- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

HART MOUNTAIN NATIONAL ANTELOPE REFUGE, Ore. — The images emerge on the sheer walls of Petroglyph Lake in strokes thousands of years old — a lizard here, an antelope there and abstract swirls and hash marks that blend into the weather-worn rock. A human figure with enormous, buggy eyes towers over an antelope while a nearby hunter takes aim at a crane in full flight.

This is the mystery of Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, a stark and beautiful expanse in remote southeastern Oregon where ancient animals seem to crawl from the rock and take their place alongside the living. On this sweltering day, real-life birds skim the lake, antelope herds pound across the sagebrush, and mule deer sprawl out, panting, behind bunches of meadow grass.

With a little patience and perseverance, visitors can see these animals — and more — and still have time to hike in high-desert canyons, explore caves and wonder at cliff walls peppered with age-worn drawings. Natural hot springs beckon at the end of a long day.

“I think everybody should see this place at least once in their life,” says Raija Guptill, 26, on a recent visit to the refuge with her fiance from Klamath Falls, Ore. “There’s so much wildlife, and the people who come out here aren’t necessarily the city people. Everyone respects the nature.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the refuge in 1936 as a protected breeding ground for the pronghorn antelope, a deer-size animal with bold black-and-white markings and elegant, heart-shaped horns. Pronghorn, which evolved to outrun cheetahlike animals thousands of years ago, flourish on the refuge. Coyotes are their only modern-day predator.

A recent count recorded more than 2,400 pronghorn — the most in nearly 70 years — and today they roam freely over the refuge’s wild expanses.

A drive across the preserve’s gravel backroads yields dozens of sightings, from a herd of 25 lolling in a lush streambed to a single buck ambling across the road. Near dusk, one herd of at least 50 seems to playfully race a visitor’s truck, stretching out in a single-file line and only falling back at 35 mph.

“I was herding them with the pickup,” says Bill Nygren, 68, visiting the refuge with his family from Bonanza, Ore. “They were right in front of us. They were real tame, just jogging along in front of the truck.”

The refuge covers an area roughly one-third the size of Rhode Island and sprawls across a massive tabletop of rock that rises abruptly from a flat plain dotted with alkaline lakes, hayfields and cattle pastures. The plateau, peppered with the refuge’s namesake, Hart Mountain, and other peaks, rises up to 8,000 feet above the plain below. The nearest town of any size is 65 miles away.

Antelope are its most famous attraction, but the refuge teems with wildlife, from floppy-eared mule deer to sleek coyotes to nearly 240 bird species that flock to its shallow lakes and high-altitude aspen groves.

An isolated stand of ponderosa pine nicknamed Blue Sky Hotel, a rare holdover from a cooler climate 10,000 years ago, is particularly good for bird-watching.

“It’s like an island in the desert,” Andy Kerr, a conservationist and author of the “Oregon Desert Guide,” says of the refuge. “Up on top, you have ponderosa pine trees and aspen forests, but you also have vast expanses of sagebrush. It’s more diverse than anything around it, and it’s very pretty.”

The refuge hosts several hundred California bighorn sheep that lurk in rocky canyons. The sheep, which were reintroduced in 1954 from British Columbia after being driven to extinction on Hart Mountain in 1915, usually can be spotted only with field binoculars. The refuge has one of the healthiest populations of bighorn sheep in Oregon and supplies other parts of the state with animals.

“If you scan the rims, often you’ll see them grazing right near the rimrocks. It’s fairly easy to spot them if you’re willing to take the time,” says Bill Marlett, director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend and an annual refuge visitor.

The hot springs, small waist- to chest-deep pools, are another of the refuge’s big draws. Fresh water entering the springs from below creates bubbles every few seconds. A steaming network of wetlands and tiny springs feeds into Rock Creek, known as a prime fishing spot for redband trout.

“When you stick your feet down next to the sand, it’ll come close to burning you,” Miss Guptill says as her fiance’s dog, Kodiak, slurps the warm water. “I can’t think of anything more relaxing than the hot springs.”

For those seeking more active pursuits, the refuge offers a variety of hikes, from short excursions to multiday backpack trips that traverse high mountains and flat deserts.

Adventurous hikers who reach the top of Hart Mountain are rewarded with views of Nevada’s pine forests to the south and the rugged Steens Mountain Wilderness to the east. Those who explore the plateau’s deep, narrow canyons — anywhere from a half-mile hike to a miles-long loop — steal glimpses of an entirely different landscape, one dotted with waterfalls, butterflies and deep, enticing caves.

“The canyons don’t look like much from the road, but it’s very deceptive. Once you get into them, it’s a whole different world,” Mr. Marlett says.

DeGarmo Canyon rates as one of the refuge’s most breathtaking hikes. Its western entrance stands obscured by cliffs spaced just feet apart, with the view into the gap blocked by a dense thicket of trees. The canyon’s walls rise vertically from the riverbed, barely leaving room to walk in the narrow valley.

But once inside, the canyon unfolds into steep cliffs that tower over a bubbling stream flanked by thickets of river willows and aspen.

After nearly an hour of scrambling along a dusty trail, a rocky vantage point reveals the unexpectedly cool haze of a waterfall in the distance, an oasis of color dropped into the middle of the hot rock and pounding sun.

Mist glints in the midday heat, and flickering butterflies, attracted to the moist cliff walls, dart among the brilliant yellow wildflowers that cascade down the rock in their own imitation waterfall.

“One of the advantages of hiking in the Oregon desert is you can see where you’re going,” says Mr. Kerr, the author. “You can often see much farther than you can hike. But one should not forget to take the short views, the wildflowers, the lichens, the rocks.”

Yet the pull of the antelope — past and present — persists.

Dozens of pronghorn gather along the rocky and rutted road to Petroglyph Lake, anxiously waiting for an end to a recent human intrusion. The sound of a car door sends them pounding away in a panicked, yet orderly, line.

A pronghorn buck pauses on a ridge, a mirror image of his ancient counterparts across the shallow lake. Then his ears flick forward, and he speeds off across the plain in a blur of brown that fades — and then vanishes — from sight.

Dawn, dusk best for views of antelope

The headquarters of the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is in Lakeview, Ore. (541/947-3315 or www.r1.fws.gov/refuges/field/OR_hartmtn.htm). The roads on the refuge are rocky and hard to navigate. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.

From Portland, take U.S. 26 to Madras and U.S. 97 to just south of La Pine. From La Pine, take Oregon 31 south to Lakeview. From Lakeview, take Oregon 140 east and follow signs for the refuge.

Primitive campsites with fire pits and outhouses are available on the refuge at the hot springs. Camping is also allowed near the Warner Lakes, on Bureau of Land Management land that borders the refuge. The nearest hotels are in Lakeview. Adel and Plush, both within 20 miles of the refuge, have restaurants. Adel also has a gas station.

PRONGHORN

The pronghorn antelope are visible everywhere on the refuge, but some of the prime spots are on Frenchglen Road by the refuge headquarters, from Lookout Point along Blue Sky Road and on the road between Blue Sky and the southern boundary of the refuge. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to see them.

BIGHORN

The best area to spot California bighorn sheep is from the base of Hart Mountain, near the old Civilian Conservation Corps Camp. There is a pull-off with a sign indicating the spot along the road leading into the refuge.

Hiking is another good way to spot bighorn sheep. Good day hikes include the DeGarmo and Arsenic canyons. Bring powerful binoculars or a spotting scope.

HIKES

There are several short hikes that offer better chances to see wildlife and observe some of the refuge’s other charms, including petroglyphs, wildflowers and birds.

A half-mile trail around Petroglyph Lake offers up-close views of the ancient drawings; a one-mile round-trip hike in DeGarmo Canyon includes a waterfall, numerous caves and bighorn sheep territory. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen and protective clothing. Also bring sturdy hiking shoes with high ankles to protect against rattlesnakes.

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