By: Sierra Club Volunteer, Heidi Dahlin
On July 23-28th, the High Desert Committee (HDC), in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), led a group of volunteers into the Steens Mountain Wilderness to pull out old fencing. This is a yearly event and my third time that I participated in a Steens fence pull. I am frequently asked why I would want to give up vacation time to go work in the hot desert sun and get nothing in return. Perhaps sharing my experiences of the past week will answer that question.
Shortly before arriving at the South Steens campground on Friday, I crested a hill and was stunned, once again, by the view of the Little Blitzen Gorge. I stopped in the middle of the road and pulled out my camera, knowing that the picture would never do justice to what I saw.
I drank in the view and the vast expanses that only a desert experience can give you. The desert has its own beauty, and I could feel my soul expand as big as the vista.
The first morning promised a hot day, but we took the time for a tour of the historic Riddle Brothers Ranch. We walked through the old buildings and imagined the simple, yet hard, life of being a cattle rancher a century ago. We then packed up our tools and headed out. A short walk later, we were ready to tackle an old fence. With the passage of the Steens Mountain Act of 2000, a large portion of Steens Mountain was protected as wilderness, and nearly 100,000 acres of the wilderness were declared to be “cow-free” and would no longer be used for grazing. This meant that old fencing was no longer needed and could be taken out–removing the last traces of man and barriers to wildlife movement.
Our small group of volunteers quickly learned the tasks to be done and we chatted as we worked, sweated and drank lots and lots of water.
Each section of fencing removed became its own reward as we looked back and saw no trace of what used to be a fence line. One of my favorite jobs was going ahead and pacing out the next section to be rolled. Just going 200 feet ahead allowed me to lose the group and experience a sense of solitude. I started a cottontail rabbit and a basking lizard and apologized for the intrusion into their world.
Perhaps rather than an intrusion, it was a sharing of space.
When Harry Anderton, our leader, felt we had accomplished enough to call it a day, we drove back to camp to wash up, relax, go for a short walk, take pictures or nap. That evening, we enjoyed fresh salad rolls and a Thai dish for dinner, compliments of the HDC. Happy hour was truly happy as we enjoyed pleasant conversation. Later, we watched a full moon rise as the nighthawks squawked above us.
The second day was the hottest–99 degrees!–but the third day promised relief and a show from approaching thunderstorms. We watched the clouds form over Nevada and come in, allowing us to get off the ridge before it hit. The storm passed overhead and lightening struck the top of the mountain repeatedly. The thunder seemed to come from the mountain itself, which added a deeper resonance. We heard news of wildfires, but they were well away from our camp. We quickly fell asleep in the refreshing coolness of the night.
The last day gave us a rare treat. We arrived at the ranch to watch thirteen turkey vultures take off from their roost in a tree and slowly circle overhead, gaining the thermal uplifts with each turn. It was like watching an avian cyclone in reverse. It was Raptor Day and I saw an osprey fly up the river, a redtail hawk cry overhead later in the morning, and a harrier swoop over the landscape in search of food in the afternoon. We startled a deer bedded down for the day and saw fresh evidence of elk. By this time of the trip, we were an efficient team and we traded off jobs and anticipated tool needs. We rejoiced with reaching the Little Blitzen River, marking the end of our section to pull. We had removed a mile of fence, which would no longer scar the landscape.
After three fence pulls, I feel an intimacy with the mountain. The hours give a chance for deep thought and connection with the surrounding landscape. I have met new friends, deepened existing friendships, and seen, heard and felt things that can not be experienced anywhere else in Oregon. I take away part of the mountain with me and leave part of myself behind with each trip. Perhaps more than any other reason, that I why I will be there again next year.
If you would like to join the HDC on a fence pull or another trip, click here to check out our outings page! It is updated in March for the current year’s offerings. We also would love to have you join us at our monthly meetings, which are the first Wednesday of every month at 7 pm at the Chapter office.