By Brandon Fralic
We are bumping along Jasper Mountain Road in the Blue Mountains east of Walla Walla when our guide, Mike, slows the vehicle to a stop. A great grey owl flew overhead and disappeared into the woods. “You guys have got to see his face,” Mike assures us. “It’s incredible!” His enthusiasm is contagious – especially to someone who’s never considered birding until now. We stay in the vehicle as directed, awaiting instruction.
Characterized by his love of nature, Mike Denny is an expert on all things wild in Walla Walla. Point out a bird, wildflower, tree or peak in the Blue Mountains, and he can identify it. When Mike invites us to quietly step out of the car, we do so with respectful caution. Silently we search for the owl, hidden away in the forest canopy. We never find it.
At lunchtime, Blue Mountain views from our picnic perch are vast. We are sitting on a hillside overlooking the spring-fed South Fork Touchet River, some 800 feet below. It’s 80 degrees and sunny. Directly across the valley from us a mosaic of grass and trees blankets the mountains and blue sky spreads for miles, decorated with a layer of puffy white clouds.
I’m munching away contentedly when Mike announces another wildlife sighting. He’s pretty sure it’s a bear. The rest of our group cannot even make out the tiny speck Mike is pointing at, nearly a mile across the valley. He sets up a spotting scope, and sure enough, it’s a cinnamon-red black bear. A cub tumbles out of a nearby tree, scrambling to join its mother in digging for wild onions. Not even the bears can resist Walla Walla’s famous vegetable.
Farther along we encounter a red-tailed hawk circling overhead, eyeing a rubber boa coiled up in the road. The previous day, I witnessed an enormous black raven soaring over Palouse Falls. Wildlife is everywhere in the southeast corner of Washington, if you know where to look. Find a good guide and get out on the trails. As for me, I’m still considering Mike’s final offer: “If you ever want to see cougars out here,” he says, “Just give me a call.”
Based in Bellingham, Brandon Fralic writes about Pacific Northwest trails, ales and travel for a handful of regional publications. brandonfralic.com