Creek-walking with Ponderosas

“America’s history is written in her trees. Ponderosa Pines have thick bark, giving the species a high tolerance to surface fires. These trees likely survived dozens of wildfires. Ponderosa are often widely spaced and surrounded by lush grasses because of natural fire disturbances, creating a true haven for wildlife. Everything from grizzly bears to herds of elk may have rested in the shade of these trees.”

– Sign outside of cabins at Lake Creek Camp near John Day, OR –

Ponderosa Pine trees at Lake Creek Camp

It’s a beautiful morning- cool, fresh, pastel in palette, filled with a calmness that crawls its way into my fingertips and rests in my muscles and heart like quiet, burrowing mice. I am ready for the day and its blue sky interspersed with the fluffiest of white cotton clouds. They don’t seem to move in a morning devoid of wind. Three stately Ponderosas stand tall in a field in front of me. I wonder how they got there, so seemingly isolated. Fire? Wind? Was an ax taken to other trees around them?

Maybe the birds know. In their chattering this morning, they could be telling tales of the  pine trees of the past: their tall, stately trunks and extending branches; their sweet, spicy, piney smell overwhelming at the heat of the day; or they could be telling stories of fire. I can hear one behind me, still crackling from last night’s blaze that we made in the pit. The birds sing memories of great, hot battles, crackling giants that made their way across the forest, laying waste to underbrush. But in stories of death, there are always memories of resurrection. In the heat of blazes in this part of the country, when the air was choked in smoke and ash, Ponderosa Pine cones are coaxed to open, yawning for the first time in the heat of the air. And in the midst of apparent destruction, with a little rain, one can spot tiny green shoots unfurling in the blackness of ash. New Ponderosa Pine trees, emerging from the still smoking ground.

Ponderosa Pine bark

The diversity of my state is astounding. Think Out Loud seems to have that figured out as they usually do. As Wendy and I made our journey across Oregon, we passed through farmland, forest, mountain, high desert, rocky, and new high elevation forested landscape, rich with the smell of pine. This smell transports me back to the years my family spent our summers up at Mt. Hood. I would spend whole days scrambling over rocks, running down hills, climbing hills with prickly dry pine bark scratching my hands as I reached out to them for support. All the time trampling dry pine needles, releasing their sweet, fragrant smell and hearing their crackling response to my weight. Every day, I would drag a threadbare, brown cotton blanket outside the front of the cabin and find a new place to set up camp. Draping the blanket over two trees, it would create a small teepee-like shelter for me to use as my base. From there, I would venture out into the wilderness of huckleberry bushes surrounding the cabin, their sweet, dark juice staining the tips of my fingers. Bounty in hand, it would be time to head back to the teepee to create huckleberry pie in old metal camping dishes and sometimes huckleberry juice (more stained fingers). Days would pass blissfully hot and dry, the fragrance of the summer air and the drone of grasshoppers clicking swirling its way around my hair.

Pine-White butterfly in the foreground, Lake Creek Watershed in the background. Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, OR

It has been like jumping into a whole new context this week, being surrounded by a whole new landscape and get used to a whole different kind of beauty- rising land plateau-ing in vistas which stretch for miles. Lush forests of a different kind than I’m used to– Larch, Ponderosa, Red Fir, Noble Fir pervasive, their bark dry, their needles crunching and crackling underfoot. And the small, Pine-White butterflies- I brought a dead one back with me an a pile of treasures from a walk I took yesterday. Its wings were as thin as the thinnest tissue paper- white with two stripes of charcoal grey. Lime green head. Their larva are also striped green and wiggly. Their pupas latched onto the window of my cabin. They’ve been pervasive this week, clouds of them flying straight into the windshield of your car, one or two floating down to the surface of moving water like petals making a graceful descent. And then up again- repeating the cycle of flotation. Along with the Pine-White, I collected a small jigsaw piece of Ponderosa bark, a Larch cone, its tips poking into my skin, and a small twig covered in lime green lichen. Quite the collection of treasures!

And then there’s the stars. Every night after campfire and after the generator for the camp has been turned off, I have gone out to the picnic table outside the cabin and laid down. Almost immediately, I have found myself falling into the the bowl of stars that is laid impossibly wide over my head. The swath of white pinpricks in the blanket of dark sky began as a 2-Dimensional tapestry. But as my eyes adjusted, I begin to notice that, in fact, I find myself falling into an incredible 3-Dimensional space, with stars of different distances, calling to me from so far away, even years and years ago.

Lake Creek, you may be able to see one of our fish nets spanning the creek

This week has been spent rediscovering the beauty of days spent outdoors in Ponderosa country. Stepping into hip-high wading boots, impervious to the rushing Lake Creek and its consistent flow, to measure the quality of its water and map its characteristics while we move upstream. Every is a new one on the creek, the sun rising above the Alder trees that support its riparian bank to sparkle on the cool water. We walk up and down it, learning from each other and collecting data- something we may do with our students later on. And all the time, we look for birds in the tops of the Pines and Larches, rest from the heat in the shade of their branches (like so many living things before us), and smell their fragrant smells. It’s a beautiful kind of peace, this wildness, one where I can begin to hear the truth in my heart as it speaks away from the rush-rush speed of the city. It’s about time for me to look at stars and smell pines more often.

Note: This was written while on-site at Lake Creek Camp during a week-long watershed education workshop for teachers called Creeks and Kids. It is an annual workshop that attracts teachers from all across the state of Oregon to learn about implementing watershed-related concepts in their classrooms as well as integrating field work into more of their lessons. I highly recommend the workshop!

3 thoughts on “Creek-walking with Ponderosas

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