Upon seeing the photo, I literally gasped and ran into the office, thrusting the page in my boss's face demanding, "Where is this? Palouse Falls? Have you ever heard of this place? " She looked at the image and then turned back to the computer, "No, but let's find it." We both typed quickly and brought up dozens of almost identical images. Most were of the 200 ft falls shot from the same angle, a panoramic including the pool below and the river extending into the canyon, as well as a generous portion of dramatic skyline. Most were at sunset, and a few under the stars, all looking like they'd been taken by Ansel Adams and then rendered impossible in Photoshop. This was apparently the money shot, or simply where the viewing platform was located. My head was spinning with the possibilities, Not only was it gorgeous and out in the desert, but I'd never heard of it, which is very exciting for me as I tend to extrapolate that if I havn't heard of it, then perhaps no one else has. I could conceivably drive to this desert Shangri-La, say on a Monday, and probably have the whole place to myself! Look how many times I've sat and stared at the Painted Hills with no one else around. And this was a five hour drive from Portland, and that weeds out a good deal of the chaff right off the bat. I chose the next available Monday and Tuesday I had off and made my plans to go.
Jeez, was I wrong.. I need to pay attention not to a place's distance from Portland or Seattle, but it's proximity to other medium sized towns, like Spokane, for example. I left Portland at ten am and rolled up to the falls at three, keeping exactly to my projected driving schedule. The bummer was the number of people already there as I pulled in, the number of people that stayed to camp, and the sheer number of photographers that were there. Tripods for everybody! As usual, I was sleeping in the back of my pick up truck's canopy, which is cozy and self contained with a lot less fuss then setting up a tent site. But as with many desert campgrounds, there's little to no privacy, and I girded myself for a night of up close and personal. I sat down at the nearest picnic table, ate a snack and got my bearings. Talked to a fellow who had arrived just after me in a jeep pulling a pop-up camper because I wanted to see how the mechanism worked. When he came over to tell me he was setting up, he saw my camera and asked what it was, I begrudgingly told him an old Nikon. He asked if I was here to take pictures of the falls, and I said that and birds, whatever crops up. He perked up and asked what birds? Wondering of course if I had the skinny on something unusual sighted nearby.
"Oh, whatever is around, any desert birds that I don't get to see at home".
I then quickly back pedaled and clarified,
"Look, I'm not a professional birder or photographer."
He replied that neither was he nor his friends. But I suspect his idea of amateur and mine still tend to vary in definition. I'm just defensive because I'm not a particularly good birdwatcher or photographer. Bit of a fair weather hobbyist at both. I consider myself a naturalist, happier outdoors than in, happier far away from town than in a crowd.
At this point I gathered my insecurities about my skill set and put them in my back pocket along with my lens cap, put my tripod over my shoulder, and went to see what I could see. I never did find the path down to the river that keeps being alluded to in all the online blurbs, and nor did the camp map refer to it. However, a nice older gentleman in overalls ambled over and let me know where he thought the best vantage point of the falls was, and I have to say he was right. I became acquainted with the local residents, mostly robins on the ground, gold finches, and Bullock's Orioles chasing each other through the trees at top speeds. There was also a whole community of yellow bellied marmoset's lurking around the grounds, and they were pretty amusing.
I fell asleep and as always on my first nights anywhere, camping or in a hotel it doesn't matter, I slept fitfully, having to creep out to the bathroom twice.. I'd finally gotten back to sleep when at 11:30 pm, a sedan pulled in a few spaces over from me, and proceeded to set up their tent. To their credit they were pretty quiet, except that the parking lot was gravel, so each foot step was a proclamation of sound, and the number of times the the car doors were opened and then closed was bordering on an excessiveness usually reserved for OCD behaviors. Honestly, after this night, I've come up with a new ruling for all late night campground arrivals: upon parking, get out of your vehicle and immediately open all doors as well as the trunk. Then you can flit about like a crazed moth as you remember that this absolutely essential thing that you must have with you in your tent is where? Hmm, was it in this bag, or in this crate, or maybe in the dashboard? Where could it be, oh silly me, I already set it on top of the car! Ha ha, so amusing, I think I'll accentuate the humor by slamming the car door ten more times and then shuffling some more of this lovely gravel around. Everyone awake yet?? Grrrr..
I got up to pee yet a third time and did my best to convey my irritation by huffing by their car in disdain. In the dark. Well, they finally got settled, and so did I. I got back to sleep and had gotten apparently three and half whole hours of it, when another car pulled in next to me at 3:45 am. I stared at the time on my phone in disbelief; what kind of nuts and bolts get to a waterfall at this time of night? Apparently this person was having some decision making problems himself, as he took a tour of the parking lot, then came back, loaded up his gear, slammed the car doors a bit just to give my night some continuity, and then finally, as dawn started to lighten the sky, headed off towards the falls. I know this because I was awake the whole time. Resigned, I gave up pretending to sleep at 5 am. I got up and packed, put the truck back together, and made some tea. I took some sunrise shots with the sun coming up behind the falls, but they didn't turn out very well. Had more luck taking pictures of birds. I said goodbye to Jim, my pop up camper acquaintance, and then hit the road at 6:30 am. This time of day is not a typical travel time for me, so it was a little surreal. The sky grew dark and ominous and as I headed south on 395 through Pasco, it started raining pretty heavily. My plan to stop by the Umatilla NWR got squashed because of it and honestly at that point I was so weary from sleep deprivation that I wouldn't have gotten much out of it. I did stop in two of the pullouts in Irrigon, OR which are both good birding spots and had a look around in the rain. Saw some yellow headed blackbirds and mourning doves, not much else. Took some photos, got some gas and a big cup of coffee and hit 84 West headed back to Portland.
And on the drive home, I saw the same group of big horned sheep I'd seen on the way out, in the exact same spot. Mile 118 to 119, there were maybe three or four on an outcropping looking right over the eastbound side of the highway. Then maybe a quarter mile farther east there was a larger group grazing on the incredibly steep hillside, about 150 feet up. I never see these guys this close up, they're always on that ridge, way over there, a half mile away, still tiny even with your binoculars. But I was too chicken to pull over in the emergency lane and take pictures. What if a cop drove by right then and gave me a ticket? Boy, was it tempting though.. The serene and majestic manner of that foremost sheep as it gazed out at the highway and the river; wow. It didn't give a fig about the highway and all of us speeding by. Maybe they just wanted to get to the Columbia River for water. But that would entail crossing four lanes of traffic, a center divider, the train track and probably an electric fence in front of it down by the water. Sigh, what an impossible task; kamikazi big horned sheep.
Made it home in good time and spent the rest of the day in a mild delirium from lack of sleep. I'm glad I saw Palouse Falls and it's definitely worth stopping by if you're in that neck of the sagebrush, but the camping sitch and the sheer number of photographers vying for cliff top property rights make it less appealing as a place to go out of my way to visit. You never know if you don't try though and I always enjoy the drive. Chalk this one up to experience and Happy Trails!