Into The Steens
A four-day hike through a vast and verdant wilderness in the middle of Oregon's southeastern desert
October 1 2011By Kevin Max
Into the Blitzen
On this day, the sun rose early and furnaced itself to 90-some degrees by the time it hit the unshaded stretch of the Blitzen Crossing. This stretch was a fifteen-mile stomp along a so-called Jeep trail. After it was done, we’d plod more than eight hours through scorching heat to reach mother Blitzen, a body that collects most of the other bodies of water across several drainages in The Steens.
Early morning, the dark cool pools along the Little Blitzen were too fish-able to get an early start. My right hand and left leg began to swell from something that got into my sleeping bag that night. We had five tablets of benedryl, so I ate two.
As we trekked through the remaining thick bushes and trees along the Little Blitzen, Fenty again led out the attack. By now, I had realized that he was faster than me on the ascents, the descents, the flats, on side hills and pretty much any angle Earth and gravity would support.
Because of the rattlesnakes known to inhabit any of the thousands of bushes we were kicking into, I told him that I was happy with this pecking order. “Rattlers never bite the first one through,” he threw back at me. “It’s the second one that annoys them.”
Just before leaving the river canyon, Fenty’s hand shot up and slapped his right eye so loudly that his scream seemed of secondary import in his defense. Bees apparently don’t wait for the second hiker. A giant bee had just stung him in the right eyelid. It puffed out within seconds and we were now down to one benedryl tablet for the next day and a half.
Even with an eye and a half, Fenty seemed no slower as we strode into the hottest stretch of the trip. For our next trick, we had to cover ten miles of a rock-strewn Jeep trail to get to the Blitzen River in Cold Springs Canyon.
No Jeep ever built could have made it more than a mile on this trail without a mechanical concussion. The trail was overgrown with blonde hay and rocked with boulders. The rough provided no relief to the trail. We relied continually on our hiking poles for balance as our feet skidded this way and that over the side of rocks.
After a few hours, we pulled up for food in a small side canyon. I looked at my hand and my leg but said nothing about how large they had grown. For a while, it seemed the anti-inflammatory was getting the upper hand. Now the leg and the hand were gaining the upper hand. Fenty’s eyes followed mine.
“It’s about two and a half miles to the Steens Mountain Loop if we walk directly that way,” he said pointing west. “We can get out of here if we need to.”
I checked the temperature of both swollen areas and then my forehead for a fever caused by infection. Everything was hot, but only so hot as the day itself.
“I’m all in,” I said. “Let’s keep going.” Bravado starts and ends with binding phrases like these that you feel silly taking back later. So we went.
Fenty checked his GPS and said that we had only about five more miles to go. At our pace in this terrain, that meant a little more than two hours. We were conserving dwindling water supplies and eating along the way. For the first time this trip, I dumped Gatorade powder into my water, almost enough to caulk tile then cursed my wife for buying and packing the healthier less sugary G2.
According to the GPS gods, a couple miles ahead we would cross an “intermittent creek.” We shouldered our bags and melted back into the heat. Given the amount of snow we had this winter and the amount of water cascading down the Wildhorse and Little Blitzen canyons just a couple of drainages over, this creek was bound to be more mittent than the less fequent inter.
We plodded on quietly determined to make it to the mittent creek, controlling our energy levels and conserving our last sloshes of water. Ahead, at a treeline that denoted a creek, Fenty had stopped and was looking down. The creek! Merciful mittent creek!
“There’s not enough here.” Fenty was frowning at a series of small muddy puddles that came from the slope above him. We’d have to push on. Intermittently.
One foot in front of the other we went. Now we were in wilderness and just needed the next rivulet, the next creek, any trickle where we could pool the water then pump it into our bodies through a filtering device. We pushed on with the relentlessness of junkies in search of a fix, our water bottles boiling in the heat.
After five hours, the terrain began to soften and deepen. There were trees, and down a steep embankment lay the mighty Blitzen. Water! We took off our shoes and dipped our swollen feet in the river, got in it with clothes still on, and lay in it and filled our water bottles with it. Tomorrow would be a ceremonial hike to the finish line at Page Springs.
Dinner couldn’t come soon enough at our campsite along the Blitzen. Lasagna with meat. It’s amazing what boiling water can partially reconstitute in the wilderness.
I saved all of my sleeping for one night and this was it. There was a light breeze, the lullaby of the river and no menacing black flies nor mosquitos in the area. By 8:00, I was in a wilderness of sleep.