Juniper Gulch Hike

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March 20, 2016

Wherein I hike with three young ladies among swoopdongles and bibbelty bobs amidst the litterbox smell of blue-berried junipers.

Two hour drive
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Two hour drive
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“Maybe Leslie Gulch” I suggested again yesterday. March has been typically springish — sunny days followed by plan cancelling, weekend rain. But today, on this first official day of spring, we’ve managed the drive to the eastern edge of Oregon for a short hike in Juniper Gulch.¹

  1. Owyhee Canyonlands, “Juniper Gulch Trail”: wildowyhee.org/…/juniper-gulch-trail
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I have been here a few times¹ and Jessica and I spent the night once but the kids have never visited. I’m excited for them to see the fantastic swoopdongles and bibbelty bobs.

  1. Trail Image, “Leslie Gulch”: trailimage.com/…/leslie-gulch
Alluvial
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Alluvial
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“Do you want to invite a friend,” I’d asked Brenna. Hunter is in Washington this week so we have extra capacity. She chose her friend Roxy. “Take it down a notch, ladies,” became the theme of our two hour drive.

Sand in the shoes
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Sand in the shoes
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“Let’s be smart this time,” I said to Brenna as we left, “and wear shoes.” It was a reference to the last time we hiked together in flip-flops and both ended up with bloody feet.¹ The tradeoff is sand and gravel constantly lodging under our socks. I think I prefer flip-flops and stubbed toes.

  1. Trail Image, “Chalk and Basalt”: trailimage.com/chalk-and-basalt
Overhang
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Overhang
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If screeching is an indication, the girls are having more fun than we could have hoped for.

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Most of the rock here is called tuff, formed of compacted, super-heated ash that emerged from two nearby calderas.

Blockage
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Blockage
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Walking under some of these ash-rock overhangs feels like tempting fate.

Magnifying face
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“I don’t know why I brought binoculars,” Roxy says of her magnifying glass. “Can you carry it in your pocket?” I think it was the perfect thing to bring but the girls are too energetic right now to pause for scientific observations.

Creek bed
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Creek bed
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The path rarely deviates from the sandy creek bed. Striated rock cavities and hollows prove it isn’t always dry.

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Out of the enclave
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Out of the enclave
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“We won’t leave you” we reassure the girls when they cry, “wait for me!” (Are we giving off pheromones that signal secret intentions?) “Explore all you want,” we encourage them.

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Rock walls seem to crest left and right, frozen, as if we’re the party of Moses crossing the Red Sea between churning walls of water held back by the hand of God.

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I pause to contemplate a vermillion mottled stone holding complex stories of immense fires and forces spanning the rise and fall of whole civilizations, even species. It is strange to rest my hand on something that so thoroughly transcends my existence.

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Box canyon
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Luge
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Luge
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Brenna adds a tennis ball-sized rock to the pocket opposite the magnifying glass I’m carrying for Roxy. I need to get smart like Jessica and wear clothes without pockets.

Gin berries
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Gin berries
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We remark on the many juniper berries littering the ground as we wrinkle our noses at the trees’ signature, cat urine smell.

Nests
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Whimsical walls of burnt orange and laurel green granules are

rhyolite ash that erupted from the Mahogany Mountain caldera (a large volcanic depression which encompasses Leslie Gulch) in a series of violent explosions about 15.5 million years ago. Much of the material fell back into the volcano as a gaseous deposit of fine ash and rock fragments up to 1,000 feet thick. About 100,000 years later, volcanic eruptions from the Three Fingers caldera, located several miles to the northeast, deposited another layer of rhyolite tuff in Leslie Gulch. Today, the tuff is beautifully displayed as steep slopes and vertical, honeycombed towers carved over time.¹

  1. Bureau of Land Management, “Leslie Gulch”: blm.gov/…/Leslie Gulch
Natural curls
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Natural curls
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I enjoy a close look at anything stubborn enough to grow on dry rocks.

I’ll go wherever you’re going
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I’ll go wherever you’re going
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Climbing
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Climbing
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It is hard to resist such a playground. Our progress is slowed by endless, peripheral curiosities.

Make way
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Slide
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Slide
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Gravity is the girls’ favorite means of locomotion. The kevlar weave jeans available for motorcycle riders should really be marketed to gradeschoolers.

Inner ear
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Inner ear
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Vertical beach
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Vertical beach
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Yellow sand road
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Yellow sand road
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A vague memory of the map (my phone having died after playing music as we drove) suggests right at the wye.

Shortcut
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Shortcut
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Honeycombs
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The right-hand trail rises above the ravine and opens onto a great cathedral, the “honeycombs,” more stunning than any man could make.

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The girls race to explore fanciful ledges while Jessica and I pick our way along wide grinning rock faces. They aren’t aware the amphitheater space is carrying their chatter back to us. “We can hear you,” I caution them with a smile they probably can’t see at this distance.

Brenna and Roxy
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Brenna and Roxy
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When I first saw rocks like this I assumed they had somehow hardened while bubbling. But it’s actually the opposite. The shapes are intrusions not extrusions. Pits and channels result from “differential weathering” as some parts of the rock erode much faster than the rest.

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Once differential weathering is underway, it self-perpetuates. Shaded depressions harbor water that freezes, thaws and flakes away still more rock. Hollows formed in this way are called tafoni.

One study explains, “tafoni initiation is determined by a unique combination of structural or compositional and environmental anisotropy,” which I think is the fancy way to say it’s hard to predict. We can tell “there is a noticeable lack of tafoni in sheltered regions where the entire boulders are never exposed to direct sunlight or rainfall.”¹ It only occurs in sunlit rock faces.

  1. Adrienne Hacker, “Controls of Tafoni Development in Castle Rocks, Idaho”: keckgeology.org/…/hackernew
Juniper Gulch meditation
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Juniper Gulch meditation
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“Time to head back,” we call to the girls. They’re still playing but they’re also hungry for the promise of food once we get to the campground below.

Dirty pants
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Dirty pants
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Up and to the right
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Up and to the right
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From our honeycomb vantage point we saw that both branches of the earlier wye lead here so we opt to return on the path not taken. We’re stopped when we reach a ten foot drop in a slot. After some reconnaissance, Jessica finds a way to climb around.

Don’t worry, kids. And don’t look down.

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“I think we wore them out,” we remark gladly at the girls’ increasingly somber march.

Picnic
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We pull into Slocum Creek Campground a mile down the road alongside the only other occupants, a mother and two boys.

Boys versus girls
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Boys versus girls
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While I work up the fire, the kids get together to slide down a dirt hill on — you guessed it — their pants.

Hot dog and a beer
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Hot dog and a beer
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A few sprinkles
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A few sprinkles
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I notice “BLM” painted on the row of metal garbage bins and think of recent, nearby controversy. Coming to Leslie Gulch puts us more than halfway to the Malheur Refuge which was occupied 41 days by those opposed to federal management of lands within state boundaries.

As long as there is a program to preserve outdoor experiences like this for my children and children’s children, I don’t much care who administers it. But someone must. A free-for-all is unlikely to preserve unique landscapes, places of wonder and solitude essential to a healthy mind.

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Even as we walked up Juniper Gulch, I remarked it would be a fun trail to motorcycle. It wouldn’t take many riding like me, though, to ruin these remarkable sandstone features.

Some areas have been closed to motor vehicles for reasons I can’t appreciate but on balance I’m glad to err on the side of preserving important experiences for those beyond my tiny place in the world and time. I am certain that people and society have much more to gain from the humbling perspective of wild places than the profits or thrills the land might otherwise provide.

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Hills have turned grey and the sky ominous as we turn toward home. For a while we see nothing to distinguish today from a million years ago — just rocks and scrub to the horizon.

“I wonder if they’re driving like this because some are drunk,” I mention to Jessica when we return to modernity behind a train of very slow moving vehicles, the same we saw circled around coolers on the dirt shore of the Owyhee Reservoir.

We endure some unhappy honks as we pick them off one-by-one on straight stretches so the twenty miles of remaining gravel to the highway doesn’t have to take an hour. Brenna lays down in the back seat and falls asleep for much of the remaining night drive home.