Oregon, April 6 to 11, 2016 After spending Wednesday night at Julie Woodward's home in Salem, we drove southeast through the mountains on SR22 to Bend, then continued downhill to the dry plain to the southeast. It was late afternoon when we reached Steens Mountain Guest Ranch, located an hour south of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; 200 miles west of Boise, ID; and 100 miles north of the Nevada border. The landscape is dry, with sagebrush and a few small cedars and occasional wetlands. The ranch sits on a plain between hills that rise gradually to red vertical cliffs topped by plateaus of grass and more sagebrush. To the south is the Steens range, an anomalous east-west uplift that reaches a snow-topped 9700 ft.
The guest ranch is run by a Mormon couple, Susan and Tim, who have raised six children, four boys and two girls, while working on ranches in 10-year stretches: first Montana, then Florida, now SE Oregon. The boys went on mission trips, the two girls married soon after high school. Susan, a trained nurse, is calm, confident and low-key, inviting us five guests to help put supper on the table. Outdoors, Tim, his face reddened by the sun and his legs bowed, was stiff and careful as he bent and stretched to hoist hay into the paddock, due to a recent accident in which he was thrown from a horse and came out with bruised ribs and a deflated lung.
The log guesthouse's large kitchen opens to a great room with living and dining areas and a view across the valley. In the kitchen, the wall-size refrigerator, in a pine housing, is modeled after an old wooden ice box, but with spacious shelves and contemporary refrigeration. It was designed and built by one of their sons for his senior year, high school, shop project. Upstairs, three two-person guest bedrooms have warm yellow-and-gray pine walls. Our king bed of peeled pine logs was built by one of their sons and had a quilt made by a daughter.
Friday was our three-hour "birding by horseback" trail ride, up the dry wash behind the ranch to the plateau, about 200 feet up. The morning had not started well. The horse ridden by guest Bill, a 60-something FEMA director a little on the heavy side, had managed to stumble on a short downgrade as we did an initial circuit of the guesthouse. The horse's hind legs gave way, it sat on its butt, Bill slid down and tumbled sideways, landing on his left arm and shoulder. He scrambled up, holding his arm in pain, and his forehead showing blood. Susan ran back and escorted him and his wife Ann into the house where they called an ambulance and got him off to hospital in Burns. (We later learned he had a broken arm but luckily no damage to his shoulder which has several pins from an earlier surgery. Once he was cleared for the drive, Bill and Ann went home to Bend.)
The remaining three guests (me, David and Morgan, a woman from Eugene) followed Tim on our horses, which picked their way carefully between thistle and sage and over rocky soil up to the plateau. On top, a steady wind took David's cap off --Tim bent down and grabbed it -- and kept the birds away or under cover, but we did see a mountain bluebird, heard a lark, and saw hawks circling up on thermals. Tim told us that some Canada geese have found their way up to the rocky cliffs to nest - we didn't see them, but heard some cackling. We rode over to the plateau edge to view the Kiger Gorge, with six or seven ranches below in the green valley and wetlands, watered by Kiger Creek. The tiny white objects in the wetlands were sandhill cranes. The plateau on the opposite side is used seasonally by wild mustangs. (The guest ranch organizes trail rides to see the wild horses a couple times per year when permitted by BLM, after foaling season.)
David and I felt comfortable on our gentle horses, who put up with whatever errors we might have been making - how much pressure on the reins? Am I hurting the horse's mouth? Should I nudge him with my knees or give him a soft tap on the rear to say "Go"? At one point Tim and Morgan were quite far ahead of us, and our horses decided to close up the gap - all at once we were trotting -bounce -bounce -bounce! - but still staying on comfortably. Our thighs were feeling all that stretching across the horse's back, but with a 10-minute break halfway through, and with Susan's advice (she joined us toward the end of the ride) to pull our knees up together at the saddle horn for a break, we didn't have any lasting ache.
After lunch with Morgan and the O'Crowleys, we left cowboy dreams and new friends behind, and returned to the humdrum routine of vehicular travel. David and I drove to Diamond, a little hamlet with no visible residents, saw some whimbrels grazing in a field, did a driving tour of a lava field with craters, and checked out the western-themed gifts and books at the Round Barn Visitors Center.
Over the next day and a half we sampled parts of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, looking for birds around ponds, wetlands, ditches, watering holes and, in town, sewage treatment lagoons. We were based in Burns, where the Migratory Bird Festival headquarters was the gym of the local high school, and where we got tips on what birds to look for and where to find them.
We learned that this area has been in drought for three years. Highway 205 at "the Narrows" is supposed to run between two large lakes. However permanent or ephemeral they may have been in the past, they are now dry lakebed covered with grass.
Sunday we drove northwest to Bend, then continued east of the mountains on SR 26 north to Hood River, OR, overlooking the Columbia Gorge, where we stayed overnight. The Gorge is a funnel for winds and a mecca for windsurfers and other extremely hardy people. Monday - our last day - dawned gorgeous and sunny. We crossed the river to the Washington side and hiked the Catherine Creek trail off WA SR-14. Mount Hood was resplendent in snow to the south; wildflowers were everywhere. David and I love these hillsides with their open meadows dotted with pines. We found an alpine pond with tadpoles and crossed the meadow to see the natural rock arch above Catherine Creek. To avoid the inevitable afternoon traffic going home on I-5, we headed northeast to Yakima then took I-90 west to Bellevue - a 20-mile longer route, but likely quicker.
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