One of my earlier jobs away from my home farm was changing hand line sprinklers on a neighbor’s ranch, perched just at the cusp of the hill above the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge on Highway 26. The sprinklers had to be moved twice a day, at sun-up and sun-down, and there were two fields to move so I had to make an early start of it. I was young enough that I wasn’t yet driving, so I’d ride my old red and white one-speed bicycle on the canal maintenance road down to the neighbor’s place.
The pipes were four-inch aluminum, thirty feet long. The first field was relatively flat, and when I’d cut water to the pipes there would still be a load in every pipe. I’d have to disconnect each pipe and drain it by lifting it gently in the middle until the water flowed out.
This field fronted on the highway, so I could entertain myself by watching the traffic pass by. But there was also a pond in this field, a pasture frequented by a herd of steers. The sprinklers had to be laid right through the pond. It was disgusting. The water was coffee brown with bovine wastes and it was deep enough that my boots would invariably flood. The sun climbed and the air grew oven hot. I’d spend the rest of my shift squelching around the fields with stinking wet socks.
The farm dog would often accompany me, a wiry blue-heeler with an attitude. He had his most fun on the second field, where the fenceline bordered on the wildlife refuge. This was a hilly field, and my sprinklers had to be laid right over the tops of some small ridges. One morning the dog spotted an intruder at the top of the first ridge, a scrawny grey coyote. Although he was at most a quarter of the size of the coyote, the dog tore out after it. Coyote took to his heels and disappeared over the ridge. I next saw him as he sped up the second ridge, with the blue-heeler gaining ground on him. Then the coyote disappeared over the farthest ridge, with the dog still trailing him at top speed. For a moment all was still. Then the blue-heeler reappeared, running straight at me at top speed. The coyote was on his trail this time, confident that he had drawn the dog far enough away from me that the dog could serve as breakfast without danger of my interference.
Coyotes often showed up in that field. The wildlife refuge abounds in them. One of my most peculiar experiences was when I was hiking out to the old homestead on BLM land a half mile away. It was hot as blazes and dead still. I happened to glance at my watch as the second hand approached twelve o’clock noon. As if on cue a chorus of howling burst out. As howling echoed off the basalt bluffs, it seemed like I was surrounded by a pack of coyotes. Their cries lasted about as long as the noon whistle outside the Othello city hall nine miles away. Then all was silent again. I walked on, spooked and wondering. Could the coyotes have actually heard that siren?
But my favorite coyote episode took place just beyond that second field where I was changing sprinklers one Spring evening. Because that field lay below the hill, it was generally pretty silent there: traffic sounds rarely reached me. As I worked I kept hearing a weird hooting sound coming from the sky. I would stop and look up, search the implacable blue, but find nothing. This kept on until I was finished with the sprinklers. Then, returning to the check valve to turn on the flow, I spotted a flock of Sandhill Cranes descending onto a small pond just beyond the fence.
This pond was ringed by tall cat-tail reeds, with broken desert beyond. The cranes dropped neatly into the center of the pond, stood for a moment, then began stalking about, dipping at frogs, or whatever it is that Sandhill Cranes like to do. But as I watched I spotted some movement in the flats just beyond the pond. A coyote appeared, attracted by the sound of the cranes. What ensued was worthy of a roadrunner cartoon. The poor coyote thought he was wily enough to creep up on the birds and snatch one for dinner. But the cranes clearly knew exactly where he was. Every time he’d come close to the cat-tails on one side of the pond the cranes casually walked across the water to the other side. The coyote tried to slip around to the opposite bank, only to find that the birds had already strolled off again. I watched this dance for about a quarter of an hour before the coyote finally gave up and trotted off into the refuge again.
The way Sandhill Cranes would pass over the farm always impressed me. For such a large bird, they were incredibly difficult to spot on the wing. They must fly at too great a height. But their voices certainly gave them away. More than once I heard them as they circled high above, but I wouldn’t be able to spot them for as much as an hour. In another age, it would be easy to see how a superstitious man might consider their voices the call of spirits.
Since 1998 there has been an Othello Sandhill Crane Festival each springtime. While I’ve never yet attended, I’m impressed by the way they’ve organized a lot of good tours and talks and special events. Next Spring’s lineup includes several authors who specialize in Eastern Washington lore: Jack Nisbet, for example, teaching about David Douglas and native foods, and Bruce Bjornstad who will talk about the Ice Age Floods. Tours of the area fill up rapidly, but presentations seem to have plenty of room. It always seems to take place on the same weekend as the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair at Bremerton, though, so I get torn away for professional pursuits.