Tuesday, October 08, 2013

 The Magnetism of Oregon's Harney County

 October 8, 2013

As September drew to a close, the Darlene-Don Davis Trio made its
 usual fall truck drive deep into Oregon's historic-scenic Harney County.
Rain, hail, brief sun breaks, brilliant fall scenery, with stark geologic formations and wildlife highlighted the trek.
Two surprising wildlife stars headed the bill: a pileated woodpecker in downtown Long Creek and a two-inch-long green tree frog on Buena Vista Overlook's desert trail on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

We began at 7:37 a.m. on a late September morning on Highway 11, beneath an unbroken ceiling of fluffy clouds spreading south to the horizon.
Darlene, watched intently by Nora the Schnauzer, removed the crackling wrap from an Egg McMuffin and handed it to me, inches beneath Nora's wrinkling nose.
While she unwrapped her own, I nipped off half-an-inch of protruding cheese-coated egg white with my front teeth and dropped it onto my palm for Nora.
She lapped it up and licked my palm.
With the sandwich in my left hand and the wheel in my right, except when offering occasional tidbits to Nora, I finished breakfast before we passed the last exit to College place.
I adjusted the wipers for a two-second pause between strokes to clear the mist spreading across the windshield.
I finished off my small McDonald's orange juice, and Darlene bagged the cup. I turned to coffee from my stainless steel cup as the truck's muffler rumbled up Milton Hill.
I stopped to gas-up at Safeway in Pendleton and claimed the store's promotion, a 20-cent discount per gallon.
Ahead lay another 206 miles along Highway 395 to Burns, on Highway 20. Our first pee stop would come at the park on Battle Mountain.
Then on past Ukiah, Dale and a possible pause at Long Creek. Vague rumor said a one-time colleague of mine left retirement for a full-time teaching job there. A rumor, of course, so I wouldn't intrude, but I wanted to gander at the school.

The route continued Fox, John Day, Canyon City and another possible pee stop at Seneca.
From there, fewer than 40 miles remained to Burns, through the Silvies Ranch's 10-mile long Silvies Valley headquarters featuring several large homes, ranch buildings and a landing strip.
After another mountain and two camp grounds with toilets, we could reach  Burns between 12-and-1 p.m..
We would stay three nights at a Rory and Ryan Inn at Hines, and be back home in Walla Walla around noon on Thursday.
The valley between Burns and Frenchglen, 60 miles to the south on Highway 205, allows for wide panoramic views, often featuring dramatic, ragged sheets of opaque, gray rain or hail forming around 500-foot high basalt-rough ridges .
Often we chose routes to avoid rain, but we appreciated the dampness that eliminated the usual fall dust clouds on the  unpaved back roads.

It rained often, however, with two bouts of heavy hailstones bouncing from the truck like popping corn in a skillet, whacking against the windshield as the wipers whipped at high speed.
As it turned out, blue sky replaced the cloud cover at  Long Creek.
I hooked Nora to her leash and walked along the street in front of the combination grade-high school, which had a sign naming the Mountaineers as its sports mascot.

In two minutes I heard a familiar sound and spotted a pileated woodpecker clutching to a power pole with its toenails.
Fighting buck fever -- I could count the number of these red-headed birds that I had photographed on one hand, including one at Rooks Park in 2012 -- I strode like Groucho back to the truck and fetched the camera with the big lens.
Alas, the sun back-lit the bird, turning it into a silhouette hanging to a dark pole (a sun break had to occur at that very moment, right?).
The crow-sized woodpecker fluttered away as I fiddled with the camera's exposure settings.
But it clutched another nearby pole.
Then it flew into a tree that brushed leaves against a facade of the school.

Nora and I followed until. It sailed away toward Highway 395, and I lost sight of it.
A young American flicker clung to another pole. A young bird, it didn't move as I adjusted settings and snapped images.

Then it was over the mountain for us, down to Mount Vernon and Clyde Holliday State Park. We passed through John Day-Canyon City, over that mountain and through the Silvies Valley.
We have seen sandhill cranes in the Silvies Valley, but not this time.
I drove into Idlewild Campground, 17 miles from Burns, and Nora sniffed around for a few minutes in a drizzle.
We ate Subway sandwiches in the truck at Hines, with Nora nibbling a few bites of cheese, Darlene's roast beef and my turkey.
We drove Hotchkiss Road and 205 to the MNWR headquarters area.
I spent a long time watching one great blue heron and four red-eyed grebes at a pull out at The Narrows.
Near the headquarters, we saw buzzards on a fence and a coyote in a field. At the headquarters we watched quail feeding at a feeder and buzzards roosting in a tree.



Nora and I walked to the hide near a pond, but nary a bird did we see. And we didn't see a single Belding's ground squirrel on the lawns. The volunteer said they were hibernating already.
Maybe yes, maybe no!
Maybe we should make the fall trip to Burns a few weeks earlier next time.
Maybe yes, maybe no!
Anyway, we drove two miles or so down the auto route to a field that often hosts cranes. Sure enough, beneath a mostly blue sky a dozen or so grazed there, but they were too far away for good photos.

By then The Trio felt a tad saddle-worn and headed for the stable.
We stopped at Safeway for coffee and a dozen large chocolate-chunk cookies. We gobbled one each for quick energy.
Tuesday morning, we took turns at the motel's continental breakfast before heading south.
Along Hotchkiss Road 10,000 Canada geese grazed in a field, along with a smattering of cranes. The cranes remained distant.

We stopped again at The Narrows pullout, checked the cranes and buzzards near the headquarters area and paused at the Buena Vista one-holer.
We checked for buzzards drying their wings (Yes, in the rain!) on the tower at the P-Ranch near Frenchglen and visited the one-holer there, where a two-inch-long brown frog disappeared behind a warped panel when I opened the door.
We ate an early lunch at the Frenchglen Hotel: thick, hot ham/bacon sandwiches and vegetable beef stew. We liked the stew so much, we planned and lunchtime visit at Frenchglen next day (11:30-2:30).
We drove the wash-boarded Auto Route north, perhaps the most jaw-jarring route in Harney Country, from P-Ranch to the Krumbo Reservoir road.
Curious mule deer often watched from tall grass as we putted past at 5 mph.

The rain helped, however, by quelling the dust.
We parked at the Krumbo Reservoir road, and Nora and I hiked an easy trail through the sage, with the juniper odor thick in the damp air, to the colorful Crane Valley Overlook. We saw no cranes.

We made another stop at the headquarters and saw more cranes in the nearby field, still too far for sharp detail.
We stuck to the breakfast routine on Wednesday.
We visited the usual photo ops until we reached the Buena Vista Overlook. Nora and I  hiked the trail from the toilet to the overlook.
We ogled the scenery, although rain and fog obscured the distant 10,000-foot tall Steens Mountain. After soaking up the scenery, we turned back. I had to retrace about 100 yards, to retrieve a plastic bag that slipped off my big lens.
Then, 50 yards from the truck, I nearly stepped on the green tree frog. It staggered me to see the frog at nearly 5,000 feet altitude in desert habitat. Such critters normally like low-altitude marshes, or so I thought?
Nevertheless, I lay in the damp dirt for close-up photos.
Cute little guy!

At 12:40 p.m. we grazed on sandwiches and stew again at Frenchglen. We toured past the Round Barn Peter French (photos from 2011) built largely from juniper timber and started using  to work horses in 1884. On the way back, we drove into the Diamond Craters lava beds. Nora and I tripped around some of the trails. I lay on the ground once to take a close-up of a bright red stonecrop blossom among the ashes.

After another  motel breakfast on Thursday, we drove out Hotchkiss Road to see the cranes mixing with the geese.
Finally we turned north on 205 to 395.
We made the John Day McDonald's with two minutes left for breakfast, so we had an early lunch of Egg McMuffins and orange juice.
Despite a few stops we reached home, unpacked by 3:30 p.m. and settled in for a nap.
I dozed, thinking about the smell damp juniper and sage, the click of wipers clearing the mist from the windshield, hailstones bouncing from the hood  and the crunching of tires on the Harney County back roads.
Not to mention the occasional patches of brilliant sunshine.
We plan to go back for the spring bird migration.


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