It was wicked-hot, dry, desolate, and extraordinarily beautiful in the desert near the Owyhee River in Malheur County, where I spent a couple days in late July. Jospeh Campbell would likely have imagined my trip as a hero's journey, a sojourn into the desert, a time to find some lost part of myself in that wild, inhospitable landscape, while attempting some heroic deed. That's how he looked at life, in terms of grand mythological narrative and symbolism.
In my mind, my quest was a bit more pedestrian and tangible. I was looking for a rare butterfly.
I owed this quest to my recently burgeoning relationship with iNaturalist.org. Since getting the iNat "bug," I'd periodically spent down-time in the summer perusing the recent photos of butterflies submitted from Oregon, with special attention to the species that aren't seen very often. During one of those perusals, as I was scanning through the many Western Tiger Swallowtails, Lorquin's Admirals and other common species, my eyes almost popped out of my head when I saw a gorgeous photo of a Reakirt's Blue! Reakirt's Blue had never been previously documented in Oregon - incredible! As soon as I saw that photo, I knew I'd be dropping whatever I'd planned for the next week, and making the journey to Birch Creek Canyon, northwest of the small town of Jordan Valley.
I immediately had to rearrange my schedule and reorganize my brain. Birch Creek Canyon is a 9-hour drive from where I live in Eugene, in the south end of the Willamette Valley. Gas and drinkable water sources are scarce out there, and the heat can be intense. Complicating my travel was a nerve/tissue injury that prevented me from driving hours at a time. I'd need a good plan for everything to go smoothly.
It took me almost a week to get everything organized and packed. I knew it would be a long shot for the Reakirt's Blue to still be there a week later, but I was up for the adventure either way. My plan was to break the long drive into two days of driving to spare my body the wear and tear of a mad 9-hour rocket run. On the first night I camped just east of Pine Mountain under some Ponderosa Pines bordering a large sage meadow and enjoyed a beautiful and peaceful evening.
The next day I was up early. I made a quick breakfast, took a short birdwalk to get the blood moving, and then I packed up the tent and my gear and headed east on Hwy 20 towards Burns. The drive was uneventful, thankfully, and my body held out well with the driving. I arrived in the town of Jordan Valley about 2:30 pm. I pulled over, and got my phone out to plot my best route to Birch Creek Canyon. No cellphone service. None. Whatsoever. I had assumed that there would be a cell signal in Jordan Valley to help me navigate. Nope.
Okay, I thought, no problem, I'll get out my Oregon gazeteer mapbook. Shit! I didn't bring it! Hmmm... Plan C... I just have to remember the details of that article I read yesterday online about Birch Creek Canyon. There was a description of how to get there... What the heck did that article say?
Then I remembered that I have map apps on my phone that run directly from GPS signals and don't require a cell signal. Boom. This will be easy, I thought. I opened my digital Gazeteer, and immediately I saw a route from Hwy 95 up Ackerman Road that looked like a direct route to Birch Creek Road. Perfect. I followed the GPS-enabled map, and soon came to several diverging roads very close together, and I took the one that looked the most promising. It dead-ended at a ranch house. Okay, it must be one of the other two. Nope - those led to dead ends also.
Next I tried a route up to Birch Creek Canyon from further west, via Cow Lakes Road. I drove up the road that the app showed connecting through to the north via a short jeep track. I had to drive through a long stretch with about 18" of water where Cow Creek had flooded the road. Thankfully, my Subaru performed like a champ and I happily cruised back onto dry land. Just past the creek flooding, huge roadside "hedges" of Sweet White Clover (Melilotus alba) lined the roadsides, and they were absolutely packed with Purplish Coppers. I estimated there were at least 250 of them. After stopping for some photos, I eventually got up to Cow Lakes where the mapped jeep track was nowhere to be found. I turned around. Again.
It was getting to be late afternoon, and I'd hoped to set up camp before it got dark. The next route option I found in the Gazeteer was north of Jordan Valley, so I headed that way. As I drove through town I stopped and asked a couple people for directions. Both were visitors like me, and had never heard of Birch Creek. So I headed north out of town anyway and followed the map onto the Jordan Craters Road, which, like the others, looked like it should lead me to Birch Creek Canyon. When I came to a sign pointing to Birch Creek Canyon, I knew I had found my route. Finally! A road that actually goes somewhere! As I was driving west on Blowout Reservoir Road in the late afternoon sun, I saw a gray fox running parallel to me through the sage, almost keeping up with me. I smiled at him, and it seemed that he glanced over at me, before disappearing into the sage.
When the sun was low in the west, I stopped not far from the junction with Birch Creek Road and set up a camp in a very small clearing next to a small side road. After a quick meal I sat down and noticed how tired I was after all that driving and navigating. As I settled into the big silence of the desert twilight and became still, I became aware of a subtle feeling that was not familiar. I was alone in the desert, far from home and friends, without cell service, a long drive from the nearest town, yet I didn't feel lonely. Instead I experienced something very different. The evening air was cooling but I had a warm feeling that was both inside me and all around me, as if I was being held by this place, this desert. It was a feeling akin to companionship and connection, but to something other than people. It was palpable, all around me. Later, as I lay in my tent relaxing toward sleep, I reflected on the loneliness that I had experienced during the COVID pandemic, when I couldn't safely connect with friends and loved ones. I noticed there were tears in my eyes as I lay silently with this presence that felt so close, so welcoming. I really can't convey in words what it was like to feel held in this warm embrace, all alone in the desert.
In the morning, I woke to a beautiful clear sky. Immediately I recalled the feeling I had the night before, and I felt a warmth and an appreciation for that place in the desert. I had my usual oatmeal with Indian spices, repacked the car and headed west toward Birch Creek Canyon Road with anticipation. Could the Reakirt's Blue still be there? As I headed down into the canyon, I took in the gorgeous, blue, cloudless sky, and the rocky canyon before me. "What surprises await me down there?" I wondered.
On the way down I came upon a roadside patch of gumweed that was alive with butterflies, especially whites. I immediately picked out a Becker's White, and needed to get a bit closer to ID the others. When I got closer I saw that they were Checkered Whites, and there were several of them. This is a species that I sought for years before finally finding a single male at Lost Lake in Linn County in 2022. Here in Birch Creek Canyon, I had several fresh males and females more or less in my lap. As I continued the descent into the canyon, I saw many bright yellow Queen Alexandra's Sulphurs on roadside blooms.
I continued down the steep and winding gravel road into the canyon, until I came to what at first looked like a big puddle in the road. It turned out to be Birch Creek running across the road. I knew that Michael had found the Reakirts' Blue at one of these creek crossings. I pulled off the road as best I could, and loaded up with binos and cameras, hoping for the best.
There were several butterflies around the wet edges of the creek and along the road, and I began to sort through them: Great Spangled Fritillary, Painted Lady, Monarch, Great Basin Woodnymph. Then I spotted a small blue. My heartbeat quickened. I got my binos on it and, sigh, it was Acmon Blue. I'd see quite of few of those in the canyon that day.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small dark butterfly zipping lickety-split across the road. It landed on a leaf just above the water: Common Sootywing. Juba Skipper and Western Branded Skipper were around, along with Orange Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak and Anise Swallowtail. After I felt satisfied that there was no Reakirt's Blue at this creek crossing, I headed further down the road. There were two more creek crossings just down the road, a small tributary creek and a second crossing of Birch Creek. The third one is where Michael found the Reakirt's Blue. I stopped and thoroughly searched each of them. Each crossing had its own group of butterflies drawn to the wet sand. Reakirt's Blue was not among them.
I wanted to be thorough in my search, so I continued further down Birch Creek Road, eventually all the way to the edge of the Owyhee River. Along the way I found a patch of a small, weedy goosefoot growing in the roadbed, where, with careful searching, I spotted 4 or 5 tiny Western Pygmy Blues. I had forgotten how tiny these guys were! Crazy small!
Still carrying the contented feeling from my evening commune with the sage desert, I was completely unperturbed by my "failure" to find Reakirt's Blue. I kept looking, and spent some time poking around the old Birch Creek Ranch near the river, which was devoid of butterflies. I was a bit surprised that even where the road crossed Birch Creek again near the Owyhee, there were literally no butterflies.
I decided the best strategy to further my chances of finding something interesting would be to drive back up the road and stop at all the wet spots again. I spent another hour searching along the road, especially around those three upper creek crossings. After carefully noting all the species I had already seen on my way down, I decided to head up and out of the canyon, before the temperature got hot enough to melt my tires.
At the head of the canyon, I turned around and thanked Birch Creek Canyon for being there. Its a really beautiful place. I felt a kinship with it owing in part to my last name, Bjorklund, which means Birch grove in Swedish. I was heading west from Jordan Valley when I realized I still had time to make a stop along the way, and started to think about a visit to the Ana River near Summer Lake. I had hopes of getting photos of Mojave Sootwing, including some better shots of the male, and I knew this was about the right timing for their flight period.
While taking a stretch stop in Burns, I got a text from my friend John, who was up on Winter Rim with his wife Laura, having a "killer day" with the butterflies up there. I suggested that we meet at the Ana River later in the day and he thought that could work. He had never seen Mojave Sootywing or Yuma Skipper, and I promised to help him find them there. Luckily we found both! The weedy patches of thistle were the hotspots, where we found both species and got good photo opportunities (though not without a lot of thistle pokes).
After our success with Yuma Skipper and Mojave Sootywing along the Ana River, we decided to meet again up at the north end of the Winter Ridge road to check out the roadside patches of blooming Rabbitbrush. There we found hundreds of Great Basin Woodnymphs and Western Branded Skippers, with a good number of Hedgerow Hairstreaks, and a few Mountain Mahogany Hairstreaks and Sylvan Hairstreaks tucked in among them. When I parted with John and Laura in the late afternoon, we went in opposite directions: they were headed up Winter Rim to continue exploring the butterflies, and I was headed back to the Willamette Valley.
A couple days earlier, on my drive towards Malheur County, I had imagined the thrill of being the second person to find Reakirt's Blue in Oregon. Now, on the drive home, I reflected on receiving a gift that was even more meaningful.
That feeling of connection that I experienced in the sage flats near Birch Creek Canyon was unlike anything I'd felt before. I might not have that experience again, but I now feel a connection to that place that will likely call me back again. I don't know why it happened, and I like it that way. Joseph Campbell might have smiled had he listened in to these thoughts as I flew up Hwy 31 towards home. Bless the mystery.
Here is the species list from Birch Creek Canyon in Malheur County:
And the species list from the Ana River and Winter Rim in Lake County: