Field Notes -- 10/19/2018 Joseph Canyon -- Nez Perce Precious Lands via Warm Springs Trail
The best part was walking into the shade. Not just because it was hotter than I expected that day -- though it was; it was hot for mid-October; the heat and the fall colors jarred strangely -- but also because the ground was softer in the shade. I was about halfway down into the canyon when the steep trail twisted around a shipwreck of basalt and then, for a short time, traversed a north-facing slope. The geology shaded itself, here, and so there was more moisture: just enough for a few shrubs, a few pines, and the deeper soil that more biomass makes. I’d worn the wrong clothes -- long sleeves and wool socks for fall weather -- and here was cooler air, thank goodness; my feet hurt, and here was softer ground, amen. I felt the kind of relief you only feel when a difficult landscape gives you a bit of a break.
The respite didn’t last. It never does in such country. As it turned out, the cool slope was just the gateway to the steepest section of the hike. During my final descent to Joseph Creek, from signpost cairn to sign- post proper through scarlet sumac, I had to stop a few times to shake out my cramped toes. But I was impatient to get to the water. I could see the cottonwoods and dogwoods down there; I hoped the creekside would repeat the cool softness of that north-facing slope above. I’d sit for ten minutes on a pile of leaves and eat my little pot pie, and then I’d climb the 2200 feet back to my rig.
Joseph creek was lovely: wide and gentle and shaded where I hit it, cold when I splashed a handful of it onto my face -- a fine reward for a hot hike -- but I was out of luck for a soft place to sit. The banks were stony and hard, battered by cattle and colonized by the spiky weeds (thistles, teazles) that thrive in compacted soil.
It was still awfully nice down there. I couldn’t stay long; I was in a bit of a time crunch; but I ate my lunch and poked around a little, resting. The creek murmured, the cottonwoods were just beginning to go golden, and the trail had led me, quite unexpectedly, to the warm spring I’d always heard was down in this canyon somewhere. (I suppose the name of the trail should have alerted me to this possibility!) The warm water seeped out from between the exposed roots of a cutbank tree (a mountain mahogany, I think) and trickled down a cattle-tracked algae-painted bed to the creek. There was no pool, no odor of sulfur, just quiet warm water dotted with yellow leaves and lingering in hoofprints.
This is a landscape of contrasts: rock and air, heat and water, cool water and warm, evidence of human activity (cairns, cattle) in a place so lonely, so devoid of human clatter and distraction, that the sound of the creek -- ever quieter but ever-present -- followed me almost all the way back to the rim of the canyon. And there, on the rim, nestled in the top of a little draw, were two more human thumbprints: a stock trough full of clear springwater and, just above it, an old orchard, wealthy this time of year with fruit and seedy bear scat, planted here a century or so ago to take advantage of the deep, soft soil that collects in this draw. I got to it just in time to appreciate the shade.
- Christina deVillier
Wild Connections Coordinator
Greater Hells Canyon Council