The Coffee Pot's Grow'd Fur
Copyright © 2004-2005 by Richard S. Platz
All Rights Reserved

Hart Mountain-Warner Peak Backpack
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge
May 31-June 3, 2004

Their ghosts did not trouble our sleep

Fur covered the coffee pot, or so it appeared through our head nets. A half-inch pelt of fine pale bristles the color of sagebrush had grown on the pot while we washed the dishes and the sun dropped below the surrounding hills. A cool draft wafted down from the snow banks above. I lifted my net and bent closer. The fur, of course, was not fur. Hundreds of mosquitoes crowded together on every surface of the aluminum pot to borrow a little heat from the warm water inside.

Above the embers of our fire clouds of mosquitoes wheeled like tiny Sandhill Cranes above the Wilcox Playa. They whined around our head nets, swarmed in our exhalations, and bent their proboscises on our windbreakers and rain pants. A few fought through the DEET to drill exposed patches of skin.

Bottom lip itching and beginning to swell, I dropped my head net and moaned, "How did we get here?"

We had not intended to return to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge a mere one year after our first backpack there, but a fragile brew of fate and circumstance brought us back. I had telephoned all the usual ranger stations with the usual late May outcome: the high country trails of the Klamaths were covered with snow and blowdowns, the lakes frozen, and the creeks too high to cross. Every May brings new hope and fresh disappointment.

Then I received a return call from the Biologist at Hart Mountain. The road to Blue Sky, she said, was open early this year. She'd driven there and back just the day before and hadn't needed four-wheel drive. From Blue Sky a person could hike up "on top."

We considered our scant options: poison oak in a low canyon of the Trinity Alps, sunstroke in the Black Rock Desert, or snowshoe up a ridge in the Warners. We decided to return to Hart Mountain.

By Lakeview, Oregon, we had grown weary of the drive, and the cut-out billboard of a giant cowboy didn't improve the mood. Filling the tank with cowboy high-test, we jogged north on 385, then followed 140 through the Warners to the Plush Cutoff. As we descended on Plush, Hart Mountain rose before us in all its grandeur.

The Plush general store was closed, so we couldn't top off our tank. We climbed the long gravel road up the Hart Mountain scarp, and the receded shorelines of the drought-ravaged lakes and dry desert sinks of the Warner Valley spread out on our left.

We arrived at the Refuge Headquarters around dinnertime. The long drive had sapped our energy, and low blood sugar made both of us edgy and dangerous. The inside doors were all closed. No one seemed to be on duty, which, if irritating, was not surprising for Memorial Day. Barbara perused the wildlife information posted on the bulletin boards while I took my sweet time in the rest room (always open) imbibing the sweet ambience of sage and solitude through the screened window.

Together we examined the visitor book to see who might still be in the refuge and where. Most had come for the holiday weekend and would soon be history. While Barbara studied the list of reported bird sightings, I began the task of filling out the required back-country permit (no charge).

"What's the license number of the van?"

Suddenly a door slammed at the back of the building. Through the window I spotted a sturdy young woman in a pale green uniform approaching a government pickup truck of the same vague color. Dropping the form, I scrambled out the door, vaulted down the steps, and hustled around to the side.

"Yo!" I called.

The young woman paused with one hand on the door handle of the huge four-wheel-drive truck, which dwarfed her. She wore short, black curls, a short-sleeved shirt with some kind of emblem, short pants, and hiking boots, and appeared to be in her late twenties. "Can I help you?"

"Yes," I panted in the rarified air. "We're thinking of backpacking . . . down in the south . . . part of the refuge," I began. She listened patiently as I prattled on about our being there because all the other wilderness was under snow and the lakes frozen and how we'd come here last year, trailing off with a parade of questions about passable roads, Blue Sky, and where to find water in the canyons.

When I was done, she said, "You're the one I talked to last week, aren't you?"

I didn't deny it, but eyed her more closely. She appeared robustly capable of tracking wildlife all day through the sage-covered hills. "And you must be the park Biologist."

"Refuge, actually."


"You said ‘park.' It's actually a refuge. And yes, I am, and the Blue Sky road is open."

"Can we make it in that?" I pointed to the van in the visitor parking across the graveled yard.

"The road's in good shape. Dry. You shouldn't have a problem."

"Great! So we can camp tonight in our van at Blue Sky?"

"Actually, Blue Sky is closed to camping right now, to protect the breeding grounds. There's a breeding pair of falcons we don't want disturbed. But camping is allowed at Post Meadows nearby. At the corrals. That's the only place you can camp in your vehicle other than at the Hot Springs."

I asked about the trail up Hart Mountain I'd seen on the map starting just south of Blue Sky. She told me that was a gated road used only by park personnel. But, yes, it would be a good road to hike up.

"Any water?"

"I can't guarantee you'll find water anywhere."

"Okay. I understand. Liability issues. But, off the record, we will find water in the canyons, won't we?"

"This time of year, probably. In the lower parts, anyway."

"How about on that road up into Hart Mountain?"

She considered her reply. "Near the top, the road crosses a canyon with aspen groves that usually have a stream running through. But I don't know. I haven't been up there recently."

"How far up?"

She considered again. "Maybe two-thirds of the way."

I thanked her, and we piled unhappily back into the van. Hot Springs campground was only four miles away, but we decided to take her counsel and spend the night at Post Meadows. That would give us an earlier start hiking in the morning.

Blue Sky lies a mere six-and-a-half miles south of the Hot Spring Campground on the Barnhardy Road. Unfortunately, the Barnhardy Road was closed. From the headquarters, our route followed instead a graded dirt road for 15 miles as it looped through the next valley to the east, with no fast food restaurants along the way. Or any other signs of civilization. With the windows closed against the rising dust cloud, we bumped along grumpily at 20 miles per hour past Indian Springs, the Skyline Road, Lookout Point, Deer Canyon, and the South Boundary Road. All the side roads were closed and gated. We met no traffic, saw no other vehicle, only endless acres of sagebrush spotted with a few dark junipers.

As we finally rounded the southern tip of the intervening range and curved west, flat-topped Hart Mountain rose like a table before us. Etched into the eastern flank were two major canyons with long snow fields just below their north-facing rimrock crests, both arcing west-to-northwest as they rose. The canyon to the south, the map told us, held Goat Creek, and that to the north Stockade Creek. There we would surely find water. Both creeks fed the broad wetland of Guano Creek flowing south along the base of Hart Mountain. A sign marked "Post Meadows" pointed left down a rutted dirt road toward the green wetland.

We bounced along the ruts, mostly dry, but with standing water in a few dips, until we crested a ridge and spied a wooden corral and a white-roofed forest service pit toilet in the distance. We arrived at a flat, grassy parking area next to the corrals and stepped out of the van, our journey completed (we thought), to find a gentle westerly breeze, absolutely no shade, and mosquitoes. When the wind gusted, they retreated into a carnivorous cloud in the lee of the van. After slathering on insect repellant, we began to set up camp. I brought out the aluminum table, folding chairs, ice chest, and stove. Barbara grabbed the binoculars to look for birds in the broad green marsh. I relocated the van across the rutted road so our heads would be up, and together we installed our mosquito net over the back door opening. Barbara lit a mosquito coil.

The wind died down, and the mosquitoes swarmed us. Word had gone out, and they flew in from every quarter for the feast. We swatted them with growing dismay. I leveled the little gas stove on a bare patch of ground and brought out a match to light a fire under the water pot. Like mourners at graveside, we paused numbly over the small round casket. Mosquitoes flew in our faces. We had to cook dinner. Mosquitoes whined in our ears. We had to eat. Caught in one of those terrible Zen moments where we could go no further, could not go back, and could not endure where we were, a paralysis settled upon us.

"We can't stay here," I mumbled, the match unstruck in my fingers.

"What do you want to do?" Barbara snapped, slapping two mosquitoes irritably.

"We could drive back to the Hot Springs Campground. Come back in the morning."

"Is that what you want to do?"

"What would you like to do?"

"It's your birthday."

My shoulders sagged. "Not for another three days."

The sun blazed over Hart Mountain. A red-winged blackbird called from the desolate marsh. The mosquitoes grew thicker.

"We may not be able to backpack at all," I said morosely.

"You really think they'll be this bad up there?" Barbara asked, poking a thumb up toward Hart Mountain.

"I don't know. I don't know anything."

We agreed to drive the 15 miles back to the Hot Springs Campground, cook dinner, and sleep there. In the morning we could return for our hike--if we were going to hike at all. Haphazardly we stowed everything back into the van and left Post Meadows.

At the Blue Sky Road, Barbara suggested we go on another mile or so to Blue Sky, as long as we had come this far. The implication was we might not be coming back. I concurred.

The road joined Guano Creek and led up and away from the marshlands. A mile from Post Meadows, snug in the lower canyons of the mountain, lay the inviting dark green of the Ponderosa pine forest called "Blue Sky." The road dead-ended at two locked gates on the edge of the tall pines. Straight ahead lay the blocked Barnhardy road. To the left, presumably, was the inaccessible Blue Sky Lodge Campground. Nailed to a tree two prominent signs read "No Camping" and "No Campfires." The altitude was 6086 feet.

I pulled the van into a clearing among the stout trees, and we got out. The forest was tall and beautiful with pockets of luxurious deep shade. Green grass carpeted the floor. The air smelled light and, well, woodsy. The ambience was enchanting. To our surprise, only a few wayward mosquitoes accosted us. There was no reason we couldn't get out our propane stove and cook a little dinner before moving on. That really wasn't camping, was it? And who knows, after dinner we might just fall asleep in the van, and that wouldn't really be camping either. No tent. No need to build a campfire, of course, as the sign proscribed. That might become camping, which we had no intention of doing. Then in the morning we could lock up the van right where it sat, strap on our packs, and begin our hike in the shade of the pines. Who would know the difference? And even if they did, we were not really camping.

I unfolded the chairs in the road and moved things off the bed into the front seats while Barbara warmed up sausages in a pot on the stove. We sat beneath the pines and ate a long-overdue dinner as the shadow of Hart Mountain climbed the sage-green hills to the east. Antelope wandered through the sage, more than we had seen during our entire trip last year. DEET deterred the few mosquitoes that sniffed us out, a mild annoyance after the saturation therapy of Post Meadows. We decided we would be fine once we climbed away from the Guano Creek wetlands the next morning.

We heard a vehicle approaching long before we saw it. Quickly we moved a few things around to make it clear no camping was taking place. A young man in a tan station wagon drove up streaming clouds of mosquitoes. Every time he stopped to take pictures, he complained, they swarmed him. We commiserated for a while, then he U-turned and headed back up the Blue Sky Road. We would not see another human for the next three days.

Alone again, we heated water, washed the dishes, and took a look around. Beneath the long grass, the entire forest floor had recently burned down to the duff. Charred sticks and charcoal spread evenly among the trunks of the great trees, which were blackened to a few feet above the ground. The lowest branches of a few smaller trees had been burned, but the fire had not climbed into the forest crown. We concluded it had been a successful controlled burn. No trees had been killed, ground fuel had been eliminated, and the forest protected.

That evening we hiked around the gate and up the road in search of the fabled Blue Sky Lodge. The literature told us it had been the site of an annual week-long meeting of The Order of the Antelope, a group of local businessmen credited with lobbying for the establishment of the refuge. Their annual blow-outs were controversial and are now banned from the refuge, although the group still owns private land somewhere within the refuge where it continues its activities. We hiked up the several forest roads until satisfied that the "lodge" was not an actual building, but simply an unmarked site.

We discovered instead two headstones standing at the site of old Camp Warner, a U.S. Army military post established in 1866 to protect settlers from marauding bands of Indians. The lonely marble slabs marked the graves of Ward Cantrell, born 1846, died 1867, and Lewis Debold, born 1847, died 1866, and testified to the harsh conditions the soldiers endured during the winter of 1866-67. The next summer (still two years before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad) General Crook relocated the camp westward to a lower site in the Warner Valley.

Darkness fell as we found our way back to the van in the company of two young soldiers who had died too soon. But if their ghosts haunted those woods, they did not trouble our sleep that night.

We awoke at first light Tuesday morning and quickly moved a few things around to erase any hint of camping, which we had not done. I extracted our backpacks and leaned them against the van. Satisfied, we deployed our chairs in the middle of the road and drank our tea and mocha as the sun rose over the eastern hills. Only a few lethargic mosquitoes whined by. Although my birthday was still two days hence, Barbara insisted I open one present before our hike, a nifty little LED headlight on an elastic band.

Well rested and in fine spirits, we loaded our packs, stowed our gear in the van, and began our hike in the shade of the tall pine forest. At the grave markers of Fort Warner, we emerged into the blazing sun on a road running south down Guano Creek at the base of Hart Mountain. In a half mile we located and verified with the GPS the spur road that climbed west up the steep slope of the foothills. After climbing a quarter mile we skirted a locked gate that kept all but authorized vehicles from the upper slopes. Not in a canyon, but on a dry broad loma of sage-covered slope between canyons the road zig-zagged ever upward. The jeep road was easy to follow, and we were able to walk side by side. The few mosquitoes melted away in the heat, but as we began to sweat and puff, they were replaced by a persistent cloud of black biting gnats that floated like moats in a feverish eye. We settled into a rhythm of swinging our arms with a final flip of the writ to shoo them from our faces.

Before long the vista opened below us of the semi-arid desert valley. The corral and outhouse sat beside the green sward of Post Meadows. In the distance to the northwest hung the prominent snow-covered slopes of Steens Mountain. Between the vast sage-green plain tilted down toward the Catlow Valley.

After endless switch-backs, the road finally veered to the left to begin its southerly climb along a rock-strewn road beneath exposed rimrock toward Stockade Canyon to the south. We stopped for lunch in the shade of a grove of short Mountain Mahogany. Overhead the canopy was alive with the steady buzz of bees doing whatever bees do in the dry dark-green branches of mahogany in the otherwise treeless hills. A light breeze cleansed the shade of mosquitoes and gnats, and we spread out a ground cloth, lay back, and took our time gazing into the distance.

After lunch, the grade gradually eased as we finally surmounted the shoulder of the mountain's steep eastern flank. We continued up the road over a series of hummocks until we encountered a major fork. The map showed the right fork leading north to 8065-foot Warner Peak and beyond. We stayed left and continued to climb toward the upper reaches of Stockade Canyon. Soon we crested a final bench onto the broad flat top of the mountain and saw the welcome snowfields below the rimrock at the canyon's head. There would be water, even if we had to melt snow to get at it.

Our road dropped into the half-mile-wide swale of upper Stockade Canyon before rising again on the far side toward the flat bench of Hart Mountain, now only a few hundred feet above. Beneath the snow fields on the other slope lay groves of aspen. Patches of yellow-green leaves were interspersed with webs of bare branches. We wondered if fire or decease had ravaged those groves. The Refuge Biologist had said we might find water flowing in the aspen groves along the upper reaches of the trail, and that had to be the place.

Weary from our four-mile climb, we dropped carefully into the broad, shallow upper canyon. Almost immediately the road crossed the dry, rocky bed of Stockade Creek. Sharp black volcanic rocks and banks of stubby brown grass gave no sign that water had flowed there recently. We paused to consider our choices. We could follow the dry creek bed down into the canyon however far it took to reach water, or we could climb off-trail toward the aspen groves high on the far side. We elected to stay high and left the road for the aspen groves.

Hiking through the gnarly sagebrush was a struggle. Time and again we stopped to concur on a route between the woody plants, but even then with each step concealed branches poked our shins and snagged our feet while black gnats swam unceasingly before our eyes. Slowly, carefully, tediously, we clawed our way up the steepening slope.

The aspens were just beginning to sprout new spring foliage. Each bare branch was tipped with a green spearhead of new growth. But no water flowed. Apparently the snow melt fed these dense thickets beneath the surface. We considered melting snow, but decided instead to follow the aspens down to running water.

From grove to grove we began an arduous descent through the unforgiving sagebrush. Grove after grove disappointed us until at last our boots post-holed into a wet green meadow with a rivulet trickling through the muddy grass. We followed the trickle down to Stockade Creek, where we could hear the tinkle of water flowing freely through impenetrable thickets of willow and alder. A little further down the small stream flashed merrily in the sunlight. We had descended a difficult half mile. It would have been easier had we hiked down the dry creek bed.

In an aspen grove on a knoll above the creek, with views of Warner Peak to the north and down into Guano Valley to the east, we chose our campsite. The altitude was 7122 feet, a thousand feet above our van and five trail miles in. At first we rested on a log in the sunny meadow listening to the wisdom of the creek. Small birds flitted through the thickets and poked in the green grass among corn lilies. Overhead a Northern Harrier soared majestically. As our sweat dried in the sun and gentle breeze, the bugs melted away. It was a fine place and a good day to be alive.

We set up our tent in the tall, matted grass. I built a fire ring of rough rocks between the sage and the grassy high edge of the aspen grove. The sagebrush, and not the wet meadow, seemed to be the source of mosquitoes. This seemed odd. What were all those mosquitoes doing in the sage? We decided to build a fire early so the smoke would drive them off, but that resulted in another oddity. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the insects seemed attracted to the heat rising from the fire. So we slathered on more DEET and prepared dinner.

Mosquitoes were becoming a true nuisance just as the sun sank early behind Hart Mountain, and the temperature dropped 30 degrees in fifteen minutes. The thermometer read 42 degrees, and the mosquitoes disappeared. We put on our down jackets and laid back in our hammocks watching the sunlight crawl across the valley below, soften, glow pink, and finally lift off the distant hills. A silver moon hung low in the east, almost full. We soon grew chilly, climbed into the tent, zipped up our bags, and slept.

Wednesday morning we were awakened by the early sun on the low eastern horizon. The day started in the low forties and mosquito free.

"Barbara, look!" I called in a hoarse whisper from the hammock, mocha poised before my lips. Birdwatching in the sage forty feet away, Barbara turned to see an antelope stroll up from the creek and between us right through our campsite. Suddenly startled to see us, the animal bounded away up the hill. That was our closest encounter ever.

The day quickly warmed, and with the warmth came mosquitoes in increasingly irritating numbers. Even before breakfast we had to dig out our head nets and pull them on.

Warner Peak beckoned us from our campsite, and we decided a dayhike there was in order. It didn't look that far away. We climbed the dry creek bed to the road and followed it to a right-hand fork we had come up the day before. We took the left fork through the sage. Hordes of mosquitoes and biting gnats surrounded us. We wore our head nets. We were finally hiking "on top," and it felt like the top of the world. Sage-covered plains and hummocks of sparser brush were interspersed with wet grassy swales at the canyon heads. At a second fork the cutoff road from Blue Sky joined ours just before we skirted the stunning drop-off of the Hart Canyon escarpment.

A service road lead up the final quarter mile to some sort of radio tower and a locked block building at the windy summit of Warner Peak. At 8086 feet, this was the highest point for miles around, and the views were magnificent. We found a spot for lunch on an unobstructed rocky outcropping away from the structures. I crouched on an old board that harbored a nest of ladybugs, a sign we took for good luck. The breeze offered us some relief from the bugs.

As we ate, we fitted together the geographic puzzle. To the northeast we traced our prior year's trip from headquarters, up Rock Creek to the white scar of Hot Spring Campground, and our backpack over the hill to DeGarmo Canyon. We saw the knoll we had circled, where wedescended into Barnhardy, and the aspen grove that had sheltered us the final night. To the southeast lay Blue Sky, Guano Creek, and the dread Post Meadows. Far to the northeast rose the snowy Steens and due east the Catlow Rim. To the west lay a spectacular view down the stunning Hart Canyon scarp to Hart Lake and Plush and beyond to snow-speckled Drake, Twelvemile, and Crook Peaks dominating the Fremont National Forest highlands.

The trudge back to camp was buggier than ever. The entire round trip spanned about eight miles. Curiously, during most of the trek we remained in sight of both our aspen grove and Warner Peak, and our progress felt glacial.

Back at camp, the mosquitoes had grown worse. We ate dinner by popping up our head nets just long enough to shovel in a bite of food. Itchy bites accumulated, and after washing the dishes we encountered the furry coffee pot and mosquito swarms first described. Our only hope was for another 30-degree drop in temperature when the sun sank behind Hart Mountain.

Alas, it did not happen like the night before. As the sun set, the temperature continued to hover in the mid sixties, a perfectly hospitable climate for the carnivorous hordes, only now we could no longer see them through the gauze of our head nets. We were flying blind amid the whine and prickle of blood-thirsty insects. Fittingly, a blood-red full moon rose in the east. Before it was fully dark we gave up and crawled into the tent. There we systematically and with unbecoming relish squashed all intruders, leaving little bloody squiggles like petroglyphs against the fabric ceiling.

Thursday was my birthday. We crawled out of the tent early to find a party of mosquitoes already underway and robustly attended. Donning our head nets, we agreed to cut our backpack short and somberly set about breaking camp. We climbed the dry, rocky creek bed until we attained our jeep road, and the rest was downhill. The bugs were horrendous. Black gnats joined the mosquitoes as we entered the sagebrush. The magnificent vistas that opened up were obscured by the netting. We paused only occasionally when an easterly gust drove the insects into our lee and we could raise our nets. Without stopping for a single break we hiked down the steep switchbacks, past a crop of mule ear sunflowers we had missed on the way up, through the locked gate, around the grave markers, and at last to our van.

Blue Sky was no longer the benign oasis we had left. Clouds of mosquitoes, many of which were no doubt in our party, swarmed into the van when the doors were opened. Without fuss we hoisted our packs onto the bed and drove off with the windows rolled down.

A couple of miles up the road a pale green ranger truck approached, and we squeezed to the right shoulder to allow it to pass. As it crept past, we recognized the Refuge Biologist and waived for her to stop.

"Where did all those mosquitoes come from?" I demanded.

She explained that the spring hatch had just started a few days ago, and the mosquitoes will probably last about a month.

"But we were here last year at the same time and didn't have any problem."

"This year May was very wet," she said, as if that explained everything. "Last year the rains came in April, and May was dry."

"Well," I grumbled, "this year has got to be worse than ever. We hiked out a day early."

At Lookout Point we pulled off and unfolded our chairs for a leisurely lunch. An easterly breeze kept the bugs at bay. We gazed down Robinson Draw into the great shallow bowl of forsaken Black Canyon, dotted here and there with a few white specks that were grazing antelope.

Every trail's end should have a hot tub. We headed straight for the Hot Springs Campground, doffed our sweaty clothes, and let the hot mineral waters soak away the sweat and aches and itching bug bites and disappointment. We had cashed in the third day of our backpack for extra time, and the fat silver dollar hours and small change minutes jingled in our naked pockets. But we were in no hurry to spend them.

Back at the visitor center, I stepped inside to take down our backpacking permit from the bulletin board, so no search party would be sent out looking for our blood-drained husks. The permit had already been removed. Noticing that the door in back was wide open, I poked my head inside. In the dim light the black curls of the Refuge Biologist were bent over a wide low work table busily doing, well, biology things. I asked how she found the mosquitoes at Blue Sky, and she admitted having to apply insect repellant, which she rarely had to do.

I pondered a moment, then posed the question that had been troubling me for three days. "Suppose . . . just hypothetically . . . suppose that someone is sent to Post Meadows to spend the night. Okay? But suppose the mosquitoes are really bad there. Unendurable. Suppose . . . again just hypothetically . . . suppose that they decide simply to sleep a few hours in their van at Blue Sky before heading out on a backpack early the following morning. How would you react to that?"

"Hypothetically? We would issue them a warning." Any hint of merriment drained from her dark eyes. "But if we knew they already knew the rules . . . we would issue a citation."

I stumbled hastily into the more hospitable glare of the blazing sun that burned the sage-green hills. We fled the Park Headquarters like common criminals.

On the road to Petroglyph Lake a few insouciant antelope crossed the road. The problem with a pocket full of free time is that it has to be spent. All of it. None can be squirreled away for another day. We felt the coins slipping steadily through our fingers as we left Hart Mountain.

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