On the Loose in the Palouse - A Winter Adventure

Mr. JD Baylor, down on JD Baylor Road in Whitman County, saw something he couldn’t believe and had to call it in.

“Hello, Whitman County 911..What’s your emergency?” the operator answered.

Moose Sighting by Mr. JD Baylor on JD Baylor Road, Whitman County. Evidence 1A-BL38

“This is JD..I just saw 2 moose over there on Dry Creek, they look like they’re roaming through the fields and tipping over wagons. Send somebody to get them!”

“Sir, JD, we’ll look into it and send our best team out there to investigate. Don’t worry, we’ll find them and make sure they’re happy,” the operator assured Mr. JD Baylor on Jd Baylor Road in Whitman County.

Wagon tipped by moose: Dry Creek Evidence: 1A-14JXQ

“Thanks and tell your team to be careful, those moose look like trouble.” JD hung up and the Whitman County 911 operator knew just who to call. Immediately.

We got the call to go out to the Palouse and investigate and gather photographic evidence. This is no easy task in mid January in the Palouse high country with treacherous weather, poor light and no real snow to track them. But, we were the ones they call for situations like this and this isn’t the first moose on the loose in the Palouse case we’ve solved.

Steptoe Butte from below. 7 image stitched panorama. Evidence 1A-13GBH

The Palouse is a large area for a moose to be loose so we headed to a higher vantage point but it was of no use. We were turning around and I glanced above and much to my amuse, a moose. We’d successfully located one moose but there were reports of 4-6 moose. That many moose in the Palouse is like an a-moose-ment park! Our search continued into the lowlands. It’s not uncommon for moose to hide in old barns and abandoned houses. When it get’s cold, they like to go inside and get out of the nasty Palouse wind. I don’t blame them because that wind near Oakesdale is more like an Oakes-gale. We stoped by a few older barns but they seemed empty and not tracks were nearby so we moved on.

Buildings new and old dot the landscape. Warning: May contain moose. Evidence 1A-12TWQ

With day 2 starting early, before sunrise, we had to head out in the fresh snow to get a good tracking and bearing. It wasn’t long before we had a track and it headed North towards Tekoa (pronounced Tee-Ko). We knew of a great breakfast spot so we decided to head there and to try to flank the moose herd and set up a diversion in Tekoa. We had time so we went in for breakfast, except here, breakfast is only on Sunday and it wasn’t Sunday. The kind gentleman, Cal, offered us a homemade cinnamon roll and a bottomless cup of coffee while he filled our ears with 4 generations of family history in the Palouse.

I asked Cal, “Living here and having family here for so long, what is special about the Palouse to you?” He didn’t directly answer my question but after a short story he looked at me and said “C’mon on, I want to show you something.”

We walked across the street and Cal, not letting his 80+ year old body slow him down, eagerly opened the door and instructed me to look at the black and white photo on the right wall. “See if there’s anything interesting about it” Cal said evenly.

I didn’t notice anything in particular about the wooded grain elevator with “Tekoa..” marked in large letters on the side, along other companies and names. Nothing looked out of place, all interesting and well done on a 20×30 inch metal print. “I don’t see anything in particular, it’s a nice photo all around” I said.

“Turn around,” Cal even more calmly stated.

Cal answered my question about what was so important and special in the Palouse to him. It wasn’t in the landscape itself, it was in the community and the history. You see, when Cal said “turn around” I turned my attention to the 60 foot wide wall covered in the original wood siding from the Tekoa grain elevator. It was being turn down so they used it to cover the wall of the building Cal owns. The wood beams were used as counter supports and the bar and tables. The building is the community events center for Tekoa. This is the Palouse according to Cal.

Looking for moose tracks. None found. Evidence 1A-9UNH

We left Tekoa without a moose sighting but we left enriched with an experience we would have never had if we hadn’t just explored. We continued our search, following the fresh snow to find fresh tracks. Fresh tracks in the fresh snow is a for sure way to find these moose, now on the loose for over 24 hours. It’s time for us to get serious and stop moosin’ around.

With daylight fading, we headed back to Steptoe Butte for another possible encounter. We knew their routine after discovering a nearby watering hole and the fresh tracks indicated movement. We had to get a better vantage so we headed higher. Luckily, the roads were snowy but not slippery all the way to the top of Steptoe Butte (in January!). This is where I think we made a terrible mistake and thinks turned sideways real quick.

Sunset light at the top of Steptoe Butte. January 2023 Evidence 1A-KSP9

We had a cloudy sky all day and we both had anticipated clouds all day. The forecast was for clouds all day but the forecast didn’t predict the snow that morning so it wasn’t to be trusted. Clouds in the sky means cloud filters in the eyes. It’s a special top secret formula of eye drops you put in and the yellow drops make your eyes hyper sensitive to light when it’s cloudy. But it’s too bright in the sunlight. Here we were on the top of Steptoe Butte and the clouds were about to break and we had our cloudy eyes in! We were looking for moose not epic light on the Palouse!

Sunset on Steptoe Butte in January 2023 with a subaru and evening light on branches.
Terrible light. I had to pull over. Just terrible. Evidence 1A-09UY

We protected our eyes in the viewfinders and telephoto lenses which allowed us to block out the harmful direct light. We had to shoot until the sun when down so we could safely drive down. I don’t know what I took photos of, it was more to shield my eyes than to get a photo.

Day 3, our final day of Mission: Possible Moose on the loose in the Palouse brought cold and frosty conditions. It was harder to get an accurate tracking in the frost and we ended up losing the moose tracks several times. At one point, the moose tracks crossed the railroad tracks. Around the engine, across the tracks, to the back where all 4 tracks converged. We saw it all right in front of us: Engine, tracks, Caboose, moose, moose, moose, moose all in the Palouse. Insane. I went to get a photo but my lens cap was on and I moosed have missed the shot!

PNW feel in the river bottoms. Evidence 1A-GBN9

We continued to a darker, damper area of the Palouse near a river bottom. We knew moose liked we conditions and are often called “Swamp Donkeys” by locals. We waited and saw some interesting trees and water but unfortunately, no moose. Our time was nearing an end and we’d: driven so many country roads, driven to Steptoe Butte several times, explored a local town, had fresh snow 2 days, had frost and fog, saw many other wild animals and only 1 photographer. 3 days and so much richness in the Palouse but no moose. Something was moosing. We had an hour left so we continued on…our final push.

Daylight was fading as we slowly drove up a snowy road. Fresh snow and thick brush nearly camouflaged the 2 moose to our right. Standing there, at peace and ever so quiet, the 2 moose that were up to no good seemed overly at ease with our presence. We all paused and stared at each other, 2 humans staring at 2 moose, both surprised. A photo for evidence..click. The larger of the moose ever so gently nodded his head before turning away. The smaller one, attached to the other with an invisible string, followed into the snowy forest.

We both agreed, these moose weren’t really “on the loose” in the Palouse. We were, and this was their home.

Our report to the Whitman County Emergency Services Commissioner found inconclusive evidence of any such “Moose on the loose in the Palouse” and went on to add that we did a stand up job.

Moose in the Palouse in Winter near steptoe butte in washington.
Happy Moose:) January 2023 Evidence 1A-67TZ

Some additional information about our experience on the Palouse, moose or no moose:

  • Most of our shooting was done from near the car on frozen mud and some thawed mud. Some locations were from the car due to limited or no access to park. This made for a much more comfortable experience in the biting cold wind.
  • Conditions are impossible to predict and even the weather 12 hours out wasn’t actually what happened. It was the variability in conditions which made it interesting in the end.
  • Road conditions on the highways were fine and treated well enough. I never felt unsafe driving at any moment. Main side roads are condition dependent and were fine while I was there. In rain or thawing, mud would definitely be an issue for walking and possibly driving. The paved roads offer more than enough in the Palouse in Winter and is more than you can shoot in 3 days anyway.
  • Steptoe Butte access in the Winter is also difficult to predict. It was open during our time but nearly drifted across at the top. There is no Winter maintenance. So too much snow and the Palouse becomes incredible down low but there’s no access up high. With a little snow, Steptoe Butte is accessible and the vantage points for sunset/sunrise are incredible in the the Winter. We saw 1 photographer one morning but the rest of the times we had Steptoe Butte moose-ly to ourselves.
  • Monday – Friday had significant traffic on 195 but the weekend was super quiet.
  • The green was surprising but made the landscape much more interesting.
  • My overall impression is Winter is the best season to see the Palouse, no matter the conditions. There’s a quietness during Winter that so perfectly flows with the landscape and history. Simplicity and slowness are the name of the game in Winter here and this is a great environment to create.
  • More images to come:) Just a few fun ones for now.

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Palouse Photo Workshop and photo tour in Winter.

Palouse Winter 2023/2024

Week 1: January 2024 Exact dates TBD
Week 2: January 2024 Exact dates TBD
Potentially Winter 2023, conditions depending

Limited to 3 people only per week.

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