A Wildlife Oasis: Hiking Rowena Plateau
By Bob Vinatieri, Interpretation Guide on the Legacy
It was a perfect day for a hike. The strong dusty winds we had the previous day departed as we rounded that last bend in the Columbia River. In fact, the air was so still this morning that I caught a faint scent of natural creosote: wet grass and sage. Yesterday, we had range fires and smoke. Today, it was clear and fresh.
We departed the Legacy with a full complement of travelers armed with water bottles, hiking poles, and cameras. Our destination this morning was Rowena Plateau, which towers above the Columbia River just outside of The Dalles, Oregon. The plateau was formed at the end of our last ice age when the Missoula Floods battered the area with a large volume of water, embedded with rocks, trees, and debris. The leading edge of this catastrophic flood was over 800 feet high and traveled at 50 to 60 miles per hour. The flood scoured the mountainous area and left a flat plateau high above the present-day river.
This area is so special that the Nature Conservancy has purchased vast reaches of the plateau to keep it open to hikers, birders and general sightseers along the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway.
While the plateau is a dry ecosystem with grasses and small oak trees, the prehistoric flood action also left several small, 5-acre rocky pits that now support a variety of plant and animal life akin to a wetter ecosystem. These pits are filled with rainwater in the spring and then slowly drain or evaporate all summer. Accordingly, this wetland supports a wide variety of plant life which provides food and habitat for bugs, birds and larger animals right up the food chain.
As we approached the first pit on our walk, we were surrounded by towering Oregon oaks, ash, huckleberry bushes, and the occasional poison oak plant. We found the inside of this pit to be an oasis…large cattails, dried waterlily plants, and other large green plants surrounded the still-wet mud in the center of the pit. It reminded me of TV scenes out of sub-Saharan Africa: wild animal watering holes.
Then, off to the side, we saw wild animals. Three mule deer were feeding on the plants. It was a lean doe and her two fawns. While there were eight of us hiking, we immediately stopped any conversation and watched in silence at this wonderful, wild animal encounter happening just a few yards away. The deer were calm and continued to feed. One of the fawns started to come toward us, probably quite curious about the humans watching. But the fawn never got more than 20 feet from its mother while continuing to munch on the underbrush.
We watched for 15 minutes as yet another couple of deer entered the oasis and also began to feed on the green plants. It was a rare encounter between a group of travelers and a family of mule deer in a most natural and casual matter that we will all remember for many years to come.