Story Camp: A Public Lands Open Mic Adventure
By Molly Elwood, KEEN Senior Copywriter
When the opportunity came up to write about Sutton Mountain Story Camp, I basically jumped up and waved my arms, hoping to be picked to go. Not only would I get to ride in the KEEN RV, I’d get to camp with coworkers, see a new area, and get an interpretive hike (and as a nerd, there’s nothing I love more than anything interpretive).
It rarely rains in the high desert area of Sutton Mountain—except for the Saturday of Story Camp. Of course. But we weren’t deterred—and neither were the thirty-some attendees who ventured out to Manning Pasture on the cool, breezy, and drizzly Saturday morning. There was a brewer (and 4th generation Mitchell resident), two owners of two separate inns, a city-slicker-turned-local who enjoyed his solitude on a 40-acre ranch. There was a photographer from Portland and adventure seekers from Bend and Redmond, plus enthusiastic folks from the Oregon Natural Desert Association (shout out to ONDA, our Sutton Mountain Story Camp co-sponsor!).
WHAT IS STORY CAMP?
KEEN Story Camp is all the best parts of camping: a picturesque location, fabulous warm-your-tummy foods (provided by the KEEN Kanteen), outdoor activities led by people who know and love the area, and the promise of multiple rounds of campfire stories.
However, Story Camp doesn’t exist just because KEEN likes camping and getting to know strangers (though I suspect that may be part of it). Instead, our corporate responsibility team, KEEN Effect, is looking to connect more Americans to our public lands and widen the tent of stories we know about them.
By pairing with grassroots nonprofits like ONDA, we’re able to connect diverse perspectives that run the whole gamut: indigenous voices, ranchers, ATV users, miners, police, hunters, marathon runners, local business owners, families, and more. It’s pretty telling how such varied groups overlap when it comes to outdoor adventure and serious discussions about land management.
The result of these conversations—especially the organic, one-on-ones that this event fostered—is a deepened understanding of how public lands are used by everyone. It’s also a great way to introduce people to new and stunning landscapes and allow newcomers and locals alike to explore the area’s potential.
WHY SUTTON MOUNTAIN?
Each Story Camp is an onsite celebration of a landscape that’s threatened, and each location was chosen because there’s something to be gained by increased public participation and knowledge of that place. Our very first Story Camp event took place in January at Nevada’s Gold Butte National Monument—a place under review for reduction. The next one will be in September at Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a place threatened by sulfide-ore copper mining.
A lot of people know the Painted Hills outside of Mitchell, Oregon (pop. 121), but few know the name of the mountain directly behind it—the one with a few horizontal stripes of its own. That’s Sutton Mountain.
At first glance, the area looks brown, brown, brown. It’s like a soft, endlessly rolling blanket of blonde grass spread across hills and small buttes, dotted with brick-red rocks. It seems that the only other vegetation is the muted sage brush and scrubby trees. And when it rains, the shadows and precipitation deepen the brownness. But it only takes a few moments of stillness to see the intense beauty of this open space. And Story Camp included endless opportunities to fall in love with Sutton Mountain.
The Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area is 58,000 acres of breathtaking views, wildlife, wildflowers, and incredible opportunities for primitive recreation. However, it is a “wilderness study area.” What does that mean? I’m going to quote Ben Gordon, Stewardship Director of ONDA:
"Currently Prineville BLM manages Sutton Mountain as a Wilderness Study Area, an administrative designation that prioritizes management of the area for its wilderness values: naturalness, opportunities for primitive recreation, and for people to seek and find solitude. It will take an act of Congress to permanently designate the area as wilderness. Once designated, there is an opportunity to enhance access to Sutton Mountain for the public through improved signage and trailheads as part of required wilderness management planning that comes after designation. During this process, the BLM takes public input to determine the best approach to managing the area for all user groups and preservation of the unique values the landscape is being protected for."
Each Story Camp really is a celebration of each place and the stories they prompt us to tell.
ONDA is spearheading a proposal to protect this space—and not only are they taking into account hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing, but it also includes the continuation of grazing at appropriate levels.
But land management and politics aside, each Story Camp really is a celebration of each place and the stories they prompt us to tell.
MY STORY CAMP EXPERIENCE
The day started with the 30-some attendees gathered around the fire, sipping coffee, trying to soak up the warmth before our activities. By 11 a.m., we all split up into four separate, local-led adventures. Some of us took the 7-mile strenuous trail over Sutton Mountain—through a downpour, I might add—while others took shorter jaunts through canyons or fly-fished on the John Day River.
My group took the leisurely, 9-mile roundtrip up a slightly inclined valley trail. Our goal? The possibly mythical Pat’s Cabin. I confess: We never found it. As a group, we decided that Pat’s Cabin is “a different experience for everyone”—for us, it was a quest to see how far we’d walk before giving up for lunch (it was 2 p.m. and 5 miles in before our hunger got the best of us).
Despite the length of the trail, we took our time. We were either gazing up at the ever-changing cloud formations and the shadows they flung far over the hills, or looking down at the flora and traces of fauna (or putting on and taking off rain jackets). The sage and juniper smelled lush from the rain. It was invigorating.
I grew up in Central Oregon, so on the surface, Sutton Mountain didn’t feel that foreign. It may look brown to others, but I like finding beauty in the small things. I know to pinch the plants between my fingers to enjoy their scents and that lambs ear is the best plant to pet. I intimately know the scramble of the black beetles who instantly put their butts in the air when cornered. I can spot small bands of birds taking on a hawk from a mile away. So, I started sharing, picking up, pointing out. It had been so long since I’d been out of the city in “my wilderness” that I’d forgotten what I knew.
But Sutton Mountain isn’t Central Oregon—it’s Eastern. What shook me into this realization? A cactus. A simple, flowering cactus. I saw it and was flabbergasted.
“We have cactus in Oregon?!”
Our local guide may have rolled his eyes, I don’t know.
The further we trekked, the clearer it became: this place may have some overlap with what I knew, but this isn’t my landscape. Sutton Mountain is wilder. It’s more dramatic. It may have more animals that are out to get you. And from that cactus onward, I opened myself up to the possibilities of this place.
Together, we wondered over mysterious scat and animal tracks, geological anomalies and local grasses making a comeback. We gaped over the bony remains of cougar kills, collections of vertebrae spread amongst purple flowers. Once someone noticed that the trail was littered with green rocks, all eyes were glued to the terrain. Soon, we were all expert rock hounds, pockets clacking with “only the greenest” rocks.
I’ll also admit that we threw quite a few glances over our shoulders to snicker over the choice the Sutton Mountain Trail group had made (Sutton Mountain is that black ridge in the background).
We lunched in the shade while two intrepid explorers went on, determined to find old Pat’s Cabin. Pat won the day though and wasn’t found. The sun came out and we stripped down to T-shirts for the return to camp and to the campfire, where we’d all share stories of what we saw, the rocks we found, and how our individual perspectives had shifted or broadened.
Before the end of the trip, I got startled by not one but two rubber boas while peeing in the bushes (it’s ok—I lived). I’d never seen a boa before; who knows, maybe it wasn’t even a boa—it turns out, I’m no expert on Eastern Oregon snakes. And that night, we heard coyotes, a sound I definitely knew and had missed.
I can’t wait to go back to Sutton Mountain.