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  • Writer's pictureScott Nechemias

Columbia Plateau Route Thru Day 2: Lower John Day Wilderness Study Area

Day 2 started with an enormous hiccup. I was under the mistaken belief that the only way to get from my camp to Piano Box Canyon was to climb 1400 feet to a high contour, as the broad flat along the shoreline looked to soon cliff out into the river again. I had pondered this spot during map study, as well as satellite pictures, but it wasn't until I had climbed 1200 feet that I was able to see not only was travel along the river possible, it seemed it would be for the next three miles. This was too much straight ahead travel to pass on, so with a bit of internal grumbling I descended right back to where I started, effectively going nowhere for the first two hours of hiking. Internal music playlist switches to Talking Heads We're on the Road to Nowhere.

But of course the decision wasn't quite that simple... there were still little bits of shoreline just out of view that looked like they might cliff out. This question was the central crux of the day, and the answer turned out to be some of the best and most anxiety producing hiking of the trip. Below is me thinking... and thinking... system processing...about maybe having to climb 1200 feet AGAIN after having just put in 2400 feet of gain and loss for no appreciable forward progress, and the map illustrating the dilemma at hand.

deep thoughts

My anxiety about the potential success of hugging the shoreline lifted almost immediately when I rounded the bend and was treated to this sight:

I spent quite a bit of time watching them, they didn't seem to much care about me flailing around on the opposite bank. Flail isn't an exaggeration, the travel alternated between trying to skim along the shore and tiring of the brush forcing me into to hugging the lowest cliff band and rolling my ankles, trying to keep from sliding off into the river or brush below. Often times the areas just below the cliff wall seem to miraculously hold just enough level ground to walk along no doubt paths maintained by my elk trail crew. Particularly spectacular was this section of two pieces of cliff that had sheared off and created windows for me to walk through:

From here the rest of the day was primarily hugging the shoreline and the cliff faces, interspersed with broad flat shoreline. The overhung cliff bases often had little caves and obvious animal dens, and though I didn't see any I'd expect detailed inspection would reveal petroglyphs. I knew at some point in the day I'd reach an area where there was no question I'd have to go high again, the bends in the river between Pearson Canyon and Bull Basin. The question of the ideal spot to make this climb is still very much an open one in my mind. Pearson Canyon itself is a more gradual climb, and probably offers some decent protected camping near the labeled spring. However, since the weather was clearing up and felt very stable I decided to take a harder and shorter route to an exposed camp with some expansive views. The drainage proved easy to navigate, with a few brief unexposed class 3 moments that could probably be avoided if desired.

A few more pictures of the day's hiking, and a little video from the camp view:

I slept like the dead that night.

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