Rogue River near Agness

Rogue River near Agness
Rogue River near Agness

Monday, June 1, 2020

05-31-2020 Sunday at Hart Antelope Refuge

The winds continued through the night, but we slept really well until about 2 am. A bit of conversation in the dark about our plans for the next day and then Mo fell asleep, but I wasn’t so lucky. I finally got up around 4am to shift positions from lying to sitting which seems to help the leg pain when it hits me like this in the middle of the night.

We got up around 6 to a cloudy day that seemed a bit threatening. The winds had stopped, but there had been just a light patter of rain during the early morning hours although nothing seemed very wet when I stepped outdoors at dawn. Dawn comes a lot earlier this far east, even though we are in the same time zone as we are at home in Grants Pass. Surprising what a just a couple hundred miles can make when it comes to daylight times. After a quick breakfast we were on the road by 7:45

Even though on the previous day we had decided that driving southeast through the featureless desert wasn’t an option, Mo saw a camera marker on the refuge map that indicated the drive might be worth it. There aren’t a lot of roads to explore that go into the higher mountainous areas of the refuge at this time of year, with many roads gated. We did know that the Martin Canyon road had a sign saying it wasn’t officially open until June 15, but the gate was open and unlocked. We decided that our destination for the morning would be Desert Lake marked by the tiny camera on the map. I did mention to Mo that Desert Lake was only an intermittent lake and probably didn’t have any actual water in it.

We drove back up the hill and were surprised that it only takes about 15 minutes to get to the headquarters. Once again we turned south on Blue Sky Road and headed for the Martin Canyon turnoff that we had seen the previous day.

The road was only moderately rough for the most part, meandering across wide alluvial fans and descending gently into depressions and drainages that could hardly be called canyons. I was glad that I had the BLM map because the refuge map wasn’t very clear about the route to Desert Lake, with Martin Canyon road not showing on that map. We knew to turn east at the crossroad with Old Military Road, and then turn again south toward Desert Lake on another road with a strange name that for the life of me I can’t remember. Here is a link to the map.

Back Road to Desert Lake

It was so incredibly quiet except for the birds. The views of the spectacular desert landscape was worth the nearly 7 miles of rough road we took to get there. Colorful wildflowers were everywhere. We saw sulfur lupine, death camas, prairie lupine, various versions of white and pink low phlox, and tansy leaved evening primrose ‘Oenothera tanecetifoli’, which was especially thick on the roadbed.

As expected, the lakebed was dry, but a ridge of volcanic rock on the western side of the lake streaked with orange and chartreuse lichen was spectacular. The rocks were thick with birds that I didn’t recognize but the many types of songs indicated many different kinds of birds make their homes in the rocks. Bright white streaks of bird excrement painted the rocks as well as the lichens.

The one bird we did see and recognize in the low grass in the middle of the road was a horned lark. Of course, no photos since she was bouncing around in the grass so quickly I couldn’t get her on camera. They are ground dwellers, feeders, and nesters, so it may be she had a nest nearby in the dirt because she didn’t want to move out of the way of the car.

We also saw three sage grouse females walking in the sage and then flying low across the brush. I tried to get photos of them, but once again no telephoto, and fast moving birds in the sage didn’t allow very good photos. Still, I’m including one grainy shot because sage grouse are pretty special and are one of the protected species in this refuge. If you want to photograph the amazing sage grouse mating displays in the spring you are required to have a special permit to film birds in the “leks”, or mating grounds of the sage grouse.

We returned the same way we came, passing Old Military Road, turning west on Martin Canyon Road, and then back north on Blue Sky Road to Lookout. Once again, the expansive views were spectacular.  We decided that the next time we came to Hart Mountain we would plan to come just a bit later and explore Black Canyon Road and Military road into places yet to be found.

View to the northwest from Lookout with The Steens on the horizon

We saw only a few pronghorn this time compared to the large herds we saw in September 2013

Our plan for the second half of the day was to return to the Visitor Center and then travel east on the “main” gravel road toward Steens Mountain to Flook Lake. Daughter Melody visited this area last year, camping at the edge of the lake in a tent and bringing back her legal 7 pounds of rocks.

Flook lake is another dry lakebed at this time of year, and there are many surface deposits of small pieces of agate, jasper, petrified wood, and opalized fossils.

We drove across the dry lake, parked on a slight rise, and brought out the chairs for a great lunch of leftover steak sandwiches.  After lunch, we took our time heading back along the playa looking for rocks from the Tracker windows.

Something funny about the landscape at Hart Mountain is the way it can shift and change in ways that are disorienting.  I was the one driving to Flook Lake and yet on the return trip, even though I knew exactly where I was going,  I still got disoriented. I could see Hart Mountain and Poker Jim Ridge, knew I was traveling west, and still had to double check to be sure I was going the right way. It was a very strange feeling and left once we reached the top of the steep hill going down to the Warner Wetlands. I made maps for a living, have a great sense of direction, and have spent a lot of time alone in wild places. Just a heads up, be sure you have a good map and some kind of GPS unit that works without the internet if you plan to wander around this part of Oregon. There is NO cell signal anywhere for a long distance.

Some people asked for a bit more information about the campground. It is operated by the refuge and there are 14 sites, including a camp host site which wasn’t occupied when we were there. I am not sure if that is because of COVID or if it is just too early in the season. The campground was originally a CCC camp developed in 1937 for young men who came west to help build the Hart Antelope Refuge. There is still a building nearby that looks like an old bunk house. At the main visitor center there are beautiful stone buildings characteristic of the CCC style.

There is no shade, the sites are dirt, but are widely spaced with nice metal fire rings and picnic tables at each site. There is a spigot for potable water at the picnic facility which states specifically that camping is NOT allowed under the shelter. When we arrived on Friday night the only occupants were a big motorhome and a small trailer. Throughout the weekend, a couple of campers came and went, but on Sunday night, to our surprise, there were 8 rigs in the campground. Still can’t quite figure out why all those people showed up at the end of the weekend.

I tried in the last post to describe how I feel about Hart Mountain, but I think part of it is the absolute aloneness, miles and miles of nothing and so much open space with no humans. We saw only one truck all day on Blue Sky Road.   The rest of the day we were completely alone. I always feel we are lucky when we return from these forays unscathed. Thank you to the powers that be.

Although, speaking of unscathed, we didn’t quite make it through the trip without an issue. After returning home around 3 in the afternoon, it was cool enough to nap and read a bit. As dinnertime approached, the cloud cover increased to a dull sort of gray. We ate our bean soup and Mo built one last great fire for our sunset watch. We had been pretty happy that our house battery charge stayed above 12 all the time. We ran the gennie before dinner for just an hour to top the charge.

We came in after the sunset and the charge had dropped to 9. What?? Ran the gennie again but as soon as it stopped the charge would drop like a stone. We pulled in the slide, pulled up the jacks so the lack of power wouldn’t interfere with using these operations. We went to bed. It was the darkest night ever.  We still  aren’t sure if there was a wire  loose or if the water level in the batteries was low. (update: water was low, Mo tightened all connections, and so far the batteries are again holding a charge here at home in the MoHo shed.)

We slept well  Morning came early with the sound of rain. We waited until 6am to start up the engine to at least heat up our coffee. Please note, with the rig on “store” instead of “use”, it is impossible to light the stove because the gas doesn’t run if there is no power. We didn’t realize that until we tried, thinking the gas should work no matter since we do not have electronic ignition on the stove.  We thought it would work since we always need to manually light the stove.  Preparing to travel was quick with the slide and jacks already stored.

We were on the road by 6:30 AM on Monday morning, taking a different route south through Adel to reach Highway 140.  It was a perfect choice.  The lakes of the Warner Wetlands extend south from Plush all the way to the highway and in the mixed morning light and partial cloud cover the views were mystical.  No photos once again, since I was driving, and pullovers on that section of road are rare. In the future I would always choose to travel to Plush from the western cutoff for the first views of Hart Mountain and to leave via the more eastern road to Adel so as not to miss the views of the wetlands.

As we continued west through Lakeview Mo suggested a good hot breakfast at a restaurant.  Sounded great, except any restaurants that might be open would also be much farther west in Klamath Falls, and would require masks and who knows what else.  We decided instead to find a good pullover and cook our own breakfast.

 

The summit of Highway 140 where the Gearheart Mountain road heads north into the Gearheart Wilderness was perfect.  The skies opened up to brilliant blue, the trees smelled wonderful, and we had the large bathroom stop entirely to ourselves with the Forest Service pit toilet still closed for COVID.

Breakfast was superb, much better than anything we could find in a restaurant.

Google Maps of our Trip

7 comments:

  1. I read that the orange lichens are that color because of animal urine on the rocks. Even now when we have had so much isolation, this isolated land looks inviting.

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    1. Great info about the lichen! I didnt know that.

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  2. Those middle-of-the-wee-hours wake-ups are no fun. I too find that it helps to switch locations ... sometimes just to the sofa, other times to one of the spare bedrooms. We used to plan to arrive in campgrounds on Sundays ... the thinking being that the weekenders would be leaving, thus opening sites to newcomers. Maybe all those arriving Sunday had a similar mindset. Glad to hear the batteries are once more holding charge ... hope the issue is resolved. I think you made the right choice for breakfast ... al fresco is always better than sitting in a restaurant. I really enjoyed your trip ... gives me one more place to add to our future motorhome travels. Your comment about the pronghorn birthing season (wherever I read it) makes me wonder if that is part of the reason our antelopes are out in smaller numbers now for the same reason.

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    1. Could very well be the case about your local pronghorn. If you come to Hart you can bet we will try to join you.

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  3. I love how the place feels like the middle of nowhere and you can see for miles. What, no pretty rocks collected.

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    1. Oh yes, we took a small stash but the bag is still in the Tracker and I didnt photograph them.

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  4. Yes, we still want to spend some time at Hart, inc staying at the campground. I'm just not sure when. I was thinking next wk, but not sure -- maybe later. Would you want to meet up or is it too soon. Do you think Medicine Lake would be open/accessible? Well, I'm asking these questions w/o looking at a map, silly me. I'll call you soon, howz that? As I said, so glad you guys could make a getaway, albeit short. :-)

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