Thursday, April 1, 2010

Oregon Tales

Nothing stimulates the latent diarist-blogger in me so well as a journey to unfamiliar ground. We’ve just returned from a nine-day trip into the wilds of southern Oregon-northern California. The principal objective was to get ourselves gobsmacked by the annual spring waterfowl spectacles at the national wildlife refuges straddling the OR-CA border east of the Cascades but in the going and coming back we found enough distractions to keep us from ever falling asleep at the wheel.

We took the coastal route through Washington pausing at Olympic National Park long enough to ogle the sea stacks at Ruby Beach and measure ourselves against some of the ancient and now rarer giant redcedars that were commonplace long ago. Years ago pal George Perry passed along Ralph Widrig’s advice that Leadbetter Point at the north end of Long Beach Peninsula is one of the most golden of the west coast’s premier birding hot spots. It took me decades but I finally got there and soon discovered that Ralph knew what he was talking about. We arrived early enough March 23 to have the place entirely to ourselves. Thousands of shorebirds –- sanderling, black-bellied plover and especially dunlin –- flocked in the mudflats among gangs of gulls.

A sign at the trailheads warned that trails were ‘subject to flooding’ from October to May. Our gumboats were no match for numerous watery places sometimes four inches above our knees but, strangely enough, old age sometimes brings a trace of wisdom. One of life’s great lessons that has finally managed to penetrate my cranium is that when vicissitude visits we often as not have a choice: we can change our circumstances -– or change our minds. With the latter accomplished flooded gumboats no longer seemed a problem and we managed to revel in our circumstances, rewarded by close encounters with vocalizing Virginia rail and drumming ruffed grouse.

At Astoria which bills itself ‘Little San Francisco’ we indulged a whim to stay downtown in a grand old hotel. The Elliot fit the bill to a T and provided easy access to historical attractions along Astoria’s Columbia River waterfront. From Astoria we made an 850 km beeline for the wildlife refuges. Twenty-nine years have passed –- how is it possible? –- since I last laid eyes on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake NWRs. I was impressed then and no less so in the return engagement. I promised Jan hordes of ducks and geese and Klamath-Tule Lake made me no liar. A broad white band stretching half a kilometre across a gravel road into a big farm field turned out not to be snow but a flock –- 20,000, 30,000, who knew -– of Ross’s geese. The Ross’s were supplemented by many others: snow and white-fronted geese, and 15 species of ducks in their unnumbered thousands. The day before our arrival the NWR folks had carried out their latest survey, counting a million and a quarter waterfowl in the refuges.

We spent a few hours among geological wonders and Modoc ghosts at Lava Beds National Monument. Here the first people lived for centuries until evicted about 1870. When the Modoc objected to their forced removal a war broke out the Modoc couldn’t win. Outnumbered 20 to 1 the Modoc warriors lasted for months but finally surrendered in the fall of 1873. More casualties ensued after the fighting ended: four leaders of the insurrection were hanged and the Modoc removed forever.

Jan loves hot springs, particularly those meriting the label ‘natural’. We identified one reachable along our route back across the Cascades. The four pools of the Toketee hot springs are perched high above the impressively wild North Umpqua River. We crossed the North Umpqua on a log bridge and found our way to the pools last Friday afternoon. It turned out that Friday was the start of university spring break in Oregon and we arrived at the pools to find ourselves among young people -- young women included -- in various states of undress. Suddenly I felt as drawn to natural hot springs as Jan herself.

We followed the North Umpqua past its junction with the South Umpqua to my cousin Terri’s Shangri-la on a lower reach of the river at a place called Indian Bend. Terri’s talented Ed has built a brand new edifice here -– some would call it a house but I consider mansion, castle or palace better labels. Our hosts treated as regally as palace-dwellers might. We walked among tall conifers above the river, photographed a ‘lifer’ flower here and there. Lulled to sleep by a chorus of frogs we awoke to the gabbering of wild turkeys. Kid sister Kathleen and bro-in-law joined the fray ; we had the first dinner feast in the palace before the first real fire in the splendid new beach-stone fireplace.

Having never investigated Portland, we went there, stayed in another grand old hotel, the Benson –- built the year the Titanic sank –- walked another riverfront, the Willamette this time, prowled enormous Powell’s bookstore, tried some of the 99 beer varieties on tap at Henry’s Tavern and opted for seafood lifers at Jake’s Crawfish –- Oregon rockfish and Columbia River sturgeon.

Now we are back in Victoria, happy both with the aftertaste of a good trip and with the changes nine days of spring hath wrought to our little backyard. A pair of robins tend to their eggs in the nest they have built on a joist of our deck. Just 10’ away a pair of bushtits have also taken up child-rearing in their beautifully woven pouch nest hanging from a branch of our willow. How lucky can we get?


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