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Refugia of the Blue Mountains

Guest Blog Post by Marina Richie, Board President of GHCC

Queen of the Imnaha, by Robin Coen

Refugia- wildlands, wild rivers, and wild pockets offering safe havens and passage for native plants and wildlife to survive rapid climate change. Essential for the future of life on earth.


A sagebrush-scented wind whirls up from the mighty Snake River flowing free through Hells Canyon, deepest gorge in North America. Bighorn sheep rams poised on a dizzying bunchgrass slope raise their heads, alert to the breezed scents of animal and plant kin. Far below the bighorns, endangered chinook salmon battle upriver to their home tributary—a journey from the ocean of more than 500 miles and eight dams. Some will spawn in the wilderness-fed waters of the forest-lined Imnaha River. Above the bighorns, a golden eagle spirals ever higher on rising columns of warm air. Two backpackers on the canyon rim hold hands in twinned wonder.

“Swimming the Gauntlet,” by Robin Coen

I am honored to team up as a writer with the talented artist Robin Coen for Greater Hells Canyon Council’s first Wild Blues Artist-in-Residence for 2023-2025. Our opening mini-exhibit will be unveiled on October 7th at GHCC’s annual Fall Gala & Auction in La Grande, Oregon. If you live in the vicinity or might be enticed to trek over, please join a lively group of fellow conservationists enjoying fine food, beverages, and inspiration. You can buy a ticket here. Anyone can purchase a Golden Raffle ticket for the chance to win one of four prizes–Lower Salmon River Rafting or stays at the Good Bear Ranch, Barking Mad Farm, or a home in Bend. The online auction goes live October 3rd.

To give a sense of our project, I’m sharing the introduction I’ve written that opened this blog ( “A sagebrush-scented wind…”) and continues here after two more key definitions to go with Refugia.

Blue Mountains—a magnificent range with companion canyons and rivers in northeast Oregon and the southeastern corner of Washington, including seven wilderness areas—Strawberry Mountains, Monument Rock, North Fork Umatilla, North Fork John Day, Eagle Cap, Hells Canyon, and Wenaha-Tucannon. These “Wild Blues” form Oregon’s largest ecoregion and a wildlife mega-corridor. The range bridges the Rocky Mountains to the East, the Cascades to the West, and the Great Basin to the South.

Blue Mountains Trail—a 530-mile spiral that begins near John Day and ends near Joseph. The trail connects the seven wilderness areas and passes through some of the greatest expanses of roadless areas remaining in the lower 48 states. Greater Hells Canyon Council designed and oversees Oregon’s newest long-distance trail.

This is Refugia. Home. Shelter. Headwaters

The Blue Mountains still offer big, wild, and connected lands and rivers for birds, animals, and native plants to cling to life and move to cooler realms as our climate heats up. Places with dark skies and solitude. Places indigenous people have known since time immemorial — honoring the intricate web of life and the seasonal round in ways of reciprocity.

The wind ruffles over the rim, spills across wildflower meadows of paintbrush, lupine, and penstemon. Gusting into shadowy forests of grand fir, larch, and ponderosa pine, the gale softens to brush past a great gray owl—largest in North America. She is protecting her fluffy chicks within a stick nest on a sturdy branch of a wide fir snag—a dead tree enlivened by woodpeckers, chipmunks, and beetles. Eventually, the shelter snag will fall to nourish a new forest.

This is Refugia. Big Trees. Climate Champions

Wild forests that may seem messy, dense, and in need of tidying up are favorites for the great-gray owl and companions. Here, too, big trees capture and store far more carbon than smaller trees and for far longer. Intact forests are climate allies and biodiversity sanctuaries.

Slowed yet not stalled, the wind sighs through the cool, lichen-draped woods and flits across a warbler jazzy in yellow and black feathers—a tiny rambler freshly arrived from a winter in Mexico. Like clouds are to rain, bees are to pollen, and sun is to shadow, so Townsend’s warblers are to lush and cool ancient forests. Their sweet high melodies give voice to the wind stirring the spring’s unfolding of bud, cone, and hatching insects.

“Inseparable” (Townsend’s Warblers) by Robin Coen

This is Refugia. Tiny Pockets. Alpine Springs.

Find refugia in the pockets, sleeves, buttons, scarves, socks, shoes, underlayers, and overlayers of wild trees and their interlacing roots. A long-toed salamander slips below the loose bark of a fallen fir by a tumbling creek. Mushrooms, moss, lichen, and orchids flourish in the gift of trees returning to earth with the help of beetles, ants, and an entire world in miniature. A pine marten races her fallen tree runway and pauses as her nose wrinkles to discern every message in the frisky wind.

Breezes rumple the riverine homes of beaver, river otter, belted kingfisher, cutthroat trout, and bumblebees on wildflowers. Trace the origin of our precious freshwater to alpine springs below snowy peaks. Know the haven of pika, mountain goat, and the rare wolverine.

Enter Refugia of the Blue Mountains with the wind always at your back….

Enjoy a small sampling of Robin’s Refugia paintings. Many watercolors are still in the works, along with my words to accompany them. Robin’s original watercolors with my texts will be part of exhibitions through 2025 and are for sale–with net proceeds going to GHCC. However, the paintings will need to stay in the exhibitions until the conclusion. There will be giclee prints for sale as well. If interested, please contact Robin Coen at

“Architects of Refugia” by Robin Coen

Summit Lake, Elkhorn Mountains. By Robin Coen

“Refugia of Rydsberg’s Penstemon” by Robin Coen

“Pika Picnic on Hawkins Pass” by Robin Coen

“Sunbath” by Robin Coen

“The Ancient One” by Robin Coen

“Spirit Animal” (Pine Marten) by Robin Coen


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