Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Five Feet and Six Inches

The creek is dry and the pathway inviting.

The maw of the red canyon gapes: I enter. How can I not?

It is fall, cool and dry in the Owyhee high desert. I am alert for cougars and snakes… but the beauty of the canyon distracts me. Stuns me to muteness. I've hiked the upper part; I've walked along the rim; years ago I discovered eagles nests on one of the canyon's cliff walls. But I've never hiked through this lower part, with the dragon walls and monster monoliths and cathedral towers.

My sense of wonder is so overwhelmed that my other senses suffer, and when a willow bush explodes beside me, I explode too, in adrenaline. Five feet was all that separated me from a great horned owl, and I hadn't seen it. Good thing it was only an owl! But I am disappointed I didn't get a close-up shot of it.

I vow more alertness, checking ledges and overhanging walls, where cougars might lie observing, or where more owls might be perching, as I creep up the gorge.

The canyon in places squeezes together, twists in mazes, and widens into a massive garden oasis. Pretty autumn-colored poison oak decorates the passages. 
The walls become a funnel in places when water runs swiftly in the spring, carving chutes and caves and leaving miniature sand beaches where detritus washes up.

In a hole in the wall 12 feet above the creek bed, 
I spy feathers. It's an old owl nest! 
But as I approach closer, and climb up to peer in it, I see it's pieces of a whole owl - this is the dining room of an owl-eater. Perhaps one of the golden eagles who rules this territory has ripped this great horned owl apart in this dining cave-with-a-view.

Ahead through the canyon walls, I hear and see an angry swooping and diving prairie falcon. I can't see what she's after but I'll bet it's the great horned owl that I disturbed. I try to tread quietly in the creek bed, (which is impossible for a human), try to creep around the corner to see the owl, when it's suddenly had enough of the falcon, and enough of the approaching crashing thrashing human, and it flies over my head back down the canyon, with the prairie falcon in pursuit. As I turn my gaze back up-canyon, a chimney cleft in the opposite wall catches my eye - and I see another great horned owl, staring down at me. He is perfectly camouflaged - I'm not sure how I even noticed him.

I continue on up the canyon, where it becomes very brushy. I could crawl through a tunnel of brush in the creek bed, but I think better of it. I don't sense the presence of cougars, but - what do I know? An owl almost had me for lunch. I opt to crawl up and around where I'm out in the open. 

I see the eagle nest cliff ahead, and there comes a point where I have to either climb or cross the brushy creek bed - and I'm no climber. I pick my way carefully through the 6-foot-high sagebrush and willows, eyes and ears scanning everywhere. There is a sea of poison oak beneath the cliff, but if I pick my way carefully through, I should emerge the other side of the eagle cliff, and continue up the rest of the canyon that I've traversed before.

Still scanning cliff walls and brush, I study my path, carefully taking one step at a time through the tall and pretty red-leafed poison oak. Nearing the edge I say The Heck With It, and I sort of leap and run the last few steps to get it over with.

My mistake.

My last footfall lands in the golden sea of cheatgrass, six inches from one unsuspecting and suddenly very pissed off six-inch rattlesnake. She is golden, barely visible in the matching golden grass, and soundless, because she is too young to have even one rattle. 
can you see it retreating?? me neither!

 (I read later: "Rattler babies have venom, short fangs and are dangerous from birth. In fact, they are more pugnacious than the adults. Although unable to make a rattling sound, the youngsters throw themselves into a defensive pose and strike repeatedly when disturbed."*)

It is only - what? - fate? luck? - that this newborn rattler has not struck me. Again and again. We both leap back, the rattler rising tall and coiling and writhing and rattling a rattle-less tail, me recoiling and cursing, adrenaline raging, stepping back but not too far back without looking, because where there is one rattlesnake baby there could be more babies ("The female rattler may carry from four to 25 eggs, from which an average of nine or ten young are born live"*), not to mention the big rattlesnakes that created them.

The little rattlesnake slowly retreats - while still coiled and ready to strike - into taller grass, and I realize that with its perfect golden camouflage, I'll likely not see the next one, either.

I find my that nerve to continue up this canyon has suddenly vanished. I choose to retreat - back through the poison oak and golden grass (very carefully!) through the tall brush (cautiously!) and to climb up out of the canyon, and leave the rest of the canyon for another day. 

Like a cold day in winter when rattlesnakes should be hibernating.


  1. Thanks for the beauty and the adrenaline rush. I don't know how you saw that owl in the rocks and I loved the descriptive explosion of the bush hiding the first owl.

  2. Great!!! Thank you for the lovely story, it's really beautiful where you live!


  3. Wow, exciting, glorious and seriously scary!

    Like English Rider said, I don't know how you saw the owl in the rocks. So well camouflaged!

  4. Ohmigosh! Thank goodness we don't have any native poisonous snakes here. I actually like snakes but don't like the idea of rattlers underfoot. Glad you are OK...whew!

    Would the owl have attacked you? (The "almost for lunch" comment has me curious.) I think of them as beautiful hunters of much smaller prey.

    Great description of an amazing walk in your wilderness but a little too exciting at times. *G*

  5. Honey, I love your photos and your stories. They come to life! They also scare the holy hell out of me. I hope you are always safe,but it sounds to me like you are too much of an adventuress to care that much about "safe".

  6. thanks all!
    Jean, No, actually the owl wouldn't have attacked me. They stay still as long as they can then just flee. I have had goshawks dive-bomb me in the woods around their nest... but even if I was just a corpse these raptors would likely not eat me, as they eat fresh kills of smaller animals that they make. Ravens wouldn't attack me, but they'd eat my corpse : )

  7. What a wonderful, beautiful and varied place you live in. But as you continue the perils become clear. You are perceptive...and brave.

  8. The great horned owl was stunning! And I can't believe you hiked through there like that! I was on the edge of my seat. Beautiful photos.

  9. If we love nature everything will look beautiful and we can appreciate every simple things that this give to us. These places looks like a home for other living things like animal for their shelter.

  10. Beautiful - breathtaking! How in the heck did you see the owl in the clift?

  11. eeeeek! What a wonderful day, minus the bit at the very end!

  12. Great story! Hairs on my neck bristled - don't step on rattler or poison oak!!

  13. time for some rattle snake proof leggings :o/ YIKES!