BAKER CITY — April can turn your eyelashes into ice sculptures, leave your allegedly waterproof boots squelching like sponges and give you a nasty sunburn, sometimes in the same afternoon.
But the cruelest month?
In the mountain-rich northeast corner of Oregon it’s not even close.
I mean no disrespect to T.S. Eliot.
He could turn as pretty a phrase as I would hope to read.
But so far as I can tell the poet, who was born in Boston but lived most of his life in England, lacked the perspective of a hiker whose favorite trails cleave the high country.
Had it been otherwise, he might have understood why I believe June’s cruelty to surpass April’s, and by no small measure.
Although June frequently bestows pleasant weather on our region, many of the hiking trails in the Elkhorn and Wallowa mountains are still buried beneath the remnants of winter blizzards.
Which means hikers, unless they enjoy slogging through sun-softened drifts for miles — a decidedly damp experience — must choose less desirable destinations during weather that’s ideal for being outdoors.
This, needless to say, is frustrating.
But it’s also the reason that the Dutch Flat trail in the Elkhorns has been among my favorites for three decades.
The trail starts at a relatively low elevation — about 4,900 feet — and it stays for the most part on a south-facing slope with considerable sun exposure.
This fortuitous combination results in the first few miles of the trail shedding its winter coat earlier than most other trails — a couple months earlier, in some cases.
On June 2 the trail was snow-free for at least the first couple miles. Thanks to this week’s heat I expect it’s now probably open well beyond the crossing of Van Patten Creek (about 3 miles from the trailhead).
Its timeliness is hardly the only attribute of the Dutch Flat trail, though.
The canyon, carved by glaciers during two major icy periods (150,000 to 200,000 years ago, and 10,000 to 30,000 years ago), is one of the wilder parts of the Elkhorns despite not being an official wilderness.
The creek itself is a gem, with the crystalline water and mixture of placid pool and frothy rapids typical of alpine streams.
As the trail ascends the canyon, the forests thin a bit, transitioning to the subalpine firs and whitebark pines of the high country, and views to the west enlarge to include the granitic peaks of the Northern Elkhorns.
The trail extends 10 miles in all, passing Dutch Flat, the creek’s namesake meadow, at about 7½ miles, and Dutch Flat Lake a mile or so beyond before ending at the Elkhorn Crest Trail in Dutch Flat Saddle.