Each of us needs a go-to place to escape the house and beat cabin fever yet stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mine is Dry Creek.
The modest canyon near Milton-Freewater feels far away and, in real estate lingo, offers great curb appeal. Enter from the north through the sprawling Seven Hills vineyards.
Enter from the east via Steen Road off Highway 11, with its panoramic view of the Blue Mountains.
Enter from the south by squeezing through a 1917 tunnel under train tracks that at the canyon’s south end form a horseshoe.
The tracks have a compelling history. According to information on frenchtownwa.org, the Oregon Steam Navigation Co. built a 14-mile branch line from Whitman Station to a point along Dry Creek, known as Blue Mountain Station, around 1880.
Today, 140 years later, I am listening not for trains but for government orders. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have encouraged residents to stay home and stay safe during the pandemic.
But since a short drive or hike is OK, as long as physical distancing is maintained, I still enjoy the wonders of spring — the playful calves, the darting swallows, the posing rainbows.
A friend who loves to hike has taken the distancing order to an extreme. Instead of aiming for 6 feet of distance from other humans, he is aiming for 6 miles. I am not that ambitious.
On a sparkler of a day in early April, I enter Dry Creek canyon from the north.
A red-tailed hawk perches on a power pole. Its large stick nest sits in a tall cottonwood tree along Dry Creek, which in early spring is far from dry. Evidence of flooding from early February, piles of driftwood show where the creek escaped its banks.
Soon the hawk leaps off its perch. With a piercing cry, with “Braveheart” intensity, it turns an alfalfa field into a battlefield, advancing on a platoon of mice, other birds, snakes and insects.
I drive on and see a flock of wild turkeys. It’s mating season. Enthusiastic toms sport brown and bronze bodies with blue and red heads and beards. Fanning tail feathers, they herd their harems, which seem more interested in hunting insects, seeds and fruit than in furthering the species.
The wild turkey is a captivating bird. The largest game bird in Oregon lost by one vote to the bald eagle to be the United States’ national bird. Turkeys can fly up to 60 mph, and competing toms are heard gobbling up to a mile away. What’s more, a turkey’s eyesight is three times better than humans.
“That’s why they don’t wear glasses,” my wife, Wonder, quips.
Having watched the turkey’s antics for a spell, I hit the road.
Upstream, eight whitetail deer drink in the creek silvered in the evening light. When startled, the shy deer bolt, waving their tails from side to side. They can run up to 30 mph over challenging terrain.
Farmers farm. Ranchers ranch. Cloud formations billow. I stop to take pictures of a fence line reinforced by tumbleweed, backed by towering clouds. Male frogs calling to females tune up in a nearby draw.
Later, at a rapids, a gregarious yet camera-shy black-billed magpie poses. I listen, hoping it will mimic a dog or cat — magpies are master impersonators.
The drive ends when the road returns to Highway 11 near Weston. It’s a short trip but long on scenery, close to home yet seemingly far away.