Thursday, September 20, 2007

West Side of the Steens, Harney County, Oregon

Reflected in the pale blue water of Benson Pond, Steens Mountain dominates the distant horizon in the shimmering high desert air. A slight breeze rustles the leaves of a few hardy trees. Your horse’s tail swishes impatiently. You lean back in the saddle and wipe the dust from your face with a faded blue bandana.

Okay, it is more likely you will be in an air conditioned car and wiping sun screen on your face. But things haven’t changed much since transportation meant horseback in the southeast corner of Oregon. Harney County is 10,200 square miles of wide open
spaces and a total population of around 7,600. Well over half of those people live in the twin “cities” of Burns and Hines. You’ve come to the right place to “get away from it all.”

Steens Mountain, the most formidable feature of the county, stretches for miles and rises to 9,733 feet. It is also the site of Oregon’s newest Wilderness Area. In summer, bump along a gravel loop road on the gentle west slope to within a half-mile of the summit, passing campgrounds, alpine lakes and fantastic glacier-carved gorges, including the Kiger Gorge. In the fall, campgrounds fill with hunters. Winter snows collect on the mountain, then, come spring, flow in rivulets and streams to eventually form the Blitzen River, where fishermen (and women) can try their luck.

Snow melt from the Steens spreads through the Malheur Basin, forming one of the premier birding areas in Oregon. We, along with the other birding faithful, flock to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters during spring and fall migration to check the list of bird sightings and watch white pelicans soar over Malheur Lake.

In the Diamond Craters area, the results of volcanic activity are still raw. Domes, craters and the twisted rope-like remnants of the last big lava flow are visible from the road and invite further exploration. More evidence that the earth may not be finished forming here are the hot springs bubbling up in Alvord and Crystal Crane, and a real live geyser at Mickey Hot Springs.

While you can drive for miles and not see a house, car or people, there are a few signs of man’s activities. One of the most fascinating is the Peter French Round Barn, where Peter French and his cowboys spent winters breaking horses in the late 1800's. Now the only critters there are hundreds of cliff swallows, their mud nests forming an avian apartment house all over the ceiling of the barn.

Though it seems a world apart the population centers of Oregon or Idaho, Boise is only 190 miles to the east of Burns, and Portland, Oregon is about 5 hours away by car--not a long way to go for a trip back in time.

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