The view from Mount Howard — a haunting history lesson

Wallowa Lake Tramway gives visitors a bittersweet look at the former homeland of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce
The high peaks of the Wallowas present a jagged profile in this view from the Mount Howard Trail above Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon. The trail offers panoramic views of the former homeland of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. (Photo by Steve Dieffenbacher)Steve Dieffenbacher photos

I am sitting on a rock looking down into the deep blue of a large lake under a cloudless September sky. Beyond it, swaths of plowed terrain recede into shades of yellow, brown and green.

From this height Wallowa Lake seems as blue as Crater Lake, though they are far removed in origin and distance. This glacial gem of Oregon's northeast corner is a five-mile-long expanse created not from volcanic activity as was Crater Lake, but from the scouring power of ice.

Getting there

To get to the tramway, take Exit 261 from Interstate 84 in La Grande, then follow the signs to Wallowa Lake for 78 miles on Highway 82 through Enterprise and Joseph. At the far end of the lake take the left fork and go .3-mile to the tramway station. Tickets are $24 for adults ages 18-61, $21 for seniors 65 and older, $18 for students 12-17 and $14 for youth 4-11. Kids three and younger ride for free. Keep an eye on the clock during your hike. The final gondola heads down at around 5:45 p.m.

Set at the foot of the Wallowa Mountains, the lake is held in a grassy moraine, a natural dam in the heart of what once was Nez Perce country, the "Land of Winding Waters" as the tribe called it, a country now dominated by farms and ranches.

During a decade of living almost 80 miles away in La Grande during my 20s and 30s, this country of meadows and soaring peaks lay mostly at the edge of my consciousness, visited rarely, but always infused with a haunting mix of magnificence and melancholy.

My return after so many years magnified that feeling. At this overlook, near the top of 8,256-foot Mount Howard, I am less than a mile from the Summit Grill, a mountaintop restaurant where giddy tourists sit and chatter. They come here, as I did, on a tram that ascends 3,700 feet up the peak every mid-May through September.

Few of the tourists seem to know that their view from the restaurant is dominated by Chief Joseph Mountain across the way, named after the famed chief who helped lead the Nez Perce in their flight from U.S. soldiers rather than submit to life on a reservation. Brought to bay in Montana, only 40 miles from the Canadian border, with his people surrounded, starving, cold and dispirited, Joseph surrendered on Oct. 5, 1877.

His mountain contains no restaurant, just a rarely used trail that stops well short of the summit. There, you can imagine the valley as the Indians knew it — grassy and unplowed, dotted with patches of woods — while atop Mount Howard amid the bustle of tourists, the plowed fields take on the cast given them by the Indians — as scars on "the flesh of the mother."

Nothing sums up the differences between their culture and that of the pioneers whose depredations led to their flight toward Canada than these two mountains — the one left to nature, the other a travelers' destination named after Gen. Oliver O. Howard, the Union Civil War veteran who relentlessly pursued Joseph for more than 1,000 miles.

Joseph never wanted to leave the Wallowa Valley, preferring to stay and fight rather than embark on the band's unsuccessful run for safety, but he was outvoted by his people. Today, in the bitterest of ironies, his name is everywhere in the land to which he was never allowed to return, most notably in Joseph, the town named after him.

Despite the tram's potent symbolism as yet another appropriation of this once-tribal land, it serves a useful purpose today, ferrying visitors to where they can appreciate the sprawling beauty of this former Nez Perce homeland. Even amateur hikers can handle the 1.9-mile summit loop trail to take in its vistas. From the Summit and Royal Purple overlooks, you can see majestic 9,595-foot Eagle Cap and the 9,832-foot Matterhorn dominating the skyline.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Mount Howard, the trail reveals a panorama of drier country near the Idaho border, where the Seven Devils loom broodingly over Hells Canyon, once a Nez Perce winter refuge.

But it is the High Wallowas that most define this landscape. On the path, gazing at the steep blue and gray peaks spreading down to tan foothills and the valley below, it seems best to walk slowly, gazing long at their beauty as the area's original inhabitants must have.

Because after years of hardly any presence here, the Nez Perce are coming back. In 1997, a ceremony was held on the rim of Joseph Canyon to return some land to the tribe. And last year, when I took the Mount Howard tram and summit trail, a 62-acre state heritage area was being completed not far from the lake and adjacent to a monument honoring the gravesite of Chief Joseph's father.

That rolling grassland, part of the tribe's ancestral homeland, is called "Iwetemlaykin" or "at the edge of the lake," where deer, elk, foxes and raptors roam just as they did in the tribe's heyday when the land was wild.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or sdieffenbacher@mailtribune.com.



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