Growing Up in Central Oregon: Livestock

This is part of an ongoing series of articles that I’m writing on Central Oregon and growing up here; you can view the introduction here and the series as a whole here.

Living relatively self-sufficiently on five acres, we always had some livestock. For all intents and purposes, we had a farm, but it was more of a small family farm than the big operations I usually think of when I hear the term (with cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, etc.).

At any given time our livestock generally consisted of one milk cow and a coop full of chickens. Along the way we tried out different animals, but this was the general combination that held.

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Growing Up in Central Oregon: Water in the Desert

This is part of an ongoing series of articles that I’m writing on Central Oregon and growing up here; you can view the introduction here.

Growing up on the desert, water takes on a special, almost symbolic, significance. You are constantly surrounded by sand, sagebrush, juniper trees, dry vegetation like bunchgrass and cheat grass, all of it broken up by undulating mounds or ridges of dark lava rock… and not a drop of water in sight.

…I was going to write some pithy metaphor about how the mind grows to reflect the desert environment around it and consequently understands water to be as precious as it is to the ecosystem, but you know what? I’m not that high-fallutin’.

There’s no easy source for water, living in Alfalfa. Every household has to have water trucked in, or have access to a well—either way, water has to be in the cistern in order to do, well, anything—drink, bathe, wash dishes, do laundry, water lawns and gardens and plants…

We were fortunate to have our own well. I say “our own” and most people would likely take it for granted that yes, it was ours, what’s the big deal, but in fact for the first number of years we lived there, we were on a shared well with two or three neighbors. I suppose you could liken this to the old party lines on telephones—who remembers those? (We were on a party line, too.) The well and pumphouse were on our property, but there was free access for the neighbors sharing the system who would show up from time to time unannounced to fiddle around with it, not unlike picking up the phone and hearing someone in the middle of a call.

This of course meant you had to be considerate of other people’s water and you really couldn’t go nuts with trifling things like watering a pasture or large vegetable gardens. As it turned out, both of those things were part of our long-term goals, so ultimately we had our own well put in.

Interestingly, you don’t just “put in” a well. First you need to find an aquifer underground, and this apparently consists of wandering around the property with a divining rod, dowsing for water, and then drilling several test holes before settling on the final spot. Then of course, you need a pumphouse to actually, er, pump the water out of the ground and into your house, and a cistern to hold the water. In theory, the cistern should always contain enough water for whatever might be needed, and when it drops low enough, it would be refilled from the well. In practice, there were times that the cistern got dangerously low on water because there wasn’t enough in the aquifer to keep it filled (or so I assume).

(An aside: That cistern was a remarkable source of fascination and quite the playground for us kids. What’s not to like? A giant cube of concrete with what were essentially dull steel blades protruding from the sides in regular intervals—these were fantastic to use for scaling the side of the cistern to reach the top, I mean who needs a ladder anyway?—with a plunge from the top that ranged from maybe five feet on one side to, oh, ten feet on another. You could practice your climbing skills with various approaches—scale the fencepost next to the cistern, or use the blade/handholds on the high side (who cares if they hurt the hands a bit and they’re rusty? If you’re quick you’ll be fine)—or you could play “stuntman” and jump off the high side with a running start—you know, for practice—and be careful to avoid the slabs of leftover concrete and lava rock below when you land. And since the top was the only hard, flat, outdoor surface we had, it made a great court for various sports and activities, or even fireworks.

…In retrospect, I wonder how we didn’t end up dead more often.)

Still, we were living in the desert; even a well isn’t a sure thing. The water table, if you’re lucky enough to hit it, is several hundred feet below the surface. Often through a lot of hard basalt. You wouldn’t otherwise even know there was a water table, since the surface was as dry as a bone.

That’s not to make it sound like we were living in the Sahara; there was water to be found, of course. The farms were all well irrigated. And then there was Reynolds Pond, for instance. And the irrigation canals. Smaller irrigation ditches and occasional ponds, here and there.

But none of those are natural water sources. There are no natural water sources in that section of the High Desert where we lived, except for rain puddles—and believe me, we looked. The Quest for Water was always a goal, however secondary, in our various Adventures into the Wilderness. I was always on the (eager) lookout for a spring, or a creek, or an oasis of some sort… but the very few times I happened on something new, it was invariably a cow ditch.

Take Mayfield Pond, for instance. This is a body of water that actually exists, between Alfalfa and Bend. But to us desert kids, its existence was a whispered rumor that achieved legendary status in our Mythology. (You know about this Mythology: every social knot of kids tied to a particular area—often geographic—develops their own. For city kids this often manifests as urban legends, for instance. We’ve all had our own particular Mythologies.) The possibility of a heretofore-undiscovered pond amid the desert elevated Mayfield Pond in our minds to some sort of Avalon, I suppose. The conversations would usually go something like this:

“There’s a pond around here somewhere, called Mayfield Pond.”

“Nuh-uh. How do you know?”

“I heard.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Where’s it supposed to be?”

“Just around here. It’s just, like, this pond just sittin’ there, out of nowhere.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, it’s like, a secret, or lost or something.”

To kids, “I heard” is incontrovertible evidence. So on more than one occasion we organized expeditions into the Wilderness to search for the fabled Mayfield Pond—modern-day Ponce de Leóns on bikes. The one time we actually did discover what we thought was a pond looked in reality to be a field some farmer had flood-irrigated.

Years later we found the real Mayfield Pond. It wasn’t much to look at. And one day, out of curiosity, I decided to follow the small stream that fed the pond… only to figure out that the stream was a cow ditch. Foiled again!

One of the results of the moisture scarcity was that, as kids, we were quite indiscriminate in our consumption of found water. Now, we knew better than to drink from obviously contaminated water, or water that was stagnant or muddy, but as often as not we would think nothing of stopping at the nearest irrigation ditch when out riding bikes and taking a long drink.

…I know! I’m amazed we didn’t wind up with beaver fever or something worse.

(And, this was a habit that persisted; I remember a friend of mine, Martin, freaked out when, while hiking the Todd Lakes trailhead up near South Sister, I stopped to drink from a cold stream/runoff that we had to cross. I was at least 18 at the time, but hey, it was fast-running water and we were near the source, what can you do? And I still didn’t get sick from it.)

A favorite summertime activity was the building of a pond, the perfect all-natural playset for toy cars and boats and Star Wars figures and dinosaurs and more. We would dig up the area, build up various mountains and roadways and fortifications, and drag the hose over and fill it up. This could take a while, depending on how much digging we had done. And of course, during this time, further construction was still going on… the sand made excellent mud for shaping and building and digging—not quite beach sand quality, mind you, but very good nonetheless.

There were inlets and peninsulas, canals and open expanses of water, shallow sections and rather deep trenches… an entire microcosm devoted to metal and plastic toys. I suppose in a way you could liken it to building model railroads.

To outside observers, it likely looked like a big pit full of mud and brown water. Be that as it may, there was a level of creativity born by necessity that I’ve not often seen elsewhere that occupied us for hours in constructing waterworks. Or perhaps most kids’ parents were less tolerant than ours in letting their children dig large holes on the property and turning them into lagoons.

To this day I still have fascination for large bodies of water, and streams and creeks and rivers. Springs, with water bubbling up out of the ground, might as well be magic. And the ocean is something else altogether. It’s a mindset that’s hard to change; I think that even if I lived on a river or a lake, I’d still wake up every day amazed that there’s all that water, just there.

And I’d still likely drink from it.

Growing Up in Central Oregon: Introduction

This is a series I’ve been mulling over for a while now and even at one point promised Simone I would write. I’ve been wanting to write it partly because I think the perspective of growing up in rural Central Oregon is unique, and partly because I think there’s some good stories to tell. So bear with me.

First off: an introduction. The background. I’m laying the groundwork and setting the stage…

We moved to Central Oregon in 1976, when I was three years old. At that time Bend was still a tiny timber town and my dad had a job with then-Willamette Industries’ particle board plant. Rather than living in Bend, however, my parents purchased a house on five acres east of town, at the edge of the bump-in-the-road known as Alfalfa.

Aerial view of Alfalfa OregonAlfalfa is located roughly 15 miles east of Bend and 25 miles southeast of Redmond, north of Highway 20 and near the Deschutes-Crook County border. It’s primarily an agricultural community, with acres of irrigated field crops and livestock dropped right down into the middle of the desert, a verdant oasis of farmland carved out of the sand, sagebrush, bunch grass, scrub juniper and outcroppings of lava rock. Aside from the fields and farms, there’s a small general store and gas station, a grange hall, a power substation and not much else. (The old Alfalfa School, which I attended through fourth grade, closed many years ago.)

Oddly enough, even though closer geographically to Bend, Alfalfa resides within the Redmond school district. The Redmond school district, in fact, was a marvelous bit of Central Oregon gerrymandering: not only did it encompass Alfalfa, but also Sisters, Terrebonne, and, most puzzling of all Tumalo, which is situated at Bend’s back porch. Consequently, Redmond had the second largest school system in the entire state of Oregon, outside of Portland.

Or so we were told. As kids faced with a one-way bus ride of 45 minutes to an hour, we were not impressed.

While much of Alfalfa is a farming community, our five acres only had the minimum of what one could consider a farm: we raised chickens, we had one milk cow on an acre of pasture, and we had vegetable gardens. The majority of the acreage was natural High Desert. As a result I never really identified with the farming mindset one would expect from rural living; looking back, I can see a distinction between what I would dub “Desert Folk” (like ourselves) and Farmers.

I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. But there’s definitely a different viewpoint from growing up on a farm or ranch—where you are literally living your livelihood—and growing up on one of these desert parcels. I’d venture to say living on the desert lent more of a freedom and immediacy to us as kids than to farming kids; don’t get me wrong, there were chores—chickens to feed, for instance—but none of the same general commitments to growing up on a farm.

Okay, now that I’ve muddied up that issue…

The only way to get to our house was to leave the highway and travel about a mile down a gravel road. Actually, calling it a “gravel road” is entirely too generous; it was actually a rocky road scratched out of the dirt, loosely scattered with red cinders. Of course, the mailboxes and the school bus stop were both situated at the highway; both activities (checking the mail and catching the bus) were thus not casual jaunts. If you missed the bus, there were good odds that you missed the bus, and if you couldn’t catch it a few miles down the road (drive like mad!), you were out of luck. More than a few nightmares involved running late for the bus stop and seeing the bus flash by without stopping…

Rural living also imbued me with an appreciation for space; our nearest neighbor was about a quarter of a mile away, as the crow flied. You know the phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors”? I think a better version of that would be “A few acres make good neighbors.” Even though I can appreciate the convenience of living in town, I’d still be perfectly happy out on a few acres somewhere, with the nearest neighbors up over the hill.

This should give you a pretty decent idea of where I’m coming from. Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface, and there are plenty of tales to tell… all true, of course. :)

Water vs. Pop

monkeyinabox: “Mind you, this was back in the days before bottled water was all the rage. Water came from the tap, unless you bought gourmet water, Perrier, or whatever rich people drank. Growing up in a place with good tap water, it makes that kind of stuff seems pretty stupid.”

Great bit on being a “soda pop junkie.” I remember back in the days when I worked graveyard shift in Spokane doing (essentially) data processing, I’d take a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew to work and often finish it before I left.

And yeah, I never really got the bottled water thing, either. Growing up, we had a well, so our water was pretty pure and uncut.

Well, except for this one time in the cistern… that’s a story that almost turned me off of water for good, but I think I’ll save it for another day.

Reynolds Pond

On Sunday I took the kids to the local swimming hole that I frequented when growing up: Reynolds Pond. As to be expected for something located in Alfalfa, there’s not much online about it, so I thought I’d remedy that a bit. Herewith a bit of local geography and history, along with some wistfulness over the passage of time.

Alfalfa is located about 15 miles east of Bend, north of Highway 20 and near the Deschutes/Crook County border. It’s primarily an agricultural community, with acres of irrigrated field crops (largely hay) and livestock (cattle and sheep) dropped right down into the middle of the desert. Aside from the farmland, there’s a small store and gas station, a community grange hall, a power substation and not much else. (The old Alfalfa School, which I attended through fourth grade, closed many years ago.)

Reynolds Pond is in the southeastern part of Alfalfa, off the beaten track, and, aside from the irrigation canals and duck ponds, is the only sizable body of water in the area. The only way to get there is to leave the main road at either the Alfalfa Store or near the landfill substation and travel about a mile down the dusty, rocky, bumpy, narrow dirt roads that criss-cross the entire area.

Despite all that, it’s still the place everyone goes for swimming and fishing. Yep, fishing: even though it’s pretty small, years ago it was stocked with fish—more on that in a bit.

I found a decent mention of it from this page titled, “A brief history of The Badlands Wilderness Study Area“:

In the high desert country of Central Oregon is an area referred to as the Badlands. The Badlands, named in the 1920’s because of its harsh terrain is a surprisingly undisturbed area tucked in between Bend and Horse Ridge…. There is a wide diversity of basalt flow formations within the study area. Beautiful, twisted, Western Juniper trees cover much of the area with an understory composed of bitterbrush and bunchgrass. There is big sage, two varieties of rabbit brush, Idaho fescue, squirrel tail, needle grass, and phlox. Reynolds pond lies in the northwest portion of the WSA [Wilderness Study Area] and is the only surface water. Water levels in the pond are dependent on flows in the canal and consequently can fluctuate widely. When full, Reynolds Pond covers eight surface acres and is a nice addition to the WSA.

Learn something new every day: even though I spent a good part of my summers going to Reynolds Pond, I never knew it was about eight surface acres in size, or that it’s the only surface water in the Badlands.

Overall, Reynolds Pond is fairly shallow; one of the deepest parts I ever found was probably 14 or 15 feet, but most of it is wadeable. While swimmable, the bottom is made up of slimy, silty mud that squishes between your toes and turns the water cloudy the instant you disturb it. There’s a fair amount of vegetation, too—we always called it “seaweed” even though it’s merely the run-of-the-mill freshwater weeds that are long, thin and ropy.

The pond was stocked with fish years ago, largemouth bass and redear sunfish. I’ve never seen a particularly large fish from the pond myself, but apparently the state record for redear sunfish was pulled out of there in 1992 by a Terence Bice—a whopping 1 pound 15 ounce fish, but the fact that a record fish of any kind was caught there is kind of impressive.

One distinct feature that we always loved were the islands: four or five mounds of dirt rising out of the water at odd spots. One was right off the shore—you could wade to it in water that barely came up to your knees—it was the smallest of the bunch, no larger that a Volkswagon Bug probably. The others, larger and (relatively) harder to reach, were always the more desirable targets for their size and who-could-make-it-all-the-way cachet. But really, they were nothing but mounds of dirt comprised of the same sandy soil and lava rock that shows up everywhere else in the desert. There was some reedy grass that grew around the larger ones’ “shores” and some thin bunchgrass and such that peppered the top of them, but once you climbed up on one you quickly got bored with the drab conquest and went back in the water. They were cool because they were there, but they weren’t much to look at.

Or at least, they weren’t much to look at over a decade ago (the last time I’d been there, I figure, was 1992). Imagine my surprise when we pulled up Sunday and found that every island is covered—and I mean entirely covered, every inch—with bright green trees and vegetation! (Sad to say, I couldn’t rightly identify the tree species other to say it’s the same type of willowy, reedy tree that you find along the banks of the Deschutes River.) Vastly, vastly changed from when I was last there. And there’s not just the trees and grasses and various shrubs on the islands; there’s forests of reeds around the islands, actual cat tail freshwater reeds, not just marshy grass. And the trees and plants were growing along the opposite shore, hugging the rim of the pond, too.

It was one of those moments where you are acutely aware of the passage of time; where there’s such a polarizing disconnect between what you remember and what there is that you cannot even process it at first. I mean, 12 years had passed since I was last there; trees have grown and matured, the entire mini-ecosystem has changed. I wish I had pictures of how it used to be, to compare.

Otherwise, it was a great time with the kids. Watching them play in the water, remembering the times I used to spend there, made me realize that some things never truly change.

And finally, one other intersting link: A Reynolds Pond hike from the MSN Groups “Day Hiking Oregon”. With some pictures, even.