Basalt columns rise from the Tieton river valley providing protected roosts and nest sites for ravens and golden eagles. Climbers are also drawn to the sheer rise, crawling like ants up the walls.
I ducked through a hinged door in an elk fence to access the trail. Across the bridge where I parked is the Oak Creek Wildlife Area and its winter elk feeding grounds. The Tieton River in spring flood rushes through this canyon. The sound of the flowing, turbulent waters drowns out the birdsong. The Trail
As I walk the trail, I’m tempted to wade through the sage to get closer to the tree along the water’s edge where the birds are flitting about. But the threat of snakes keeps on the well-worn trail. A review from a trail user: “In the first 1/2 mile, we ran into 3 rattlesnakes which all were laying in the path. We turned back. I had enough of the snakes.”I stick to the path until I see a side trail to the river’s edge. I keep seeing kingfishers fly by every time the trail approaches the river. I can’t catch them with my camera or binoculars. They’re big. Not the belted kingfishers I’m familiar with. Later, I’ll get a better look and see that they are Lewis’ Woodpeckers! I found a western kingbird sitting on a snag above a nest. Bullock’s orioles, with their dramatic yellow and black plumage, are everywhere. An oriole nest hangs on a limb near the water. The trail narrows and enters the woods. I am simultaneously closer to the creek and closer to the cliffs.
Around a bend, I come onto a broad, flat sagebrush plain accented with wildflowers. It looks like good bobcat habitat. I think it’d probably be good for mountain lions, too.More birds moving too fast in too much foliage to photograph and more stunning views. The sky is darkening, and rain is in the forecast. When the path rejoins the river, I’ll look upstream and turn back. Except near the river, there is a tunnel of trees leading into a thick forest of cottonwood, aspen, and fir. I have to see where this leads. A noise from the forest stops me in my tracks. I listen intently. Silence. It was probably a tree squirrel. Nothing is so noisy on the ground. Later, I see the culprit – a California ground squirrel scurrying over the rocks. They have wonderfully mottled coats.
I’m thinking of turning back again when I pass trail marker #3. I started at #10. Since I’ve come this far, I might as well go all the way to the beginning marked by a rickety suspension bridge crossing the roaring, ice-cold river. I turn back.I was promised snakes.
It’s completely overcast now. The light is dull and not conducive to pictures. The birds are quiet. I’m walking more purposefully, lost in thought, lamenting the absence of snakes on this hike.
In a fraction of a second, my lizard brain recognizes the hiss and rattle of a snake as I leap left off the trail. Three feet off the right side of this path is a coiled, rattling, pissed-off western rattlesnake. If she hadn’t reprimanded me, I would have walked right by. When cautioned about snakes out here, I thought it meant watch where you step. You know, don’t step on one.
I’m used to garter snakes, gopher snakes, rat snakes – pretty much all of the other defenseless snakes that bask on paths. I photograph them, carefully step around them, and we’re all good. Why does this snake with such formidable defenses need to be so reactive? So defensive? I took my photos as my heart rate returned to normal and let her be.
Friendly snakes I’ve encountered:I’m wearing hiking sandals and suddenly feel vulnerable with my naked feet. I thought bare feet in rattlesnake country would be okay if I stayed on the trail. I was wrong. It turns out rattlesnakes are ornery. Everyone I tell my story to says, “ya, they’re assholes.”
For the rest of the hike back, I am hypervigilant about the ground around the trail. There are sections where the grasses are right up next to the footpath. I proceed cautiously. I spent so much time looking down I probably walked right past a mountain lion!
All’s well that ends well. Tomorrow, I will wear close-toed shoes.
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