JEWELL, Ore. -- You’ll want to bundle up against the cold when you go aboard the Jewell Wildlife Area hay wagon to feed the herd of Roosevelt elk.
On a recent December daybreak, cold and crisp and quiet conditions greeted the visitor across the 700-acre Jewell Meadows (this is one part of the expansive Jewell Wildlife Area,) but the otherwise silent morning came to life when the hay wagon came into view.
Despite the mercury holding steady at just seven degrees, the morning hay wagon shows up on and the 200 elk that live quickly respond.
Refuge manager, Brian Swearingen says the morning feeding is a regular winter event across Jewell Meadows – the feeding keeps the elk here rather than foraging across nearby private agricultural lands.
“Okay folks,” whispered Swearingen. “This hay comes off in little flakes and if we could drop a flake off every ten feet or so that would be perfect – the tractor will tow the wagon slowly across the field and we’ll feed two bales of the hay to the elk this morning.”
We were on the western fringe of the refuge; an area where approximately 25 bull elk spend their time together. Brian noted that this group is referred to as the “Bachelor herd.”
“The bulls use so much energy during the breeding season from September thru early October that they can go into winter in real poor condition. So, they’re trying to regain that energy and fat reserves to make it through the wintertime.”
Some of the bulls in the Jewell herd are massive animals that tip the scales at more than 800 pounds – with antler spans of five or even six feet.
On this particular day, there was another sound on board the feeding wagon – as Dean Crouser’s camera made the tell-tale ‘click-click-click” of auto mode as he snapped shots with his digital camera that had a 200mm zoom lens attached to it.
Dean sported a mile-wide smile on his face and beamed, “I’m a native Oregonian and I’ve always been proud to be an Oregonian - this is one more thing that makes it such a cool place to be. This is just another little gem.”
Dean Crouser is a wildlife artist who searches for Oregon wildlife in “everyday moments” – the times that many of us take for granted.
This day marked his first wintertime trip to Jewell Wildlife Area and he was a bit like a kid in a candy store – so many photo opportunities were presented in front of him from the cozy confines of the feeding wagon – because the elk were feeding just 20 yards away.
“I am looking for just the right light,” he noted. “The contrast of the dark and the light with a bull’s head turned to where it’s in the shadow; a real dark tone but his back is all lit up and a nice yellowish orange. Like that one right there.”
It’s the sort of stuff that has long stirred Crouser’s imagination:
“It really is the stuff that I’ve seen and done nearly all my life in the northwest. Elk are kind of the cherry on top of our big game animals in Oregon. Yet, across the country there aren’t a lot of places that have them. They’re pretty special.”
Crouser travels across Oregon – often corner to corner – and his work reflects the adventure and inspiration and wild moments that he has seen.
While his work begins with a camera (on this day he will take more than 400 photos, but only a handful will be used as reference models,) all too soon, paintbrushes and watercolors take over in his Gresham, Oregon studio.
“I do not strive to replicate the animals. It doesn’t have to be accurate from the standpoint of what an elk really looks like – now, a lot of people really like to paint that way, almost photo-realism but I have no interest in doing that – I appreciate people who can, but I have no interest in doing that.”
Crouser has had many interests in his life and he has set many records too. Like the NCAA Track and Field Championships that he won back in the early 80’sat the University of Oregon. A few years ago he was inducted into the University’s Hall of Fame.
Despite his athletic successes, he said that he’s been painting since he was ten years old.
It has grown into a passion for his home state that he likes to share with others.
“Elk and deer are obviously intelligent animals and it’s pretty neat to watch their mannerisms and feeding activities and then – especially with elk – how the bulls and younger bulls determine their hierarchy. That’s what makes Jewell pretty cool. Anyone would love to go out and see it – even for an hour. How could you not? It’s incredible.”