Close Encounters of the Bird Kind
Earlier this Spring I was doing a backpack trip with my good friend Dick in the Colockum National Refuge above the Columbia River south of Malaga. I told Dick that I had this great plan of driving south to California to see friends and relatives in the Western Sierra and then driving back up the Eastern Sierra and through Eastern Oregon. Dick told me that I absolutely had to stop in Frenchglen, Oregon and stay at the Frenchglen Hotel. Dick used to live in a small town in Eastern Oregon, so I figured he knew what he was talking about. After I got back to the house I looked at a map and discovered that Frenchglen wasn’t on any map of Oregon that I had. In fact, there was a huge blank space on my map where Dick said it should be. Through the magic of the internet I found the hotel and called. They told me that nothing was available because of the “Birders” and that I should check with the hotel in Diamond. I called there and I made a reservation. Once I was on the road I would figure out exactly where it was and why the “Birders” were such a problem.
I hit the I-5 corridor, swung through Yosemite, down the western Sierra, through the Tehachapi Gap in a snowstorm, past Lone Pine and up the eastern Sierra to Mammoth Lakes. After a great day of winter condition Spring skiing, I sat down with my map to see about this Diamond place. I focused on that same big empty area in Southeastern Oregon with no towns, and very few roads. I put my glasses on and could just make out the tiny script that read “Diamond”. Looked pretty straightforward; just drive north out of California, into and out of Nevada, back into and out of California, into Oregon, hang a right, stop at some Refuge place and ask for directions.
I left Mammoth Springs before dawn and drove for several hours, left the pavement and then began a long climb up a huge escarpment on a gravel road with occasional piles of snow in the corners of the switchbacks. I was in 4-wheel drive and glad I had it. I parked the truck at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge Headquarters, got out, and looked around. I was on an enormous plateau that seemed to stretch in all directions to the very distant horizon, and then only the faintest suggestion of mountains on its edges. Other than an old building identified as the Visitor’s Center and a small house, there was nothing around as far as the eye could see. I walked into the Visitor’s Center. There was no one in sight, but I did hear voices behind a door that had a sign that said “No Entrance Refuge Personnel Only.” I pushed the door open and walked in. There were two women sitting across the room deeply engaged in conversation. They were surrounded by piles of feathers, fur, rodent and mammal skulls, insects and dried plants. “Howdy,” I said. They looked up, surprised, it seemed, at seeing a visitor in the Visitors Center on a Tuesday afternoon in late May. “I was just wondering, is that is the road to the Malheur?” I asked, pointing in the general direction that I thought I should be going. I figured I had a 50/50 chance of being right since there was only one road other than the one I had just come up. “Sure,” one of the women said. “Just get on that gravel road out there and then take the first left.” “First left?” I asked. “About how far would that be?” “You can’t miss it” she said. “It’s 52 miles down that gravel road, first left”. I tried to calculate whether I would run out of gas going that way or trying to go back the way I had just come in….. which was also about 52 miles of gravel road. “But stay on the road” she added. “With all the rain we’ve been getting, if you get off in the mud…..well, it wouldn’t be good.” Now I visualized myself out of gas and stuck up to my axles in mud.
As I began the 52 mile drive I discovered something that the woman had forgotten to mention. The gravel road was so heavily wash-boarded that I could only drive 10-15 miles an hour and I had to fight to hold on to the steering wheel. I did the math: 52 miles divided by 10 miles per hour equals 5.2 hours of driving. I decided to be an optimist: 52 miles divided by 15 miles per hour equals 3.46 hours of driving. In the end, neither higher math, nor optimism prevailed.
The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is nearly 300,000 acres in size and is home to a herd of American pronghorn antelope, as well as California bighorn sheep and mule deer. The Refuge is surrounded by many more hundreds of thousands of acres of high arid sagebrush and grasslands which also support the same species. About 20 miles down the gravel road I stopped, turned the engine off and got out to look around. I was on plateau at about 4,000 feet elevation. Off in the distance to the East were snow-covered mountains called The Steens. Other than the road I was on, there were no other signs of any human activity. It was completely silent except for an occasional gust of wind. Nearby, four pronghorn antelope lifted their heads, looked at me briefly, then resumed browsing on the sagebrush. The silence combined by the visual impact of this vast expanse of land took my breath away.
Suddenly, after five hours of driving, there it was, the left hand turn! And not long after that, a sign directing me to Frenchglen and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. As I passed through Frenchglen I did a quick count…hotel, a small store, and two other abandoned buildings. Pretty small place, I thought. Glad I am not staying here. About 20 miles further down the road, a homemade sign on a fencepost pointed to the right and said “Diamond 13.5 miles”. The pavement ended at 13.5 miles, but continued off into the distance as gravel. There was an old farmhouse on the left, another on the right and absolutely nothing else in any other direction. I looked behind the old farmhouse on the left and saw a very weathered wooden two story building with a screen porch with two dogs asleep in front of the door. Above the door was a small sign that read Hotel Diamond.
I stepped over the dogs, opened the screen door and was met by a woman in an apron, wiping her hands on a towel, who identified herself as Bridget. “Hi, you must be Ken. You’ll be in number 5. It’s upstairs in front. Bathroom’s down the hall. Dinner is at 6:00. There’s thirty of you tonight. Just ask if you have any questions.” She handed me a key and went back into the kitchen. I found my room and discovered that it was right over the kitchen. Although it was no more than 50 degrees outside, it was about 8o degrees in my room and smelled of fresh baked bread , herbs and roasting meat. What had she said? “There’s thirty of you tonight.” Thirty of who?
At 5:30 I went downstairs and sat in an old rocking chair on the screen porch. People began to come into the hotel. I noticed something about these people. They all seemed to be dressed in the same fashion—vests with dozens of pockets, binoculars slung around the neck and notebooks in their hands. The mystery was solved. This is why there was no room in Frenchglen. This was the time of the great spring migration of the Birders.
At 6:00 I went into the main room and Bridget pointed me to a seat at a table where 10 others were already seated. “This is Ken,” she said. “He’ll be joining you tonight.” My dinner companions introduced themselves and I learned that they were all from the Chicago area and had been coming to the Malheur for the birds for ten years. Dinner was family style. Bowls of salad, platters of ribs, loaves of fresh baked bread, and pies appeared from the kitchen. My Chicago dinner companions produced bottles of wine and shared them with me. As dinner progressed, each in turn extolled the virtues of the Malheur and eagerly listed where they had been and the birds that they had seen that day.
One of my dinner companions asked me where my favorite birding area in the Malheur was. “I am not really a birder,” I said. “I just thought this was a convenient place to stop on my way back home.” The table fell silent and everyone looked at me as though I had just spoken the most blasphemous words in the English language. Sensing the danger I was in, I quickly added, “Just kidding. I am an avid birder and have been looking forward to this for years.” Most seemed to accept this explanation, although one gentleman at the end of the table looked at me skeptically over the top of his glasses for an extended time assessing my answer. As my dinner companions finished their pie and made plans for the next morning, I quietly excused myself and went upstairs. It was time to look at the brochures and the map and learn something about this place before I got in real trouble with the birders.
Early Americans came to this area more than 11,000 years ago, drawn no doubt by the abundant wildlife, diversity of plant species and plentiful water. Fur trappers appeared in the 1820’s and, disappointed by the lack of fur-bearing mammals, described the effort and the area as a great “Malheur” (misfortune). It was not until 1872 that a young cattleman named Pete French rode from California into the Malheur with 2,000 head of cattle, a string of horses and his vaqueros and established a cattle ranching enterprise that lasted into the early 20th century. Women’s fashion at the turn of the century nearly spelled extinction for the resident egret, heron and swan populations when the value of an ounce of their feathers was worth more than an ounce of gold. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt created the Lake Malheur Reservation which formed the core of what was ultimately to become a 200,000 acre refuge and home to over 320 species of birds.
Early the next morning I headed out into the Refuge on the gravel road behind the hotel. In a very short time, I was once again surrounded by a landscape that took my breath away. There were graceful hills, abrupt basalt cliffs, ponds and streams, marshes and sagebrush all together. The color palette was likewise rich: every shade of black, brown, green, blue, and red imaginable. Instead of the quiet I had experienced in the antelope refuge, here there was a symphony of tweets, squawks, honks, quacks, clicks, chirps and twitters. Birds soared and dived, landed in the water, on the reeds and in the bushes and took off again. Wings of ducks, geese and ibis flew overhead in formation. There were flashes of color as the birds flew by: red, black, yellow, white, blue, and copper. Some of the birds were a drab, dusty brown while others were iridescent and reflected the sunlight like a mirror.
I continued on narrow gravel roads, stopping frequently to just look and listen until I found the Patrol Road. I had seen on one of the brochures that this road cut through the deepest part of the refuge and promised much more territory to explore. It was one vehicle wide with occasional wide spots for cars to pass. The land on either side of the Patrol Road had a great deal of marshland and so provided a rich variety of food and cover for the birds and other animals. I drove about 5 miles per hour, stopping frequently and didn’t see anyone else for hours. Finally, late in the afternoon an old pickup approached. It slowed and pulled to the side, giving me just enough room to squeeze by. As I pulled alongside, the driver leaned out his window, waved and smiled. Judging by the accumulated dents and mud on the truck and the well-worn Carhartt jacket and sweat-stained hat he was wearing, I concluded he was a local rancher.
“Pretty country, isn’t it?” he began. He spoke deliberately. Really, not a question, but an observation. I nodded my head in agreement.
“We’re having a pretty late spring, but there’s plenty of water coming off of The Steens this year.” I nodded again in agreement.
“That’s the Blitzen River you’ve been crossing back there and she’s plenty full. The Donner’s full too.” This time I was ready and managed to get out an answer. “Yep,” I said.
“Here for the birds?” he asked.
He asked about the birds. After last night I decided to choose my words carefully. “No, actually I am just passing through, but yes, I guess I am here for the birds too, sort of.” That seemed to cover it and give me an escape no matter what he said. He looked puzzled by my response.
“My family’s been here for four generations. Cattle mostly. Tough place to make a living, but pretty and quiet… although we do get a lot of birders.” Nodding seemed to work, so I went with that again.
“That’s OK by me. The Refuge takes up quite a bit of land….it’s federal government run. But for the most part the people who come out here are OK…….. You from Washington?” I noticed he was looking at my license plate.
“Yes, Washington State,” I said, emphasizing the word “state.” He nodded his head slowly as he carefully considered my answer.
“You know what they say about this place?” he asked.
“No, not really,” I answered.
“They say that right here in the Malheur you are further from a four-lane blacktop highway than another other place in the lower 48.”
“Really?” I said as I quickly tried to think of the geography of the rest of the country. Could that be right? I am in Oregon, I thought, how can this place be so remote? He answered my unspoken question.
“Yes sir, just think about it. You got the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge to the west of here and that is nearly 100 miles of gravel road in and out.” I nodded knowingly.
“Then you got the Malheur here, then The Steens and then the Alvord Desert and then I don’t recall what’s on the other side of the Alvord, but I know it’s not a 4 lane paved highway. That’s got to be a million acres easy.
“And you heard about the Spanish horses, didn’t you? Darndest thing. Well that proves it, doesn’t it?”
I shook my head in acknowledgement.
I had read about the horses the night before. When the Spanish came to North America in the 17th century they brought horses from the southern Iberian Peninsula. These horses had characteristics of the primitive horses which had lived in southern Spain and Portugal since the last ice age. Of course many of these horses were cross bred, escaped and otherwise disappeared as a distinct breed in North America within 100-150 years. In 1977, a Bureau of Land Management team came across a band of horses just south of the Malheur unlike any that the team members had ever seen. These horses were all dun in color and had dorsal and zebra stripes, face masks and distinctly hooked ears. Genetic testing established that they were a surviving band of the Iberian mustangs. These horses, now known as the Kiger Mustangs, live in this beautiful place and move freely across the landscape as they have for hundreds of years here and for hundreds before in Iberia.
“I guess we were just lucky here in the Malheur,” he said. “You don’t find big waterfalls or things like that here. Not everyone appreciates this type of country. It can be pretty rough at times and it is so far from anywhere that most people just never thought that it was worth taking the time to see. I guess all this got saved just by being too darn hard to get at. It saved the birds and the horses and I think it also saved some of us who like livin’ here, too.”
The rancher looked up into the sun and shaded his eyes. A northern harrier hawk came diving out of the sun with wings and tail fully flared. We both looked up and watched the aerial ballet. It wheeled to the left and then to the right and then suddenly dove, with talons deployed into the dry grass in the marsh just beyond where we were parked.
“Scratch one mouse,” the rancher said. “Never get tired of watching those birds work.
“Well, I got some cows to find before it gets too dark, so I’d better get going. Nice talking with you.”
“You too,” I replied.
The rancher smiled, waved goodbye, and stuck his head back in his truck and slowly made his way down the road. I waved and resumed my slow pace as well. Neither one of us seemed in much of a hurry to leave the Patrol Road.
I spent another day in the Malheur, trying to take in as much as I could, thinking about the people I had met and trying to understand why this place seemed so special. In the late morning, I found myself on a primitive gravel road in an area of the refuge that I hadn’t seen before. I stopped near the top of a hill, got out of the truck and hiked to the top. From there, stretching out in front of me to the North was the Malheur, to the West was the antelope refuge, to the East were mountains and a few isolated ranches, and to the South the Steens. Overhead, white-faced Ibis, geese and ducks flew, continuing their long trip to the Arctic.
From where I stood, I felt I could see back into the past. Looking one way, I saw no evidence of human activity and could imagine the great migrations of birds, antelope and other animals that passed through this land for millennia. Then there were the first people who moved through here ten thousand years ago and lived with the land, but also changed it, changed the animals and were in turn changed as well. Looking another direction I saw the Iberian horses making their way to safety from the Southwest and living undetected in secluded canyons for hundreds of years. And in another I saw the fences and dikes of the ranches from the 1870’s, the feather hunters and all of the rest of modern man’s activities that were good and bad.
A place like the Malheur gets under the skin and stays there, a constant reminder of these special places and their importance. They are everywhere. The shrub steppe rising up from the urban environment, the rolling hills of the Waterville Plateau, the Colockum teeming with elk and deer, and the Columbia with hydro–electric power and Ice Age flood debris sharing the same stage.
A very special place, indeed.