Blue Heaven Mine draws Nora the Schnauzer

A hike up the North Fork John Day Trail brings back memories of a decade-old trip to the cabin at the Blue Heaven Mine and the man who worked the claim for 30 years, Guy Hafer.

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Guy Hafer worked the Blue Heaven Mine from this cabin on the North Fork John Day River Trail for 30 years.

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Friends of Hafer keep the cabin ready for visitors.

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A Walla Walla Union-Bulletin outdoors column from 1999 remains in a log book in the cabin.

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Nora the Schnauzer rests in the shade along the North Fork John Day River Trail.

In Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, "Starry Night," swirled, oversized yellow and white stars hang over a darkened rural hamlet.


Some critics called him "weird," to put it gently, for the visions that he placed on canvas.


I recalled "Starry Night" when I stood a few feet from the tent, responding to nature’s call at about 2 a.m. in the North Fork John Day Wilderness last week.


A zillion ice-like silver stars, some the size of tiny moons, blinked in a cloudless canopy above the rustling stream.


"You know," I said to a barely visible Nora the Schnauzer, who sniffed among the weeds in front of me, "Vince wasn’t nearly strange as some people thought. Look at the size of those stars.


"Wow, and did you see one?" I exclaimed as a shooting star streamed northward, trailing a vivid ribbon of light across the east-west band of the Milky Way.


Nora preferred gopher scents to the stars, so I hurried her back into the tiny REI half-dome tent. A tad huffy, she settled lengthwise along my side, and I pulled the sleeping bag over us.


The temperature had dropped into the 30s, I figured, as I peered at the wide, sparkling sky through the tent’s mesh ceiling.


The view justified leaving off the tent’s rain fly.


Yet, coldness seeped through the mesh to chill my bare head and reminded me of the wool cap I’d left in the car. I shivered, sat up and groped around beside the sleeping bag for the shorts that I’d replaced with longjohns at bedtime.


I pulled one leg of them over my head and ears and felt much warmer.


I lay back for about 40 seconds, and watched two more shooting stars before my eye lids closed again.


Nora and I had left the trailhead at 10:52 a.m. the previous day for an overnight stay in the wilderness.


I carried an overstuffed pack (about 50 pounds), with the usual excesses. The full 100-ounce CamelBak water bag weighed seven pounds.


The food bag weighed about as much: four English muffins, four-ounce Nalgene jars of peanut butter, strawberry jelly and olive oil, 12 rashers of pre-cooked bacon, a zipped bag of granola with blueberries and powdered milk, hot chocolate and four power bars.


Nora’s pack held her snacks, water, kibbles and raincoat. She handled it well.


I wore my new Cotton Carrier harness that fastened a camera and lens tight, yet handy, to my chest (see cottoncarrier.com).


The pack, of course, also held the tent, sleeping bag, mattress, pan, stove, cup and so on.


I used a trusty 6 1/2-foot bamboo walking stick to steady my steps. With the temperature headed into the high 80s, we pounded the dusty trail (and rocky spots) through rugged river-canyon scenery (often pausing for photos), past a few gold miner’s cabins (more photos) until we reached the Blue Heaven Mine.


It was built and well maintained for about 30 years by Guy Hafer, who worked the claim on weekends and for weeks at a time during the summer.


I met Guy, a teacher in Cove, Ore., at the cabin in August of 1999, when Sadie the Dalmatian and I passed on our way for a three-day tour along the river. I wrote a column about the trip.


In June of 2004, Sadie and I passed the cabin again. We didn’t see Guy, and a notice on the door said the BLM had ended Hafer’s claim and if he lost his appeal, the agency would consider removing the cabin. Guy had a copy of the 1999 column on the cabin wall.


Well, the cabin remains and it’s still well kept and still unlocked for visitors to use as long as they leave it as clean and well stocked as they find it.
That detail alone attests to Hafer’s trust and respect for people.


When I opened the door, the cabin looked bright and welcoming. It had a stove, wood, propane cooker, gas and an array of pots, pans and other essentials.


It had three cots with foam mattresses. It had quilts in metal boxes. It had beer on a shelf and a handy book of Reader’s Digest stories.


I read a paper tacked to the wall (where the 1999 column once hung). It was a touching note, written from the cabin’s point of view, about how it misses Guy Hafer. He died in 2007.


The paper noted that Guy was widely loved and respected and would have been pleased at the way family and friends have kept the cabin in top condition, and that it’s still there.


I felt sad that I had not known him better, and good that he was so well remembered by his family, friends and his cabin. I found the 1999 column in the cabin’s log book.


Nora and I slowly padded on down the trail, which has an easy slope with a few rocky inclines.


On that first trip, Sadie and I walked about 14 miles down the river (and back the same way).


Last week, Nora and I hiked about five miles in 4 1/2 hours. Then we dropped our packs on the trail, sat in the shade and pondered our next move.


I proposed backtracking for half a mile to camp in a riverside meadow, and Nora agreed. Or didn’t disagree.


I pitched the tent, sans rain fly, in the shade, set up the kitchen 30 yards away and fetched water.


Using the efficient Katadyn Water System, I pumped the river directly into the CamelBak until it bulged.


I also carried the 2 1/2-gallon pocket-sized water bag back to camp and hung it in a tree. I’d refill the CamelBak from it the next morning.


I made hot chocolate, despite the heat, and sauteed pre-cooked bacon and English muffins in olive oil.


I held the hot sandwiches in a dishcloth, slopped jelly on each bite with a spoon. Nora and I ate both sandwiches.


With a bead-headed pheasant-tail nymph on a 10-foot leader, Nora and I fished in the cooling evening shadows until dark.


Finally, we crowded into the half-dome, and I read a page before snoozing.


After star-gazing, I awoke for good at 5:52 a.m.


My Brunton Wind device said 34.4 degrees. I pulled on my pants and shirt and two nylon jackets over the longjohns.


As I laced my boots and Nora sniffed for rodents in the semi-lighted meadow, I noticed two elk high on the canyon wall.


I ran the camera’s ISO up to 32,000 and took photos that the darkness left a bit fuzzy. One elk was about a four-point.


After breakfast, we headed east, into the sunrise. Its brightness erased all evidence of the starry night.


Contact Don Davis at 526-8326 or dondavis@wwub.com.

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