Spending an enchanted day at Juniper Canyon

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It is a foregone law of this life: The day after I clean the car, we embark on a messy excursion. I realize this as we load up the Pilot in the rain, in preparation for a trip to the wild. We’ve been working too hard these past weeks, all of us — right on down to our latest furry addition, the semi-trained Josephine Dog. She wags the back three-fourths of her body in anticipation of getting to play, then accosts us with her thanks — and her musk — once she’s in.

“Josie smells awful!” Jared moans from the back. “And it’s raining!”

“Positive attitude, positive attitude,” I automatically reply. “If it’s raining, we’ll just hike faster ... and shorter, too.”

“And Josie will smell even worse,” he mutters.

I make a face at the thought, then choose to look on the bright side. At least we’re outdoors, as a clan. It’s been months — maybe a year — since I remember sleeping in as we have today, waking up with no plans and no hurry. At breakfast, Chris and I declared this a Day of Fun. The promise of hiking brought gasps of delight and chore-time seemed short as we geared up to go.

And now here we are, gliding through wheat-stubbled fields and scruffy, low hills with the skies steely gray overhead. The rain thins and then stops, giving way to high, sunlit clouds that refract the light like a lens.

I open our volume of Tolkien and together, we travel to Middle Earth where Frodo has just returned from Mount Doom. In a break in the action, I glance up and gasp. We’ve rounded a curve, and ahead, the hills hummock upward in tiers, fringed with rock and dark brush on each level. Dry grass, golden in the clean air, seems brighter than I’ve ever seen.

I am enchanted — we all are.

I resume reading at last, glancing up often to drink in the scenery that seems so mundane on most days.

“I get to drive this every day,” Chris boasts by my side. “See those goats?”

He points to a pristine-white pair on an cliff up ahead.

“They hang out there all the time.”

I smile. They must be old friends.

Several minutes later, just past Twin Sisters rocks and not far beyond a string of steelhead fishers by the river, we’ve arrived. We’re past the confluence of the two rivers, and the Columbia stretches wide to our north. We park at our destination, a generous break in the hills that crowd right up to the river.

Juniper Canyon welcomes us, its gentle slopes hung with a loose network of trails. The smell of sage fills the air, and I breathe deep. I’m suddenly transported to my childhood home.

After strapping Josie into her blue pack, we amble along with our progeny, listening for deer and hoping to see something wild. But nothing appears except Josie, madly chasing every pebble that rolls. She swallows more than a few, to Ethan’s unbridled angst.

“They won’t ... come out ... again ... will they?” he asks, his face drawn.

And then he’s off to the next thing — climbing a rockslide to its source.

We scramble upward behind him, sending rocks skittering to the marshlands below. Birds call out their alarm and Josie vacillates between her desire to chase them and follow us. I break a sweat as I toil up behind Summer, keeping myself between her and the long tumble she fears.

Together, she and I rest at the top, taking in the murky lowlands with their myriad grassy flags and the scum-coated water that feeds them. I’m reminded of the Dead Marshes of Frodo, only these marshes breed life: birds, frogs, waterfowl and untold mammals surely frequent this spot as their chosen supply. Later, we discover the flattened-grass evidence of deer bedding down for the night.

“Look at Josie!” Summer cries, and we chortle at the antics of this nearly-grown pup, leaping over grass tufts and dodging the boys’ hot pursuit. She’s in her element; we all are. The sun thins the clouds even more, and the walk back to the car yields a thrill.

“A rattlesnake!” Ethan yells as a slender reptile oozes under a protecting log. “I heard it rattle!”

I grab his arm like a vice, begging him be quiet.

“Rattlesnake!” he bugles again, and I quail. Do not disrupt the wild things!

But the snake remains still, and we crowd for a glimpse of its tail — all except Josie, who would surely want more than a glimpse.

“I’m tired!” Jared says as we coast down the trail toward the car. “Do we have food?”

But he’s smiling. No more moans, and the dog doesn’t even smell like a frog pond.

Yes, we all needed a rest; the results can speak for themselves.

We roll back toward home, feeling grand. Frodo bids goodbye to his friends as we read, and I feel the same sort of twinge. We spot the white goats again, still perched high — and a flame-yellow tree salutes us soon after. Its yellow arms stretch wide like the farewell embrace of an elf, and I sigh.

Until next time, Day of Fun. It’s been a bit of pure magic.

Sarah Coleman Kelnhofer writes from College Place, where she and her husband strive to tame their half-acre of wilderness while their children try to reclaim it. Last year, she even grew pansies – in a secret location – hidden from the local wildlife.

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