MADRAS, Ore. — Oregon’s back roads are the best! They can lead you down trails to secret hideaways, including one less than two hours from Portland: the Deschutes River Back Country Byway, where the action is to see the "Deschutes River Byway Bighorns."
At Lake Billy Chinook near Madras, there's an age-old predator-prey game to be played amid the timeless rimrock country at this time of year.
It’s a place where the Deschutes, Metolius and Crooked rivers all merge into a seven-mile-long watery playground. Paul Patton of Oregon State Parks said the lake has long been a drawing card for eagles.
"You will see bald eagles and golden eagles in their daily routines," he said. "You never know what’s going to happen at one of the viewpoints and at Overlook Park."
Less than an hour away at Maupin, you can begin a unique journey along the Deschutes River for an exploration that provides a direct route to solitude on a gentle road that winds for more than forty miles.
The Lower Deschutes River Back Country Byway is surrounded by canyon walls that tower above the lonesome boaters who own the river this time of year.
Many of the columnar basalt cliffs reach hundreds of feet high, and that's where wildlife biologist Jeremy Thompson watches for movement among the rocks.
"In the sun, the bighorn sheep horns shine a bit yellow and I have heard them referred to as ‘bananas,’ so I am looking for bananas on the hillsides," he said with a smile.
The Deschutes Byway hides the bighorns, and it takes a keen eye to pick out the wild sheep that blend with the background so well. The females, called ewes, gather in small herds, Thompson said.
"They are pretty gregarious and like to hang out together and you’ll find little groups of 10-12 generally throughout the fall and winter," he said.
Male big horn sheep, called rams, are more solitary.
"All bighorns have horns, but the ewes typically don’t get over 6 to 7 inches long, and once a ram gets to more than a year old, his horns are much bigger than a ewe’s," Thompson said. "In fact, as the ram grows older you will see the horns curling way back and are much bigger at the base."
Oregon’s bighorn sheep went extinct in the 1940s due to over-hunting and disease, but successful re-introduction programs began in the early 1990s, and now the Deschutes River Canyon big horn population has reached nearly 600.
If you wish to travel to the Deschutes and watch for big horns, dress warmly and don’t forget binoculars. Most of all, bring patience!
"Many people will travel the byway, stop and look and not see them," Thompson said. "Well, if you just sit down and watch and look closely at some of these bigger cliff complexes, eventually they will see them. They are there!"
I feel a certain wonder when visiting places like this, where the geology is worn so well on the landscape’s sleeve, especially early in the morning or late in the day on a clear day when the sun dances across the cliff’s surfaces and shadows lengthen and cast an eeriness to the place.
It’s a drive that will set your clock back, and you’ll be the better for it too.
Grant’s Getaways is a weekly half hour program that airs each Saturday and Sunday at 4pm on KGW.
For something different, you can follow my Oregon adventures via the Grant’s Getaways Podcast: each segment is a story-telling session where I relate behind the scenes stories from four decades of travel and television reporting.
You can also learn more about many of my favorite Oregon travels and adventures in the Grant’s Getaways book series, including:
- "Grants Getaways I," Photography by Steve Terrill
- "Grant's Getaways II," Photography by Steve Terrill
- “Grant’s Getaways: 101 Oregon Adventures,” Photography by Jeff Kastner
- “Grant’s Getaways: Guide to Wildlife Watching in Oregon,” Photography by Jeff Kastner
- “Grant’s Getaways: Oregon Adventures with the Kids,” Photography by Jeff Kastner
The book collection offers hundreds of outdoor activities across Oregon and promises to engage a kid of any age. You can reach me at Gmcomie@kgw.com.