Peter Shelton

Crane Prairie

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on June 29, 2020

Crane Prairie is an odd name for a lake, a shallow impoundment actually, on the upper Deschutes River. Apparently it was a kind of high-mountain marshland before the river was dammed, in 1922. And there were cranes there. Maybe there still are, at certain times of year. I haven’t seen any from my paddleboard. But I have seen birds. Lots and lots of birds. Sesame Street sized birds. Really big birds.

Some people come to watch the birds. Most come to fish. Crane Prairie rainbows (“cranebows”) get huge. The lake must be rich in rainbow food. The biggest one taken so far weighed 19 pounds. Crane Prairie Resort and Marina (“Established 1952”), where I put in, sports two signs on either side of its rustic front door: “Crane Prairie, Where the Fish Are” and “Shallow Water, Big Fish.”

The only other birdwatchers I see are in kayaks, well off shore, a man and a woman with binoculars glued to their faces. I may have pissed them off. My line, slow and splashless, takes me closer to the reed islands where the geese and pelicans are sheltering. I am between the kayakers and what they want to watch. And I am standing up, a tall drifting alien. Wearing a floppy hat and with a seven-foot-long paddle in his hands.

The kayakers are so far out, being so careful not to disturb the birds, I can’t see their faces to see if I am indeed pissing them off. Something in their body language tells me I am. But, in any case, the birds remain unconcerned: goldeneye ducks, Canada goose married couples, great blue herons like Giacometti bronzes, and blinding white gatherings of American white pelicans. Some of the pelicans are sleeping, balanced on downed snags, their tremendous bills tucked in under their back feathers. In the air, they are spectacular gliders. The first time I saw one, in flight, from a distance, I thought it was a white sports car racing along the lakeside highway. Fully unfurled, their wingspans measure nine feet.

Last time I was here I asked the woman behind the resort desk why the trees had been left standing when the reservoir filled. She didn’t know. Just that they were. And here they are. What’s left of them. Some parts of the lake look like miles-long, long-abandoned piers, with just the ghost-grey pilings standing above water level. Where the drowned pines, lodgepoles mostly, broke off, or were upended and floated away, there are now crazy bays filled with piled-up timber, like giant pick-up sticks. In shallower sections, bleached pine logs have become freshwater atolls, with electric-blue damselflies and beaver lodges and wildflowers taking root, along with the loafing pelicans.

The scene is so rich with life, it fills me up, shoves me along, like a sail. I just have to keep an eye out for submerged stumps. Snag one of those babies with my board’s fin, and I’d be careening off the nose like Wile E. Coyote.

Somewhere between the Deschutes River inlet and the Cultus River inlet, in shallow water between stands of bulrushes, a bunch of pelicans are feeding together in a group so precisely choreographed I can only think: Busby Berkeley! Like the Hollywood musical director’s geometric showgirl designs, these 20 pelicans swim in perfect white-feathered sync, gliding one way together then diving, all at once, beaks first, rumps up, bobbing for what must be schools of small fish below. Then, all together again, they lift their enormous bills to the sky and jiggle their orange gullets until the food slithers down. Who is leading? Who is making the decisions? Go left. Go right. Dive now! I have no idea. There must be some kind of tightly packed group genius at work.

Humans, on the other hand, rely on individual cunning. Two fly fisherman, buddies in float tubes, casting the surface, hoping to match a damselfly hatch. A trout takes one man’s fly with a splash. The other man doesn’t see the hit but says to his buddy, “That sounded like a good size one.” The man with the fish on grunts, his rod bent like a question mark.

I slow my paddling to watch. The man with the fish on pivots his float tube to follow the trout’s underwater struggle. His buddy wants in on the action and whips his line back and forth overhead. But there’s a tangle. The line doesn’t shoot out. He curses and drops the reel end of his rig into the water while reaching for the tippet. His friend is pivoting, reaching – too soon – with his net, as the silvery fish darts away. Tangled Man is growing more frustrated. Cursing under his breath. Working at the knot. Making it worse. I drift away, my looking having become too intimate.

Up in the protected mouth of the Cultus River. No fishermen here. Just me. Water barely moving. Surface like a clean glass window. I can see every fish from bank to bank. And there are scores of them, rainbows and brook trout. The window works both ways. They can see me, too, the shadow of my board, the shadow of this monstrous stick insect with a carbon-fiber paddle. More likely, I’m a cruising osprey.

These are not the huge ones, the football-shaped “cranebows.” But they are sizable, sleek 16-inch torpedoes, hyper alert, hanging in the eddies, holding in the ruins of yet another toppled pine. I whisper to them that I gave up hooking fish a long time ago. But they speed away anyway. Not too far, to their next holding water, where I’ll sneak up on them again.

5 Responses

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  1. Jim Bedford said, on June 29, 2020 at 1:36 am

    Good trip you took us on. Thanks.

    • Glen Ardt said, on June 29, 2020 at 2:23 pm

      You describe yourself as an individual seeing and experiencing the world you’re paddling in and yet at times it seems you transcend your physical reality into a mental meld of man, board, water, and fish. Zen.

  2. talkinggourds said, on June 29, 2020 at 4:01 pm

    it is the grace of the writing that snags me every time.

  3. Linde Waidhofer said, on July 2, 2020 at 2:29 am

    So perfect…. ________________________

    Linde Waidhofer Western Eye Photography



  4. pshelton said, on July 5, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    Nice of you all to read. And even nicer that you comment.

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