The camas bloom at Centennial Marsh should be at its annual peak from now until the end of the month.
I call it, “the back way to Boise”: Highway 20 from Idaho Falls to Arco, through Craters of the Moon to Carey, over the hump to Picabo, across the Wood River, through the Camas Prairie (this is not the Camas Prairie of north central Idaho near Grangeville) and along Magic Valley Reservoir to Fairfield and then on to unincorporated Hill City, once the sheep shipping capital of the world. Finally, you pass through some beautiful emptiness near Little Camas Reservoir before dropping south into Mountain Home and rejoining the interstate, just 40 miles from Boise.
This is a beautiful drive, especially in the spring and Camas Prairie is a highlight. The Camas Prairie is found along both sides of Highway 20. It is bounded on the south by the Bennett Hills and on the north by the Smoky Mountains. Fourteen miles west of Fairfield and south of Hill City is the Camas Prairie a.k.a. Centennial Marsh Wildlife Management Area, a wonderful place to stop when the camas flowers, which give the prairie its name, are blooming. In a good year, the ground is so blue, it seems almost like a reflection of the sky. Or, as Meriwether Lewis wrote of blooming camas in 1806, “from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first site I could have swoarn it was water.”
The camas flower attracts modern travelers because of its beauty, but there was a time when it served another purpose. Native Americans have been using this area for over 11,000 years. The root of the camas plant was a staple in their diets and stored well for winter food. Bands of Shoshoni and Bannock Indians made annual pilgrimages to harvest this critical food. This was so important to the Native American subsistence way of life that misuse of this resource by settlers (allowing hogs to graze on it) is reported to be one of the main causes of the 1878 Bannock War.
The Camas Prairie Wildlife Management Area is about 3,100 acres in size. During the spring, Camas Creek, full of snowmelt from the Smoky Mountains, overflows its banks and creates a vast shallow marsh across much of the WMA. This is perfect habitat for migrating waterfowl, shorebirds and other species. The species list is long and many can only be seen during the spring.
May is the time to visit this wonderful place. The snow is gone from this high mountain valley and the roads have pretty much dried out, making it accessible by car. Mostly though, May is when you will find the wildlife. During our short visit there last week, we saw plenty of birds, including 30+ long-billed dowitchers and several Wilson’s phalaropes, both firsts on our life lists.
May is also when the camas flowers bloom. The bloom is somewhat dependent on the snowpack in the Smoky Mountains—heavier snow years usually result in better blooms. The last 10 days of the month are usually the best.
It is 160 miles to Fairfield from Idaho Falls, no small commitment in these days of three dollar/gallon gas. If you still don’t have plans for the holiday weekend though, you might consider heading west on Highway 20, the back way to Boise. Get a burger at the Wrangler Drive-in at Fairfield and enjoy a day or two out on the Centennial Marsh watching wildlife and the mesmerizing sea of blue camas.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.
I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho