Thursday, August 24, 2006

I love it when a spur-of-the-moment decision brings recognizable rewards. Far too often they leave me feeling like I just missed the last bus to Happyville. Or that I'd sooner be mowing the lawn.
Well, almost.
And, actually, for hours after this most recent one, I sulked along like a cat watching an empty bird feeder.
We didn't decide to go until 9:13 a.m., so we arrived at Othello at 11:38 a.m. on the final day of the 2006 Sandhill Crane Festival.
Then we spent about an hour poking along the usual backroads south of Highway26 looking for Cranes.
Nothing.
And it seemed like yet another fruitless Sunday trip to see cranes. My wife Darlene, Sadie the Dalmatian and I have made the trip several times. We spotted cranes once, mostly out in the fields.
Sadie and I made a planned trip once, on a Friday evening for the crane festival. We camped overnight in the CNWR and attended a couple of festival presentations the next day. Before camping, however, we watched hundreds of cranes fly from their day-time refuge north of Highway 26 (apparently near the Othello sewage treatment plant?) to feed at farmers' fields on the south side of the road.
It's a site worth seeing.
Yet, this most recent trip appeared to be another dud, unless we wanted to hang around for five of six hours until sunset. Well, still playing it by ear, we dined at Burger King before moseying into to the CNWR, west and north of town.
About three miles out oftown, we turned right onto adirt road. We drove slow, looking for critters in the sage or at the lakes. It's possible to see badgers, coyotes and deer from the road, along with egrets and herons at the lakes. Sometimes meadow larks and horned larks flit about along the road. Some people I know have never seen a horned lark, so I wanted to get a photo of one. Not that it's easy. Even ifthey stand still long enough, they seldom have their horns up and clearly visible. Anyway, we didn't see anything for miles along the dusty road, so I felt depressed about the whole deal.
``I can't believe we haven't even seen a horned lark,'' Isaid. And no sooner did the words slip into the ether than a bird landed on a post across the road, above a Don't ShootThe Squirrels They Are A Protected Species By The State sign. ``Look,'' I croaked. ``It's a horned lark.'' The camera with the shoulder mount lay onDarlene's lap. I snapped it up, turned it on and fired off afew shots from the window. ``Turn it off,'' I said toDarlene, meaning the truck's engine, to steady the camera.
She turned the radio off.
``No, the motor,'' I hissed.``Turn off the key.'' Oh.
I fired off another bunch of shots and realized I had the side mirror in half of them. I took a deep breath and clicked off a couple more. The lark wasn't real close, but I could see its horns clearly through the lens. Then the camera's battery died. As I slipped the dead one out and a fresh one in, a pickup rattled past at 50 mph and the lark flew.
Shoot!
I checked the LCD and clearly saw the bird's feathered horns. Well, I felt better. We drove on toward O'Sullivan Dam and turned back toward Othello on another gravel road. When we passed the nature trails at Upper Crab Creek, Sadie and I hiked the MarshTrail and the Frog Lake Trail.
Sad to say we saw no critter sat the marsh, and we found no water, or frogs, at Frog Lake. We did see several deer in the tall grass, however.
At about 4:09 p.m., we reached Macmanamon Road again, five miles from Othello. Less than a mile west of town, we stopped to photograph yellow headed blackbirds on a bunch of cattails. Then, as we drove south ofHighway 26, a flock of about 50 cranes dotted the sky. Then another flock, and another.
We drove back to Highway 26 and stopped at a wide spot beneath the crane's flight path. Flock after flock of the 4-foot tall birds with the 7-foot wingspan flew by.
I craned my neck to aim the camera straight up for photos as they passed. When darkness eliminated photographing the birds inflight, we headed home. I figured I had many photos of recognizable birds, including horned larks, yellow-headed blackbirds and sandhill cranes.
Not so bad.
It was one of those days that justify making spur-of-the-moment decisions. Not that there are any other kinds.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Bears in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness

Generally, we expect bears
to live in the Wenaha-
Tucannon Wilderness.
And I had seen a few there
over the years.
Yet, I didn't expect to see
bears on a recent overnight
trip from Panjab Trailhead to
Indian Corral.
With luck, perhaps I would
glimpse a bear grubbing in
the woods or scampering
from a meadow.
But I didn't expect such
luck when I sloshed into the
dark woods on a muddy Trail
No. 3127 at 8:05 a.m.
The trail rose like a ladder
for five miles, from 3,400 to
5,400 feet at the green
meadows.
By noon mud covered my
boots, gaiters and lower pant
legs. Yet, socks and toes in
side the Vasque Sundowners
remained snug and dry.
And the 39-pound REI-Mars
internal-frame pack, with
seven-pounds (100 ounces) of
water, still rode easy enough.
As I crossed the meadow, a
mound of shiny, fresh black
bear scat caught my eye.
``Ho,'' I muttered.
And, striding along, I
watched out. Just in case I got
too lucky.
At a furlong from Dunlap
Spring, I dropped the pack for
the first time.
With water bag, Pur water
purifier and camera bag, I
hoofed it to the spring.
Sad. Fallen trees, with fir
limbs across the spring. The
black-rubber water pipe lay
submersed in a puddle.
Squatting with a grimace, I
lifted the pipe. It dribbled. I
placed it on a small stone.
More dribble. Shucks.
So, I dangled the water bag
from a limb, topped it off and
went to pitch the tent.
With the Therm-a-Rest mat
tress, down bag and other
stuff inside, I left the door
open so visitors could avoid
ripping or gnawing.
As I strolled the meadow
toward Bear Wallow, not even
a squirrel moved.
When I turned back, Dave
and Sas Waldron of Western
Life Outfitters (U-B
Out&About, May 4, 2004),
rode my way.
They have the outfitters'
permit for the wilderness, and
they hauled hay to Clover,
two-or-three miles farther.
``Where's your dog?'' Dave
asked about Sadie the
Dalmatian.
``She's home,'' I said.
``Nursing arthritis.''
``We have one like that,''
Sas said.
Dave asked if I'd seen any
animals. I hadn't. He said
folks who recently spent five
days in the area counted 13
bears and at least eight separ
ate ones.
Later, with dark clouds spit
ting rain, I heated jambalya
rice, Hormel ham and hot
chocolate on the swift JetBoil
stove. Sans Sadie, I had to eat
it all and clean the pan.
Then, thinking ``bear,'' I put
food into a stuff sack and
hung it 25 feet up from a limb.
To relax, I walked another
one of the long, green
meadows that extend like
spokes from Indian Corral.
Hairy balsamroot, shooting
stars, bighead clover, lark
spur, grass widow, glacier
lilly, ball-head water leaf,
Gray's desert parsley and lu
pine gilded the green.
As I stooped to photograph
a bumblebee on a balsamroot,
I detected movement.
Bear. A round, brownish
one browsed at the meadow's
edge, 87 yards away.
Ah, a black bear. Brown
bears are grizzlies, and they
look different. Black bears
may be brown-cinnamon-
blonde.
And black. Right.
I rose, aimed the camera,
and the bear scrutinized me
then went. I snapped photos
as it loped across the meadow
and into the woods.
I paused to reconnoiter and
spotted more brown a mile
away. My 8x24-power mon
ocular revealed four elk.
I strolled in that direction,
pausing once to lie down and
photograph a flower. That's
when the Waldrons returned
and passed half-a-mile away. I
waved. Sas waved back.
Then I circled for a quarter-
mile around an island of trees
to dry-gulch the elk.
Darn. Thundering hooves
thwarted my stalk, and I
snapped photos as 30 wapitii
stampeded past.
Had they heard me?
No way. Too sneaky.
Oh, well. My timer said 5:33
p.m., and rain clouds dimmed
the light, so I snapped the
camera into a plastic bag.
Then, as I rounded the
island, two bears browsed 60
yards away, where I'd first
seen the elk.
They didn't see me. Or, they
ignored me.
As I fumbled with the cam
era, they reached the woods.
One stopped to sniff at black
bear scat. I snapped photos,
mostly of bear butts as they
faded into the woods.
Rain and I arrived at camp
together, and I slipped into
the tent. I tugged on
longjohns, lay on the mattress
to read and doze with rain
drops tap-tapping at my door.
Sometime later, sunlight
seeped into the tent. I donned
boots, vest and stepped into a
calm, bright perfect evening.
I took the camera for a
stroll in my longjohns.
I saw nine deer and re
turned to bed at 8:48 p.m.
I woke at 4:55 a.m. and
roamed a meadow for an
hour. I ate granola, fetched
water and packed.
I chose a dry Trail No. 3129
out of the wilderness.
En route, I met four elk, a
marmot, a ground squirrel
and wildflowers galore.
I stalked a pileated wood
pecker that kak-kaked when
it flew away.
A thunder storm drenched
me halfway down Rattlesnake
Ridge, and I waded the knee-
high stream with my boots on.
I sat under a semi-dry tree,
emptied the boots and
changed socks and shirt.
As I slogged two uphill
miles to the truck, I found a
shiny dime in Road No. 4713.
Just luck, I guess, and I
picked it up.