Alder Springs calls me. Nearly every year for at least the last eight years, I've taken my first hike of the spring to the place where spring comes first--Alder Springs in the Crooked River National Grasslands. Last year it was on a Land Trust geology hike. The year before with my newborn daughter. Before that with my son in my belly. Before that with my husband or friends. Why do I feel drawn there each spring? Because sun, warmth, and wildflowers can nearly always be found there, even when it is still snowing in Bend!
This year I made the trek with my husband once again--a sweetly gifted day--thanks Grandma and Grandad! We hit the trailhead late on a crazy 80 degree spring day that really felt like summer. I had forgotten that this part of the Grasslands burned last year fall, completely changing the face of this hike. The few trees that lined the trail down into the Whychus Creek Canyon are now charred black skeletons providing little shade or shelter for wildlife. But the ground around those burned trees was a vivid green--already showing signs of renewal and recovery.
We skirted the top of the canyon enjoying the few early spring flowers dotting the sagebrush flats. First gold fields, Crocidium multicaule, tiny yellow flowers carpeting the bare soil and adding some sun to the scene. Then, prairie star, Lithophragma parviflorum, with its sweet little white-pink flowers and sand lilies, Leucocrinum montanum, with their bright white flowers soaking in the sunshine. Finally a yellow bell, Fritillaria pudica, bravely open on the side of the trail, adding more yellow to the landscape. It's these early flowers, though small and easy to miss, that I look for each year to lift my spirits and convince me that spring will come.
As we descended down the steep trail to Whychus Creek and to the springs itself, we were surprised to find that the fire had burned right down to the creek. Large elderberry and alder bushes completely burned and even an old ponderosa pine. Surprisingly the interpretive sign that some brave soul must have carried down there survived. We crossed the cold and swift Whychus Creek and continued our way downstream relieved to find less fire damage as hiked.
We ate our lunch at the confluence of Whychus Creek and the Deschutes River, enjoying the loud roar of the water and the shade of the old ponderosa pines. Refueled and refreshed, we began the 3 mile trek back to our cars catching shade where we could and dipping our hats in the creek to stay cool. An arrowleaf balsamroot, Balsamorhiza sagitta, caught our eye, just starting to bloom in the sheltered nook of a rock. We were also amazed by some large logjams on the creek that must of accumulated during the winter. We could only imagine what fish might be hiding there!
The cold creek crossing felt wonderful on the return trip giving us a refreshing break before the final ascent. Though we were hot and ready to head home, we stopped along the way to admire a bright blue western bluebird and listen to its song. Relieved to see the car, we nearly missed the most showy flower of the day a dagger pod, Phoenicaulis cheiranthoides, with bright purple flowers hidden in the cleft of a rock right at the trailhead. We hopped in the car, blasted the air conditioning, guzzled some water and started talking about our next trip to Alder Springs. How would this landscape recover from the fire? Recovery had clearly begun, but what would follow? More flowers? Morels? How would it look next year? Guess we'll have to see...