June 6-9, 2023.
I had a date in Logan Valley to meet up with ONDA, the Oregon Natural Desert Association, to work on a fence-raising project. Aaron and I drove down to the Big Creek Campground, on the Malheur National Forest, a night in advance. We arrived shortly before sunset.
Day transitioned to evening with a dramatic display of purples, oranges and pinks. In addition, the bloomiferous (is that a word?) meadow sparkled beneath the sky. We frolicked through the meadow. Blissed out, we returned to camp, where our neighbor ran a generator all night. This is why we don’t stay in campgrounds.
The next morning, generator still running, we moved the van up the road so Aaron could work. I hopped on my bike and followed “Big Creek Loop B,” one of three beginner biking routes posted at the campground. It wasn’t much to write home about, but it provided an opportunity to stretch my legs and get a feel for the landscape. I was just excited that anyone had bothered to map out an easy route for beginner riders like me.
Later that evening, we drove up the road to Burns-Paiute managed land, where we met up with the volunteer crew. As expected, it consisted of a team leader from ONDA and a bunch of retired folks. One younger guy joined us later that night. I can only hope I’ll still be signing up to do physical labor when I’m in my 70’s! I figure the best way to do that is to keep doing it now.
In the morning, we split up into two work crews and began putting up a “let-down fence,” a barbed wire fence designed to be put up part of the year and taken down for the rest of the year. Since cattle were going to be grazing the neighboring property soon, we needed to help put this fence up. The cows would easily trample and destroy the beautiful riparian area on the other side of the fence. The Burns-Paiute were working on restoring the creek for more beaver and fish activity. Cattle don’t mix well with that plan.
It rained and rained as we methodically leap-frogged each other along the fence, raising the wooden posts and securing them against metal beams with loops of wire. It’s tricky work being around so much barbed wire, especially while wearing rain gear that’s easily snagged and torn. My outdoor gear is great for recreating in bad weather, but not for working in bad weather. If I do much more of this, I might need to go shopping.
While driving back to the camp, we saw lots of beautiful splotches of blooming flowers. At one point, we stopped the car to investigate some wildlife. “Do you see that?!” the driver practically squealed. I said, “a deer?” kind of incredulously. Like, why did we stop the car for a deer? But as I panned to the right, I saw two giant wading birds that looked like they belonged in a zoo. I had absolutely no idea what they were. The driver informed us we were seeing a pair of sandhill cranes. She had suspected they were here the previous evening, based on a sound identification from Merlin.
A sidebar: the Merlin app has a sound ID option where you can make a recording of a bird and the app will identify it in real time. It’s surprisingly fast and accurate. We have since become obsessed with using it to identify any squeak. song, rattle, trill or screech.
We finished with lots of time to spare, so in the afternoon I took a walk back up the road to investigate a beautiful patch of purple blur I noticed while driving. Elephant-head lousewort! Plus, some more exquisitely colored paintbrush. This place was a dream.
The next day was a repeat of the first, except the stretch of fence we worked on was a but more cantankerous. There were segments that required tensioning with a specialized fence tool in order to get up. Tangles of barbed wire, missing loops and swampy stretches were among the many obstacles we faced. And that’s not including the soaking rain.
Fortunately we finished earlier than expected, again, and returned by lunch time. In the afternoon I took a short walk with one of the biologists as he walked the property checking bird boxes for eggs. We found several nesting tree swallows and one bluebird. He used a device that looked like a camera at the end of a long cord. On the far side, it was attached to a screen the size of a cell phone. He’d snake the camera into the box and then look at the display to see what was inside. I was enthralled.
I signed up for this trip for a few reasons. One, I really wanted to make service a part of our travels. The stereotypical travel story is one of extraction and exploitation. I did not want to make that our story. Instead, I wanted to be engaged in the communities and wild spaces we spend time in.
Second, I’d never even heard of Logan Valley before seeing it on ONDA’s trip list. A place in Oregon that was off my radar? I had to go.
And lastly, I want to learn some new skills as I have this precious opportunity to be unemployed for a while. It was soon very clear that the old-timers in my group were far more capable with hand tools and fence work in general than me. The tools felt clumsy in my hand and it took me longer to solve problems than it did for them. So obviously, I just need to spend more time building stuff and working with my hands in this way. They were all very kind and easy to partner with, so I never felt incompetent or unappreciated. I enjoyed working as part of a team and learning to be patient with myself as I figured it all out.
Whatever I do, I often feel like I get more than I give, even when the purpose is giving. What I got was: new friendships, skill building, bird education, wildflower education, resource management education, great food, smiles and laughter. What I gave? A few hours of labor towards a project. I am grateful for the folks who spend their time coordinating these opportunities and managing volunteers. This experience has made me even more curious about what else I can get my hands into. I’ve already signed up for a fall trip with ONDA, and I’m constantly looking for other ways to give back.