the warmth of the cabin and whatever food Jim and Steve were cooking.
I thought he was kidding when I walked through the door and Steve asked how many lobster tails I wanted for dinner, two or three? When I said four I thought I was calling his bluff but he said “alright but that won’t leave you with any for tomorrow night”….. WHAT?? Seriously?? They added roasted asparagus, caesar salad, toasted french bread, melted butter for the lobster and a bottle of wine too expensive for my palate to appreciate and I started thinking – my usual posse of river rats on the western side of the state need to step up their game !!
Clearly this was going to be a steelhead trip to remember… but the Pendleton Whiskey after dinner would challenge us to recall the details. The next morning was clear and crisp. I slipped on my waders, slipped out the cabin door and hiked to the pools upstream.
We fished hard all day – upstream, downstream, swinging, nymphing, plunking….. we tried it all with the same result. A fishless day – not at all uncommon or unfamiliar to steelhead fishermen…. and so, we headed to the cabin for ribs and lobster. Jim had been smoking ribs all afternoon on the grill (of course there’s a grill a million miles from nowhere). If nothing else, this trip would add a few pounds for us all to work off at a later date.
After another elegant dinner I grabbed my Therm-a-Rest cot, my sleeping bag, and my Pendleton blanket and headed for the river to do some open air winter sleeping down by the river. I explained it as a field test for winter gear – but I really wanted a closer connection to the river, the valley and the Nez Perce tribe of Native Americans that called this place “home” more than two hundred and fifty years before us. I looked up at the stars in the night sky and thought of them in this place.
My breath was heavy and my nose was cold but the familiar sound of running water over rocks and the rawness of the night was something I’ll never forget. The image of the slaughtered Elk was something else I’ll never forget and a few times during the night imagined I was being surrounded by the Minam pack of wolves that patrols this valley and did my best to snore loudly hoping to be mistaken for a hibernating bear. When I woke to the first light of dawn, I was pretty glad I hadn’t been eaten by wolves and figured either they thought I was a sleeping bear, a mad dog, or a middle aged fly fisherman that wouldn’t taste very good…. or maybe the wolf pack was only in my dreams. I hiked up to the cabin and made coffee.
Things were different from the very beginning of the third day. Jim positioned himself on a stretch of river he knew well and threw his egg pattern upriver in just the right spot so it would slide over and around rocks and boulders that had produced a boat load of steelhead in the past. He had several “bumps” before the solid hit that bent his rod over in that familiar powerful arc.
It was a native fish – wild and strong and after a classic fight Jim carefully released it back to the cold water.
Meanwhile, back upriver I was continuing my own quest for steelhead in some of the “fishiest” looking steelhead stretches I had ever seen. Perfect clarity, pace, and personality for those fish…. I was sure the steelhead were there but wasn’t convinced they would take the fly I was offering. So I switched flies… often. For over two hours I threw cast after cast with a variation of flies when suddenly, “WHAM” I had a solid hit from a solid fish which stopped me cold in my tracks and took my breath. The rod bent and the reel started to scream and then… just as suddenly, it didn’t. Everything quit. Silence. arrrrrg. It was almost as startling as the initial hit. It’s a helpless and defeated feeling. After the replay of events in my head, I gathered myself and went back to casting.
The sun came out briefly and I watched my shadow on the water making cast after cast and then it was time to pack up and leave the valley.
We made our way back up the steep narrow trail and near the top we stopped for one final look down at the river snaking it’s way between the mountains of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
In 1877, over 800 members of the Nez Perce tribe and their 2,000 horses fled the valley and headed Northeast in a desperate attempt to elude the pursuers hot on their trail. They were searching for a new home and chased by the U.S. army for over 1,000 miles and three months across Idaho and parts of Montana before a final bloody battle less than 40 miles from the safety of Canada. It was the battle in the foothills of the Bear’s Paw Mountains where the Nez Perce were finally forced to surrender and Chief Joseph is said to have pronounced to the remaining Chiefs and the U.S. Army “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
As I looked over the raw beauty of the Wallowa valley with the steep dark green Mountains on all sides dusted with a fine layer of white snow tumbling into the river below, his words took on a depth that made me ache for his people and the way of life they gave up. I was moved by the Wallowas.