A short walk in the woods can be relaxing, rejuvenating or even awe-inspiring. Rarely would I describe it as exciting.
But last weekend, a walk at Odell Lake was exciting.
This time of year, Kokanee salmon spawn along the lakeshore and in the creeks running in and out of the lake. The fish, normally a sleek silver, change color, their backs becoming a deep red.
Along Trapper Creek, an easily accessible stream, hundreds run at once. The creek looks like a fish hatchery with fish on top of fish.
Drawn in by the hordes, bald eagles flock to the lake. They pose high in the branches near Trapper Creek and swoop through the trees just above visitors' heads.
Right now is the prime time to see this spectacle. The Kokanee spawn on Odell Lake typically has two waves, said Paul Powers, a fish biologist with Deschutes National Forest. They run up the creeks in early October and then again in late October to early November.
We left Bend on Saturday morning and took Cascade Lakes Highway to its end, just minutes from Odell Lake. (The highway may close soon; you can also get to Odell by driving south on U.S. Highway 97 to Crescent and turning west. See “If you go.”)
This outing could be done in a day, but if you have the time, I would recommend staying at least one night, as we did. That affords you not only several chances to see the eagles, but also lets you take advantage of side trips in the area, any of which could be an outing by itself.
In addition to seeing Odell, we did a short hike at the pristine Waldo Lake, about 15 minutes away. Salt Creek Falls, Oregon's second-highest waterfall, is also close by and just a short hike from the highway.
Our home base for the adventure was Shelter Cove Resort, which sits on the west side of the lake. The resort has a variety of accommodations from campsites to a brand new, spacious lodge. We stayed overnight in an old, cozy lakefront cabin with a wood stove.
Odell Lake sits near the summit of Willamette Pass, and its proximity to the west side of the mountains gives it a much different climate from Central Oregon's.
A dense forest of fir and spruce trees close in the lake and protect a thick green undergrowth. The lake is ringed by hills and a few mountain peaks. It's much closer to a wet-side climate than to the dry-side vegetation we see most often.
From the resort, the walk to Trapper Creek to see the Kokanee spawn is about a half mile along a well-worn lakefront path. A bridge near the mouth of the creek offers the best Kokanee and eagle viewing. Over the years, visitors have tramped down vegetation near the mouth of the creek, and fences and signs put up by the Forest Service implore visitors to stay on the path.
I headed down to Trapper Creek from the resort in the late afternoon, shortly after we arrived at the resort. As I walked up to the creek, it seemed as if there was nothing going on. At first I worried that I had made a mistake; perhaps the Kokanee were not running right now.
Then, as I got close to the water, I saw them. Peering into the creek, I saw one red body. As soon as I saw one, I saw hundreds. The fish were spread all across the bottom of the stream. In one area of deep water, there were dozens, swimming on top of and around each other.
I sat on the bridge to look for eagles. Soon, one flew up behind me and perched in a tree. Then I saw another soaring over the lake. As I rested quietly on the bridge, a show unfolded before me.
“It isn't very common to see concentrations (of eagles) like that around” Central Oregon, said Paul Miller, a wildlife biologist with the Crescent Ranger District. Miller said that one count, done in the mid-1990s, found 125 eagles at Odell Lake during this time of year.
Odell has a healthy Kokanee population, Miller said, which he guessed was the main draw for the birds. “The eagles remember or are able to communicate to other eagles that the fish are spawning, and literally dozens upon dozens congregate at this time of year.”
I went back to Trapper Creek the next morning, just after dawn. Dawn and dusk, we had heard, were the best times to see the eagles feeding. This time, I walked past the bridge, upstream on the creek.
Just minutes after I arrived, the action started. One eagle swooped in, then another. Then I turned and saw another in a tree. One flew from its perch, just over the back of my head, causing me to duck reflexively.
I stayed for about 45 minutes, until my hands got too cold. I counted nine eagles along the sides of the creek. Two women came to look, just as I was leaving.
“Isn't this thrilling?” one said.
Yes, it is.