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.
We were driving back from a blissful writing workshop up in a remote area in E. Oregon when we came back into cell service. I’ll never forget my friend, Linda saying “Oh my god- there’s this thing called a heat dome that’s moving into the Pacific NW. It’s going to get up to 116 degrees F!” Seriously I thought she was joking until she insisted it was true.
We live in a place where occasionally we will experience triple-digit temperatures in the low hundreds but not this. These are Death Valley or Phoenix temps.- not Oregon. Another blow- last year it was the forest fires and now in late June extreme heat. Add to that the pandemic, politics and it’s beyond cataclysmic.
My house has no AC. There have been few times we have needed it as it is well insulated. This time, however, since it only dropped into the high 80s at night the house would not cool off and remained at 89 degrees inside. This was intolerable- especially for me as I am highly sensitive to the heat and can get ill.
September has been a gruesome month in my home state of Oregon. We were traumatized by wildfires and smoke that began Labor Day Weekend staying in our homes for 10 days to avoid breathing the toxic cloud of air that descended over the state. Thousand of people were evacuated from their homes. The fires ravaged over a million acres of land burning several 2800 structures including homes and businesses. About 11 people lost their lives. Many are homeless and without jobs. The towns of Detroit Lake, Talent, and Phoenix were decimated as with many communities up the McKenzie River Hwy. Many of the larger fires are still burning.
Particularly heartbreaking to me is knowing that some of my favorite places were hit especially hard; the Breitenbush Hot Springs Community, the McKenzie River corridor, and the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center and Wilderness. These were places that recharged my soul. Nature will renew them- but not in my lifetime. It looks like my ashes will be scattered among the ashes.
We are among the lucky. Thus far we have only lost power and internet service. There is a fire a few miles away but it seems to be holding. My heart goes out to those who have lost everything and the 500,00 who have had to undergo the stress of evacuations.
As Oregon Burns
A dry wind howls from the east
We extinguish the candles
and do not sleep
As Oregon burns
A black cloud draws across the sky like a flat curtain
“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.
Last night we left our comfy pocket of country life and headed up to check out the last night of the Portland Winter Light Festival. This is an annual event where light artists present installations and personal performances on both sides of the Willamette River for the public to enjoy for free. The event is a family affair intentionally designed to take place when everyone is weary of the dark, rainy days and long nights of winter that the Pacific Northwest has to offer.
You may walk across one of the bridges to see it all or take a boat that leaves on the half-hour. Another option is to dress up in your best-illuminated paraphernalia and participate in the Light Parade that walks from one side of the festival to the other.
There was not enough time for us to experience more than the west side. (Darn- I really wanted to see the neon Hoola hoopers) From what we saw, the fire dancer performance was the most impressive. Though I admired the installations, by far the most enjoyable part for us was seeing the children’s delight as they interacted with the light exhibits. Then, of course, was the “Keep Portland Wierd” factor. We spied a plethora of illuminated strollers, dogs, and individuals creatively lit up with all manner of LED bulbs. There was an awesome jellyfish gal that got away from me before I could take a picture…
If you happen to be in Portland in early February stop into the Winter Light Festival – a truly unique experience.
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.
The start of our winter was mild with temps in the upper 50s and sunny skies. The bulbs were fooled into poking their heads up a month early. I worried about another summer of unseasonably warm temperatures and drought. The snowpack was low. Now our familiar Western Oregon weather has returned. Rain and even a little snow dusts the yard. There was even enough powder snow where friends and I drove up to Mount Hood last week for a day of cross-country skiing. I haven’t been able to do that in years.
I celebrate winter. This is my creative time. It is a time to come inside, literally and figuratively. Nature needs rest and renewal and so do we.
THE RAINS CAME
And the humans complained
But not the Earth who soaked the sky water deep into all its pores
Nor the trees who quenched their thirst in grateful gulps from deep roots
Nor the bulbs gathering strength for their dazzling spring displays
Nor the deer hungry for tender green grass
Nor the salmon longing to swim upstream
Nor the bees dreaming of anthers heavy with gold pollen and pistels leading to chambers of sweet nectar
Nor the seeds shivering with anticipation of their impending emergence
Nor the bears conjuring images of plump berries in their sleep
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” ― Albert Camus
The Fall Equinox has passed and I am absolutely thrilled to be deep in the autumn colors. This is the season where I am released from the obligations of tending to biomass. Living on acreage in W. Oregon we have our share. We have a big garden, an orchard, lawn and flower beds. It’s a place where plants like to grow.
The rains have begun, the garden is torn out, the flower beds are mulched for the winter, and the firewood is in and stacked. This frees up more time to concentrate on my artwork, writing, and music. I sing in a women’s choir and we are getting ready for our holiday show. Additionally, I play the bodhran, an Irish drum and am learning to play the tenor guitar. Travels are finished for the year. It’s good to be home.
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.