Bivy above Tamarack Creek to Indian Viewpoint of Joseph canyon 9.5 mile

Hiking time 12 hours of hiking

From my on the trail notes-Hardest day of hiking ever

FeMike walks carefully back to camp on our scouting mission to find a way into the mainstream of Joseph Canyon

The three of us awoke before the sun was up but given our sloped and precarious camp, I don’t think any of us slept too well.  I clearly remember at one point in the night rolling over with a pain in my back, only to reach underneath my pad and extract a softball size rock that I had been sleeping on.  The three of us tried to make light of our situation but cracking jokes about bear scat, and how the only trail marker around were all the piles of scat.  We all were really trying to avoid the very real possibility that we were going to have to backtrack the way we came and then figure out some alternative around the canyon, a daunting task to say the least.

Once the sky had turned to a pale shade of smoke, FeMike and I headed out to try to scout a way into the main part of Joseph Canyon.  It was only 3/10 of a mile as the crow flies and we could see the canyon wall in the distance.  Given what we went through last night though that canyon wall might as well have been the Canadian border and we were standing on the Mexican border looking north on the CDT.  The Punisher stayed behind to guard our gear incase a bear decided to come for a visit, luckily, she was armed with a whistle and some UL titanium cookware to scare it off.

The far wall is where Joseph Creek meets Tamarack Creek

FeMike and I slowly walked along the narrow rim we were on, slowly picking our way and looking below to see if there was any path below us.  Each time we looked down all we saw was steep rocky terrain covered in thick vegetation.  Going low was not an option and staying high had its own challenges of really unstable footing and a big fall if you made the wrong move.  Over the next 45 minutes or so we worked our way along the edge until we came to the end and could see Joseph Creek down below.  It wasn’t going to be easy, but we had no other choice but to give it a go.  We slowly worked our way back to camp, then in one small draw, I lost my footing and went crashing backward landing in a pile of dry locust branches.  FeMike came to help me up and when we finally extracted me, we saw a gaping hole in my down jacket…bye, bye feathers. 

Eventually, we made it back to camp and told The Punisher we thought we had a way through, it wouldn’t be easy, but it was better than trying to drop down into Tamarack Creek or backtrack.  We sent Ron a message on the inReach letting him know we were starting out and he didn’t need to wait for us as we thought it was going to take us some time to get through the canyon.  I got a confirmation the message went through, so we strapped on our packs, gave a quick glance around to make sure we hadn’t left anything behind, and hit the, err trail?

FeMike and The Punisher working there way towards Joseph Canyon down below me

The three of us walked carefully around the rock walls and sloped ground that made up this canyon wall.  We took our time being careful where we stepped as a twisted ankle this deep in the boonies would be a disaster in itself.  The going was slow, at some point I got ahead of everyone and worked my way around a very steep and sketchy area, I waited and then saw that FeMike and The Punisher had decided to avoid that area and drop below it and walk through some of the higher vegetation.  I could see them from above, but it was so thick in there they couldn’t see each other.  I called out some directions from above and a few minutes later they popped out and climbed back up to me.  We kept walking along and eventually came to the point where we thought it would be the best way to dropdown.  The steep terrain was brutal we all kept slipping and sliding as the grass and gravelly terrain was the equivalent of walking downhill on greased marbles.  About 300’ from the creek we were smacked dab in the bushes again.  This time it was blackberries poison ivy and tons of hitchhikers.  We barreled our way through and then each dropped into the strong current of Joseph Creek.  From where we entered, we could see an open area on the opposite shore and a few trees.  We made a beeline to that spot to regroup.

An old radio collar form ODFW that we found on a rare walk on dry land

When we climbed onto the shores, we entered a land before time so to speak, there were giant pine trees, high dry grass of the late summer, and endless piles of bear scat, I mean seriously how can bears crap this much in one area?  The amount of scat was overwhelming it looked like a clan of bears had been having a 3-day musical festival on the shore, just gorging themselves on berries then crapping all over the place.  We filtered some water, sat down, and pulled out some snacks.  It had taken us an hour and a half to go a full 3/10 of a mile.  I had no idea that a human could move at such a slow speed while exerting that much energy.  As we munched away, we consulted our maps which showed a Pack Stock Trail on the side of the creek from time to time switching sides.

We found what we thought was the trail and started along it, in a few hundred feet in and we were in fields of poison ivy, red in fall colors.  The trail petered out and it became apparent from the numerous braided trails we were actually standing on a series of game trails that went up and down the canyon.  We tried to push through the high brush, but just like the night before every step slapped you with some sort of thorn scraping upon your shins.  After a few times trying to get through, looking for the trail, or just trying to find a path that might go through, we said screw it and dropped into Joseph Creek.  The path of least resistance was going to be wading upstream along the slippery bottom.

The Punisher and FeMike taking the easiest path through Joseph Canyon

For the next few hours, we waded slowly upstream, no way to rush the miles when you have to pick up your foot against the current and slide it to the next spot ensuring your footing before picking up the next foot.  Each time it got to be too deep or too much work, we would try again to go on the banks or work our way through the woods.  We walked along gravel bars, we meandered through the open grasses among the pine trees.  At times we would find an old trail and follow it up, then when the brush once again became too thick, too much poison ivy, or just too much work, we would drop back down into the creek.  The entire time this was going on we would get a sporadic message on the inReach from Ron who was concerned that it was taking us so long, we would send an update and tell him to get on the road back to Portland and not to wait as it was going to be all day.  Later that day we would learn that between his inReach and ours’ the messages we sent were not getting to him when sent, but instead would drop in a batch hours later. 

The Punisher marveling in how finally constructed this Bear Scat Cairn is along the path

Finally, after hours of trudging along through the canyon, we came out of the river up onto a bank for some hopefully dry hiking and stumbled across an old wagon road.  The craziest thing was there were freshly sawn blowdowns and tire tracks from a side-by-side ATV, hallelujah maybe we are finally out of this hell!  For the next few miles, we followed this path, it took us by a series of old homesteads in the canyon bottom, we passed by old wagon wheels and broken-down cabins, boy oh boy the people who worked this land must have been made of some serious meddle.

An old wagon wheel from those hardy souls that tried to work this land

Finally, the path opened up into a wide grassy meadow with large willows on the side of the river.  We began looking for the path up, our maps and data showed we were to climb steeply for a couple of miles along a path to Indian Viewpoint.  We scouted around and around and just couldn’t seem to locate the spot, then as we were losing faith a jeep road appeared.  We started up it and to our surprise, our tracks matched, woo-hoo!!! The tree of us started up the steep road steadily climbing up higher and higher into the smoke-filled sky.  The road seemed never-ending and we wondered how anyone could have gotten a wagon down it in the past.

The Punisher walking along. the newly found jeep road, note the extensive amounts of poison ivy grown on the left side

We steadily climbed higher and higher on the road, about an hour in we looked at our GPS and noticed that we were again off-trail.  The routes showed a line going up the side of the drainage, but we couldn’t see any path, so we figured we should stay the course.  On the side of the road, we found some shotgun shells that appeared to have fallen out of someone’s pocket while on the road.  Mule deer could be seen running through the trees up above us, and we longed for finally getting back on top of the canyon.  We topped out and quickly came to a gate across the road, huh that’s weird, we unlocked the gate passed through, and relocked it as we carried on along the road.  As we were walking along what we believed was the road to Indian Viewpoint, we saw a ranch house, a horse trailer with a horse tied up, and a large older cowboy and his dog enjoying a PBR tallboy while taking in the sunset or lack thereof.

The Cowboy looked over and saw us, and frankly, from the look on his face, we might have been Sasquatch or some other mystical creature just suddenly appearing out of nowhere.  I dropped my pack and headed over to smooth over what was clearly us trespassing on his land when we made a wrong turn.

Me, “Hi, can I ask you a question I think we are lost?”

Cowboy, “Huh, where did you all come from Indian Viewpoint?”

Me, No we came up from the bottom of the Canyon where the road comes in past the cabin”

Cowboy, “My new cabin down there?”

Me, “No some old busted up one we passed by down there”

The cowboy tipped up his beer, looked at me standing there with twigs in my hair and my kilt blowing in the wind, and asked me again, “Where did you come from?”

Me, “We entered Joseph Canyon yesterday at Tamarack Creek”

When the cowboy heard this, he just started busting out in a large belly laugh while shaking his head in disbelief. Then asked me, “so where are you headed?

Me, “John Day”

At this, his face had a look of astonishment where I am not sure if he thought I hit my head hard in the canyon or was just a truly crazy person, but with that declaration of destination his smile got bigger and his laugh grew louder.

I explained what we were doing and that we had gotten confused down in the canyon on how to get out.  I showed him my map on the phone and told him Ron was waiting for us at Indian Viewpoint.  The cowboy told me we could go down his road across his property and through the gate to get to the main road and Indian Viewpoint.  I thanked him for the kindness, and he said did, “hey did you shut my gate back there”

I replied, “Yes sir we sure did, my rule is however I find a gate is how I leave it.  If it’s open, I leave it open, if it’s closed, I close it up once I am through.”

The cowboy took a slug of his tallboy and said, “good you know cowboy code, be safe out there, and don’t go on the neighbor’s property they are not friendly”

FeMike walking up the jeep road that we thought was the trail

We loaded up our packs and headed down the ranch road, jumped the gate, and hit the main road to Indian Viewpoint.  It was maybe an hour before dark and we slowly walked up to where we should have exited the canyon.  Ron’s van appeared and we shouted in relief.  Ron was there it was late, and he hadn’t left.  He told us he had just gotten off the phone with his friend Ken discussing at what point he should call the sheriff because we hadn’t arrived.  Man, that Sherriff would have been in heaven and probably told us. “I knew I was going to have to rescue you all when I saw you at Dug Bar.”

My keepsake from this day was a horse skull I found along our climb and decided to bring home for my office

We told Ron all about our struggles of the day, he gave us soap to wash up and try to get the poison ivy oils off our legs.  We made some dinner and started to chow down.  About 20 minutes later we hear a quad coming up and our buddy the cowboy arrives.  He told us he wanted to make sure we were OK and had made it to our buddy, maybe he was still in shock at the sight of us and just wanted to make sure he hadn’t imagined our existence.  We talked for a few minutes between mouthfuls of food.  He left us as the sky turned to black, and the three of us rolled out our pads, on the side of the road behind Ron’s van.  As we’re starting to drift off the 3 of us kept making jokes and laughing about how all day we had followed the bear scat cairns, and we decided when in doubt we should trust the scat going forward…as the giggles slowly drifted off, the 3 of fell into a deep well-earned slumber.

Field Note to Future HikersThis section of the Blue Mountain Trail has been re-routed to help avoid this area and the long, strenuous, and at times dangerous day and a half, we had experienced.  The new route was successfully hiked by She-Ra the following month when she completed the first solo thru-hike of this trail.  However, her way is still difficult and to date, Joseph Canyon is still the crux of the BMT.

An old cabin along the bottom of Joseph Canyon
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