Steens Day 2: Dust, delirium and desert

The crew is haggard in the morning — temps dropped down to 36 overnight and nobody slept well, aside from Laura. In fact, the only restful sleep I managed was between 5:45am-7:30, when Laura wakes me up to tell me I am late for breakfast.

Steens Mountain Oregon

I slurp as much scalding coffee as I can, pack lunch and set off overland, fording the Blitzen and heading deeper into the roadless area. The work site was two miles off, over a game trail that Laura marks by tying pink ribbon onto Juniper branches.

Steens Mountain Oregon

The temp is supposed to hit the mid-90s, and by midmorning it is already there. Sweating, heaving in the elevation, we ramble on over sage and rock garden and eventually come to a line of fence. It looks relatively new, solid, and runs from the top of the ridge a quarter mile down the hill. We climb up to the gear at the top of the hill and learn the ropes.

Steens Mountain Oregon

Pulling down barbed wire isn’t a lot of fun anywhere, but it’s a lot less fun in a roadless wilderness. Normally you would pull barbed wire with some trucks and machinery, but since this is a federally designated wilderness, we have to use sweat and engineering instead.

Luckily, inspiration strikes. A herd of 50 elk come to the fence. A few jump over awkwardly, but others notice the gap where the fence had already been pulled and the rest stream through the new opening. A 5×5 bull follows the herd of cows and calves. Mike says that the Steens is an underrated and relatively easy draw for an elk tag — I make a mental note.

Horned Toad on Steens

Our goal firmly in mind — removing a barrier that ties together habitat, reducing stress on ungulates — each of us settles into specialized jobs. Mike and Karl are pliers jockeys — taking down the stays and clips that hold the barbed wire in place. Laura and I are machinists, working and feeding the spooling device we use to wrap the sections of wire.

I churn at the wheel, wrapping tied in sections of wire into a tight cylinder. It’s an amazing piece of mechanical engineering, designed by a local rancher. It’s a seat with a wheel that you churn with your hands. It kind of works like bike pedals, and both sides of the “pedals” come off so you can get the wire off and start a new roll.

The day passes hot, dusty and slow. We run into a monster rock jack, a wooden crib filled with boulders that ranchers use to anchor fence and turn corners. Mike and I tear this rattlesnake haven apart with our gloved hands and a crowbar. We scatter the boulders, pull the nails out of the old timber.

After lunch, we finish around noon, exhausted and begin the trek back to camp. I’m wearing my Outdoor Research Seattle Sombrero and begin to realize that it’s worth the $50 I spent on it.

Back at camp, I jump into the river, covered in dust and sweat. Consequentially, the fishing was not as good that night. A serious drop in water quality.

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About mstansberry

Matt Stansberry currently lives in Eugene, Oregon with his wife and son.
This entry was posted in Conservation, Eastern Oregon, Steens. Bookmark the permalink.

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