Almost the end and Epilogue
Leaving our rain-soaked White River Campground and driving south and out of Mt. Rainier National Park felt like the last chapter of a grand trip around the country. Our trip, an experiment of living in an RV, was ending, but we did not know just when and exactly how the end would come.
After leaving Mt. Rainier, we should have more mountains, including peaks of the Cascades to experience, but only from a distance. After turning west on US 12, we knew we would soon be viewing the Puget Sound Lowlands and valleys in Oregon. Soon, we will be completing our trek around the country.
2-3 September 2015
We spend two nights in Centralia, Washington. On Interstate 5, we are in all too familiar territory, having driven up and down the busy highway many times over many years. Motels of Centralia have hosted us in past travels.
4-10 September 2015
We negotiate crowded Portland, Oregon, and down I-5 into the Willamette River Valley as far as Salem. Symptoms of pain and swelling of Linda’s knee is becoming worse and medical help in the realm of adequacy is wanting.
Our principle reason for staying in Salem is to visit Sam at his group home. We trade our RV residency for a few nights in the local Super 8, where we have previously stayed numerous times when visiting Sam.
11 September 2015
We leave Salem and stop for a time in a town south of there to visit Linda’s niece and family. From there, the trip south is dark and very familiar having driven I-5 from Salem to Medford, our night’s destination. It is midnight as we settle in at a Walmart.
12-15 September 2015
Medford, in the Rogue River Valley, has hot summers. We know this too well since we have lived in and around the valley since 1996. Medford is where we started this trip in late October 2014. Medford is not where we want to be today or tonight.
A better option is a location we know is in the Siskiyou Mountains, which we can drive to in about 30 minutes. The site, off Bull Gap Road is several miles from I-5 at a little over 6,000 feet in elevation and not so abundantly taken over by human activity. Douglas fir and other conifers hang over our site. We are in Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and only a few steps from the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Siskiyou Mountains are part of the Klamath Mountains. Geologically older, these mountains are not volcanic as are the Cascade Mountains. The geology of the Siskiyous is complicated and beyond my pay grade. During our trip here, we drove up I-5 and turned on US 99, the only highway across the Siskiyou Mountains back in our youths. Signs identify the old road as a historical highway, and reflecting in the mirror reminds of me of my historical self. Not before the summit of US 99, where a friend and I camped in a snowfield, is Mt. Ashland Road, which is near our present campsite. From our route, we enjoy views of faraway Mt. Shasta in northern California and closer Pilot Rock of the Cascades. We are minutes from the boundary of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument that embraces small parts of both mountain ranges and helps protect numerous endemic plants and animals.
It is too difficult to resist ignoring the history of the region. It is written, so some say, that the Hudson Bay Company, an institution we have ran across already, crossed the Siskiyou Mountains in the 1800’s. Actually, Peter Skene Ogden, born in Quebec and bilingual in French, English and Indian languages, was the first Anglo to cross the Siskiyou Mountains while traveling as a fur trader. The year was 1829. Later, near the mid 1800’s, the US Exploring Expedition, while traveling down the interior of Oregon in the Willamette Valley and eventually the Rogue Valley, crossed the Siskiyou Mountains on their way south to the Sacramento River and beyond. All the crossings apparently took place within a few miles from the current site of I-5, which demonstrates that the original Indian trails across the mountains were pretty much spot on to the best location to cross the Siskiyous. Speaking of early human history, the word Siskiyou is Cree for bob-tailed horse from French-Canadians working for the Hudson Bay Company in 1828. At first inspection, it is puzzling that Siskiyou is a Cree word since Cree Indians were not native to southwestern Oregon. However, John Ogden had a Cree wife at the time and either he or his wife may have bestowed the name Siskiyou for the mountains they crossed. Modern time pronunciation is varied. Although we have heard people pronounce the name of the mountains as Sisk-i-you or Sis-kiy-ou, words most often pronounced with two syllables, as Sis-que or Sisk-you.
Plant diversity in the Siskiyou Mountains ranks second to that of the Great Smokey Mountains. Part of the region encompassing the Siskiyou Mountains came under some protection in 1908 when Teddy Roosevelt designated land under the name Crater National Forest. The forest was known as Rogue River National Forest in 1932. With the consolidation of nearby real estate in 2007, it became Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which administers 1.8 million acres. That might seem to be excessive, but it is not. One only has to examine private timber holdings to understand that in most but not all cases, land under the umbrella of a national forest is under more protection than private land. Regardless of forest service and Bureau of Land Management policies, certain parts of the Siskiyou and neighboring Cascade mountains required additional protection. That occurred in 2000 when Bill Clinton signed 86,744 acres into the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Today, Linda and I read that there is a movement to double the size of the presently postage-stamp sized monument. Under the shadow of current and future politics, we doubt the size of the monument will soon change.
Geologically, the Klamath Mountains, which, for those not paying attention, include the Siskiyou Mountains, which are more similar to the Sierra Nevada than to the younger Cascades. However, the complexity of the geology of the Siskiyous is considerably greater than those interior California mountains. Age-wise, the Siskiyou Mountains and Appalachian mountains are close to the same age. It is remarkable that since their origin about 500 million years ago that the Siskiyous are much more rugged than the eastern chain. Was the Siskiyou Mountain range originally much taller than the original Appalachians or did the two ranges erode differently? Incidentally, the Siskiyou Mountains are older than the 80 million year old Rockies, and the 40 million old Sierra Nevada. Again, the new kid on the block, pun actually intended here, are the two million year old Cascades. Suffice to say, the biological diversity owes much to the geological diversity, complexity and age of the region. That is where I best rein in my curiosity and refrain from further digging, pun possibly intended, into the rocky history of the mountains Linda and I have so often viewed and played in. In fact, Linda spent many years as a child in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains. Even our last home was in the low traces of those mountains.
It seems more than appropriate for us to spend a few nights in the Siskiyou Mountains. Although we are escaping the valley heat, a cold front moving in made for a chilly night. It was too cold to have any windows open for hearing night sounds and possibly hear a Northern Pygmy Owl. A White-headed Woodpecker near our site the next day boosts our year list.
The close proximity of the Pacific Crest Trail brought the sounds of human traffic. Naturally, I hike the trail from our site to the south slope of Mt. Ashland. Highest point in the Siskiyou Mountains, Mt. Ashland stands barely above timberline at 7,533 feet and close to 700 feet above the trail. The north and east sides of the mountain is devoted to skiing and snowboarding. The vertical clear-cuts, the ski runs, divvy up the mountain to snow recreaters while the rest helps provide water for the town of Ashland. In summer, Rock Wrens and Fox Sparrow like the upper slopes of Mt. Ashland. Gray-crowned Rosy Finch and Clark’s Nutcrackers that sometimes visit the summit, but are more likely present in winter.
My hike of just less than two miles of the Pacific Crest Trail ends at a crossing of a forest service road that I knew from hikes of yesteryear will take me up to the Mt. Ashland Road and ultimately back to the campsite. As usual, I see both Western and Mountain bluebirds. Of course, there are Golden-crowned Kinglets and another golden-crowned bird, the boreal breeding Golden-crowned Sparrow. Mid-September is when the species normally arrives in southern Oregon when the first birds are foraging in brushy slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains. As the season progresses, Golden-crowned Sparrows become winter residents in the Rogue Valley floor.
Our time in the Siskiyous is also oriented toward what we will do next. By now, we know that we are nearing the end of our odyssey. Once back in the Rogue Valley, we will look for a small apartment to rent, work on reducing the amount of stuff left in our storage unit and then, consider traveling only about half the year and the rest of the time exploring the never ending local treasures. The first two goals are work and the last goal is a dream that may or may not happen, but we know there are more bends in trails to explore and more birds to find.
16-17 September 2015
Searching for a small apartment is not working out. In fact, obtaining any kind of apartment looks to be impossible since, much to our surprise, the valley is experiencing a housing shortage. People are signing long waiting lists. Openings, if they do occur, may be months away. It is beyond discouraging. Perhaps we should not have sold our home last year. Additionally troubling is the sadness Linda feels from the untimely loss of her brother last April. Coming home is not always easy. We choose to wait the housing situation. We sign up for $375/month at a KOA near Gold Hill, a small town on the Rogue River just off I-5. However, we cannot move there until 21 September.
18 September 2015
Tonight and for the next two nights, we relish our fortune again at Bullers Road in the Siskiyous. Being away from the noise and high temperatures is more than welcoming.
21-25 September 2015
We begin our maiden voyage in a KOA. In fact, we calculate our stay here is only the second time using a commercial RV site. The other was in Maine.
The weather is changing. Nights are now cooler and the blue sky, a steady summer scene, is losing to a few clouds. Wide leaves of deciduous trees are rattling to the ground and brown needles fall quietly from overhanging ponderosa pines. Fall is beginning. With the death throe of the leaves and needles, the daily roar of a gas propelled leaf blower grooming the campground comes to life. So much for the sounds and look of nature.
26-28 September 2015
While sifting through our things at our storage unit in Central Point, the right front tire begins to deflate. A tire doctor in Centralia examined this same tire, the day we left Mt. Rainier. Low on air then, the tire was rolling with a clean bill of health, but today the situation might be coded differently.
It is late in the day as we hurriedly slam the door to lock up our remaining items and escape the storage facility. A gas station about a half-mile away happens to have an air pump. Of course, there is a charge, which even in today’s standards, the one-dollar bill seems an exorbitant expense. The tire is down to only 30 pounds. I am able to bring the pressure up to an acceptable 75 pounds seconds before the air pump shuts off. Knowing our efforts are no more than a Band-Aid, we head for the nearest tire repair shop. Fortunately, I knew where most are having tended tire ware for nearly 10 years for the not forgotten birdmobile. No tire shops will be open until Monday.
It is obvious we cannot drive back to the KOA, and, even if we did, we would be stuck with a flat and less access to a repair shop than our present Medford location. We recall a tire repair shop on the south side of town. The large and empty parking lot abuts a field of weeds that connects to a baseball park. I have never explored the region, but it somehow looks familiar. The edge of the parking lot is perfect for home until the shop opens Monday.
To our delight, no one asks us to vacate the lot last night. I check the tire and am surprised it is not flat. About 50 pounds pressure keeps us from resting on the tire rim.
After breakfast, I walk past the ball field and find a trail leading into the Bear Creek Parkway, a park system along the creek from Ashland to beyond Central Point. That is a distance of over 20 miles of habitat protected from commercial enterprise. A paved trail follows the creek. Trails are wide and much of my walking is over wood chips surrounding a nature center. I cannot help but recall my youthful birding days along Bear Creek beginning in the late 1950’s. Impenetrable brambles of long ago introduced Himalayan blackberry blanketed most of the banks of the creek. It was impossible to explore very much of the stream. Trying to walk the creek bed was also impossible and inadvisable. Bear Creek, now a cleaner stream, then a carried polluted water and much of that water too deep to wade.
The barriers of blackberry are beneficial to some birds. Black-headed Grosbeaks love the ripe berries. Spotted Towhees frequent the patches year-round and Golden-crowned and White-crowned sparrows hid and forage the habitat in winter. Just this early morning a small patch of blackberries sheltered a covey of California Quail.
As the day progresses, the clear sky and slight breeze allows the temperature to reach into comfortable 70s. In about an hour of wandering the trails along Bear Creek, I hear a Wrentit. That is a new bird for the year and reminder that decades ago I explored the region during summer visits with my parents and while collecting specimens of selected species for Smithsonian. During that time, I was hoping to collect specimens of Wrentit that breed in the valley. One good region for Wrentits was just south of Medford, where I did find and collect a limited number of individuals. The specimens were useful for a study of the species and allowed me to describe a disjunct subspecies of Wrentit a few years later in 1992. I proposed the trinomial margra by using the first three letters of the first names of my parents. Looking out over the region today, I realize it is not possible to know exactly where the voucher specimens were collected since the removal of so many blackberry brambles and introductions of trails and roads, a ball field and other human disturbances grossly altering the landscape. I cannot get my bearings since the region has changed so much in the last 25 years. It is a good thing I did not choose the important type locality of the new subspecies from this region. Of course, the type locality I did designate, near Ashland to our south, may not exist either. If I had it to do over, I would have added latitude and longitude to the specimens.
28 September to 31 October 2015
Our Sunday night on the tire shop parking lot was again peaceful. It was actually quieter than most Walmart lots. Linda and I have breakfast out of the way by the time the tire shop opens. The repair is simple; the stem was leaking.
From that Sunday, several situations sent our plight downhill. Linda’s knee became more swollen and painful. Unfortunately, the two of us have the NORA virus, which hampers any effort to seek medical help. Like Seinfeld, I have not thrown up since 1980, but my record is broken, and rather severely at that. It was dueling regurgitation and diarrhea. Somehow, we manage inside our 23 foot RV and its tiny bathroom. Luckily, we have enough food, water, propane on board and have an electrical hook up. Perhaps more luckily, we had just emptied the black and gray tanks.
On 5 October, someone filched our green plastic mat we used across the country at numerous campsites. We have an appointment for a knee doctor on 9 October, but we reschedule in respect to our gastrointestinal malady. I am feeling better and Linda’s appetite is approaching normalcy. We continue searching for an apartment and realize traveling and living in our RV was fine, but living in an essentially stationary RV is not acceptable.
Our year list is suffering. We have missed Ash-throated Flycatcher and Rufous and Calliope hummingbirds. Also missing from our year list is Poorwill, Black-chinned Hummingbird and almost any species of owl. Of course, we might have a chance at some those species should we drive to Arizona for the winter, but this is not in the cards. Neither is a trip to the coast likely, which negates reaching 500 species, a goal now impossible due to health and logistical issues. It is obvious that birding for the year is coming to a close. Adding to that disappointment is failure to receive adequate medical help from symptoms of a virus that is rampant in the Rogue Valley, not knowing when and if we will find an apartment, the late fall cold and depressingly wet weather and the boring surroundings of the KOA. Boring is a very difficult activity.
Our anniversary, the one for living in an RV arrives almost unnoticed on 22 October. Our year of being in the RV is not ending the way we envisioned 12 months ago. However, we are safe and moderately sound and despite otherwise plans, are grateful we have a roof over our heads.
12-13 November 2015
We manage to manage during the last several days of RV living. Today is the day we get an apartment, but we cannot move in for a week to 10 days. In the meantime, we have attended several appointments with doctors and gotten an MRI for Linda’s knee. We now can look forward to settling in an apartment and planning our next journey.
The next day, a Friday is a lucky day. A Northern Shrike has set up winter residence in a tree-lined field adjacent to the campground.
20 November 2015
Today, we move into a 5th-floor apartment in Medford. The well-maintained building is on the historic register, which to Linda and me is strange since our origin predates the apartment. Perhaps we should be on a prehistoric registry. We are near the old courthouse building where our civil-service wedding was convened. Also close by is a beautiful Catholic church, with the bells tolling their regular ring that is welcoming. A nearby school was the meeting place for my first Boy Scout troop in 1953, the year I met Linda and a few years before I got the birding bug.
21-23 November 2015
Our odyssey may be over, but I am determined to have the total number of species on our year list as high as possible. From trees surrounding the small parking lot of the apartment building, comes a familiar refrain of an Oak Titmouse, a new bird for the year.
Immediately around the apartment building, at least today, are one or two individual Eurasian Collared and Mourning doves, a few starlings, an Acorn Woodpecker and several American Robins.
On 23 November, the weather people warn that the low temperature is going to drop into the 20’s. Not wanting to take the chance by doing it wrong, I drive to an RV shop to have our former home winterized. Even the tail light that was broken in Florida on a warm day in April is replaced, thanks to our insurance. Of course, who needs a tail light since our travels are ending.
Out with the old and broken, in with the new. Our Bullers Road campsite and a SUV replacement of the trusty RV.
30 November 2015
By now, our belongings are out of the RV, which is a good thing. I cannot walk. My left calf is swelling and extremely painful. My primary deflected her opportunity to practice medicine by advising I go to ER. Linda and I have always tried to avoid entering hospitals since they are often a source for infection. However, owing to my history of problematic blood clotting and the possibility the swelling is from a clot, there is little choice but to enter the hospital.
The waiting room is full of sneezes, runny noses, coughing and watery eyes, frequent vomiting with an individual occasionally sprinting to the restroom. We are sitting in a giant Petri dish and the symptoms are familiar.
Apparently, the ER folks were not concerned I have a clot that might suddenly go to my brain. After six hours of waiting in the Petri dish, a medical assistant wheels me into an examination room where, after more waiting, a posse of white-coated individuals gathers around me. The leader of the pack did the talking and probing with an ultrasound. The short version is that I do not have a clot, the cause of the swelling and pain is unknown and, have a nice day.
Well, I am not having a nice day. I cannot walk and am in severe pain, with nothing but a bottle of Tylenol. Linda’s nursing expertise saves me from further ordeal by applying ice and keeping my leg elevated. Our niece sweetly saves us by acquiring groceries. Even if I could walk, El Nino conditions are producing damaging winds and extreme amounts of rain and mountain snow. Birding on the coast is not an option.
My mind wanders back to the days living in the RV. What a great ride.
It seemed like just hours following our wait in the Petri dish of the ER when Linda and I realized the NORA virus had reinfected us. Kind lovely niece Becky again came to our rescue. By mid-December, I was able to walk, but with crutches. Ever so gradually, my leg began behaving. Linda soldiered through symptoms of the virus, which was as bad as our first bout. She also was my legs for too many days and provided my only medical help. Once again, marrying a nurse is paying great dividends.
In the meantime, I had to scramble to find a new primary doctor. It seems, contrary to AARP advice that I had advocated too strongly for Linda and I while we were ill from NORA. The telephone rings thirty minutes before an appointment with my primary. The caller, who represents the primary, tells me not to come. My primary fired me. Linda, who has the same primary, was “allowed” to continue as a patient, but not mean old Ralph.
Perhaps the firing by my former doctor should be the end of the story of birding and living in an RV. Maybe the statement about the El Nino and not being able to get to the coast should be the end of our story. I think it is neither. We are not done. Although getting there may not be by RV, it might be by SUV or some other conveyance. Traveling and birding is in our blood.
As time progresses from late 2015 and into the next year, my leg slowly comes back to normal. It is not Santa Rita Mountain hiking normal, but it has been doing its half by transporting me to some good local birding. I still do no know why my appendage did what it did. Linda’s knee is another reminder of the Santa Rita Mountains. That is where she injured it and it has not been the same since.
Looking back at our trip, we drove around 20,000 miles, essentially around the contiguous United States and a little of southeastern Canada. We became reacquainted with places we have visited in earlier years and relished in experiencing new locations. On the RV journey, we visited eight national parks and camped in most of them. We also visited 12 national wildlife refuges. Between the two of us, our previous travels and the present RV travels have given us the pleasure of 35 national parks and monuments and 66 national wildlife refuges. Keeping a tally of those federal reserves makes us realize we have many more to visit since there are 59 national parks, 117 national monuments and over 500 national wildlife refuges.
Ending miles the day we sell the RV Our Gold Hill KOA site in fall of 2015
During our travels, we took only 2,151 pictures, which by the standards of many probably seems a low number. We kind of agree and wish we had taken more photos and we definitely agree we wish we had taken better pictures. Of course, we can edit those digital images to look more handsome than they were taken, but that must come later, perhaps during the plethora of rainy days during the Oregon winter. As for the 2,151 images we recorded digitally, had we had film, we would have needed about 60 rolls of film. We recall the days of yore using 36-exposure Kodachrome film. Loading and unloading the camera, hoping the sprockets catch the film so it will advance properly, arranging the exposed film’s development and then dealing with piles of printed photographs and accompanying negatives. It was a daunting task and it still is. Linda and I have box upon box of photographs we had left in our storage unit and are now in a corner of our apartment. We will open up those archives someday, but it will not be tomorrow.
We also tallied 463 species of birds during 2015. I calculated we might have picked up an additional 50 species had we been more focused in a big year list. Linda still reminds me of the Altamira Oriole I so off-handedly ignored. Had we found 50 more species, our total might have been 513. Had we been able to bird the Oregon coast we optimistically could pick up another 30 species making our total 543. We did find 12 additional species in late 2014, most of which were seen in Arizona, so, extending the thought, if we again wintered in Arizona as we thought we might a few months ago, we might have a total of 555 ABA species. It is easy to dream and play the game of what if, but what if? We will never know. Certainly, a total of 555 is not terribly bad, but compared to big years for the contiguous states, we would need to find far more species than an imagined possibility of 555. We would not even be competitive. Of course, there is always next year. In the meantime, we enjoyed the splendor of numerous habitats that made our trip so memorable.
Concerning federal land protecting wildlife, this trip provided the best birding experiences I have ever had in a national park. Except Crater Lake National Park and Lava Beds National Park where I worked during summers between college sessions, I had never had much success in finding birds in parks. The reason seems obvious. Linda and I camped in the parks we visited, which allowed closer and longer proximity to wildlife. In fact, being able to camp in any area exposes those who will listen to the beginning early sunrise song, the day and night sounds of owls and more. Of course, camping within natural habitat may be desirable to a birder, doing so is not necessarily in the best interest of birds. That is why most national wildlife refuges do not allow camping.
Looking back and assessing certain aspects of our journey, it is more than tempting to wonder what is going on at some of our haunts of late 2014 and 2015. What happened after we ended our journey?
Had it not been for the RV, we would not have had the experiences of seeing so much of the country, would not have waken surrounded by nature and would not have learned so much. We also have questions, many of which I address beyond.
Naturally, our lust for travel stands ever tall. However, being constantly on the road can take its toll. On the other hand, keeping up with maintainance was actually easier, less costly and less stressful than a stationary home. However, in our case, being septuagenarian and although proud of it, we do sometimes need a more stationary abode, especially if one’s health is not in a perfect or near perfect state.
After deciding to try “settling down,” we had to sell the RV. Much to our surprise, we could not sell it for what we put into it. Even the same company that sold it to us offered several thousand dollars less than the price they had garnered from us in August 2014. Perhaps we were too anxious back then. Our monetary loss was, however, less than what we probably would have paid to rent an RV. Money is not everything, but it helps.
Now, we save our pennies and look forward to our next trip, perhaps a short one to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a new park, retrace our path to Florida before sea level engulfs the Everglades and more. Maybe even completing route 20 across the Cascades is possible. After all, the third time may be the charm. Hawaii is waiting and dreaming larger, Australia and more draw our interest.
In the meantime, we wonder about some of the places and wildlife that was our lives these past all too short months. How many acres burned? Will national parks and refuges receive the funding they need, is the plight of Bicknell’s Thrush at a stalemate and what is the plight of habitat and oil and following the carrot of birds and birding.
Future of federal preserves
A topic of the future of federal preserves is huge, but boiling it down a bit, I have high hopes that parks, monuments and national wildlife refuges will continue to be important to our government and the public. However, underfunding, understaffing and sometimes failure to realize their importance are common to parks, monuments and refuges.
Another threat to the Federal land, a part which we were so fortunate to visit, is that a few people have the mistaken belief that certain public lands should become private land. What? One only has to research a little to realize that public land is vulnerable to those who would abuse parks, monuments and refuges. Luckily, overt abuse that is more recent has been limited to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in east-central Oregon. The refuge is far from our route of travel, but close to our hearts and minds since we know several biologists and others who worked there. We also know the refuge from birding there and several people brandishing heavy firearms roaring into Malheur headquarters during early winter of 2016 caused our hearts to sink. The thugs took possession of the buildings and equipment and prevented anyone, including Federal employees, from entering the refuge. Even local and Federal law enforcement, who should protect the region, could not enter refuge property.
After well over a month, the occupiers were more or less peacefully evicted. The headquarters buildings had been heavily vandalized. Vehicles of the illegal occupiers rutted roads and their raw human sewage marked the land with their disrespect. Horrified onlookers expected the arrested thugs to receive punishment for their unspeakable behavior. However, in the end, when their trials were over, they were found not guilty of the charge of conspiracy. It would seem that the governing bodies did not provide a substantial case to find the perpetrators guilty. Charges of vandalism and other crimes were not brought, even though other charges would have been easy to prove. The result of the acquittals is embolding for those damaging not only the property, but also the wildlife and damaging the feeling most of us have that refuges protect the idea of conservation. Remarkably, most local ranchers, as most everyone, supports Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. There are questions remaining. One, are refuges in danger of another ignorant and arrogant occupation? Two, is the legal system forfeiting refuges to a tiny misguided minority, by avoiding use of legal power to present viable cases against those abusers?
In addition to illegal privateers, some individuals thinking of giving public land away, hold political positions in Washington, DC. The latter have access to funding and should not forget that it cost the Federal government almost $100,000 per day during the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. If the actual need for refuges is not in their grasp of intelligence, then surely the cost for Federal law enforcement that amounted to millions of dollars and paid by innocent taxpayers ought to have impact to elected officials thinking of fiscal responsibility. Those in position of power should also account for the fact that refuges and other public lands enhance the economy through ecotourism. For the small town of Burns near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, law-abiding wildlife watchers are welcome.
Should people who enjoy visiting refuges and who understand the need for conservation fear a repeat of what happened at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge? Should refuge staff and scientist working in refuges and parks worry for their safety? Maybe. We should at least be mindful that a handful of armed malcontents could be destructive and dangerous as they vandalize and terrorize. Malheur is currently working, after all this time, to get back to their mission.
Time was ticking for the remaining individuals of Bicknell’s Thrush when Linda and saw the species in late June 2015. The birds and those trying to save them continue to wait.
In 2016, Canada prepared a recovery strategy for Bicknell’s Thrush. Unfortunately, the species is still under consideration for listing by the US and, according to the web, there are no plans available for recovery. I like to think that is a mistake. Regardless, part of the problem here is there are no provisions in the Fish and Wildlife Service for climate change. On a positive note, most US states where the thrush breeds are keeping up the good fight in their struggle to save Bicknell’s Thrush.
As for rare and endangered species in this country, the state leading with the most listed species continues to be Hawaii. Perhaps that state will acquire a little more help once the ABA votes include Hawaii within the ABA region.
The term fracking was not new to us and should not be new to everyone else. First, a basic fact. A conventional well produces, on average, for 20 years and a fracked well produces, on average, only 5 years, with production dropping 72% after two of those years. Second, fracking is potentially more destructive and more costly than conventional drilling. Essentially, fracking is a way to obtain minerals locked underground by fracturing subsurface regions and pumping liquid into the fractures and causing gas or oil to come to the surface. I use the term liquid, but the industry might say they pump water into the ground. That statement is mostly true. Fracking requires two to 8 million gallons of water per well and 10,000 to 60,000 gallons of chemicals per well. The number of chemicals puts to shame a list of ingredients in well-preserved and prepackaged foods we consume. Some of the fracking chemicals are carcinogenic. According to a recent finding, the Bakken oil and gas region produced 332,498 million gallons of contaminated slurry from ongoing wells.
The fracking water is too polluted for use of any kind ever again and is usually pumped underground. However, the slurry is subject to flowback, and either comes to the surface or mixes into the water table. Problems from fracking are so great that states and municipalities struggle against the petroleum industry by passing laws in order to protect their immediate environment. Fracking is prohibited in the entire state of New York.
In addition to the insidious influx of pollutants to the water table, are surface spills. In 2013, 7,662 spills occurred in 15 states, including 42,000 gallons of fracking fluid in Arlington, Texas. An October 2015 spill of 865,000 gallons of oil and brine threatened the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea, where we camped in July that year. The report of that deplorable event, dated October 2016, indicates North Dakota has yet to pass legislation addressing spills.
As already mentioned, fracking can affect the seismicity of the landscape. According to most reports, the states most affected are Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Arkansas. This is just the beginning.
Global climate change affects water availability. Drought is not unknown in parts of Montana, North Dakota and elsewhere. Just as global climate change contributes to the distribution of drought, fracking contribute to worsening the impact of change by leaking methane into the atmosphere. Even abandoned wells, which there are an estimate of 400,000 countrywide, are leaking natural gas.
According to reports, Montana is not monitoring oil industry activities. Montana regards the millions of gallons of critical water for fracking as beneficial to the state. In 2013, an estimated 5 billion gallons of water were used for fracking in Montana. That is 15-16% of the daily residential use from ground water in the Big Sky state. Fracking requires more water than cattle. If there is a spill or other common accident, cattle or any other animal cannot exist on polluted lands for years to come. Underground contamination may take decades before detection in life-giving aquifers.
As we crossed the Blackfeet Reservation, we noticed more than one well. Not all residents welcome fracking, but the weight of the industry can be persuasive on the reservation, in the legislatures of states and in Washington. We did not notice oil or gas activities near Two-Medicine, but 47 leases once occupied the western region of the reservation. Without permission from the Blackfeet, Reagan issued leases for a dollar or less. Since our 2015 trip there, all of those leases have been cancelled.
Pipe Line and Tanker Cars
A pipeline, officially the Dakota Access Pipeline, connecting Bakken and Three Forks oil production regions was planned in 2014. I mention this because the pipeline is aiding the interested oil companies to drain the Bakken Oil Field that we drove through in July 2015. The pipeline is to connect to Pakoka, a port city in Illinois, with part of its 1200 miles going under the Missouri River. The U.S. Army Engineers considered the pipeline safe, but EPA expressed concern, citing it was already rerouted under Bismarck; pollution of water of the city might occur should there be a leak. On the other hand, the newspaper headquartered in Williston where Linda and spent a night or two stated the Dakota Access Pipeline was one the safest pipelines. However, that was without providing a source for the study and not without comments of concern over keeping the water at Williston drinkable. Pros and cons concerning the pipeline include employment for digging the line, and this is the big picture issue, the danger of polluting water. The Standing Rock Sioux were likewise concerned since a leak would destroy much of the land that had already been taken from them in the Nineteenth Century. Protests against the pipeline began in April 2016. In July, a lawsuit filed when the Standing Rock Sioux stated: “First, the pipeline would pass under the Missouri River (at Lake Oahe) just a half a mile upstream of the Tribe’s reservation boundary, where a spill would be culturally and economically catastrophic. Second, the pipeline would pass through areas of great cultural significance, such as sacred sites and burials that federal law seeks to protect.” Concerns of oil finding its way out of a pipeline is not ill-founded. Over 3,300 leaks and ruptures of pipes, carrying gas and oil smudge the record since 2010. As of this writing, Standing Rock Sioux, students and concerned citizens from all over the country, including a representation from southwestern Oregon, home to yours truly, numbering in the thousands joined the protest against that pipeline. People further down the pipeline are also worried, including farmers in Iowa and elsewhere.
The derailment of tanker cars we observed not far west of Williston came home to Oregon in June 2016. Numerous tanker cars exploded in the little town of Mosier about 70 miles up the Columbia River. Unlike an earlier deadly explosion in Canada, the Oregon accident did not cause physical injury, but it did and still does wrangle the nerves of Mosier and for that matter, anyone located near a railroad hosting tanker cars. That is especially true for railroads routing cars from the Bakken reserves. Why? The crude is one of the most, if not the most, flammable crude in the world.
The year 2016 is nearly over and despite growing protests about shipping by tanker car or by constructing the Dakota Pipeline, little to nothing has changed. The outcome is yet to tell. Money is all too often the driving force in most issues. A rise in oil prices is predicted and if and when that occurs, more drilling will likely occur. This will put greater demands on distribution of the bubbling crude and greater pressures on agencies that might have some say in the regulations of distribution such as a pipeline and tanker cars. Presently, the future is troubling.
One might ask, you are driving an RV, how we can complain about the petroleum industry. Is that being hypocritical? How can anyone complain? We all use petroleum products. That is inescapable.
During our RV journey, Linda and I certainly consumed more gasoline than in any other travel on land and had to change the oil more frequently than for previous vehicles. However, while maintaining personal hydration, we learned to use less water than our previous years. We also used less electricity, whether it was from a hook-up or from our generator. By changing our location and thus our weather, we did not need the air conditioner as much as the torrid summers of the Rogue Valley in Oregon demands. We also used less fuel to keep warm, again a product of following comfortable weather. Our meals, although healthy and tasteful, did not require as much fuel as is needed for roasting a holiday turkey or baking deserts. Over all, our carbon footprint during our odyssey was less than what we left most previous years. In fact our carbon footprint was lower than that of the national average. This may sound like bragging, especially since the US average is considerably higher than say Great Britain. Nonetheless, there is a consensus that RVing is better for the environment that living in a stick or brick and mortar home. Is our small footprint justification for pointing out what we are doing to the environment? Yes.
Wildfires in Montana and Washington
Our departures from Montana and Washington left wildfires burning. We wondered if the country’s forests, the fuel for fires, would survive wildfires, disease and logging. According to several sources, there were 1,630 million acres of forest in 1630. Well maybe, but any figure that many years ago has to be an estimate. We think a more accurate estimate might be closer to 1,627 million acres, but who was counting then. By 1910, there was only 754 million acres. Think fires and lumber barrens east of the Rockies. By the early 2000’s, those counting came up with 766 million acres. Some regions of forested land have decreased while others have increased. One source stated that between 1920 and 2012, western forests ranged from 197 to 139 million acres. The difference is near the size of the state of New York. That difference is similar to the 32 million acres of worldwide deforestation reported by the U.N. Plenty of forested acres of hardwood are now covering much of the northeast. Of all the forestland, about 10% are in preserves, not subject to “management” and more or less allowed to follow the course of nature. Much to our surprise, supposedly 40% of the country’s timberland is in the southeast and 32% is in the north from the Rockies to Maine. Only 34% of timberland is on public property. Even more surprising is that only 28% of forestland is in the West. An average of 11 million acres are harvested annually by selective cutting (61%) and a deplorable 39% by clear cutting. I found a figure indicating a harvest rate of 88% on private land, with the caveat that the amount of cutting on private land and on eastern forests was impacted by economic and policy factors beyond my pay grade.
Legal forest harvesting is regulated, especially on public lands. Private forest owners can receive Federal payments for managing their property to enhance their forests through retention, soil and water conservation and biodiversity. Theoretically, our forests will not be lost to the lumber and paper industry, but it is unfortunate that private owners have to be paid what amounts to subsidies to manage their forests.
Forests are also at considerable risk from beetles, root disease, moths, and a plethora of organisms that continue killing trees. One late estimate stated that 77 million acres of forest in the lower 48 are at risk from disease. Contributing factors to this onslaught are climate change and our own introductions of harmful organisms.
Forests decimated by disease are potential contributors to fueling wildfires. Logging is another contributor. Annually, 3.7 billion cubic feet of residue, the unmarketable parts of cut trees, remains to rot and add fuel to a potential fire. Some of the residue may later be torched in what foresters call slash burns and some such fires spawn wildfires. The practice of a deliberate fire, such as torching a slash pile, contributes to adding carbon to the atmosphere. Why do authorities condone these polluting fires? Further, the rate of replanting regions scourged by fire or logging has slowed. Why?
The fires in Montana and Washington added to the total fire history in 2015 and wildfires countrywide broke the record for burning the most acres in the United States. Ten million acres went up in smoke, beating out the next worse year by about a few thousand acres. That year was 2006, when Linda and I visited Montana and the Canadian Rockies during a record-breaking heat wave. If one looks back to the 1920’s of 30’s, it is on record that more acres burned then than today. However, fire suppression methods are considerably superior to those decades ago. Although there may be more acres of forest in the US today than there was 100 years ago, much of the forests are relatively new and do not support the amount and species diversity as does older growth. Everyone should be alarmed that the present number of acres of old growth for wildfires is less today than the past. Complacency has no place here since the rate of acres consumed by fire is accelerating. It is worth noting that it took 40 years to burn 25 million acres, but it took only 25 years to burn another 25 million acres.
One factor precipitating the number and size of wildfires today is smaller trees. Compared with old growth, small trees are more likely to burn and tend to burn fast. Such fires are dangerous and hard to put out. All this costs us billions of dollars more than a few years ago since suppression costs are also accelerating. Fire suppression is unfortunately steering the mission of the US Forest Service from stewards to fire fighters. Sadly, 90% of wildfires are human in origin with causes ranging from accidental to the far more dastardly cause, arson. Incidentally, fire season in the western US is 75 days longer now than in 1970.
Compared to Montana’s five-year average, in 2015, 26% more wildfires burned 18% fewer acres. Of those fires, humans caused 63%. That is below the national percent of human caused fires, possibly because there are fewer humans in Montana and because the high mountains frequently spawn lightning that competes with the careless and stupid.
One of the worst fires in the history of Glacier National Park was in 2003 when 136,000 acres burned. In 2015, the Reynolds Creek fire, originating on 21 July, destroyed at least 4,850 acres, burned two buildings and was the cause of widespread evacuations. On 9 August, days after Linda and I left Glacier National Park, the Thompson wildfire began its path of devastation. It burned at least 14,900 acres not far west of Two Medicine. The cause of the Thompson Wildlire, a complex of three fires, was lightening, whereas the Reynolds Creek Wildfire was probably human in origin. The Reynolds fire cost responsible humans around $11.7 million.
There were 1,500 wildfires in Washington during 2015. During that time, 1.1 million acres went up in polluting smoke. The first fire that caused us to evacuate Sherman Pass was fires in the Kettle Complex that burned 76,512 acres. When we left Omak, the North Star Complex was burning. That fire would surpass 218,000 acres on the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation. The Okanogan Fire killed three dedicated firefighters, incinerated 120 homes, caused the evacuation of several towns and cost 44.5 billion dollars. The Okanogan complex of fires and relatively smaller wildfires burning in Northern Cascade National Park soon precipitated our evacuation south of danger and west to Mt. Rainier. My apologies if any of these figures are incorrect. Nonetheless, the situation in Washington was horribly smoky, frightening, dangerous and sad.
Our entry into Oregon was not fire free. In fact, there were 2,300 wildfires burning in Oregon during 2015. One large one, the Canyon Creek Fire, burned 153,000 acres of Greater Sage-Grouse habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge pointing to the fact that not all wildfires burn forest; some scorch grasslands and brush. Luckily, we did not need to evacuate any of the other locations. The nearest site to the end of our trip was a fire in the northwestern corner of Crater Lake National Park. It did not destroy lush and mossy Boundary Springs, the source of the Rogue River. The fire was almost ten times larger than the previous large fire of 2,930 acres in torridly hot 2006.
As the temperature rises and water tables fall, climate change will most likely cause fire seasons to become even longer than today. Wildfires will surely be more numerous and burn more acres than ever before. Of course, fires deplete carbon sinks, which further exacerbates climate change. When will it stop? Presently, carbon sinks in the guise of forests are most dense in the Cascades, Coast Ranges of the Northwest and Klamath Mountains in southwestern Oregon and northwestern California. Northern Michigan region is next in line, contributing more than western Montana and mountains in the east. We need those forests, alive and well, not burning. Will we, the human species, be witness to when climate change stops? Will humans be alive when it terminates?
Life birds and the truth are still out there
During our RV winter in the Southwest, a Common Scoter, a very rare species to North America and even less known to the West Coast, made an appearance at Crescent City, California. Had we still lived in Medford then, we would have tried to see the waif. Months later, a second chance at laying eyes on the same species, but on the north coast of Oregon came in December 2016. The circumstances of finding the rare scoter were the result of extreme luck and perseverance, but that is another story.