You’ll want to take binoculars, camera and a thermos of hot coffee when you join Grant McOmie’s thrilling getaway this week.
He reports that it’s the ‘early birder who catches the most spectacular wildlife show’ on a dawn patrol to see the largest gathering of bald eagles in the country at the Klamath Wildlife Refuge in southern Oregon.
Stillness at daybreak accompanies the arctic air that plummets the early-morning to sub-freezing.
It’s a lonely time as the only headlamps for miles--ours--pierce the darkness on a back road in Oregon’s Klamath Basin.
Despite the bone-chilling cold, wildlife expert, Dave Hewitt says there is no better time to tally the dawn fly-out of the largest gathering of bald eagles in America.
We have come to Bear Valley Wildlife Refuge (part of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges Complex), a large forest of old-growth timber that provides the eagles with protection from the wind and cold.
It is the staging area for the eagles’ daily fly-out as the birds take wing and search for food.
“There’s one,” said Hewitt. “Right over your head Grant! It’s coming right over the road.”
Hewitt said there is no better time to tally the dawn fly out of bald eagles.
“Yeah, it’s fantastic!” Hewitt enthusiastically answered. “As the sun is coming up, just starting to get light, you can see 40, 50, 60 eagles get up, swoop and soar and glide right over the top of you. It’s pretty impressive to watch when you have several hundred eagles and you just can’t count fast enough.”
I could not--twenty, thirty, forty--soon I was dazzled and dizzied by the birds appearing in front of us, then disappearing across a distant ridgeline.I simply could not keep track of them all.
Finally I gave up my count and enjoyed the show with the small group of birders who had joined us.
We gazed across to the eastern horizon, toward a soft shade of rose that marked the approaching sunrise.
Darryl Samuels noted, “It’s the thrill of the hunt without the gun – you have your binoculars and you might see 60 bald eagles and you might see 10 – it varies and one may just fly right over our heads.”
Diana Samuels eagerly agreed and added, “It’s just great to come out here early and watch them as they go out to feed at the refuge.”
Over a thousand eagles arrive at Klamath Basin each winter from Canada and Alaska, following their food supply of ducks, geese, and other birds.
Despite the frigid conditions during much of the winter, large bodies of water such as Upper Klamath Lake often remain unfrozen, and large flocks of ducks help prevent some of the smaller ponds from freezing over as they paddle about.
David Menke, staff member at the US Fish and Wildlife’s Klamath Refuge Headquarters, guided us across miles of intersecting roadways that checkerboard the Lower Klamath Refuge.
Menke suddenly stopped, brought his binoculars up and gazed across an otherwise flat, drab-brown grain field (wheat harvest had occurred months earlier) with scores of black dots with white heads on the distant horizon.
“Is this a buffet table for the eagles,” I asked with a chuckle.
“Absolutely! A real smorgasbord – or whatever – and this field – I guarantee you – will not be this way a week from now – the birds will be another field. You see, they are hunting field mice and other rodents. It’s really something to sit and watch the birds hunt here.”
Menke said there are many awesome sights to see across nearly 170,000 acres of both state and federal wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin.
Multiple auto tour routes make the travel easy, so be sure to stop in at the Klamath Refuge Headquarters where free maps and brochures will set you on the right trail to enjoy the show.
While each season offers some new species to see, Dave added that winter is the best time to see the most raptors, including the largest concentrations of eagles.
“We may get a period when it freezes in December and then we might get open water in January and February and the eagles – respond accordingly:They’ll stand on the ice and feed on waterfowl. Eagles on telephone poles, eagles on irrigation equipment, eagles on farm fields – mostly they just stand around a lot, so there’s endless opportunities to observe wildlife.”
Visitors to Klamath Wildlife Refuge or wish to explore the Klamath Birding Trail have a wonderful educational opportunity just around the corner at the annual “Winter Wings Festival” on February 17,18,19.
The “Winter Wings Festival” celebrates the return of all the migratory birds to the Klamath Basin in the wintertime. Bird watching is a hobby and pastime that’s growing and our festival has really benefited from the increased interest. We are one of the premier destinations for bird watching on the west coast.”
The Klamath Basin Audubon Society produces the three-day event with more than 100 volunteers from the local community who give thousands of hours to help people learn and understand more about Oregon’s wildlife heritage.
There are many activities designed for families and kids and you don’t really have to know anything about birds, just have a passing interest in nature and we’ll show you some pretty exciting things.”
WILLAMETTE RIVER STURGEON FISHING
Did you know that Oregon is home to dinosaurs?
It’s true and these dinosaurs reach 10, 11 or even 12 feet in length and weigh up to several hundred pounds.
“Grants Getaway” takes us on the Willamette River with a rod, reel and spirit of adventure to learn more about Oregon’s famous dinosaur fish species called “sturgeon.”
Steve Williams says his fishing doesn’t slow despite what the calendar shows.
He and fishing partner, Rick Hargrave, are hearty anglers who don’t mind winter’s bone chilling cold as long as there’s promise of a fishing hole all their own.
“I had some friends who invited me out,” said Williams who guided his 22-foot long boat downriver from the popular Willamette River put-in, Cedaroak Boat Ramp near West Linn, Oregon.
“I got pretty excited about it after the first trip ten years ago because it offers a simple approach that’s right here in our backyard. Plus, you can catch a big fish and I like that opportunity.”
Despite winter morning air that hovered near freezing, I joined Williams to check out the opportunity and cast into the Willamette River to catch the dinosaur of Oregon’s fish species called “sturgeon.”
I’ve enjoyed sturgeon fishing action before, but usually in summer’s warm glow and nearly a hundred miles away in the Columbia River estuary near Astoria.
Williams said sturgeon fishing has caught on for anglers the past two decades.
“We had several down years for salmon and that really got people to look at sturgeon as a substitute. It’s the low-tech nature of it and ease of catching sturgeon throughout the year that makes them popular.”
Williams and Hargrave swear by “smelt” for bait (they stretch their investment by cutting each of the small fish in half) and then spear them each on a 5-0 barbless hook followed by a series of half hitches to secure each piece.
“I use heavy gear too,” added Williams. “After all, you can get into 7 or 8 foot long fish, so you want to be able to handle them.”
Each of the anglers employed four ounces of lead that slid up and down the line – just above the leader line and brass swivel.
“Sturgeon can be fairly sensitive to feeling anything along the bottom, so he should be able to pick up the bait, move off and not feel that weight,” said Williams.
Here’s a tip: add a scent to your bait – Williams swears by garlic scent bait products for sturgeon, but be careful how much you use.
“You don’t want to do is spill it in your boat though,” he said with a chuckle. “Otherwise it’ll be with you for the whole season.”
Williams knows these fish first hand! Not just fishing for them on his days off, but as the ODFW Fish Division’s Administrative Assistant.
He said that anyone is able to go eyeball to eyeball with Oregon’s dinosaur fish anytime at Bonneville Fish Hatchery in the Columbia River Gorge.
Hargrave is ODFW’S Public Information Director and said that the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation partnered with the state to build an intriguing sturgeon exhibit at the hatchery.
In fact, an exhibit area sports an acre-sized pond that has massive plate glass windows positioned below water level so to allow visitors a way to peer into the sturgeon’s underwater world.
“It’s a place to see sturgeon in their environment, ask questions and gain new information about an amazing fish,” said Hargrave.
Back on the Willamette River – as wintertime boaters motored past our anchored position, I was reminded of a new marine tool that will enhance Oregon boater’s experiences in 2012.
The Oregon State Marine Board offers a new Interactive Boating Access Map that is downloadable and details over 1,000 Oregon boat launches, ramps and marinas.
Trey Carskadon is the former chairman of the OSMB and said that the new site and mobile app answers any question an Oregon mariner might have about boating in the state:
“Is there a fee associated with the launch site? What’s the launch construction: gravel, concrete, asphalt? Are there restroom facilities? Is there fuel nearby? Food supplies, picnic areas, campground? It’s a tremendous amount of information and you can get it anytime, anywhere. I don’t know of too many states that have this kind of tool available to boaters.”
Carskadon also pointed out another piece of advice that is critical in winter: should the worst happen and you end up in the river, time is critical in water that is frigid cold.
“Most water bodies are 41 degrees or lower at this time of year and that means you have about a minute and a half before hypothermia sets in,” said Carskadon. “You will cramp up and more than likely you will drown if you do not wear a PFD; a life jacket. That is the single most important message: year in and year out, decade after decade: wear your PFD, wear your life vest.”
Back on William’s boat, Hargrave’s rod tip bobbed slightly up and down and he quickly picked up the rod from its holder, reared back and set the hook.
He gave me no choice and stuck the rod and reel in my chest and said – “it’s yours!”
The fish felt heavy and pulled back against the stiff rod tip and I wondered aloud, “So the secret on this is hold on for dear life?”
I suddenly felt helpless as the 80-pound test line easily sped out of the large reel.
“This is the fun part, Grant,” shouted Williams. “Try to smile!”
He was right – I needed to relax a bit. After all, it’s the part of the adventure that everyone is supposed to enjoy the most. There simply aren’t many places you can go in Oregon to catch fish that can reach gigantic proportions.
“That’s a big fish right there,” noted Hargrave.
That much was certain as the line played out from a sturgeon that seemed to have one thing on its mind – get back to the ocean – and fast!
I held my ground for twenty minutes as the fish scooted away from the boat several times on runs that reached forty, thirty and then twenty yards – each time I slowly worked the sturgeon back toward the boat.
Williams said, “Right here in the Willamette and Columbia River Basins are the largest populations of white sturgeon on the planet. Biologists figure that the population is about one million fish below Bonneville Dam.”
It was a huge fish too – easily four feet long – perhaps much longer – and reached fifty or sixty pounds.
No net would be used for this fish – Hargrave gently reached out and pulled in the mainline as the fish reached the surface.
The Willamette River is largely a catch and release sturgeon fishery (there is a short catch and keep Willamette River sturgeon fishery season each February) so there was no need to stress the fish further by hauling it aboard the boat.
“Good fish!” noted Williams. “ It’s remarkable to see and consider a species that’s been swimming across the planet for 200 million years. This fish is about 50 inches long and could be 20 years old.”
Williams pointed to the underside of the sturgeon’s head and the spaghetti-like “barbels’ that extended from the underside of the fish’s snout. “These are the fish’s sense of smell here, as they swim along the bottom,” added Williams. “Glance down the fish’s side and check out the diamond-like patches. Those are called “scuts” and are made of cartilage. They are considered the sturgeon’s armor plating and a real indication of the fish’s prehistoric biology.”
And with that, Williams unhooked the big fish and we watched it slide back down into the river’s dark depths. Williams said that he preferred to leave the sturgeon in the water; there’s less damage to the fish that way and a bit of respect due an ancient species.
“They are a very long lived species, a very productive species and an amazing critter. The Willamette River provides a close to home opportunity for a catch and release sturgeon fishery that folks can enjoy anytime.”
Have questions about tactics and techniques for sturgeon, salmon or steelhead fishing? Try Dave Johnson - the ASK OREGON Fishing Ambassador. You can reach him on Twitter or Facebook.
If you want to have winter fun but you’re not into downhill skiing or boarding, this week’s Grant’s Getaway is perfect for its ease and simplicity – plus, it’s perfect for youngsters and those young at heart.
Grant says all you need is an inner tube, a moderate hillside and a couple feet of snow-packed delight that’s easy to reach in the Mt Hood National Forest.
On a sunlit day without a cloud in the sky, the crowds at Ski Bowl East near Mt Hood were eager for action on the groomed tubing hill.
Ski Bowl Manager, Sean Maloy, noted with a smile, “It’s more fun than any one person deserves, so they usually bring lots of friends!”
Judging by the line-up of enthusiastic visitors, Maloy seemed to be right! Winter tubing has become popular recreation at Ski Bowl and other snow park sites around Mt Hood.
In fact, Ski Bowl draws as many tubing enthusiasts as skiers to the nearby slopes.
“Snow play has taken off,” said Maloy. “You don’t need lessons or pieces of sophisticated equipment to ride a tube. You just come out and have fun and now the secret’s out!”
At Ski Bowl East, you not only ride a comfy cushioned seat atop a vinyl-wrapped inner tube, complete with handles and a towrope, but you can enjoy an easy tow up the hill or try the new escalator style, stand-up ride back to the top.
“Helps take the trudging out of tubing,” noted Troy Fisher, Ski Bowl Operations Manager.
“From small kids up to adults, tubing is a good family oriented activity where everyone can hang out, socialize and spend the day together.”
At the nearby snow park hillside “Snow Bunny,” (managed by the Summit Ski Area,) you will find less grooming and a rental shack where you pick up an old fashioned inner tire tube.
It’s a great place for large groups,” added Fisher. “They have their own space and it is more affordable. We get a lot of church groups that come out to Snow Bunny and play all day long.”
If you wish to “free lance” and find a hill to call your own in the Mt Hood Forest, be cautious of the site you choose. Hillsides are usually heavily wooded and not groomed at all.
One exception is the Littlejohn Sno-Park in the Mt Hood National Forest that’s located along Highway 35 less than 10 miles from Government Camp.
Adjacent to the parking lot look for a ‘sled at your own risk’ sign that marks important rules should you choose to slide down the site’s steep slope.
Climb the highway back up to White River West Sno-Park and enjoy a spacious and popular play area.
It’s a great site for snow play and you’ll also find plenty of elbowroom and a stunning view to the mountain that makes the snowshoe effort so worth your time. And that is the point – get out there and explore the Mt Hood National Forest in winter.
“When we get fresh snow – and we will,” added Ski Bowl’s Troy Fisher. “It’s a good getaway and feels a world away.”
A Sno-Park Permit is required in most snow play areas. The money from the sale of the permits offsets the cost of snow removal along roadways and parking areas.
Something else to keep in mind: Winter is “weather fickle!” and the snow level can rise and falls thousands of feet each week, so check snow conditions and the weather forecast before you head for the hills.
ADVENTURES WITHOUT LIMITS
Most folks are fortunate to be able to explore the Oregon outdoors anytime they wish, but suppose outdoor adventuring seemed a million miles away.
Grant McOmie takes us on a getaway where there’s no such thing as limitations and anyone – regardless of ability - gets to go.
A hike in Oregon snow country means finding the ‘right fit’ for a snow shoe, but there’s more according to Keith Mussallem, lead guide for the Washington County based non-profit called Adventures Without Limits.
AWL is a group that specializes in finding the right fit for folks who rarely get to go.
“Our programs are geared toward working with anyone who has a known disadvantage – physical, developmental, financial and they come to us because they know they’re going to be taken care of. They show up and we’ll handle it all.”
Recently, it was “all handled” at the popular White River West Sno-Park near Mt Hood – the starting point of a two-mile hike for folks who’d never done anything like it before.
Since 1995, Adventures Without Limits has taken folks where they want to go whether kayaking, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, cave exploring, camping and more.
AWL’s Executive Director, Kris Williams, explained that the group refuses to say “no” to anyone who’s hungry for adventure.
“Whether it’s lack of skill, experience or money, we make sure everyone gets a chance to explore Oregon.”
Out on the White River snow trail, AWL’s “companions” helped guide many newcomers who were challenged by the snow, the slope and the new feel of ungainly snow shoes.
“Many of our participants come to do the activities but can use an extra set of hands due to varying ranges of disabilities,” noted guide Devan Schwartz.“Our companion comes along and just stays there – attentive to the personal needs of the client and that gives everyone a chance to try something new and have a good experience.”
Each step up the trail brought each person closer to a mountain of new confidence where their successes were measured by broad smiles from new accomplishments, plus an eagerness for more adventure.
“We want them to have a complete experience, a little bit more awareness, but also a lot of joy in what they do,” added Mussallem.
Williams agreed, “So they’ll go out there on their own and want to go on their own and feel safe and feel empowered and feel confidant to get out there and do it on their own.”
Back-road adventures are the very best. That is especially true for the ones that let you get a sneak peek at nature!
This week’s getaway may have you thinking you’re living in a distant state.But it’s true: Oregon does indeed have it’s own Niagara Falls!
Back-road adventures with a sneak peek at nature are the best! And it pays to go with someone who really knows the way – like George Buckingham of the Siuslaw National Forest.
“It’s a little more out of the way and characterized as more difficult with some steeper portions, but it’s also only a mile down and a mile out.”
Our small hiking party sported cameras in hand and each had a mission in mind as we trekked high in the coast range hills on a trail you’ve likely missed.
This is a place where the wet is measured in feet not inches and we were determined to reach a namesake falls that will surprise you:
“We get a lot of questions about that and they wonder – ‘did you name it after Niagara Falls in New York?’ – No, it’s named after Niagara Creek…which is a tributary of the Nestucca River.”
It's a little known fact that Oregon owns it's own Niagara Falls.... It's not been borrowed from a distant state…and after a mile long hike and around a rocky bend, see that the signs fooled you: for here are two waterfalls for the price of one hike!
“Yes,, it’s amazing!” noted Buckingham with a wide smile. “We’re looking at Niagara Falls and Niagara creek down below us – but around the corner is the other part of the waterfall pair – Pheasant Creek Falls. So, two waterfalls that you can see at the same time.”
The first is - Pheasant Creek tops out at 112 feet, while Niagara is a close second at 107 feet tall.
Both falls were born in the heart of these mtns, and their waters have cut and worn and shaped the 40 million year old basalt into a giant amphitheatre.
Don Nest was drawn by the power of Niagara Falls – a true plunge pool waterfall that shimmers and whirls as it plows down from a cleft in the ancient basalt.
“I shoot a lot of different kinds of shots,” noted the longtime photographer.“Because it takes a long while to get in here, I shoot every angle: down by the creek, up high and down low. That way I’ll catch something which ’re will turn out.”
Nearby, at Pheasant Creek Falls, photographers Michael Hordyski and Charlie Lonsford were pulled in by that waterfall’s closeness - so close each could reach out and touch it and by its rich depth of character as a true cascade type waterfall.
“Today’s light is perfect because it’s overcast,” noted Horodyski. “And this is a great time of year because there’s not a lot of foliage on the trees – so you really center your shots on the waterfalls.”
Charlie Lonsford added, “There are a lot of falls in Oregon that you can take pictures of but these are the types of falls that I like to shoot.”
If you determine to travel this way, be sure to follow USFS Trail Technician, JW Cleveland, who offered: “Watch your step! It is slick and wet and steep. So, wear proper footwear and rain gear because you never know when something could blow in.”
A foot of rain has drenched the heart of the Oregon coast range the past four weeks so the forest, the creek and the falls are wringing wet. Get here soon.
Directions: Drive Hwy 101 south from Tillamook to Beaver, Oregon.Then travel east on Blaine Road for 6 miles. At Blaine Junction travel east on Upper Nestucca River Road for 5.8 miles to Forest Service Road 8533. Go south 4.3 miles to Forest Service Road 8533-131. Turn right at the junction and travel 0.7 miles to trailhead parking.