Oregon’s Strawberry Mountain Wilderness

By on September 1, 2013

By Carol Lovegren Miller –

Southeast of John Day, puts the word “wild” back into wilderness. “I saw a rare jet black cougar this morning,” a member of the Forest Service trail crew noted, “I guess it would be called a panther since it is black instead of golden colored. I don’t know how it hunts; it stuck out like a sore thumb.” A short time later, while hiking ahead of our pack horses, my young friend Grant and I moved several logs out of the trail. The logs had not fallen across the trail—no, they had been rolled there by bears searching for grubs and bugs. So which critter out in the woods do we fear most? You guessed it, bees!

It has been 22 years since we last attempted to venture into the Strawberry Wilderness. In June 1991, when we brought our baby and our toddler with us — it snowed! August 12, 2013, my husband, Kyle, and I returned to try again to explore this gorgeous and vastly under-visited wilderness. This time we brought 14-year-old Grant Allemann, our 20-year-old son, Jeffrey, plus four horses with us. It is a delight to visit a wilderness where the Forest Service personnel are actually pleased to see us and our horses.

natural sunscreen with zinc oxide

It took a full day of traveling over several mountain passes from Oakland Oregon to the trailhead 11 miles south of Prairie City, so we settled in as the lone occupants of lovely, forested, Slide Creek Horse Camp the first night. We hustled to set up camp as storm clouds ominously blackened. Continuous rolling thunder and frequent flashes of lightning made a simple walk down to register for our campsite feel like a death defying excursion! We were soon hit by a solid rainstorm. Good, that ought to douse any lightning caused fires.

Morning dawned cool and clear. Because hikers are slower than horses on a long uphill grade, Grant and I started out hiking ahead of our two horse riders leading pack horses. The Slide Lake Connector Horse Trail is a delightful hike with interesting rock formations, a wide assortment of wildflowers, and timber interspersed with spectacular views. Grant asked, “Mrs. Miller, isn’t there any downhill on this hike?” “Nope, we started at 5,000 feet and we end seven miles later at 7,000 feet.”

After six miles of seeing no one, the question niggled, “Why haven’t the horse riders caught up with us yet?” An attempt to reach them by cell phone netted me a broken up message. I could only make out, “Jeff stung… horses at trail head.” Now what? Hike the last mile to Slide Lake, or turn around and hike six miles back out to where our food and gear is located? Miraculously I managed to successfully call my husband with only two bars of cell service. He reported, “It looks like the Benadryl is working, and I don’t need to take Jeff to the emergency room after all. His hives are subsiding; he is breathing easier, and his face and knee are not as swollen now. We may still try to come in. Wait at Slide Lake, and see if we make it by late this afternoon… but be prepared to hike out.” Like I mentioned, the most hazardous critter we have ever encountered in the wildernesses we have visited, have been bees and hornets.

When our wranglers showed up after 5:00 p.m. with our sleeping bags and food, they were not happy campers. Our lead mare chose a 10-inch wide section of trail, which dropped off hundreds of feet, to refuse to walk a step further. Kyle does not feed our horses year round so that he can tow his horse up steep mountain trails.

Carol Lovegren Miller on an unnamed 8500 foot nob near High Lake Pass in the Strawberry Wilderness

Carol Lovegren Miller on an unnamed 8500 foot nob near High Lake Pass in the Strawberry Wilderness

Dinner and a short walk over to delightful, crystal clear Little Slide Lake, where Brook trout swarmed his fishing pole, soothed Kyle’s ruffled feathers.

The next day, Kyle decided he was in no mood to ride his horse, so we hiked up a steep shale slope and had lunch on an 8,200 foot pass overlooking the burned-out High Lake basin. Near the top, a billy mountain goat stared curiously down at us as we snapped picture after picture a mere thirty yards below his perch. That evening, while back fishing at Little Slide Lake, we watched a mountain goat kid gambol around his mother on the cliffs across the lake. When he tumbled off the cliff we gasped. We sighed with relief when he bounced back up.

Our first night we heard deer wander through the camp licking the salt off our sweaty horse tack, so when Grant asked Jeff to come with him to investigate what was behind the eyes shining in the dark the second night, we were not too concerned. Yep, it was deer.

mountain goat billy stares curiously at us.

mountain goat billy stares curiously at us.

It looked like the animals we encountered would be the wildest part of our trip… until day three. We were riding our horses on another heart-stopping trail over a ridge toward Strawberry Lake when we discovered our ornery mare had thrown two shoes. Rocky shale trails are tough on a barefoot horse. We decided that since the horse camp was only a few miles away, we would put her in the corral, and I would wait with her while the guys rode the seven miles back to our high country camp, packed up, loaded the pack horses and tried to hike/ride the seven miles back out before dark closed in (20 miles total). If they didn’t make it, I would be spending an uncomfortable night in the truck cab.

As I sat there alone, trying to keep our frantic mare from injuring herself (she does not appreciate being separated from her herd), a hot wind kicked up and blew smoke in from a nearby forest fire. I was not surprised to smell the smoke as we had been listening to planes and helicopters fighting the fire in another section of the wilderness for three days. Even so, I was dismayed when Forest Service personnel ordered us to evacuate both our wilderness campsite and the horse camp.

“Our horses and men will be exhausted when and if they make it in, and where would we go?” “Good point,” The Forest Service acknowledged, “We will call around and see if we can find someone who can accommodate you and your horses, but your safety cannot be guaranteed, you must relocate.”

Wearily we put our horses in the corrals left from the last weekend’s rodeo, and spread our sleeping bags out on a parched and trampled grass parking area. On the other end of the Grant County Fairgrounds we could see the fire crews’ camp. The Forest Service certainly found us a safe campsite! We eventually dozed off listening to coyotes howling interspersed with a whinnying horse. Morning found us cheerfully frying cornbread flapjacks in the middle of a well worn field right in middle of the town of John Day. Not exactly an isolated wilderness campsite, but hey, there were hot showers!

Threatening thunderstorms, forest fires, fish filled lakes, bees, cliffs, and critters… tame sounding Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, puts the wild back into wilderness.

About Carol Lovegren-Miller

Carol Lovegren Miller has been married to Kyle for 32 years and has three grown children. She bakes, cans, organizes church events, and substitute teaches in between her adventures and writing." Carol can be reached at [email protected]

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Oregon’s Strawberry Mountain Wilderness