A light snow fell as Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I arrived at the Anthony Creek winter elk-feeding site near North Powder, Ore.
The flakes fell on three colorful, well-padded toddlers and a small group of adults waiting for the season's first tour among the elk.
Darlene's watch said 10:27 a.m.
Our 105-mile drive over the mountain to the area had taken more than three hours. I blamed the packed snow on the road.
Well, we did pause to visit a drafty one-holer (brrrr!), for Nora to ferret in the snow, for me to snap photos and to watch a snowplow pass.
We went to North Powder to look for bald eagles that usually show up at this time of the year. One year we saw about a dozen.
It's also an opportunity to dine at the Haines Steak House, with its fabled Chuck Wagon Salad Bar (great baked BEANS!).
Alas, as we approached the valley, visibility of less than 207 yards hid the scenic Elk Horn mountains and made chances of good eagle photos slim and slimmer.
And, as we passed through North Powder and under Interstate 84, the conditions grew grayer. So did the possibility of spotting a fox or coyote in the pastures.
"Well, they may be feeding the elk already," I said. "Let's go see."
So, at eight miles past the interstate, we turned right onto North Powder River Lane, and they were feeding elk for the first time this winter.
Nora would have to stay in the car, so we declined the tour.
Instead, we parked at the overlook where Nora romped around in the snow, and I snapped a few long-distance photos.
Darlene and I calculated that 100 elk showed up for the hay feed (on Saturday, Dec. 11).
"More will show up later," Darlene said.
We stayed for an hour before eagle hunting.
Snowfall increased and visibility decreased as we poked along Anthony Lakes Road toward Haines.
Yet, as we approached a curve with a junction and a ranch house, I saw two big birds ripping at something in a field behind the house.
"I bet those are eagles," I said. "They're too big for crows or hawks."
I pulled into the junction, turned and pulled over. The 500-mm lens proved my guess to be correct, and I snapped off a few shadowy frames.
I stepped up close to the fence for a better view, but it didn't help.
Then we continued to Haines and arrived there at 12:16 p.m. Just in time for lunch, I figured. Alas, the restaurant opens at 4 p.m. on Saturdays.
"Drat," I mumbled.
The snowfall increased as we retraced our route to North Powder. On the way, we spotted an eagle perched high on a slender snag.
I pulled over, walked to the fence with the camera covered against the snow and snapped a few frames.
Snow nearly obscured the eagle. It also gave it the special isolated tone of a really nice winter day.
From there we drove slowly back to Union, back to Imbler and back up the mountain.
Four inches of unplowed snow covered Highway 204. We stopped at Spout Springs, and I broke the ice and snow from the windshield wipers so we could see.
Finally, safely down the hill, I treated Darlene to a burger, sans fries, and a medium-sized vanilla milkshake.
It was the least I could do.
Don Davis can be reached at email@example.com.
If You Go
We drove over Tollgate on snow-packed roads to Summerville and took Highway 82 toward La Grande. We turned left on Pierce Road to Union at 85 miles. From there its about 18 miles to North Powder, 10 miles to the elk-feeding station then another 10 or 12 miles to Haines.
The elk feeding tours will continue on every weekend until Feb. 27, 2011. They begin at about 10:30 a.m. and run every half hour, with the last ride at 2 p.m.
Special holiday tours will take place daily from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2.
Visitors ride in a horse-drawn wagon and pass within 10 yards (or closer) of 100 to 250 elk. On the ride, Susan Triplett and Alice Trindle of T & T Wildlife Tours tell about elk, the reasons for the feeding program and so on. The tour costs $5 for children and $7 for adults.
For more information about elk feeding visits, contact T & T Wildlife Tours at 541-856-3356 or 541-519-7234 or check website www.tnthorsemanship.com and click on "Wildlife Tours."
For the Steak House menu, etc., check the Internet at www.hainessteakhouse.com .