The Scout we were driving across the treeless landscape was coated with dust so thick you couldn't read the decal identifying us as scientists from a Forest Service Research Station. Had the decal been legible, an observer might have thought we were lost.
We weren't, but the forest that my work-partner Doug and I were heading for was, at least by name: The Lost Forest, a small stand of ponderosa pine and western juniper in the high desert, 50 dusty miles northeast of Silver Lake, Ore.
Unlike the sky islands of the Southwestern deserts, the Lost Forest is the same elevation as the desert around it, and there's no nearby water, spring or oozing seep. Clouding the issue more, the annual precipitation here is less than 10 inches, about half the minimum required by ponderosa pine in most of its range.
But there is one major difference: Underneath the Lost Forest, some 3.8 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, sits an island of coarse sand unlike the surrounding sea of fine-textured and clay-rich soil that holds moisture near the surface during the early part of the growing season. Sagebrush and its associates—rabbitbrush, wheat grass, fescue and other bunchgrasses—thrive in this medium, but they fight a losing battle in sandy soil where moisture quickly dissipates. What's not well understood is how pines can germinate in this arid setting and survive until their roots reach the moist depths, and then grow into large, old trees.
We visited the Lost Forest to find a plot established 10 years earlier by researchers as part of a nationwide program to keep up-to-date information on our forests. Global positioning systems hadn't been perfected a decade ago, so we located the plot the old-fashioned way—we followed directions written by previous visitors and consulted aerial photos.
As we approached an edge of the Lost Forest, I saw that a large pine had blown down. I climbed up on its huge root and started walking along the trunk, when suddenly there was a commotion beneath the tree at the spot where I stood. Out jumped a bobcat, which ran leaping and dodging through fallen-tree debris, then, like a stray cat spooked from a porch, it stopped and looked back at me. Except for the fluffy ruffs of its cheeks, it looked like my cat Barney, golden-tawny with white chin and lower cheeks, and brownish "worry lines" over the eyes. It ran off, giving me a broadside view of its mottled back and flank, before disappearing in the pines.
I stood on the massive fallen tree in the bright sunshine and let the experience soak in. Wildlife encounters are one of the perks of this job, making up for sub-modest pay, long hours with no overtime, bug bites, bruises, scrapes—you name it.
Once we found the forest boundaries, our work began. We had to account for everything that had been previously recorded and then record everything now present. That would include insects, what little understory vegetation there was, snags and downed trees. New tree diameter measurements showed remarkably high growth rates for an area of such aridity. Height growth was not so great, resulting in exaggerated inverted-cone-shaped tree trunks—the kind you see in harsh environments such as the famous cliff-top Jeffrey pines in Yosemite National Park.
We noted a large number of woodrat nests, usually in bushy junipers. Woodrats—aka packrats—are a main entrée of desert bobcats and are also relished by coyotes, hawks, eagles and owls. In one nest I saw the metallic glint of a pop-top, the old kind that came off the can. I reached for it, then jerked back at the sight of a moving reptilian body. Rattlesnakes often occupy woodrat nests, but this particular tenant looked like a western fence lizard. Or maybe a sagebrush lizard—they differ in minor ways you can only observe by catching a lizard and turning it upside down. This one got away before we could try.
As we worked, a raven followed us around making gargling sounds, while high overhead a red-tailed hawk repeatedly cried shhhhrrrreeeeee. Turkey vultures also circled overhead—first two, and then several—a cheerful reminder that nothing in nature goes to waste, including us, if we didn't make it out of the Lost Forest.
The single café back in Silver Lake was closed by the time we got in that night. Doug and I dined on sardines and crackers and split an orange and a granola bar. Our experience in the Lost Forest was worth missing a cooked meal, though we made sure to be at the café as soon as it opened the next morning.
Chuck Bolsinger is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Boring, Oregon.