A few days ago, when a storm bearing snow and freezing rain belted Blue Mountain Country, I figured elk would stream down from the high country.
As they did last winter.
An estimated 3,500 of the big browsers migrated onto winter wheat fields in the McKay Creek area, about eight miles southwest of Pendleton.
The situation soon turned ugly.
On the first of April, 2011, The Observer of La Grande headlined a story: "Elk die after gorging on winter wheat."
The story said 250 or more young elk, including 200 calves, died because their immature digestive systems could not break down and absorb nutrients from the wheat.
"They starved to death on full stomachs," Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark Kirsch of Pendleton told The Observer.
That happened despite ODFW personnel making a massive effort to drive the elk away from the fields. They used firecrackers, spotlights, four-wheelers and other hazing efforts for five nights a week all winter.
Some of the elk left the fields, but many returned.
When Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I visited the area in February of 2011, we saw elk and deer high on ridges. We saw none browsing in the fields.
Anyway, with that storm a few days before, we anticipated seeing elk in the McKay Creek area.
Never mind the prospect of bad roads.
So, we stopped for coffee and blueberry scones and headed south at about 8:39 a.m. After a careful drive, and passing one vehicle in the ditch, I refilled the cups at the Arrowhead Travel Plaza on Mission (or South Market) Road, near Interstate 84, east of Pendleton.
Five minutes later on South Market Road, I stopped to photograph a kestrel munching a mouse on an electric wire.
"That's the 10th kestrel we've seen," Darlene said.
I stopped again to photograph a fog-draped view of Cabbage Hill.
Then, two men in a pickup asked if we needed assistance. One assured me I was in the right place to see elk when and if they migrated from the mountains.
So, we studied the high ridges as we drove over the soaked, snow fringed Sumac Road and down to McKay Creek.
We saw no deer or elk.
We turned left, toward the road's dead end at the south fork of the creek.
Soon, as we gained elevation, snow and ice covered the gravel. When I stopped for Nora to run around, a road grader chugged by.
We didn't see a deer, pheasant, turkey or elk all the way up to the bridge over the south fork, where I stopped to watch a kingfisher watch the water.
In the next mile, we counted (in round numbers) 100 turkeys, 20 quail and a 10 deer.
Then I saw 125 elk high on a ridge. They moved slowly, nibbling along the way.
The big lens didn't record much detail, but it revealed two big racks.
We turned back at road's end and moseyed downstream at 10 mph or so.
We saw turkeys and deer again.
And two miles past Sumac Road, below the snowline, goldfinches swarmed as thick as honey bees into a nude roadside tree.
At Shaw Road I turned left. A dozen rooster pheasants and a flock of quail pecked for protein in a farm yard.
Six deer lay beneath a line of trees.
In the next mile, four kestrels posed on posts or wires. One flew by clutching a mouse in its talons.
I turned around and followed Shaw Road north, past the Ellis Hunting Ranch (with a net-covered pen for raising birds), across Spring Creek Road, and along the McKay National Wildlife Refuge with a view of McKay Reservoir.
We eventually turned right on Best Road and completed the loop at the Arrowhead Travel Plaza.
We made a rest and coffee stop at the plaza as a freezing rain arrived.
Then the prospect of bad roads arrived.
Near Milton Hill on Highway 11, we crept by three vehicles off the road. On the hill, we eased around a tow-truck pulling a car from the barrow pit. Inching along, we made it home to enjoy bowls of (daughter) Dawn's steaming bean soup.
The next morning, a solid sheath of ice covered the truck.
Then, Nora slipped and skidded on her bum as she dashed into the backyard. Not a good day to look for elk.
So I surmised.
Contact Don Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org. More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com.
If You Go
Drive south from Milton-Freewater on Highway 11.
At seven or so miles past Adams, turn left (south) on Mission (South Market) Road. Continue past Arrowhead Travel Plaza and Interstate 84. Turn right (west) on either Lloyd, Best, Connor, Holmes or Red Hawk road to Motanic Road.
Turn left (south) again to Sumac Road. Continue to McKay Creek Road. Turn left (east) for seven miles to road's end (about 60 miles total). Turn around.
Drive back past Sumac Road for about six miles to Shaw Road. Turn left to Highway 395 or turn right to McKay National Wildlife Refuge, McKay Reservoir and roads Spring Creek, Holmes and Best.
Turn right on either to Motanic and South Market Road. Turn left on South Market and complete the loop at Arrowhead Travel Plaza and back to Walla Walla (about 135 miles).