Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wallowa Lake and the City of Joseph

A trip to Northeast Oregon is an opportunity to witness where one of history's tragic stories begins. This is where the Nez Perce Indians spent their last free days, before going to a reservation. Today, among the mountains, streams and valleys of Wallowa County, residents and visitors alike enjoy the natural beauty of the lake and the area where the Nez Perce Indians spent their summers hunting and fishing.

One hundred and thirty one years ago, Chief Joseph the Younger and his followers were forced out of the valley by the U.S. government for not honoring a treaty imposed upon them. Today, the mountains and area around Wallowa Lake is often referred to as the "Little Switzerland of America." The nickname comes from the tall, snow-capped mountains that surround Wallowa Lake on three sides. The picturesque vistas are reminiscent of the larger pristine mountains in Europe. This land is as wild and beautiful as it once was, with miles of forests, fresh mountain streams, lakes and abundant wildlife. As "civilization" moved into the area over the last century there have been several homes, businesses and attractions built near the lake. My journey through this land begins in the small artistic town of Joseph located a couple of miles from the lake.

Originally named Lake City in the 1800's the town changed its name to Joseph in honor of Chief Joseph, father of Young Joseph, of the Nez Perce Indians. The French called the Shahaptian Indians of the Pacific Northwest Nez Perce, meaning "pierced nose", after they saw a few Indians with nose medallions. Such piercing was uncommon with the Shahaptian and was more applicable to tribes further south. A misnomer that has remained. The Nez Perce still call themselves by that name today. The Nez Perce lived around what is now Northeast Oregon, Idaho and Washington.

Today Joseph is still a small town with just over one thousand residents. This small town however, is big on art and reminded me of the art centers of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Park City, Utah. Joseph is primarily one main street lined with galleries, studios and bronze foundries separated by real estate offices and gift shops. Throughout the town are excellent bronze sculptures from some of the top artists in the country. Valley Bronze was the first foundry in town and was instrumental in leading the town to financial success after the collapse of the timber industry in the 1980's. Since then more foundries have opened in the town and more artists call this home. The success of the bronze foundries is evident in the $2.4 million dollar order, a few years ago, from the U.S. Government for the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.

On almost every street corner is a life size or larger bronze sculpture. One of my favorite sculptures, "Attitude Adjustment", by Austin Barton depicts a cowboy and bucking bronco. The ten-foot high statue captures the cowboy and horse at the peak of movement. The balancing of the sculpture adds to this work of art as it appears to be top heavy and may topple at any moment. There are reportedly twelve of these magnificent bronzes, of this size, but I have only located three. One in Pendleton, Oregon at Hamley & Co., one in Joseph, Oregon and one at the Booth Western Art Museum in Georgia.

Other interesting sculptures include the huge soaring eagle entitled "Spirit of Joseph" by Steve Parks, "Tracking the Intruders" by J. Shirly Bothum and a very refreshing sculpture of a woman holding her hat as if in a strong breeze entitled "Garden Walk" by Ramon Parmenter. Not to be overshadowed by the statuary there are several galleries that specialize in art and jewelry. One artist that impressed me with his original wildlife paintings was Mark Kortnik, of Aspen Grove Gallery.

On my visit, I found the area to be a great getaway from the stresses of daily life in the 21st century. With the exception of the buildings the area is much as it would have been when the Indians roamed the forests and mountains. Today these same forests and mountains offer abundant hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding opportunities. At the lake there is boating, canoeing, fishing and, for the stout of heart, swimming. My daughters coaxed me into the clear cold lake, which was very refreshing, after I inched my way in. The lake is at the end of the road, literally. Once you travel in you have to turn around and go out the same way.
Isolated with cabins and campgrounds the area has the feel of a summer camp. Wildlife is abundant with mule deer seen throughout the early mornings and evenings, eagles, turkeys, and buffalo. There are a few gift shops, a lodge and a couple of places to eat during the spring and summer months. There are a number of places to sign up for trail riding, mountain biking and even hang gliding from Mt. Howard.

A local tramway takes passengers, four at a time, from the base terminal, located near the lake, to the 8,150 foot summit of Mt. Howard. From there you can take one of the well groomed trails to several scenic overlooks. The tramway is open from May through September, depending on the weather. Be sure to work up an appetite on the 2 miles of trails, so you can enjoy the Summit Grill and Alpine Patio for lunch.

For the kids the area boasts quite a population of friendly black tailed prairie dogs that will climb on your lap looking for trail mix. We took advantage of the wonderful trails and hiked a few miles into the wilderness over streams and up the side of a mountain to an overlook of Wallowa Lake. There was also a waterfall on the Lostine River that was ice cold and a real treat after the moderate hike. On another day we joined the trail ride and wound our way through several trails and along streams. The horses were used to novice riders and made their way expertly on narrow trails.

When you enter or leave the Wallowa Lake area, you pass by the Indian cemetery where Old Chief Joseph is buried. Be sure to stop and take the time to visit his gravesite to pay tribute to the man who trusted the government to take care of him and his tribe. His son, Chief Joseph the Younger, became famous for his principled resistance to the removal of his people from this land. He is renowned as a humanitarian and peacemaker. His story, and that of his people, is detailed in Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", and "I Will Fight No More Forever - Chief Joseph And The Nez Perce War" by Merrill D. Beal.

Getting there - If you are flying, you can land in Boise, Idaho, about 4 hours by car on the interstate and OR Hwy 82. Other airport options include Pasco, WA, Spokane, WA, and Lewiston, ID. From Portland, Oregon it is about a six-hour drive through the Columbia River Gorge, high desert and plains. We took the longer route, through Portland, and saw a number of wonderful sites along the Oregon Trail.


Carol White - The Road Trip Dreamer said...

this is one of the most beautiful places in the US - for more pictures of the area go here

The cowboy statue mentioned in this blog is shown twice in the video.

Carol White - The Road Trip Dreamer said...

this is one of the most beautiful places in the US - for more pictures of the area go here

The cowboy statue mentioned in this blog is shown twice in the video.

Heather said...

Hello David: Thanks for your comprehensive posting on the area where I live. One comment--travel time to Joseph, OR and Wallowa Lake from Boise is 4 hours (not two) by car on the interstate and OR Hwy 82. Other airport options include Pasco, WA, Spokane, WA, and Lewiston, ID.
--Heather at the Bronze Antler B&B, Joseph, OR

David said...

Thanks heather, I've made the corrections!