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What I did on Spring Break.


It wasn't really Spring Break, but this last weekend was our annual Sage Rat Hunting Trip to the dry half of Oregon. Sage rats, for those of you who may be new here, are actually ground squirrels, the exact species varying depending on location. Belding's Ground Squirrel is grey with a tan underside, while the Richardson's Ground Squirrel has a brown back with a buff belly. I have seen both varieties in eastern Oregon, but the Richardson's seems more common as one travels south, and the Belding's more common in the central part of the region.

Sage rats are incredibly destructive creatures. They eat seeds and grasses, and in large populations make it extremely difficult for a rancher to raise feed for other animals. Their extensive burrows drain scarce water away from alfalfa roots and stunt growth. As hard as it is to make a living as a rancher, the sage rats make it all the more difficult.

As recently as a couple of decades ago the populations were kept in check by a combination of predation and poison, but in the mid-90s legislative pressure curtailed to use of poisons to protect the raptors that feed on the squirrels. The sage rat turned from a minor annoyance to a full-blown infestation, and it's almost impossible to find a field in eastern Oregon that is free from the prolific pests.

The populations exploded almost immediately, and by the turn of the century shooting the pests had become something of a sport. Today there are sage rat shooting competitions and outfitters who put together tour packages for hunters who like shooting a lot during the day.

The preferred weapon is a rimfire rifle. The .22 LR has long been the dominant caliber, but today the .17 HMR is on the verge of taking over that title. It's not unusual to shoot 500 rounds in a couple of days (sometimes two or three times that in a good field), and the cost advantage of the rimfire - as well as its relative safety due to shorter ranges - keeps centerfire rifles at home in the safe.

We and a group of cousins go over to one of our other cousin’s ranches in an effort to help him keep ahead of the alfalfa-killing pests. Our efforts seem to be paying off, as over the past several years his fields are consistently less populated than those of his neighbors. Pest control is not a glamorous part of hunting, but when you grow up on a farm you learn that it is a necessary part.

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One of the best things about being in the sparsely populated high desert of eastern Oregon are the people you meet. Folks are just friendlier out there, largely because a smaller community requires more cooperation and deference. In a large city you can get away with treating people poorly, but when everyone knows you - and you in return depend on them for your livelihood - you're going to be more polite. The occasional visitor is the beneficiary of that ecosystem.

There are exceptions, of course, and unfortunately we ran into one of them this weekend.

For nearly two decades our party has stayed at a little place called Crystal Crane Hot Springs outside of Burns, OR. The hot springs fill a small pond, and over the years it's been developed a bit: there's a bath house with soaking tubs and a series of very rustic (to put it charitably) cabins for rent. Between us we've stayed there every year for two decades, through a succession of owners (my brother actually considered buying the place at one point.)

A few years ago a new owner took over and started making changes. The accommodations didn't get any better (though they did add a wireless internet connection), but prices skyrocketed. It's the only place to stay in the middle of nowhere, and the new owners apparently figure that they've got themselves a captive audience. Between the sage rat hunters and the earthy types who travel the hot springs circuit there is a seemingly endless parade of new people to be bilked.

Pricing to what the market will bear is one thing, and I can accept that. What I can't tolerate is rudeness, and we got a heaping helping of sheer nastiness from the owner this weekend.

Suffice it to say that I have never in my entire life endured verbal abuse like we did this weekend. This wasn't the "I'm having a bad day and you're unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time" sort of rudeness, it was an active and surprisingly vitriolic attack on a lucrative long-time paying customer. At one point the proprietress said that we "must be new here", at which point my brother informed her that we'd been staying there every spring for many years longer than she'd owned the place! Repeat customers don't seem to be a concern of hers, as she blew the comment off with yet another round of harsh language.

We won't be staying there again, which breaks a long tradition for me, my brother, his son, and our cousins. If you're traveling in eastern Oregon and are tempted to spend money at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, don't. There are many other places in this state that would welcome your patronage, especially in economically hard-hit Harney County. Crystal Crane Hot Springs doesn't deserve your (or anyone else's) business.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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