Students travel back in time

Students stop to view raptors in eastern Oregon. Photo Ethan M. Rogers


Taking a trip though Eastern Oregon history….with birds!

By Ethan M. Rogers


Time travel is easier than most people think. People do it all the time without knowing what they’re doing. If not for my trip to Malheur with two science instructors from Clackamas Community College and a group of their students, I might not have noticed it either.

“Our trek today is kind of a trek through time,” said geology instructor Sarah Hoover at our first stop, at Government Camp on Mount Hood. “We started with really young stuff over there in Oregon City and the Willamette Valley and if you go west to the coast, you get even into younger stuff and then as we move in that direction (east) we’re going to slowly get older and older and older.”

At that moment everything clicked; we were literally traveling back in time – geologically speaking.

Our trip began in the blue lot at CCC where 18 students and two instructors, Jennifer Bown, a biology instructor, and Hoover, a geology instructor, loaded up a trailer and two passenger vans for a 7 a.m. departure on a Thursday morning.

It became apparent at our first stop that this trip wasn’t going to be a straight line; rather it was a slow journey through time, an exploration of subduction zones, volcanic activity and accretion – all things that contribute to the slow process of growing the state’s geological landscape. Up Mount Hood and down the back side, to the Warm Springs Recreational area on the Deschutes, to the Ochoco Wilderness and the painted hills of the John Day. We took in birds, wildlife geology and even the Thomas Condon Visitor Center near the John Day Fossil Beds.

It took us 13 hours of travel, with more than half a dozen stops to reach The Malheur Field Station.

There’s a scene in the 1993 movie “A Perfect World,” from actor and director Clint Eastwood, in which the character of Butch Haynes, played by Kevin Costner, describes a car as a modern-day time machine. What is outside the front window is the future, in the rear-view mirror and out the back window, that’s the past. It’s a half-correct description – you can’t travel to the future, only to the present or the past, depending on which way you point your vehicle.

Our next three days were a whirlwind of sites, both geologic and historical, of the Malheur area of Eastern Oregon.

The field station in Malheur, which means “misfortune” in French, was the site of a right-wing protest and armed occupation back in 2015. A large pile of broken and destroyed furniture sat behind a chain link fence, remnants of the destruction caused by activists. Beyond that small reminder, all evidence of violated buildings and bullet holes and frightened staff has faded into the mists of memory.

The visitor’s station, just up the road from the field station, shows no signs of its occupation by armed cattle ranchers.

Beautiful black birds with bright yellow bellies flock by the hundreds, eating from feeders and singing merrily. Ground squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits played in the grass. 

From 7 in the morning until sundown, in two college vans, we scoured the back roads of Malheur and crept along the Central Patrol Road looking for birds, stopping once or twice during the day to take in some of the local geology or history. 

Many of the students had been on a recent CCC trip to Death Valley, sleeping in tents and learning to identify all the different parts of the natural environment. It turns out, there’s more to these field trips than just learning.

“My favorite parts of the trip would just be spending time with everyone,” said Jake Canady, a geology student at CCC. “As weird as it sounds, getting to talk to people in the van and just interact with people, playing cards and just spending time with everybody is super fun. I mean the lectures are very cool, but getting to know people is probably the highlight for me.”

The birds were the big attraction. I had inadvertently chosen to ride in the “geology” van rather than the “birder” van on the way out. I hadn’t realized the groups were self-sorting but happily picked the right van as I’m much more interested in geology than birds. But not everyone felt like I did.

“My son is super into birds, he’s super into dinosaurs and he said dinosaurs 

never went extinct, we just call them birds now,” said Carina Cooper, another student. “So I thought, wow, that’s a really cool way to look at it – so I decided to study them.”

“I think it’s good to get out and be in nature. I think a connection to nature is super important,” said Cooper. “A connection to nature fulfills parts of us that we’ve let slip away and it might be uncomfortable at first, being away from home and being away from family, but it’s good too, I don’t know if endure is the right word, some discomfort and independence.”

The time in the vans, the stops along the way, the slow rolling along backroads and waterways, making friends and challenging ourselves to learn things we didn’t think we were interested in – sharing laughs and large jugs of water.

“It is designed for teaching students the value and appreciation of nature, and some of the natural beauty that we have around us,” said Hoover. 

It’s hard not to gain an appreciation for nature when you’re surrounded by it and there’s no cell service when the quiet stillness of the desert is broken by the song of a bird or the howl of a coyote.


Ethan M. Rogers