OUTDOORS - Taking the Blitzen River Valley Auto Tour Route

The Blitzen River Valley Auto Tour Route makes 19 stops around Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

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Editor's Note:

Part two of this trip to Harney County and the Steens Mountain Loop appeared here last Wednesday.

Since we had visited the Malheur Lake Overlook in the spring, I turned right instead of left at the Malheur National Wildlife headquarters.

Yet, the interpretive guide for the Blitzen River Valley Auto Tour Route lists the overlook as the first of the tour's 19 stops.

"You missed the first stop," Darlene said.

She peered with a wrinkled brow and tight lips at the guide she held open in one hand, like a restaurant menu, before her face.

"It says we can ‘scan the lake for seasonal concentrations of American White Pelican or Tundra Swan,'" she intoned.

"We can back up," I muttered and stopped.

At that moment a lanky, tall-eared jackrabbit hopped onto the unpaved road 10 yards in front of the pickup.

I reached for the camera on Darlene's lap.

Nora the Schnauzer leaned from the window and panted as the rabbit stopped at the road's edge. It looked haughtily at her and at the camera lens.

It wiggled its ears at the camera's clicking before hopping away.

"Shall we go back?" I asked.

"Never mind."

A minute later, we spotted the second stop, historic Sod House Ranch and Malhuer Field Station, off to the right. The guide says visitors may enter the ranch site from Aug. 15 to Oct. 15, but we never found an open entrance road.

We moved on as a dozen Sandhill Cranes settled nearby.

We stopped on the road at Wright's Pond (Stop No. 3) and stretched our legs. Four night herons rose from the weeds.

At Stop No. 4 (Brothers Fault Zone), we noted the "isolated buttes and flat-topped ridges" mentioned in the guide.

We paused at McLaughlin Slough (Stop No. 5) and pondered the struggles of Nettie Brown/McLaughlin, who married first at 17 and raised three children after her first husband died young.

"She married Mr. McLaughlin one year before her death at 35," Darlene read.

Stop No. 6 (First Residents) offers views of Rattlesnake Butte, and nearby a rocky ledge provides a natural river crossing. Northern Paiute people relied on the high observation point and the river crossing when they first occupied the valley 9,600 years ago.

At Stop No. 7 (Meadow Lands) the guide says landowners in the early 1900s straightened the river into a channel along here and drained the meadows to grow hay. This stressed the native redband trout (a subspecies of rainbow), which have inhabited the Blitzen River since the Ice Age. At present, the refuge works on "a long-term plan to make the river more habitable for these specially adapted fish," Darlene read aloud.

Along this stretch, two large bull snakes hurried across the road and several deer stood close to the fence to check us out.

Stops No. 8 and 9 require a right turn to the Buena Vista Ponds, Trail and Overlook (and a one-holer) with a view across the valley to Steens Mountain, a 9,733-foot-0high fault-block.

Stop No. 10 (Diamond Lane) points to where Sandhill Cranes gather in August to begin flying south. "Up to 250 pairs nest on the refuge, and as many as 3,000 may pass through on yearly migrations," Darlene said.

We didn't see any.

We took the detour to Diamond Craters and the historic Peter French Round Barn. We visited both in the spring, but water flooded the barn so that we couldn't look inside.

We stopped at the craters for half an hour just to walk around. We saw three people stand on the far edge of one. They looked like plastic toys.

We spent another half hour touring the round barn, built of juniper trees in the 1880s and used by cowboys to break horses during the winter. We bought cookies and chips at the visitor center.

Then, back on the tour, we passed Stop No. 11 (Crane Pond), Stop No. 12 (Blitzen River willows), Stops No. 13, 14, 15 and 16 (Benson Pond, Dredger Pond, Knox Ponds and Cottonwood Pond).

Nine Great White Egrets rose from one pond. At another, a scraggly coyote ambled from the weeds and down the road.

At Stop No. 17 (Bridge Creek) we checked the screens and fish ladders that "made it possible for the ‘redbands' to once again reach their ancient spawning grounds," as Darlene noted from the guide.

We passed Stop No. 18 (Bobolink Alley), where breeding pairs gather from late may through July and Stop No. 19 (P Ranch) because we had been there so many times.

Alas, we didn't reach the Frenchglen Hotel until after lunch (2:30 p.m.), so we headed toward Burns/Hines and dinner at the Dairy Queen.

We planned a late start for home the next morning.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com. More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com .

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