Singin' in the Rain

Remembering rain gear is a must on a spring hike to the White Cliffs along the Hanford Reach.

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Pelicans swim along a Columbia River back bay.

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A clay-sand formation resembles a locomotive near the White Cliffs.

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Nora the Schnauzer races up a high hill overlooking the Columbia River.

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Nora scales a sand cliff along the trail.

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Nora the Schnauzer pays the price for leaving home without her raincoat.

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Tundra swans take flight from a back bay near the White Cliffs South trail.

Alan L. Bauer will be in Walla Walla on Saturday, giving a presentation at the Book & Game store.

Bauer teamed up with Dan A. Nelson to author The Mountaineers Books trail guide "Best Desert Hikes Washington."

I've used the book to discover interesting day hikes for half-a-dozen years (first edition, 2004).

It lists 100 hikes, and I've done 29 of them, often multiple times, including the recent second trek to Umtanum Falls.

Two of my favorite hikes in the book are White Cliffs (North) and White Cliffs (South), each less than a three-hour drive from Walla Walla.

I itched to go again.

When my boss cut me loose at 8:27 a.m. to keep me from heaving deep sighs of resignation on Friday morning of last week, I rushed home, stuffed the day pack, grabbed two cameras and left town with Nora the Schnauzer at 8:54 a.m.

At 10:56 a.m., we parked at the locked south gate to the hike, across from the old Hanford town site.

The book describes beginning the hike at the locked north gate, but that's farther from Walla Walla.

Actually, before we reached the gate, I stopped six miles from the Ringold hatchery. Two groups of white birds bobbed on a back-water bay.

Tundra swans.

We drove quickly to a parking area behind a screen of naked trees. We sneaked along the bank, but when Nora scooted from behind the trees and along the high bank, the swans flapped into flight.

They flapped hard and warbled anxiously. They rose above the water, but they flew into the wind and barely moved forward.

Then they swerved, caught the wind and zipped away.

I looked at the other birds on the water.

Pelicans, with breeding bumps on their beaks.

I stepped toward the edge of the bank, and banged into a stand of barbed wire halfway up my right shin.

I tumbled like a felled fir and crashed with the camera held high. Nora appeared an inch from my face. Her stubby tail wiggled happily.

I groaned from embarrassment, stood and pulled up my pant leg, which had a jagged rip. My shin had a small tear.

It barely hurt, however, and 15 minutes later I stopped at the locked gate.

The Columbia runs mostly north and south there, with a jaunt to the northwest after about five miles.

I slipped on the day pack with the 100-ounce water bag, a capped cup of water for Nora and a nylon jacket. It also had snacks for Nora and two vanilla-yogurt energy bars for me (and Nora).

The car's temperature gage said 59 degrees. The chilly wind whipped along at 20-to-30 mph.

We set out beneath low-hanging, dark blue-gray skies.

Ooops. I forgot rain gear. We left town in too big a hurry.

We walked along the road for half a mile. It's bordered on the left by the Columbia River and on the right by massive clay and sand cliffs.

The book puts it this way: "The White Bluffs area offers an incredible desert landscape to explore. The amazing clay/sand cliffs boast amazing patterns woven into their faces - patterns created by the network of sand and clay layers as well as the hundreds of holes that serve as nesting sites for cliff swallows and many species of raptors that come to this area in the spring."

We left the road and walked across a wide flat, with dark walnut trees, to the river. I photographed a bald eagle on a distant tree by the river and the walnut trees that dwarfed 13-pound Nora.

We walked along the rocky river shore, climbed the bank and followed a narrow path above the river and into a valley of cliffs and unique formations carved by water and wind.

I took photos of a familiar locomotive formation and a straining man with a big nose in a bended-knee, lifting position.

He once resembled a comic Atlas, but this time the other formation looked (vaguely) like a bull. Maybe the formations were Hercules and the Minotaur.

Or maybe not.

We explored the area for two hours, dodging scudding tumbleweeds, climbing ridges and taking photos.

I left my GPS at home, but the book describes a north-end elevation of 900 feet and a south-end elevation of 370 feet.

It can be a 10-mile trek. Nora and I rambled (slowly) for five-plus hours, probably seven or eight miles with an 847-foot elevation gain.

We climbed four ridges between the river and the old road. We climbed the ridge closest to the road and headed south on an undulating path. We dodged a stream of wind-blown tumbleweeds flying up and over the ridge.

Well, Nora caught one in the butt and levitated a foot off the ground. Twice, wind gusts staggered me, and I nearly fell, again.

We followed the ridge to the road as rain pattered against my right side, from the north.

When the rain arrived in earnest, I tried singing in the rain. For 10 seconds.

A soaked Nora looked bedraggled as the temperature dropped 15 degrees.

We walked two miles and 40 minutes in a downpour, without rain gear.

We had fun, of course.

Brrrr.

And Alan Bauer will visit Book & Game on Saturday. Maybe Nora and I will visit the White Cliffs (North) soon.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com or 526-8326.

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