Editor's Note: Part 2 of this report on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and other tours in Harney County will run in this space on June 1, 2011.
BURNS, Ore. - After tooling into town at 11 minutes past 2 p.m. and locating the motel, we continued westward through Hines to the Bureau of Land Management office.
A knowledgeable and pleasant woman there suggested two maps and six pamphlets to help me find and recall details about sites that I had visited years ago between Burns and Frenchglen, including the widespread Malheur Wildlife Refuge.
Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I planned to stay at America's Best Inn for three nights, as our base camp, and tour the historic, scenic and wildlife-rich portion of Harney County in the shadow of the snow-capped 9,733-foot-high Steens Mountain.
We could hardly wait.
Harney County, by the way, ranks as the largest county in Oregon in size (10,228 square miles) and is the eighth- or ninth-largest in the U.S. It has a population of 7,705 people.
When we left the BLM office, I filled the gas tank and set out for the refuge visitor center, 32 miles to the south on State Route 205.
Sheets of shiny water lay on the road-side fields, and occasional brown curlews feasted with long, down-turned bills, along with the a pair of American avocets and two pairs of sandhill cranes.
Cranes usually pass through the Malheur in September, but a few take up residence.
Then, as a geologic surprise, Wright's Point blocked the view. It stands on the flat like a 200-foot-high, 200-foot-wide and 10-mile-long hotdog bun.
The landform follows the route of an ancient stream. It developed when two separate lava flows sealed it with a cap of solid rock. Then 2.5 million years of erosion removed the surrounding soil leaving a ridge, called inverted topography, where a trough once existed.
In addition, despite the wide expanse of high desert (often at 4,000-foot-plus elevation) south of Burns, many picturesque rim-rock formations and scatterings of large boulders dominate the landscape.
Anyway, after crossing Wright's Point, I stopped between two sections of wind-rustled Malheur Lake, once to photograph two colorful avocets and once to snap a red-eyed, black-and-white grebe.
At the pullout on Narrows Bridge, Nora and I stepped into the sunshine to ponder a tree, supposedly the one most photographed on the refuge.
Uprooted, it lay tipped on its side and a chill south wind, perhaps blowing off the snowy slopes of Steens Mountain, sent chills over my body as if a bull snake had slithered across my ankle.
From there we turned left at the Narrows Restaurant and RV Park and followed Sodhouse Lane to the refuge headquarters and visitor center.
From the parking area, we strolled against the chill breeze beneath a patch of tall shade trees to the groomed lawns and brick buildings.
Dozens of tiny Belding's ground squirrels scampered about on the lush lawns, and Nora strained against her leash to scamper after them.
Darlene and I took turns visiting the center, the restroom and the museum.
I learned at the center that the Belding's ground squirrels hibernate for seven to eight months, one of longest hibernation periods in North America.
The museum contains taxidermists' rendering of the birds that may be seen in the area, as well as drawers full of eggs from the various species.
On the way back to Burns, we saw the usual curlews and cranes and two great white egrets.
After we unloaded the gear, we dined at The Apple Peddler, a family restaurant open 24 hours a day.
And, huddled over a pamphlet, we plotted a scenic rout to Frenchglen and the popular Diamond Loop for the next day.
I wanted to reach P-Ranch at Frenchglen to see the buzzards awaking on the tower there and spreading their wings to dry in the early morning sunlight.
I could hardly wait.
Contact Don Davis at email@example.com. More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com.