Over two hundred years ago, the summer home of the Nez Perce Native American Indians was in the steep mountains and deep valleys of Northeastern Oregon. It’s in the Wallowa Range in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and it’s almost as remote and obscure now as it was back then.
It took us most of the day to drive trucks and snow cats through a series of private property gates, fences, padlocks, single lane logging roads, and no trespassing signs. At one point, our progress was stopped by a wall of snow and ice – the result of an avalanche that happened several weeks prior to our trip. It took us a couple of hours to dig a path with chain saws, pickaxes, shovels, and our bare hands.
Our trip leader, Jim Whitney, had a cabin at the end of the trail and we were all hoping that the avalanche wasn’t a preview of coming attractions. No one had been to the cabin after the winter snow began and there was no telling what shape it was in – or if it was even still standing. We proceeded carefully along the narrow trail for another couple of miles, dropping several hundred feet in elevation until we could finally see the little rustic cabin by the river – half buried by snow.
Jim’s friend, Steve Morley, rounded out our “threesome” and took cooking detail for the first night – which featured his specialty: lobster tails. I thought he was kidding when he talked about the menu he had planned for the first night - and then he pulled a bag of 20 tails from the cooler. I had to be reminded I was in the middle of nowhere as I asked for more melted butter for my lobster.
On river trips like this, I’m usually in a wooden boat, but this trip was unique; more about hiking and wading than rowing and drifting. The object of pursuit was the same, however: the elusive steelhead of the Pacific Northwest. Nothing inspires me more than these incredible fish.
Hiking upriver was a slog in deep snow and each night we had to dry our boots by the fire in the cabin. My new Danners were on their maiden adventure while Steve’s were celebrating 50 years of outdoor wear and tear. They made a nice contrast in the warm glow of the fire.
In a nod to “deep connections” with the valley, I slept by the river on a cot one night under the open sky. Temperatures hovered in the single digits and the stars were brighter than I can remember on any river trip. The sound of water running over the free stones and pebbles, just a few yards away, put me to sleep in a blink. I shook off a thin dusting of snow in the morning and headed for the cabin to start the day.
It was an overcast sky and before my second cup of coffee it began snowing – again. “Great cover for fishing” – we told ourselves. Since proper steelhead adventures require suffering, the snow seemed appropriate and we hoped it would serve as some kind of deposit or “offering” that might improve our chances of a “hook-up”.
After miles of river wading and several fishless hours, Jim hooked up and landed a nice native steelhead on the morning of our last day on the river. While it wasn’t caught on the infamous “last cast”, it was close. We packed up our gear, secured the cabin, began the long climb-out on our snow machines, and hoped the path we cleared through the avalanche remained open.
As we snaked our way up the rutted and icy path, the valley far below looked peaceful and still with a fresh coat of snow. The river was silver from the reflection off the clouds and the sound of running water became more and more faint as we reached the top of the ridge. It was a memorable winter adventure in the heart of the Wallowas.
GREG HATTEN is a freelance writer, public speaker, river runner, woodenboat builder, outfitter and fly fishing guide in the state of Oregon. In 2014 he was part of an international team of river runners who replicated the famous Grand Canyon trip of 1964 which was instrumental in saving the Grand Canyon from two proposed dams that would’ve buried it under water. He built and rowed the replica “Portola” on that trip which was Martin Litton’s first Grand Canyon dory.