Having a summer place that you know

Wallowa Lake Credit: Dezz via Creative Commons

I am here at beautiful and remote Wallowa Lake in Wallowa County, Oregon, shepherding my 92-year-old mother. Over the years she has missed very few summers “at the Lake.”

There’s a timeless quality to the Lake and Wallowas, at least for us summer visitors. Watching a grandson fill water balloons at an outside spigot, I could be watching one of my sons 30 years ago. My mother could be watching me 50 years back. In the evenings, we head off to fish as we did 40 years ago, as my grandmother and grandfather did 80 years earlier.

Wallowa County is tucked in the furthest northeastern corner of the state. Its eastern border is Hell’s Canyon, beyond which lies Idaho. To the west, in Union Country, are the Blue Mountains. The county’s most striking feature are the stunning Wallowa Mountains, a roughly oblong formation of multiple peaks, mountain lakes, and rushing clear rivers.

The population, a bit under 7,000 (down 5 percent over the last decade), lives on the 3,200 square miles of Wallowa County. That translates to 2 people per square mile.

For thousands of years the Wallowas were the summer residence of the Nez Perce tribe. In the 1870s they were driven out by U.S. troops. Led by storied Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce fought while making an historic 1,200 mile march, surrendering just south of Canada in Montana. Even though they were forced onto reservations in Idaho and Washington, at least some Nez Perce continued to return to camp in the Wallowas each summer, a pilgrimage that continues to this day.

My ancestors came to the county during and after World War I. My maternal grandfather opened the county’s first mortuary in Enterprise, the county’s largest town and county seat. A few decades later he was elected sheriff. My paternal grandfather bought a building in the smaller town of Lostine, where he opened a drug store and soda fountain in 1920. Later, he moved his drug store to Enterprise.

This summer, as we have in summers past, our family returned to the Wallowas, to a cabin near Wallowa Lake built in the 1920s by my grandparents. We arrived in time for the 65th Annual Chief Joseph Days, a several-day celebration including a rodeo, parade and carnival. This is the parade for you if you like horses: no marching bands, but lots of horses. Most carry the “courts” (queen and princesses) of Chief Joseph Days, and courts from similar events in Oregon and Washington such as the Elgin Stampede, Asotin Days, Pendleton Roundup, St. Paul Rodeo, and Hells Canyon Mule Days.

The rodeo begins with a rush of these young ladies on horseback, flags waving, riding at top speed around the arena. It’s impressive and, against the backdrop of the sunset on Chief Joseph Mountain, affecting. This year the rodeo had a record number of entrants: 450 cowboys and cowgirls.

Some years the rodeo is marked, or marred, by right-of-center political jabs from the announcer (two-thirds of the county cast votes for McCain in the last election). I expected some shots at Obama-care or “liberals,” but not a word this time. To be sure, unabashed patriotism was on colorful display, but no bad-mouthing of the current administration or President.

Still, Wallowa County is an area that would probably relate to Sarah Palin. Many people here tend to have mixed feelings at best about the federal government. You still here grumblings about the ranchers who were “run off” their land by the Forest Service when Hell’s Canyon was turned into a National Recreation Area. The latest controversy surrounds government-sponsored and apparently successful efforts to reintroduce wolves to the Wallowas.

Some ranchers had been enlisted in the cause, monitoring wolf presence and movement with radio transmitters. But others complain that they are losing stock to the new and larger species of wolf, said to run as large as 170 pounds. Ranchers here turn their stock loose in the spring and gather them again in autumn, making the protection of newborn calves from wolves a challenge. Some area ranchers have long been in the forefront of efforts to protect riparian (stream) habitat and produce, increasingly coveted, grass-fed beef.

The federal government, specifically the Forest Service, owns 56 percent of all land in the county. In July the large Forest Service visitor center, on a bluff overlooking Enterprise, burned to the ground. FBI and ATF investigators were called in, giving rise to rumors of arson, but the fire seems to have been caused by spontaneous combustion from materials used to oil the log walls of the building.

For a time, particularly in the ’90s, Joseph, the small town closest to Wallowa Lake, seemed to be becoming an arts center. It became home to a host of bronze sculptors and their foundries. Joseph boasts an array of bronze sculptures, surrounded by gardens, on its main street. But many of the artists have left and their foundries have mostly closed. Whether it’s because the economic base was insufficient or because of the present recession is hard to say.

Logging, once an economic mainstay of the county, is a shadow of its former self. The mill in Joseph closed long ago. Ranching and tourism are the main poles in the county’s economic tepee, but that’s sagging with the recession. Multiple empty storefronts in Enterprise belie the town’s name. Median household income in the county is $32,000.

Nez Perce, Umatilla and Colville tribal representatives returned last fall for the dedication of Iwetemlaykin (pronounced oo-wah-TEMM-lay-kin) State Park, a new 62-acre park at the foot of Wallowa Lake. It’s a Nez Perce word meaning “at the edge of the waters.” A gorgeous little jewel of hill, forest and meadow, it offers walking trails where evening visitors are sure to see grazing mule deer and various songbirds.

Creating Iwetemlaykin was a 30-year struggle. Once known as the Marr Ranch, the land had been sold and developers hoped to locate a resort there. This time the tribes won, assisted by community groups including the Wallowa Land Trust. As you pull into the small parking lot at Iwetemlaykin, you see a pretty band of horses, mostly pintos and Appaloosas — a breed raised by the Nez Perce — grazing in the fields across the two-lane county highway.

The Wallowa Land Trust was established in 2004 to preserve the area’s rural character and help private landowners maintain open lands through conservation easements or other forms of economic incentives. Among the most striking features of the area are the glacial moraines. With the Wallowa Mountains providing the backdrop, 5-mile-long, mile-wide Wallowa Lake, bounded by the moraines, is spectacular. Deeper in the mountains more than 50 high lakes with names like Glacier, Mirror, Moccasin, Ice, and Horseshoe provide destinations for backpackers.

The steep eastern moraine at Wallowa Lake is privately owned, with over 100 different landowners holding title to some piece of it. So far there is no development; a good deal of that has to do with the lake’s sparkling water quality as well as the striking visuals captured by many photographers, among them the award-winning local, Dave Jensen.

Still, there are pressures for development, pressures checked for the moment by the current recession. County residents know what a jewel they steward. In the past, hundreds have turned out to voice opposition to housing and resort development on the moraine.

Here in Wallowa County, the sense of timelessness is deceptive. Just when you think nothing much has changed, it becomes clear that much has, including you.

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