The Treachery of Winter in the Barren Desert

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Sometimes it is so challenging to write; to carry on with a dialogue regarding this strain of trout that is not supposed to exist.

The last time that we were on the system, temps were well below freezing—in the teens at night, and still below freezing (in the shade) during the day.

But, an extreme cold front hit the Pacific Northwest after that last visit, and for a week or so the lows on the west (Pacific) side of the Cascades were -10⁰ F at night, and roughly -30⁰ F at night for a week (or more) on the creek.

It truly is incomprehensible how these trout can survive in such extremes.

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Though such extremes are not without precedent:

It was the winter of 1867-1868, after General Crook had already abandoned the original Camp Warner (after one of his men froze to death during the winter), that he himself – along with several of his men – narrowly averted catastrophe in harrowingly deep snow; as they ploughed through neck deep snow in a howling blizzard while trying to make it to the old camp for a night.

A few historical excerpts are embedded here for your edification:

In The Deadliest Indian War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864-1868, Gregory Michno writes, “. . .  Crook suggested that since the new camp (Warner) had easier access to Camp Bidwell, all communications and supplies would be channeled through there, ‘thereby avoiding the terrible road between camp C.F. Smith and this place (the Old Camp Warner), which in winter, can only be traveled at the imminent risk of life’.”

On page 210-212 Gregory Michno writes about that winter.  On February 22, 1867 Crook moved out from Camp C.F. Smith to (Old) Camp Warner.  “As they moved across southeast Oregon, the weather worsened. They stopped in northern Guano Valley about 14 miles from Camp Warner, in most inhospitable country.  Explorer Peter Skene Ogden traveled through this part of Oregon several times, none of which he enjoyed.  Back in 1827, he wrote, ‘I may say without exaggeration Man in this Country is deprived of every comfort that can tend to make existence desirable if I can escape this year I trust I shall not be doomed to endure another year.’”

The tale continues:  “Nothing had improved in forty years.  Crook’s command awoke in the morning to a raging blizzard.  (Archie) McIntosh did not approve of moving, but Crook set his men in motion, an action later regretted.

Crook:  ‘I should have remained in camp that day. But we started in a storm that obscured everything, sun, landmarks, and even one part of the column from the other.’  The snow piled in drifts from 15-20 feet deep and animals would sometimes go out of sight.  No trail could be followed, for as soon as an animal would raise its foot up, the roaring wind would fill in the hole with snow. ‘It was almost like traveling in the dark,‘ said Crook.  In mid-afternoon a gust of wind swept his hat away.  ‘From there on my hair and whiskers were some mass of sleet and snow,’ he said.”

“It was almost sundown when they approached Camp Warner.  Crook let his horse go ahead and waited to shepherd in the rest of the troops, but he found ‘I never in my life was so nearly exhausted.’  He sat down on a snow bank and waited.  Luckily a saddled mule came along with no rider.  It was so deep in the snow; Crook merely had to slide off the bank and into the saddle, where he was carried in safely to the post.  The snow drifts were level with the roofs of Camp Warner’s huts and it was with great difficulty that they dug out the haystacks to allow the animals to feed.”

Archie McIntosh of Scots/Chippewa ancestry served as a favorite scout for General Crook due to his reliable skills even when drunk.  Many years later Archie McIntosh told a reporter about this blizzard experience of 1867, “I knew there was going to be a blizzard and watched the course of the wind. When it [the blizzard] was upon us, General Crook asked if we had not better go into camp until it passed over, but I said “follow me and I will put you into Camp Warner by 4 o’clock p.m.”

“So the General said no more but kept close behind me, and you bet I kept the wind on my right cheek for nine long hours, but had it changed its direction ten degrees my goose would have been cooked.” (www.electricscotland.com American History, Scots in the American West 1790-1917, Scotland and the American Indians).”

And there was the winter of 1889-1890 that wiped out the cattle ranches in the region, leaving the ground pock-marked with dead cattle by the thousands.

Chapter 15, of The Cattle Drives of David Shirk, David Shirk reiterates the horrific events of that winter when he and his brother lost over 1000 head of cattle (out of 2,400) when they were diligently working to care for them daily; while other ranchers that relied on ‘foremen’ to care for their cattle, went out of business that winter.  He noted one prominent ranch that lost near 5,000 head of cattle, in spite of the fact that they had purchased hay at $15 per ton.  He stated that “ . . . one might have almost walked on dead cattle from Bidwell to Coleman Valley.”

(Historical annotations thanks to Carmela Kortum)

So, such grueling winters are not new to the region . . .

Personally, I would hope that the remainder of the winter (which has really, just begun), will be more like a lamb, than a lion, for the remainder . . .  But, perhaps, that’s really too much to ask . . .

May the rugged characteristics these trout have developed to enable them to survive in the desert, be so adept at helping them through this ice age of the desert winter, as well as the scorching draught and heat of the desert summer.

© Kortum of Discovery, December 2013

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About kortumofdiscovery

Kortum of Discovery (a slight play on Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery) is a family team that is Affirming the Exceptional Beauty of Nature, one Adventure at a Time. With a focus toward rare and endangered species in the Great Basin and American west: discoveries, unique methodologies, and many “tall tales to tell” are continually being shared around the campfire!
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