Sunday, March 25, 2007

Kirkwood Ranch, Hells Canyon

(Written 10/21/1998)
Kirkwood Bar often whispers my name, especially this time of year. It's an easy place to reach on foot, with a six-mile trek along the Snake River Trail from Pittsburg Landing. From Walla Walla, however, you must drive 209 miles, including 17 miles of steep-winding-unpaved road over Pittsburg Saddle, to reach the trailhead. You take Highway 12 through Lewiston to Highway 95 and turn south to White Bird, Idaho. Turn right just past Hoots Restaurant for that final 17 miles. Rumor claims that Idaho keeps this unpaved road open all year, but carry chains if you expect snow below an altitude of 4,000 feet. Sections of the road slant at a 16-degree angle, and that's darn steep. Perhaps that's why from mid-October until spring relatively few people drive to Pittsburg Landing. Anyway, during this period you won't see many others on the trail or on the river. Sure, you'll see an occasional deer, elk and chukar hunter. But the traffic's nothing like during the heat of the summer season when the river and the trails will be alive with nature lovers. Mine was the only vehicle at the trailhead last week, for example. I met two other hikers two days later, as I returned to my car. During the hike, I saw one raft and three jet boats on the river. I met the caretakers at Historic Kirkwood Ranch, of course, since the USDA Forest Service keeps people at the site year around. Wally and Verna Baker of Pollock Pines, Calif., have the October duty this year. And they may do it again next year. More than late fall and winter solitude draws me to the canyon, though. With snow and freezing temperatures imminent in the high Wallowas and the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, I expect relatively balmy weather in the canyon. Wintertime lows seldom drop below the 40s along the river, with its altitude in the 1,300 foot range. And, if anything, fall and winter intensifies the rugged beauty of the basalt-ribbed canyon walls, where you may see deer, elk, bears, cougars, bobcats, lynxes, coyotes and bighorn sheep. Not that I've seen all of those, although I have seen deer, elk, coyotes and bighorn sheep. Bighorn sheep? Yes. Last week I gloated here about photographing mountain goats above Cummings Creek, in the Tucannon River drainage. That's not true. They were bighorn sheep ewes. Several people pointed that out, including Al Stillman and Ron Jackson. You don't sneak an incorrect animal identification by those guys. I should know better. Anyway, besides the interesting animals, Hells Canyon plants wear a variety of hues in the fall to brighten the landscape. I mean, you still see bright yellow balsamroot, blazing star and klamath weed. And the sumac makes beet-red patches that contrast with the yellow-orange of poison ivy leaves and the pale yellow of the showy milkweed stalks. And if all this solitude and natural beauty isn't enough to motivate a hike up the trail to Kirkwood Bar, I think about that clean, dry Phoenix Composting Toilet. It's a marvel of technology, and it sits there on the bar for the public to use. You may say most people don't drive 209 miles through a downpour, including 17 miles over a muddy mountain pass, and lug a 50-pound backpack for six miles along a soggy, rocky trail just to relax in a Phoenix Composting Toilet, no matter how advanced. But some do. Well, at least I did it last week. In fact, I thought of the Phoenix as I passed Hoots and chugged toward the pass. Not that I had to wait. Many primitive toilets dot the Pittsburg Landing area, at the lower and upper boat landings, in the campground and at the trailhead. And that's where I paused. But I opened the door of the trailhead facility, about a mile upstream from the campground, and nearly gagged. This is no Phoenix Composting Toilet. And it needed cleaning. Really. And those two spiders lurking in that upper left-corner web looked very much like black widows. I gritted my teeth and decided to wait. I donned my rain coat and rain pants, put Sadie the Dalmatian's pack on her, and we headed up the trail. Within the first half hour, my chin and my dog dripped rainwater. We reached Kirkwood Bar in a leisurely three hours. By 4:30 p.m. I'd pitched the tent, spread out the Therm-A-Rest mattress and sleeping bags and fetched water from a hose near the Kirkwood Ranch Museum, where a sign warned me to treat the water. My water bag holds 2.5 gallons, and I suspended it with a string from a hackberry tree branch near a picnic table. I pumped three quart bottles full with the PUR water purifier, and set up the stove ready to cook dinner. First, though, I carried the red clothes bag with wool-Polypropylene longjohns, socks, pants and shirt 97 yards to the Phoenix Composting Toilet. With the door open, it's a clean, well-lighted place. It sits in what was, decades ago, a hayfield at a flourishing sheep ranch. It's a combination of rough-hewn wood siding and plastic-like walls. It's a high-tech marvel as one-holers go, which the caretakers at Historic Kirkwood Ranch sweep and mop for about 300 visitors per day during the peak season. A light-colored interior and aluminum fixtures garnish the one-holer's ambience. It's a small toilet, though, with barely enough room for one person to change clothes when the dog also insists on getting in out of the rain. But I managed. My wet clothes must've weighed 20 pounds. In the dry clothes, I immediately felt warmer. I did regret having to slip sodden hiking boots over the dry socks, especially after I'd spent an hour the night before putting two coats of Nikwax waterproofing on them. The boots, not the socks. I wondered one more time if paying $7.50 for 4-ounces of such gunk wasn't as dumb as buying boots touted as waterproof in the first place. And what about that rain jacket and pants touted as being waterproof while wicking away moisture? They'd also soaked through and through and probably weighed 10 pounds by themselves. Ah, well. Such is life on the trail, I guess. Nevertheless, I felt downright snug with dry clothes under my soaked boots and soaked rain gear. I paused and listened to rain patter against the roof. I read the chart on the wall that asked visitors not to toss plastic, metal or matches into the toilet. And it said, ``Within the composting tank beneath the floor, many organisms are decomposing wastes to form a humus-like soil, keeping this area unpolluted.'' Wow. I listened more carefully. Was that a humming sound, along with the rain? I imagined billions and billions of happy organisms humming away, creating new soil beneath the floor. I found the prospect so fascinating that I sat down to rest and to listen. I'd planned to do a little fly-fishing before dark, but I felt no rush to leave a warm, well-lighted place. Perhaps, I concluded mournfully, Kirkwood Bar didn't whisper my name so much as hum it.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Jog at Bennington

A Great Blue Heron stood
knee deep in Bennington
Lake near the boat ramp. Tall
and lanky, its shadow
darkened the still water.
When Sadie the Dalmatian
and I moved, the great bird
gracefully rose and sailed low
over a narrow pool.
I paused to watch the bird
pass a sheaf of ice and land
on the far shore.
After a moment's reflection
about the stark landscape, the
bird's grace and the silence, I
set off at a slow jog.
My boots crunched on
crystallized snow. Sadie led
us past the dam and into a
cottonwood thicket. Snow lay
on the trail there and revealed
a multitude of tracks: people,
dogs, deer, birds and critters.
I saw pheasant and quail
prints. Juncos and sparrows
left the tiny tracks. Flocks of
juncos often flit from wild
rose bushes and weeds
around the lake. They show
white feathers on each side of
their tails when they fly.
Magpies or American
flickers, or both, left some
prints. And robins, plentiful
despite the snow, left
medium-sized tracks.
Rabbit tracks were com
mon, and squirrels apparently
stood on back feet to survey
the neighborhood.
A skunk, beaver, racoon or
possum probably left prints
that resembled tiny knoby-
knuckled hands pressed into
the snow.
Beavers live beneath the
lake's east shore where
they've floated a store of
cottonwood saplings and left
stumps on the high bank.
Field mice with flashing
feet have plowed inch-deep
furrows in the snow to cross
the trail.
Halfway around the lake,
we turned to the east and
jogged toward wheat fields.
At an iced-over water guzzler,
we turned northwest again.
I glanced at a bird house on
a tall pole below the trail.
I once saw a kestrel harrass
a northern harrier that
perched on the bird house.
I stopped to watch. The kes
trel dived at the harrier,
Swoooosh!, and climbed for
10 to 15 yards. It fluttered,
turned and dived again.
When the kestrel zipped
within an inch of the harrier's
head, the harrier curtsied and
turned to watch the kestrel
The kestrel climbed again,
paused, turned and dived
again. I counted four, five, six
dives, and the word ``parab
ola'' came to mind.
I'm not sure why. Sadie
stood a few feet away and
watched. ``Parabola'' prob
ably did not occur to her.
When we moved, the har
rier rose and glided above the
slope. The kestrel followed
briefly before disappearing
into a line of evergreens at the
bottom of the slope.
The word ``parabola''
stayed with me, and at home I
looked it up. The definition
was Greek to me: ``A plane
curve formed by the intersec
tion of a right circular cone
and a plane parallel to an
element of the cone or by the
locus of points equidistant
from a fixed line and a fixed
point not on the line.''
But an illustration made the
word clear, sort of like a `U,'
with the sides spread slightly
wider at the top.
So, I glanced at the bird
house, and it was broken. I
walked though the ice-crusted
grass to the pole.
The bird house had been
blasted with a shotgun. Pieces
of it lay on the ground. Shot
gun pellets had penetrated the
I clenched my jaw and
jogged on. Minutes later I
passed another bird-house
pole. The bird house lay on
the ground, blasted by a shot
gun. Nearby lay a shotgun
shell. I inserted a finger and
picked it up. Perhaps it had
A few minutes later, I
passed a farmer's yellow sign
warning about crop spray. It
had been blasted and lay on
the ground.
I told my self not to be
surprised. I often see shot
signs in more isolated places.
I hadn't seen them before at
Bennington Lake.
It's an area frequented by
many people, from horse
riders to bird hunters.
Yet, I often feel as if I have
the place to myself, especially
on cold winter days. It's a bit
jarring to realize that I share
the place with vandals with
I don't blame all bird hunt
ers. I have seen dozens of bird
hunters at Bennington Lake,
and I've only seen two blasted
bird houses and one blasted
And, strangely enough, I
may have seen who did it.
Not long ago, two young
men ahead of me fired three
shots near one bird house
pole. I didn't see them until I
cleared a line of trees. Then I
turned west before passing
them (and the bird house). I
wanted to stay out of their
Sure, maybe they didn't
shoot the bird houses or the
Someone did, however, and
it's disheartening to know
that at least one vandal with a
shotgun may visit Bennington
It makes me feel more un
easy watching herons and
studying tracks in the snow
than I once did.