We emerge from the smoggy, gauzy, familial holiday cocoon; navigate the landmines of expedition preparations and packing; survive the stalled outlet-shopper traffic on the I-5; exit the highway at Eugene and head east. As the sun sets we leave the Willamette Valley, travel upstream into the McKenzie River watershed, and enter the Cascade Mountains. The landscape is cloaked in darkness, except for sparkling Christmas lights. They do little to reveal the big picture; rather, they accentuate the night, drawing attention to details and obscuring the rest. A covered bridge, its arches illuminated in red and green, leads to someplace unseen. A McKenzie River drift boat, anchored in an eddy, is outlined in multi-colored lights and mirrored on the surface of the water.
I have never been here before, am unfamiliar with the curves in the road, and don’t know where we are going. This is a Mystery Trip: my big Christmas present from Kristin and her family. They haven’t told me our destination, and now that I’m taking a turn driving the car along the winding two-lane mountain road, the traffic thins and I start to breathe deeply again. I’ve looked forward to this secret adventure, knowing that Kristin would come up with something good. Portland is a great travel hub and within reach of the coast, the mountains, the desert, hot springs, snowy peaks – with so many options, I had no doubt I’d enjoy the trip, wherever we ended up.
We arrive at our destination, well after dark: The H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Operated by the USDA Forest Service and OSU (Oregon State University), “The Andrews” is a research station where students of all ages engage in biological field work, study, and creative endeavors.
Wearily, we let ourselves into our suite, unpack our sleeping bags and coolers, and settle in for the night. There are five bedrooms, eleven beds, and two bathrooms, and a well-equipped kitchen with two full-size fridges. Plenty of space for a research team or class, the usual tenants.
Kristin spent two weeks as a writer-in-residence here a couple of years ago, and in addition to her solo exploration and writing time, also accompanied researchers in the field. She knows the trails, and the animal tracks; the creeks, and the fish who swim them; the spotted owl, the salamander, and the flying squirrel; and best of all, the number combos to get us through locked doors and into the research library.
This place is not only a Long Term Ecological Research site, but also a Long Term Ecological Reflection site. The residency connects ecosystem scientists with artists, in a program designed to span the years from 2003 to 2203. The goal is to “support writers and humanists in their efforts to explore human/nature relationships as they evolve over many lifetimes.” Some of my favorite authors have come here over the years to write: Robert Michael Pyle, Nancy Lord, John Elder, Gary Paul Nabhan, Linda Hogan. Barry Lopez lives just down the road. It’s inspiring to think about other folks working at the intersection of science and art — just the place I like to be. It feels like I have found my people.
I breathe into this place and the rainy forest mountain biome. There are similarities to my home on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula: tall conifer trees, water, green understory, steep slopes. And yet it is totally different. I don’t know what kind of trees these are (even the most common species), but they are not Sitka spruce. There is no devil’s club. And there is no ocean nearby, lending its salty, seaweedy smell. I feel a thrill of excitement: it’s all new. I’m at the edge of my knowledge, and happily fling myself into the unknown.
Our first day here is grey, green, and white. It’s a winter rainforest outside, lush vegetation awash with rain, a foot or more of snow on the ground. The watershed is running with slush-melt. Green ferns poke through the snowbanks. Trails wind through the woods, under the huge trees draped in moss and lichen. Kristin, Nicko, and James and I walk in the rain, to the Discovery Trail. My boots are soaked. The weather, at least, is familiar to me, after spending three rainy winters in Seldovia, but Nicko marvels at the scene: a world of snow and ice, yet with the sound of liquid water flowing everywhere. He said he’d never been anywhere like it. His delight and wonder make me smile.
Fresh mountain lion tracks punctuate the slushy snow ahead of us. The tracks are as big as my fist. On high alert now, we make sure James (a tender nine-year-old) walks in the center of our “herd,” and follow the tracks toward the rushing waters of Lookout Creek. The lion had pounced to a high point where two downed trees crossed, then walked along the top edge of one, using it as a bridge to cross the creek. Where is the lion now?
We turn back to the house then, soaked to the skin, and spend the afternoon indoors trying to dry out. Just before dark, Kristin and Nicko and I walk down the road until Kristin startles us by saying, “There’s a cougar!” I catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. We cautiously move forward to the spot, and find its tracks along the edge of the road: it had been walking – possibly tracking a deer — then had spun around, extending its claws, leaping away from us when it heard us talking.
We look for tracks on the other side of the road, and the lion’s escape route up a steep hillside, but don’t find any sign. It’s as if the big cat has simply disappeared. The hair at the base of my neck tingles. What a gift, at the end of the year, and the beginning of a new one! A landscape is richer when you realize you’re part of the food chain, and I have just been given that realization.
This particular predator is still out there, in the darkness, but we don’t know where. I find joy in not knowing. Let it travel, wild and free, out of our reach.