Wild Eastern Oregon

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Dates: 
Tue, 03/16/2010 - Fri, 03/19/2010

Our caravan of minivans was greeted with a beautiful rosy sunrise early Tuesday morning as we headed out of town en route to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Student’s handled the long hours in the car well, entertaining themselves and training their eyes to look at the tiny details that make desolate Eastern Oregon fascinating. We arrived at the Field Station, our home away from home for the next few days, and settled into the dorms before exploring the surrounding areas. Around us we could see the snowy Steen’s Mountains, high buttes and low plains, and Malheur Lake. The sun set to a chorus of coyote howls. After dinner we played several wild games of hide and seek  and cops and robbers under the brilliant stars before going to bed for an early start the next morning.

We woke early the next morning (some would consider this still nighttime) to meet the naturalist who would teach us about the birds of the area. Some of us had an easier time getting up than others, but luckily nobody was left behind. The naturalist took us along a dirt road way up on a butte in hopes of finding a sage grouse lek (a gathering where males strut to impress females). Each van had a radio so our naturalist could tell everyone about the places we were seeing, and the birds we would hopefully see. After several miles he stopped us and as we peered out the window in the pale dawn light, the puffy white chests and radiating tail feathers of sage grouse appeared. We had found the lek! We listened to the clucking noises they made and watched as the birds strutted around. Our naturalist was so knowledgeable about the area and the birds and we were lucky to have him with us.

As we drove back to the Field Station we kept our eyes open for other animals. We saw some smaller birds and deer, but we were really hoping to see wild horses. We knew that of all the places we would visit, this was the only one we might have a chance to see them. As we got closer & closer to the main road our hopes of seeing the horses dropped. Suddenly, a voice over the radio announced that the first van had spotted wild horses! They were beautiful. A herd of pronghorn stood next to them, providing scale to the huge horses. The pronghorn raced off, but the horses stayed, and we got to watch them for some time as the stallion gathered his herd and studied us.

Back at the Field Station our naturalist set us several mist nets to catch birds so that we could see them up close. We caught about fifteen Dark-Eyed Juncos, a Spotted Towhee, a House Sparrow, and an American Robbin that we weighed, measured, and studied before releasing. Holding the wild birds was a truly incredible experience, and once again our naturalist was able to teach us so much. This was a wonderful example of experiential learning and the students loved it.
 
After a little free time and journaling, we took off to relax in some hot springs. On the drive there we kept track of when we were “in the middle of nowhere” and when we were “somewhere,” learning how people define “nowhere.” We played in the warm water for a while before showering and filling up our waterbottles, trying to find some water that was not “boring.”
 
We drove back through the Refuge and visited the Bird Museum at the Refuge headquarters where they had on display stuffed bird that we could look at up close. In the golden light of twilight we watched hundreds of snow geese flying through the air above us.
Back at the Field Station our dinner crew cooked up some yummy dinner, and also concocted a story about how one student on the trip somehow became Nutella. That student very graciously put up with the silliness. The night ended with a game of wildly chasing each other around under the stars again.
Luckily we got to sleep in a bit the next morning before setting off on an adventure. We had a few places we wanted to see but the itinerary was very flexible. All we knew was that we had to be in Frenchglen for dinner at 6:30. Students really appreciated the unscheduled time and being able to do things for as long or as short as they wanted.
 
Our first stop was the Round Barn where we were greeted by Sandhill Cranes. The students found an ingenious way to appreciate the Round Barn: blind races through the barn. One student would be the guide and the other would be the racer. It was terrifying, but also a great way to interact with the barn and to learn to guide and trust each other. We also got to see a raven and a hawk fighting in the air.
 
Our next stop was the Diamond Craters, huge depressions in the basalt flows found everywhere. We hiked to the top of a hill and soaked in the view, enjoying the spectacular weather we were graced with.
 
After the Craters we stopped Buena Vista pond which was filled with swans, ducks, and geese. We watched the birds and wrote in our journals before we went on a short hike to the top of a butte to find an incredible panorama view of the area and some rocks to scramble on. Our last little stop was a campground where we saw a hawk on the ground eating its dinner, and a Great Blue Heron.
 
We arrived at the Frenchglen Hotel for a delicious dinner, of which we all ate too much. After returning to the Field Station we played cards and ran around outside before settling into bed.
 
 
 
The next morning we packed up our belongings and cleaned our dorm before our long drive back to Portland. Overall the trip far exceeded my expectations. This kind of trip could easily bore many students but they learned to creatively entertain themselves and interact with such a spectacular place. The learned to look closely at the small details of a large scene. Students also learned to be more responsible for themselves by cooking and cleaning for themselves, all the while making it fun. They also learned the lesson of how when one person doesn’t fulfill their group responsibility, it affects everyone else. I certainly felt that the trip passed too quickly!