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Stories: This Ain't No Highway || The Owl Grotto

The Owl Grotto - Merri Melde


Wednesday October 19 2011

I hike back to the Wind Caves today to finish marking the Birch Creek trail for the Owyhee Hallowed Weenies endurance ride over Halloween.The big advantage of doing it on foot and not horseback is, I can explore the nooks and crannies of Wind Cave Canyon.

Jose would have loved it, but he wouldn't have fit. I climb over and under and in and around the twisting labyrinthine canyon, squeezing between boulders, ducking under overhangs, skirting caves, scrambling up the smooth sandstone (? In one of my next lives I'm going to come back as a geologist), sliding down walls into deeper chambers - and hoping I can get out the other side, because I can't crawl up and over the walls.

It must be spectacular in here in a heavy rainfall. I can imagine it, watching sheltered in one of the little caves above, as the water, racing the miles downhill from the Owyhee mountains, gathering speed and power and purpose, finds this wash and slams into this canyon, raging and squeezing through the narrowing rock walls in a violent clash, funneling roaring waterfalls, sluicing up sand and heaving it downstream, shoving boulders, swirling up the canyon walls, gouging out more hollows, caving in more of the walls, all of it whirling into the downward-racing maelstrom.

There are myriad caves in the canyon walls of this Wind Cave Canyon, from mouse-size (you can see their tracks and poo), to rat-size (you can see their artistic nests),

to owl-size (I find one probable Great Horned nest),

to hobbit-size,

to human party-size.

It's not nesting season, but naturally I want to get a better look into the raptor nest tucked into this fine hidden grotto barred by big fallen monster boulders. If I scramble out one canyon entrance, I can crawl under another one and get in on the backside of the boulders, crawl up onto them and stand on my tiptoes and look in.

This area is accessible by ATV, and there are numerous campfire rings in the canyon (fortunately, not too much trash!) - one in an overhang at the mouth of this canyon entrance - it's rather surprising a raptor uses that nest.

I stand on my tiptoes and I stare at the nest at eye-level from 30 feet away. I turn back around and look down at the boulder I am standing on, and find part of a pellet, and a little rodent skull - raptor food.

And suddenly, I feel it - I lift up my eyes and am looking straight into the golden eyes of a Great Horned Owl, staring at me camouflaged from a dark notch back in the canyon wall. Unperturbed by my presence, she sits motionless and relaxed, blinking unconcernedly at her unexpected visitor.

In fact, when I look on the entire sand floor of the grotto below my feet, it is littered with months - years - decades - of tiny bird and rodent bones, and a few feathers, including this Great Horned Owl feather.

And that's the thing about the hidden Owl Grotto in the hidden Wind Caves in the vast Owyhee desert.

Few people know the Wind Caves are hidden in there, fewer people know the Owl Grotto is hidden inside the Wind Caves, and even fewer people who make it into the Owl Grotto know they're being watched. Fine by me and the owls.

I nod my respectful thanks for the unexpected encounter, and say goodbye, and slip out, leaving her to her secret Owl Grotto.