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Beating the Heat: Getting out in the "other" local mountains 

Where's Walton?

Does anyone else have the sense that most of stories about the outdoors in the local media focus too often on well-trodden territory prettied up to make it sound, well, almost too good to be true? For example, a story about the overrun/overused Todd Lake area might carry a title like: "Still An Unspoiled Gem."

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It's the local media's obsession with catering to newbies. Quit telling them about all the scenic places, the editorial logic must go, or they'll pack up and depart to another town that promises even more and better natural places even closer to home.

So the "we moved here for the lifestyle" crowd heads to Todd Lake, only to find the parking are and road leading up to it packed with more cars than the Costco parking lot on a busy day. How disappointing.

But that's the way it is all over the high Cascade lakes area. And that's just one of many reasons why I prefer the Ochoco Mountains.

Since my first trip to the Ochocos with local mountain bike pioneer Dennis "The Heatman" Heater over 20 years ago, this unassuming mountain range has offered days of superb camping, wildlife viewing, fishing, hiking and mountain biking.

Things are different there. The mountains are smaller, rounder and covered with lush vegetation. The soil and rock are much less volcanic in nature. Stately Ponderosa pines define sections of forest broken up by big grassy meadows.

To recapture a love of the Ochocos, we headed to Walton Lake this past weekend. After setting up camp at the lake, it was time for a swim in the refreshingly perfect (temp in the mid-70s) waters.

After the swim, I rigged up the flyrod and got into my waders as the sun started dropping over the horizon. I waded in, casting to rising rainbow trout, catching and releasing several. Three osprey circled, ready to dive through the shimmering sunset-gold surface patina of the lake to make their own catch.

When the trout stopped rising, it was time to sit on shore and watch the natural scene unfold. A half-mile distant, six buzzards swooped overhead. Within minutes their number had swelled to 75, all obviously intent on a major kill. And then they were gone, replaced close-in by deer coming down to drink at the lake.

At dark, jackets and sweaters were in order as the temperature dipped into the low 40s. All was quiet, except for intermittent howls of coyotes greeting the full moon rising.

The following morning I rose early to fish, and after a quick breakfast hopped on the mountain bike to ride up Round Mountain and back. It had been years since I'd done the ride, and I'd forgotten to how memorable it is.

The trail starts in a field of dense false hellebore plants, then slides into the forest. About a mile up the trail (#805 for you trail number lovers) comes a long uphill with one difficult switchback. Ride this section when the dirt is firm and it's easy. Now deep in loose dirt, it's demanding.

Snaking through a now more Mirkwood-like forest, the trail eventually emerges onto an open, rock-strewn flat. The ensuing short technical section of trail demands close attention and solid bike handling skills.

Then the trail contours around the side of a ridge, a section that reminds me (as does a lot of the Ochocos, but on a smaller scale) of the Colorado high country and parts of the Colorado Trail.

There are frequent, challenging short technical stretches that (I mentally note) skilled riders like Phil Meglasson, "Kiwi" Paul and Paul Thomasberg must love. That thought has barely passed when I come upon a manmade stunt: in this case, nicely hewn log ramps leading up onto and off a 10-yard-long fat fallen pine.

Past the stunt and a couple of hike-a-bike portages, the trail rolls along easily before starting the long switchback ascent to the summit.

I've never completed the final switchback section without one or two off-the-bike experiences, and this time was no different. Everything went well through several of the toughest switchbacks until a male ruffed grouse exploded from the trailside fern cover six feet in front of me and flew off.

Startled, I had gone not five yards further when a female grouse rose from her cover and flew within three feet of my face. Close behind her, another male flew directly over my head.

They had to be omens; I fell on a tight hairpin corner moments later.

After reaching the top, the return trip ended with a swim in Walton Lake, lunch and then a leisurely seven-mile downhill ride on the asphalt road from the lake to the Ochoco ranger station with my 9-year-old grand-daughter. Two cars passed us, and neither seemed to be in a particular rush.

Which is why I recommend the Ochocos to anyone who's not in a hurry and wants to experience some outdoor peace and serenity far from the lemming rush to the places that have been too crowded and beaten down for too long.


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