Rimrock Ranch

Where steelhead will swim again

Hikers tour Rimrock Ranch, which has been placed in a conservation easement for the Deschutes Land Trust. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

SISTERS – A group of hikers stands on the rim of Whychus Canyon, a steep V gouging the rangeland. The canyon’s exposed layers reveal 5 million years of geologic history. Far below, Whychus Creek glints among aspen and cottonwood whose leaves have turned the color of butter. Black Butte and Mt. Jefferson command the western horizon.

On this bright October day at Rimrock Ranch — where Red Anguses ruminate contentedly, saddle horses graze peacefully, and the breeze is as benign as a baby’s breath — guide Mary Crow is telling a story about the natural history of this protected place when someone calls, “Look!” Every face turns just as a golden eagle comes into view, soaring on wings as wide as a human is tall. Riding a thermal along the rimrock, its shadow skimming the yellow rock face, the bird is so close the hikers can almost touch it.

Trek Through Time

The eagle’s passage sets the tone for the next four hours — a magical trek into a landscape forged over eons by eruptions and floods, altered by early settlers and 20th-century engineers, and now being restored to ecosystem health by the Deschutes Land Trust, which is sponsoring the hike.

Guiding tours for the Land Trust has been, for years, an outgrowth of Crow’s passion for the land. As a lifelong adventurer in the East Cascades ecoregion, she has been getting to know these mountains, rivers and rangelands as she hikes, skis and kayaks. So when she heard about Oregon State’s new Master Naturalist program, this self-described “wannabe scientist” jumped at the opportunity.

“I always felt I had gaps in my knowledge,” says Crow, a retired librarian and former technician at Intel in Hillsboro. “Now, with the Master Naturalist program, I feel like I’m able to give more to the participants in my tours.”

As she leads the hikers — mostly retired professionals including a school superintendent, a geophysicist and a university professor — she points out the wind-sculpted rock towers called hoodoos that jut upward from the canyon walls. She talks about the Deschutes Formation, layers of sedimentary and volcanic deposits laid down between the Miocene and Pliocene, upon which Rimrock Ranch’s 1,100 acres sit. The Land Trust, she says, is removing juniper (which sucks up tons of water) and restoring Ponderosa pine (which smells like a caramel latte if you get close enough to sniff the bark). Native grasses are coming back as local “weed warriors” eradicate invasive plants.

At the bottom of the canyon, the hikers contemplate the creek that once ran thick with steelhead. Someday, Crow tells them, Chinook salmon and steelhead will once again swim and spawn in the Whychus, a Deschutes River tributary originating in the Three Sisters Wilderness and channelized in the 1960s to control flooding. It will reclaim its meandering path through the meadow as part of the Land Trust’s agreement with landowners Bob and Gayle Baker, who have put the ranch into a conservation easement for perpetual protection.

The sun slips past its zenith, and the group loops back toward the trailhead. Crow takes a whiskbroom from the backseat of her all-wheel-drive Toyota and shows the hikers how to brush their boots before heading home. It’s not dust she’s worried about. It’s invasive seed heads. “We don’t want these ending up over at the Metolius River,” she explains.

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Read more stories about Oregon Master Naturalists in the Corps of Discovery.

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