Friday, January 18, 2013


Ghostly Images Haunt a Fog-Bound Walk



A winter fog created a ghostly world along Mill Creek and on the rolling hills around Bennington Lake.
Clear skies and a temperature in the 20s combined for an inversion that left a blanket of grey fog over the valley. Sometimes it rises high enough to drape the 5,200 foot Blue Mountains to the south and east of Walla Walla.
I wore several layers, harking to the past when I hiked into the Blues or the Eagle Cap Wilderness on overnight winter camping trips.
My layers on the Bennington Lake and Mill Creek walk with Nora the Schnauzer included heavy white socks in black Asolo hiking boots, white long-john top and bottoms, jeans, electric-blue thinsulate top, thin black nylon vest between two patterned fleece sweaters (one hooded), light blue nylon hooded windbreaker topped with a thick black down best.
In the vest pockets, on the left side, I carried a large handkerchief for my nose and a wool glove. On the right I carried a white washcloth for my watering eyes (in the cold) and a wool glove.
I wore a dark billed cap beneath the two hoods.
I probably resembled a shuffling penguin or dough-boy, but I moved with comfort.
When I parked at the trail head near the Corps of Engineers’ Mill Creek project office (and new visitor center), I snapped Nora into her bright red Ruff Wear coat, and she jumped from the truck and sniffed among the winter-dried grass, weeds and dog debris.
I had loaded two cameras into the truck, one with a 150mm macro lens and one with an 18-270mm zoom. With some hesitation, I covered the macro with a towel on the rear floorboard of the crew cab and locked the doors.
I had figured the frozen fog would create intricate designs on teasel, Queen Ann’s Lace and tall grasses, but I decided against carrying both cameras because I planned to walk about five miles around the lake and back.
As I set out behind Nora, I pulled on the wool gloves and put my glasses away into a zippered chest pocket of the down vest.
I can see OK except for really close-up stuff, like reading, without the glasses, and I can keep my watering eyes wiped much easier when not wearing the glasses.
Makes sense, right?
Anyway, the solid, 15-pound Nora dashed ahead. I passed her when she paused to sniff and to go No. 2. And then she galloped past, her tiny feet pounding on the frozen service road and ears flying. If she gets ahead of me, she will look back to check where I am.
She maintains this pattern for the duration of our extensive walks. Yet, she often dives away from the trail after quail, rabbits, squirrels, deer or to snuffle among the weeds after mice or voles.
Nora, however, has no aggressive genes.  If it doesn’t flee, she doesn’t pursue.
Alao, after being bowled over by many larger, usually friendly dogs, she’s timid with other canines on the trail. She stays well away until certain of what to expect. And, at five years old and past the stage of rushing up to seek attention from every person met on the tail, she remains the friendliest dog in the county.
At least.
Anyway, she may be the perfect dog to walk with. She will go anywhere. We have made several long, overnight hikes into the Eagle Cap Wilderness and the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.
She never barks, she stays close, continually checking eye contact, and she’s fun to be with because she enjoys herself so much.
Anyway, the images of trees and weeds as dark silhouettes in the gray mist hooked my attention, and I began snapping photos. A walker on the other side of the creek, apparently a woman wearing a dark, hood-up anorak seemed especially somber, or lonely, suggesting the fog-bound streets of London in old black-and-white Sherlock Holmes or Jack-the-Ripper movies.
I took several photos of the bridge at Rooks Park and of ducks and mergansers as shadows on the water.
One of the two river otters that have spent weeks along the stream between Rooks Park and the project office surfaced near the park. The two must be a pair, and the second one may be pregnant and holed up.
That would be good.
It would be very nice to see a family of otters on the stream this spring.
I’ve read that otters are very family oriented.
I once saw a group of six otters on the Grande Ronde River, a couple of miles upstream from Heller Bar and the Snake River, probably two adults and four young ones. They left the stream 20 yards away, directly across from me to rest, preen and dry themselves on a sandy beach.
I put photos of them at www.tripper.smugmug.com.
Anyway, I took a vague photo of the otter looking at me, or at Nora.
Between the creek to the lake I couldn’t resist snapping many filigreed, frosty patterns formed on flora.
As we rounded the lake on the south side, a downy woodpecker fluttered into a wild rosebush about eight feet away. It posed for photos as I inched closer. Then, a few minutes later, we passed a kestrel perched among the frosted twigs of a tree above the lake. It also allowed me to draw within a dozen feet.
Then, at a trail down the steep bank, Nora stopped. Clearly she wanted to take that route.
Less than agreeable, I followed. She had indicated a unfulfilled preference for several side trails already.
This time I relented. I regretted it when my feet shot from under me on the steep, icy path. With the camera on a neck strap, I pressed it to my chest and threw out my right hand to grab at the tall grass.
The grass held, but my grip slipped. I remained upright but felt sharp pains in my left knee and right palm as I stumbled down the bank.
I grimaced at the knee’s pain and looked at my palm. An orange stripe crossed the glove and a couple of brier points clung to the wool. Not smart to grab a wild-rose bough.
Nora chased scents around the snow covered lake shore left unusually wide by low water.
I limped along behind Nora as we passed in front of the dam and headed back on the north-side trail. By the time we reached the stream again, my knee felt better.
Then, halfway down from the park to the truck, I forgot the knee completely when a bald eagle loomed in a tall tree on the other side of the creek. I looked and gauged the distance to the bridge. It would be closer to continue down to the bridge near the project office, maybe.
“If the water wasn’t so high, we could cross on as weir,” I said to Nora.
She watched the water.
When we reached the lower bridge, Nora continued toward the pickup.
“Let’s go this way,” I said, indicating the bridge. If she had hesitated, as she often does and as I expected her to do, I would have forgotten the eagle. She hurried onto the bridge, however, and I followed.
We hurried back upstream, and I scanned the stark frosted limbs. I had not marked the spot, apparently expecting the eagle to stand out. I soon became unsure.
“The eagle flew away,” I said. Nora watched the water. Again.
She did, however, move to a path through the blackberry thicket. Deer, rabbits wild turkeys and quail hang scents there beneath locust trees and among berry bushes between the stream and wide wheat fields east of the community college.
On cue a pair of whitetail deer bounced off on a path between thick berry bushes. Nora followed, for about 40 yards until she lost sight of them.
Nose the ground, she circled intently and I whistled for  her intention. She lingered, so I hid behind a tree and peered at her through the branches.
Finally, she looked up and dashed after me, ears flying and feet hardly touching the ground.
She passed the tree. I jumped out with a “Booo!”
She barely glanced at me, slowed to a trot and sniffed the ground.
She’s outgrown jumping at a “Booo!”
When we arrived home and Darlene asked if he had a nice walk I said, “Yes, we did.”