Home, home on the range: Ditch Creek Guard Station in winter

Five friends and I snowshoed through the dark to the Forest Service cabin in Oregon's Umatilla National Forest, aware only of what fell within the narrow beams of our headlamps — snow, mostly, and the dark silhouettes of trees. It wasn't until we woke up in the morning and stepped outside that we really knew what surrounded us: snow and trees, yes, but also a pole fence and horse corral, a meandering, half-frozen stream, and multiple pairs of fresh animal tracks — sometimes parallel, sometimes crossing — evidence of the nighttime dramas we'd missed.

The Ditch Creek Guard Station is one of about 70 houses and fire towers that the Civilian Conservation Corps built in Washington and Oregon in the 1930s for the "smoke chasers" who patrolled the forests for fires. The Forest Service now rents the structures out for $35 to $90 a night to campers interested in hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, horseback riding, fishing and hunting on the surrounding forest land.

Our cabin consisted of a kitchen stocked with pots and pans, a living room with a futon, table and chairs and a bedroom with two sets of sturdy bunk beds. While there were a propane-powered fridge, stove, and freestanding heater, the water was turned off for winter, so we scooped up a pot of snow from the yard and melted it on the stove whenever we got thirsty or wanted to flush the toilet (this happened once, at the end of our stay; we called it The Big Flush and all gathered 'round).

My friend James and three pots of melted snow

The Forest Service has excellent taste in art.

On Saturday, we snowshoed to Penland Lake, which, this time of year, is completely frozen over. Cyclones of snow periodically lifted up and spiraled over the lake before setting themselves down again.

On the way:

Jake, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever/Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever mix (introductions were never short), during one of the times he WASN'T wearing his fur-lined moccasins.

Lots of running happened

Also, lots of resting

The coolest cabin ever.

Me, Stasia, Laura

Ditch Creek flowing through its valley, south toward the north fork of the John Day River