Monthly Archives: October 2013

Post Haste

I’ve always been a mail addict. As soon I learned to write, my mom encouraged me to send letters to my cousins and thank-you notes to my grandparents. There was a show on Saturday morning television in the mid-1970s called Big Blue Marble—a magazine-style show that profiled kids from all over the world and offered a pen-pal matchmaking service. I exchanged letters with kids from Iowa, California, Germany, and even Sri Lanka well into high school. When my husband proposed marriage, he incorporated our mailbox in a series of scavenger-hunt clues that led me to him.

When we moved to the Columbia River Gorge, I thought my dreams were finally coming true—I’d always wanted to walk down the driveway to a mailbox on the road. I was disappointed when we ended up having to get a post office box in town. Driving six miles to get my mail was not part of my country fantasy.

Our new house finally fits the bill! The mailbox is not at the end of the driveway but at a collection point not far from the house, where our box and those of our nearest neighbors are lined up.

IMG_2116One of the first orders of business upon my arrival was to figure out when the mail is delivered, and by whom, at our new home. We are four miles outside of Enterprise, so I figured it wouldn’t be super early. But then again, maybe the mailperson drove out to the edge of town and then worked his or her way back in? The suspense was killing me.

There was a bunch of mail waiting for us the day we drove the big moving truck out to Enterprise—hooray! I was happy to know the forwarding thing was happening. The next day, I checked the mail at about 10. Nothing. I went back at lunch. Nope. Then, I got busy with some projects and didn’t check again until after 5.

My desk is at a window that looks out over the road, so the next day I watched for a mail truck. We’re at the end of said road, so anyone up here is either a neighbor or a utility worker. I knew that few mail carriers use those USPS-issued jeeps anymore; they mostly throw a magnetized decal on the side of their own vehicle. Any time a truck came up my road, I watched. I was fooled a couple times by a truck with a county or utility logo.

Finally, I saw my truck, a gray SUV. I ran to the other side of the house in time to confirm through the window—the driver filled the boxes, turned around and started back down the hill. I haven’t been out there yet to meet her, but I will. Because now I know who I’m looking for!

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Autumn Spawn

Last week, Mike coaxed me away from my desk to drive up to Wallowa Lake. It was a beautiful afternoon and, I had to admit, I haven’t spent much time out of our new house except to travel to Pendleton and Portland. So, off we went, across Alder Slope, through Joseph, and around to the south side of the lake, where it is fed by the Wallowa River.

The reservoir itself was low; the exposed shore revealed thousands of beautiful stones, worn smooth by the waves’ rubbing them together. We pocketed examples of the mountains’ geologic layers: greenstone, granite and basalt.

The state park had posted signs warning not to disturb the water because salmon were spawning. We crept upriver to investigate. Sure enough, 7-inch fish known as “kokanee” appeared in every side stream. They’re the antithesis of the steelhead I mentioned in my springtime fishing post: rather than being ocean-going trout, kokanee are land-locked salmon.

Living fish are difficult to photograph!

Living fish are difficult to photograph! I swear they’re in there

However, they still have the instinct to swim upriver and spawn in the gravel beds of fast-moving water. The kokanees’ red backs stuck out from the browns and oranges of the rocks and dead foliage that had sunk to the bottom. As we walked upriver, we saw some kokanee preparing to ford a new set of rapids, some fighting each other, some shaking up the gravel with their tails. They were everywhere.

And then we noticed that some of them were another kind of fish, about the same size. Brown with a rainbow sheen on the side, and spots. They looked an awful lot like trout … but why would trout be spawning in the same place as salmon?

Later that day, we took our question to our friend and resident Fishing Guru, Jon Rombach. “What were they doing there?” we asked.


“Feasting, probably,” he said. Turns out, trout follow salmon upstream to avail themselves of an easy, eggy meal.

Salmon spawn=trout treat!

Salmon spawn = trout treat!

In addition to the hundreds of live fish, there were also plenty of ones who had already fulfilled their mission, or not, and relinquished their grip on this earthly plane. I’ve seen spawning salmon at Multnomah Falls, Northwestern Lake and Bull Run; it was fun to see this miniature version fulfilling its same, genetically coded destiny.

Easier to capture these guys ...

Easier to capture these guys …

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Cooking with a Good Altitude

Mike and I are just getting settled, unpacked and back to the business of living life. The house we’re renting has a well-appointed kitchen, so we (read: Mike) were looking forward to digging in. I even started planning my first pumpkin pie in years!

But, something was wrong. Things were boiling over constantly, even on low heat. We thought the stove was just extra-powerful, or maybe propane had more heat than natural gas or electricity. But then oatmeal took 45 minutes to cook. What was going on?

We mentioned it to one of Mike’s colleagues, Jon, who is also new to the area.

“I know,” he commiserated. “I tried to make bread the other day, and it was a disaster. I have to figure out how to adjust for this altitude.”

Altitude! I remember reading about this on cake-mix boxes and canning instructions. Our house is at approximately 4,300 feet—quite a jump from Portland, which is a mere 50 feet above sea level. Even our house in the Columbia River Gorge had no issues.

Breakfast oatmeal became brunch oatmeal

Breakfast oatmeal became brunch oatmeal

I did some research and learned that the main difference is air pressure. Same as a pressure cooker makes things cook faster, elevation, with less air pressure, makes things cook more slowly. It also lowers the boiling point of water, meaning you need to add more because it starts evaporating before the food is finished.

And that’s just cooking—baking is a whole ‘nother story. Jon’s bread quickly went awry. “It rose like crazy,” he said, “and then collapsed. The loaves were like pucks.”

Turns out that you have to add more dry ingredients, except leavening agents like yeast. Less of that. This website is pretty thorough about guidelines.

I’m a bad enough cook as it is; I hope that I can survive adjusting for altitude!

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First Impressions

Mike and I moved to this new house in Wallowa County a little over a week ago. I’m thrilled to share the following report!

If you’ve never looked at Wallowa County on a map, I recommend it. For even more fun, learn about its geology. After 18 years of hiking around on basalt, it’s fun to see granite again.

The house is “up Alder Slope,” meaning the west side of the Wallowa River Valley. It’s closer to Enterprise than to Joseph. We gain a couple hundred feet of elevation on a road that heads straight up from town—no one will ever be able to sneak up on us! From our perch we can see both towns, the Wallowas, of course, and even the peaks of the Seven Devils in Idaho.


The moving truck, Mike, and THE VIEW

I’ve seen all kinds of wildlife. The first time we pulled in the driveway, a flock of quail scattered. We share this land with them and also hawks and eagles, rufous-sided towhees, flickers, mourning doves, magpies, Steller’s jays, Le Conte’s sparrows—and those are just the ones that have made their presence known. I’m sure the characters will change some with the seasons. Mike did not see a single crow while he was here this summer, but a huge murder of them came through the other day, bound for their winter habitat. The starlings seem to be more migratory as well—there were at least a hundred in the field a few days ago, and none before or since.

Abandoned nests in the barn

Abandoned nests in the barn

Does and their near-grown fawns pick through the wheat stubble in the mornings and evenings. A flock of pigeons inhabits the decrepit old barn, which is, allegedly, the home of a bull elk as well. One morning, a coyote trotted across the field above the barn. I went out to watch it; it stopped a couple of times to acknowledge my presence, and then kept going.

One thing about living on the east-facing slope of a mountain range: You don’t know what weather is coming! I drove into town on a sunny afternoon recently, only to turn around when I got there and see an enormous storm cresting the western horizon. We won’t get much in the way of sunsets, but the sunrises … oh, my. In the city, you can’t get me out of the house at 8 in the morning, even if it’s on fire. In the country, I’ve already started waking up with the sun (or at least around 7 …).

We live in the middle of an 80-acre wheat field. Yesterday, I walked up to the old barn to check it out (lots of pigeon poo), and then around the edge of the field. The man who leases the field had missed a thin swath of wheat when he harvested, so I picked a little sheaf and hung it in the house. A symbol, I’m hoping, of our prosperity here.


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