A STOP AT THE OLD HOMESTEAD

In 2009, I was really hesitant about committing myself to making a trip to Camp. Sally’s stroke in January was not “major” (from a medical standpoint), but it had really slowed her down. Anyway, I kept thinking of reasons to “wait a bit.” Finally, it dawned on me that we really needed to treat this as perhaps our last trip to Camp, and we really needed to go for – that old, but valid, cliché - “closure.”  It seemed especially so, since we had missed our 2008 trip because of my surgery and Shawn moving back to Gresham. Also, the word from Bob Miller through the Cordwells was that 4-wheelers are treating our field as “abandoned,” and have taken down some of my stone wall so they can ride down the field. Bob had erected several barriers, but they were taken down each time. I still had trepidations about the trip, but decided to get us on our way.

   We left Gresham on Friday 26 June 2009, and got to Baker City, Oregon, via Interstate 84. On 27 June, we continued on I-84 through Boise, Idaho, to Burley, Idaho,  from where we took a side trip a few miles north to the Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge. In 1963 and 1964, Minidoka had been my first job - and our first home -  after leaving college. I had been back a number of times in the 1980s and early 1990s, as it was one of the wildlife refuges in the district I supervised, but it was Sally’s first visit since we left for California. It was quite a surprise for Sally after 45 years; it was a pretty big shock for me after only 15.

   We drove through Walcott Park and up to Refuge headquarters, but it was the weekend and the gate was closed and locked. We weren’t prepared to walk up the driveway, so we just looked for awhile and reminisced. Everything looked pretty much the same as it had in 1964. The view of the lake was probably as good as ever. 

I would have liked to take the time to walk out on the point behind the compound to see if the yellow-headed blackbird colony was still active. We loved to hear their raucous calls when we walked out there.

   The combined apartment/office/garage built by the Civilian Conservation Corps - our house – still stood across from the entrance sign. It looked to be constructed completely from native lava rock, but was actually a wood-framed building faced with local stone. Our apartment consisted of kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bathroom. (There had been another room, but a previous manager had walled it off and made it into the refuge office.) The floors were concrete, with no covering, and the only warmth for the apartment was supplied by electric space heaters. The bedroom was so small that our queen-sized bed barely fit into it, blocking the doorway, and we had to climb onto the bed to enter the room. The bathroom had a shower, painted black and dark green, that was far from inviting. 

   I should add that baby snakes occasionally appeared in the shower, migrating down from the attic where Bob had released a couple of adult snakes to help reduce the mouse population. And the wall between the office and our kitchen was not sound-proofed, so any time baby Shawn cried (or laughed) in the kitchen, it was hard to talk on the phone in the office. (It worked in reverse, too: when a local rancher used some choice words in the office to describe his feelings about some aspect of refuge administration, we "shared" the conversation in our kitchen.) Oh, and I should mention the windows: even with the storm windows in place, a windy snowstorm resulted in little drifts of snow inside of the inside windows. Drafty.

   The big change was in Walcott Park, itself. It had become a real public park - manicured, with camping, picnicking, boating, etc. There were a lot of people (including a wedding going on). It was nicely laid out, and in an area that doesn’t have a lot of such amenities, it has probably been very good for the community. But it is far from what we knew in the ‘60s.

   Our local "forest" was originally developed by the Reclamation Service after 1910, then greatly improved and expanded by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) between 1935 and 1942. When we arrived in 1963, the Park had been pretty much left on its own for 50 years. Lawns were mowed from time to time, and there wasn't a lot of underbrush, but it felt like a real "forest." We soon discovered that it was the best spot on the refuge for land birds. With its big shade trees, it was a haven for birds, being surrounded on all sides by wide open country, and was an obvious stop for spring and fall migrants traveling through the area.

   Often, Sally and I would wander in the Park for an hour or so before I officially went to work. (The “commute” to work involving going out one door and in another.) On some spring mornings, the trees seemed almost alive, there were so many small birds flitting around in them. Because very little active "birding" had ever been done at Minidoka, it was almost a given that there would be something unexpected in the mix. One day in May 1964, after a particularly widespread and intense storm had passed through the area, the park trees were full to overflowing. Common visitors - lazuli buntings, yellow-rumped warblers, robins, and western tanagers - were present in even greater numbers than usual. Less typical birds - evening grosbeaks, warbling vireos, Swainson's thrushes, and red-breasted nuthatches - were everywhere. Rarities like black-and-white warblers, American redstarts, and black-headed grosbeaks were present, the black-headed grosbeaks almost as common as the  evening grosbeaks. One species never before recorded on the refuge, the red-eyed vireo, was represented by at least 25 individuals.

   During our year and a half at Minidoka, we added about 50 species to the refuge bird list, quite a few of them in Walcott Park. That sounds like quite a feat, but actually it was because we were among the first people to really look at what was around. Some of the species we recorded for the first time proved to be relatively common in the area, and had just been  overlooked to that point.

   It was a fun place to start a career.

*  *  *

   On leaving the park, we drove up to the base of Minidoka Dam, and watched the gulls, cormorants, and white pelicans fishing in the outfall. Then, rather than returning to the Interstate, we opted for the old highway going east toward Pocatello. It was still “the middle of nowhere,” as it had been when I drove it a couple times each week. However, the vast sagebrush flats of “nowhere” had been replaced along the way by green fields irrigated with lines of rotating sprinklers. Someone told me that pronghorn antelope were regularly seen feeding in the alfalfa. We didn’t see any pronghorns on or near the refuge when we lived there.

   I’m not sure we saw any other vehicle in the 15 miles until we joined Interstate 86 at Raft River. I always remember Raft River because I had stopped for coffee at the single store/restaurant there when the news came over the radio that President Kennedy had been assassinated. However, the spot was important long before it was a “spot.” It was there that the ‘49ers bound for the California Gold Rush left the Oregon Trail to head south through Nevada to eventually cross the high passes of the Sierra Nevada.

 The Fenstermaker Ranch at Raft River

   Our progress to Pocatello had been very slow. Sally’s walking was unsteady; restrooms, restaurants, and motels were proving complicated because of her impaired mobility; and I was feeling more and more overwhelmed by the idea of another eight or nine days of travel. The next morning, we made the decision to go back to Gresham. We retraced our route to Baker City, then on 28 June, drove U. S. 26 through John Day, Prineville, and eventually over Mt. Hood.

   Mission not accomplished.

(Afterword: In August 2009, we tried once again to make the trip to Camp. It was a long, hard trip, but Sally was doing better than in the spring, and we made it. We spent two weeks saying our “goodbyes” to the land and our local friends, then returned to Gresham on 29 September, ending our Crossing the Continent adventures.)

 

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