Columbia Plateau Route Thru Day 5: North Pole Ridge to Pine Creek
I woke up April 6th ready for a big change of pace. North Pole Ridge runs for about 13 miles over the John Day River Canyon, most of it above 3000 feet... but when you're walking it southbound you won't know whether to look at the river canyon to your left, or the Cascades to the right. It's an embarrassment of riches in terms of views for the 7.5 miles of my route that follows the ridge on a jeep road, rollercoastering up and down between high points. While there is plenty of up and down, it has a lot more in common with the general idea of 'hiking' than anything I'd done for the past four days.
I gained the ridge road from my campsite skirting the private range land until reaching the public section of the ridge. Once gaining it I was greeted by North Pole Ridge's other defining attribute: punishing winds and exposure, even on a relatively fair weather day. Below are the contrasting east and west views from the ridge:
There is cell service on the ridge, I sent a few 'all systems nominal' messages, and took a ton of pictures... yet somehow managed to put my phone in my shoulder pocket just as I encountered and spooked a group of wild horses. I'd never seen wild horses in this part of Oregon, and the all to brief encounter had a surreal cinematic element as they rounded out of sight around a bend. A true testament to the solitary nature of this environment was walking over my own footprints from a scouting trip in February, when the ground was quite muddy. Those were the only human tracks, and it's not much of a stretch to posit I'm the only one who has walked the ridge this year.
I continued along the ridge until reaching the drainage that feeds rattlesnake spring, and descended towards the river. Amidst the tranquility of the seasonal creek I passed a cow skeleton, this is the only small section of the route which passes through grazing land. Making my way towards the BLM road that provides access to the river from Clarno is a fun walk, cows here and there enjoying the wide open bench, and a couple seasonal marshy lakes fed by water from the ridgeline snow. These little oases also attract a wide variety of birds as well as the cows.
Reaching the road the sun was out and surprisingly punishing for April, but I'd had a feeling the stars might align to create those conditions for the couple of miles of hot, dry road walk in front of me. The miles passed by quickly though, a consequence of legs and feet freed from the rigors of cross country travel, as well as a considerably lighter pack from food consumption.
There are two homes and no services in Clarno, where I crossed the bridge and walked the highway up to the Pine Creek Conservation Area and filled out a permit at the kiosk. The permit system assumes you will exit at the same kiosk and fill out another one when you leave. I had a sun addled moment of almost writing 'I'm not coming back' on my permit, before deciding 'will exit across the John Day to Pat's Cabin' was a clearer and less dramatic message. Pine Creek (the water the conservation area is named for) ran along my little highway walk, and I was happy to see it had a healthy flow, as it would be my only water for the next day. Leaving the highway I drank a liter and then drew five liters from the creek, instantly erasing the pack weight progress four days of eating had provided.
Now at a little over 20 miles for the day I walked a half mile into the Conservation Area with my water, set up camp, and called it for the day.