Author Archives: Dan Branch

Kettle Valley Trail

It’s 31 degrees centigrade. I am riding a mountain bike up the Kettle Valley Trail. But for a washout I would have missed seeing a family of geese tucked against the opposite shore of the river. There are fluffy chicks hanging closely to their mom.


Around the Bench

After a wheat truck bounces past the ranch house and the dust that it raised settles, I can hear bird song coming from the shelter belt. Meadow larks and red winged blackbirds, perched on the bare tips of blend in their songs. My grandfather planted the row of Russian olive trees to give the house some protect from storm winds. Today it shelters meadow larks, pheasants, and the occasional deer.

I ride toward the site of the one room schoolhouse that my mother and uncles learned to read and write. The building is gone now. Some of the bench families have buried their dead in a small cemetery near the old school site. It offers a beautiful view of wheat fields and Square Butte beyond.

Even though the road toward Square Butte is just drying out from a recent storm, I take it. Two prong horn antelope trot across a wheat field and seem to pose with the butte as a backdrop. Later I surprise a mule deer reclining in some summer fallow. It will stand up, shake off sleep, spot my bicycle, and run full speed toward the nearest shelter belt.

Family Farm

Aki would not have liked the barn cat that greeted my arrival at my grandfather’s Montana ranch. I still think of it as his even though he died in 1923. He homesteaded the bench land before he passed and left my grandmother with three children under 8 and a crop in the ground. Thanks to her two bachelor brothers, she held on to the ranch through the depression, surviving drops in wheat prices and hail storms that flatted the whole year’s crop in minutes.

Last night I slept alongside the Missouri River in the hotel where my grandparents spent their one night honeymoon. The next day they rode 40 miles to the ranch in an open buckboard. It was well below zero and snowing. They lived in a one room shack until grandpa built the Craftsman style house where I ate dinner. It was ordered from a Sears catalogue and shipped in parts from Chicago.

Meadow larks sang while I visited the family cemetery and later when I walked among the abandoned tractors, harrows, and shacks that have accumulated over a hundred years of farming. I spotted a loaping bear cross the far side of a field of winter wheat. A half an hour later an antelope trotted into view near the same place. Beyond the antelope low rounded hills and a flat topped butte rose above the field. The farmers of my family are responsible for beauty of the ground where the antelope stands. It enhances the natural beauty of the high ground beyond.

Snake River Osprey

Yesterday, an osprey watched me peddled along the Washington shore of the Snake River. I always considered the fish eagles birds that only work clear waters. From it perch in a cottonwood tree, this citified eagle could watch cars and trucks clank over the interstate suspension bridge. Across the river, a factory cranked out bullets. What it did next left no doubt that it was the real deal.

The bird launched from its perch and hung in mid-air above the river, beating its broad wings to tread air like a swimmer can tread water. It dived toward the river. A sceen of trees blocked my view of the osprey until it had pull back above the tree line, its talons empty.

This morning I passed another urban marmot as well as a great blue heron that let me approach much closer than its Alaskan cousins. Later in the day a coyote crossed the road in front of me. I have long known of that trickster’s ability to thrive on a city’s margins. I suspected that herons can handle the stress of suburban living. But the osprey really surprised me.

Prairie Light

I am on the dike that protects Lewiston, Idaho from the Clearwater River. Aki would like the sunshine and cool, early morning temperature. She would be intrigued by the marmot that just ran across the bike path. If my little dog were here the marmot have slipped under a rock for protection. Instead the long-tailed rodent is only 7 meters away, enjoying the prairie light.

I’m enjoying the light too. Yesterday heavy rain washed the sky clean. No pollution softens the crisp sunshine or deadens the intense blue sky. It’s as if the marmot and I have been transported back to the time when Lewis and Clark were rescued by the Nez Pierce people: before the car, and grain trucks, and pulp mills.

Language Barriers

Aki and I are returning from Boy Scout Beach on a trail marked every half-mile or so with fresh bear scat. To warn the bear of our approach, I pull out my fancy phone and ask it to play Pachelbel’s Canon. With its repeats, the canon is a snake chasing its tail. But it is a gentle snake that doesn’t clash with the bird song or the music of Eagle River.

            Before the canon can repeat once, we come upon bear scat laid onto the trail like lines of calligraphy. Did the neighborhood bear form a kanji character with its waste product? Emptying its bowels on the trail rather than in the surrounding woods was probably an attempt to claim territory or to warn noisy humans of its presence. Did this bear go the extra step of forming the character for good fortune, peace, or courage? Or is this scat just the random product of a bear’s alimentary canal? 

            This morning I couldn’t understand the message of songbirds, eagles, or the Canada geese that flew low over our heads when we approached the beach. What sounded like a robin’s love song to its mate was probably a warning for other birds to stay away. Geese honks, which rang in the air like warnings to flee, might have been taunts. The hangdog reaction of an eagle to the screams of a nest mate made me think that the eagle was being scolded. 

I had the impression that the birds expected me to be non-fluent in bird language. They weren’t honking at me. But in the magical realist world hinted at by the kanji-like bear poop, I have to wonder if it is trying to say something to Aki and me. 

No Time to Waste

Summer is powering ahead in the rain forest.  Necklaces of white sorel flowers decorate the bells of forest spruce trees. Maidenhair ferns, already unfurled, wave in the lightest wind. Midway up a large spruce a woodpecker chips off chunks of bark which clatter through the tree’s branches to the ground. The sound encourages Aki to move on toward a muskeg meadow. 

            Cloudberry plants on the meadow are already setting berries. In between them heather-like lingon berry flowers bloom. All the meadow flowers and grasses glisten with newly fallen rain. 

            Aki sniffs her way to the beach, now exposed by a negative low tide. A gathering of eagles announces us. The little dog wants to sneak back into the woods. But the causeway to Shaman Island is exposed so I carry Aki onto it. On a sunny day you can see the glacier and the Douglas Island Ridge from here. But Payne’s gray clouds block all that this morning. 

            In order to return to the forest trail we have to walk under a spruce tree occupied by two very young bald eagles. A mature eagle roosts above them like a watchful parent. The young ones, recent from their nest, look at us with their pale-green eyes.  They are so large and fierce looking, I can’t convince myself that they hatched a few months ago. Like the flowers, the eagles can’t afford to waste a day of summer.