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Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Late Summer Pilgrimage…

Hood River sunrise Chaucer’s storytelling pilgrims did theirs in the spring. We “Yanks”call it “Cabin Fever.” In England perhaps it’s “Cottage Fever,” that springtime urge to move about, go out of doors, hit the road, let the vernal breezes “inspired by Zephyrus” refresh your spirit. A pilgrimage by definition is a religious journey and in fourteenth century England that meant traveling from “every shires ende of Engelond to Canterbury” to worship at the tomb of the martyr St. Thomas a’ Becket. Come the second week of September, however, I like to get away from the place for a while, the demands of the lawn, the garden, household maintenance, all the trimming and mowing, the tilling and weeding, the watering and this summer—the house painting. You just need to step away, take a break, put some distance between you and the lawn mower.

I suppose it’s a vacation I’m talking about; yet for me it is a pilgrimage of sorts, too, because in a round about way there is a religious motif rattling around in this picture somewhere. Unlike Chaucer’s foot weary pilgrims, it’s not spiritual enlightenment I’m seeking but the opportunity to swing the insect net one last time for the season.

Apodemia mormocommon name the Mormon metalmark-- flies in autumn, late in the butterfly season and while this butterfly species to the best of my knowledge is not in anyway affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints, it is decidedly a “latter day” butterfly, the last species in Cascadia to emerge and fly during the butterfly season. This species, whose habitat is the Great Basin, roughly the same as Mormon country—thus its commonplace name—is the only metalmark (subfamily Riodininae) species in our locale. Because most species of Riodininae possess a metallic-like appearance on the top and lower sides—metal markings—they are commonly referred to as “metalmarks.”Apodemia mormo above, below

Metalmark territory is stark and barren--hot, arid basalt hillsides and scablands--certainly not the terrain in which one would expect to find much insect life, let alone this attractive little bug. An experienced butterfly friend of mine said of  A. mormo: “You have to sweat to get ‘em.” And she’s right about that. To stay long in metalmark country, you need to be well hydrated.

The base camp from which we launch our assault on the metalmarks is the scenic town of Hood River, Oregon, a little The Columbia at Hood River town teetering on the hillside above the Columbia River Gorge and famous the world over because of its ideal wind conditions for windsurfing and parasailing.  We have booked three nights at the Hood River Best Western Hotel, our favorite place to stay at Hood River and have set aside one entire day of our stay to “sweat” for butterflies.

No sweat it looks like this time around. For days, weeks even, the weather has been warm and dry, but as luck would have it, the weekend we arrive in Hood River, the clouds move in and drag the wind with them. Whereas the day prior the temp was a torrid 97 degrees, the day after, a chilly 66 degrees settled on Hood River. Sweater and sweatshirt weather...and disappointment. We cross our fingers for the next day, hope this weather system blows east upriver and beyond.

The next day is “D” day, the day of our metalmark foray to the Deschutes River. Temps in the fifties; rain puddles in the parking lot; clouds layer the Gorge: all spell disappointment to me. But we may yet salvage the day. Our destination is due south between The Dalles and Bend. In that direction we see sunshine, blue skies…only a few clouds. Fifty miles south and an hour later, we hoped, conditions would improve.

The Deschutes River and Sherar’s Bridge provide a stark contrast to Hood River. Deschutes landscape No longer that mile wide expanse of Columbia or hillsides dappled with scrub oak and pines. The Deschutes has gouged its way through sheer basalt cliffs which in places give way to cobbled hillsides, sage-covered and bunch grassed. And through this bleak, austere landscape winds a beautiful aquamarine river, the Deschutes; lush greenery lines its banks: a moving oasis in the midst of arid scabland. This is Mormon metalmark country.The Deschutes River

Mt. Hood has our back as we turn east off Highway 197 and drive the winding seven miles to Sherar’s Bridge. Upriver west of the bridge is reservation land, the Warm Springs Indian Reservation where Native Americans still fish Sherar’s Falls for salmon in the old way with long dip nets.The Old Ways Downstream of Sherar’s is public land, a recreational area, and a popular stretch of river for fishing. The salmon season opened August 1 and concludes October 31 (“limit four Jack salmon and two adults”). The hard pan unsurfaced road is washboarded and rutted. Pickups trailing boats, empty trailers, contrails of dust billowing behind, rattle by constantly as if some kind of a commute was occurring in this desolate spot. Drivers smile and wave; after all, I’m carrying a net, too.

Butterflies deplore three conditions: rain, of course, clouds that shadow the sun (I’ve seen the airspace above mountain meadows empty instantly of butterflies when a thundercloud passed before the sun)--and wind. No rain today along the Deschutes and temperature was in the high 70’s. A few clouds but these slid quickly across the sun. Clouds, however, usually mean wind and windy it was indeed. Fifteen to twenty mph gusts were the norm, but I’m sure some exceeded twenty. My net billowed out like an airport windsock nearly everywhere I went. Small butterflies would lie low and cling somewhere in a breeze so strong. And metalmarks are not big butterflies. The biggest disappointment, however, was not the weather, but the timing: adult metalmarks nectar on a species of eriogonum (buckwheat). metalmark food This plant dots the hillsides above the road, but not a one was yet in bloom. There would be no metalmarks this day. Nor tomorrow. Next week…maybe…perhaps…. A pilgrimage of three hundred fifty miles and we had to reconcile ourselves with the scenery, but the Deschutes is beautiful river. Perhaps that was enough. 

So enjoy the scenery we did as we ate our riparian lunch. Fisherman were not the only ones using the Deschutes that day. For our lunchtime entertainment a party of rafters drifted by. A wave from me prompted the drifters to waggle paddles and arms: everyone likes to have his picture taken.Rafting the DeschutesA stop sign at the Fish and Game check point halted us as we left  the recreational area. A young man left a small trailer and walked up to the car.“Catch any fish?” he asked. “We weren’t fishing,” we told him, “just catching bugs.” A quizzical smile and with a wave he motioned us through.basalt cliffEven though we left the Deschutes empty-handed, our stay in Hood River was relaxing and memorable. Our last evening we strolled the trail along the river just as a graceful fifty foot sailboat, sails furled, under auxiliary power (a rare, windless evening in the Gorge), glided up to the hotel dock where captain and crew (a man, woman and two dogs) performed a slick bit of seamanship—neatly docking with nary a bump. The Ingrid Princess We felt a connection to home when we saw the ship was the Ingrid Princess, homeport Friday Harbor. As we strolled back to the hotel, we stopped to watch three teen boys who we’d earlier seen fishing beneath the Hood River toll bridge. Now they were struggling with a fishing pole bent nearly double. The eldest of the three was helping the younger fisherman land some large fish. I videoed the struggle and recorded their catch as they pulled a four foot sturgeon from the water. “Congratulations,” the older boy said to the younger, “You just caught your first sturgeon!” He was more than happy to hold the big fish up in full view to be photographed. When asked if the fish would be served up for dinner, we were told it was a catch and release candidate. That made sense, I thought…a four foot Columbia River sturgeon? Well, it was still a fingerling, wasn’t it?

When you stay at a nice hotel, there’s always the ethical question about what amenities are yours to take—you paid for them, right?  A part of the deal? Those tightly wrapped bars of perfumed soap…they’re yours. The little bottles of fragrant shampoo…they’ll make the trip home with you, too. The complimentary de-caf coffee pouch (the caffeine pouch is your first coffee of the morning)? Pack it away to serve to guests later at home. The on-the-house tea bags? Same thing. The plush bath towel that could easily absorb a gallon of water? Better leave it for the maids. And the thick terry cloth pool robes? Don’t you dare…they know where to find you! But there are some gray areas that seem to defy ethics. What does the Golden Rule say about those two fruit-laden apple trees on the hotel’s riverside lawn? (Wasn’t there something a while back about apples and temptation?) What do you do when those big, green globes hang there beckoning? What did I do? I pocketed two to munch along the banks of the Deschutes. The other ten? Well, I’ve always longed for a Hood River apple pie!

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