Sunday, July 31, 2022

Back to Oregon – July 2022 - Part One

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The Lady and I have seen many wonderful places in our travels. We revel in it, and that question, “What’s around the next corner?” must be answered. We’ve also seen many things or come upon situations that we’ve considered pretty darn unbelievable. What we saw on this trip went right to the top of that list.


We got our usual early start and made it to Hot Springs Campground on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.





We were damn lucky we survived the drive here. The Lady was driving, taking her turn and allowing me a break from pilot duties. We were south of Alturas, in California’s remote northeast corner, heading north on two lane highway 395. Traffic – as is usual on 395 north of Susanville – was very light. We caught up to a semi that was traveling at around 60 mph. The speed limit was 65.  With a long straight section of highway with good visibility and no oncoming vehicles, the Lady pulled into the left lane and started by the 18-wheeler. I was alert in the passenger seat and confirmed to the Lady all was safe. We pulled even with truck’s cab when we all saw it. On the left, from behind vegetation, a pickup truck appeared, speeding down a dirt road intersecting with the highway. He was not going to stop. He was looking only to his left. He was turning right onto the pavement directly head on into us. This all happened in a second. The semi driver let up on his throttle. The pickup completed his gravel raising right turn into our lane. The Lady moved to the right. The pickup driver’s “Oh SHIT!!!!” expression was absolutely priceless. He kept turning to his right and off the highway, foot mashed into the accelerator, and took off into the dirt and brush. We all – the semi, our truck, the pickup - missed each other by only a foot or two. We never looked back to see what happened to the pickup. The trucker didn’t either. “You know,” the Lady calmly said. “I hate passing.”


It was a Thursday evening. We were pleased the small campground was not busy at all, only a few sites were occupied. A 4x4 road runs to the south from the campground and climbs toward a high saddle. We’ve driven this loop road in the past. Tonight, we walked up and enjoyed the cooling night air and many wildlife sightings. Here’s a view back down at the basin where the campground sits, the white spot in the center left.





The reviving scent of sage hung heavy in the air. After a delightfully quiet night, we woke the next morning and drove the long gravel road to Frenchglen at the base of Steens Mountain. The Lady loves free lending libraries and the one outside the historic Frenchglen Hotel was darn near perfect.





The Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway had opened only a couple of weeks prior. Although only midday now on a Friday, we found the campgrounds full. Our destination was much more remote. We turned down the rough road to Nye Cabin and had the area all to ourselves. Nye Cabin (or Pruitt Bunkhouse) has a log book. The most recent signature was from July 11th.





The cabin contains several wooden bed platforms. In 1992 Billy set a hot skillet on one and they’ll never let him forget his mistake.





There are remains of three other cabins that take some searching to find.





We found a small area right along the road – a “cherry stem” into the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area – to park and raise the camper top on our comfortable home. The Wilderness was our reason to return to Steens. The grasses were lush and high in the open areas. Here was our view during dinner.





The Nye Cabin area is on the north rim of the Little Blitzen Gorge, a spectacular glacially carved canyon.





We walked the road and rim late into the evening.







The elevation is 7400 feet and has expansive groves of aspen. Many entries in the cabin’s logbook mention of the glory of fall colors here.







The Lady often tells me this, “I want you to fish more!” Our last time hiking down into the Little Blitzen Gorge was in 2003 with my cousin Keith – The Big Guy – to fly fish. This was our return. In the morning we hiked down the Nye Trail and dropped 1200 vertical feet to the bottom of the gorge. This is a little used trail and because of the debris we found across the trail and the overgrowth, we believe we may have been the first down the trail this season.














The trail passes a couple of small springs tucked into aspen groves. In the dim light we found nice wildflowers.








This species of lily loves the sunny arid slopes.





The trail, as you may guess, is very steep. In many places we stepped down with our boots across the grade to stop a possible slide. It took an hour to reach the bottom and the intersection with the Little Blitzen Gorge Trail along the river.





The river is different than I remember. After a couple of decades of drought, it is now a small shallow creek overgrown with alders and willows.





The Lady is learning to take photos with her smartphone and does a good job. With her gentle urging along with the joy of getting ready to fly fish, she managed to get me to smile.




Julie Photo


The creek had a good population of tiny native redband trout, most in the 3 to 4-inch size. They eagerly rose to a size 18 humpy pattern that floats well. I allowed most to shake themselves free. It was a hot day in the gorge. We stayed in the shadows and water. We worked upstream and then we returned to our starting spot – where our packs were left. Here was the largest pool, about the size of a bathtub and, maybe, two feet deep. A mighty 6 incher slashed at the drifting humpy and was on. A quick couple of laps around the pool and it was in hand, the largest trout of the day.




Julie photo


We started back up around 1645 hrs. It was hot. We stopped at one spring and soaked our shirts and heads in the cold water.





It took 50 minutes to reach the top. We’ve always considered going up easier than going down.





It was another incredible evening alone here. Quiet and solitude is bliss.









Sunday morning, we packed up and drove back out. Here is a fairly open section without tight turns and large rocks.



Julie photo


Most of the climb our small truck pin striped through tight aspen and brush.


Sunday was a return to Wildhorse Lake to fly fish for Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. Wildhorse Lake sits in a glacial cirque and is accessed by hiking down to it. It’s a short hike to the lake. The steep trail drops 800 feet in elevation. In 2003 the route was barely evident, now it is a well-worn trail.






Wildhorse Lake is also inside the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area.






Although the Lahontan Cutthroat is the trout native to this area, Wildhorse Lake was fishless. Sitting at the top of Wildhorse Creek in a hanging cirque, trout could not make the climb to reach it. It is now managed as a “put and grow” fishery. Little cutthroats are planted and grow over the years into bigger cutthroat. The trout were large when I fished in 2017.

We returned in 2019 and the trout were small, most likely indicating the lake was planted with juvenile cutthroats in 2018. This year, 2022, the fish are 4 years old (on average trout live 8 years) and we were here to find out how big they’d grown.


We stashed our packs and boots behind a large boulder on the north side of the lake. The rod was together. The vest was on. It was time to get fishing.



Julie photo


The east and south side of the lake has a wide shallow shelf. In the morning cutthroat cruise right along the lake’s edge. I started with a scud pattern under an indicator. I had one take that I missed. I was distracted by the scenery. We spotted three trout cruising as we moved south. I tied on a foam ant pattern. A small willow provided cover. I was pleased my gentle cast did not spook the fish. One, two, three refusals after a good looking over. I needed something very realistic in this calm clear water. I found a nice size 16 winged ant. Back behind the willow, I watched. A trout turned and headed back toward me. I placed the fly six feet in front of it. It calmly swam to the ant and sipped it in. The Lady, excited, came into the water with the ghost net.




Fishing did not get easier. It took stealth and a smooth presentation. I had several refusals with the winged ant (maybe 70%) but brought to net a couple more trout. We had moved half way around the lake to the deeper water along the rocky west shore. This is when we began to hear voices. We had been alone at the lake. This was changing. People were coming down the trail to the lake. The Lady searched with her see mores. “It looks like three women or girls,” the Lady gave a play by play. “The smallest has a child’s voice. That's who we’re hearing.”


I tied on pheasant tail nymph pattern under my strike indicator. The Lady noted the women’s progress. It was taking time for them to make the descent. There are several deep rocks off shore that provide shelter for trout. I cast out to the rocks. The take was immediate and hard. The thirteen-inch cutthroat was soon safe in the net.





The Lady carefully released it and returned to her see mores.

“They're all at the lake now,” came her report. “They are right at our gear stash and don’t even notice it.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “They won’t bother anything and it should be easy for them to figure out who’s it is. We are the only people down there.”

I went back to fishing.

“Looks like they’re going swimming,” the next report came. “And they’re taking their clothes off. They’re going skinny dipping!”

“Good for them!” I replied. “It looks and sounds like a mom with two daughters. Those girls are lucky to have a mom to bring them to a high alpine lake and go for a swim. I hope they know it.”


Appropriate squeals echoed across the lake as bare skin hit cold water along with the splashing of hurried exits back to shore. They were having fun and the small beach made a great spot for them. If human voices are heard in wilderness, genuine happy sounds make it a delight to hear.


The seventh principle of Leave No Trace is “Be Considerate of Others.” A few quotes –

“Many people come to the outdoors to listen to nature. Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets and damaged surroundings take away from the natural appeal of the outdoors…Different strokes for different folks, but be sure to thoroughly consider how your experience is affecting the way someone else enjoys the outdoors.”


What we were about to experience was one of the most unbelievable sights we’ve encountered.


It was a pleasant afternoon. The Lady and I quietly concentrated on fishing. The mom and daughters were wrapped in towels and lounging on the beach. A new voice was heard; a loud voice of an adult woman. The Lady located the source, just starting down from the rim. She was with a man. They descended the trail together. After the first trout taken with the nymph, fish activity stopped. I tried several different nymph patterns and techniques that had worked well here before. It was just suddenly dead. But I continued prospecting for cruising trout. The Lady watched the progress of the two new visitors and kept me updated.
“My god!” the Lady commented, “That woman never shuts up. Never shuts up! Can you hear her?”

“How can I not?” I answered. “It is loud, intrusive, and nonstop.”

The mom and daughters started packing up to go, perhaps realizing how the whole basin had changed and was now an echo chamber for this loud mouth coming down the trail. It reminded me of the old joke about a singer exclaiming in awe on how her voice filled the concert hall. She completely missed noticing how everyone was leaving to make room for it.

The two finally reached the lakeshore across from us.

“I think the guy has a pack raft on his back,” the Lady noted. “It looks like one. It’s not a backpack.”

And the woman never shut up. She started a running critique on their location - the water, the beach, the rocks. Did anything suit her? What in the world were they up to?

I just wanted to fish. I yearned for the previous peace and quiet we had enjoyed. The woman across the lake continued her loud blathering on and on and on.

“Please, oh please, just shut up!” the Lady muttered. “They sure aren’t here to experience nature and the outdoors and the quiet.”

A few minutes later the Lady put her see mores up to her eyes. “Oh my god! This is unbelievable. It’s not a pack raft. She’s pulling on a mermaid tail fin.” A new play by play followed. “He’s unrolling a slide for her to slide down to get in the water. He has film equipment. Is this some kind of social media thing?”


From what I could tell - I did not want to use the see mores - she now lay half submerged on the shallow shelf. She barked orders at the man and complained. She yelled, “I had my eyes closed. I had water in my eyes. It’s cold. Did you film that? I need to get deeper to swim!”


I quietly prayed, “Please, dear lord, bring down a legion of Greenpeacers that believe she’s beached on shore and drag her out into the middle of the lake to save the mermaid.”


She started her attempt to wiggle out into deeper water. Each movement brought out an awful grunt from her. Has she ever done anything physical in her life? A grunt, and then another, and another. She was out of breath, sucking in air, but the obnoxious grunting continued. She also managed to bark orders at the poor male slave. “Grunt, grunt, grunt, grunt, grunt ……………”


I now prayed for a hungry giant Marvel Comic Book osprey to appear. No luck. I just wanted to fish. I wanted the obnoxious grunting to stop.


“We have to move,” I said to the Lady. “Let’s try to block this horror from our minds.” We moved a hundred yards further north along the rocky shore. I cast the nymph and the red strike indicator out from shore. A cutthroat moved up from the depths, took the indicator in its mouth, and returned to the deep. It finally let go and the bobber popped back to the surface. “It’s time to try a new tactic,” I explained to the Lady. The upslope wind had grown during the afternoon, but, sadly, never loud enough to drown out the grunts of the mermaid. The wind direction concentrated the surface insects on the northwest end of the lake where we now were.

“I’m going to tie on a large realistic caddis pattern with legs and see if it gets interest.” I noted and the Lady agreed with the new tactic. I continued, “But I don’t want to just put it out on the water. Can you go up higher?” I asked the Lady, “And spot a trout for me to cast to. I want solid evidence from either a take or a refusal to find a dry fly that works.” The Lady quickly pointed out a cruising cutthroat. A short cast put the fly in its path. Without hurry, it rose and took the fly. This caddis fly was the ticket.





This is exactly the fly fishing Julie loves – spot a nice trout, point it out to me, and announce, “Catch that one!” And I better perform. She delights in watching the take and is quickly down to water’s edge with the ghost net and camera. She insists the fish is fully rested and revived before the release. We quickly hit a easy routine. She’d point out a trout and announce, “Catch that one!” After a quick assessment, I’d place the fly with a cast. The trout would rise and take it. She’d move a bit ahead and the process was repeated. It was delightful.




We ended fishing as we reached our stashed equipment. The grunting had stopped. The male slave had pulled the spoiled mermaid up on shore. Filming had ended. I thought, for a moment, to ask the Lady if coconuts, clam shells, or bare breasts topped off the mermaid outfit, but I was sick, tired, and disgusted with it all to pique any interest. Later she told me she couldn’t tell. “The upper half, all I could see was tattoos,” she said.


We met the couple as we passed them on the trail. The Lady was concerned we’d be hiking up together and be caught into awkward conversation with them. I put her fears aide. “Do you think a woman who grunts like that while floundering around in a mermaid outfit will be able to keep up with your easy pace up this trail?” We looked back when we reached the top. They were a third of the way up and had stopped to rest.


Putting aside the utter silliness of pretending to be a mermaid and their total disregard for others attempting to enjoy natural surroundings, it had been a great day of fishing. The trout are in good shape and averaged 12 to 13 inches in length. Next year they will be 5 years old and bigger. The next few years should be good. Wildhorse Lake has become an old friend, sans the invasive mermaid species of course.




It was late in the day. We needed to find a dispersed campsite, far away from any human sounds, and plan our trip back toward home. 

Our adventure continues, please click here for - Part Two.



  1. I forgot the bunkhouse was the Pruitt Bunkhouse. Velty Pruitt was a packer who led horse pack trips in and around the Steens.

    I’m shocked how much the stream has changed! Much less water, and it appears to have a lot more willows. The last time I was there, the bigger fish were in the 16-20 inch size.

    You should have tied on a purple sinker in a size 4 ought. Rumor is that knucklehead mermaids are suckers for anything flashy.

    Thanks for letting us tag along!

    1. Thanks Mr. Sage! I'll keep that in mind if we come across another mermaid.

  2. Glad you both survived that scary event on the road. Thankfully the semi driver was paying attention to give you some space to pull in. The trip sounds marvelous and nice to see you have a good sense of humor to help with the bad parts of a journey such as "Mermaids"

    1. Thanks for the nice comment. Yup, we'll keep our sense of humor when unbelievable things come our way.