Big Trip, Ch 5, Red Rock

With apologies to readers:  convention in this, and other chapters under the title Big Trip, my intention is that the chronicle of the trip follows a date and material following ***** discusses changes and updates what was chronicled to about 50 years later.  Hope this helps. 

Red Rock

The 1962 trek was just beginning. After a dozen days of birding, I was about to leave Oregon and Idaho and enter the geologic region that divides eastern and western North America. The Rocky Mountains were not far away. Behind, I had crossed the Cascade Mountains into a vast region of arid rifts and valleys of the Great Basin. I was far from the first to explore and gather information about birds from these regions. Although not the first, the U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1841 traversed the Rogue River Valley in southwestern Oregon, my departure location, in 1841. The famous expedition was taking an interior trek from Ft. Vancouver on the Columbia River to California. Fort Vancouver had long been a trading hub as a strategic post of the Hudson Bay Company. John K. Townsend had crossed the Rocky Mountains in 1834 with Nathaniel Wyeth, in intrepid forager of the wilderness. Wyeth traveled much of what later became the Oregon Trail. Townsend made his headquarters at the Fort Vancouver until returning to Philadelphia in 1837. Thomas Nuttall joined him for three years. Both probably enjoyed hearing John McLaughlin, head honcho of the Hudson Bay Company at the fort, talk about David Douglas. Mountain Quail and sugar pines are just a few of the species discovered by Douglas during the 1820s while headquartered at Ft. Vancouver. I would not cross the path of the courageous Douglas until birding in California in 2005.

Townsend and Nuttall collected new and unique specimens from the region of Ft. Vancouver, including the north coast of Oregon. Audubon examined some of their specimens, and then scooped Townsend and Nuttall by being the first to describe and name these new species of birds. The elusive Black-throated Gray Warbler was one of the species Townsend collected just across the Columbia River from the fort in a region now known as Portland, Oregon. Since missing this species in 1962, I would have to wait for the second leg of the trip, in 2005, to add the warbler to the trip list. Audubon named another species, Townsend’s Solitaire, although Townsend had discovered it. I would soon add Townsend’s Solitaire to the trip list during my visit to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Soon after making the crest of Cascades in Crater Lake National Park I crossed the paths of Charles Bendire and the route of the Pacific Railroad Survey. Bendire worked at Ft. Klamath in the 1880s. The site of the fort is just east of the town of the same name. Bendire was not big on naming new birds. His interest lay in observations of behavior, especially nesting and eggs. His collections of eggs formed the basis for much of his publications. The egg collection was the seed for a larger collection that provided A. C. Bent much of the information on eggs he incorporated in his famous life histories of birds. During my tenure at Smithsonian I had the privilege and pleasure to curate eggs collected by Bendire. As for naming new birds collected by Bendire, that fell to Robert Ridgway, probably one of the greatest ornithologists ever. At Smithsonian a couple of us would sometimes offer the phrase, “Robert Ridgway, he’s our man. “ We meant with reverence; it is absolutely amazing how he so accurately unraveled the taxonomy of the birds of North and Middle America.1 He did that formidable task with a mere handful of specimen (far fewer than is presently in the collection). An extremely large percentage of Ridgway’s’ taxonomic conclusions have held the test of decades of scrutiny by others and even held to be correct as the genetics of more and more species are being investigated. One of Bend ire’s birds from the Ft. Klamath region named by Ridgway is the widespread western subspecies of Common Crow. Ridgway named a subspecies of Red Crossbill based on another bird collected by Bendire. Ridgway proposed the name bendirei, a subspecific name to a most puzzling kind of bird. I say, “kind of bird” because what we now call Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) may actually consist of possibly nine species! Research has shown that these crossbills are nomadic, some “subspecies” breed sympatrically, are fussy who they mate with (=assortive mating), and have differing voices and habitat preferences. Possibly, as this is written, scientific proof has concluded what these populations of birds now lumped under Red Crossbill actually are several species. These birds are perhaps the most problematic group that breeds in North America. In 1962, I was clueless, as was everyone that Red Crossbills were nothing more than little eccentric cross-billed finches that liked hooking out seeds from conifers. The Red Crossbill, as far as I was then concerned, was a species that I missed during the trip. Maybe later. I at least knew birds presently called Red Crossbills frequented Bendire’s old stomping grounds, the historic site of Ft. Klamath. About two dozen crossbills of some kind, definitely not White-winged Crossbills, were chittering and swarming over a couple of lodgepole pines in the impoundment when Linda and I visited there one fall day in 2003. They were some kind of crossbill.

The railroad survey crew, about 35 years before Bendire was at Ft. Klamath, traveled north along the east side of the Cascades and southward on the west side of the Cascades in the 1850s. J.S. Newberry collected and provided the name for the Williamson’s Sapsucker, a bird he found near Upper Klamath Lake, and a species I missed there. My route to the Rocky Mountains crossed the paths of other explorers. Bendire and his cavalcade of cavalry were in the region of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the 1880s. In the 1840s General John Fremont explored part of eastern Oregon; his associate Colonel Abert is the namesake for Lake Abert. In southern Idaho, the famous Oregon Trail was crossed. It followed part of the Snake River just as did the modern paved roadways I traveled. The busy Oregon Trail went just north of Deer Flat. About two decades earlier Peter Skene Ogden (imagine what kids did to his name), an important fur trader, explored the Snake River as well as traveling into the then unknown Klamath country in Oregon. Of course Lewis and Clarke in 1805 had traversed Idaho but north of my southern route. I would later come in contact with their route north of Yellowstone National Park.

The path of a relatively modern explorer of Idaho probably crisscrossed the state during his research on birds. The explorer was T.D. Burliegh, whose book on birds of Idaho would have come in handy in 1962. Burleigh had worked for the National Biological Survey, the very organization employing me beginning in 1971. He was an avid collector and preparator of bird specimens. His specimens were generally well made and useful in taxonomic studies. I won’t go into the details of how to prepare a study specimen but some of Burleighs’ specimens had shortcomings. The legs were not anchored into the body as well as possible and the specimens were often too rounded and had a tendency to roll over. Burleigh described and named several subspecies of birds during his career, some of which I had occasion to evaluate. Most of the new subspecies he proposed, as determined by my studies and those of others were usually pale. This was because most of the feather colors of his specimens were paler than colors of specimens from the same locations but collected and prepared by someone other than Burleigh. The consensus among ornithologist is that Burleigh washed his specimens with something that removed some of the pigments from the feathers. Burleigh collected specimens from wherever he lived, and during his retirement he resided and collected birds from several localities in the western United States. These specimens, many of which I had the pleasure to curate into the collection at Smithsonian, are a great contribution. Burleighs’ specimens are priceless.

Much of the success of the early explorers rested on whether they did or did not have something to eat and drink. Burleigh probably had a sack lunch in a packed ice-chest that accompanied him on his forays in Idaho. Ice was not available to Wyeth or those traveling the Oregon Trail. There wasn’t a lot of water to hydrate dried food or parched lips for anyone venturing into the arid land of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho. Of course streams, even the Snake River, were probably safe to drink from their banks. Even in the 1960s most streams in western Oregon above the towns was safe to drink. This is no longer true. I wonder if the early explorers pondered how those that went before them fared for water and food. Many of them surely took note from the American Indian. Those that didn’t probably had a very difficult time or perished. Although water was plentiful from the tap in1962, ice was not always easy to find. The early June days had been cool, and the ice I purchased was marginally maintaining the food in my ice-chest. Being able to eat, and eat safe food was a major concern.

In my first letter to my parents, dated 11 June, I wrote, “I have worked out a deal so that I can eat as cheaply, but still as well as I had previously planned. I cook my own breakfast, the two mornings I had potatoes and eggs fried in butter (very good) topped off with a cup of coffee. Then I fix a lunch, which is usually a baloney sandwich and a peanut butter sandwich, and usually eat dinner at a café. This I do for the lump sum of about a dollar per day. When I fix all my meals it even costs me less, but it is more trouble. I eat what I like and when I get hungry, and for some reason I have been hungry all day. Fortunately for the pocket book I am too far from any store to buy a snack, and too stubborn to eat more than my allotted sandwiches per day.”

Further in the letter I wrote that “my worst enemies have been the absence of camping areas, cold and windy weather and heat, which caused the spoilage of some of my food earlier at Malheur NWR. “ I also asked them, and this is embarrassing, “does sausage spoil as easily as hamburger?” Between eating baloney sandwiches and questionably safe sausage and hamburger, it is a wonder I live to write this today. A diet of lots of bread, ground up scrapes of various body parts and spice called sausage and fat dyed red to hide it among the sparse bits of muscle called hamburger is not a diet to live long by. I have given up sausage, and any hamburger from the grocery has to be the leanest they sell. As for baloney, I never cared for it but it was cheap. I haven’t had a baloney sandwich in decades although I rarely indulge in a good hotdog, which I realize is mostly baloney reshaped.

Speaking of food, the day before arriving at Camas National Wildlife Refuge I purchased groceries for seven days at a cost of $4.19. The grub was to last until I left Yellowstone National Park a week away. I also purchased a lunch for 65 cents that day and luckily the Crawford’s took pity on me by hosting the evening meal. I also had filled the gas tank in Idaho Falls ($3.35 for 9.1 gallons), and had 40 cents of fluid squirted into the leaky transmission. I must have had ice to protect the new groceries because I didn’t buy any until the next day.


13 June

Topped off the gas tank and bought new ice at Dubois just north of Camas NWR. A few miles northward the VW lumbered over Monida (pronounced muh-NEI-duh) Pass at 6870 feet. The pass over the Centennial Mountains is at the border of Idaho and Montana, and is the Continental Divide. In fact, the Continental Divide forms the boundary between much of eastern Idaho and Montana. The Centennial range runs from Monida Pass for about 60 miles to the east toward Yellowstone National Park. The pass is relatively low for many of the continental passes I had crossed as a teenager on those whirlwind trips to see the Midwestern grandparents.

I would not be keeping a life list of passes but I ticked off the third state for the trip, and a new life state. Below, on the north side of Monida Pass and a few miles to the east I would be able to tick off a new life bird, the Trumpeter Swan. I hadn’t counted the introduced Trumpeters at Malheur. Just barely into Montana I left the main highway and entered a small desolate town called Monida. Its buildings were old from decades of hard weather, and the view down the main street was something out of Zane Grey or Louis Lamour. Nothing stirred except wisps of dust from the dry ground. The town’s small general store was dark and so well stocked to the point of clutter with everything from food to nails. Over to one side, facing the can goods and linens was the town post office where I would soon be in picking up my first mail from home. I had planned for my parents to send my mail to General Delivery at Monida. There was no mail so I left a forwarding address, and asked for information on road conditions. Home seemed far away and ever further in a brand new state at a town where time seemed to stand still. It was a place that seemed to be barely hanging on economically.

Monida was definitely a place of the past. Empty, cold and dark buildings stood gray in the mountain air. Established in the 1880s, the post office in Monida opened in 1891, closed only two years later, and opened again in 1896. A railroad brought tourist to Monida and residents of Monida shipped out sheep and cattle. Naturally the tourists were shipped out also. The tourist, who were going to and from Yellowstone, arrived in town, then took the only “public” access, the Monida-Yellowstone Stage Line east and across Red Rock Pass and on to Yellowstone. About 100 people thrived in Monida until shipping the quadrupeds from the railroad lasted until trucking became more important than railroading. Most of the ranchers left leaving apparently just the three people who were huddled around a pot-bellied stove at the general store, which was also the post office. The high ceiling and flat front of the buildings made me expect to see six shooters hanging on the men, and hear snorting horses tied to a rail just outside. There were no guns and no horses, just old and worn people and pickups, and no mail.

Leaving behind the weathered boards holding up the buildings of Monida, I drove east on the dirt scrape called Red Rock Pass Road. The drive east took me into the heart of the Centennial Valley and the home of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. What a surprise to discover that the Valley and the refuge offer beauty competitive with most national parks. And, there was no one to crowd the roads and litter refuse and sound in this quiet beauty.


Before getting back to the notes of the open-mouthed and wide-eyed birder of the early 60s, it is interesting to report changes in this unique region of southwestern Montana. Monida, in 1962, had population of 45, and appeared to be on its way to a ghost town. The post office closed in 1964–I hope it wasn’t something I said; residents mail now goes through Lima, Montana, a small town about 20 miles up the local interstate highway. Incidentally, Monida is the combined first three letters of Montana and Idaho. By 2004 about a baker’s dozen lived in Monida. Some of the people are descendants of generations past. A few of the residents escape the harsh winters by heading south or at least to lower elevations. The privately owned historic buildings are still standing; the old stage barn was being remodeled into a house in 2004, although I understand the outside was to remain unchanged. The water system that had been built for the town by the railroad was turned over to the extant families.

Centennial Valley has changed little although visitation is high; in 1962 the only people I saw were at Monida and employees at the refuge. By 1991 a biological survey ranked the valley highly important because of its expansive wetland, native biodiversity, and an important zone for linking ungulates and predators in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The Centennial Valley contains some of the oldest forests in southwestern Montana, and is home to the Arctic grayling, one of the state’s rarest fish. Record population densities of Peregrine Falcons in the valley are reported by the Nature Conservancy. The valley also has the highest nesting density of breeding Trumpeter Swans in western North America. Most of the marshy floor and lakes of the Centennial Valley are in Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, home to Trumpeter Swans and other waterfowl. Thanks to the Nature Conservancy, the few remaining local landowners, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, most the Centennial Valley will be saved from us.

The Centennial Mountains to the south of the valley have been heavily logged on the more gentle slopes in Idaho but the more rugged Montana side has been give some reprieve. The Bureau of Land Management manages part of the mountains as a “primitive area.” The Gravelly Mountains, the range on the north side of Centennial Valley are “protected” in portions of the range but even the wilderness areas are subject to wavering governmental policies. Naturally, the mere designation of primitive attracts people that might not have otherwise tramped such land. There are thousands, no millions, that are attracted by designations such as National Park and Monument, recreation and wilderness areas, and, as I was in 1962, National Wildlife Refuges. More and more people are entering regions designated for their beauty by ugly means such as motor vehicles be they sedans, SUVs, and other wheeled transports, snowmobiles, you name it. If the region is drop dead gorgeous and on a mountain that has snow, people want to create vertical clear cuts some fondly call ski runs. If skiing is not an option we motorize our transportation in winter and in summer we share tent pegs all the while pretending the mountain air is not polluted by multitudes of cars. In 1962 we were just beginning to love our wilderness to death. We improved our access by the proliferation of snow mobiles and SUVs. In 1962 everyone knew that a word spelled SUV was misspelled.

The road from Monida that meanders through Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, closely following to the old stage route, connects to the paved highway leading to Yellowstone. The road through the valley was dirt in 1962, it now is now considered a gravel road as far as the refuge and “improved“dirt east of the refuge. Thankfully, the road still is a dusty route. That helps keep the traffic down. Nonetheless, traffic has increased so much that the remaining ranchers, who love the solitude and beauty of the Centennial Valley, are, along with conservationist, concerned about adverse impact on wildlife. The refuge does not have an entrance gate that might provide a count of their visitors. Based on names in their sign in log book, only 35 people enjoyed the refuge in 1962. Most of the 35 were representing other agencies working in the refuge. Numerous fishing and hunting folks were mentioned but not counted in the 1962 refuge report. In 2003, in contrast to 41 years ago, or actually in grave contrast, not counting the unknown multitudes that came for the hunting and fishing, at least 8000 people converged on the refuge.


The 13th day of June was a day of blue sky, accented by only a few wispy cirrus clouds high over the Centennial Mountains. I drove east, away from Monida, with a cloud of dust boiling from the dirt track called Red Rock Pass Road. The dust settled, not to be disturbed, possibly for hours. I was going into a wilderness more remote than Lake Abert, Malheur, and most other places I had ever been. In minutes I was entering Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. At about 6600 feet, its elevation is barely less than that of Monida Pass where the Continental Divide was crossed. The panorama took my breath. From a hillock on the side of the muddy and potted road, I could see the refuge buildings in the distance. I gathered some nearby snow that, packed tightly, would melt slowly, and hopefully before a pound each of hamburger and bacon succumbed to my diet or to spoilage.

Vesper Sparrows seemed to be exploding from every sprig of grass; among the sparrows were black-hooded Oregon Juncos [=Dark-eyed Juncos] and Western Meadowlarks. The air smelled of wet ground oozing crystal snow water, now melting rapidly into the road and on to the Red Rock lakes. My eyes especially strained as I panned the horizon and down to Lower Red Rock Lake. No swans were in view. Green marsh surrounded by stately conifers, blue primeval water, and the reddish hues of the snowcapped Centennial Mountains was a painting, a site that few have seen, and a site that I was happy to soak in. The setting for the headquarters looked like a place I might like to work. A field of yellow wildflowers and crisp clean air framed the dark brown buildings, nearby tall conifers and pale green cottonwood. I should have gotten names of the flowers; perhaps they were buttercups.

Presently I wanted to check in to find out where the best place for viewing Trumpeter Swans. Inside headquarters was humming. A regional inspector was there and the biologist was planning to take him on a flight over the refuge. Yet, as busy as was the biologist, he took several minutes to help me plan my stay in the refuge including where to find the famous swans.

My mind focused on finding Trumpeter Swans. These large swans once bred from Canada to suitable habitat east of the Mississippi. However, early settlers wanted to vary their diet. Many birds became swan stew, and, in the mid-1800s many more Trumpeter Swans lost their skins to hunters that ended up in the hands of the Hudson Bay Company. Even cygnets were prized, often being sold to zoos and aquarists. The nesting region became restricted to southwestern Montana, northeastern Idaho, and northwestern Wyoming. Canadian populations survived in only in British Columbia and Alberta. Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, a 40,000-acre preserve, was established in 1935, where Trumpeters have continued to breed as they have for countless seasons.

The biologist directed me to a road south of Red Rock Pass Road. About two miles down the main road I turned onto a narrow road that had once served miners, perhaps gold miners. The tiny road led me along Odell Creek and the slope of Sheep Mountain. The rough-hewn road carried with it a risk of high centering my car so I parked and began to make my way up the canyon. I had hardly gotten started before both feet were wet after my unsuccessful attempt to cross Odell Creek. Further up the canyon the going became steeper and muddier. A wind pitched down from the craggy upper slopes; by now I could see stratified rock out crops poking out of the snowy slopes. The wind drowned out almost any sound with its steady downdraft pushing at and through the trees.

The wind made birding impossible. I decided to head up a deer trail to get away from the buffeting. Going into the underbrush was not the preferred solution, but in sheltered areas I found, once again, an abundance of Vesper Sparrows, juncos, and also Western Tanagers and a few Pine Siskins. I also found mosquitoes, or they found me. Somehow my interest in birding was dominated by my interest to keep my blood. Back in the wind and back down the canyon I saw something flying over the road and perch of a dead branch about 30 feet away. A new bird, a Townsend’s Solitaire, made the trip up the canyon worth the effort. Audubon’s [=Yellow-rumped] and Wilson’s warblers, and many Chipping Sparrows were added to the list of birds seen along the canyon.

Along the aspen lined upper lake I found Yellow Warblers, American Goldfinches, with a mixture of Vesper Sparrows, their white outer tail feathers flicking, and of course, Song Sparrows. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker [=Red-naped Sapsucker] and three species of flycatchers were along the road, including the white-breasted Eastern Kingbird but no Western kingbirds. Mountain Bluebirds and Chipping Sparrows were found almost everywhere. The campground at Upper Red Rock Lake offered White-crowned Sparrows and Warbling Vireos. More warblers were there but nothing new. It was a wonder I saw any birds at the campground as I waved and slapped at the hordes of attacking mosquitoes. The birds seemed to disregard my behavior but I could not disregard the behavior of the mosquitoes.

Trumpeter Swans were feeding less than a quarter of a mile from the lakeshore campground. I counted at least 30. They were too far away to be startled by my mosquito defense system. Their distant bugle, which is low in frequency, swept across the lake drowning out the sounds of the smaller species on the lake. The Redheads, Eared Grebes, Canada Geese, and several birds too far away for identification, even with the scope, were unaware of my frantic gestures. Most of the big swans appeared to be in pairs. They swam slowly and occasionally dipped their long necks deep downward into the pristine water. During the night, and easily heard over the pesky buzz of hungry mosquitoes, the Trumpeter Swans broke the quiet with their double-noted bugle.

14 June

The mosquitoes last night were so unbearable that I was afraid to pitch my tent. They were too hungry to be slowed down by zippers or netting and would soon be like flying barracuda in a feeding frenzy. It was a matter of triage, so I left the tent, its stakes half impaled in the red soil. There seemed nothing else could be done but to sleep in the car. They were waiting just outside the protective glass window expecting me to come out and make a human sacrifice.

Last night’s attempt to sleep in the car left my body full of stiff aches, but fewer mosquito bites. However, by the last bite of the eggs I fried, the mosquitoes were again in their feeding frenzy. I hurriedly gulped my breakfast, pulled up the stakes of the unused tent, packed the car, and enjoyed my last view of Trumpeter Swans at Red Rock Lakes NWR. The coffee was still hot as I sat in the car, the windows rolled up to keep out mosquitoes and to keep in the morning sun as it began piercing the campground. From my comfortable perch I enjoyed the coffee, the unparalleled panorama, and listened to the bugling swans.

Travel east on Red Rock Pass Road for about 30 miles to the paved highway leading to Yellowstone National Park was not recommended by some of the refuge staff. The manager told me he doubted that I would make it. The warnings were not ill-founded. I had thought the slightly gravelled road from Monida to refuge headquarters was bad, but the dirt road over the pass to pavement was far worse. On the map it was marked as an improved dirt road. The improvements, if any, were hard to discern. The long road was rough and full of holes. Some of the road was under water because of melting snow. Each time I crossed these lakelets, these bridgeless water gaps, I wondered if their bottoms would be solid or soft with miring mud. With much relief, the bottoms of these waterways were merely slippery; the weight of the rear engine provided enough traction to reach dry land. Some parts of the road appeared to be under water that was too deep to negotiate. However, it seemed to be a sink or swim situation because I was determined to make it over Red Rock Pass. I remembered that VWs are supposed to float. At one 20 foot wide inundated spot along the lonely road the car may have floated. Before fording the waterway I stopped, looked it over, and gunned the engine. As most owners of vintage VWs have learned, gunning such an underpowered car is mostly an effort of futility. Still, I went fast enough to create a wave that almost rocked the car. Muddy water rushed up the rounded front of the car to the windshield. This could be real trouble. Maybe I did float. At least the far shore was attained during the navigation and not a drop of water made it inside the car.

Gradually I began to climb upward and away from the gloriously beautiful Centennial Valley. On the ascent to the summit of Red Rock Pass, a little over 7,000 feet, was a climb too steep for giant pools of water and slippery mud. Only first gear, and only after getting a running start, was I able to push the car to climb the lonely ridges and reach the summit.


Trumpeter Swans are not so difficult to find since the have been reestablished in many locations. The species now breeds locally in southwestern Canada and Saskatchewan south to the western United States in Oregon, Nevada, southern California, Arizona, and eastern populations in South Dakota, Nebraska, and the Great Lakes region. Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and the breath Centennial Mountains will always mean the home of Trumpeter Swans.

As for the helpful refuge biologist whose name I did not record, my youthful negligence, I hope, is forgiven. The trip was just beginning of personal introductions to numerous correspondents and strangers who made it possible to see more birds, often after a warm night and hardy meal.

Help from anyone while on the backcountry route from Red Rocks to Yellowstone would not be likely. It was a desolate road in 1962. Luckily I escaped getting stuck or stranded in a sea of melted snow that covered so much of the road. It was a good thing as I saw no one during the hours negotiating Red Rock Pass Road. Since my trek, the road is now more improved, and is now used regularly by those traveling to and from Red Rocks and Yellowstone. Probably some of the 8000 who recently visited Red Rock NWR used the road. I think I prefer the bumps, holes and desolation of the road decades ago.

1 Everyone in ornithology and most birders know about his famous, and still highly useful and often cited, volumes published by the U.S. National Museum (Smithsonian).

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