Holiday joy on the banks of the Umatilla

The Umatilla river runs through the Bar M Ranch near Adams, Ore.

The Umatilla river runs through the Bar M Ranch near Adams, Ore. Photo by Sarah Kelnhofer.

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If you go

The Place: To get to Bar M Ranch and the Umatilla wilderness, drive past Athena and take a left on Pamburn Road. Take a left on Spring Hollow, which turns into Thorn Hollow and drops to the bottom of the canyon.

Cross the railroad tracks and continue on Cayuse Road, next to the river. This turns into Bingham Road, and eventually you’ll see the sign for Bar M on the right. To enter Umatilla National Forest, continue on and take the first left past the day use area, and stop when the road does. Trail No. 3303 meanders gently for the first four miles, then gains altitude and solitude over the next 5.8. The trail ends at Coyote Ridge.

Several campsites exist within the first few miles, and there may be more further on. Another bonus: No fee is required to hike!

The Hike: There’s plenty of side hill action to keep you nimble, but if you stick to the trails, it’s pretty mild. Look for toadstools and the lumpy yellow fungus on old logs called Witch’s Butter. Don’t eat it though! It must be boiled or steamed before consumption.

The Highlights: If you’re visiting the ranch, the highlights (and the ranch website) speak for themselves. Otherwise (and unless you’re big into polar dipping), you might enjoy the river more in warm weather. Remember this is valley hiking/camping, so come prepared to enjoy the unique ecosystem and scenery found here.

The Drawbacks: If you’re going for a big-panorama hike early on, you’ll need to embrace disappointment. But as a nature hike or an exploratory session with younger walkers, there’s plenty to keep the attention. Just wear shoes appropriate for mud and water, and plan on seeing other hikers: The accessibility of this location means you’re likely to have some company.

Nothing rivals the smell of a slow-roasted turkey on Thanksgiving Day, except maybe the taste of the turkey a few hours later.

This earthy expectation fortifies my resolve as I feel the blood slowly drain from one side of my body and pool in the other. I’m wedged on one haunch between the turkey itself, a box of Thanksgiving decor and sundries, and my squirming daughter in the back of my mother-in-law’s sedan as it travels toward the Bar M Ranch near Adams, Ore.

I balance a foil-covered pie on one knee and fend off another that threatens to slide down my neck from behind with even the mildest of turns.

But the discomfort hasn’t dimmed my holiday cheer ... at least not yet. How many souls are so blessed as to have this opportunity, anyway?

I grin out the window as the frosty hills slide by. We’re headed for luxury, adventure, and a mountain of fun with our family and friends, and I plan on savoring every bite ... er, minute ... to the full.

Our two-car caravan meanders through miles of frost-covered fields, spotting a few horses and a lone hunting dog on the way. Near Athena, we began dropping elevation, and by the time we reach the valley through which the North Fork of the Umatilla River flows, all of our ears have adjusted to the new low.

For 20 minutes or so, we cruise through an assortment of scenery and abodes so eclectic it feels like an outdoor museum: Long-horned Texas cattle rival a corral full of llamas for our attention, while angular railroad-tie fences and the frosty contours of bare trees fill the background.

We’re just wondering if the ranch sits smack in the middle of civilization when the a simple sign directs us to the right, and we leave the pavement for good. Ooohs and aaahs fill the car as we cruise by massive, ancient ranch structures — a barn, a boarding house, the “Stagecoach Inn” — on the way to our chosen retreat.

Almost before the car stops, the children emerge — Chris has packed our pilot with five boys — and the explorations begin.

“Look at this!” Jared calls from the distance! “A frozen pond!”

Before I can worry about thin ice and frostbite, they run off. It’s nothing spectacular, but the shallow pool behind the property provides enough entertainment to occupy the troops while we settle in and start cooking.

Chris tours the grounds, which we have visited before, and takes the kids for a dip in the swimming-pool-sized hot springs steaming on the other side of the river.

Just as the next round of family arrives, the kids return, dripping and full of their antics, to warm themselves by the fire.

I catch the first scent of turkey, and sigh. Now if feels like a real holiday!

Relatives and friends circle the kitchen while kids foray into the wild as the day progresses, and by dinner, we all feel we’ve earned the abundance before us.

The days pass in a flurry. Slowly, the hoar-frost melts away, but not before each child has experienced the wonder of seeing ice structures up close. We take frequent walks up the road and a longer hike up the river, where snow lurks in shadowed places like the ghosts of seasons long past. The lowland scenery, though utterly lacking in panoramic vistas, provides enough bounty for young explorers. They don’t mind the gentle grade or the frequent encounters with the river, either, and it seems they could hike on all day.

We taller folks keep up just fine, slapping the underbrush out of our way and stopping to analyze the varied fungus forms so prevalent in wet valleys like these.

But some walkers have more stamina than others, and eventually my 3-year-old nephew calls it quits.

We trek back toward the trailhead, a few of us opting for a lesser-used trail that cuddles up next to the river. Several scrambles, a few stops, and a piggyback ride for another young nephew, and we’ve reached the cars and their heated interiors at last.

As we jounce back toward the ranch beneath an overcast sky, holiday music croons through our speakers.

A family waves to us from the roadside, where they’ve just propped their freshly-cut Christmas tree.

I catch my breath in surprise.

There it is!

In a twinkling, in the time it took us to transition from hiking a trail to riding in our own cars, we’ve traveled from Thanksgiving to Yule. The switch may have gone unnoticed by others, but I sense it: We’ve kicked off this holiday season with a bang, and now it’s going to hit us full steam.

I bounce up against my mom as we turn in toward Bar M, and whisper a short prayer of thanks. The magical outdoors, the music we’ve shared, and the bounty of freedom and family and friends ... these are the hallmarks of the holidays for me. Their memory will fill my heart for a full year. For every blessing, I give my thanks. For every breath, I offer praise.

I unfold from the car and head toward the light of this borrowed cabin, but the feeling of joy travels with me: I’ve never felt more at home.

Sarah Coleman Kelnhofer writes from College Place, Washington, where she and her husband strive to tame their half acre of wilderness while their children try to reclaim it. Last year, she even grew pansies – in a secret location – hidden from the local wildlife.

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