A Desert Refuge

Frogs and flowers are absent, but there are other attractions on a venture to the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge near Othello.

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Nora studies the terrain below from a high mesa on the refuge.

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Many ponds help survival in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge near Othello.

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A reader board details the trail choises along Crab Creek.

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A mound beside the iced-over Crab Creek looks like a beaver house.

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A hawk defies a no trespassing sign near the entrance to wildlife refuge.

We visited Frog Lake on the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, about 14 miles out of Othello, on a warm mid-January day.

We didn't see or hear any frogs for a couple of reasons. We visited the lake in January, and, well, the lake had no water.

By the way, "we" means Nora the Schnauzer and me as trail hounds and Darlene as team leader and base camp (or pickup) CEO.

Anyway, we left Walla Walla late, at 10:43 a.m., but we eschewed the usual stop at the chocolate factory (The Country Mercantile, on Highway 395), so we reached the refuge at 12:55 p.m.

We turned north at Morgan Lake Road, five miles west of Othello on McManamon Road. I stopped there for Nora to stretch her legs.

Two minutes later, Darlene spotted a hawk on her side of the road. It perched on a post, above a "No Trespassing" sign. I passed slowly, turned around, turned off the radio and eased toward the hawk.

Sometimes one will allow a 2,000-pound vehicle to crunch on the gravel and drift close without flapping away. This one did. Nora crowded into the open window, as usual, and I snapped several photos.

I turned around again.

We drove slowly, taking in the rough-hewn basalt rimrock formations that I never tire of pondering. After about eight graveled miles, I parked at the trailhead marked "Wetlands to Rimrock Trails."

As Darlene found her place in the never-ending Potter books, I zipped my down vest and slung the camera's strap over my shoulder.

With a choice of trails through three wildlife habitats, we chose the three-mile, two-hour Frog Lake Trail called "uplands and rimrock habitat."

In winter, this trail offers more photo opportunities than either riparian or marsh habitat trails. Three-plus miles also give Nora a fair workout.

A bullet-riddled diagram on the trailhead readerboard shows a brief jaunt east across Crab Creek, a gentle climb north past Frog Lake, a sharp reversal to the south with an easy climb to the top of a tall mesa.

The trail climbs 200 feet and a .6-mile loop circles the mesa for the panoramic views of the refuge.

We didn't hurry. We both read human, dog, deer and coyote prints (and scat) on the dusty trail.

I also read other signs. One said the refuge "lies in the rain shadow" of the Cascade Mountains and receives about 7.5 inches of precipitation annually, so plants and animals have been forced to adapt to a desert environment.

It also mentioned the "Columbia Basin Irrigation Project" that brought water to the area and made possible this refuge for wildlife.

Another sign described "diurnal vs. nocturnal" animal adaptations to the desert, and one did the same for "the plants you see."

I didn't see any of the wildflowers listed. Not in January.

Plenty of dry bunchgrasses and sagebrush, however, spread behind the sign.

Another sign described the animals that make homes in the basalt cliffs called "more than barren rocks...," including raptors, bats, cliff swallows, rock wrens, cottontails and rattlesnakes.

The sign at Frog Lake, where I saw no lake, mentioned the "critical" nature of permanent water sources "like Frog Lake to the survival of desert wildlife."

Then a sign said, "The trail continues for a panoramic view of the refuge." We continued, made the circle and enjoyed the view from 20-foot-high cliffs.

To the south, I picked out the skyline of downtown Othello. To the southwest, more or less, I spotted Saddle Mountain with the gap or notch that gives the long ridge its name.

Other landmarks in other directions seemed less certain. The Cascades may be visible to the west and unnamed mesas to the north and east. Ponds and Crab Creek shine in several directions.

On the way back, facing the setting sun, we didn't lollygag.

Overall, the hike took more than two hours. Yet, we reached the truck with ample time to dine at McDonald's in Othello or, if we hurried, to stuff down white-chocolate almond bark and sumptuous chocolate truffles at the chocolate factory.

Darlene and I voted for the latter.

Nora settled for Lean Treats and a long nap.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com. More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com .

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