The water ouzel stands on a rock in the Wallowa River, doing its peculiar dip dance as rapids provide the music on their final descent into Wallowa Lake.
Wonder, my wife, sits in the car, shivering. She’s trying to warm up frozen fingers. The sun-kissed October day started at 19 degrees and has now thawed to the mid-40s.
“Come look at this,” I holler above the roar of the rapids.
The two-hour drive from the Walla Walla Valley to Joseph, at the base of the Eagle Cap mountain range, known as Oregon’s Switzerland, is a parade of fall colors, a leaf peeper’s paradise. The sun slants brightly as Wonder bravely hops out of the car and steps gingerly to the edge of the frolicking river. We get a bonus. The water ouzel (or American dipper) dives underwater for a meal of bugs. Just upstream, spawning red kokanee idle in swirling green water with thoughts of perpetuating the species.
The dipper was a favorite bird of outdoorsman John Muir’s as he toured the high Sierra mountain range. No matter if it was raining, sleeting or hailing, whether it was winter or summer, dismal or bright, the ouzel sang cheerfully.
Our fall color tour is going to the birds. Earlier in Joseph, on a sightseeing stroll, we spot an adult female English sparrow, somewhat uncommon in Wallowa County, that has captured a grasshopper. The English (or house) sparrow sits in a bush outside our favorite bed-and-breakfast contemplating her feast.
This trip, however, we are not overnighting in splendor. We’re here for a day of fall colors and forever blue sky. Main Street Joseph is lined with not only bronze sculptures honoring wildlife and history but also maples wearing blazing red coats. To the south Mount Joseph and other snow-capped peaks of the Eagle Cap Wilderness make a stunning backdrop.
A few weeks ago it was blazing-hot summer. Now it is coffee season. We stop at a favorite shop for a red mocha, a mix of cinnamon and cayenne pepper, sweet, spicy heaven.
Fortified, warmed inside and out, we continue down the street, competing against each other in a quick-draw photo contest, Wonder with smartphone and me with point-and-shoot camera. Wonder says she is after quilt-spiration. A fabric artist by trade, she loves working with color, whether quilts, bags or hot pads.
I work with pictures and words, and Wallowa Lake, just up the road, is one of the most photographed, breathtaking lakes in Oregon. On the west moraine, the forest boasts attractively arranged tamaracks, now turning gold. These trees lose their needles in winter and rebound in spring with soft, light green. Behind, mounts Howard and Bonneville loom, dressed in coats of snow. A boat plies the exquisite, mirror-smooth lake as an angler with ample elbow room targets hungry trout.
Half the fun is the drive to Wallowa County. It makes for a long day from the Walla Walla area, but rewards are around every corner. Down valley, as we head home through Lostine, we see three bucks and a doe a few feet off the road bobbing for apples in the shade of a tree. Otherwise, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town is quiet this day, with many of its residents out woodcutting, hiking in the nearby mountains or on fall color tours of their own.
As we enter the canyon of the Wallowa River, we see more anglers, knee deep in the water, tempting trout to bite. No bears make an appearance this day — on previous trips we’ve seen several, including one taking a bath in the river. I try to entice Wonder into a side trip to where bears fatten for winter at a dining hall under an old apple tree. But she is leery of the washboard gravel road and worries I will get excited, and unnerved, steer the car into the adjacent Wallowa River.
So we continue on pavement, ascending the Blue Mountains. Unlike New England, where deciduous trees dominate and whole mountainsides turn red, orange and yellow, here the color comes in more subtle splashes. Still, past Tollgate, we see spectacular color, waves of gold and russet against an azure sky and a long view of Cascade volcanos lost in haze.
Like the water ouzel, who cheerily searches for a meal, we search for color to feed our soul. And on this day we are rewarded.