The first ever Oregon Wild Wolf Rendezvous was an adventure!
Oregon Wild supporters headed to Wallowa County to learn about wolves and living in Oregon's wolf country (Photo by Katie Hick)
What do you get when you take miserable weather, add some controversy, explode a car tire, and sprinkle in some last minute changes in plan? Well, if you were one of the 12 folks on our first ever Oregon Wild Wolf Rendezvous, you’d know the answer is simple. You get yourself a darn good time!
Earlier this year, I lamented that I still hadn’t crossed off three quintessential Oregon experiences from my wish list. I’d never rafted the wild Rogue River, I’d never made it to the Steens, and I’d never hiked the Eagle Cap. Though I’m not the only one ignoring the Rogue this year (Congressman DeFazio and Senator Wyden also seem busy with other things), and the Steens remain on my unfinished business list, last month I finally got to share my first hike in the Eagle Cap Wilderness with a dozen relentlessly positive Oregon Wild supporters!
Over the years Oregon Wild has led thousands of Oregonians on hiking trips, fly-fishing adventures, snowshoe hikes, birding expeditions, and restoration outings to see the places we’ve worked so hard to protect for 35 years. This year, with wolves making headlines it seemed like just the time to take action on an idea we’d been kicking around the office for over a year. We put out an e-mail to our supporters and within hours every spot on our first ever Wolf Rendezvous was filled, and a waiting list was already beginning to grow.
We planned a 3-day weekend of hiking, camping, sightseeing, and tracking as well as meetings with ranchers, biologists, and other local folks. As often happens to the best laid plans, things changed, but at every turn, our intrepid group remained unfazed.
Things got off to a great start. Though we had to make camp at an alternative location that required a bit of a hike to the nearest facilities, the view of Sacajawea Peak made up for it. Everyone arrived on time and in good spirits.
We made camp and headed down to Barking Mad Farm – a wonderful bed & breakfast in the shadow of the Wallowas. Our hosts Diana and James presented us with a spread of wine and snacks and welcomed us with open arms. If you’re ever in Enterprise, let me tell you, this is the place to stay!
Our first meeting was with Holly Akenson of Wallowa Resources – an outfit that works to promote sustainable economic development in Wallowa County. As a wildlife biologist, hunter, and someone in touch with the local community she was able to give us a great picture about what it means to live with wolves. Her collection of skulls and bones kept us entertained and our time passed quickly! We headed back to camp for a potluck dinner and an early night.
The next morning, we were treated to a tracking workshop given by board member Pat Clancy. We headed out to the Zumwalt Prairie to put our knowledge to the test while hiking in some of Oregon’s most impressive roadless areas. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate. Neither did the tires on our cars, or most of our other plans that day.
We still managed to have a great adventure! Though most of our tracking spots were washed out with rain, we were able to find bobcat, coyote, and turkey tracks. It was too cold and wet for a hike, but driving slowly to avoid blowing out a second tire meant we got to explore a side canyon sheltered from the rain at 5 miles an hour. The scenic overlook was socked in with fog, rain, and even hints of snow, but we got to watch a heard of elk nibble at the edge of an exclosure designed to protect the areas struggling aspen. Even car problems didn’t get in the way of meeting more great local folks, enjoying dinner at a local brewpub, and heading out to listen for the howls of the Imnaha Pack.
At 14 animals, the Imnaha Pack is just barely larger than our group, but represents two-thirds of Oregon’s confirmed wolf population. We knew we were unlikely to hear them and while the silence was great for those of us more used to the sounds of traffic and trains, I think we all wished it would be broken by the howl of one of Oregon’s endangered wolves. Instead we had to settle for the distant hoot of a great horned owl which wasn’t half bad.
The next morning I was encouraged to see the long-forgotten sun peeking through gaps in some ominous clouds. Expecting a tired, crabby, and cold group of adventurers I polled everyone to see if they’d rather cancel the hike and head into town or simply go home. To a person - as they did at every turn - they wanted more. So we laced up our hiking boots and headed up the Hurricane Creek Canyon and into the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
As we gradually climbed up the canyon through forests and meadows, our friend - and impromptu guide - Wally pointed out dramatic evidence of avalanches and shared with us what life is like in Wallowa County. Unfortunately it wasn’t a backpacking trip and eventually we had to turn around. After a quick lunch, most of us piled into our cars (a few folks stuck around for couple more days) and returned home with photos, memories, and hopefully a new appreciation for Oregon’s wildlands and wildlife.
Though we may have thought we were the only ones benefiting from the trip, we learned that wasn’t the case. When they learned who we were and what we were doing, more than one person told us that our trip gave them hope. Hope that Oregon can do better than places like Idaho and Wyoming. Hope that we can move beyond fear and fighting and honor our love for our state’s wildlands and wildlife by welcoming back and learning to live with wildlife.
For many, the return of Oregon’s wolves represents a second chance. Some don’t need a reason – wolves are simply a native species with a rightful place on the landscape. For some it’s the romantic notion of wolves as the symbol of the wild, our better nature, and our willingness to be good stewards of the land. As science continues to demonstrate how their return benefits the landscape, some value wolves for their ecological role as apex predators.
Others see economic opportunity. Wolves are ecotourism’s biggest stars. Even in a down economy, dollars from wildlife watching continues to grow and dwarf most other outdoor pursuits. Nationally, according to a government report, it generates well over $120 billion a year. Meanwhile another reports shows that income from the livestock industry has plummeted 40% in the last 40 years in Wallowa County. It may turn out that rural Oregon’s biggest cash cow may not be a cow at all.
Still, there’s no denying the wolf issue can be a controversial one. Though most folks think the return of wolves is a chance at redemption for a state that prides itself on its conservation ethic and outdoor culture, there are some who are genuinely convinced that our effort to protect native wildlife is a conspiracy to eliminate agriculture or their second amendment rights. Others believe if we don’t return to the days of killing wolves there will be no more prey animals left for human hunters, or that their children won’t be safe from a disease-spreading government-introduced non-native invasive species.
There’s a lot of fear and misinformation about wolves, but as Molly Beattie, the first woman to head the US Fish & Wildlife Services said “What a country chooses to save is what a country says about itself”. The same is true of a state. If we truly value wildlife and want to be stewards of the land, we need to learn to move past our fears and distrust and begin to embrace solutions that don’t involve bullets, chainsaws, and fear mongering.
Earlier this summer, as wolves made the news for stirring up controversy in Northeast Oregon, I wrote that if wolf haters and appreciators could agree on anything, it’s that Oregon is wolf country - and wolf country is beautiful.
As the human population continues to grow and our ability to alter the landscape grows along with it, we’ll continue to fight for all native wildlife and the big wild places they need to flourish. We’ll also continue to connect you to those places. Next year’s Wolf Rendezvous will be different, but we’ll do it again, so be sure to sign up for our e-alerts, keep an eye on your inbox, and join us next year for our second annual Wolf Rendezvous!
Range Rider photo by Diana Hunter courtesy of ODFW
Wenaha wolf photo by Russ Morgan courtesy of ODFW
All other photos are of the wolf rendezvous