The Newton Clark Moraine

Mount Hood and the Newton Clark Moraine from Bennett Pass Road

Tucked on the remote east shoulder of Mount Hood is the Newton Clark Moraine, the largest glacial formation on the mountain, and one of its most prominent features. Yet this huge, snaking ridge remains one of Mount Hood’s least known and most mysterious landmarks.

At over three miles in length, and rising as much as a thousand feet above the glacial torrents that flow along both flanks, the Newton Clark Moraine easily dwarfs the more famous moraines along the nearby Eliot Glacier.

East Face Detail with Newton Clark Moraine

How big is it? The Newton Clark Moraine contains roughly 600 million cubic yards of debris, ranging from fine gravels and glacial till to house-sized boulders. This translates to 950 million tons of material, which in human terms, means it would take 73 million dump truck loads to haul it away.

Backcountry skiers often call the moraine “Pea Gravel Ridge”, which is a poor choice of words, as pea gravel is something you would expect in tumbled river rock. The Newton Clark Moraine is just the opposite: a jumble of relatively young volcanic debris, some of it located where it fell in Mount Hood’s eruptive past, some of it moved here by the colossal advance of the Newton Clark Glacier during the last ice age.

Newton Clark Moraine

As a result, the rocks making up the moraine are sharp and raw, not rounded, and the debris is largely unsorted. Giant boulders perch precariously atop loose rubble, making the moraine one of the most unstable places on the mountain.

In recent years, erosion on Mount Hood has been accelerating with climate change. Sections of the Newton Clark Moraine are regularly collapsing into Newton and Clark creeks, creating massive debris flows that have repeatedly washed out Highway 35, below.

2006 Newton Creek Washout on Highway 35 (USFS)

Today, an ambitious Federal Highway Administration project is underway to rebuild and — supposedly — prevent future washouts on Highway 35 at Newton Creek and the White River. But given those 73 million dump truck loads of debris located upstream on Newton Creek, it’s likely that nature has different plans for the area as climate change continues to destabilize the landscape.

Something a Little Different

Most glacial moraines on Mount Hood are lateral moraines, formed along the flanks of glaciers, or terminal moraines formed at the end of a glacier. The Newton Clark Moraine is different: it is a medial moraine, meaning that it formed between two rivers of ice.

(Wikipedia)

As shown in this schematic (above), medial moraines are more common in places like Alaska or Chile, where much larger glaciers flow for miles, like rivers. When these glaciers merge, a medial moraine is often created, marked by the characteristic stripe of rock that traces the border between the combined streams of ice.

At the surface of a glacier, only the top of a medial moraine is visible. Only upon a glacier retreating can the full size of a medial moraine be appreciated. In this way, the height of the Newton Clark Moraine is a reasonable estimate of the height (or depth) of the ancestral Newton Clark Glacier during the most recent ice age advance — the crest of the moraine approximates the depth of the former glacier.

The Newton Clark Prow

The Newton Clark Moraine is even more unique in that the two bodies of ice that formed the moraine flowed from the same glacier. Like the modern Newton Clark Glacier, the much larger ice age ancestor also began as a single, wide body of ice on Mount Hood’s east flank, but then split as it flowed around the massive rocky prow that now marks the terminus to the glacier.

The outcrop is typical of the stratovolcanoes that make up the high peaks of the Cascades. Stratovolcanoes are formed like a layer cake, with alternating flows of tough, erosion-resistant magma and loose ash and debris deposits. The Newton Clark Prow is a hard layer of magma in the “cake” that is Mount Hood, with looser layers of volcanic ash and debris piled above and below.

Newton Clark Prow detail from Gnarl Ridge

In fact, without this broad rib of volcanic rock to shore up its eastern side, the very summit of Mount Hood might well have been further eroded during the series of glacial advances that have excavated the peak.

Similar rocky outcrops appear elsewhere on the mountain, forming Mississippi Head, Yocum Ridge, Barrett Spur and the Langille Crags. Hikers visiting Gnarl Ridge know the Newton Clark Prow from the many waterfalls formed by glacial runoff cascading over its cliffs.

(Click here for a larger version)

The much softer and less consolidated rock below the prow made it easy for the ice age ancestor of the Newton Clark to scour away the mountain. This action created the huge alpine canyons that Clark and Newton creeks flow through today, as well as the enormous U-shaped valley of the East Fork Hood River.

A Glimpse into the Ice Age

While today’s Newton Clark Glacier flows a little over a mile down the east face of the mountain, its giant ice age ancestor once flowed more than 12 miles down the East Fork valley (today’s Highway 35 route), nearly to the junction of today’s Cooper Spur road. At its peak, the ancestral glacier was more than 1,200 feet deep as it flowed down the valley.

If you were to walk along the crest of the Newton Clark Moraine at that time (as suggested in the illustration, below), you would have likely been able to walk directly across the ice to Gnarl Ridge or today’s Meadows lifts, as the Clark and Newton Creek valleys were filled to the rim with rivers of ice.

Ancestral Newton Clark Glacier Extent

(Click here for a larger version)

This most recent ice age is known to scientists as the Fraser Glaciation, and extended from about 30,000 years ago until about 10,000 years ago. At its peak, the zone of perpetual snow was as low as 3,400 feet, though probably closer to 4,000 feet in the area east of Mount Hood.

This means the deflation zone — the point in its path when a glacier is melting ice more quickly than snowfall can replace — was probably somewhere near the modern-day Clark Creek Sno-Park, or possibly as low as the Gumjuwac Trailhead, where today’s Highway 35 crosses the East Fork.

Below this point, the ancestral glacier would have changed character, from a white jumble of cascading ice to one covered in rocky debris, yet still flowing toward its terminus at roughly at modern-day confluence of the East Fork with Polallie Creek (the map below shows a very generalized estimate of the ancestral glacier)

Geologists believe the Fraser-era glacial advances followed the path of earlier glaciers in their flow patterns. With the Newton-Clark glacier, scientists have found traces of at least two previous glacial advances from even more ancient glacial periods that extended far down the East Fork Valley prior to the Fraser Glaciation. This helps explain the magnitude of the glacial features in the East Fork valley, having been repeatedly carved into an enormous U-shaped trough by rivers of ice over the millennia.

Ancestral Newton Clark Glacier extending down the East Fork valley

(Click here for a larger version)

The timing of the Fraser Glaciation is even more fascinating, as it coincides with the arrival of the first humans in the Americas. It was during this time — at least 15,000 years ago, and likely much earlier — that the first nomadic people crossed the Bering Straight and moved down the Pacific Coast.

Does this mean that the earliest humans in the region might have camped at the base of Mount Hood’s enormous ice age glaciers, perhaps hunting for summer game along the outflow streams? No evidence exists to show just how far humans pushed into Mount Hood’s prehistoric valleys, but scientists now believe people have lived along the Columbia River for at least 10,000 years, and the oral histories of some tribes in the region are also believed to extend back to that time.

How to See It

The best way to see and appreciate the Newton Clark Moraine is along the Timberline Trail where it follows Gnarl Ridge. This route offers a wide-open view across Newton Canyon to the moraine. You can also see the active geology at the headwaters of Newton Creek, where the slopes of the moraine continue to change every winter. On a breezy day, you might also notice sulfur fumes blowing over the summit from the crater — a reminder that Mount Hood is still very much a living volcano today.

Mount Hood and the Newton Clark Moraine (on the left) from Gnarl Ridge

You can follow a detailed hike description to Gnarl Ridge from the Portland Hikers Field Guide at the following link:

Portland Hikers Field Guide: Gnarl Ridge Hike

Another way to see the moraine is from rustic Bennett Pass Road. In summer, you can walk or bike along the old road from Bennett Pass, and there are several viewpoints across the East Fork valley to the headwaters and the Newton Clark Moraine. In winter, you can park as the Bennett Pass Sno-Park and ski or snowshoe to one of the viewpoints — a popular and scenic option.

The most adventurous way to visit is to simply hike the crest of the moraine, itself. This trip is only for the most fit and experienced hikers, as the final segment is off-trail, climbing high above the Timberline Trail. The reward is not only close-up look at the mountain from atop the moraine, but also a rare look at a series of spectacular waterfalls that can only be seen from this vantage point.

Whatever option you choose, you’ll have unique glimpse into Mount Hood’s past — and possibly its future — through one of the mountain’s most unusual geologic features.

Columbia Gorge: The Fight for Paradise

On November 17, OPB’s Oregon Field Guide aired a special 1-hour look at the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Act, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the legislation.

The show provides a comprehensive look at the history of the Gorge Act, its friends and foes and some of the future challenges, including those never anticipated when the legislation was written — such as the recent land rush for wind turbine sites. Several of the most prominent early defenders of the Gorge are included, including Chuck Williams and Nancy Russell.

The program also includes in-depth look at the Native American legacy in the Gorge, and the ironic effect of the Gorge Act bringing a surge of new residents since it was signed into law — all seeking a life amid the scenery, and bringing demand for hundreds of new homes and new industry to a new level in the Gorge.

The program overlooks the massive increase in recreation demand over the past three decades, and the lack of trails to serve the crowds. Not much attention is paid to the future role of federal stewardship in the Gorge, and especially the national park vision that Chuck Williams advocated during the fight for protection.

Tsagaglalal or She Who Watches (USFS)

Likewise, Senator Bob Packwood is given too much credit for passage of the Gorge Act (in his own words, of course, in typical Bob Packwood form), while Senator Mark Hatfield is not given enough. Had Hatfield been alive to comment, he would undoubtedly have given a humble account of his key role in developing the legislation. This political history might make for a future documentary on the evolution of the Gorge Act, itself, perhaps based on Carl Abbot’s book Planning a New West: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Still, the program provides a very good overview of the Gorge Act over the past quarter century, and how much it has already changed the public/private balance of interests in the Gorge. Here is the documentary in full (approximately 55 minutes):

Piggyback Plant

Piggyback plant

Hike along any low-elevation stream in the Cascades and you’re likely to pass colonies of Tolmiea menziesii — more commonly known as the piggyback plant. These humble plants draw their common name from a unique habit of sprouting new plants on top of their leaves (reflected in other common names for the species, including “youth-on-age” and “thousand mothers”).

The botanical name for this species memorializes two giants in the early days of Pacific Northwest botanical discovery: Scottish-Canadian botanist William Fraser Tolmie and Archibald Menzies, the Scottish naturalist for the Vancouver Expedition.

Young leaves on a piggyback plant

These fuzzy little plants thrive in the moist shade of streamside broadleaf trees like red alder and bigleaf maple. As forest floor dwellers, piggyback plants have become expert at reproducing. They can spread along their well-developed rhizomes, through seeds, and of course, through the tiny plantlets that form on their leaves.

A close look at the piggyback plant reveals a whorl of basal leaves, typical of the many species in the saxifrage family. The leaves have 5-7 lobes, and are finely toothed. Both leaves and stems are covered in fine white hairs that give them a soft texture to the touch.

Daughter plantlet on a piggyback plant mother leaf

Piggyback plants produce leaves continually from their base, with larger, older leaves eventually sprouting a “daughter” plantlet. The genius of this reproductive strategy is how it fits into the life cycle of the deciduous forests where the plants thrive. As the older leaves mature, they extend away from the mother plant on 4-6” stems, allowing daughter plantlets that form to touch down well away from the parent plant.

This is where the over-story of deciduous trees come in. Daughter plantlets form mostly over the course of the spring and summer growing season, By autumn, they are ready for falling maple and alder leaves to bury them, pressing tiny rootlets on the daughter plants into contact with the ground, where they can grow and anchor the new plant.

Underside of a mother leaf showing rootlets on a piggyback “daughter”

By the next spring, the new plant is ready to grow on its own, still fed by the nutrients from the fading mother leaf, and still with the connecting stem from the mother leaf forming an umbilical cord to the mother plant. Over time, the mother leaf and stem connecting to the daughter plant wither and die, and the daughter becomes truly independent from the parent.

In spring, piggyback plants produce clusters of tiny, graceful blossoms on 6-10” spikes. Each blossom is capable of producing a small seed capsule filled with tiny seeds. Flower stalks die back over the course of a summer, releasing seeds to grow side-by-side with the cloned plants that have sprouted from rhizomes and “piggyback” plantlets.

Piggyback plant flower (Wikimedia)

As a survival strategy, the seed offspring have the advantage of being cross-pollinated. Over time, seed-based offspring can evolve with the genes of two parents to have new survival characteristics that single parent cloned plants from root or leaf starts inherently lack.

Piggyback Plants in the Commercial Trade

Only a few native plants from Pacific Northwest forests have been hybridized to become commercial cultivars, and still fewer are suitable as indoor plants. The piggyback plant fills this rare niche, somehow adapting to the relatively hot, arid conditions indoors. They are typically sold as hanging basket plants.

Piggyback plant cultivar “Taff’s Gold”

The curious “piggyback” habit is the main attraction for growing the plants indoors. Breeders have created commercial hybrids with larger leaves, more “piggyback” plantlets and even a few variegated cultivars, such as the “Taffs Gold” Tolmiea shown above.

Starting Your Own Piggyback Plant

There’s no need to buy a piggyback plant, kids (and parents) can enjoy collecting and growing piggyback plants collected in the wild. You can make this a two-part adventure for kids by combining the collecting with a day hike, then propagating what you’ve collected at home.

Piggyback plants are plentiful along several family-friendly trails in the Columbia River Gorge: notable among these are the short trails to Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Elowah Falls and Wahclella Falls.

On each trail, you’ll find piggyback plants in streamside areas and where deciduous trees grow. Your kids will quickly learn to spot them, and it’s okay to collect a few plantlets for growing at home, as you will be leaving the mother plant behind to produce more (an important lesson for kids).

Materials for starting your own plant

To grow your daughter plant, you’ll need the following:

• small pot (3-4 inches)
• soil-less potting mix
• bobby pin (or paper clip)
• rubber band
• plastic sandwich or freezer bag

Planting your starts is simple: (1) fill the pot to within 1” of the top with soil; (2) place the mother leaf and plantlet in the pot, with rootlets touching the soil; pin in place by pushing the bobby pin (or paper clip) over the mother leaf stem just below the plantlet, and holding it against the soil. Next, (3) sprinkle another 1/4” of potting mix, slightly covering the stem and base of the plantlet, and water well. Finally, (4) secure the plastic bag over the pot with the rubber band to provide a humid environment for the young plantlet to become established.

Piggyback start potted and ready to grow

Keep your new piggyback plant in a bright north or east-facing window, and covered with the plastic bag until you see the plantlet growing. At this point, you can remove the bag and watch your new houseplant grow — or plant it in your yard, where it will thrive in moist shade.

This is a terrific way to get young kids excited about the outdoors, and perhaps develop a green thumb in the process! You can start a piggyback plant at any time, as the plantlets can be collected year-round on the low-elevation Gorge trails listed above.