Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

The stories spill from Eddie Miguez, a steady stream of memories about stubborn elk and head-high snow drifts and wrestling with tire chains on days cold enough to weld skin to steel.

But his voice first thickens and then stumbles when he tries to speak of what his daughter told him on just about the last day of his 33-year career.

His eyes glisten.

The silence in the living room of his Baker City home, where Eddie sits with his wife, Connie, seems to say as much as his torrent of words did when he was recalling memorable, but much less personal, matters.

Perhaps even more.

Eddie worked for 20 years as manager of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) Elkhorn Wildlife Area.

That’s the network of 10 sites, along the base of the Elkhorn Mountains, where ODFW workers feed elk and deer each winter to prevent the animals from marauding ranchers’ haystacks.

The Miguez family, which includes a trio of daughters — Alison, now 33, Caitlin, 31, and Hailey, 28 — lived in a state-owned home at the Wildlife Area headquarters on River Lane about 10 miles west of North Powder.

During those years one of the family’s favorite pastimes was hiking a two-hour loop.

Earlier this fall, on the day when Eddie and Connie moved out of the home where their daughters had grown up, the whole family met for one final hike over the ground their boots had covered so many times.

“We were about done,” Eddie says, “when Caitlin stopped and said, ‘Dad, thanks for picking this place to move to. You couldn’t have picked a better place for us to grow up.’ ”

Eddie knew that to be true.

But in that moment, while he listened to his daughter’s heartfelt words, he was thinking not only of how much he relished having his family together, but also of those days when the demands of his job required that they be apart.

“All the times when it was just Connie and the kids,” Eddie said. You don’t realize how much you’re away from home until later. For (Caitlin) to say that, it meant a lot.”

As he reminisces about his two decades managing one of ODFW’s most publicly visible operations, Eddie said his positive memories far outnumber any regrets.

But although he considers his tenure a success, he refuses to accept sole credit.

“The biggest things that mark my time was the cooperation and partnerships we had with all the landowners,” Eddie said.

Despite occasional conflicts and disagreements, he said he always felt confident that property owners understood, and appreciated, that ODFW’s purpose in creating the Elkhorn Wildlife Area in 1971 was to help protect the hay that cattle ranchers put up every summer to sustain their herds during the winter.

Eddie said he felt a sense of shared sacrifice, in that his job was so similar to the ranchers’ — they fed cattle and he and his crew fed elk and deer.

“When it’s 20 below zero and there’s feet of snow on the ground, and they’re out there feeding cows, and you’re out feeding elk and trying to keep them out of trouble, they understand what you’re doing,” he said.

The job, among much else, demanded consistency, Eddie said.

Over the years, elk have become accustomed to finding alfalfa hay at the feed sites. If the animals arrive even once to find the snowy ground bare rather than strewn with a tasty green layer of hay, they’ll almost certainly find the nearest rancher’s bales.

“Once you start, you’re into it, seven days a week, until the weather breaks in the spring,” Eddie said.

It’s much easier to entice the elk to the feed sites than it is to persuade them to leave a ranch, he said.

“I agree with the saying that it’s easy to haze elk — if you’re hazing them the way they want to go,” Eddie said with a chuckle.

As might be expected for a man who worked with the same bunches of elk for two decades, Eddie said some groups displayed certain habits that distinguished them.

The elk that congregate at the Muddy Creek site, for instance, are more particular about the punctuality of the Wildlife Area’s feeding crews.

The Muddy Creek herd was “notorious,” Eddie said, for adhering to a defined schedule. If, for instance, the feeding crew normally arrived between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., the elk would arrive during that period, as reliable as a Swiss train.

But then would come a day when winds had turned the access road to another feed site into a snow sculpture.

Or a tire chain broke.

“You’d pull into Muddy Creek at 2 in the afternoon and the elk are already on their way out of there,” Eddie said.

Actually feeding the elk was often the simplest part of the job, he said.

The feed sites range from Auburn, about 10 miles southwest of Baker City, to Shaw Mountain northeast of the headquarters. That means the feeding crew has to make a 150-mile round trip each day.

And not all of those miles are on paved roads.

During many winters the snow depth exceeds 3 feet at some sites, and several of the access roads are prone to severe drifting.

Eddie said he often spent 20 hours in a single day driving a bulldozer or grader to make sure the feeding crew could get to the sites.

The challenges, he said, were unavoidable.

But none was an acceptable excuse.

“If the freeway’s closed, you run back roads,” Eddie said. “If you have to chain up all four, you chain up all four and go. Or you run two rigs.”

Weather is nothing if not variable, of course.

Some winters were relatively tranquil.

The winter of 2016-17 wasn’t one of those winters.

Eddie said he left home at midnight several times to start plowing the road to the Shaw Mountain site, where drifts would sometimes pile up 8 or 9 feet.

A few days he had to plow the road so the feeding crew could get in, and then plow it again so they could leave and continue on their daily rounds.

“There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes,” he said.

But there’s also more to the manager’s job than making sure elk aren’t up to mischief in some rancher’s pasture.

ODFW maintains a small campground that’s just down the hill from the headquarters house where the Miguez family lived.

Eddie said he was occasionally awakened in the depths of the night after someone fired a gun in the campground, or if an especially boisterous party was going on.

Sometimes a camper would knock on the Miguez’s front door to report a problem.

“You get out of bed, you go down there and you deal with it,” he said. “I lived that job 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

Connie said visitors didn’t distinguish between the Wildlife Area’s office, which is in a separate building, and the Miguez home.

“People would come to the house with questions — I don’t hunt — and I would have to answer them,” she said.

Although the family lived in a relatively remote place, they were involved in a variety of activities in North Powder. All three of the couple’s daughters graduated from Powder Valley High School, and Eddie served as a 4-H leader.

“It’s important for me, and I would tell that to anyone who works for a public agency, that you get involved in the community,” Eddie said. “It gives people a chance to know you other than in a work situation.”

See more in the Dec. 7, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.