Journey

A personal adventure to wilderness study areas in the desert: part II

Mark Darnell

If you read part one of Mark’s journey, you will recall his original plan to spend two months in the spring visiting lesser-known wilderness study areas (WSAs) and to bring back pictures for possible publication in ONDA’s upcoming Wild Desert Calendar. Although his aim was to photograph these areas, his mission turned in to something unexpected, much larger and more important.
Story and images by Mark Darnell

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Aaron Tani, Sage Society Member

Aaron Tani, Sage Society Member

“It feels good to support ONDA on a monthly basis, because I know they never stop supporting our public lands. ONDA works to help make our lands a better place for the future, and I feel like I’m a part of that every month with my support.”

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The Land Between: The Greater Hart-Sheldon Region

The Land Between: The Greater Hart-Sheldon Region

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Helen Harbin on Wildlife

Helen Harbin on Wildlife

In the Steelhead Falls WSA the Deschutes River flows through rugged canyons up to 700 feet deep. This WSA is remarkable for containing wildly scenic vistas in close proximity to the populated area of Crooked River Ranch. A mere one- or two-hour drive from Bend, depending on which side of the river you explore, enabled me to spend many days wandering both sides of the river within the WSA. BLM land north of Crooked River Ranch provides a route to the east rim with an overview of the big canyon area. Views of fancifully-eroded formations in the canyon excite the mind as you hike north along the east rim. Finally, you reach spectacular views of the Deschutes River as it backs up and floods into Lake Billy Chinook.

Finding a way down through the top cliff band guarding the sloping canyon walls required several day trips to probe the east rim above the river. Following game trails, I scrambled down 45-degree scree slopes to an outcropping of small pinnacles apparently formed during a previous fantasy goblin period. They provided the interesting foreground I was seeking for a photo looking across the river to where the artfully sculpted crescent of Potter Canyon joins the Deschutes.

Steelhead Falls WSA at Potter Canyon

Mark Darnell

My scenic objective in the Abert Rim WSA was the point where Juniper Creek and Poison Creek spill over the edge of the rugged rim. I heard that the creeks had carved out a bowl that would grant me a possible view of a long section of the rim. But despite extensive planning and multiple forays from West Coyote Hills Road into rolling hills and dry canyons, the jeep roads became impassable for my pickup. I swallowed my disappointment when a longtime local rancher told me he had only ever been there once while chasing lost cattle on horseback 30 years ago. Leaving the rugged country of the Abert Rim plateau, I parked along the highway at the bottom of the rim and climbed up Cold Creek. Storm clouds, rain and wind greeted me as I climbed up the creek toward the massive, sculpted sections of vertical cliff banding along the entire rim. Yet another remote and improbably beautiful spot added to my list for return trips during better weather.

Springtime finds Warner Valley and Plush flush with water, with large lakes lapping at the foot of the long rim of Hart Mountain. Gazing across Hart Lake with the sunset lighting the length of the mountain rim, I could see the beauty of “Canyon Row,” a two-mile stretch featuring four big canyons that gouge the mountain from summit to base. Although not in a WSA, they called out to be explored. The next morning I entered Hart Canyon alongside Norton Creek, scrambling across steep scree slopes and through heavy brush. After a mile a cliff band closed out my route, teasing me with glimpses of a high basin and open meadows that only the animals would enjoy that day.

"Canyon Row" as seen from Hart Lake

Mark Darnell

My wife, KJ, joined me for the final week of exploration in the Pueblo Mountain WSA near the Nevada state line. After setting up our base camp in Fields we spent the first evening next to a roaring fire on the playa of the Alvord Desert. Watching the embers blow safely away into the dark, where they seemed to merge with the brilliant stars on the horizon, created a mind-bending experience in utter isolation.

As we sat at our camp in Fields that evening planning the dawn shoot, we looked up to see two airplanes taxiing down the main road through Fields, a few hundred yards in front of us. The small sport planes paused at the only stop sign in Fields, then one at a time roared down the highway, briefly out of view as the road sloped away. They swooped back, engines roaring, to climb into the sky on their way to take part in air pylon racing at the north end of Alvord Desert. Fields never disappoints.

The Pueblos mainly consist of two long mountain ridges rising from the desert floor, containing a valley full of springs and meadows. The dirt road along Arizona Creek provided an initial approach toward the main valley but became so uncomfortably narrow and steep that KJ wisely jumped out of the truck to walk while I slowly backed the truck down to safety. After two months of making good decisions while exploring alone, I felt embarrassed about making this bad one.

I returned the next day, parked the truck before the grade became death-defying and continued on foot. Walking up the center of the verdant, sunny valley with Arizona Creek gurgling below, I saw a high pass in the distance that should lead me south to the main valley between the ridges of the Pueblos. To my surprise, I encountered a fence at the top of the pass but was able to pass through the gate. A rough trail continued up and began turning south, leading me to a stunning sunset vista. Lupine and Indian paintbrush were at my feet. Lifting my gaze past a small aspen-filled valley, I watched the sun and clouds alternately brighten and darken the round overlapping hills in the distance, while the dark blue silhouette of massive Steens Mountain loomed on the horizon. I stayed for a very long time, lost in sublime appreciation of the moment.

Pueblo Mountain WSA at Cottonwood Creek

Mark Darnell

And then, I finally found the answer I had sought in that first canyon. I wasn’t doing all this just for the photographs. I was doing it to learn first-hand the meaning that our public lands held in my own life. I found that I had developed an intimate relationship with the natural landscapes of the Oregon desert. I need these places in my life. They provide fulfillment. These wild, remote landscapes grant a sense of time-travel. This is where you can see what nature created before man touched it. They have filled my soul and recharged my spirit. My experiences in the “Big Full” have given me a new perspective on what is important in our modern world, and what is not. This knowledge has no price. I have much to learn, but now I clearly know why I will continue to support ONDA’s mission to protect these vital treasures.

Join us at the 2019 Wild Desert Calendar Release Party this Friday, November 2 at Deschutes Brewery Public House in downtown Bend. Meet the photographers featured alongside Mark in this year’s calendar and celebrate the 15th year of the Wild Desert Calendar that inspired this journey.