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Rye Spur – A spur of the moment decision

Photo by Lee JuilleratHikers cross the Cascade Canal bridge while hiking the Rye Spur Trail near Four-Mile Lake.
Photo by Lee JuilleratBill Van Moorhem tries to wrap his arms around a massive fir on the snowy Rye Spur Trail.

It was a spur of the moment decision.

Bill Van Moorhem, Gary Vequist and I debated what to do next — leave the snow-covered parking area and drive off in search of a snow-free place to hike, just give it up and head home, or park the car at a parking area/trailhead off Highway 140 and start hiking.

We decided to give it a try — put on our hiking boots, slipped gaiters over them and, after adding an extra layer of warm clothing, stuffed our day packs with even more gear — just in case. Minutes later, we were making tracks up and along the Rye Spur Trail, pounding a path into three and more inches of fresh snow.

Hiking in the snow on a day when the forecast called for several more inches by early afternoon seemed like a crazy thing to do. But, as Billy Joel sang, sometimes it may be a lunatic you’re looking for.

Gary led the way, making tracks on the snow-disguised trail. At least we’d know our way back whenever we decided to turn around. The Rye Spur Trail begins at a signed trailhead off the north side of Highway 140 between turnoffs for the Lake of the Woods and Fourmile Lake.

The Rye Spur Trail is on the Fremont-Winema National Forest, which is receiving less funding for trail maintenance, so in recent years it’s been kept in good shape by volunteers, including the High Desert Trail Riders Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen for equestrians and by the Klamath Trails Alliance for mountain bikers and hikers. Even though the trail was blanketed in fresh snow, it was easy to follow.

The trail climbs quickly with some switchbacks but aims steadily north. After passing a junction with the Forest Service Nature Trail, we realized the hike wasn’t a crazy idea. Blue skies filtered through the forest canopy, brightening our way as we trooped past a bevy of big-bellied firs.

Among the trail side delights was a sky-scraping giant punctured with woodpecker-drilled cavities. Bill gave the towering fir a hug, but couldn’t wrap his arms around it. With its broad circumference, at least four or five people would need to hold hands to loop around its ample girth.

Other trees were riddled and pitted with sap wells, holes made by woodpeckers to draw out sugar-rich sap or insects from underneath the bark. Some cavities were relatively small, but other larger holes, called excavations, were hammered deep within the trees’ hardwood. Some deeply drilled pocks were interconnected and, by using some imagination, looked like ghoulish faces.

At 1.4 miles the trail reached the footbridge that crosses the Cascade Canal, which carries water from Fourmile Lake to Fish Lake and, eventually, Emigrant Lake outside Ashland. Cross-country skiing along the road that flanks the canal, which begins up the road to Fourmile Lake, is a delight.

We crossed the canal, making deeper tracks as the Rye Spur Trail continued its northbound trajectory. After another uphill mile we reached another junction, this time with the Swamp Trail. Decision time.

Normally a 2-1/4-mile hike isn’t especially challenging, but the combination of a steady elevation gain — and Bill and Gary warned that the steepest section was yet to come — punching tracks in deepening snow had created tired legs. So, instead of continuing another nearly four miles to Fourmile Lake, and reaching the lake was never our intention, we about-faced, hoping to beat the snow.

Back at the canal we paused long enough to eat lunch before being spurred on to finish our retreat by darkening clouds. Our timing was good. The afternoon snow began falling softly at first then more vigorously as we headed down the trail, and more seriously on the drive home.

Why, people wonder, were the trail and the ridge west of the trail, which is also named Rye Spur, so named. According to Jeff LaLande, former archaeologist with the Rogue River National Forest, the name Rye probably stems from a time when alcohol-themed titles were given. Along with Rye Spur, two other areas north of Fish Lake are named Rye Spring and Rye Flat. Nearby, too, are Whisky (shown on maps with an ‘e’) and Bourbon springs.

In “From Abbott Butte to Zimmerman Burn,” LaLande cites three versions of how Whisky Creek and Whisky Camp, like Bourbon Spring and Rye Spur/Spring, trace their names back to thirstier times in the 1870s and 1880s.

One account says Whisky Creek was so name after a snow-bound teamster cached his alcohol supplies near the creek. The cache disappeared the following spring when, the story goes, soldiers from Fort Klamath found and consumed their discovery. A second version says the teamster, who was angry with his employer, emptied barrels of whiskey into the creek. A third telling claims the teamster intended to illegally sell the load of whiskey to Klamath Indians, but was thwarted when troops stopped the wagon and poured the confiscated liquor into the creek.

Maybe something similar happened at the Rye site. Maybe a teamster carting a wagon load of rye whiskey near present-day Rye Spur had his plans go awry by one of J.D. Salinger’s early relatives, the original catcher in the rye. Or maybe the name came from someone who was a bad speller, someone with a rye sense of humor.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.