For three full days I hesitated. I’d look at the email, start my response, and falter. The subject line of “Osborne Ridge Hike” drew me in enough to pause, but the message made my dutiful response of saying no difficult. This would be a Tuesday field trip and my deadlines kept piling up. Plus, there’s always the question of Covid precautions, but the group size would be small and mask wearing specifically mentioned as important.
“Marina: This hike is a very special one and if you are interested please call me to discuss it.” The sender? Gary Clowers. We’d only met virtually, yet I knew that he’d once conducted an inventory of Belted Kingfisher territories on the lower Deschutes River and was both passionate and knowledgeable about ravens. I prepared my note declining the invitation, but couldn’t push “send.” Sure enough, Tuesday morning, I found myself calling Gary. What was I thinking? To choose a day at the desk over a sunny balmy day in the field?
Gary Clowers is not someone you’d pass over in a crowd. He’s 80-years-young with a spry step, a hand-crafted walking stick, a worn felt hat with a band of spiral shells and bird feathers, long hair, and the oddest binoculars I’d ever seen. His mask choice of the grinning Cheshire Cat with the words, “We’re all mad here,” completes the curious assemblage.
My first (less than tactful) question, “Why are you missing half your binoculars on one side?” He lifted them to show me the plastic eyeball stuck where the lens would have been. “I only have one good eye, so why not save some weight? I just cut that part off.”
Gary handed me a geologic map of the region encompassing the Crooked River caldera, a 17-mile wide and 26-mile long depression formed from multiple supervolcano eruptions about 29 million years ago. Soon, I was meeting the other hikers, an experienced bunch of “dry side” explorers. Dan Chamness is the organizer of their monthly hikes centered in Madras.
We were headed for a Common Raven territory that Gary knows well from studying one pair that nested in a high cleft of red rock that geologists term the “H member” of the western facies (characteristic rocks) of the John Day Formation. Gary named the birds Ozzie and Harriet in honor of Osborne Ridge, explaining that he always dubs ravens for some topographic feature in their territory, and every successive generation bears the same nicknames.
Scrambling upslope, we’d pause often for the panoramic geology of the Crooked River caldera, imagining explosions many thousand times greater than Mt. St. Helens, a magma roof collapse, and white hot clouds of ash that would petrify to become the castle-like pink rhyolite tuff of Smith Rock State Park. Here to the north, volcanic remnants appear less dramatic. However, up-close investigations reveal our stable ground was once anything but that. Gary directed our attention to polished “slickenslide,” the term for rock that’s striated and smoothed by faulting motion.
As we climbed higher and our learning deepened from Gary’s knowledge of geology and native plants even in winter (like buckwheats, penstemons, and ocean spray), I kept thinking about ravens, the slickenslides of the sky. We’d already encountered the pair circling overhead, keeping an eye on our progress. Perhaps with every slice, sweep, flap, and incision into this blue ceiling, their obsidian black feathers gleamed with even more luster.
Motion does this. Stay indoors too long and lose your shine. With every step, I could feel that polish. A gust of wind blew my ball cap a few yards away. A flock of robins assailed my hearing. The air smelled of wild gin of juniper berry clusters in dusty blue. On the ridgetop, we could see the snowy Cascades with stunning views of Mt. Jefferson and in the far hazy distance to the north, Mt. Adams.
Following Gary, we all grew a bit more lustrous and attuned. He’s a naturalist, and that means he notices, observes, and never passes by a nook that might be a home for an animal. We found ourselves peering into knotholes in junipers, scouring shallow holes in cliffs for signs of Rock or Canyon Wren nests, and squeezing into clefts where bushy-tailed woodrats piled their nests of sticks and collectibles that caught their eye. But the crescendo would come after our lunch break, a destination requiring some hand-over-hand clambering up a rock ledge.
We’d come to Gary’s secret spot, not one to be revealed to the public. Nimble as ever, Gary reached the penultimate location, just in time to crouch down behind a low rock wall at a shallow cave entry. When Dan offered to take my picture, I’m glad I said yes. Here I am below–if only I’d worn a cowboy hat and a brown shirt for the true outlaw look!
And then we were there: the original raven nest site that Gary observed for decades. The ravens have moved to a new spot, one that he has yet to find. Without his interpretation, I might have been baffled by the tangle of driftwood-like juniper sticks in the rock crack. Nest? Where? Gary pointed to an overhang higher up and at an angle. There, the ravens had claimed a small sheltered perch. Every season, they’d carry branches in their bills to this hidden ledge. The female would lay her three to seven eggs in an inner cup she had lined with mud, fur, bark, and grasses. As the chicks grew and became their boisterous and bodacious raven selves, they’d kick off the sticks that over time became this artful, six-foot-tall jumble.
Descending on mule deer trails, catching glimpses of cottontail rabbits, studying the sky for ravens and hawks, and running my fingers through fine stalks of bluebunch wheatgrass, I felt a little less rough hewn and a bit more slickenslide. While fond of my sheltered nook of home and fairly dedicated to responsibilities, I’m reminded that life is meant to be lived with the gusto of ravens racing a storm cloud, and in the way of Gary Clowers who wakes each day with insatiable curiosity.
- Geology links: Watch this four-minute youtube called, “Smith Rock Caldera/Nick on the Rocks” and/or read this paper with a map of the caldera: Field trip guide to the Oligocene Crooked River caldera: Central Oregon’s Supervolcano, Crook, Deschutes, and Jefferson Counties, Oregon.
- Find out more about Common Raven life history, and for a deeper dive read Bernd Heinrich’s books: Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven.