It was Monday morning, Earth Day, and my husband, Chuck Logsdon, and I were driving from Bend toward Sisters, first on Highway 20 then, after a few turns, on gravel roads through juniper woodlands to a small parking area tucked into the trees for an Earth Day hike. Our leader, Mary Crow, and co-leader, Ginny Elliott, were visiting with the early arrivals.
The last car pulled up and Mary began introductions with some of her background, telling us she is a retired librarian “who knows a little about a lot of things” and a volunteer hike leader with the Deschutes Land Trust. Eight people had shown up to hike through the Whychus Canyon Preserve. We introduced ourselves, and learned that everyone had a passion for nature and the outdoors. One person was a retired forester; another was a wild plant specialist; one man carried a camera with a huge lens. I am working on my Oregon Master Naturalist certificate and blog about nature and literature.
Earth Day is a day of education and action and walking through a nature preserve allows time to consider scenarios of change and protection. Mary asked us to think about what we could do for the earth, a theme that she clearly carries with her every day. She reached into the back of her car and brought out a kitchen scrub brush, explaining the importance of cleaning our boots after hiking so we don’t accidentally carry seeds to the next place we visit.
Introducing the hike, Mary explained that we would follow the Whychus Canyon trail opposite the customary direction because on her previous hike she had been intrigued following the route-in-reverse. I think this is how our brains work. Recently, I had a poetry critique session and the poet who had analyzed my poems showed me the page upside-down, a view which changed the poem I had written into an unfamiliar landscape. The same effect surely occurs when following a trail opposite the customary direction but Chuck and I had not yet hiked in Whychus Canyon Preserve so Mary’s route-in-reverse is now our customary route.
Within fifty yards of the parking, we passed a sign pointing to the trail that would have taken us directly into the canyon but we continued along a fairly level dirt road through mixed woodlands of juniper and pine. The morning was breezy and seemed chillier each time a cloud-shadow sped across our path.
There are many firsts worth remembering. Seeing bitterroot is one. Last spring, still new to eastern Oregon, I encountered bitterroot for the first time as exquisite pink-tinted blooms the size of my palm scattered across rocky ground as if tossed from a bouquet. Now, in the center of the old road, we saw small clumps of long narrow leaves with waxy white blooms. “Sand lilies,” Mary said. Like bitterroot, the sand lilies grew alone, isolated from other plants by an expanse of stony soil, and for me, like bitterroot, were unforgettable.
In the juniper forest, we stopped to look at wildflowers. We stopped again where the woods opened up to a meadow which looked like an expanse of sagebrush and Mary explained that the meadow had been part of a homestead. Along the track we had been following, rusted cans and silvered timbers were the only visible evidence of past habitation. There were no old cabins or barns and the question of water lingered.
Each of us carried a bottle of water. Mary mentioned that no well had been found and we speculated how water might have been hauled out of the steep canyon, whether carried in buckets or using cables and pulleys but no one has found evidence of that, either.
How much water is needed for a homestead, for people and livestock, and to grow crops or gardens during the hot summers? Does this depend on the difficulty of acquiring water?
In the woodlands, wildflowers spread beneath junipers like daubs of bright yellow paint, flowers named “gold field” or “gold star”. I rarely try to identify the truly miniscule wildflowers because I don’t think I can see enough details to find a match in the plant book but now I suspect the problem is that I don’t have a magnifying lens. I looked back and saw one of the hikers, flat on the ground staring through his hand lens at a flower so tiny it might as well have been invisible. When he stood up, he said, “Spring draba. Probably.” I’m now quite certain a hand lens would be worthwhile.
A hike leader has places she wishes to stop so everyone can catch their breath or take more time to observe the surroundings. Mary paused beside a gnarled and twisted juniper with lichen a shade of chartreuse clinging to the lower branches. She asked how old we thought the juniper was. The retired forester in our group suggested two hundred years—long before settlers and homesteaders arrived in eastern Oregon.
Our relationship with junipers is knotty. Over the last century, with fewer wildfires and more grazing, junipers expanded their range and now the conundrum relates to water. A medium juniper can use thirty gallons of water per day, water that otherwise might sustain other species.
Ecosystem management comes with difficulties. One of our group said junipers support twelve species and another mentioned that the Townsend’s Solitaire depends on junipers.
We continued on, the morning warming somewhat. At what seemed to be a bare area Mary warned us “don’t walk there, the crust is very fragile.” What looked like a wasteland was actually a delicate cryptobiotic soil that appeared cracked and dry-looking with mosses and lichens and some low-growing plants, all adapted to survive in an arid environment but also able to utilize any moisture that materializes.
The trail tended downward with more pines and fewer junipers and now also shrubs—antelope bitterbrush, sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and wax currant. The wax currant bushes had already leafed out and were flowering with tiny blooms, taking advantage of moisture that comes from snowmelt and sometimes spring rain.
The plan was to eat lunch on the rimrock above Whychus Canyon. We climbed up a cleft to the basalt edge where the view included houses on the opposite rim and, upriver and to the south, the North Sister gleamed with new snow. Sitting at the edge of a canyon and on top of an ancient lava flow, I thought about how volcanoes reshape landscapes and the power of a stream to carve through rock.
After lunch, we hiked into the canyon on a trail that switchbacked down the steep hillside where junipers had been cut, opening the view which we might think was “for us” but the real value comes from making space for sagebrush, pines, and other plants and wildlife. At one sharp corner in the trail we admired “sagebrush buttercups”. Below us, it was early spring along Whychus Creek and the willows still had no leaves.
Managing nature is a tricky business. Creation of the Whychus Canyon Preserve prevented the sale of lots and no houses will be built along the edge of the canyon where we hiked, but we watched a dog chasing a herd of deer below a house on the opposite rim and heard kids yelling at the dog. Where we hiked, the Whychus Canyon Preserve protects history, letting rusted cans and house timbers disintegrate slowly and without interference.
Other projects in the Preserve come as a result of actions taken decades ago. Mary explained plans to restore Whychus Creek to the more looping and meandering channel from before the mid-1960s when the Corps of Army Engineers channelized the stream. At that time, the response to flooding was to speed water away from the flood-prone area by straightening the channel. In the last forty-five years, approaches to flood control have changed along with the desire to again have streams with fish runs, like steelhead, that existed in earlier times.
We walked upstream along Whychus Creek. At a spot that had been on the floodplain prior to channelization, Mary said if we returned in July or August we would be standing in a meadow of purple penstemon. I imagined masses of wildflowers but then also a very hot climb out of the canyon. Ginny Elliott, the hike co-leader, after talking about efforts to eradicate invasive plants, reached down and picked up a dried plant with long branching roots, that she identified as a spotted knapweed dug up last summer.
The lesson relates to the difficulty of re-creating and then maintaining a place like it was before fast long-distance travel became the norm. There is wisdom in Mary’s suggestion, to keep a boot brush in the car and clean our boots after hiking—to not be the person who brings seeds of non-native and invasive plants into a pristine place.
As we lingered in Whychus Canyon, a butterfly fluttered past so slowly that we could see the orange patches at the tips of its white wings. Another butterfly, with a yellowish tint, alighted on a wildflower, but only for a moment.
The climb out of the canyon was steep. We stopped a couple times to rest and admire the view but then, too soon, we were back where we had parked and Mary asked if we had thought about the question from before the hike: what each of us can do for the earth—an important question indeed, on Earth Day or any day.