Monday, January 27, 2014

What I Did On My Winter Vacation

Day Two, post-Klamath-Basin-vacation-redux.  Appropriately, the weather here is dingy and uncertain, a sort of “welcome home” to the Columbia/Willamette valley in midwinter.  It’s supposed to start raining this evening, and continue raining through Friday.  Can’t say I’m looking forward to that…but we do need the rain.  The West has suffered from a dire lack of wet this winter, and they’re already fighting fires in the coast range—an unheard-of thing for January.  While the rest of the country is getting buried under (our) tons of precipitation, we are drying up and blowing away. 

Our time in southern Oregon was mostly satisfactory, but not nearly as magical as last year’s sojourn.  The lingering effects of our encounter with H1N1 kept us from taking best advantage of the dry, sunny weather.  When you still feel fragile, brittle and breathless around the edges, you don’t plan long hikes into the back country or climb scrubby hills to eagle perches. 

We did manage a short walk in the snow at Crater Lake—to which we never had any expectations of being able to navigate in midwinter.  The fifteen-foot snow poles—those tall sticks placed at intervals along mountain roads that are meant to guide snow-removal equipment through snowfalls normally measured in feet—sprouted in gangly nakedness along the roadside up to the lake.  In a normal year, only a few inches of those poles might be visible in the middle of January.  The scary-dry weather, that will undoubtedly turn out to be problematic as we head into spring and summer, at least presented us with an opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do:  see Crater Lake in the snow. 

That unexpected treat, along with our two-mile hike through Captain Jack’s Stronghold,  (click on the link--it’s a fascinating story), were the good things bestowed upon us, to balance out the major negative brought about by the unusual weather:  the marked absence of wildlife.  

Last year when we were in Klamath, I’m guessing that the weather was much closer to normal for this time of year than it has been this winter.  It rained, it snowed, it sleeted, it fogged (the fog was the best—my first experience of hoar frost…I was completely enchanted) AND we saw enough of the sun to allow us to shake off the foggy-rainy-northwestern-valley blues.  Temperatures ranged from below zero to almost fifty during our seven days in the Basin last year.  Wonky weather, for sure, but apparently much more conducive to raptor and prey animal activity.

This year, besides the unyielding bright and dry weather, the Basin was recovering from the effects of an unusual cold snap in mid-December.  The early sub-zero temperatures froze large reaches of shallow water from an earlier storm.  Normally, these areas would have been much dryer before that kind of cold arrived. Since December, there has been little rain—which would melt the ice—and the temps plunge into the high teens every night.  So, where last year there were fields of grass and forage dotted with pockets of open water or swamp to attract prey animals, this year, there are miles and miles of skating ponds.  The habitat looked more like tundra than marsh.  The places where there was open water were far from the viewing areas—not reachable by car, foot or boat.  It was frustrating to be able to hear the voices of thousands of water fowl, but have them be so far away you could rarely catch even a distant glimpse of them.   With water fowl and field animal habitat so compromised in areas that were anywhere near the viewing routes, sightings and photo-ops were slim pickings. 

Honestly, I’m only taking educated guesses about why the visible cast of characters on the refuge differed so markedly from last year to this.  The only thing I know for a fact is that where last year we saw hundreds of raptors, several eagles and many owls, this year we saw…deer.  By the dozens.  And a fair number of pheasant and grouse.  But almost no ducks, a few small flights of snow geese (and one impossibly huge flock which we could not get anywhere near), a swan here and there, and some flocks of Canadas foraging in half-thawed farm fields.

Had it not been for one spur-of-the-moment side trip along the precarious shore of Upper Klamath Lake, with juniper forest straight up on one side, and on the other, the lake in spitting distance from the one-way dirt road—which I’ve no doubt would have been impassable had weather conditions been usual for this time of year—we would have come away from this vacation without any outstanding wildlife encounter to treasure.  But we did chance that dirt road, and were rewarded by a visit with an unflappable and photogenic little soul with whom I fell head-over-heels in love:  an engaging little ball of feathers which I later identified as a Northern Pygmy Owl.

This vacation was also notable for at least one other thing that has nothing to do, really, with wildlife or weather.  The husband and I managed to spend six solid days in close proximity to one another without yelling, bickering, pouting or tears.  And when we got home, we still liked each other enough not to immediately head in opposite directions.  Given the normal state of our relationship, this is a surprising and good thing!

So, today is the first day of the rest of 2014.  And even though our interlude in southern Oregon didn’t quite measure up to last year’s in some ways, I think it has deposited us rested and refreshed on the threshold of the new year.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to have a plan…    


1 comment:

  1. Aside from the scant wildlife sightings, it sounds like a lovely holiday. And that owl….what a delight!