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  • Writer's pictureScott Nechemias

Columbia Plateau Route Thru Day 4: Thirty Mile Wilderness to North Pole Ridge

The morning of day 4 brought equal amounts of soreness and excitement at settling into the rhythm of the backcountry. On the first day I'd seen a raft heading into Cottonwood early in the day, so I was coming up on 72 hours without seeing a person, and the company of big horn, elk, deer, horny toads, and hawks suited me just fine. The price for this 40 miles with just around 20,000 feet of gain and loss, or an average of 500 feet per mile, was clearly noticeable in my legs while breaking camp in the morning.

The day's agenda included another big bend shelf walk, a raft crossing of the John Day, and a big climb out of the canyon to North Pole Ridge. A little of the day was familiar to me from a scouting trip, but some of the advantage gained from that previous work I squandered making a route adjustment decision on the fly. All I can say in my defense is that sometimes the electricity just doesn't seem to make it across the synapses. Here is an overview map of the day:

I made my way past Cordwood Canyon and Beef Hollow uneventfully to the next grand shelf, one that in my mind makes more of a 'Horseshoe' than the previous day's.

Contouring along I made a decision to cross the river before the Thirty Mile Boat Launch, I had actually planned to cross several miles downstream directly in front of Little Gully, my point of ascent towards North Pole Ridge. The driving force behind this decision was the broad flood plain Thirty Mile Creek presents at it's intersection with the John Day. Crossing it requires hiking away from the river for a mile, and then back on the opposite side of Thirty Mile. The hiking on both sides of the river is excellent, and I think on the whole I made the correct decision.

The river crossing went without incident, swift water but no whitewater, and I let the current take me a good 30 yards downstream before hitting the opposite bank, rather than test my Matkat's ability to stay upright with the current smacking it sideways. As I was deflating my raft a couple on a substantially more capable raft floated by, having just launched at Thirty Mile and on their way to Cottonwood. They looked dubiously at my level above a pool toy craft and we waved at each other. Our verbal exchange, cutting through the river noise and the increasing Doppler effect as the current carried them around the bend was comical.

Rafting Couple: Where are you coming from?

Me: Cottonwoooooood

Rafting Couple: What? Where are you goooooing?

Me: Mitcheeeeellllll!

Rafting Couple: That's raaaaaaaaaaad!

And then they were gone. Of course their confusion arose from the fact that I was traveling upstream. Moving along the banks and continuing southward had minor moments of difficulty as I really hadn't intended to go this way at all, but plenty of splendor, a coyote watching me from above, and hordes of whitetail seemingly popping out from behind every corner.

The west side bank of the river cliffs out before rounding the bend to Little Gully, but I was able to identify a little mini pass on the edge of North Pole Ridge, and from there made the taxing contour over to mouth of Little Gully. This seemed like an uncertain proposition when it first came into view, but worked out fine. Little Gully has a huge rock face waterfall lip, one that I hope to explore under, but for the moment needed to climb around and over it.

I'm contouring along the right side of this picture, so you can see how a voice might start in my head saying 'bro, this might not be the way you get there'. As they say in the parlance of our times, it goes. The view from Little Gully back across the river is first class.

If you've been following the maps you might be wondering why I didn't take the jeep road at the low end of North Pole Ridge, it's clearly the easiest line of travel and probably the most aesthetic. The answer is that it's unfortunately not on public land. This is the only spot in the route I attempted a little research to contact the landowners to ask for permission, but the best I could come up with was a holding company in California with no contact information but a mailing address. While the jeep road on North Pole Ridge might be preferable, there was no lack of scenery in the route I took. In the future I may try to ascend further south closer to where North Pole Ridge is public land.

I traveled about three quarters of a mile up Little Gully, and when it started to become really choked up made a steep climb out to the rise separating it from Big Gully, where I camped for the night. I was now halfway through the trip, things were going about as expected, and I was full of optimism.

I like my sites up high and my pitch down low

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