Dust in the rearview mirror this time of the year? That's what I saw when we took our first drive in the southeastern Oregon desert last weekend and found gravel and dirt roads in pretty good shape.
At first, I wasn't sure whether to go this early for fear of muddy roads. It rained last week and I thought the roads would still be wet. But we gambled with the idea knowing we could turn back if the dirt roads got muddy and slick. Maybe we wouldn't even get off the pavement, who knew?
We were headed for Cow Lakes about 20 miles northwest of Jordan Valley, Ore., to see if a vast array of migratory birds were coming through the area yet. It's about two hours from Boise.
After stopping at the Rockhouse in Jordan Valley for a couple of lattes, we drove about 4 miles out of town on U.S. 95 to the turnoff to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's recreation site at Cow Lakes.
Dust. I couldn't believe it for this time of the year. The roads were rock hard and dry as concrete. It was so dry even the antelope were tip-toeing on the hard surface.
We decided to go for it and head into the beyond.
After all, it's worth the drive to Jordan Valley for a good cup of coffee, even if we couldn't get off the pavement.
But we were able to hit the back roads, and it turned out to be a good day for exploring the high desert.
The dry conditions were haunting. Are we in for a big drought this year?
We closed out our fall trips with a drive into the high-sage plateau around Blue Mountain Pass north of McDermott, Nev., and the land was drier than a bleached cow skull. Apparently, the dry spell continued through the winter at mid-elevations.
Steens Mountain, Mahogany Mountain and South Mountain all have snow on them, and we'll probably see some runoff.
However, when we got to the Cow Lakes Recreation Area, Lower Cow Lake looked about one-third full and Upper Cow Lake was about 3 feet down. The vast wetlands and marshes of Lower Cow Lake were dry.
We've been out there some years when Lower Cow Lake was lapping at the dirt access road and the desert looked like a swamp.
That's far from it this spring. Time will tell as high-elevation runoff comes off.
Still, a drive in the high desert of southeastern Oregon and Southwest Idaho can be pretty darn scenic this time of the year.
The contrast between the snow-covered mountains and the gray-green sagebrush plateau is breathtaking in the wide-open country.
We ended up seeing antelope, eagles, hawks, otters, chipmunks, ground squirrels, snow geese, and an assortment of ducks, songbirds and marmots.
It was a pretty good day of wildlife watching and photography.
We'll have more about paddling Upper Cow Lake and hiking on lava flows off the Jordan Craters in the April 4 edition of Idaho Outdoors. Look for it, and you won't be disappointed.
By the way, if you head out into the high desert this time of the year I'm going to give you the old grandpa advice: Watch the weather, and check road conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be home. Don't leave the pavement if it's muddy on back roads.
It's high desert in the spring and if it's wet, you can be up to your axles in mud before you know it.
Have fun exploring.
LAND GRAB FOOTNOTE
Hunters, anglers, rafters, hikers and other outdoor folks are sitting on their hands and letting the Idaho Legislature prepare to steal their public federal lands.
That's the only way I can figure it.
The folks at the Statehouse are working on a resolution demanding that the federal government transfer all of its land to the state.
It's a pretty bad idea, and one where the land could eventually be sold into private hands or leased to corporations.
Where's the outrage, especially in a state where recreation is so important?
I remember the group called Save Our Public Lands that was organized in 1980 by Idaho's most famous and respected outdoor writer Ted Trueblood.
The group started to oppose the Sagebrush Rebellion, a similar takeover of public federal lands.
Trueblood focused attention on the land grab. He said, "They're fixin' to steal your land."
Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors
Statesman outdoor writers Pete Zimowsky and Roger Phillips alternate columns on Thursday. Look for Roger next week.