It’s easy to lose track of time when you ski into a backcountry cabin for a few days. Mother Nature sets the agenda and visitors get a glimpse of the world as it used to be. By the time they pack up and return to town, most folks need to set their watches forward about a century.
Some friends and I were out there recently, spending the last weekend of January in a remote cabin on the northern flanks of the Blue Mountains. We skied by day, then ate great food, drank a little too much, and laughed late into the night. It was quiet, and peaceful, and there was plenty of time to think.
On balance, our three-day trip was a perfect tonic for the midwinter blahs.
Our base camp was the Clearwater Big House, a venerable old cabin owned by the Umatilla National Forest. The weather was foul and the trail looked bleak when we departed from the Rose Springs trailhead , but the rain eased off and the snow cover improved soon after we began the 7-mile approach.
The cabin stands in a charming forest glade about a quarter mile from the Clearwater Lookout tower, a spindly but impressively tall structure that commands a sweeping view. The Big House rents for $75 per night during winter months, but there’s no running water or electricity. Six of us skied in but, given the need for water, one other member of our party drove a snowmobile towing a trailer with water jugs and other bulky gear.
The guy on the sled arrived long before the skiers, so there was plenty of time for him to unlock the cabin, haul the gear inside, then turn on the propane before lighting the heat stove. The two-story cabin, which is nearly 100 years old, also has a four-burner cookstove, two propane-powered refrigerators, and three wall-mounted propane lamps plumbed with copper tubing to a big propane tank outside. There are three bedrooms with a total of 10 beds, but there’s no bedding; visitors need to bring their own sleeping bags. A vault toilet is located about 50 yards from the cabin.
After a few hours, the skiers pulled up to the cabin, tired, but not worn out. There wasn’t much energy for more skiing, so the group settled in for a moose and pasta dinner followed by a rousing trivia game involving world geography.
Into the wild
Our adventure really came into focus on the second day, when we saddled up for an extensive tour of the area. Sadly, two of our members had to ski out and return home that day, so we accompanied them to the fire lookout and watched as they made their way back toward the trailhead.
At that point, we turned and skied in the opposite direction, toward the 178,557-acre Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. It was a delightful, follow-your-nose tour that wound through the Teal Campground and then to the brink of a yawning void where the Tucannon River canyon fell away at our feet.
Generally speaking, the Blue Mountains are pretty, but they aren’t breathtaking. Sure, they contain a lot of wild country with rocky basalt outcrops, tufts of bunchgrass on the open slopes, and lodgepole pine and some subalpine fir in the forest stands. Nice, but not spectacular.
Standing at the brink of the Tucannon River canyon, with dull gray clouds suddenly parting to admit bold shafts of sunlight, we had to recalibrate our mind’s-eye impression of the Blues. If it were in Oklahoma or Kansas, the Tucannon River canyon would surely be a national park. It is that impressive.
From the canyon’s edge, we pressed on, weaving through the trees and using our intuition to create a loop that, eventually, led back to the cabin. After lunch and a bit of down time, a few of us ventured out for a shorter tour toward a forebodingly named feature called the Devil’s Eyebrow.
When night falls
Dinner that final night was another masterpiece, this time featuring shrimp, andouille sausage, corn on the cob, potatoes and onions. There was laughter, an endless succession of stories, and the clink of glasses in moments that define love and friendship.
There was also a little whisky, and around 9 p.m. – with an almost-full moon hanging low in the sky – there was time for a short ski tour near the cabin. We wanted to keep things simple, so we didn’t push very hard, but our modest effort yielded great reward.
Partially dimmed by high clouds, the moon wasn’t very bright and each of us wore a headlamp. The snow, settled and icy after a string of days in the high-30s, glinted like a carpet of diamonds. We skied slowly and cautiously, threading our way through the trees, and huge shadows rose and fell as our headlamps pierced the forest gloom.
It was profoundly quiet, and for a few minutes we were simply children of the universe, on the loose and living in the moment. In the midst of darkest winter, we discovered within ourselves an invincible summer.
Best of all? We didn’t need a grand expedition to gain that insight. Sometimes, all it takes is a few days at a backcountry cabin.