Where on Earth?! Webcams on Wildlife

Published Sept. 8 on Stanford University’s MHAB blog site,  http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/webcams-on-wildlife/

                  Can technology help connect people and artists with the natural beauty of this world, while reducing the footprints we leave?  Artist Terry J. Woodall shares his experiences from studying, sculpting, sharing and protecting the incredible freshwater seals of Russia’s Lake Baikal.


The Sentinel (2009) Baikal Seal, Bronze, 7x19x12 inches, © Terry Woodall

The Sentinel (2009) Baikal Seal, Bronze, 7x19x12 inches, © Terry Woodall

For nature artists, the doors opened by up-to-date and futuristic technology are many. Options for wildlife observations have grown with stationary webcams, tiny cameras riding piggyback on wildlife subjects, remote controlled model airplanes [eco-drones] with video cams, and night vision-motion activated trail cameras. Some of these methods, like trail cameras, are easily available for an artist’s own research projects. Drones are the latest tool for accessing wildlife that is difficult to observe. Some models are now being used to monitor orangutan habitat in Indonesia, protect rhinos and elephants in Nepal, and to count chimps in Tanzania.

All of these new methods of wildlife observation points to a future of less human disturbances of the animals and their habitats, improving on the well-being of the natural world. An example in point and a method I personally followed and encouraged is a web cam installation in the wilderness of Siberia. This began with my artistic field study on Lake Baikal, Russia.

A career long interest in aquatic mammals initiated my proposal for an artistic field study of the freshwater Baikal Seals as a Flag Expedition, which is a study program of rare and endangered wildlife and their habitats sponsored by the Artists for Conservation Foundation. Besides being unique as the world’s only freshwater seal species, they reside in a land locked Siberian lake of extraordinary physical features.

The initial focus of the 2008 expedition was to actually locate and observe the animals. That is a daunting task for a species spending most of their lives in water, in one of the world’s largest lakes, and one that is surrounded by rugged wilderness. To assure close encounters with the species and for researching them, I enlisted the aid of key Lake Baikal entities:  Zabaikalsky National Park and its nerpa habitat, Baikal Wave environmental organization, The Nature Museum of Irkutsk, and the Tahoe-Baikal Institute head quartered in Lake Tahoe, California.

Although Lake Baikal is vast, it also confines the seals, which is an opportunity to monitor them as an indicator pinniped species in the face of climate change and other impacts. Lake Baikal serves as a living laboratory representing all the world’s pinnipeds, which are far flung and difficult to study. Using this lake as a mechanism for monitoring pinnipeds coping with climate changes has another advantage. For over a century, Russian scientists have kept accurate records on climate and seal numbers and continue to monitor the seal’s well-being.

 Baikal Curl (2013) Baikal Seal, Bronze, 18x16x13 inches, © Terry Woodall

Baikal Curl (2013) Baikal Seal, Bronze, 18x16x13 inches, © Terry Woodall

One project that I pledged to support, which was only conversation during my flag expedition visitations with the Limniological Institute and the remote seal habitat, has now become a reality. Scientists and biologists from the Lake Baikal Museum have installed a web cam on the remote Ushkanii Islands, where numerous Baikal Seals gather every summer and where my AFC artistic field study took place. The museum is now presenting real time video feeds of this seal rookery on large screens, which can also be viewed on their website. Their objective is for the world to see the only freshwater seals without traveling to their sensitive habitat, a method that could be helpful in protecting other species by limiting human disturbance.

Unfortunately, it is possible that rare and exotic wildlife in their own wild surroundings will become less accessible in the future. There are those who say too much eco-tourism access harms the environment, such as popular hiking trails of Nepal that become littered with trash.  Too many people can love a critical habitat to death. More fragile wildlife areas are becoming off limits to human access as habitat diminishes, and in a new trend, sometimes replaced with webcam visuals for the public. This is the direction taken by Russian biologists and authorities at Lake Baikal’s Ushkanni Islands to protect their rare freshwater seals.

Such a progression is a double edged sword. On one hand, the Baikal island wilderness that I explored, devoid of any lights or cell phone towers on horizons in all directions, has been invaded with mechanical devices of wire and steel set in concrete. For most artists, nothing can substitute for “being out there.” Obtaining visual material that every nature artist utilizes is a challenging task, albeit usually an enjoyable task when in the field.  Field work remains an important privilege for many artists, not only for observing, but also for living the experience and interacting with nature. The same breeze batting your face sets a bird into flight, as an artist attempts to grasp the full spirit of nature events.

On the other hand, visitors at the Baikal Museum, which is in the most populated fringes of the lake, can now access views of this wilderness and its rare wildlife subjects by virtue of this installation, a wind-powered webcam. Millions of people worldwide can now observe these rare seals in real time via the internet, without visiting or disturbing the actual site.

A similar project is planned on the Oregon Coast near my home and art studio. Simpson Reef hosts four species of pinnipeds that are closed off to public access and is particularly restricted during the harbor seal birthing season. Roadside sites with sweeping overviews of seal and whale activity are open to the public. About five miles from these reefs in the fishing village of Charleston, a new marine life museum has opened. Part of the long term plan for the University of Oregon center, and one which I hope to be involved in, is to connect pinniped activities to a museum viewing screen via webcam.

Since we are tossed about between the fine line of disturbing the wildlife that we revere and enjoying the access for observing them, the technology for observing from further distances may be a positive trend. More people will have the opportunity to enjoy nature and become more appreciative of the wonderful gifts of the natural world without leaving any footprints.

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Where on Earth?! Hood River

We had never been here before, and a brushy, steep slope made river access a challenge as we made our way down an old, overgrown logging track seeking trails to the water’s edge.  The river plunged through a deep canyon to our left, and our every attempt to reach the waterway ended at the edge of cliffs a full hundred feet above our goal.  An ominously steep grassy meadow adorned with a makeshift cross memorial sloped down to the abrupt drop off, and I thought of a child losing his footing.   However, “No Diving” signs appeared about the same time and macho young males diving from the cliffs into the punchbowl below quickly replaced the child of my concerns.

As we returned back to the main track, a fisherman appeared up ahead, coming up the old road from the downhill slope to the river.  At six in the morning, he was the only other soul on the river, and two large salmon dangled from each of his hands.  An obvious local steeped in the ways of “the Hood,” the long haired guy jokingly ducked out of sight as if to hide his good luck catches of the early morning light.  Hardened fishermen have a non-disclosure tendency when it comes to secret fishing holes and successful techniques, and he wished to avoid attention.

Following his new found passion, my son Josh had recruited me for this break of dawn pursuit.  Armed with a degree in biology and time spent at Hogg’s Jo/Mar Hardcore Tackle Shop across the street from his home, Josh was well equipped to pursue the salmonids that call the northwest rivers their home.

As the fellow fisherman returned to the road and continued his homeward trek past us, I laughed and admired his catches, prodding him about the river’s secrets.  “Can we access the river somewhere off the edge along here?”  I queried.  “Oh sure,” he replied, “If you want to pay a ten thousand dollar fine.”  This sounded far fetched to us at the time, but we later learned a fifty thousand dollar fine could be rendered just for catching and keeping an endangered bull trout.

“Oh, we know there is a “no fishing” boundary line somewhere just below the falls down there,” I responded.  This waterfall poured into the punchbowl, which was protected from fishing along with everything else upstream.  As he trudged off with his two fine catches of the day, he softened up and turned back to us.  “Just keep going ‘til this road ends, then take a trail the left.  It will take you straight down to the river.”  Though some fishermen play games with lack of advice or blatant misinformation, this fellow was obviously sincere, and, sure enough, we made our way down to a gravel bar buffering a perfect salmon hole.

What a magical spot!  Just below the punchbowl and its waterfalls, the gravel bar was at the apex of the East and West forks of the Hood River.  The East fork on our right rushed down in an impassible torrent, crashing into the gentle West fork that backed up into the deep and wide salmon rest stop.  After this confluence, the main fork rushed onwards to its meeting with the Columbia.

On its approach to the punchbowl, the west fork funnels through a long, narrow chute lined with vertical cliffs a hundred feet in height.  The cliffs widen out into a giant bowl as the torrent spills over a rock ledge and into the natural amphitheater carved into the basalt cliffs of the gorge.  Opposite the main falls, another beautifully plumed waterfall cascades into the bowl from a greater height, originating from a smaller side creek.  This powerful sanctuary of nature has been revered by Native Americans for its bounty of teeming salmon since its discovery by the earliest of peoples.

Those admirable “fish in the hands” of the lucky fellow passing by were spring run chinook salmon, or “Springers”, and along with the summer steelhead moving through these waters, were the main target of our fishing endeavor.  Swimming from the ocean into the rivers to spawn in the fall is the natural cycle of the salmon, but some chinooks hold out to feed in the ocean for an extra four or five months and complete their river migration in the spring and early summer.  These Springers are highly sought after by those in the know and salmon connoisseurs, for these fish are extra rich and oily due to their extended feeding.  I have been fortunate enough to have these fish, and when lightly grilled within hours of being caught, it is an experience worthy of any gourmet’s bucket list.

But as it turned out, not this time, and we left the river empty handed.  Josh lamented that we missed the break of dawn and the best window for success, which our passerby had met, while we were an hour later [although we were on another section of the main stem at dawn}.  Still, such an outdoor experience is not without merit; there is the excitement of the chase along with the peaceful therapy of being immersed in magnificent riverside nature settings, and I received an unexpected reward shortly afterwards.

In an amazing coincidence, a flyer landed in my mail box the day after our fishing adventure with a banner proclaiming “We Did It!” It was from Western Rivers Conservancy, a progressive organization that works to protect rivers of the American West while keeping them in the public domain.   The full color photo on the polished brochure was of the exact spot we had been fishing!  The confluence of the East and West Fork Hood River! And the headline proclaimed that WRC had successfully deeded the surrounding land to the county park system, including the entire punchbowl falls area.

: “Myrtlewood Migration”, by Terry Woodall, and part of the 2008 “Salmon for the Sandy” fundraiser sponsored by WRC, is on permanent display at One World Trade Center, ground floor window, on Salmon Street in downtown Portland, Oregon. Length: 48”

: “Myrtlewood Migration”, by Terry Woodall, and part of the 2008 “Salmon for the Sandy” fundraiser sponsored by WRC, is on permanent display at One World Trade Center, ground floor window, on Salmon Street in downtown Portland, Oregon. Length: 48”

WRC has worked ardently to protect some of the most terrific stretches of wilderness waters in the west, and I have given them my full support ever since being involved in a fund raising event with salmon art works [see photo].


"Myrtlewood Migration" Detail

“Myrtlewood Migration” Detail

Where on Earth?!  Hood River, Oregon.  The river called “The Hood” is fed by glaciers and snow melt of that monolith of the Cascade Mountains, and Oregon’s highest peak, Mt. Hood.

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Where on Earth?! Columbia River

“Teeming” is an oft used term to describe the spectacles of numbers in nature.  “Countless” also comes to mind, and these terms speak well to air borne species when they appear in great abundance.

Although insects harbor the most numbers, a better term for, say, numerous ants covering a counter top might be “hordes”, hordes of ants, or perhaps a frantic “gawd zillion” would aptly frame the moment.  Masses on the move.  But birds, our avian friends, can have colors, serenity, gracefulness and unique demeanors that, when displayed in great numbers, rises to the top of nature’s wildest revelations.  Even ordinary, everyday birds.

For many years, from my wooded hillsides, I have observed a pattern of movement that occurs at dusk; on late summer evenings when light is fading, but also year round.  Always at dusk.  Usually I hear them first, sometimes I see them first, and almost always they follow the far ridge line across the narrow valley deep into the Coast Range foothills.  Rarely, they will flock directly overhead. Presumably, they navigate the ridge line to their secret and secluded forest roosts.

They are flocks of cawing, clamoring crows, distant legions darkening the rosy twilight.  Black crows just like every other black crow, only compounded into impressive numbers.  The explanation for this sometimes daily exodus might be that they are heading for the hills after a hard day of scavenging sandwiches and other tid-bits from the towns nearby. On one occasion, they pecked holes in a bag of dog food left in the back of my pickup truck in a downtown parking lot, and were still going at it when I returned to the vehicle and shooed them away.   From my hillside vantage point, downtown would be down the valley and across the bay, about five miles, well, “as the crow flies”.

Just when the streams of black, flapping wings on the far horizon seem endless, a break in the swarming cloud would signal a diminishing.  In the gaps of open sky, stragglers would keep coming, small groups of five to ten at a time, squawking to keep up with the mother ship, until there was only open sky.  Yet, unbelievably, another major flock would follow in waves, and on and on it would go, until finally, a few cawing also-rans would be the end of it.  But wait, there’s two more intent on catching up.

Transition from this ridgescape to a seascape sixty miles south, and a major coastal highway parallels the constant swells of the Pacific Ocean with wide vistas of sand to surf line at eye level.  Directly to the west of the straight and level route, hillocks of sand topped with tufts of dune grass appear like moguls on a ski run.  This bumpy section of dune scape becomes laced with channels and ponds of water separated from the voluminous Pacific by another stretch of dune moguls and a continuous sand berm that forms the last feeble defense against the forceful ocean.  Finally, a wide expanse of tide swept beach, damp and cleaned by receding waves, completes the meeting of land and sea.

Normally this expansive sea coast vista is devoid of everything except drift logs scattered like twisted pretzels and occasional pockets of sea stacks that define the numerous beach boundaries.  But on one special trip south along this coastline, the description of “teeming” birds came into full focus.

The typical sight of seagulls scattered along these beaches became more and more apparent, until larger than normal groups were commonplace.  After passing another sea stack barrier, the beach exploded with phenomenal numbers of seagulls.  Every square foot of sand was home to a seagull, thousands upon thousands of them, as mile after mile of wide beaches were occupied by the countless masses.  The scene was like the gathering of breeding colonies documented on Antarctic isles.

Numbers of western gulls can reach 10,000 in breeding colonies on islands offshore of California during the bird’s nesting and breeding period of May through July.  Since I observed the afore mentioned  event in mid- November and much further north than the California gatherings, the purpose of this particular gull fest remains a mystery to me.

It’s not the end of this main artery south along the coast, but with nightfall it is the end of our time traveling its route.  We step outside our destination hotel that is like a stylish “little Italy” and clamber aboard a boisterous cable car.  Clanging along, people dangling from its sides, the cable car grinds up and up the steep hill, a hill with a name.  Nob Hill.  At the top of Nob Hill, with city lights sparkling below, we pile out in front of a modest but ornate concert hall.  The fevered throngs sweep us inside, where Van Morrison carries the night.

Another place, another era back in the currents of time, and I am piloting a hippie van south, way south.  A real hippie van, a VW bus converted into a camper, complete with a homemade, pop up sunroof.   A leaky sunroof, but we are on an adventure and we are happy.

The colors start with a few bright dots appearing on the mundane stretches of swampland that separate the highway from the gulf stream waters.  As we roll along, the colors multiply, until the vast swamps are coated in bright pink with splashes of white. The now awe inspiring vistas of these lowland swamps are filled with thousands of Roseate Spoonbills,  tall waders as bright pink as their flamingo cousins.

After miles of this spectacle of nature, another call of nature beckons and I coast to a stop alongside the sparsely traveled road.   A modest expanse of knee high grass buffers the road from the inland jungle, and I wade in halfway to the tree line.  After doing my part to help irrigate the roadside strip, I noticed a tire partly buried in the grass close by.   But it is not a black tire.  It is a slate gray tire.  Curiosity set in, and I poked at the not so normal looking tire with a stick.  Immediately, a slender head attached to a very long neck shot up from the tall grass about ten feet away from my prodding stick.   Fierce eyes zeroed in like laser beams as the round gray tire began to uncoil and sprawl out.

My curiosity satisfied, I escaped the boa constrictors neighborhood within milliseconds and once again prodded the VW bus into travel mode.

Colors contribute much to the spectacles of bird life, but even shades of white have an appeal.  Great white birds appeared in another theater of nature where pinnacles of dark conifers and stately hardwoods buffer a wide river of the deepest jade green.  One ancient hardwood has many worn down branches and tree segments battered open as it struggles for dominance along a crowded river bank, and these openings are occupied by a colony of Great Egrets.  The bare branches and the many hollow spots in the tree’s structure, which shows signs of previous nest building, create ready made perches for the preening egrets.  Looking across the river at the brilliant white egrets filling this enormous tree is an impressive sight, and I counted close to seventy of the large birds.

In yet another northwest drainage, many ponds, small lakes, lagoons and streams buffer the Columbia River from the abrupt cliff walls that line the gorge with thousand foot ridges, and even more water pours directly off the cliffs forming numerous waterfalls.  One string of connected lakes hosted a hundred or more tundra swans involved in gentle rhythms of nature.  Clustered together at the base of a cliff, they slowly swam to and fro, around and around, occasionally dipping their long necks in the shallows, beaks uploading the rich nutrients of the deep mud.  A nameless waterfall streamed down the cliff face behind them, creating a pastoral scene of the winter migrants.  Two more rafts of swans content with their winter haven were also spread out in the string of small lakes.

In the feathered world, pure white seems as vibrant a color as any, especially for larger species, and another spectacle of nature unfolded when the subtle, neutral  color was refracted by crowds of graceful waterfowl.

Tundra swans and unnamed waterfall

Tundra swans and unnamed waterfall


Where on Earth?!   Ridge top crows; coastal foothills of Coos Bay, Oregon.  Seagulls; Southern Oregon Coast, 2013.  Roseate Spoonbills; gulf coast near Tampico, Mexico, winter 1976.  Great Egrets; Coos River, Oregon.  Tundra Swans; Columbia River, Oregon, winter 2016.

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Where on Earth?! Easton, Maryland, 2015

The evening of November 12 kicks off the 45th Annual Easton Waterfowl Festival, a celebration of waterfowl and conservation in the Chesapeake Bay region.  The downtown area of quaint and colonial Easton, Maryland, is transformed into numerous art venues and sporting activities through Sunday, November 15.

After accepting an invitation to exhibit at this event, my focus became the driftwood art forms that had achieved awards at the recent Artists for Conservation exhibition and would have an appeal in the marshland environment;  herons, eagles, pelicans, all carved from driftwood.  However, the usually smooth sailing of preparing works for an art event was upended in the October chaos that ensued.

Driftwood Eagle, by Terry Woodall

Driftwood Eagle, by Terry Woodall

Finally, a few days ago, I finished building a five foot tall plywood crate nailed to a pallet.  In went a four foot humpback whale and its driftwood-wave base, an equally tall pelican snatching a fish, numerous herons and more, all carved from driftwood and myrtlewood.  On went the lid and off it goes to be presented in the Armory Building for my second debut in the festival.

And that October chaos? Early in the month, surreal and bizarre real life events unfolded that almost negated any plans I had of exhibiting my art on the other side of the continent.  It began with the dreadful Umpqua Community College shooting.

You see, in 1933 my mother was born in Roseburg, Oregon, and I was born there, as were all of my siblings and most of my children.  Although my adult life was spent a hundred miles away on the Pacific Ocean coastline, I was raised in the vicinity of Roseburg, and attended that same college years ago.

On top of that emotional impact, I spent most of the following week by my mother’s side as she slowly slipped away from an illness.  At her bedside a week after the shooting, I watched the television as the president landed a few miles away and bivouacked at her old high school. She would have liked that.  She passed away the next day.

October is over, life begins anew, and things are falling into place again, after just more evidence that “life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.”  [John Lennon]

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Best in Show, “Matters of the Heart”

"Matters of the Heart" by Terry Woodall

“Matters of the Heart” by Terry Woodall

A driftwood sculpture of two herons, “Matters of the Heart”, was honored with the “Best in Show” award at the 8th Annual Artists for Conservation International Exhibit of Nature Art in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Artist Terry Woodall was also presented with a Medal of Excellence Award at the gala opening night of September 10 at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in downtown Vancouver.

AFC President Jeffery Whiting, left, presents Terry Woodall with his awards.

AFC President Jeffery Whiting, left, presents Terry Woodall with his awards.

“Matters of the Heart” will continue to be on display with the Artists for Conservation art exhibit at the Grouse Mountain Resort in North Vancouver September 19 – 30.

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Where on Earth?! Vancouver, B.C. Art Exhibition

"Matters of the Heart", 18"H x 20"W, by Terry Woodall

“Matters of the Heart”, 18″H x 20″W, by Terry Woodall

“Matters of the Heart”, a driftwood sculpture of herons, has been selected for the 8th Annual “Art of Conservation” art exhibition and festival that opens Thursday, September 10 at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in  downtown Vancouver, B.C., Canada.  The Artists for Conservation Foundation sponsors the event which features selected artworks from its 500 members.

Terry Woodall was also formally invited to be one of 15 featured artists exhibiting additional works in a new expansion of the Art Festival’s premier exhibit.  The art exhibit runs through the weekend and continues from September 19 through the 30th at the Grouse Mountain Resort, the location of past art openings.

To be featured at the opening event is the Simon Combes Award- winner Karen Laurence-Rowe of Kenya, Featured International Artist John Banovich and AFC Festival Patron Brent Cooke.

Localities of a North American tour of the exhibit in 2016 will be announced at a later date. For more information on the 2015 AFC Art Festival, see http://www.artistsforconservation.org


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Where on Earth?! Eagle Cap Wilderness

Looming up ahead of the trail like a giant puff of cotton candy was a rounded pink boulder, a boulder that was an entire mountain of the pinkest hue imaginable for a solitary peak.  Last in line in a wall of gray and white crags scraping the afternoon sky, this sharply contrasting bluff wasn’t coated in pink wild flowers, nor was it the reddish hue of southwest mesas.  Except for a very few scattered pockets of evergreens, the mountain was devoid of vegetation, and its enormous mass glowed true pink in the bright sunlight.  If there ever was a “big rock candy mountain” this would be the cherry on top, just another delight of wilderness hiking.

Our trek had begun at sunrise, with the goal of reaching a high mountain lake and returning to camp in the afternoon.  In the first few yards of the trail, a fork gave us pause; to the right, meandering switchbacks for altitude gain, to the left an old access road barely suitable for ATV’s.  We had been warned against using the extremely steep, straight-up-the-mountain route which looped back to the main trail.  In the dim morning light, my son Josh and I looked right, looked left, looked at each other, and with a proverbial shrugging of shoulders, we charged up the shortcut on the left.

After a mile of sheer scramble, we arrived at the trail merger where a small dam and emerald clear pond provided welcome relief, and we regrouped while watching trout darting about.  It was an altogether low key morning, quiet and calm in the mountain stronghold as we continued up a cascading river canyon.  Soaring peaks walled in the canyon, and periodic scans with field glasses kept me hopeful for glimpses of the resident bighorn sheep and mountain goats.  However, not many secrets of wild nature were being disclosed, including the sea shell fossils that remained hidden from our scrutiny.

Yes, sea fossils high in the mountains and almost 400 miles from the ocean, because this was the sea coast tens of millions of years ago, and these awesome spires surrounding us were tropical islands that mashed into the continental mainland and uplifted.  Therefore, remnants of coral reefs and marine fossils are found near the summits,  including the bones of a sea dwelling Ichthyosaur, which is one of very few dinosaur discoveries made in the state.

Finally showing through the noble firs at 7500 feet was a beautiful little alpine lake and the goal of our six mile hike.  Enjoying the view that spread out before us, we pulled out our lunch and watched alpine ducks skimming the water surface before contemplating our downhill return.

I have always fallen victim to a restless yearning, much to the chagrin of anyone accompanying me.  I am the one who has to check out what’s around the next bend, or go just a little further up the trail.  I am naturally drawn to take one more look, go one more block, just to see what there is to see.  From the print out map courtesy of the forest service, I knew there were more high ridges just ahead of us that were blocked by the alpine firs surrounding our little lake.  Why not hike a mile or so further, just enough to break out of the trees for open views and another chance to spot some bighorns or mountain goats?

In this instance of my uncontrollable yearning, Josh was a good sport and we continued on past our destination lake.  As the trail plunged down into the trees, I noticed rock ledges stair stepping to higher points, and suggested “let’s scramble up to higher viewpoints.”  Up we went, jumping from one promontory to the next as we left the trail behind.

At the highest point we found ourselves peering over a precipice where a breathtaking panorama unfolded before us.  All the rugged peaks were in view, some covered in glaciers, but they surrounded a huge lake!  This was the real Aneroid Lake that we were seeking! This lake was of a much grander scale, leaning towards a Crater Lake rather than the typical high elevation tarn that we had just visited.

“This is the real show!” Josh proclaimed, “We were fooled by that imposter lake a half mile back.” “Sometimes we are looking in all the wrong places.” I added.  Incidentally, the forest service handout did not include the minor lake which was on the same trail, and there was a dearth of signage in these reaches of wilderness.

Desert Bighorn, myrtlewood, by Terry Woodall

Desert Bighorn,
myrtlewood, by Terry Woodall


There were still no mountain sheep to be seen, and the extent of our wildlife interactions were only some marmots scurrying about the boulders and a few mule deer reluctant to give way on the trail, along with high elevation ducks skimming the lake surfaces.  The trail back down wove through the same ridges resplendent with Jurassic granite, oceanic gray limestone topped with white limestone knobs, peaks with reddish shale crowns, bands of sandstone, huge slides of broken up rubble, and finally, at the duration of our trek, the rosy “big rock candy mountain.”

Back at camp, Josh reviewed his guide book on the region so as not to be fooled by masquerading lakes again, and the evening campfire glowed in the company of our wives.  Intimate family conversations evolved, leading to concerns of an elder brother and uncle fighting a terminal illness.

The fire had died down to bright coals and an even rim of lapping flames, followed by a lull in the pointed discussion.  As is typical of human nature, the discourse had danced around the true anguish and fears of the inevitable outcome of the unfortunate family member, and in the quiet pause everyone retreated into their own private thoughts.  And in that moment, an uncanny vision unfolded.

The campfire was in a low and even burn stage, with little or no smoke, and with no added accelerants, when suddenly it flared up and released a solid black, extremely thick and opaque donut of smoke.  It was the size and look of a car tire, and it held this perfect form and floated about for a longer time than an ordinary puff should last.  When it finally vanished, it was in an instant, and absent of any lingering contrails.  In my mind, this apparition was an obvious supernatural manifestation.

On the long road home, gravel turned to pavement, pavement became state highway connecting tiny hamlets, and the highway became four lane freeway as home gradually became less distant. For 200 miles the freeway followed the vast Columbia River Gorge, transitioning from eastern desert badlands and barren escarpments to steep ridges of heavy, dark green fir forests spilling towards the Pacific Ocean.

On the endless drive past the abrupt cliffs lining the parched eastern reaches of the river, my wife was done, young grandson and the dog were almost comatose.  On the quiet and sparsely traveled freeway, I amused myself by scanning the horizons and cliff spires for the occasional golden eagle or hawk or antelope or any surprises that nature had to offer.  However, there was very little movement in that hot part of the day.

And suddenly, there they were, a small herd of wild bighorn sheep, tucked in under a rare shade tree within a stone’s throw of the freeway.  I had hoped for a view of mountain sheep on 12 miles of wilderness hiking and saw none.  And here, hidden in plain sight on this major freeway home, was half a dozen!  I was rewarded with a perfect view of a Bighorn Ram with spiraling horns plainly visible, white patch on rump, lording over the ewes, which were mostly at rest on the premium real estate under the shade tree.

Sometimes we are looking in all the wrong places.

Where on Earth?!  Eagle Cap Wilderness, Northeastern Oregon

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