Ever since my first spring backpack trip to Utah with EWU’s outdoor program back in college, the month of March has meant, in most good years, that it was time for a spring break trip. From Utah to Hells Canyon and the wilds of Idaho’s Salmon River, spring trips have typically targeted low-elevation, arid regions with miles of remote, rugged trails fit for leaving responsibilities and troubles behind (at least for a week). At some point, spring trips got a little more complex with new outdoor hobbies thrown into the mix. Backpacking alone wasn’t always enough to cure the spring fever itch to get the heck out of town – not when there were also swollen rivers to float, snow to ski, canyons to climb in, and tacky singletrack to ride.
One March, years after spring break had become more of a state of mind than a holiday on the calendar, its pull had us pointing our vehicle south towards Northeast Oregon’s Wallowa County. The Wallowa Mountains, best known for the Eagle Cap Wilderness, offers some exceptional, and sometimes avalanche prone, backcountry ski touring possibilities often well into spring. Of course there’s also the added benefit that those high peaks are right next door to warmer wandering opportunities in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
After a late-night departure, we reached our destination and set up camp for the week in the deserted snow park parking lot at the foot of the Wallowas. We skied untracked powder every day and felt like we had those legendary mountains to ourselves. We dove deep into the woods to escape our own tracks and climbed peaks for views and steep turns. At night we did our best to keep warm and entertain ourselves in our well-stocked tent village.
It was full-on winter, with little hint of spring in the Wallowas that week. We were more than happy with that while it lasted, but when a storm blew in with wailing winds and bitter cold temps, we pulled up camp and bailed for the sun and relative warmth of the canyons. Down there, a short drive into the deepest gorge in North America, real spring was in full swing.
We soaked up the warmth and explored the coulees around camp and got re-acquainted with our lawn chairs along the river. Before we knew it, “spring break” was over. We had nailed that window between winter and spring when it’s possible to live in both seasons without too much travel, but it was time to head home. Down the steep, switchback grade to the Grande Ronde River we drove, straight into the glare of spring squall light. Our wipers thrashed wildly to clear the glass of gropple and sleet, and we barely caught glimpse of the brown blur that flashed in front of us. Fresh from a long winter’s rest, that bear launched across the highway full bore into the woods, leaving winter behind, chasing signs of spring. //