Thursday, September 24, 2015

Christmas Valley and Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge September 19-21.2015

What is it about the Oregon high desert that calls to me like a moth to a flame?  Is it the wide open sky, blue, sometimes littered with the most bewildering collection of clouds?  Or is it the huge panoramic landscape, with buttes and plateaus rising up from the soft swell of sage grass covered plains, the winds pulling up little tornadoes of dust devils and filling your nostrils with the delicate fragrance of fresh sage?  Yep, it's all that.  It's the jackrabbits that race in front of my truck, the horned larks and magpies constantly flushed from the roadside, the sudden spring of mule deer, elk or antelope bounding through the ground cover.  It's the wind farms on the Columbia Gorge, the beautiful symmetrical plowed lines of planted fields, the endless litany of collapsing shacks and barns, each cooler than the last and demanding to be photographed.  It's the crazy, majestic Cascade peaks soaring to the sky on the edge of the horizon as you race south into this wonderful and huge, but never empty, desert landscape.

All I know is that I breathe a huge sigh of relief when I come out of the pines on the Mt. Hood plateau and see that first burn on both sides of highway 26 as the trees thin and disappear.  I might see some wild horses in the fields on the reservation, which is always amazing, but all I know is that I'm feeling better and better.  And by the time the road drops down into that 6% grade above Warm Springs and I search for that one special hill I always look for, I have a huge goofy grin on my face, if not tears in my eyes.  This is because I'm not meant to live in the city, and when I get away from all those people and closer to the land, my body instinctively knows it's safe, that it's home.  So if you can't relate to what I'm saying here, then I'd suggest you stop reading and click on the Flickr link to look at the pretty pictures.  

Last month I had the good fortune to have an old friend get in touch and ask if I ever wanted a nature buddy for "naturing, hiking, dirt road driving, picture taking, or whatever, let me know".  What the?! Does a bear shit in the woods?!  Why yes, yes it does, big piles of nw huckleberries.  And yes, I would love to have a fellow nutter to head off into the wild blue and gray yonder to explore with.  I do love my solo expeditions, but after years of doing most of the more arduous travelling alone, it would be nice to have a partner in crime.  So after a little calendar maneuvering, I suggested we head out to the desert, and proposed Christmas Valley and all it's surrounding silliness.  Chris surprised me when he said he'd already been there, but would be willing to return.  I asked if he'd been to the Crack in the Ground or the Lost Forest, to which he said no, but he had been to Fort Rock and some of the area bird blinds.  Now the bird blinds, I didn't know about; see, this is why someone else's experience is always advantageous.  He then pointed out that there was an antelope refuge nearby, "That is, near for desert miles".  This was Hart Mountain Antelope refuge, which I had intended to visit in October, but thought, what the hell, if I love it, I can come back.  If not, that will give me more time to see some other new things.  It boasted free camping as well as a couple hot springs nearby, and of course, potential herds of pronghorn antelope.  We pooled our camping gear, threw food into the cooler and hit the road in "Cake the Truck", Chris's crazy cool first generation Toyota 4 runner.  

Chris is a fan of the mountain passes over the Cascades, and I have been wanting to see what the entirety of route 22 looks like through Detroit Lake on the north fork of the Santiam, so we headed down I-5 just past Salem, then east on 22.  Man, was the water low in places!  I know that is a theme this year and I will sound like a broken record throughout the rest of this blog, but droughts are scary as shit.  You realize how fragile our existence is, we're all balanced on the head of a pin with just the right atmosphere, the right amount of sun, wind, rain and watershed.  Good luck, human race, when that shit gets out of wack..  We pulled over and looked at a lovely lake aptly called Blue lake, which must have been fed by an artesian well, because it was the bright deep blue of crater lakes.  We got gas in Sisters and snacked a bit, before heading down past Bend on 97 and then east on 31 just past La Pine. We skipped Hole in the Ground as I told Chris that it just looks like a big sprawling valley, and headed to Fort Rock via the Pioneer Village.  The visitor's shop was closed but the gate was open so we wandered around snapping photos of pioneer structures and old farm machinery, dead mice and Chris got a handful of shots of a friendly little Brewer's sparrow with a tumor on its face.  It seemed to be doing alright despite its deformity, so I tried not to make motherly cooing noises.. He also got lucky with a gaggle of California quail.  I wasn't feeling compelled to capture the bird shots as much this trip, leaving that to Chris who was borrowing a 300 mm lens and having fun learning what he could get away with.  I mostly just soaked up the landscape and kept picking little plumes of sage to sniff and then smile quietly to myself.  The caretaker of the museum stopped by to chat and say they had closed early for the season because they were being overrun by rodents.  They had to set up traps before all of the vintage goods inside the structures were destroyed; you know, 100 year old dresses being munched on and such.  He was a nice guy, talked about raising money through heritage grants to maintain the site.  Cool place, stop by if you're in the area.

We headed up to Fort Rock and as I'd done the interior hike several times, I agreed with Chris to try hitting the path through a previously unnoticed turnstile, and heading around the outside.  This had the added advantage of being in the shade of the rock as the afternoon heat had built up.  We saw a few rock wrens and a handful of american pipits.  My shots are all a wee bit out of focus, but you get the idea. We were treated to a soaring juvenile red tail spooking a small flock of pigeons from the cliff tops, and some harriers chasing each other over the farm field below.  We traipsed back the way we came and found a small swarm of burrowing bees in the dirt outside of the bathrooms. The coloring on their abdomen is a mint and black stripe, and from what I can find online, they might be a type of sweat bee.  They are kind of fascinating, and I remembered I've also seen them out at the Sandy River Delta in the sand under the power pylons. 

We had a little chat with Vernon, the host that spends the summer in his trailer there at Fort Rock, bitching about the state of social security and the joys of camp hosting once you're retired.  I told him we still had Crack in the Ground to climb before dark, to which he responded that we better hurry it on up, so we did.

                                        juvenile redtail hawk flushing some pigeons

rock wren

     american pipit


Heading through Christmas Valley and it's holiday themed street names is always a bit surreal, and we missed and had to turn around to come back to our road, aptly named Crack in the Ground Road.  You have to love the surveyors or civic leaders who had such a quirky literal bent; "Round these parts, we call it like we see it!"  Which begs the question, who the hell came up with Christmas Valley and streets like Jingle Bell and Snowman Road?  Was it to humor a councilman's deranged wife who missed Christmas in a little New England town?  Well, they actually do get snow out in the desert here. One of my work mates had mentioned how beautiful the Crack in the Ground is with snow along the bottom of the canyon. We drove the 7 miles above town to park at the pullout near the trailhead. Another couple pulled up at the same time, so we raced ahead up the trail to give us some headway.  It was fine, they were nice and respectful and left us alone.  It was getting on towards sunset, but we still had ample light to snap photos down in the canyon, and a few of the beautiful setting sun after we emerged at the other end.  I think Chris liked the rocks and the climb, it's a pretty cool place.  Some of the rock formations are super H.R. Giger, you keep waiting for some skeletor-alien to quietly unfold from the rockface. There's a second canyon that picks up maybe a 100 feet after the first ends, but I warned the other couple and Chris that it's a bit hairier of a climb.  The first one isn't even really a climb, it's a walk. You could amble your family through it without a hitch. The second one probably wouldn't require climbing gear, and I'm sure a freestyle climber wouldn't have even batted an eye at it. But I'm not really an experienced climber, and the only time I've done it, I was on my own.  I kept pushing forward because I was thinking, well, I can't go back now.  But at the end of the canyon, I couldn't find any way out and the holds were too far apart for me, so I did have to go all the way back to the beginning. Was a fun challenge, but admittedly, I was being stupid to do that on my own.  Not long after that, I saw that climbing movie with James Franco, '127 Hours', and promised myself I wouldn't do anything like that again without letting someone know where I was beforehand.  Not to say this 40 feet deep slot canyon is as dangerous as Blue John Canyon in Utah, but you know what I mean. You can drown in a foot of water, it's all about bad luck and poor choices.  We wandered around up top on various paths and got back to the truck as twilight fell.  Driving east out of town, we headed northeast towards the sand dunes and the Lost Forest where we were camping for the night.

                                heading in to Crack in the Ground
                                this shit's crazy! yes, yes it is...

On the drive out, we saw at least two Great Horned owls perched on power line posts, the first clearly outlined through the binocs with light from the headlights.  It flew and landed on an irrigation sprinkler, which gave us a good vantage point.  The second flew from another power line down to the ground just a short distance later, it's bulk and silhouette matching the first we'd seen.  No pictures, but pretty exciting just running into owls like that!

We drove through the dunes and pulled into the Lost Forest to find a big party of ATV's just left of the entrance.  They had a huge bonfire going, but seemed pretty chill at that point.  We drove about a third of a mile past them and found a spot in the sand amidst a small grove of Western juniper and taller Ponderosa pines.  We set up camp and heated up some dinner.  We decided to skip a fire and instead watched the bats dive bomb insects all over the campsite.  We went to bed early, just in time to really enjoy the crappy rave music and the loud conversation now drifting over from the other site. We did hear two owls calling to each other, and identified them as Great Horned, so that was rad. Then the ATV's started up.  That's right, rip up those sand dunes at night!  In fact, all night!  It was still going on at 4 am.  I did not sleep well, and as usual, got way too cold.  I need a thicker sleeping bag, mine is supposed to be rated to 30 degrees, but I'm always freezing.  Gets cold in the desert at night.  Chris was up first, chasing the mountain bluebirds around with his camera.  We made coffee, packed up leisurely, then headed out of Christmas Valley to the east on Wagontire road.  We hit 395 and dropped south to just before Lake Alber, which was completely dry, then headed SE back into the desert on Hogback road.  This is a gravel road, but pretty well maintained.  Right where this intersects with Hart Mountain road, there was a nice little abandoned house that screamed owl, so we parked and went in to poke around.  Lots of swallows nests, and signs of an owl upstairs, but it wasn't home at the time.  We saw some mourning doves and white crowned sparrows outside, as well as some barn swallows.

                              swallow's nests

                                             Chris ascending to owl heaven

Heading back towards Hart Mountain, you pass through the Warner Wetlands at the base.  However, all the lakes were dry, so we didn't stop, but headed up the plateau to Hart Mountain's visitor center. We did see a small herd of Pronghorn antelope to our right, which froze while we snapped photos like complete tourist knobs.  Once again on our way, we passed a sign on the left that read Petroglyph Lake.  We had planned on stopping there, so turned in.  The road got increasingly more insane and Cake the Truck became a 4-wheeling beastie.  Just when we thought, "this is nuts, let's turn around", the road ended at the path to the lake.  We parked and headed up the slight incline towards the two rows of rock outcroppings.  The path takes you right up to the most prominent petroglyph, and then you're free to wander further looking for more. Was a really cool spot to explore and take pictures.  The lake below was of course dry, and the sun was starting to bake.  I had to sit in the shade for a while to cool off before we hiked back.

                             dry Petroglyph Lake

We finally drove into the visitor center and grabbed some handouts, used the bathroom, and admired the pretty stone living quarters of the staff.  Looks very similar to the buildings at Malheur HQ, minus those lovely tiled roofs.  I would happily live in one of them, just ask me.  We headed onwards to the Hot Springs campground, and pulled in to a camp spot with some shade and a couple possible tent spots.  There was one hand-camoed Toyota parked a few spots down with no one around.  Each of the spots were pretty nice though, all with a little creek running behind them.  We ate some snacks and Chris set up his hammock while I blew up my air mattress and threw it down on my tarp.  We dozed for a while and woke up to realize that the sun was already disappearing over the range.  That's the thing about the desert, you lose the light behind hills long before the actual sunset, so temperatures can start to drop quickly.  We collected some wood for a fire, including some already chopped juniper left at another site's fire pit.  Even though fire danger is still very high in Oregon, fires were being allowed in the fire rings at this campground, so yay!  We grabbed our swimsuits and headed over to the hot springs.  There was a couple just getting out, then we had the place to ourselves.  Was pretty sweet, about 98 degrees, and they had built a deck and a wind wall around it and put a ladder down into the spring.  There was a ledge to stand on around the crack of the spring which put us in the pool about shoulder deep, and it felt really nice to have a soak in the middle of the desert after a long dusty day of driving.  We dried off and headed back to start a fire, surprising a doe and fawn mule deer munching in a field.  Apparently there is a second shallower hot spring just a couple  hundred feet away in the field behind us, but I didn't see it.  Next time.


                             Chris going through the day's photos by the fire                             

The stars came out and we had some moonlight; it was a beautiful night.  Chris turned in early and I stayed up with the fire for a while.  I slept much better the second night.  I always tend to, especially without drunken dudes yelling and crap rave music.  Our last day, we headed out for a little morning hike up the path near our campsite.  The sun was already heating up the day, so long johns off and cameras on.  We had heard a strange squawking in the grove to our right, I thought it was maybe a juvenile or nesting hawk, so we were looking for taller trees and nests.  While peering intently up into the tallest trees near where we heard the call, we were completely startled when a great horned owl flew out from a small tree right in front of us,  Chris saw where it landed, so we attempted to stalk it back and forth over the creek and through the dense tree groves that grew around it.  We never did find it again, and of course have no pictures. But this was what, the fifth owl we had run into in two nights? Pretty awesome odds for us owl novices.

We headed back and broke down camp and packed the truck.  We had hoped to see some Bighorn sheep and they were supposed to be viewable from the base camp on our way out, so we headed back the way we came.  On our left just opposite Petroglyph Lake, we saw a herd of Pronghorn, and some water behind them.  There was a turn in for Hilltop Reservoir, so we pulled in a bit and turned off the engine.  There was a nice big pond with three ducks on the water, and a coyote just on the other side, casing the small herd of Pronghorn.  Once it saw us though, it decided to abandon it's hunt.  The antelope only noticed it as it left, so we might have saved one of them from being lunch.  Sorry coyote!   Was still cool to see.  We headed down to the base camp and got inside the picnic shelter to take advantage of the shade.  I trained my binoculars on the hillsides for quite a while, scanning for Bighorn with no luck.  Chris wandered the rocky campground looking for snakes, with no luck either. I found a snake skin at the hot spring, but that was all she wrote.  We called it a day, cut some sage to take with and headed out.  We ran into a family of Pronghorn crossing the road before and after us, which afforded us some nice closeups.  I got us turned around on the way out of the wetlands, but we eventually got sorted and headed towards Lakeview.  We gassed up, and then I hopped in the driver's seat to give Chris a break.

       coyote casing herd of pronghorn
     coyote spots us lurking
                               antelope finally notice coyote
              coyote is out of there
                             driving down from Hart Mtn. over Warner 'not Wet'lands

         Chris hunting for snakes
                              Cake the truck was awesome, and fun to drive home
                              no bighorn sheep to be found, not a one..
                              this llama had the distinction of "not being an elk"  sigh..
     this little dude's just taking a nap.  forever..

Heading North on 31, we drove around quite a bit of the now dry Summer Lake.  We stopped at the refuge headquarters and did a little birding, saw some ducks, woodpeckers, warblers, robins, flycatchers.  Again, I wasn't really doing much bird photography.  It was so bright and everything was too far away, so I just wasn't worrying about it.  Was slightly miffed to come home to see an OBOL listing from a couple the day before at Summer Lake with 80+ species.  Ah well, I was having more of a naturalist weekend and less of listing mania.  Sometimes I need that.  So we headed north through Bend, and up to Madras where we gassed up once more and followed my poor decision to get subs at Subway.  We'd barely eaten all weekend, both of us with no appetites, but I wanted something to get me through the long drive. I know I've got a thing about subs and the desert, but this one almost made me rethink that.  It would seem that Biggs Junction subs are superior to Madras subs.. ha.

As dusk fell, we headed along the Deschutes river and through Warm Springs, up the hills to the high plateau before the trees of Mt Hood closed in on us.  The last light  of the sunset turned the clouds around Mt. Jefferson into cotton candy.  Was a good ending to a good weekend.  Beautiful scenery and amazing animals.  Great time with Chris, and I know we will head out together again soon.  I'm heading out again by myself to do a longer trip in a week and a half because this is the best weather of the year for visiting Eastern Oregon.  Will keep you posted of course.  And no climbing down slot canyons without giving my mom my coordinates in advance.

Click on any photos to see them bigger or in sequence and use the Flickr link to go see the whole trip album.  Chris was kind enough to take some photos of me for a change and send them to me and I posted them on my facebook page.  Alright cowpokes, thanks for checking in and until next time, Happy trails!