Prepare to wander

• Despite being a work in progress, Cline Buttes Recreation Area is a worthy visit

By Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin

If you go

What: Cline Buttes Recreation Area, 32,000 acres of recreation area located north of Bend, east of Sisters and west of Redmond.

Difficulty: Easy

Cost: Free

Contact: To learn more about the hiking, biking and other options at Cline Buttes, visit the website: www.blm.gov/or/districts/prineville/recreation/cline

A few weeks ago — and in much warmer weather — my husband and I set out to explore a new-to-us nature spot called Cline Buttes Recreation Area. We wanted to explore a particular section of Cline Buttes, dedicated to preserving historic canals.

Due to some confusing signs and probably a bit of user error, we started on the wrong path and never stepped foot on the trails of the historic canal area.

A few days after The Bulletin published the article about our quite lovely hike gone awry, Terry Holtzapple, an archaeologist from the Bureau of Land Management, called me. She asked if I would like to revisit the area, this time with a guide to make sure I got to the right spot.

I was game. So last week I bundled up and headed back out to the Cline Buttes area, which is about 20 minutes northwest of Bend.

Holtzapple and I met at the same trailhead parking lot where it all went wrong for me and my husband. But this time, instead of taking the trail next to the parking lot, we journeyed up the road a bit. On the right there was a small gate, which we opened. We ascended a small hill and — bam! — we were walking on the historic canals. Just like that.

Though we trekked through several inches of snow, temperatures were pleasant. Holtzapple said the area was at about 3,200 feet elevation and could get quite warm. I am going to keep the area in mind anytime I’m looking to get outside in the winter but don’t want to do a snow sport.

Canal history

The mostly earthen, hand-built canals in the region were created in the early 1900s with the idea of irrigating more than 27,000 acres, according to Holtzapple. There was also a dam, which was supposed to hold a large reservoir of water. The dam is still in place.

The reservoir, however, was not meant to be. Holtzapple explained that in 1915, the reservoir was about three-quarters full and doing well when suddenly the water began to drain. Reports came in of witnesses seeing a large whirlpool form inside the reservoir carrying the water down into the ground — as if the stopper had been taken out of the drain in the bathtub. A lava tube was the suspected culprit, Holtzapple says.

The Tumalo Irrigation District is still operational, however, and supplies water to about 8,000 acres, according to Holtzapple.

Some of the best preserved parts of the canals, including a cement raceway used to funnel the water uphill, are located in the Cline Buttes Recreation Area. They are within a fenced pedestrian-only segment where no off-road vehicles, bicycles or horses are allowed. In that respect, it differs from much of the rest of the recreation area, which allows those other uses.

Holtzapple said planners decided to close off the Tumalo canal area to other users in order to preserve the canals as much as possible. Some of the canals had been degraded due to overuse.

“This area was of critical concern because the canals are intact,” said Holtzapple. She says the BLM knew it could not protect the entire system, so chose to focus on this one portion.

The hike

Within this section, there are many miles of walking trails. Signs for the area are still being developed, as are the pathways.

We took a map with us, which I highly recommend (you can print one from the BLM website).

After reaching the top of a berm, which is the lip of the canal, Holtzapple and I turned left and followed this low ridge, essentially walking in the old canal.

I enjoyed the scenery on my first trip to the area, when temperatures were mild and there was no snow to be seen. This time, the bright blue skies looked even prettier highlighted against the snowy ground. Junipers and sagebrush grew everywhere along the path.

Unfortunately, the snow slowed us down, which meant we couldn’t make it all the way to the raceway. Instead, we chose a shorter route.

Holtzapple pointed out that juniper trees often grow along the canals. These trees are also likely to show signs where branches were cut off long ago during the construction of the canals.

After walking for about half a mile or so, we came to a signpost, marking an intersection. This sign, marked No. 12, helped us quickly pinpoint our location on the map. Rather than continue to follow the canal, we opted to turn right along another trail and cut across the landscape.

However, not long into our journey, we lost the trail. Covered in snow and with little signage, finding an official trail was incredibly tricky. The good news is that staying generally on course is not difficult at all.

Holtzapple called the trail “a little dicey” and said she would just make it up as we went along.

We kept the mountains to our right and traversed the snowy ground. We walked like this, sometimes clearly on a path, sometimes on a possible path and sometimes likely not on a path, for another half mile or so. Holtzapple assured me that, in this area, sticking to trail wasn’t required. Unlike some areas with delicate ecosystems, people who travel to Cline Buttes don’t need to worry about trampling across delicate undergrowth or causing erosion. People can wander.

Before too long, we returned to a clear-cut trail and walked again inside the old canal. Before we knew it, we had made it back to the gate. Our loop hike was about 2 miles or so, but there are many options that would allow people to hike for much longer.

When there isn’t snow on the ground, Holtzapple says hikers may want to scout for remnants of century-old campsites. Workers who built the canals would camp here for long periods of time. There are pocket tobacco cans, baking powder tins and dishes made of earthenware. The BLM documents and records the items, but leaves them in place. (Visitors are also supposed to let them be.)

I commented that, when hiking in one of the other sections, I encountered all sorts of trash. How can you tell the difference, I asked, between the junk and the things worth keeping? She said the rule is an item becomes worth preserving if it’s 50 years old, but 100 years old is even better.

The area is a work in progress and will be for a few years to come. But it’s still worth a visit. Just come prepared to wander.

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, ajohnson@bendbulletin.com