If you drive for about 4 hours east, then south, from Portland, Oregon, turn onto a narrow roughly paved road, then onto a dirt road, then follow the rutted dirt tracks down the hill, way down the hill, you’ll arrive at Priest Hole on the John Day River.
Grassy hills and bluffs rise above the river. Some, framed by irrigated hay fields, but most wildly and directly in contact with the river. Outcrops of Picture Gorge Basalts house Cliff Swallow nests, muddy funnel-shaped nests glued to the vertical walls of the rock. The rock also provides a perch for a Say’s Phoebes hunting for bugs above the river: perched, then acrobatically dropping to river level, then back to the wall and a perch atop last year’s mullien.
On occasion, early in the morning, Raven stops by to raid a swallow nest. Watch as it flies off with a chick, amid protests of a dozen swallows, to provide to its own ravenous chicks.
In waiting, three Turkey Vultures still roosting in the grass on a bank above the river, stretch their wings in the morning sun. Their day isn’t about hunting, just waiting, and watching for carrion.
Dozens of passerines travel to and from the river, into the cottonwoods (Populous trichocarpa) rimming our campsite: Bullock’s Orioles, warblers, sparrows, and finches. From the shore of the river the high-pitched “weet, weet, weet” hails from from the river as a Spotted Sandpiper pursues bugs on the rocky inside bend of the channel.
Desert, though it is, it is of course a place full of life. Water draws animals to the riverside. Tracks left in the mud and sand bear witness to the passing of species not even seen or heard. Young cottonwoods, old apples, willows, native rose, and perennial wildflowers offer habitat to all the organisms, seen and unseen calling this home.
You could sit for hours, just watching the morning and the stories unfold, tracing the tiny tracks that circle your tent, laid down last night while you slept. Or, get up, take a stroll down the dirt track along the river. Walk toward another river bend and listen to the rumors the wind tells as it lifts your tresses, then heads downstream.