The end of summer on Grayback Mountain
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

A view from Grayback Mountain

The warm, carefree days of autumn always seem to end too quickly in the mountains. It was a lesson I learned on a climb up Grayback Mountain, Josephine County’s highest peak, and a night in a funky cabin in the wilderness.

o o o o

By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

The old-growth pines are dark shadows in the October night, and a cool wind blows piles of wet leaves across my path as I hike down from the 7,048-foot peak of Grayback Mountain.

By the time I reach the mountain's lower meadows, a cold white moon hangs above the Applegate Valley, and a dusty red sunset peppers the Siskiyou Mountain peaks on the horizon.

The scene is autumn at its best: bright and crisp and dark red. But even as I sit back to enjoy the view, I curse myself for procrastinating near the summit and having to navigate through the woods in the half-light.

It’s a curious thing that autumn days always fade into night more quickly than we expect. Some afternoons have enough blue sky and warm temperatures to invite hallucinations of summer, but then the night comes on swiftly and without warning to remind us that fall is here.

My home for the night is the Grayback Snow Survey Cabin, a small 10-by-14 mountain abode at 5,600 feet. The cabin was built in 1944 for surveyors who'd hike up the mountain to measure snow depth and moisture, helping to give farmers and ranchers accurate forecasts for the summer's water supply.

The cabin still serves its original purpose, but it's also become a sort of communal bunkhouse for weary Grayback travelers seeking shelter from the night.

I finally reach the cabin in complete darkness and quickly light three candles and a kerosene lamp. In the flickering light, I build a small orange fire in the cabin’s iron stove.

The cabin contains a curious assortment of canned food and random supplies including playing cards, a wooden flute, a string of Christmas lights and a quarter-full bottle of whiskey.

The smoky heat from the stove and the smell of warm kerosene slowly melt away the cold air. After a light dinner, I flop down into a camping chair, put my feet on an overturned white bucket and fill my tin cup with the bourbon I packed.

There’s a small blue notebook on a shelf near the door, and I read some notes from past visitors. Most entries are observations of the weather and the area trails. Some muse on the mountain’s beauty, while others lapse into poetic ramblings and begin their notes “Dear Cabin ...”

But on the final page is an entry that makes the whiskey run cold in my stomach. It’s dated Aug. 30, 2006, and is signed by someone named Michael Horne. It reads: “I walk this beautiful land with pride as it may be my last. Only six days now until I leave for the Army!”

o o o o

On the morning of my stay at the cabin, I set out from O’Brian Creek lower trailhead at 8 a.m., following a stream that’s overgrown with orange and yellow leaves from birch and spruce trees.

Few moments are better than the first mile of a morning's October hike. The air still is fresh and wet. There's a sweet autumn smell of moldy wood and damp earth as each step takes you farther from your car and closer to the wilderness.

After two miles I reach Grayback meadows, a place surrounded by thick cliffs and famous for purple and white wildflowers during the summer, though now, in the fall, the ground holds waves of golden brown grass.

In the midst of the grass is a black iron stove, standing like a rusted gravestone in the meadow. The stove is all that remains of the Krouse Log Cabin, a famous Josephine County destination that was built by Phil Krouse and his father, and finished on the same 1945 day the Japanese surrendered to the United States in World War II.

Five generations of the Krouse family enjoyed the cabin — their small children bouncing through the wildflowers and old men watching sunsets over the mountains — and it also housed equestrian groups, hikers, hunters, and Forest Service employees passing through for the night.

But one night in 2001, three teenagers from Medford were spending the night at the cabin when its logs were accidentally ignited. The 56-year-old structure burned to the ground during the early morning, leaving behind only the iron stove.

I linger near the stove for a long time, eating a late lunch of turkey and cheese sandwiches and enjoying the sun on my face. The day is crisp and sunny, and I can hear the sound of Clear Creek bubbling through the meadow.

After two hours I get up and walk toward a gap that runs up through the cliffs. I climb up the gap higher and higher, above the cliffs, and follow the ridgeline until I reach the 7,048-foot summit of Grayback Mountain.

The view from the highest point in Josephine County is an endless carpet of pine trees flowing over hills and dipping down into valleys all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Eventually, the sun begins its descent beyond the lonely spikes of Mount McLoughlin and Mount Thielsen in the distance, and I remember to climb back down before getting caught in the dark.

o o o o

After a night spent on the wooden plank loft of the Grayback Snow Survey Cabin, I awake to sunlight squeezing in through the boarded-up windows.

I boil water to brew a cup of coffee, wipe the sleep from my eyes and open the cabin’s heavy door to a flood of sunshine.

One of notes written in the little blue notebook echoes an old bit of wisdom: Take care of the cabin and the cabin will take care of you. In that spirit I begin sweeping the floors and shoveling my ashes out of the iron stove that kept me warm during the night.

But as I clean, I can't help wondering how Michael Horne felt as he was packing up and preparing to leave Grayback Mountain that morning in 2006.

According to his note, he'd be leaving for military service in just six days. After boot camp he might've been sent to Afghanistan or Iraq. I think about what I'll be doing in six days — probably sitting in the office or reporting a new story.

As I begin my trip back home, I imagine Michael Horne walking with pride and a pack on his back down the trail, beneath the old-growth pine trees on that day two years ago at the end of August.

In autumn, the days descend into darkness more quickly than we expect. I hurry along down the sun-dappled trail, careful not to be caught again navigating in the half-light of the woods.


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