In the NE corner of Oregon in Wallowa County lies a little visited wonder known as the Zumwalt Prairie. I recently returned from a five day writing workshop in this remote place and still memories swirl in my mind like the prairie wind.
This 330,000 acre bunchgrass prairie remains largely intact as the high elevation averaging 4,000 feet, poor soils, and harsh weather conditions made it unsuitable for the plow. This was a summering ground for the Nez Perce tribe before white settlers and broken treaties ultimately exiled them from their lands. This land is still home to a plethora of wildflowers, elk, deer, badgers, bird, and insect species, many of them threatened.
The Nature Conservancy owns and operates 36,000 acres of this land. It’s a nature preserve but part of its mission is to work with the local ranchers integrating them with their mission of conservation work which includes biological inventories, ecological monitoring and preserving biodiversity. It’s a partnership with conservation and private interests. Careful grazing management is part of the picture. The Nature Conservancy field station was a farmstead abandoned years ago as the harsh conditions of hot summers, frigid winters, poor soil, and remoteness made it too difficult to farm.
It all started in early March during a phone call with my 40 years- long- time friend, Jean. It had been a particularly long winter for both of us. Add the cold at her home in Juneau, Alaska and she was really at her wit’s end. “I want to go to Zion National Park but nobody will go with me!” She wailed. I paused, thought for a short moment I found myself saying “I’ll go with you.” BAM!- 48 hours later we had the trip booked. April 25th we met in Las Vegas with thousands of other winter refugees looking for a break, picked up our rental car, and were off. (Hey- did you know that a Prius makes no noise when you start it up? We thought the darn thing was broken!)
Entering Zion is like entering the Yosemite of the Southwest. Replace the silver granite splendor of the Yosemite Valley with sandstone cliffs and spires of all hues of oranges and tan and you have the wonderland of Zion. It’s a hiker’s paradise and we took full advantage, even in the drizzle of the first day. Besides the glory of being out in such splendor, I found the cheery attitude of the other hikers equally wonderful. People were generally jazzed to be out of their Covid prisons.
The last time I was in Zion I was 10 years old on a camping trip with my family. The only memory I had of that trip was swinging my skinny legs in a cool river on a 100-degree day. That very river, the Virgin River was one of the first things we saw when entering the park. I found such nostalgia in walking along that river looking back at my childhood self-such a sweet memory.
We hiked almost all the trails in the valley that were open (several were closed due to rock falls). The most well-known and dangerous hike is Angels Landing, a 1500 foot huff up to the most iconic view in the park. The last quarter mile or so is a tedious climb where you have to hold onto chains to prevent falling to an early death (as 13 hikers have since 2000). In places, you are walking on a knife ridge only a few feet wide. Add to that there is the coordination of the masses of hikers that are going up and down on a one-way trail. Somehow the spirit of friendly cooperation prevailed and we got up and down with no incident. The view from the top was breathtaking. Looking down we spotted condors riding the thermals below.
We did take the second sprizzly day to explore beyond Zion canyon. Kolob, on the western side of the park, is higher in elevation and equally dazzling. We were warned, however, by park staff not to attempt the main hikes due to the muddy, slippery trails. Good advice. We hiked the ½ mile roundtrip from the viewpoint and it was like walking on toothpaste. In the afternoon we explored the quaint town of Kanab and environs and finally the impressive Best Friends animal Sanctuary- more on that in a later post. The return drive through the west canyon Drive was one of the most jaw-dropping gorgeous roads I’ve ever been on
On our final day, we hiked the Narrows, one of the most famous hikes in the world. You have to slog through the headwaters of the Virgin River. The river flows through a slot canyon of soaring sandstone walls, waterfalls, and hanging gardens. Since we were there relatively early in the year with the water being at times up to the waist and 42 degrees F we rented dry suit waders in town, special water shoes, and a stabilizing stick to prevent a dunking. At first, we were with quite a band of others but as we headed up the crowd thinned as we headed upstream. In all, we hiked about 8 miles in and out. It was at times quite a challenge pushing against the current and stumbling over a rocky bottom but hey, what an unforgettable experience!
Ironically the most challenging part of our Zion visit was navigating the Zion NP shuttle. During this time of Covid, they offer limited ridership for social distancing. You have to secure your tickets at 5 PM the night before from the Recreation.Gov app. There is about a 15-minute window before all the tickets are gone. This can be an extremely frustrating experience. If you are up in the park during this window with no cell or WIFI it’s even more hair-tearing. They do allow walk-ons after 2 PM. You do have the option of renting an electric bike beyond the park border in Springdale or securing a private shuttle but these options are expensive.
Despite the shuttle challenges and the surprising number of other visitors, we found Zion to be an amazing experience. It was a perfect week long escape after months of lockdown and so good for the soul to be among such grandeur.
It was great to get away, take some risks, and feel the pleasure of life again. Try it. The world is waiting for you.
At the end of San Antonio Road, past the shopping centers, apartments, and freeway, across from the Google parking lot, the pavement stops and the wetlands begin. This is the Baylands a world of dikes, ponds, and meanders, where the San Francisco Bay meets land. Here the ebb and flow of the tide replaces the rhythm of rush-hour. Here waterfowl out number people. When family business calls me back, this is where I go to find refuge.
Equipped with my binoculars and bird book I set out on the dike trails to take a wander and look at birds on this rare sunny, pleasant, February day. I come upon a wonderland of shorebirds, and all manner of ducks. There’s a flutter of excitement as the tide ebbs exposing fresh mud. Greater yellow legs, and avocets gather to probe for a meal. In the water, ducks dabble for food, dropping their heads into the water and then tipping upside down exposing their derrieres to the sky like a circus act. Some ducks are divers, dissapearing momentarily from the water’s surface as they fly underwater for their prey.
On a far bank, a passle of pelicans sit pruning their white feathers with their huge bills. A great egret poses for me graciously by the water’s edge.
Suddenly, a murmuration of dowitchers fly over me so close I can hear the force of their feathers. then land in the water with a satisfying plop. Two swift flying merlins exchange prey in the sky.
“A good river is nature’s life work in song.” ― Mark Helprin
If there is one place that will give me a sense of peace, it is in the presence of a river. Besides being beautiful, rivers have an uncanny way of calming the spirit no matter what kind of dither you are in. In the infinite haiku of moving water, we can let go.
My favorite river in Oregon is the McKenzie. It is born from an underwater spring in Clear Lake high in the Cascade Mountains out of Eugene. From Clear Lake, it tumbles down a fantasy of waterfalls, disappears for a bit into the lava bedrock, and reappears in Blue Pool, a deep touramaline pool that gathers all kinds of visitors to admire its beauty. Eventually, the McKenzie becomes a big river. It tumbles down from the mountains in a sparkle of rapids, calming as it flows into farmland before it flows into the Willamette..
Every year we take a trip on the fourth of July to camp by the McKenzie. Part of that trip includes one or two runs down the river in our inflatable whitewater kayaks. We skipped last year as my spousal equivalent had a series of knee surgeries. We were both nervous about this year’s run down the river as our skills were rusty. In the end, we both agreed that if we didn’t buck up and get out on the water we would never forgive ourselves. There is the feeling of being by a river but being ON a river is the ultimate experience.
Off we went and in 50 yards hit a class 2.5 rapids, a rough way to warm up. We paddled through the waves as they roiled up around us. My adrenaline was buzzing until my mind and muscle memory kicked in and I thought to myself “oh yeah, I can do this!” The following rapids were pure fun. We had lunch on a gravel beach with wildflowers around us. It was a memorable run and probably will be the high spot of our summer. I’m so glad we got over our fears.
Rivers are great teachers, so full of metaphors. Here are a few lessons I have learned from my numerous rides on their liquid paths…
Pick a run that matches your ability but is still challenging.
Have at least one buddy that will watch your back.
Go with the flow- watch where the main current is. It takes less effort.
Keep your sights to where you want to go. If you fixate on a rock, you will hit it. Aim to the side.
Stay committed in tough water and paddle with intention.
Find a peaceful eddy and take a break now and again.
Enjoy the scenery.
You will fall out of your boat occasionally. It’s okay. Get back in and keep on going.
The town of Astoria, Oregon is located where the mighty Columbia River meets the sea. Lewis and Clark ended their famous journey near there and it has been for many decades since a center of trade and a fishing town. Today huge freighters from China and Japan navigate up the river to ports in Oregon and Washington. In recent years it has also become a haven for artists of all types, microbreweries, good eating, and great coffee.
On our recent three day prime number anniversary trip (19 years is a way more interesting number than 20), my husband and I celebrated right ON the river at the Cannery Pier Hotel, built on the site of an old salmon cannery when the fishery was in its heyday. Rather than do the usual touristy things like the museums and historical points, we were happy to sit and watch the boats go by our room,
watch the sea birds, walk or ride a cruiser bike (provided by the hotel) along the Astoria Riverwalk, a 6-mile path which was formerly an old railroad bed and explore some of the quirky shops in town.
A highlight was Vintage Hardware. I love old junk and was very happy exploring the many nooks and crannies of this shop.
I-phone out, I am always looking for interesting patterns to document….
Then don’t forget the great beer and the Buoy Brewery where you can get your favorite brew canned on the spot and watch sea lions through a plexiglass floor.
If you ever get to Oregon or live here as I do, don’t miss Astoria. It’s a gem.
Spring is booming in Oregon. The long, wet winter has given way to a stunning green landscape exploding with blossoms.
Have you ever taken time to look inside of a flower? I mean really looked, even with a magnifying glass. In my first botany lab as a university student, I was stunned by what I saw. As I looked through my scope the variety of designs astonished me. Flowers, being the reproductive organs of plants are designed to attract pollinators. Intricate designs provide landing sites for bees, butterflies and other bugs among stamens, pistils, and anthers. Lofty fragrances guide their way.
Humans are attracted too by flowers’ sexy ways. This week I took time out of a beautiful spring day to peek inside what is blooming about my yard.
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and winds and birds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
I think everyone has a special place in their memory that shaped their lives. Yosemite was mine. Every year from the time I was four years old until I was eleven, my family packed up our ‘56 red and white Chevy station wagon and went camping in Yosemite National Park. For two glorious weeks, we lived among the pines and I ran free scampering over granite rocks, playing in the creek and swimming in the Merced River. We slept under the stars and woke to the “shhhhh” of the Coleman stove where my mother was making hot cocoa and cooking Spam and eggs for breakfast. My older brother and I would walk to the Curry Village store to buy Charms suckers so huge, they would last for hours. To top off the day, every evening at 9:30 we watched the “Firefall” (no longer in existence). It began with a park ranger shouting from above “Let the fire fall!” followed by a cascade of bright red coals pushed over the top of Glacier Point 3000 feet up. We would “oooh” and “ahhh” never tiring of this spectacle.
My father took us on bike rides, hikes and mule rides. Then one year Dad hiked the Chilnualna Falls trail from Wawona with my older brother and me. I was maybe eight years old and my brother twelve. It was a challenging hike-4 ½ miles, pretty much up 2000 ft. Though the actual main waterfall cascaded unseen into a ravine below, the top rewarded us with a fabulous view and a wonderland of small cascades over granite in what I called “moon pools”. These were pools rounded from thousands of years of swirling water. I remember exploring these looking for bugs and tiny fish.
My father passed away on May 5, 2017. He requested that his ashes be scattered on top of Chilnualna Falls and so this last week we honored that request. I traveled from Oregon with my son and daughter-in-law and rendezvoused with my younger brother and my older brother and his wife in Yosemite. Over 50 years later we retraced our steps, climbing to the top of Chilnualna Falls where my father will have now have a forever view.
It was bittersweet to revisit Yosemite after so many years have passed. My childhood paradise is suffering from climate change and too many people, but there is still such beautiful magic among the granite cliffs and spires. I am forever grateful to my father for giving such happy family memories in this special place.
I learned to look for cairns when I began backpacking in the Sierra Nevada at a young age. Cairns are little towers of stacked rocks to mark the way of a path or trail. In the Sierras, they are especially helpful when traveling cross-country away from the main trail. They are a welcome sight on the granite terrain, knowing you are headed in the right direction.
Since my backpacking days, it seems my entire life I’ve been looking for cairns, literal or metaphorical. Now I build them, usually with my group three other women friends that I been adventuring with for going on over 25 years. Usually, these are for more spiritual reasons, sometimes to mark the passage of a loved one. It is a treasured ritual we have adopted. Below are some of the cairns we have built or come upon.
I just returned from a wonderful week visiting Vancouver Island B.C., Canada. Four nights of that stay were at the Point No Point Resort where myself and three of my friends enjoyed, among other things, beachcombing on the stunning beaches in the area. They provided a gallery of natural art.
I’m hoping my photographs can give you some idea of the beauty we encountered.
WordPress canceling the Weekly Photo Challenge is similar to a relationship ending with a text message. When I began blogging 1 1/2 years ago, the WPC provided a comforting structure. Every week I knew I could contribute something and connect with others. What fun it has been peeking into other bloggers lives with their photo interpretations of the prompt. I gained followers and I have followed others through the WPC.
Now without warning, reasons, or input, WordPress is eliminating this forum as well as the Daily Prompt. They say the community is still there but it’s akin to closing down the coffee shop where everybody meets. It’s the soul of WordPress. Since blogging is about voice, I am going to speak my mind to the powers above. I hope you will join me to encourage a return to the WPC. In the meantime…here are a few favorites from my travels that I posted in the past.