When Seasons Collide at the Halfway Point of the Weiser River Trail

The climate, weather, and trail conditions in Idaho on the Weiser River Trail in February and March are different depending on which part you’re exploring. If you’re down at Milepost One of the trail, Elevation 2115, at the old Oregon Short Line train depot in the town of Weiser, the spring bulbs have started blooming their pastel colored flowers. There is a fragrance of grass in the air as some lawns just received their first mowing of the year. As you head east out of town on the trail towards the Presley trailhead, Milepost 11.6, farmers have been out in their bright green tractors plowing their dirt fields and getting ready to plant their row crops of onions, corn, and sugar beets.

It’s much different up near the Tamarack saw mill at the Wye trailhead, upper end of the trail, Milepost 84, Elevation 4100. It’s still winter on this part of the trail in February and March as some of the tall pine trees and western larch are still blanketed with snow and are providing more shade than sunshine on the trail. With the longer days and the sun’s warmth, the deep layer of white snow on the trail will eventually start to melt. The crystal clear drops of water will slowly drip and trickle their way into the Weiser River where all of it merges and flows downstream towards the towns of Council, Cambridge, Midvale, and into the Snake River at Weiser.

The town of Cambridge at Milepost 40.2, Elevation 2652, is the halfway point of the Weiser River Trail. Cambridge is nestled in Salubria Valley, surrounded on three sides by snow-covered mountains. Toward the east lay Council and West Mountain, with Cuddy Mountain and Rush Peak to the north and Sturgill Peak and Hitt Mountain looking west. To the south, there are miles of rolling hills of farming, ranching and some BLM land. The early settlers in the 1860s who emigrated across Idaho by wagon train on Goodale’s Cutoff, a spur of the Oregon Trail, named the area Salubria Valley because the location was said to be “salubrious,” meaning pleasant, health-giving, and beneficial to one’s health.

The Pacific & Idaho Northern Railway came into Salubria Valley with the completion of the railroad track from Weiser when a golden spike was put in the ground at the Cambridge Depot on Friday, December 29th, 1899. The workers took a three-month break for the remainder of the winter, and then in April of 1900 the work resumed on the tracks, slowly proceeding for the next 12 months up the Weiser River before reaching Council on March 13, 1901.

The sound of the trains roaring and echoing up and down the valley for 95 years came to an end on November 17, 1995. The final train that originated from the Tamarack Saw Mill traveled south though Cambridge and out of the valley for the last time. Life in the valley must have been strangely quiet for the first time for some the locals. Today, about the only sure sound that you’re guaranteed to hear daily here is the Cambridge water tower’s loud, high-pitched siren, at exactly 12 pm on the dot, every day.

The other thing that’s a sure thing in Salubria Valley is that it has its own weather system. Winters on average, last about one month longer than down in Weiser, even though Cambridge is only about 537 feet higher in elevation. Fierce afternoon winds from the west seem to arrive almost daily with storms and dark grey clouds from Oregon and Hells Canyon engulfing the blue sky just as soon as you turn your back and let your guard down. You’ll have sunshine, rain, hail, snow, and sunshine again all in an hour’s worth of time. The seasons collide like a freight train and you don’t know how to dress for the weather outdoors when you don’t know if it’s going to be winter or spring.

On the Weiser River Trail the surface in the morning is frozen earth, and in the afternoon it’s muddy, and then it could be snow-covered the following day. The wind swirls around, and on an out-and-back trek you swear you have a headwind until you turn around and you still have a headwind on the way back. It doesn’t make any sense. The wind chill also drops the temperature so that your face gets wind chapped and you can’t press your gloveless cold hands and frozen fingertips any deeper into your pockets.

Winters can be harsh on the trail now just like it was to the railroad tracks between 1899 and 1995. The water level of the Weiser River can rise suddenly with warmer temperatures from the melting the snow, or rainstorms causing the river to turn brown and overflow its banks and onto the neighboring fields, pastures, and sometimes flooding the trail. Rockslides can also block and damage the surface. Come late spring, the trail will have to be repaired by heavy machinery clearing the big boulders that rolled down the hills and onto the trail.

The broad flat fields in the valley next to the trail that will grow food for livestock are usually snow-covered or too muddy for the farmers to tend to them. The farmers can only admire their fields from a distance where they might see a colorful rooster pheasant looking for leftovers from last year’s harvest, or a red fox with its fluffy white-tipped tail in a field hunting for food and keeping the rodent population under control.

Life in Salubria Valley in the late winter and spring, and on the Weiser River Trail, isn’t all about the cold, wind, floods, and rocks; it also has plenty of beautiful things to see and hear, and it’s never lonely on the trail. From the Mill Road trailhead northeast of town on a late winter afternoon just before the sun goes down, a gorgeous pinkish-toned alpenglow illuminates West Mountain to the east. Recreating on the trail on foot, cross country skis, by bicycle, or on top of a horse, overhead in the sky you’ll sometimes hear the faint sound of flocks of migrating geese. You stop to look up and see Canada, Ross, or snow geese flying in tight formation. Every so often they’ll land safely on the river or fields next to the trail to rest up before continuing their long journey back up to the arctic. In the trees next to the river a migrating bald eagle periodically can be spotted high up in a cottonwood. Western Meadowlarks with their bright yellow breasts, long legged Killdeer, and groups of red wing blackbirds show up in marshes and pastures, all of them making lots of lovely noises. Animal tracks from elk, mule deer, foxes, coyote, skunks and even river otters on the trail give evidence of their presence.

Late winter and early spring calving season happens in pastures and fields along the trail as new calves take their first walk on the snow. Their births are timed so that they’ll be big and strong enough to make the long walk during the cattle drive from their trailside pastures up to the rangelands higher up in the mountains in April.

Next spring and the next springs after that, the circle of life on the trail in Salubria Valley will be repeated all over again. The migrating birds will be traveling north again and stopping for a short visit. The wintering mule deer and elk will move from the lands near the trail back up to the cooler forests of the high mountains. The black bears that have been curled up in their dens will wake from hibernation and move back down the mountain to the lush foliage along the river with cubs in tow, and the one-person Weiser River Trail maintenance crew will be back moving smaller rocks off the trail, spraying weeds, fixing gates, and rolling the surface smooth. Eventually, the people who enjoy exploring and supporting the trail will be back to visit the salubrious halfway section of the Weiser River Trail.

 

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