May 22nd, 2000

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Oregon's High Desert

By Ronn Lucas, Sr.

A drive by the confluence of the Columbia and Deschutes rivers crystallized some thoughts for me regarding the Deschutes River canyon and the countless other large, medium and small canyons that spill their precious liquid treasure into the mighty Columbia.

Without the Deschutes, John Day and farther East, the Umatilla rivers and the many smaller rivers streams and seasonal brooks, Central Oregon is nothing more than high desert. When you first see the vast rolling hills of the area your thoughts are, "wow, this is big country." If you stay to the roads that cris-cross Central Oregon looking only ahead to watch for the occasional wildlife that crosses the ribbon of asphalt as they have for thousands of years, you won't see the true beauty of the area.

You must slow down, get out of the car and look, listen to the silence of the high desert, feel the warmth of the sun on your shoulders even in the dead of winter. The air is crisp then and you can see almost forever. Depending on where you are the terrain can be flat, rolling hills or the rough mountains of the Cascades.

In the Spring, there is the blush of green but, the soil is thin and, after all, this is desert. The colors soon turn to the tan of plants that have gone to seed after their short, hard lives. Again, depending on where you are, you may find stands of great pines, firs or the scattered low growing juniper trees. Then there is the sage brush, that provide some of the only shade for the rabbits, lizards and other hardy creatures that call the area home.

When you walk past these low gray bushes, the sweet smell of fresh spicy sage says, "isn't it great to be alive!" You may encounter snakes here but, these are usually closer to water sources where other small creatures live to nourish these ancient reptiles. Deer, coyotes, hawks, and many others also call this home.

The only green areas to survive into the heat of summer are also along the rivers and streams. Occasionally there is a hot spring in the middle of nowhere, or as in the case of the head waters of the Metolius River, a crystal clear and cold spring fed by continual melting of the snow of many years in the past. Long ago folks recognized that the precious water in these canyons could turn the desert green. They built dams and harnessed the water to grow unnatural things that could never survive on their own. A drive past fields of mint, garlic, dill and other aromatic intruders pleases the senses as they grow fast to beat the heat of summer.

This land was formed of layer after layer of volcanic rock. Most is black but some is shades of red, all makes a hard life for the plants and animals that cling to it. If you stay "on top" to look out at the horizon you would never know the rivers were even there. Over countless thousands of years their inexorable march to the Columbia have carved their way through several hundred feet of the hard rock in places. When I'm on the water, looking up at the rough black walls they remind me of some ancient castle standing it's lonely vigil against some mythical enemy. It is awesome to pass through these canyons under their watch whether on foot or boat. It reminds us how really 'small' we are and what a short time we have to enjoy God's Cathedrals.

For too many years I hurried through this wonderful area to somewhere else. I went too fast and only watched the road. I was impressed by how many creatures lay still at the roadside without thinking about how many live ones must be out beyond eyesight. It was hot, flat and seemingly without color, a nuisance really, something to get beyond as quickly as possible.

One thing that advancing years seems to do is slow one down, forcing you to become more aware of the surroundings. You and I are really after the same thing when we fish. the terrain and water may be different, the scenery also unlike each other's. Our quarry is fish and they too may be different but, is that what we really seek? Sure, the fish are important but are they are really the only reason we go.

We are there to enjoy Nature's handiwork and all of the varied pleasures it gives us. It's not the same to fish water within the boundaries of our influence. It's the wild raw places that stir the emotions that get us close to the meaning of life. Our place in the "scheme of things." Our small time here isn't even a burp in geologic terms yet, what we do while we are passing through can help or hurt this that we all love, no matter where that is.

If our individual passing is not noticed by those coming after us, we've done good. ~ Ronn Lucas, Sr.


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