Oregon Desert Adventures, Days Three and Four

I had had grand plans of blogging my adventures as they happened, and as you noticed I managed to keep you caught up on Day One and Day Two. By the end of Day Three, I was just too damned tired to do anything other than hunt down a bit of food and get some sleep in my hotel room. Here, then, is the remainder of the trip.

Morning broke cool and overcast in Burns as I prepared to head even further south. I’ve always wanted to visit the Steens Mountain area, and not just for the mustangs! So I headed out 205 into the wilderness. The first few miles were mostly farmland–but then I rounded a bend, and got an AMAZING view of the valley below. It reminded me that the Great Basin does indeed extend well into eastern Oregon, and that I was in new-to-me territory. Farmland interlocked with sagebrush fields, and the craggy outcroppings of browned basalt looked over it all.

There were also dozens of red-winged blackbirds in attendance, including these feasting males.
There were also dozens of red-winged blackbirds in attendance, including these feasting males.
I had planned to go straight down to Steens–but then I saw a sign that would change my day completely. It announced the presence of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and there was no way I was going to pass that up! So I headed down the six mile road to the refuge headquarters just to see what was there. I was expecting more sagebrush and maybe a little outpost; instead, I found vast flooded fields and a large pond teeming with birds of all sorts. The headquarters were in a lovely building with a wide wooden deck festooned with bird feeders of all sorts. The feeders were in turn festooned with birds of all sorts, along with an assortment of Belding’s ground squirrels. I managed to add a few new birds to my birding life list, including scarlet tanagers, American goldfinches, and my very first sandhill crane, who was perched on her nest on the far side of the pond.

I spent a good two hours there with camera and binoculars, asking questions and also picking up a field guide to North American butterflies. I know a few species, but I’d love to be able to identify more, and this one had lovely illustrations and nice organization of field marks. And I like being able to patronize these parks services; gods know they need the funding. I tarried long enough to have lunch while black-chinned hummingbirds (another first!) zipped around my head on the patio, then I regretfully headed back to the car. I could have spent the entire day there, but this trip was mostly about identifying places for further in-depth exploration, and I had some distance yet to go.

buddiesBack out onto the road–I had been tipped off by the volunteer on duty that there was a golden eagle nest down the road across the highway about a mile. I found myself bouncing down a corrugated gravel road between farmland and high basalt walls. I never found the nest, but I did make the acquaintance of a large paint horse and his burro buddy. Because of their skittishness, I’m guessing they may have been former ferals; they were curious enough to come up to the fence when I stopped to take their picture, but startled back a bit when I stepped a bit closer. The BLM adoption corral isn’t too far away, either. Still, they were photogenic enough, and I was sorry to say goodbye.

I never saw any wild horses, though the weather wasn’t especially cooperative, and I mainly stuck to 205 rather than heading deeper into Steens territory. I did, however, get to see a pair of pronghorn antelope. They raced alongside the highway, and I remembered how they evolved to outrun the now-extinct North American cheetah. Eventually they decided they needed to be on the other side of the road. The barbed wire fences on both sides presenting something of a problem; pronghorn are runners, not jumpers, and so rather than leaping over the barriers they shoved themselves under the lowest wires. Unfortunately they were not the most graceful critters, and the hastier one ended up going tail-over-teakettle while her more patient friend carefully slipped through with little harm.

rainI drove for another hour or so, simply enjoying the scenery and keeping an eye out for the absenteee mustangs. I did get a close encounter with some yearling beef cattle on the road (thankfully I didn’t hit any of them, and nothing was injured but their dignity). And I got to see a pair of turkey vultures relaxing on a rock by the roadside, bright red heads beaming above black feathers. There was the additional pleasure of watching the rain roll in across the landscape from miles away, and scattered patches of sunlight beaming down through holes in the clouds. Nothing quite compares to smelling sage and petrichor as the desert drinks deeply.

Eventually I decided to turn around; the rain was coming down harder, it was getting late, and I wanted to overnight in Bend. So I turned back, gave a nod to Frenchglen as I passed back by the old hotel, and wended my way back up 205 and across 20. I had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks in a little hotel, and awoke the next morning ready for one final hike before going home to Portland.

crookedriverI’ve been to Smith Rock before, but at the time I wasn’t able to do much hiking. This time, though, I set aside the day for it. I love the Crooked River that flows through the park; on one side high crags of volcanic tuff tower overhead, while on the other a ridge of slow-flowing basalt lazily decays over time. While sagebrush and junipers proliferate in the area, the river is flanked by horsetails, poison hemlock and other water-loving plants, and gives home to mergansers and mallards, orioles and robins, while bald and golden eagles soar overhead. It’s a truly magical place–though it was choked with tourists even on a Wednesday afternoon.

Still, it was a fitting end to a beautiful vacation. I made note of trails I wanted to explore in the future, and as I trudged my way back up out of the canyon a raven croaked off in the distance, dancing on the wind that flowed over the river. I carried that feeling back home as I transitioned from sage scrub to conifer forests, and a pair of those midnight corvids danced over my car as I approached Mt. Hood. This was just a scouting trip, I reminded myself. There’d be time enough in the future to get to know all the places I’d been–and more–in more detail and intimacy.


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