My husband, Dale, and I hold strong affections for prairies.
In the Midwest, we drove down rutted dirt roads searching for weathered signs and rusty gates that opened into patches of prairie on the edge of cornfields. Transformed by the music of the insects and birds, we walked in the tall dry grasses and swaying wildflowers firmly anchored by the farms in the distance.
Our journey to see the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon, however, quickly became a different road trip. We stayed in the small artsy town of Joseph, high in the Wallowa Mountains, and after an early breakfast headed north.
Outside of Joseph the farms and ranches dropped away quickly and never reappeared. After Enterprise, the road to the prairie became gravel and grew lonely as grasslands stretched to the horizon.
The July morning grew from warm to hot. In unknown territory and alone, we began our adventure.
Larger and more complex than any native grassland we had previously visited, this remote landscape named for a family of homesteaders near Joseph sits isolated like an island on a high plateau. The Wallowa Mountains and the river canyons and dense forests of Eagle Cap Wilderness form a protective ring around the southern and western borders of the Zumwalt before its rolling contours plunge deeply into Hell’s Canyon at the Idaho border.
The Chief Joseph Band of the Nez Perce lived and hunted on this land 150 years ago, before westward expansion by early immigrants.
Native grasslands once covered large portions of the United States west of the Rocky Mountains, and when the first settlers came to southeast Washington and northeast Oregon they were greeted by this ecosystem. Saved from the plow by its high elevation, rocky soil, and short growing season, the 330,000-acre Zumwalt Prairie carries the distinction of being the largest, most intact native bunch grass prairie remaining in the United States.
The Nature Conservancy purchased a combined total of 33,000 acres in 2000 and 2006 to create The Zumwalt Prairie Preserve within the mostly privately owned Zumwalt Prairie.
After nearly 20 miles of gravel and a good dusting by two enormous pickup trucks speeding in the opposite direction, we spotted the bright orange preserve sign marking the Horned Lark Trail. A stoutly constructed A-frame gate marked the entrance. We climbed up, over and down onto the brittle surface of the grass and a land painted with a restrained, dry, mid-summer palette of greens, yellows, browns and grays.
Wowed by the enormous blue sky overseeing the low, gentle hills, I stood still.
Sparrows called from the grass. Quick divers, they appeared and disappeared in an instant. Insects hummed. Butterflies floated up and down around me. A lone coyote trotted across a hilltop and vanished. I kept Dale in my sight line.
With my eyes fixed on the horizon, I hiked down the rutted tracks leading into a shallow valley. I didn’t see the ground squirrel holes in front of me -- I stumbled and fell forward.
Forced to look in a different direction, I discovered much of the beauty and richness of the prairie was living right under my feet.
Scattered all across the landscape, native bunch grasses with stiff gray-green leaves sprang from the reddish brown rocky soil and mingled with wild flowers spent and going to seed, blooming in delicate lavender or exploding in saucy pink petals against the earth.
The closer I looked the more I saw. A few square inches of prairie became a wonderland rivaling the panoramic sky and majestic clouds above me.
Having read Marcy Houle’s book “The Prairie Keepers,” I could better understand that I was seeing a complicated, layered habitat, whose plants, animals and birds depend for their survival on native grasses and each other.
Well suited to the rocky, arid conditions, the native bunch grasses send out thousands of roots, some 25 feet long, to hold and renew the rich fertile prairie soil. Ground squirrels thrive on these grasses and are the favorite meal of the hawks, falcons, eagles and owls living here, giving the Zumwalt the distinction of having one of the highest populations of breeding raptors in the world.
On the ground, elk graze here part of the year, as do mule deer, bighorn sheep, cougars and black bears. Salmon spawn in the streams.
Scientists and forest service ecologists often see ranchers and their grazing cattle as destroyers of native grasslands. In the Zumwalt, studies are proving that cattle aren’t the villains, overgrazing is. Herds that are rotated through alternating pastures often help to “disturb” the grasses and prevent dead grasses from accumulating. This helps to recycle nutrients and keep the grasslands healthy.
The Zumwalt area also supports important breeding populations of grassland songbirds such as the western meadowlark, savannah sparrow and horned lark, as well as 48 varieties of butterflies and 430 plant species -- including the Spalding’s catchfly, with its dense sticky foliage trapping dust and insects.
On the federal Endangered Species list of threatened plants, this native wildflower flourishes on the Zumwalt, and flowers from mid-July through August.
We drove five more miles, watching for the metal gate on our right that identifies the entrance to the Biscuit Vista Trail. There it was -- an orange sign and a locked iron livestock gate.
This would be tricky. To enter, we would need to slither through the gap between the two locked gates, or climb over it as it swayed gently in the breeze, or scale the wood/barbed wire fence attached to the gate. I chose the former and Dale the latter. We followed the old road up the draw for a beautiful view of the canyon below.
Standing at the pickup truck at the end of the hike Dale said, “We’ve come this far, we might as well see where this road goes.” In one breath I replied, “You’re nuts. Let’s go.”
Together we looked at the map and decided that we were 80 percent sure we were on Camp Creek Road heading toward Imnaha. On a curvy one lane road alternating dirt, gravel and rocks, we passed open meadows and small aspen groves, catching glimpses of hazy blue buttes in the distance.
Dale put the pickup in and out of four-wheel drive with the assurance of a race car driver. A gray dust cloud followed us as we exchanged bad jokes about survival tactics. We checked the gas gage and ate our last energy bar. Orange Zumwalt Prairie Preserve signs occasionally appeared on the fences on the west side of the road. On the hilltops we caught glimpses of what we thought was the beginning of Hell’s Canyon to the east. Reassured, we remained alert and silent.
More than two hours later, down a hill and around a corner we spotted a power line. Paradise regained!
We cheered when we saw the first house. It was abandoned, but it still gave us hope. One half mile later we arrived in Imnaha, population 18. There were three buildings “at the bridge,” constituting Imnaha proper: A roadhouse painted hot green that was closed, a 100-square-foot Post Office, newly painted bright white with orange and yellow plastic flowers in window boxes, and the town’s showcase -- The Imnaha Store and Tavern.
Worn wood floors recall the building’s 1904 vintage, as do the equally worn wooden bar stools with short backs anchored to a raised platform along the 40-foot bar. Displayed behind the bar, old posters, stuffed animal heads, license plates, photos of customers, sayings and quotes to live and drink by kept me entertained, as did the dollar bills hanging from the ceiling by thumbtacks.
We sat in one of the booths that separated the saloon from the dining room’s single row of four tables surrounded with plastic chairs. Next to the dining room, grocery store items, T-shirts and antiques filled the shelves from floor to ceiling.
The tabletop was sticky, but we didn’t care. We studied the menu: frog legs, chicken gizzards, chicken fried steak, rattle snake, sandwiches and salads. We decided to split a ham sandwich, then gulped down soda pop and glasses of water.
At the far end of the bar a white chest freezer sat like a stone relic from some ancient culture. A banner of white butcher paper taped along its front side announced the “Rattle Snake Count” in tall, uneven magic marker letters. Tally marks kept the count (dead or alive, I didn’t ask) beside each person’s name. Near the bottom of the banner, a small, hand-drawn rectangle enclosed the names of the bitten, written in a rainbow of colors.
We drove back to Joseph on Highway 350 along Little Sheep Creek. It felt too easy, but it gave me time to reflect. Dale and I share a love of prairies and edgy adventures, and I’m thankful for that. I’m also grateful that The Nature Conservancy has a voice in the management and protection of the Zumwalt Prairie; so many of our natural lands are at risk of disappearing.
I want future generations to be able to walk in those grasslands like I did on a hot July day in 2012, and have the same opportunity to experience the diversity and splendor of a living landscape by stumbling in a ground squirrel hole.