What's Tony Thinking

From the Wallowas


We got to the cabin earlier than usual this year, arriving on Monday, to converge with Laura and Linda driving from the mid-west.

It’s a wonderful time to be here. All the evergreens have their almost neon-green new growth at the tips of their branches. The lilacs are blooming, both the newer ones we’ve planted and the older ones put in by my grandmother. The tiny white bells of the lily of the valley decorate the cabin’s flower beds. Our funky, little cabin will be 100 years old in 2026.

The lake — Wallowa Lake — looks pristine with snowy Joseph Mountain, Mt. Howard and Mt. Bonneville as the backdrop. But the front page of the Wallowa County Chieftain tells a different story.

“EPA to remove toxic herbicide barrels from Wallowa Lake,” shouts the headline. Last summer members of the Blue Mountain Divers located a cache of barrels at depths of 50 to 100 feet near the Lake’s north end and marina. There were about twenty-five 55 gallon drums, and a dozen 100 gallon drums. Some bore labels that said, 2,4-D or 2.4.5-T WEED KILLER.

For the last decade or so the State of Oregon has been heavily promoting this relatively remote area, the Wallowas, in far northeastern Oregon under its “Seven Wonders of Oregon” campaign. It has worked. Visitors counts continue to grow. The State Park is booked solid from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

The distance from Paradise Found to Paradise Lost seems to be getting shorter these days.

Thankfully, there is no evidence of leakage from the barrels. Nor is there confirmation that the barrel’s contents are actually toxic. But it is unsettling. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials point out that for years barrels, usually filled with rocks or water, were used to anchor docks. Consequently, many lake bottoms are littered with barrels.

But DEQ and EPA are making plans to remove the barrels this fall, after the tourist season of boating, fishing and swimming is past. There’s some concern that moving the barrels might trigger leaks.

The divers speculated that the barrels had been down there 10 or 20 years, which means that someone, likely someone around here, knows a lot more about what they are and how and when they got where they are now. I wonder if someone is watching this story with more than ordinary interest or anxiety?

While the three mountains, and the larger array of the Wallowas are the Lake’s backdrop, it is held by two glacial moraines, considered among the finest examples of their kind. This time of year they too are a carpet of green, dotted with the yellow of blooming Balsam Root flowers.

There’s a story there too, though a happier one. The moraines are a checkerboard of privately owned land. But in recent years the Wallowa Land Trust and the State Parks Department have been working to acquire the moraine lands to keep them undeveloped, or in a few spots no more developed than it is.

The open moraines are elemental to the beauty of the setting. And geologists argue that the pristine water quality (we thought!) of the Lake depends, at least in part, on the moraines. They act as a filter of sorts.

This past year the Land Trust reached an agreement with the largest landholder on the eastern moraine, R and Y Timber Company owned by the Yanke family in Idaho. That land will be protected from development. But now the rest of the moraines need similar protection. Which means money.

Meanwhile, June is quieter than July and August. It used to also be wet and chilly. But now there’s more rain falling earlier in the spring and not as much in June. There is a good winter snowpack, exceeding 100 percent of normal, which is good news for fish and for farm irrigation. It also means good water levels on the Grande Ronde River which we hope to raft later in the month.

The allure of a place like this, apart from family history in our case, is that it appears both unchanging and untouched. Neither are true of course. But the illusion isn’t completely wrong either. There is something timeless about these summer settings.

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