Weekend Workshop in Oregon’s Desert

The Malhuer Wildlife Refuge & Alvord Desert


When most people from outside the area think of Oregon, I imagine that the image that comes to mind is either of a rocky, windswept coast, lighthouses, the seemingly ever-present drizzle of Portland, or the waterfalls and greenery of the Columbia and Willamette river valleys.  But, I suspect to the surprise of all but a few who’ve never travelled Oregon’s back roads and byways, the southeastern corner of the state has a desert that rivals some in the southwest.

Alvord-OverlookAbout a 4-hour drive from my home in Bend, the Steens Mountain Wilderness, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Alvord Desert stretch for over a hundred miles toward the state line with Nevada.  This area is also home to Oregon’s (and some of the west’s) largest cattle ranches, like the Roaring Springs Ranch at 425,000 acres!

But I’m already digressing.

A few weeks ago, I took a weekend workshop down to the Alvord Desert, my first trip into that area.  The ‘shop was led by Oregon photographer and teacher, Robert Agli.  I didn’t actually know exactly what to expect, but what I found was fantastic mix of ranchland, Oregon’s highest mountain (Steens) and the Alvord Desert.  It was a short workshop, but a great, first-time exploration of this unusual part of Oregon.

My first stop was the Peter French Round Barn, about 40 miles south of Burns.  It was here that cattle king Pete French trained horses during the winter months. It’s round plan is very unique and one of only three historic round barns remaining in Oregon (c. late 1870s or early 1880s).round-barn-blogThe construction of juniper posts and lava stonework are very unusual (but a bit of a technical challenge to photograph).  The barn remains much as it was in Pete French’s day with some minor repairs to the outside and roof.  The family donated the Pete French Round Barn and its site to the state of Oregon as a state historical monument in 1969.

Our workshop was based in the historic one-room former school house in Andrews, which is essentially a ghost town, at the southern end of the Alvord.  We were the guests of John Simpkins, a transplanted Portland artist, and his dog Phoebe, whose studio and home is the school.  The school house, adjacent teacherage, and the still-standing playgound equipment remain pretty much as they were when the school closed.  The school would be a photographic and historic study subject all by itself, but that will have to wait until another trip.

Much of the shooting time was spent on the Wild Horse Ranch (thanks to the hospitality of its owner), the Alvord Playa, the Borax Springs Lake, and the 20 miles between the school and my lodging in the small “township” of Fields.  Having only slightly more than two days limited our time at each location, but each had its own uniqueness and rich legacy in the history of the valley.  Each morning, we rendezvoused at the school at 3:45 a.m. (that was after ending the previous day’s shooting at 9:30 p.m., then making the 20 mile drive, half of it over unpaved roads back to a shower and bed).  Four or so hours of sleep each night would have been pretty tough if the trip had been longer.  But, with the sunsets so late and the sunrises so early at this time of the year, that is the price of being a photographer!

The Wild Horse Ranch is one of the large cattle ranches in the Alvord Valley.  Several of the oldest structures n the valley still stand, although somewhat in an arrested state of decay.  My favorite was one whose columns were juniper logs, with walls being thatched branches, much of both still present.catin1_color  1-px-x-560-px-background-line-shimWhiteHorseCabin2Also within the ranch was another largely intact cabin on the site of the original ranch homestead.  I had already decided that I would make my first attempt at of a twilight shoot using light-painting of this cabin.  Let’s just put that into the category of a learning experience, and mostly unremarkable other than as a first attempt.  I will definitely try again on a larger and more distant subject.

1-px-x-560-px-background-line-shimElsewhere on the ranch, the wildflowers were beginning to wake after the winter snows.  This area gets only about 2-3″ of annual rainfall (with some scattered snows).  So wildflowers aren’t as robust as one would see elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.  But there is something about the contrast of a natural spread of wild blooms on a hillside littered with volcanic rock, ranch fencing, and other remnants of bygone days that is particularly beautiful.  And all of this overlooking miles of ranchland in the shadow of Steens Mountain.WhiteHorseFlowers

The Alvord Playa is essentially a dry lakebed (reminiscent of Death Valley’s “Racetrack”), some 8 miles wide and 12 miles long.  At some times during the year, there is enough rainfall or snow melt to add an inch or two of water (should I say thick mud) on the lakebed  But not this time of year.  Our Day 2 evening shoot was at sunset on the eastern side of the playa. PlayaThe route to that spot is straight across the playa after a short high-clearance trail from the “highway”.  Our caravan of a half-dozen cars stretched out a mile and left a cloud of trailing dust that may still be settling.  The after-dark return across the playa was an adventure.  Thank you Garmin for recording my inbound GPS tracks!

I was so excited about the uniqueness of the playa that I decided to go out the next morning to shoot it at sunrise.  Thanks again to Garmin, I was able to find the off-road entrance in the dark at 3:30 a.m., then make my way to the halfway point across the playa.  Let me tell you, being out on a dry dead-still lakebed in the middle of a desert, with no sound to hear other than your own heartbeat is pretty spooky.  But I absolutely loved the experience.  The sheer scale of the playa is captivating, and the Steens range is a great backdrop.  So, it seemed only logical to try a panorama.  I pushed that to a ridiculous extreme by shooting a full, 360-degree, full-circle pano containing 60 vertical shots, all in RAW format with my 36mega-pix D800, with each file at 50mb!  Since processing and stitching that many RAW files of that size into a pano would have required a Cray computer, I converted all to JPGs in LIghtroom4 after adjusting for color and white balance, then synchronizing all and exporting to Photoshop  Even then, Photoshop had trouble with an accurate stitch, so I had to do some manually.  I can’t imagine how I’d use a 20″x84″ print, but hey, it was fun.  Here it is.  Note those mountains over 6 miles away.


We were treated to an unexpected event on Saturday morning.  Mike, a local cowboy (and I mean a real-deal cowboy) stopped by and asked if we’d like to follow along and photograph a true cattle drive.  He was moving a hundred head or so to another pasture several miles down the road.  Needless to say, we all jumped on it, bleery eyes and all.  Cowboy-MikeMike has worked various Alvord ranches for decades.  He turned out to be a terrific and personable guy.  But he did have the look of one tough hombre, and I did wonder if he might shoot anyone who got in his way or spooked his dogies (remember, Ropy Rogers, “Git Along Little Dogies”).  We all managed to stay out of the way for the most part, so nobody got shot.  It was a great addition to the weekend’s events that we hadn’t planned for, and we made the best of capturing some of this long history of the life of cattle ranchers and cowboys.

cattle_driveWell, there is lots more to talk about, but gotta go.  Maybe some of the other shots will be worth a second post later since I haven’t even touched on the wildlife and wild horses along the open range.

Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to read about the Alvord Desert.  Oh, and if you’re interested,  




  1. What a different area that is out there! Beautiful photos and interesting terrain!

  2. Very cool Jim!
    I really was impressed with the picture of the round horse training barn. I would love to see it just from the construction perspective. I never would have guessed that there would be lava that far away but I am guessing that it must of had some volcanic activity closer that I wasn’t aware of. Either that or it was a hell of a blast!
    I love the desert (except during the middle of a summer day) in fact I always tell my wife that my favorite smell is the odor of the desert sage after a rainstorm.
    Thanks for sharing your photos with us. You really should think more about a way into getting paid for books. You have a great way of telling a story.

  3. I love your photos. You are amazing!!! ALSO, I love the way you express yourself. You wriite so beautifully and in such a descriptive manner, that you take the reader with you on your adventure.

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