The Journey and the Reason for it
This past winter I went on a Bald Eagle hunt. I had heard for several years about an area on the border of California and Oregon, that has one of the highest populations of wintering eagles in the states. It had reached almost mythical proportions in my mind as friends drew rough verbal sketches of where they had gone and what they had seen, and I didn’t really know what to expect, except for cold, eagles, and waterfowl.
I had the week between Christmas and New Years to myself, which while on the early side of the wintering population peak was still within the window, and so I decided to finally explore the area and increase my library of Bald Eagle images. What I discovered up there, lost in the winter quiet was more than the bird rich area that I expected, but also a wonderland of geology and history.
I set off after visiting with family on Christmas Day, with my kayak loaded on my truck, my camera batteries charged, my warmest sleeping bag and a four season tent. I expected to spend a night or two in roadside motels though out my time in the area, but wanted to be able to experience the winter beauty of the area that a tent would allow.
I arrived in Klamath Falls, just over the border into Oregon, late at night in the midst of a mild snow storm (only a few inches had fallen so far)and found myself a motel with a greasy spoon attached (read: a slightly worn sleeping establishment with a trucker’s cafe attached that served hardy helpings that glistened from all of the butter used for cooking… tasty, but only one step removed from a mild coronary). I crawled into the clean sheets, exhausted from the extra care and attention that the snowy roads had demanded.
I set out early in the morning, before sunrise, slipping along the snow covered roads to where the map I found on the internet said I would be able to see the Balds. I found myself on a snow and mud covered dirt road as the day arrived, lighting an overcast sky. While I saw only a few eagles, I was instead drawn in by the austere beauty of a harsh land. Sparse vegetation and rocks showed themselves through the snow.
I met a man who lived on the dirt road as I stood there budged against the cold and watching the coming of the day. He told me several useful things-
- You actually need to show up while it is still dark if you want to watch the Bald Eagles fly from their valley, which they finish doing before sunrise. Not good for photography. I had arrived at sunrise
- The numbers have been okay, but not as high for the last couple of years
- The eagles scatter pretty well during the day, but if I cruised around I would be sure to see some (in the couple hundred mile2 range that they cover each day
- I was welcome to watch, but I should move out of view of his crazy neighbor’s place, because he tries driving people off by saying it’s a private road. (It’s not, the neighbor is just kind of crotchety that way and likes to say that it is)
So I watched a few scattered eagles for a while (hidden by a bend from his neighbor’s place), before driving off to explore the area that I found myself- the Klamath Basin.
Being a basin it is surrounded by mountains, and would almost be a huge valley (in some ways it is) except that it feels like it has been filled in by silt and volcanic ash and rock over the ages. Many shallow lakes and ponds surrounded by thin grasses and scrubby plants. It almost has a high dessert feel, except that it is also fairly agricultural. The surrounding mountains are covered in forest. Train tracks follow several of the roads. It’s beautiful.
I wandered deserted lonely roads, searching for likely hunting grounds for the eagles, and also for a place to pitch my tent for the night. I did not know the area or what parks might be nearby. I had thought of visiting Crater Lake National Park, but the snows of the night before had shut down the access road. Each time I thought I was near a place where I could camp, the roads became impassable.
Neither was I finding a place to kayak. So I wandered, until near evening I found myself once again out of sight of the neighbors, watching the eagles return to their valley for the night. As I sat there, watching distant shapes wing their way home, I considered my options. I did not want a motel. I wanted the quiet of the outdoors. And so, in the dark, the roads turning icy, I found myself driving towards a spot on the map that I knew nothing about- Lava Beds National Monument.
I made camp by the light of my head lamp in one of the parks designated campsites. I was the only one in the entire park, and so I cooked myself a quick meal, and went to bed, wondering what the light of day would show me of the place that I had ended up in.