Mount Hood rises over the Western Juniper forests on the east side of the Cascades
One of the most startling features of the Cascade Range comes from the rain shadow effect the mountains have on approaching Pacific storms. Through a process known as “orographic lifting”, weather systems rolling in from the ocean are forced up and over the wall of mountains when they reach the Cascades. This lifting has the effect of wringing out moisture from the clouds, resulting in rainforests on the west side and deserts on the east side of the mountains.
The rain shadow effect it especially prominent in WyEast country, where the Cascade range is at its narrowest, just 50 miles wide, compared to more than 100 miles or more across in much of the range. In less than an hour traveling through the Columbia Gorge from Troutdale to Hood River, the landscape changes from deep rainforests where up to 140 inches of rain fall annually to the Ponderosa pine and Oregon White Oak forests of the east slope, where annual rainfall dips below 20 inches.
Western Juniper finally give way to desert grasslands and sage in the rain shadow of Mount Hood, where annual rainfall drops below 10 inches
In the extreme rain shadow of the Cascades, where rainfall dips below 10 inches annually, the big conifers that define our forests finally give way to a sagebrush, grasslands and a rugged desert tree, the Western Juniper. Long overlooked as “non-commercial” (meaning it is not easily harvested as saw logs), these scrappy trees have been flourishing over the past century on the desert plains and buttes east of the mountains.
Mount Hood has its own juniper forests, though they are less widespread here than elsewhere in Oregon’s high desert country. The reason for this is agriculture. Much of the rolling desert terrain east of the mountain has been cultivated for well more than a century, originally for intensive grazing, and today for highly productive wheat farming.
Western Juniper still thrives at Juniper Flat, taking hold wherever the ground isn’t actively plowed
Yet, there are still Western juniper stands sprinkled through even the most heavily cultivated areas, and as you move away from the farms and the lowlands of the Columbia River Basin — Western Juniper mostly grow above 2,000 feet elevation — there remain many thriving Western Juniper forests.
The most extensive of these is (appropriately) at Juniper Flats, located 25 miles to the southeast of the mountain, on a rocky tableland adjacent to the White River Canyon. This is typical Western Juniper country — cold, sometimes snowy winters and hot, very dry summers. The soils here are thin, resting on a bedrock of basalt. The few areas that can be farmed have been cultivated, but the rest of Juniper Flat is grazing country where Western Juniper flourish.
When Juniper Flat got its modern name from white settlers arriving on the Oregon Trail, it’s very likely the juniper forests here looked much different than what we see today. That’s because our juniper forests are on the move and expanding.
Botanists generalize juniper forests into three community types:
• Mixed forests – these are where Western Juniper are mixed with Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir and other big conifers on the margins of the mountain forest zone.
Large Ponderosa Pine anchor this mixed forest, surrounded by lighter green Western Juniper that take on a tall, slender form in mixed forests
•Juniper forests – these occur where Western Juniper dominates and the trees grow relatively close together, with a canopy that typical covers 10-20% of the landscape
Juniper forest on the march at Juniper Flat where these trees are recolonizing a fallow farm field
•Juniper savanna — where Western Juniper are widely scattered in desert grasslands and their canopy covers less than 10% of the landscape
Juniper are widely scattered across this savanna in the shadow of Mount Hood, along the west edge of Juniper Flat
Scientists have documented an exponential increase in Western Juniper growing in Oregon since the late 1800s, in many cases transforming former juniper savannah to become juniper forests. This was likely the case at Juniper Flat, and today it mostly qualifies as a juniper forest.
In a landmark report published in the late 1990s, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found that over half of Oregon’s juniper forests we established between 1850 and 1900. Still more startling is the spread of Western Juniper since the 1930s, when the first comprehensive assessment was made. At the time the BLM study was released in 1999, an estimated a five-fold increase in juniper forest coverage had occurred over the previous 60 years.
That number of Western Juniper in Oregon continues to increase today, though there is an upper limit for these trees. Their sweet spot is desert lands above 2,000 feet elevation and between 10” and 20″ of annual rainfall. They do not seem to spread much beyond these areas, and in Oregon they are now present across most areas that meet these criteria.
Western Juniper berries are a critical winter food source for coyotes, foxes, rabbits and many desert bird species. These are also the berries the Dutch famously learned to distill in the 17th Century to make gin (a word derived from the Dutch word “jenever” for juniper), and a craft distillery industry using these berries has emerged in Oregon
Western Juniper foliage is evergreen and made up of tiny, overlapping scale-like leaves that help these trees conserve moisture in their harsh desert habitat
Western Juniper bark is tough, shaggy and fire-resistant, allowing larger trees to survive moderate intensity range fires
Given their recent spread in Oregon, Western Juniper forests are also remarkably age-diverse when compared to the even-aged stands we often see with young conifer forests. A typical juniper forest contains a diverse range of trees, from young to old. These trees are tough survivors, with fully one quarter of Oregon’s juniper forests more than a century old, and over a third of these forests have century-old trees in their mix.
Why are Western Juniper forests spreading? One answer is lack of wildfire in the ecosystem over the past century due to human fire suppression. Another could be effects of climate changes that scientists are only beginning to understand. Still another is the parceling and residential development of our desert lands, and a shift away from farming and ranching, where juniper forests were routinely cleared or burned.
Most think of Nevada as the heart of Western Juniper country, but more than three quarters of Oregon falls within its range, and a good share of California, Washington is also prime habitat for these rugged trees
As desert survivors, Western Juniper have adapted in ways that help them out-compete with other desert plants. They have enormous root systems that can extend several times beyond the size of their crown, spreading up to two and half times the height of the tree in all directions, compared to most trees with root systems roughly proportional to the width of their crown. This helps explain the wide spacing of Western Juniper. Where our big mountain conifers often grown just a few feet from one another, juniper forests might have as few as ten trees per acre, thanks to their huge root systems.
Western Juniper crowns are also part of their competitive strategy. Their dense foliage is estimated to capture more than half the precipitation that falls upon them. Some of this is absorbed, some evaporates, but the net effect is less moisture making it to understory plants or the soil.
The small Western Juniper on the left will have to work hard to complete with its larger neighbor for water and soil nutrients. Juniper are highly efficient in their ability to gather and store moisture, out-competing other species and even their own seedlings to survive
Juniper root systems also out-compete the desert understory species that are most associated with juniper forests. These include several sagebrush species, Bitterbrush, Rabbitbrush and a few other hardy desert shrubs, along with desert grasses and wildflowers. This has emerged as a chief concern for the BLM, since this translates into impacts on the cattle industry that leases federal grazing allotments. Beyond the economics of cattle grazing (and more importantly), the loss of understory also has impacts that ripple through wildlife populations, as well.
Another concern with the spread of our juniper forests is the potential risk to private property and human life from wildfire. Western Juniper is adapted to fire, and large trees are likely to survive low-intensity fires, but they can also burn hot when conditions are right. If juniper forests have spread rapidly in Oregon’s deserts over the past century, human development in juniper country has spread still faster, placing tens of thousands of rural homes at risk to wildfire.
This BLM fuels reduction work removed about one third of the trees in this juniper forest – mostly larger trees. The cut wood and limbs are simply stacked and left to decompose. The goal is to mimic the effect of fire in maintaining and open forest and understory that might otherwise be pushed out by juniper
These concerns have led the BLM to carry out “fuels reduction” projects in juniper forests on federal lands in Oregon as early as the late 1980s. One approach is controlled burns, a practice used in other conifer forests to reintroduce wildfire to the ecosystem after a century of aggressive fire suppression. This method ideally leaves the largest junipers standing and thins out younger trees, and it has been used successfully throughout juniper country. However, fires sent intentionally continue to be a controversial practice, as evidenced by the massive New Mexico wildfires currently burning that were ignited by controlled burns. In the era of climate change, land managers will need to revisit “safe” seasons for using this tool or risk public backlash that threatens to ban the practice completely.
Another approach to “fuels reduction” is simply cutting down trees and leaving them behind as debris piles, as pictured above. This approach works where there isn’t enough understory to support a controlled burn, or where proximity to private property makes a controlled burn too dangerous. However, it’s also labor intensive compared to controlled burns and still leaves cut debris behind as potential fuel.
In areas where these approaches were employed in the 1980s and 90s, subsequent monitoring by the BLM slowed that young juniper were already colonizing burned or cleared areas within just five years. Therefore, so long as natural wildfires are suppressed in juniper country, techniques like these will be needed in perpetuity to maintain some semblance of a natural ecosystem and to protect human life and property.
This craggy old fire survivor is surrounded by young Western Juniper quickly colonizing a former burn
This points to the larger problem of rural over-development throughout the West that continues to encroach on our forests. We’ve created a perfect storm with fire suppression and sprawling that climate change is only escalating, with whole communities now facing the risk of being swept up in catastrophic fires.
In Oregon, strict land use planning has blunted rural sprawl since the 1970s, yet some of the impetus for statewide planning was the “sagebrush subdivisions” that were already underway when legendary Governor Tom McCall railed against them in 1973. Loopholes in county zoning codes have since allowed thousands more homes to be built in the deserts of Central Oregon, in particular. For these spread-out communities that already exist in juniper country, fire prevention campaigns are encouraging those living there to “harden” their homes against fire. Yet, if you spend much time in juniper country, you know that the vast majority of homes continue to be built with wood siding and most of the older homes have highly flammable composition roofing.
Many of these areas should never have been developed as home sites, of course. And as fires continue to consume whole communities in the West, there’s a good chance that cost of fire insurance or the inability to secure home loans might prevent simply rebuilding when fires in high-risk areas do occur. We’ve seen this play out in chronically flooded areas in other parts of the country, after all. The West is still coming to grips with the permanent reality of wildfire, however, and it’s unclear if we have the collective will to say no to development in fire-prone areas like our juniper forests.
Before farming, much of the juniper country near Mount Hood looked like this – open desert grasslands and scattered groves of Western Juniper. This remnant landscape at the edge of Juniper Flat, looking north to Tygh Ridge
Meanwhile, the juniper forests continue to spread and flourish in Oregon. The situation in Wy’East country is more complex, though: much of the historic juniper habitat east of Mount Hood was converted to agriculture long ago. Yet, today, some of that ground is going fallow, whether by economic realities in a global agriculture market, or because large farm parcels are being picked up by non-farmers, reverting to native plant cover. Some fallow land is being purchased for conservation purposes, either by public agencies or conservation non-profits. If these trends continue, we may see the juniper forests spreading in Mount Hood’s shadow, too.
There aren’t great trails or developed recreation sites in Mount Hood’s juniper forests (someday, hopefully!), as much of the area is in private hands. But if you like exploring rustic backroads, Juniper Flat and nearby Smock Prairie are scenic and rich with history. Dozens of abandoned homesteads and barns, a couple old schoolhouses and some fascinating pioneer cemeteries are sprinkled along the gravel roads that crisscross the hay fields and juniper groves. Juniper Flat is located immediately west of the community of Maupin and about 125 miles from Portland, along US 197.
Hand-tinted view of the Shepperd’s Dell bridge and the Columbia River circa 1920s
Serendipity was at work after I posted this recent article on the venerable old Douglas fir that grows at the east end of the historic Shepperd’s Dell Bridge. First, I’ll share some great comments on the article from readers that shed more light on the story of the big fir. Reader Rosemary Shepperd Guttridge writes:
“I use that tree as an indication of age of photo. My photo by Weister has the top in the tree. A slightly newer photo by Kinsey with a date of 1925, the top is out.”
Rosemary is George Shepperd’s great, great-granddaughter and keeper of the Shepperd family history. You can read my 2014 interview with her and see some of Rosemary’s rare photos of Shepperd family history in this article:
Reader Jerry King shared this fascinating bit of history:
“Labor Day weekend in 2017 wasn’t this tree’s only threat. In the summer of 2016, my wife and I were westbound approaching the fir when smoke came up out of the canyon! We parked after crossing the bridge and saw flames crawling up the east bank (north of the bridge). I quickly called 911 and then began the 26-minute wait for the first Corbett Fire truck to arrive. Flames came within 20’ of the grand old fir!”
Jerry’s account raises the question of whether this earlier fire might have actually saved the big fir by burning some of the accumulated fuel and brush on the slope beneath the tree before the big fire swept through in 2017?
On the same day that Rosemary and Jerry posted their comments on the article, a couple of historic postcards I had bid on arrived in the mail. Both were of Shepperd’s Dell, and both are new images to my ever-growing collection of old photos and postcards. The first is the hand-tinted image at the top of this article. You can view a large version here:
What sets this image apart from the many Shepperd’s Dell postcards I’ve collected is the wide view that includes the Columbia River, Sand Island and the pasture land in the floodplain that has now reverted to forests, meadows – and a freeway, of course.
The second image (below) is even more unusual, so I will dissect this one a bit for some of the stories it tells. This is the full image, shot (somewhat impossibly) from the steep cliff at the west end of the Shepperd’s Dell bridge. It features a parade of touring automobiles coming across the bridge, and visitors parked at the east end pullout, as well. Like the first image, it also shows the Columbia River and Sand Island in the distance.
Traffic jam on Shepperd’s Dell bridge in the early days of the historic highway
Photographers back in the day hauled around large format cameras and even larger tripods to capture these photos – a testament to the photographer who staked out this image. There’s good reason why this view is rare!
A closer look at the three vehicles on the bridge (below) suggests that, while this was a well-planned image, it probably wasn’t staged. Only the woman in the middle of the backseat in the first vehicle is looking up at the photographer, and cars still stack up like this on the bridge today as tourists take in the amazing views of Shepperd’s Dell, no prompting required. Given the popularity of auto touring in the early 1900s, it’s likely the historic highway looked like this on any given sunny, summer afternoon (and I’m basing that on the tops down on the cars and shadows showing the sun moving toward the west horizon).
Well, at least SOMEBODY spotted the photographer on the cliff above the bridge! (…the woman looking up from the backseat of the first car)
This photo was taken between 1914 and 1917, and there are surely some auto buffs out there who can identify the makes and years of the vehicles in this image to me, too. While I’m definitely not an auto buff, I did notice that two of the three (!) vehicles on the bridge have their steering wheels on the right side of the car – not unusual at the time, as left-side steering only because predominant with the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908.
A closer look (below) at the pullout at the east end of the bridge reveals a scene with all manner of activity. Several cars are parked or stopped, with visitors walking onto the bridge for views of the river and Shepperd’s Dell waterfalls – just as we do today. Two children are playing under the big fir – perhaps picking up its fallen cones? The big tree is already impressive in this view, too – at least 3 feet in diameter more than a century ago.
Lots going on at the east end of the bridge (and below the big fir) in this scene!
The scene beyond the pullout, directly under Bishops Cap, really caught my eye. There are several people walking about in the middle of the road and what looks to be a car stopped in the middle of the road. That would be hair raising on this blind corner today, and it probably was back then, too! It is this part of the scene, along with the overall level of activity, that makes me think this photo was captured when the historic Columbia River Highway was dedicated in June 1916.
How did I narrow the image on this card to between 1914 and 1917? The message on the back is key (below), as the postmark confirms the date, and that it was sent from Portland. The Shepperd’s Dell bridge was completed in 1914, and thus this image was captured sometime during that period. The postmark means this card was sent almost exactly one year after the highway was formally dedicated.
1917 Message on the reverse of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge postcard.
As postmarked postcards go, this one is a real gem. The sender (“Margaret”) not only dated her message, she also describes her “grand trip” along the road pictured on the front of the card – surprisingly few postcards contain messages that speak to the image on the front We can only guess who young Eliott might be in relation to the sender, only that he “is a mighty good boy and wishes to be remember to Aunt Elizabeth.”
Yes, it still is a “grand trip”, Margaret!
Out of curiosity, I looked up Miss Elizabeth’s address and it turns out to be an impressive, turreted townhome (below, with red doors), now part of the Moreland Street Historic District in south Boston. Margaret and Elizabeth would be shocked at the changes both Portland and Boston have seen over the past century, for sure.
Meanwhile, the scene at Shepperd’s Dell remains largely the same as it appears in this old postcard. Even the big fir survives. We should be proud of that, as it didn’t happen by accident – beginning with George Shepperd donating his dell to the public in 1915, and later, federal protection of the Gorge as a national scenic area and restoration of the historic Columbia River Highway.
The lovely townhome in Boston where Aunt Elizabeth lived in 1917 still stands!
Reading century-old postcard messages like this always makes me wonder just what bits of ephemera from our time might even survive to be looked upon a century from now as a glimpse into how we lived. I think about this when I write these articles and post the images into a digital ether, to be stored on servers 1,000 miles away, then temporarily viewed on computer screens and electronic gadgets.
Paradoxically, the same digital era technology that reduces our words and memories to electrons also allowed me to find an old postcard sent to Massachusetts a century ago and bring it back home to Oregon.
I’m not sure there are any lessons here… just a reminder to go write a few postcards!
1920s postcard view of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge and its iconic Douglas fir (colorized for this article)
A reader reached out a few weeks ago with a question about “that big fir tree at Shepperd’s Dell, and as it turned out, I had been working on an article on that very subject! The tree in question is unmistakable: it stands near the east end of the iconic Shepperd’s Dell Bridge, perhaps the most recognizable of the many graceful bridges along the Historic Columbia River Highway.
The big tree is a Douglas fir, Oregon’s official state tree, and it has been growing here since well before this section of the historic highway was constructed in 1914. The tree grows in a protected hollow, surrounded on three sides by basalt cliffs. George Shepperd, the local farmer who donated what is today’s Shepperd’s Dell State Natural Area to become a park, walked under the tree with his family on their regular visits to visit the waterfalls at Shepperd’s Dell from their farm, located just to the east. Today, countless visitors admire it from the shady wayside at the east end of the bridge.
1910s view of the west approach to Shepperd’s Dell with the big fir rising in front of Bishops Cap
Early photos of the new Shepperd’s Dell Bridge taken in the late 1910s (above) show the tree prominently framing the rock outcrop known as Bishops Cap, more than a century ago. At the time, the tree was large enough to easily be 60-70 years old, though it still had the symetrical shape of a relatively youthful tree.
The image below shows the 1910s scene in reverse, from atop Bishops Cap, with the big Douglas fir standing out in the foreground and a few early motorists parked along the opposite side of the highway.
1910s view looking west from the top of Bishops Cap toward Shepperd’s Dell Bridge, with early motorists and the big fir front and center at the east end of the bridge
This hand-colored postcard (below) from the 1930s features Bishops Cap, and the big Douglas fir is especially prominent in this view. The construction of Historic Columbia River Highway was famously designed to blend with nature and follow the contours of the land, but that still required road engineer Samuel Lancaster to do some fairly heavy blasting and grading to complete the scenic route. At Shepperd’s Dell, he graded the slope above the big fir, but clearly took care to protect the tree from fill debris, likely extending its life for another century.
1930s hand-tinted postcard view of Bishops Cap with the big fir prominently featured to the left
Here’s another hand-tinted 1930s postcard view (below) from the west end of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge showing Bishops Cap and the big fir. When I first came across this image, I assumed that a fair amount of artist’s license was used to create the scene, since it appears to be from a point in space, where a vertical cliff drops directly below the historic highway.
1930s hand-tinted postcard view of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge and the big fir in the upper left
However, I eventually came across the 1920s era photo (below) that the previous, hand-tinted image was created from. It turns out the photographer was part mountain goat and managed to capture the scene from a vertical slope below the old highway! As in the hand-tinted view, the big Douglas fir rises beyond the bridge, on the left.
This is the 1920s photograph that the previous hand-tinted scene was based upon, with the big fir in the upper left
This 1910s view (below) is perhaps the most popular of the early images of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge. It appeared in both its black and white original form and in colorized versions on countless postcards and in souvenir folios that were popular with early motorists visiting the Gorge. At the time this photo was taken, many sections of the new highway were still unpaved, including the section at Shepperd’s Dell.
This is perhaps the most popular 1920s postcard view of Shepperd’s Dell Bridge, with the big fir on the left
Over the century since Samuel Lancaster built his iconic highway through the area, the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell has thrived, as shown in this pair of images (below). The arrows provide reference points on Bishops Cap that helps underscore just how much the old fir has grown in just over century when viewed from the same spot at the west end of Shepperd’s Dell Bridge.
A century passed between these views, but the big fir remains and has grown noticeably larger — the 2021 view is somewhat wider than the 1920s view to fully capture the big fir!
In the 1920s view, the top of the big fir was visually just a big higher than the top of Bishops Cap. By 2021, the tree had not only added some 50 feet to its height, it had also spread out and formed a more rounded crown that is typical for mature Douglas fir. The upper arrow in the 2021 image points to what was the approximate top of the tree in the 1920s. The spread of the tree is noticeable in the 2021 image, as well, as it now obscures part of Bishops Cap from this perspective.
The big fir at Shepperd’s Dell after the fire..?
The charred base of the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell in 2018, one year after the fire
Today, the Shepperd’s Dell fir remains a familiar feature to those stopping at the wayside, a true survivor that stands out from the surrounding forest. Its stout trunk is much larger than other trees in the area, and there has always been a bit of a mystery about a plank attached to the tree and metal cable that disappears into the canopy (I won’t attempt to solve that in this article!). So, when Eagle Creek Fire swept through the Gorge and reached Shepperd’s Dell over Labor Day weekend in 2017, the fate of this old tree was on my mind.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it was clear that the big tree hadn’t crowned (meaning the fire hadn’t engulfed the entire tree), but a significant part of the crown had been scorched and the bark at the base of the tree was badly blackened. The understory around the tree was completely burned away, so it was clear the fire had burned hot when it swept through. Because the fire occurred toward the end of the growing season, when conifers are becoming dormant with the approach of winter, it was impossible to know if the living cambium layers under the big fir’s thick bark had been destroyed by the heat of the burn. That would have to wait until the next spring, when the stress of producing new growth would test the its ability to survive.
By the fall of 2018 — one year after the fire – the situation was discouraging. The old tree had put out very little new growth on its remaining green limbs in its first growing season after the fire. And while it retained many of its surviving limbs over the course of that year’s summer drought, many had dropped their needles and died back (below), leaving the tree with less than half its canopy intact. Still, it had managed to survive the first year following the fire.
Looking up at the badly scorched canopy of the big fir in 2018, one year after the fire
The group of younger Douglas fir around the big tree didn’t fare as well. Some had been immediately killed by the fire, while others that survived the initial blaze seemed to have lost too much living canopy to recover from the fire (below). During that first summer, the combined loss of green canopy and stress from the annual drought season was too much for many of these trees to survive their first year after the fire.
The scorched big fir and its smaller companions in 2018, one year after the fire
As the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell entered its second winter season after the fire in 2018-19, it wasn’t looking good at all. It has put on almost no new growth that year, and the annual needle drop that fall left even more blackened, bare limbs exposed.
Worse, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) was cutting down what it deemed to be hazard trees along the historic highway in the wake of the fire. This included scores of trees around Shepperd’s Dell, some of them living trees that were impacted by the fire, but still surviving. Its haggard appearance at the time (below) put the big fir at great risk of being defined a “hazard” by highway crews, but thankfully, it was spared from the chainsaws.
The Shepperd’s Dell fir in 2019… with less than half its canopy intact, the old tree was still hanging on…
Then, in the spring of 2019, the big fir pushed out a modest flush of new growth on its surviving limbs in its second season of growth following the fire. It wasn’t much, but it did signal that the tree was finally starting to rebound from the fire. It was no longer losing ground in its recovery.
As the spring of 2020 unfolded, our world seemed to stop as the COVID pandemic swept the globe, but for the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell, things were clearly looking up. The tree put on another flush of new growth in its third year following the fire, then another flush of new growth followed in the spring of 2021. While we hunkered down in the pandemic, the big fir was making its comeback (below).
The big fir makes a comeback: three growing seasons between these images show significant recovery of the crown and middle canopy
Looking up into the canopy in 2021, the change in just three years of gradual recovery is dramatic (below). The big fir has been rebuilding its living canopy and thereby restoring its ability to actively grow, once again. Surprisingly, some of the new growth was also emerging from limbs that seemed to have been lost in that first year after the fire, but apparently had just enough living cambium layer left to allow new growth to emerge through the blackened bark.
Looking up into the recovering canopy of the big fir in late 2021
Today, the future of the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell seems much brighter. Its recovery is remarkable, considering how many of its neighbors were lost to the fire (below). But that’s no accident. Our largest conifers — Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine and Western Larch — typically drop their lower limbs as they grow. This adaption focuses growth at the top of their canopies, where they can absorb the most sunlight, but it also helps protect their living crowns when fires sweep through by denying a “ladder” of lower limbs that allow fire to climb up the tree to the main canopy.
Low intensity fires reinforce this adaptation, with the lowest limbs of moderately burned trees often succumbing to the fire, even as the tree survives, placing its crown still further above the reach of future moderate intensity burns. These “cool” fires are beneficial, helping thin the forest, remove accumulated fuel, invigorate the leafy understory and allow the largest trees to live on to continue anchoring the forest. Combined with thick, fire-resistant bark, these big conifer species define the “fire forests” along the east slopes of the Cascades, where fire is an essential part of the ecosystem, though Douglas Fir grows throughout the Cascades.
The big fir survives! But some of its companions did not…
While some of the area burned in the 2017 Eagle Creek fire fit the definition of “beneficial”, vast areas burned far too hot for any trees to survive, requiring whole ecosystems to restart from bare soil, and in turn, exposing bare soil to serious erosion. Today, modern forest management is increasingly embracing prescribed burns with moderately hot fires to mimic the frequent beneficial burns that were common before modern fire suppression began in the early 1900s. While still controversial for the risk that prescribed burns can potentially bring to rural property, their overwhelming benefit to the forest and role in preventing catastrophic fires is unquestionable.
Look closely at the burn patterns following the Eagle Creek Fire, and you will also see big conifers growing in moist canyons or shaded north-facing slopes were more likely to survive the fire. This has to do with the timing of the blaze. When the fire swept through over Labor Day weekend in 2017, Oregon’s forests were at their most stressed point in the growing season, with several months of drought and hot weather drying trees out and making their extremely vulnerable to fire.
Yet, trees with better access to moisture during the annual drought cycle are able to stay fully hydrated, and are much less vulnerable to the intense heat of a forest fire. This is also why some of our largest trees are found where summer moisture is available. Look at the bark on many of these trees, and you are likely to see ancient burn marks, often from multiple fires that these trees have survived over their long lives. As our forests cope with a changing, warming climate, these conditions favorable to survival will become increasingly important if we hope to continue to have big trees in our forests.
Aerial view of Shepperd’s Dell from 2019 showing the historic highway curving gracefully around the shaded hollow holding the big fir (ODOT image)
What does the future hold for the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell? In the near future, this old tree suddenly has less competition for water and nutrients from nearby trees that succumbed to the fire. For the longer term, it enjoys an excellent location for survival, growing in a shaded, moist bowl surrounded by protective cliffs that buffer it from the seemingly perpetual Columbia Gorge winds.
Douglas fir can live for centuries, and there’s no reason this old tree can’t outlive every human being walking on the planet today – and their children and grandchildren, too! Its most lethal threat is probably us. So, hopefully we will continue to give it the respect and space to grow that Sam Lancaster provided with his curving highway design more than a century ago, allowing many future generations to marvel at this old survivor, just as we do.
Previous WyEast Blog articles on the remarkable George Shepperd:
Adam Sawyer and Kara Close at Palouse Falls (Photo: Adam Sawyer)
This post is a break from my typical articles, but I wanted to get the word out to those who follow my blog. Over the weekend, I learned that my friend Adam Sawyer lost his wonderful partner Kara Close when their home in rural Washington burned to ground.
Adam lost everything, including Kara’s little cat Lela. It’s both heartbreaking and unfathomable for any of us to imagine the loss Adam is experiencing. He is staying with family for now, but he needs our help to recover from this devastating blow. A GoFundMe page has been set up by his sister to directly help Adam:
Adam and Kara in Washington Park (Photo: Adam Sawyer)
Why am I posting this here? That’s easy. Adam loves the Pacific Northwest outdoors, and he makes his living writing field guides, news and magazine articles and leading tours that bring outdoor experiences within reach of everyone. Nobody gets rich in his business. He’s in it for his love of the outdoors and to share that love with others. The joy he finds in guiding others to adventure shines through in his writing, too. Adam has led an adventurous life — including being a veteran — but his literary bio blurb perfectly sums how he embarked on the life he now lives:
“After giving up a soul-crushing corporate job, Adam Sawyer now describes himself as a Professional Gentleman of Leisure. A freelance writer and photographer, he also offers guided hikes around the Portland, Oregon area. He has hiked extensively throughout the Pacific Northwest and enjoys sharing his discoveries.”
Adam’s field guides are “people’s guides”. They are aimed at a broad audience to include people who might not otherwise explore the outdoors discover the beauty of our amazing Pacific Northwest. They’re accessible and fun to read, yet they also cover trail ethics and especially the impacts that we humans have on our public lands. Adam calls on his readers to consider volunteering with trail stewardship organizations to give back and pitch in to care for our amazing trail network – something you don’t often find in a hiking guide.
Adam and Kara on the water (Photo: Adam Sawyer)
Adam and Kara in the air (Photo: Adam Sawyer)
Kara joined Adam on many of his adventures, and she was a constant source of support for him in realizing his dream of being an author and guide – including long stints away from their home. Adam was on just such a trip when the fire occurred, likely saving his life, but taking Kara’s. It’s too often a cliché, but Kara and Adam were, indeed, soulmates. That’s plain to see in these photos that Adam has shared.
Support Adam’s Writing
While the GoFundMe campaign will help support Adam in this moment of tragedy, we can continue his excellent work going forward by simply supporting his writing. To say that Adam is a prolific writer is an understatement, as you can see in this rundown (below) of his many guides currently in print. Have a look… and then buy every single one of them! Then buy a couple more for friends or family! They make great gifts.
I’ll post a couple links at the bottom of this article (to Amazon and Powell’s) where you can pick up any of these titles. Please note that for the purpose of getting this post up quickly, I’ve included the publisher’s descriptions for each of these books (italicized).
Urban Hikes | Oregon (March 1, 2022)
Oregon, whimsical paradise of the Pacific Northwest, is known for its lush landscapes of forests and mountains. But you don’t have to go all the way into the backcountry to experience what the state has to offer. In Urban Hikes Oregon you’ll hit the trail to discover the landmarks and hotspots that shape the state’s cities and towns. From arboretum trails to picturesque waterfront walks, this guide explores the 40 best urban hiking trails throughout the state.
Best Outdoor Adventures Near Portland (2016)
Who says you have to travel far from home to go on a great hike, paddle, or bike ride? Best Outdoor Adventures Near Portland, Oregon details nearly forty of the best hikes, paddles, bike routes, and adventures within an hour’s drive from the Portland, Oregon, area. This book is perfect for the urban and suburbanite who may be hard-pressed to find great outdoor activities close to home. This guide not only include the best cycling, hiking, and paddling, but also ziplining, rock climbing, and disc golf – perfect for families!
Hiking Waterfalls | Oregon (2020)
This beautiful, full-color guidebook features 64 of the best waterfall hikes in Oregon, with another 19 honorable mentions. From the Coast Range to the Cascades, along with the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge, you can explore those special places where water cascades over cliffs. Some waterfalls are remote while others are just a short hike from the trailhead, some are gentle trickles and others are roaring giants. Yet all of them offer a peaceful escape and are worth seeking out.
Hiking Waterfalls | Washington (2019)
Hiking Waterfalls in Washington includes detailed hike descriptions, maps, and color photos for the area’s most scenic waterfall hikes. Hike descriptions also include history, trivia, and GPS coordinates. This book takes you through state and national parks, forests, monuments, and wilderness areas, and from city parks to the most secluded corners of the area to view the most spectacular waterfalls.
Best Easy Day Hikes | Salem & Eugene (2021)
Best Easy Day Hikes Salem and Eugene includes concise descriptions and detailed maps for easy-to-follow hikes in and around two of Oregon’s most charming and adventurous small cities. Stroll along the river in Salem and visit the Northwest Rainforest outside Eugene’s hip college town.
Unique Eats and Eateries of Portland, Oregon (2018)
“Adam Sawyer uncovers the stories of the people behind the city’s ascension to culinary greatness. Along the way, you’ll discover the best places to try it all!” – katu.com
“You have more than 90 eateries, and as I read through all of them, there wasn’t a loser among any of them. I want to take someone visiting Portland to each of these places.” – Portland Culinary Podcast
“This book covers all locations around the Portland area, no cravings unanswered! Highly recommend as the perfect research resource for your next date night in Portland.” – Reader review
Forthcoming titles to watch for from Adam Sawyer:
25 Outdoor Adventures on the Tillamook Coast
Hiking Waterfalls: Idaho
You can order Adam’s books from these online booksellers (and Kindle versions from Amazon):
I met Adam 15 years ago when Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) and the Oregon Hikers Forum were just getting started. It has been such a pleasure to watch his life as a “Gentleman of Leisure” unfold over that time, and I know he’ll find his path through the hardship and grief that he’s now facing.
Adam has had other challenges in his life, more than most of us have faced. But he’s a man of unusual grit, good humor and a big heart, and that has always pulled him through. I wish him well, and I thank you for considering your part in helping Adam through this especially tough part of his life journey.
Adam, thank you for the spirit and passion you bring to our amazing outdoors!
After nearly ten years of informal meetings and town halls, Senator Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer recently released a much-anticipated framework for legislation that will fundamentally change the management direction for Mount Hood and expand protections for the Columbia River Gorge.
The legislative details are forthcoming, but for now Sen. Wyden and Rep. Blumenauer are asking for public comment on a general legislative concept by January 7 – this Friday! That’s a very short comment period, but if you love WyEast Country (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t!) please consider weighing in, even if only to send a sentence or two on what is most important to you as this legislation takes shape.
Here are 10 things to know about this new proposal for Mount Hood and the Gorge:
1. It’s a very big deal for Mount Hood! At this time, it’s still a legislative concept, but it will frame the ultimate details of the legislation, and the scope of the concept is broad. This is the most sweeping legislation proposed for Mount Hood since the Oregon National Forest was created in 1908 (and later renamed the Mount Hood National Forest in 1924). This is a big deal for Mount Hood. More than the original Mount Hood Wilderness area created with the Wilderness Act in 1964, more than the subsequent wilderness additions in 1978, 1984 and 2009. And more than the Northwest Forest Act of 1992.
Why? Because the legislation would shift the core function of the forest away from commercial logging and toward forest restoration and enhanced recreation. This is a sea change for the Forest Service – and for the mountain. The degree to which this pivot is enforced in law depends solely on what the coming legislation says, and therefore the importance of weighing in early and often (as Rep. Blumenauer likes to say).
2. It’s big deal for the Gorge, too! While the greatest impact of the proposed legislation would be on Mount Hood and the federal lands that surround the mountain, additional protections and recreation enhancements for the Gorge are part of the proposal. They represent the most important step forward since the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area was established in 1986.
Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge
3. Say it with me: Mount Hood National Recreation Area! The central and most powerful feature of the legislative concept is a dramatic expansion of the Mount Hood National Recreation Area (NRA). “Expansion” you might ask? Since when has a Mount Hood NRA even existed? Since 2009, as it turns out – though few know this, and it’s understandable. The awkwardly titled “Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness” bill that President Obama signed into law in 2009 added new wilderness and a number of other protections for Mount Hood, but tucked into the bill were three small areas to the east and southeast of the mountain deemed the “Mount Hood NRA”.
At the time, the creation of these NRA postage stamps was really just a consolation prize to mountain bikers who stood to lose access to trails falling inside the new wilderness areas. This is a frustrating and contentious issue among should-be conservation allies that was never anticipated when the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964 (bicycles are interpreted as mechanized, and thus excluded under the law). Though token as the original Mount Hood NRA units were, I wrote in this article several years ago that they also represented an opportunity to someday help Mount Hood achieve full recognition as a national treasure worthy of permanent protection. It was legislative foot in the door that may be about to open much wider.
The power of the NRA is clear in the legislative concept: it would encompass most of the Mount Hood National Forest north the Clackamas River, or roughly half the forest. The Forest Service would be thereby directed to write a new management plan for this vast area that focuses on forest restoration, recreation and watershed and water quality. This is a long-overdue change from the commercial logging mission that has hammered the mountain since the 1950s. As envisioned in the legislative concept, the new mandate would be to restore forest health and promote recreational activities that are in concert with a recovering forest that will be allowed to grow old, once again.
Rainforest along Whale Creek on the Clackamas River Trail
Did you know the current plan guiding the Forest Service for their management decisions was adopted more than 30 years ago, in 1990? The Portland region, alone, has grown by well over 1 million residents in that time, but aside from expansion of the commercial ski resorts, recreation opportunities on Mount Hood haven’t expanded — with the resulting traffic and trailhead crowding we see as a familiar reminder. The legislative concept speaks directly to this crisis in management, with a clear directive to the Forest Service to change its focus to better reflect the interests and concerns of a changed region. This is a sea change for Mount Hood.
Conservationists remain wary of the NRA, however. Why? Because they rightly point to the fact that every NRA in this country is a bit different, each tailored to the specific area they were created for. In Oregon, this includes the Oregon Dunes and Hells Canyon, for example. While some NRAs are written with conservation in mind, others are relatively toothless and don’t give the Forest Service much direction in how to manage these areas. This is why the details in the legislative language matters.
4. More Wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers. Senator Wyden has been particularly focused on expanding Oregon’s system of Wild & Scenic Rivers in recent years, a protection that mostly prevents rivers from being dammed, but also offers other protections intended to keep river corridors healthy and functioning for wildlife. The proposed legislation would add sections of the West Fork Hood River, Lake Branch, Coe and Eliot Branches, Cold Spring Creek and the Dog River to the Wild & Scenic River system in the Hood River basin, alone. On the west side of the mountain, sections of the Clear Fork of the Sandy River, Zigzag River and Still Creek would be added to the Wild & Scenic River system. The limit to this protection is that it only applies to public lands, and most of these streams flow through private lands, as well. These stretches located outside public ownership are not included in the legislative concept.
Wilderness expansions are an expected part of any new conservation bill for Mount Hood and the Gorge, even though most of the truly wild areas have already protected through past legislation. Therefore, most of the new areas being proposed are expansions of existing wilderness, including Lost Lake Butte, the middle Coe and Eliot Branch canyons near Cloud Cap, popular Tamanawas Falls, the east side of Bluegrass Ridge, the Red Hill area along the Old Vista Ridge trail and several small expansions along the east end of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness.
Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek, one of the new wilderness areas in the proposed legislation
5. Moving trail stewardship up the Forest Service priority list? Ask someone who volunteers as a trail steward for one of the non-profits who work in WyEast Country (Trailkeepers of Oregon, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Mazamas, Backcountry Horsemen, Oregon Equestrian Trails, and Oregon Mountain Biking Coalition, to name among the most active) and they will tell you that one of the main obstacles in putting tools in the hands of volunteers on our trails is the Forest Service, itself. Compared to working with local and state land managers, navigating the Forest Service is a real challenge, even when you’re trying to bring needed resources in the form of volunteer labor.
The legislative concept builds on outreach conducted by Rep. Blumenauer’s staff to most of these groups to figure out what’s missing in the current Forest Service structure and what could be done differently to make trail stewardship volunteering easier. As written, the concept is a bit squishy, but the general themes of dedicating more Forest Service staff to serve as a coordination hub, and giving them new tools for coordinating virtually with volunteers is a good start. More thoughts on this topic follow in this article.
6. Talking with the tribes. This legislative concept has been in development for a while, and to the credit of Rep. Blumenauer and Sen. Wyden, it was slowed along the way to ensure meaningful consultation with affected tribes. As drafted, the legislative concept focuses on Forest Service obligations to better consult and coordinate with the tribes and to specifically to deliver on a first foods plan that would be added to the policies that guide forest management. More thoughts on this topic follow, as well.
Looking across the Columbia River to the town of Lyle from Rowena Plateau
7. Gorge Towns to Trails vision. Long advocated by Friends of the Columbia Gorge, this is a bold, long-term vision to create a European-style trekking network encircling the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The legislative concept gives a nod to the vision in all but name, along with a general direction to the Forest Service to develop a comprehensive system plan for all trails the Gorge.
It’s no secret that in the past the Columbia Gorge Commission staff has viewed new trails in the Gorge quite negatively, and National Scenic Area staff have also been reluctant to consider trail expansion, as well. This, despite the overwhelming growth in demand and resulting overcrowding that is apparent to anyone who spends time in the Gorge. The proposed legislation would guide staff at both agencies with a clearer vision for how and where trails will be expanded in the Gorge, and how existing trails experiencing overuse can be better managed.
8. Improving Mount Hood & Gorge Transportation. Who can argue with this? It can only get better, right? And yet, this is perhaps the squishiest of the elements in the legislative concept, as most of what it calls for is already being provided and the concept simply calls for more – as in more public transit and transportation “options” (read: bikeways?), more rest areas, more law enforcement, more emergency response capacity. What the concept misses is that transportation, itself, is a recreation experience, not just a service. More thoughts on this topic follow below, as well.
The Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood (September 2, 2011)
9. Forest Fire “management”? Well, it’s safe to say that as a society we are beginning to grapple with the reality that a century of aggressive forest fire suppression coupled with a warming climate has set up an impossibly volatile circumstance in our forests. But I would emphasize the word “beginning”, because while the scientists and public agencies (and even a few politicians) understand the situation, there remains intense public pressure to somehow prevent forest fires – especially from people who live in the so-called “urban-rural interface”. This is policy jargon for people who live on private forested acreages abutting our public lands in places like the U.S. 26 corridor, and who are at real risk from catastrophic forest fires.
At best, we might be able to reduce the number of human-caused fires. These are still the majority, including the massive Riverside (2020) and Eagle Creek (2017) fires that scorched a large chunk of Mount Hood National Forest in the past five years. The proposed legislation tries to ease into this with by requiring the Forest Service to create a “mitigation and adaptation” plan for managing both fire risk and response. “Mitigation” would include prescribed burns and thinning crowded plantations on old clear cuts to improve forest health and fire resilience – two of the main ways the Forest Service is responding to the growth in catastrophic fires in the West.
“Adaptation” is less defined in the proposed legislation, however. The elephant in the room are the thousands of homes and summer cabins (hundreds of them on federal land through 99-year leases) located in that “urban-rural interface”. Can they be protected? The fire that tore through the communities of Talent and Phoenix in Southern Oregon in 2020 didn’t stop at the urban-rural interface, they burned right in developed urban areas. “Adaptation” suggests that we might change how and where we live in relations to forests in the future, so what does that mean for the urban-rural interface, before or after fire? I don’t envy the Forest Service on this task, nor will this legislation solve the larger policy dilemma, but there’s no question it will need to be part of developing a Mount Hood NRA plan.
In a rare moment of justice, these target shooters were caught in a no shooting zone on Wildcat Mountain, and asked to clean up their trash while the deputy watched (2010)
10. Who isn’t for public safety in our forests? This is another topic the proposed legislation didn’t have much choice in acknowledging. Most who visit Mount Hood in the Gorge are keenly aware of the lawless activity that finds refuge in a vast area with little law enforcement presence. The legislative concept calls for more funding, including for local law enforcement, as well as “public education”. More thoughts on this topic follow, as well.
So, I’ve highlighted the main take-aways as a WyEast advocate who has long dreamed of a fundamental shift on management focus like this, but the legislative concept has more.
This will take you to an online form for sharing your thoughts. The following are what I plan to share during this comment period – and they might be useful to you, as well.
What’s Missing from the Concept?
Though there’s a looming comment deadline of January 7 (this Friday!), this legislative process is just getting started, and there will be more opportunities to weigh in while congressional staff drafts the actual legislation. With any luck (and some will be needed!) and enough support, this just might make it through the most divisive Congress in recent memory.
Here are a few things I’d like to see in the new Mount Hood legislation:
1. Restorative justice for the tribes. This means more than “living up to our statutory obligations”, as currently written in the legislative concept. Most of the statutes governing tribes in this country are rooted in our dark history of displacement and oppression of native populations, and the presumption that what was taken from the tribes must forever be lost. Restorative justice means to reverse the harm, and for Mount Hood and the Gorge might include restoring the ecosystems that provide first foods – as included in the legislative concept. But it might include dedicating or expanding public lands for the sole purpose of restoring exclusive tribal access to sacred places.
Restorative justice should include an inventory of interpretive and directional signage and symbols, too, to become inclusive of pre-white settlement history and customs, and reverse some of the cultural erasure caused by place names and white-centric written history. The most egregious examples are interpretive signs located along the Oregon Trail and Barlow Road. In my view, every one of these should include the perspective of native peoples who were pushed aside by westward expansion. But only the tribes can speak to this history from a perspective of cultural suffering, loss and continuing harm these migratory roads represent.
Only by meaningfully engaging and listening to the tribes can the Forest Service know what a larger restorative justice commitment would look like, but it should be part of their mandate for the proposed Mount Hood NRA.
Restorative justice for tribes begins with never forgetting — nor accepting — the cultural harm to native peoples caused by white settlement in WyEast country (Celilo Falls in the late 1950s, a few years before it disappeared behind The Dalles Dam)
2. Making public lands truly public. Show up at a popular trailhead in the Gorge or on Mount Hood and you’ll immediately see that our public lands are an overwhelmingly white space. This is especially true for trails and campgrounds, as many recent studies have documented. Why is this?
Ask a person of color, and researchers will tell you that white people who dominate the trails and campgrounds are a big part of the problem. The hostility ranges from outright and overt racist attacks to simple comments like “it’s so nice to see a person like you out here.” Well meant? Perhaps, but also unwelcome and uninvited when a simple “hello” is how a white person might have been greeted. Official signage at trailheads and campgrounds can be similarly hostile and unwelcoming in ways that are racist. It’s a problem that requires a plan of action to change.
Removing the barriers that make our public lands unwelcoming to people of color is within our reach, and must be at the core of how the proposed Mount Hood NRA is managed
The legislative concept should speak explicitly to this in the provisions required for the Mount Hood NRA management plan. As written, the concept vaguely mentions providing a “variety of recreational experiences to serve diverse users”. It should be more specific: our public lands have a racial diversity problem that implies specific bias that prevents black and brown Americans from sharing these special places equally. That’s unacceptable and should be a filter for everything in the new management plan.
Like the previous topic on restorative justice for tribes, this work must begin with the Forest Service directly engaging – and listening — to communities of color as they develop a plan of action. This conversation also means meeting black and brown communities where they are, not at a remote ranger station located miles from the nearest population center. It’s a long-overdue conversation and the proposed Mount Hood NRA is the perfect vehicle to begin this work.
3. Law enforcement without all the baggage? When I walked into White River Falls State Park last summer with a friend who is a young Black man, he groaned, cringed visibly and shook his head at a giant new sign (below) that the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department had placed at the trailhead. No doubt it was installed to deal with heavy vandalism in recent years to the historic structures in the park, but I’m quite sure the park managers didn’t intend the reaction my friend experienced. They message was intended to protect the very resources he came here to enjoy, but made him feel deeply unwelcome, instead.
This sign at White River Falls betrays a tone-deafness to how images of law enforcement might impact communities of color – in this case, literally the image a faceless authoritarian with a finger pointed at arriving visitors
It’s a painful fact that we live in fraught times with our law enforcement. So, when I read the public safety element of the legislative concept, I had that new sign at White River Falls in mind. What is the law enforcement issue there? Largely, young people tagging historic structures. I doubt the new sign with have much impact (except to become a new target for tagging?), but an occasional human law enforcement presence might help – or perhaps a security camera?
I don’t presume to know the answers, but having my own vehicles broken into a couple of times at trailheads — and having encountered much more troubling lawless behavior away from the more popular areas—I do think the idea of providing federal funding for expanded law enforcement through local counties is a good one. But given the times we live in, I’d also like to see that funding come with strings attached: the officers should be uniformed distinctly and differently from their local agency, as Mount Hood NRA officers. Creating a new, hybrid law enforcement identity would also be an opportunity to build some racial diversity in the generally rural law enforcement jurisdictions that would carry out this work.
I’m also quite open to security cameras at trailheads – as most hikers are (especially younger hikers). There was a time when this might have been controversial (say, ten years ago?) but today these are among the few public places that don’t have some sort of security monitoring, right down to our front doors, complete with doorbell cams. Lawless people know this, and it’s evidenced by the piles of broken glass than can be found throughout most of the major trailheads in the Gorge and on Mount Hood.
Law enforcement on public lands is a thorny topic, indeed, but one that needs more thought and attention than is reflected in the current legislative concept.
Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) volunteers building new trail at Punchbowl Falls Park
4. Set benchmarks for recreation. You may know that Congress has a long history of setting annual logging quotas for the Forest Service that must be met. So, if the purpose of the Mount Hood NRA is to shift the management emphasis of the forest from commercial logging to forest recovery and recreation for Mount Hood and the Gorge, why not set quotas for recreation?
This could be in the form of new trails and trailheads constructed, or the number of hikers who show up at trailheads – or both – measured per capita, as defined by the population living within 100 miles of the Mount Hood NRA, for example. Since the late 1960s, the Forest Service has acknowledged an ongoing growth in demand for trails, yet the system hasn’t grown, and what we have has increasingly fallen into disrepair. Why is this?
One of the greatest barriers to expanding trails is simply a mindset within the Forest Service. After decades of inadequate funding from Congress for trail construction and maintenance, the agency culture has been apprehensive to even talking about new trails. This, despite the obvious demand and overcrowding on the existing system. The problem also includes doing the needed planning, engineering and environmental assessments needed to advance new trail projects when funding does come – a critical obstacle that only the Forest Service can remove.
The proposed Mount Hood NRA provides an opportunity to link the new agency focus on recreation to both the growing interest in trails and sheer numbers of people living in proximity to the forest. If specific benchmarks were set up as funding incentive in the legislation, it could speed the transition of the Forest Service culture from logging to forest recovery and recreation, including making the planning work needed to move new trail projects from concept to construction a priority in agency budgets.
The opening segment of the new Mirror Lake Trail, the first accessible trail built on Mount Hood in decades
5. Accessible trails and trailheads are not a luxury. For too long our public land agencies have viewed recreation opportunities for people with disabilities as something outside the norm. The result is a woefully inadequate system of accessible outdoor trails for people who use walkers, wheelchairs or other mobility devices. As our population becomes increasingly older in coming years, and the share with disabilities grows, this unmet need for accessible trails will only accelerate.
There have been some shining successes – the Lost Creek nature trail and Little Crater Lake trail area couple of my favorites. But even these trails fail to get the basic maintenance needed to remain fully accessible. The legislative concept should include a specific provision that a complete system of accessible recreation facilities and sites be incorporated into the Mount Hood NRA plan and constructed as part of the benchmarked targets described above.
Who hasn’t stopped here to admire this roadside view?
6. Transportation IS a recreation experience! There’s a spot near Hood River, along the Mount Hood Loop, that I blogged about years ago. The view of Mount Hood and the upper Hood River Valley that unfolds there is world class. More often than not on a clear day, there’s a car or two pulled over, with someone taking photos with their phone. It’s not surprising, as since the original Mount Hood Loop was completed in the early 1920s, it has been a classic touring route. It just hasn’t been managed that way for many years.
It’s true that the modern Mount Hood Loop carries a lot of traffic, and the proposed legislation concept speaks to the basic transportation needs that exist – the lack of meaningful transit, the complete lack of a safe bikeway along Highway 35 and U.S. 26 and (less explicitly) the lack of what planners call “demand management” to promote incentives for visitors to use travel options like transit and visit outside of peak travel times. Demand management would include managing peak period parking at major trailheads and destinations in the Gorge and on Mount Hood – again, implied, but not specific.
These are all good things needed to make traveling around the mountain and through the Gorge a better experience, and less of a barrier to people who don’t have access (or prefer not to use a car), in particular. But the legislative concept should also call for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Forest Service to work collaboratively to create a transportation vision – a long-range plan to make the experience of traveling to and around the mountain a destination, in itself.
Congress can’t directly regulate ODOT, but it can regulate an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation known as the Western Federal Lands Highway Division. This is an agency with a regional office in Vancouver that has led several projects on Mount Hood in recent years, including the White River Bridge replacement, the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge restoration and designing and constructing the new Mirror Lake Trailhead. They have long worked with ODOT, and could be the avenue for the new legislation to be specific about improving the traveling experience on the mountain through a collaborative planning effort with ODOT.
ODOT’s designs for new structures in the Columbia Gorge draw from a carefully developed policy guidance developed by the agency (the new Fifteenmile Bridge on I-84)
Elements of a Mount Hood NRA transportation plan could build on the excellent design policy that ODOT has followed for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area over the past two decades. This policy guides the design and maintenance details of I-84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway from the smallest details (did you know the back of freeway signs in the Gorge are painted “national park brown”?) to bold, as ODOT gradually replaces old slab-style concrete freeway bridges in the Gorge with handsome new structures that are a visual complement to scenic area (shown above).
A Mount Hood NRA transportation plan should also incorporate the re-imagining of several long- abandoned or bypassed sections of the old loop highway into a continuation of the world-class Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail that is nearing completion in the Gorge. ODOT has built the in-house expertise for this work, and will soon have the capacity once their work on the Gorge trail “final five” miles is completes over the new few years. I posted two articles on this concept for Mount Hood early in 2021 (and have also shared these with congressional staff – please feel free to mention them in your comments, too!)
Another piece of the transportation puzzle that calls for a plan under the new Mount Hood NRA are the off-highway, paved forest routes, like Lolo Pass Road (FR 18/ FR 1810), Dufur Mill Road (FR 44) and White River Road (FR 48) that function as scenic drives, but suffer badly from disrepair and a complete lack of visitor amenities. Each of these routes needs a management plan and vision for making them the positive recreational experience that the public is already seeking when the venture on to these roads.
Which brings me to a final element of a Mount Hood NRA transportation plan – gateways, enhanced directional signage, waysides, pullouts and interpretive displays that tell the story of WyEast country to the traveling public. These are all things you would find in a parkway design in one of our national parks, and the Mount Hood NRA should have parkway designations for Highway 35, U.S. 26 and the off-highway routes mentioned above, too, with design guidelines to ensure a great travel experience as the system is developed over time. There are plenty of great parkway plans to draw from, the proposed legislation just needs to provide the mandate to do the work.
Civilian Conservation Corps crews building trail in the 1930s
7. The CCC? It was a great idea in 1932… And it’s still a great idea: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to get young, idle men off the street and into productive work that would give them job skills, food, housing, clothing and a modest paycheck ($30/month, of which $25 was sent to their families!). It was among the most popular New Deal programs, but sadly, the CCC was disbanded in 1942 as our country went to war.
The proposed Mount Hood NRA provides a unique opportunity to revive the CCC model, but in modernized form. The benefits to the NRA are clear, with youth workers helping to restore, build and maintain trails, trailheads and campgrounds, along with habitat and forest restoration work – all things the original CCC did, and whose work still shapes what we see in our forests today.
A modern CCC would be open to all youth, not just young men, and compensation could include college tuition credits, along with a paycheck, room and board. Mount Hood already has Forest Service facilities that could (again) become CCC camps – Camp Zigzag, Timber Lake in the Clackamas River corridor and the Herman Creek work center in the Gorge, to name some of the more obvious options.
The legislative concept hints at this possibility, but it should be fully incorporated as a core element of the vision for the Mount Hood NRA in order to drive the needed Congressional funding.
Badger Creek Wilderness and Mount Hood from the White River Wildlife Area
8. Let’s get the boundaries right.The overall scope of the Mount Hood NRA, as expressed on the draft map [link], is terrific. Notably, it includes both Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands along the west edge (along the US 26 corridor), as well as the various pieces of federal land that frame the upper Hood River Valley. It would have been easy to leave these small parcels out, but they provide an important starting point for public land acquisition by the Forest Service to better define the Mount Hood NRA – though a directive to do this work should be included in the legislation. The now-permanent Land and Water Conservation Fund already provides an important funding conduit for these needed land acquisitions.
There are also a few pieces missing from the proposed Mount Hood NRA on the concept map. First, most of the Badger Creek Wilderness is excluded. This is a big oversight if the goal of the proposed Mount Hood NRA is to shift the Forest Service focus to recreation. Why? Because the Badger Creek Wilderness has a deep backlog of trail maintenance needs that are out of reach for urban volunteers doing day trips, as many of the Badger Creek trails are remote and require overnight crews.
Second, the nearby Dog River drainage that falls within The Dalles watershed management area is excluded. The Dog River is proposed to become a Wild and Scenic River in the legislative concept, and the Dog River basin already has a lot of recreation activity, as it is not a fenced watershed. Well-traveled Dufur Mill Road (FR 44) travels extensively through the watershed, and a number of other forest roads, hiking and biking trails are in or near the watershed, including the popular High Prairie trailhead. It makes sense to include Dog River in the Mount Hood NRA in order to more effectively manage these activities — and to ensure that recreation will continue to be allowed here.
Pup Creek Falls is excluded from the proposed Mount Hood NRA, along most of the Clackamas River National Recreation Trail
A third map oversight is along the south edge of the proposed Mount Hood NRA, where the south half of the Roaring River Wilderness is left outside the proposed recreation area, along with a section of the Clackamas River that is traversed by the Clackamas River National Scenic Trail. Some of this area was burned in the 2020 Riverside fire, and that reality, alone, is reason enough to bring it into the NRA to direct resources toward rebuilding and restoring trails and campgrounds. While I would like to see the entire Clackamas basin brought into the NRA, that will have to wait for future legislation. For now, extending the proposed Mount Hood NRA boundary south to the Collawash River confluence would be a reasonable start.
The Upper Sandy Guard Station in better days. Today, it is on the brink of being unsalvageable, despite being on the National Historic Register
9. Don’t forget our history! Finally, an important missing element in the legislative concept is some sort of recognition that we are rapidly losing historic structures through the Mount Hood National Forest. The 2020 Riverside Fire destroyed several of these priceless buildings, so recognizing and preserving the remaining gems is even more urgent today. The Mount Hood NRA management plan should include an updated historic resources inventory and plan for capital investments needed to stabilize or restore sites and structures – ideally, in partnership with non-profit partners.
What can you do?
That’s a deep dive into the legislative concept, along with ways it might be improved. If you have read this far, kudos for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Gorge! The next step is to weigh in, and you’d be surprised how much your thoughts matter to congressional staff – they really do care! The timeline for commenting on the concept and map is short – they must be submitted by this Friday, January 7. Again, here’s the online form for commenting:
That said, if you’re not able to weigh in during this round, watch this space – I’ll post updates on the legislation as it (hopefully) moves forward. While there is a lot of major legislation churning through Congress right now, it’s entirely possible that this concept will get turned into a bill that makes it through both chambers… with a little luck and a push for all who love Mount Hood and the Gorge!
If you have followed this blog for a while, then you know I gather up my best WyEast images each year and publish them in the Mount Hood National Park Campaign Scenic Calendar. They are available online, and all proceeds from the calendars go the Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), a non-profit trail advocacy and stewardship organization that I’ve volunteered with since TKO formed, way back in 2007.
I’ll post more on how to order the 2022 calendar at the end of this article. But first, here’s a preview of the images, along with a few stories behind the photos.
The January image (below) and cover shot (top) in the new calendar were taken on the same magical evening at Lolo Pass, just a few weeks ago. The clouds framing the mountain were condensing right above me on this clear, cold evening, as they often do here, when moist Pacific air is compressed as it pushes over Lolo Pass on Mount Hood’s northwest shoulder. In winter, this geographic phenomenon can create a localized freezing-fog event at Lolo Pass, though it might be sunny and dry for miles in every direction!
January features Mount Hood alpengow from Lolo Pass
I’ve spent many evenings at Lolo Pass photographing alpenglow on the mountain under these conditions, and the fun (or frustration!) comes with the mountain peeking through the clouds, then quickly disappearing, once again. Because the prime evening light lasts for only a few minutes, those moments when the clouds suddenly part to reveal alpenglow on the mountain are a real thrill for photographers. On this evening, I was joined by another photographer, and we both cheered when the clouds opening up to reveal not just the mountain, but also the moonrise appearing over his shoulder! The moment was over after just a few seconds, but it is captured in the cover photo for this year’s calendar. It was the also the last time WyEast revealed himself on that memorable evening.
For February, I chose an image of Cedar Island, a botanical anomaly located in the heart of the Deschutes River canyon. This article from earlier this year tells the story of this odd group of Incense Cedar trees mysteriously growing far outside their normal range and habitat and somehow thriving in the middle of desert country, thanks to a confluence of unique conditions.
February features mysterious Cedar Island in the Deschutes River Canyon
These trees are truly oddities, but as described in the article, they’re also doing quite well. They have now established a satellite colony on the shoreline opposite the island, where a combination of shade and underground springs has allowed them to thrive. You can visit this grove by following the Deschutes River access road north from Sherars Falls for a few miles, just beyond Beavertail Campground.
As the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire begins to fade into our collective memory, and the post-fire recovery of the Columbia River Gorge continues to unfold, there are plenty of surprises. Perhaps most startling are the twin cliff collapses at Metlako Falls and nearby Punch Bowl Falls, along Eagle Creek. The Metlako overlook collapse occurred about nine months before the fire, but the Punch Bowl Falls event followed the burn. Some speculate the latter event was triggered by changes in runoff and the water table resulting from the burned forest. It’s an intriguing theory, though we may never really know for sure. What is certain is that both events are part of the ongoing evolution of the Gorge landscape, though we tend to think of it as static.
A similar collapse on a much larger scale occurred at nearby Tanner Creek in 1973, temporarily damming the creek and forming a lake that persisted for several years. The March calendar image features Wahclella Falls (below), framed by house-sized boulders that mark the many cliff collapses that have occurred here over the millennia.
March features Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek
The Eagle Creek Fire burned lightly in the lower section of the Tanner Creek canyon, sparing many of the big, old trees here. However, the story in the upper Tanner Creek canyon is starkly different, with much of the overstory completely killed. Though just four years have passed since the fire, hundreds of logs from trees burned upstream have already collected in the side channel just below Wahclella Falls (below), forming a huge log jam that spilled onto the trail! Volunteers from TKO had to saw a path through the debris to reopen the trail in the winter of 2020-21.
What will the post-fire future bring to Tanner Creek and Eagle Creek? A LOT more logs, that much is certain. Some logs will make it downstream to the lowest stretches of the Tanner Creek, where biologists once placed logs and boulders in an attempt to improve salmon habitat. Now, the Eagle Creek fire is about to provide a major assist in that work by delivering a lot more logs in coming years.
Panoramic view of the new log jam below Wahclella Falls
The logs in Tanner Creek (and other major streams in the Gorge affected by the fire) may be new to us, but they are really just a return to what used to be, before fire suppression, when the Gorge was much less forested and the streams were filled with a lot more logs. That’s good news for the health of the forest and the endangered salmon and steelhead that rely on log-filled streams to spawn, as well as wildlife that depend on a forest with a mosaic of old growth forests, recovering forests and open patches created by fire.
For April, I chose a somewhat deceptive image from a spot called Fairbanks Gap (below), in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. One deception comes from the fact that Interstate-84 is not only out of sight, but also out of hearing range from this spot, despite being directly below the cliffs that frame the gap. Another is that this scene is on private land, and thus a reminder that without the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area protections, a lot more places like this would have vacation homes (or worse) constructed on them. Instead, this remains a working cattle ranch – though I hope someday it will make its way into public ownership for permanent protection.
April features Fairbanks Gap and the east Columbia River Gorge
You can follow a nice backroad loop past the Fairbanks Gap by taking Fifteenmile Road out of The Dalles, and turning sharply uphill onto gravel (and signed) Old Moody Road at the rural crossroad community of Fairbanks (which features a lovely one-room schoolhouse). From here, Old Moody Road climbs to the gap, then traverses high bluffs above the Columbia River, with many spectacular views, before descending to Deschutes State Park, along I-84. My favorite time to visit this area is in late spring, when wildflowers line the old roads, and the eastern Gorge is verdant green.
The May image also features the eastern Gorge, this time at Rowena Plateau during the annual wildflower show. Yellow-flowered Arrowleaf balsamroot and blue-blossomed Lupine are the showy stars here, but the plateau is home to dozens of wildflower species, some found only in this part of the Gorge.
May features Rowena Plateau (and the town of Lyle, across the river)
In recent years, Rowena Plateau and the trail to McCall Point have been “discovered”, and the place is often crowded with adoring visitors. To address some of the impacts of all those feet on the trails, TKO has been working on some realignments and repairs to the McCall Point trail, with an eye toward improving the grades and drainage in a way that makes the trails more resilient to both weather and boots.
The Nature Conservancy owns much of Rowena Plateau, and continues to allow visitors to their preserve. This is a real gift for the public to enjoy, and while the vast majority come to enjoy (and revere) the scenery, big crowds inevitably mean a few thoughtless people. So, while I was frustrated to see tagging on a boulder along the lower part of the McCall Point trail on this trip, I also wasn’t surprised.
Tagging on a boulder on Rowena Plateau – a growing scourge in the Gorge
Tagging has become a problem throughout WyEast country, and especially in the Gorge. It’s especially frustrating at Rowena, where a private non-profit has shown the generosity of allowing us to visit their preserve. We probably can’t stop tagging, but you can support the Nature Conservancy of Oregon with a donation for the excellent work they are doing in the Gorge.
Our early and unusually warm spring this year came on the heels of an excellent snowpack, and that translated into heavy runoff and an impressive scene at White River Falls State Park, in the desert country east of Mount Hood. The June calendar image features a raging White River Falls (below), framed with bright green Cottonwood trees. The park encompasses the two-tiered main falls and a lesser-known lower falls, along with the fascinating ruins of a turn-of-the-20th Century hydroelectric project that once powered The Dalles.
June features White River Falls during spring runoff season
Only photographers would notice this aesthetic improvement to the main falls overlook – but sometime over the past years, a pair of long-dead Cottonwoods that partly blocked the view finally collapsed… or were perhaps were removed by park officials? The latter explanation is quite plausible, as the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has stepped up their efforts to maintain this somewhat remote park, including buttoning up the historic powerhouse, where vandals had covered some of the walls with tagging and damaged some of the old machinery.
Snaggy former view of White River Falls… these dead trees are gone!
In the years I’ve spent visiting this little park, it has gone from very obscure to quite popular, and even the boot path to the once little-known lower falls is now well-worn. In a coming article, I’ll post some trail concepts for improving some of these boot paths and adding new trails to better manage some of the human impacts as visitation continues to grow.
Lower White River Falls and Gorge
For July, I chose an image from a favorite spot along the Cooper Spur Trail, overlooking the mighty Eliot Glacier, largest of Mount Hood’s glaciers. Our long spring and record-setting summer heat were hard on Mount Hood’s glaciers, and by late summer the Eliot Glacier was looking especially beleaguered. This image (below) was captured in late September, after an early snow had given the glacier a new coat of white, and the annual summer melting had finally slowed for the year.
July features the still-magnificent Eliot Glacier
As I was shooting this image of the mountain and the Eliot Glacier, I spotted a mountain rescue team training at the base of the lower icefall. There was a time not too long ago when the seracs (or ice pinnacles) in the lower icefall with turquoise-blue and a prime ice climbing area.
Climbers training in mountain rescue below the lower Eliot Glacier icefall
But the continued retreat of the Eliot Glacier has now moved the firn line above the lower icefall in recent years, and the seracs are now dark with glacial till and rock. The firn line is where a glacier is losing more ice than it is gaining, so as the glacier recedes the firn line gradually moves higher.
This is pair of images (below) that I’ve taken over the past decade from this spot, and I post them not to make readers feel sad or discouraged, but rather, to underscore the sense of urgency we all must feel in our collective response to global warming.
The Eliot Glacier has receded markedly over just the past decade
The accelerated Eliot Glacier retreat over the past two decades has had all sort of impacts, but near the top of the list of concerns is the impact on downstream fisheries that depend on cold, dependable runoff from the glacier. A more visible impact has been the deep erosion and periodic floods and debris flows that have reshaped the Eliot Branch canyon, below the glacier.
Though I know both the science and politics are challenging, I’m hopeful that we’ll find a path toward a worldwide shift away from carbon pollution in my lifetime. Future generations may not see the Eliot Glacier as I once knew it, but hopefully there will be a smaller Eliot Glacier they can stand in awe of, still tumbling down the slopes of Mount Hood.
At the opposite end of the glacial spectrum, the August calendar image features the icy stream that flows from Mount Hood’s tiniest living glacier, the tenacious Glisan Glacier, located high on the northwest shoulder of the mountain. For some reason, this glacial outflow was never given a proper name by early mountain explorers, despite many smaller streams on the mountain being named. The oversight is a bit of a mystery, as there were several well-documented trips to this side of the mountain in the early 1920s and 1930s by the Mazamas for the very purpose of mapping and naming the features here.
August features “Glisan Creek”, the glacial outflow from the tiny Glisan Glacier
As a default, many call this “Glisan Creek”. That’s not a bad option, since there’s a good chance the glacier, itself, will fall victim to global warming in coming decades, and only the creek will remain. The Glisan Glacier was named for prominent Portlander Rodney Glisan in 1938. Some of the history of all of Mount Hood’s smallest glaciers is included in this earlier article on Mount Hood’s Pint-Size Glaciers.
After an especially long and dry spring and summer in WyEast Country, fall brought early snow and some of the best fall colors in memory to the mountain. The scene below, at the McNeil Tarns, was captured after the first dusting of snow in late September, and it’s also the calendar image for that month in the new calendar.
September features the McNeil Tarns on Mount Hood
This is a well-known spot along the Timberline Trail, as it is located along the approach to popular McNeil Point on the northwest shoulder of the mountain and visited by thousands of hikers each year. While most hikers know of the pair of McNeil tarns located immediately adjacent to the Timberline Trail, few know of the third, lesser-known tarn in this trio. It’s located just off the Mazama Trail (below). Thanks to a dense veil of trailside Huckleberries, Mountain Ash and young Mountain Hemlock, this beautiful tarn is known to surprisingly few, but it is no less lovely than its more popular siblings.
The Mazama Tarn near McNeil Point on Mount Hood
Over the past five years, I’ve posted several articles about Punchbowl Falls Nature Park, the newest public lands in WyEast Country. The new park is the product of determined volunteers at Thrive! Hood River and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), and features a surprising abundance of forest types, river scenes and waterfalls. Dead Point Falls (the October calendar image, below) is among the park highlights, especially in fall when Bigleaf Maple, Vine Maple, Western Dogwood and Oregon White Oak light up the surrounding forest in shades of orange, yellow and red.
October features Dead Point Falls and the West Fork Hood River
Meanwhile, higher up on the mountain, beautiful Heather Canyon on Mount Hood’s southeast flank is especially lovely in fall, when Huckleberry and Mountain Ash turn the canyon into a brilliant watercolor of orange and yellow. Lower Heather Creek Falls (below) is the featured image for November in the new calendar.
November features Heather Creek on the southeast slopes of Mount Hood
There are a couple ways to hike into Heather Canyon, but I always opt for the Newton Creek Trail approach, mostly to avoid walking through the Mount Hood Meadows ski resort. In the coming year, I hope to post a long-planned article with a somewhat radical proposal for rethinking Mount Hood Meadows – something we should all be considering as climate change threatens to put ski resorts as we know them out of business in coming years.
Anyone visiting Lookout Mountain on Mount Hood’s east side has probably noticed this beautifully framed view from Lookout Mountain Road (below), and I chose it for the December image in the new calendar. If the conditions are right, early snow on the mountain appears just as the Western Larch trees are turning to yellow and gold, and such was the case this year!
December features Mount Hood framed by Western Larch
I’ve photographed this spot too many times to count over the years and I’ve always thought of it as a scene only hikers knew about. However, a couple of days after capturing the calendar image, I was walking through my neighborhood grocery store and did a double take when I saw the scene on the cover of a nationally marketed calendar!
This looks vaguely familiar…
The photographer (and I’m not sure who it is) captured a less snowy version of Mount Hood, though it remains a beautiful image, and it’s great to see this lesser-known view of the mountain in wide publication.
Finally, the back cover of the new calendar features wildflower highlights from around WyEast country, ranging from the elegant Mount Hood Lily and Pacific Rhododendron to our state flower, the Oregon Grape (below).
The back cover of the calendar features a selection of wildflowers
There you have it! If you’d like to purchase a calendar, it’s easy to order direct from Zazzle:
Each page in the calendar measures 11×14 inches (or 22×14” unfolded on the wall) and I’ve designed this as a functioning calendar, with date squares that you can actually write in! Zazzle prints these with exceptional quality and ships them carefully packaged with a backer board and moisture seal.
For another week or so, the calendars will sell for $29.75, but after December 20 that price will bump up to $34.95, with the additional five dollars of markup also going to directly to TKO, bringing the total to about $10 from each calendar to TKO for the great work they do. Zazzle typically ships these within a few days of ordering, and I usually receive orders within about 10 days.
Thanks for reading this far, and as always, thanks for visiting the blog – I hope to see you here and on the trail in the coming year!
Forests of Noble fir forests spread out to the horizon along the crest of Waucoma Ridge, just north of Mount Hood (Mount Adams in the distance)
We’re coming into another holiday season when millions of Americans will set up a Christmas tree cut in Oregon. There’s a good chance it will be a Noble fir, long prized as the most beautiful and durable of Christmas trees, representing about a third of the cut tree industry here.
There was a time when Noble fir grown as holiday trees were left in their natural state, which features elegant tiers of symmetrical branches and soft, deep green, upwardly curving needles. In recent years, Nobles grown for mass-market consumption have increasingly been sheared to produce a densely branched, unnatural thicket (acknowledging my bias, here!) in the same way that Douglas fir have long been cultivated in the Christmas tree trade. Still, the un-sheared Nobles remain the gold standard, and they sell for gold-standard prices at tree lots, too.
New grown emerging on Noble fir boughs
Noble fir cones
In Oregon, families also have the option of cutting their own Christmas trees at U-cut tree farms, a popular benefit of living in a region that produces millions of holiday trees for the nation. It’s also possible to cut your own tree on National Forest land, a tradition that dates back a century or more. Though more regulated today by the U.S. Forest Service, families looking for a more adventurous option than local tree lot can head up to designated areas on the mountain (typically powerline corridors or recovering clear cuts) and bring home their own cut tree.
The author at age 11 (second from left) with family and friends on a 1973 trip to Lolo Pass to cut Christmas trees. Noble fir were always the goal, but in those days of heavier mountain snows, simply reaching the Noble fir zone in December was an adventure!
Christmas trees are pretty much the extent of public knowledge of the noblest of our true firs. As the common name might suggest, noble fir is the largest of all true firs. Their name was given in the fall of 1825 by botanist David Douglas when he ventured into the high country above the Columbia River River Gorge, in the vicinity of today’s Cascade Locks. Though he wasn’t specific about the peak he climbed on the north side of the river, it is believed to be today’s Table Mountain. A few days later, he climbed to a high point on the Oregon side, most likely today’s Benson Plateau.
On this pair of climbs, he came upon magnificent, old-growth stands of Noble fir, and gave them their well-deserved name. While they are undeniably beautiful as young trees, old-growth Noble fir are a sight to behold. Like many of our Pacific Northwest conifers, these trees grow to be giants, with the largest on record reaching nearly 300 feet in height and nearly 10 feet in diameter.
Old-growth Noble fir forests near Mount Hood’s Bennett Pass
An ancient Noble fir giant towers above the surrounding forest canopy near Bennett Pass
Noble fir are also unique to the Pacific Northwest, with a range that extends from just above of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington south to the Siskiyou Mountains in Southern Oregon and the Trinity Alps region along the northern edge of California. In their southern extent, they are known to hybridize with California’s Shasta fir, a variety of the Red fir that grows in the Sierras and extends into the southern fringe of the Noble fir range.
Despite their willingness to grow in planted rows as farmed Christmas tree seedlings in the hot, dry summers of the Willamette Valley floor, Noble fir are a subalpine species. They typically grow at elevations of 3,500 feet to 5,500 feet, where they are long-lived and acclimated to the harsh winters of our mountains. Not surprisingly, they grow more slowly under these conditions, but they are tremendously adaptable, and often grow on very steep mountain slopes and exposed, rocky ridgetops.
Centuries-old Noble fir giant near Bennett Pass
Noble fir is a sun-loving pioneer species in our forests, quickly colonizing in burn areas to form pure, long-lived stands. Hike through one of the towering old-growth stands found in the high country of the Columbia Gorge or on the peaks surrounding Mount Hood, and you’re likely walking through an old burn, with the age of the trees as a good indicator of when fire last roared through, long ago. That’s because they are not only post-fire colonizers, but also highly susceptible to fire as mature trees, as they lack the protective bark of fire-adapted conifers like Ponderosa pine and Western larch.
This cycle of burn-and-rebirth in our Noble fir forests is on full display today on the north slopes of Mount Hood, where the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire burned through sprawling stands of subalpine Noble fir. These forests were almost entirely killed where the fires swept through, yet today, the forest recovery is already well underway, with young Noble fir seedlings leading the way among other post-fire pioneer species.
Ghost forest of Noble fir skeletons where the Dollar Lake Fire swept through a decade ago
Ancient Noble fir killed by the Dollar Lake Fire will provide wildlife habitat for many decades to come as a new forest grows here
Noble fir seedling emerging from the charred ashes of the Dollar Lake Fire
Meanwhile, across the Clear Branch canyon on the north of the mountain, the forests along the crest of Blue Ridge and at Owl Point (along today’s Old Vista Ridge Trail) are made up almost entirely of Noble fir that had colonized an earlier burn there, one that occurred sometime in the early 1900s. This pair of photos (below) from Owl Point shows how the foreground was burned and just beginning to recover in 1952, while 70 years later the scene is reversed: the forests along Blue Ridge and Owl Point have largely recovered, while the north slope of the mountain is just beginning its recovery from the 2011 Dollar lake Fire.
When our Noble fir forests are spared of fire and logging, individual trees can easily live up to 400 years. The oldest known Noble fir have reached 600 to 700 years, though trees of this age are exceedingly rare after more than a century of commercial logging in the Pacific Northwest.
In the early days of extensive logging, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, true firs were considered a lesser wood, so the timber industry marketed the massive, old-growth Noble firs as “Larch”. This explains two Larch Mountains in the Columbia River Gorge, one on each side of the river, and each the site of extensive turn-of-the-century logging in the early 1900s. The better-known Larch Mountain is on the Oregon side, and its broad, high elevation slopes provided a perfect habitat for Noble fir.
Loggers felling a massive Noble fir on Larch Mountain in 1905
By the early 1900s, the Bridal Veil Mill on the Columbia River had established an upstream sister mill in the heart of these Noble fir forests, where the trees were hundreds of years old, having been spared by fire for many centuries. The upstream mill was known as the Palmer Mill (and later, New Palmer Mill, after the first mill burned), and a road on Larch Mountain still carries its name.
Loggers carried giant Noble fir cut on the slopes of Larch Mountain to the New Palmer Mill on logging railroads. This scene is from 1905
Old-growth Noble fir logs were milled at the original Palmer Mill site on the north slope of Larch Mountain. This scene is from 1896, when logging of the virgin Noble fir forests there was in its heyday
Palmer Mill was attached to the main mill by a long flume that followed Bridal Veil Creek, and it was the hub for a massive logging enterprise on Larch Mountain that felled most of the virgin Noble fir forests. Huge logs were first sent to Palmer Mill on a branched system of logging railroad spurs, then milled into rough lumber that was floated down the flume system to the Bridal Veil Mill for finishing into construction grade lumber.
Today, all but a few traces of the Palmer Mill are gone, and many of the Noble fir forests on Larch Mountain are approaching 100 years in age. The area somehow dodged the 2017 Gorge Fire that swept through vast areas of the Gorge, burning through thousands of acres of Noble fir forests in the Gorge high country.
Noble fir in the age of Climate Change
Today, Noble fir country in the western Oregon Cascades is a checkerboard of clear cuts that mark the advent of National Forest logging that began on a commercial scale in the late 1940s. When these trees were cut, the catch phrase used to justify logging ancient forests was “sustained yield”, though sustained yield forestry never envisioned restoring ancient forests to their natural state. Instead, the management philosophy was to provide a continual supply of 60-100 year-old trees from plantations that could be repeatedly logged via a vast network of logging roads built in our forests from the late 1940s through the early 1990s.
When 7.5 minute USGS maps were created in the 1950s and early 60s, there were already thousands of clear cuts on Forest Service lands that showed up on the new maps as a checkboard in heavily logged areas like Mount Hood’s Blue Ridge (shown here). Many more clear cuts followed, and sixty years later, these clear cuts are often overcrowded plantations of conifers that the Forest Service is now thinning through new timber sales
Despite the early bias against true firs, the wood produced by Noble fir eventually came to be valued for being light and strong, and was used during World War II in aircraft, as well as more common construction uses in windows, doors and paper production. This led to aggressive logging in the later years of the commercial timber boom of the 1950s-90s, when lower elevation forests had already been logged over, and high-elevation Noble fir forests were increasingly targeted.
The Pacific Crest Trail follows the crest of this ridge near Lolo Pass, where heavily logged, high-elevation Noble fir forests have been slow to recover. These clear cuts are now 40-50 years old, and yet the stunted, crowded young plantation trees are still dwarfed by the groves of big, old-growth trees that were spared the chainsaw
Clearcutting on the steep, mountainous terrain where Noble fir grow was never sustainable, at least as measured in human lifetimes. The big, high elevation Noble fir forests sold off by the Forest Service were often hundreds of years old, with even the smaller-diameter trees well over a century old. There was never a chance to produce a rotating “crop” of trees at these elevations large enough to justify logging for generations to come, but that didn’t slow the rush to log these forests.
Instead, the logging boom finally peaked with the listing of the Spotted Owl and subsequent “timber wars” in the early 1990s, and it has never fully recovered, though some logging on our national forests continues today.
This Noble fir fell across the Timberline Trail recently, and was sawed out by trail crews. While it is only about 15” in diameter, a count of the annual growth rings revealed this tree to be over 160 years old, demonstrating how elevation and mountain conditions slow the growth of these trees
It’s easily to lose perspective on just how old the trees in our mountain forests really are. The above is a timeline of human events that unfolded since this tree took root as a Noble fir seedling on Mount Hood until a windstorm knocked it down in 2020. This tree is approximately 14 inches in diameter and 160 years old.
These stumps near Bennet Pass mark some of the oldest and largest Noble fir ever logged near Mount Hood, with some of these trees approaching 300 years old when they were cut. These stumps look like they might be a couple years old, with bark still intact. In fact, these trees were logged about 30 years ago, yet the Noble fir seedlings growing in this recovering clear cut are barely six feet tall
This is the same stump that appears in the foreground in the previous photo, with approximate dates according to tree rings. When it was cut, it has lived through more than a quarter of the first millennium.
The Bennett Pass clear cut (shown above) might look recent, given the intact condition of the stumps and the young Noble fir trees just getting established. Yet, this forest was cut nearly 30 years ago, as shown in the aerial photo pair (below). Thanks to its high elevation at over 4,000 feet, and resulting slow forest recovery, this logged area is still just beginning to reforest.
After nearly 30 years, this clear cut in an old-growth Noble fir forest near Bennett Pass is only beginning to recover
These examples are typical of logged Noble fir forests throughout the Mount Hood National Forest. They simply haven’t recovered at the pace the Forest Service assumed when logging was still king. Noble fir seedlings in these cut-over areas have often grown very slowly, reaching just 6 or 8 feet in height after 30 or 40 years of post-logging recovery. The slow recovery has also compounded the fragmentation effect on wildlife that depend on uninterrupted old-growth forest habitat.
Today, the Forest Service is grappling with the perfect storm of an aging, overbuilt system of spur roads from the heyday of commercial logging coupled with increasingly catastrophic forest fires resulting from climate change and a century of fire suppression. This is especially true in high-elevation Noble fir country, where clear cut plantations are especially vulnerable to summer drought and fire, and logging roads are impacted by severe winter conditions.
To meet these challenges, along with Congressional quotas for timber production that have always been unsustainable, the Forest Service has pivoted to forest thinning the thickets of young plantation trees in previously logged areas. It’s arguable that this strategy will help restore forests to a healthy state, but sadly, the Forest Service mission isn’t to restore a mature, healthy forest. Their goal is to bring more marketable logs to maturity, the primary management objective for much of Mount Hood National Forest.
Forest thinning operation on Butcher Knife Ridge, north of Mount Hood, where roughly one third of the trees have been removed from a clear cut plantation to encourage a more diverse forest structure
Forest thinning typically produces massive piles of woody debris, as seen here on Blue Ridge, just outside the Mount Hood Wilderness. Logging debris was historically burned as “slash”, though new uses are under development to make better use of this material as we enter the age of widespread forest thinning
The jury is out as to whether forest thinning improves the health of crowded plantations better than simply doing nothing, given the impact of heavy equipment on tree root systems and the forest understory. The science does suggest that thinning can help as a preventative means for reducing forest fire severity, since it removes potential fuel from the forest. The benefit of thinning Noble fir plantations is less clear, however, since the species is already more vulnerable to fire than other conifers, and seldom survives fire.
Noble fir also tolerate crowded conditions better than other conifers, presumably because these trees are so effective at colonizing burns and often form nearly pure stands in the process. Young Noble fir forests often have little understory beyond a carpet of beargrass because the trees are so closely spaced. But these pure stands have also evolved to self-thin over time, maturing to a more open canopy that allows huckleberry, rhododendron and other mountain understory species to thrive among more widely spaced, mature trees. In these forests, young Noble fir are also part of the understory, as the forest canopy continues to regenerate.
The following images show self-thinning in a young (about 80 years old) Noble fir forest on Bald Mountain, along the Timberline Trail. A recent windstorm selectively toppled the weakest among these trees, a timeless process that Noble fir don’t need our help with.
Recent downfall in a young stand of Noble fir on Bald Mountain are part of an ongoing, self-thinning process these trees have evolved for
Recent self-thinning event in a pure Noble fir stand on Bald Mountain. If it doesn’t burn, this protected forest inside the Mount Hood Wilderness will continue to self-thin, becoming an old-growth Noble fir forest in time
With logged high-elevation forests recovering very slowly, and high-elevation spur roads failing especially badly, and the mounting negative impacts of clear cutting, continued logging of our Noble fir forests simply isn’t a sustainable practice. A new management philosophy that centers on forest restoration and climate adaptation over timber extraction is long overdue.
Instead of waiting a century or more to produce marketable Noble fir saw logs, these recovering forests could be sold for credits on the carbon market, using their gradual recovery as carbon offsets for polluting industries. Over the long term, Noble fir have immense capacity for carbon capture and storage. Scientists studying the ancient Noble fir forests at the Goat March Research Natural Area, near Mount St. Helens, have determined this forest to have a biomass second only to the coastal Redwood forests of Northern California.
A mature, thriving Noble fir forest at the 4,000 elevation on Mount Hood, with a diverse mix of mature and younger trees, and a few wildlife snags
Such a shift in Forest Service philosophy would not only help the global response to climate change, it would also yield a host of other benefits that high elevation forests in our region provide – a list that include critical wildlife habitat, cooler and more stable stream runoff for endangered salmon and steelhead and crucial water supplies for nearby communities that depend on mountain snowpack that forests help retain.
Mature Noble fir forest on Mount Hood, with towering old-growth trees mixed with younger trees and a dense understory
Such a shift in focus would also allow for the Forest Service to retire many of its deteriorating logging spur roads, and revenue from the sale of carbon credits could provide needed funding to do the work. Beyond the escalating cost to maintain them, these roads are notorious for triggering landslides and dumping sediments into streams when cut-and-fill roadbeds fail from plugged culverts or landslides. They also represent an increasing hazard in the form of human-caused forest fires and illegal dumping, as some of the worst lawless activity occurs on these remote roads where law enforcement simply cannot have a meaningful presence.
This road decommissioning work has already begun in the Mount Hood National Forest, though only in fits and starts, as it has thus far been driven by declining agency budgets more than an eye toward forest recovery and restoration. A focus on the broader outcomes of climate, water quality and fish habitat could speed up this important work with a new sense of urgency.
Where to see Noble fir
Want to see some of these trees close-up? One of the best and most accessible places is the short trail to Sherrard Point, which is the rocky summit pinnacle of Larch Mountain. The road to the summit picnic area and Sherrard Point trail is gated in the winter, but usually opens by early June. An easy, paved trail and series of stairsteps leads to the viewpoint.
Noble fir giants at sunset in WyEast country
If you’d like a longer hike, the short, steep climb to the summit of Bald Mountain, near Lolo Pass, leads through some of the best old growth Noble fir in the Mount Hood area:
Perhaps the best Noble fir forests in the Cascades are at Goat Marsh, near Mt. St. Helens. A short trail takes you into this fascinating research area and some of the largest known Noble fir trees in the world:
Mid-June view of the Elk Cove avalanche scene (photo: Joshua Baker)
WyEast Blog reader Joshua Baker sent several images from a mid-June trip into Elk Cove this year in response to the recent avalanche article that featured images from early August, when much of the avalanche debris had melted free of snow. These images provide a different perspective of the incident, as the winter snowpack was still largely intact, and most of the trees caught up in the avalanche were still buried in snow.
This image shows the top of a still-green Mountain hemlock, snapped off by the avalanche and lying on top of the avalanche debris pile:
Mountain hemlock top snapped off by the avalanche (photo: Joshua Baker)
Another image shows a similarly snapped-off Noble fir lying on top of the avalanche debris:
Noble fir top snapped off by the avalanche (photo: Joshua Baker)
Both images show how trees in deep snowpack can be topped by avalanches, snapped off at the snow line. Not seen in these images are the many trees in the debris pile, below, still buried in snow from the avalanche. As the images in the main article show, whole trees brought down by the event were stacked up to 10 feet deep once the snow melted away over the summer.
This view from mid-June is especially informative, as it shows surviving groups of Mountain hemlock still standing, despite being directly in the path of the avalanche:
Several groups of Mountain hemlock were still standing where the avalanche swept across the floor of Elk Cove (photo: Joshua Baker)
The best explanation for their survival is that the avalanche had rapidly lost speed as it moved across the gently sloped floor of Elk Cove, and these trees were able to withstand the reduced force of the moving avalanche. Another factor is the depth of the avalanche when it reached these trees, as it likely spread out when it reached the floor of the cove, where it finally stopped.
In coming years, I’ll continue to document the debris pile and the recovery of the forest and meadows that were impacted by the avalanche. Just as we’re learning about fire recovery on Mount Hood, this event will provide a window into the resilience of our alpine landscape in the face of an event like this.
When it comes to bucolic alpine scenes on Mount Hood, it’s hard to beat Elk Cove. From the spectacular wildflower gardens that line ice-cold Cove Creek to the sweeping views of Mount Hood and the mighty Coe Glacier, the cove serves up one postcard scene after another.
But behind the mountain scenery are some very wild winters. The same steep walls that give Elk Cove its alpine beauty are also a setup for powerful avalanches. These mostly originate on the lower slopes of Barrett Spur and sweep across the cove with surprising regularity.
Mount Hood in 1931 from the same spot as the previous photo, when trees were more sparse at Elk Cove
Early photos of Elk Cove suggest that avalanches were once even more devastating than what we experience today, and probably more frequent, judging by the advancing stands of Mountain Hemlock that have since spread across the cove. The change is most likely a reflection of our warming climate and declining snowpack in recent decades, but winter continues to take its toll. Major avalanches still roar into the cove with regularity, leveling trees and leaving piles of debris in their wake.
The shell of the old CCC stone shelter at Elk Cove as it appeared in the early 1960s, after being hit by numerous avalanches over the prior 30 years
When the Timberline Trail was built through Elk Cove in the early 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed one of their many iconic stone shelters here, one of six that were built along the trail. They couldn’t have known the site they picked was perhaps the most exposed to avalanches of any spot within the cove, and by the early 1960s, the shelter had already been badly damaged. Today, only a few rocks mark the shelter’s former location.
The 2021 Elk Cove Avalanche
Sometime last winter, yet another avalanche swept off the lower slopes of Barrett Spur, once again landing very near where the old stone CCC shelter had once stood. The debris field left behind by the avalanche was easily spotted by hikers ascending Barrett Spur over the summer, and it is also visible from the Timberline Trail where it enters the Elk Cove.
The following schematic shows Elk Cove and the path of the 2021 avalanche in relation to Mount Hood:
This schematic gives a more detailed view of Elk Cove and the approximate path of the 2021 avalanche, including the steep wall along Barrett Spur that is so prone to avalanches (the Timberline Trail is shown in dashed yellow):
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
From the ground, the debris field left where the avalanche came to rest is striking. This series of views looking down from 99 Ridge (which forms the west wall of Elk Cove) show where the avalanche stopped, and the debris it left behind:
Mount Hood and the 2021 Elk Cove avalanche site
Closer view of Elk Cove and the avalanche debris field
More detailed view of the avalanche debris field
This detailed view from above gives a sense of scale to the hundreds of trees that were caught up in the avalanche and swept into Elk Cove
The debris comes into view where the Timberline Trail curves into the west meadow of Elk Cove, along beautiful Cove Creek. Most hikers were likely too busy looking at the wildflowers along the trail this summer to notice the pile of logs just around the bend, but for regular visitors, the avalanche debris was startling!
Elk Cove avalanche and Cove Creek from the Timberline Trail
The origin of the avalanche can be read from the orientation of the many trees caught up in the wave of snow and ice, as they generally point in the direction of the flow. The schematic below shows the path the avalanche took into Elk Cove before the snow and debris finally came to a stop last winter:
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
Up close, the awesome power of the avalanche becomes apparent. Whole trees were snapped off and stacked like cordwood in a debris pile as much as 20-foot deep.
The avalanche swept down from the slopes of Barrett Spur (to the right in this view), as indicated by the felled trees pointing to the left, in the direction of the flow
In a typical winter, Elk Cove might have 15-20 feet of snow on the ground, and this snowpack is why small trees on steep mountain slopes are often spared from avalanches, since they are buried under heavy snow in winter. In the view below, the winter snowpack also protected the lush wildflower gardens that line the upper reaches of Cove Creek (seen in the distance), with the avalanche sweeping across these gentle slopes before finally settling on the floor of the cove.
The beautiful wildflower meadows in the upper reaches of Cove Creek were spared from the debris thanks to being on gently sloped terrain and under a blanket of winter snow when the avalanche swept through
Large trees aren’t so fortunate. If they’ve managed to escape avalanches along the base of Barrett Spur long enough to grow taller than the winter snowpack, it’s only luck. In time, most of the taller trees in Elk Cove will be swept away by future avalanches.
This panoramic view of the 2021 avalanche gives a sense of the scale of the event, with the sprawling pile of debris covering roughly 2-3 acres:
By early August, when these photos were taken, it would be easy to think the avalanche was just a pile of trees roaring down the mountain, but in fact, this debris is what’s left now that most of the snow and ice has melted away. Look closely, and you can see that a layer of snow and ice has yet to melt away from under the pile when this photo was taken:
6-10 feet of snow still remains under the debris pile as of early August
The 2021 avalanche dumped part of its debris on top of Cove Creek, but the stream made quick work of the pile over the winter. By summer, it had already melted an extensive tunnel under the mountain of snow, ice and debris (below).
Cove Creek carved this snow cave under the debris pile following the avalanche
The huge pile of snow left in Elk Cove by the avalanche brought another surprise: some of the earliest blooming wildflowers were still just emerging in early August, thanks to the extra snow depth left behind by the avalanche. Among these was Western Pasque Flower, a species of Anemone that blooms within a couple weeks of snowmelt, and therefore rarely see by hikers. In fact, most know this beautiful wildflower by its whimsical seed heads, and by the name “Old Man of the Mountain”. The opening image in this article shows a field of Western Pasque Flower gone to seed.
Normally an early bloomer, this Western Pasque Flower was in bloom in early August, thanks to the late-melting margins of the avalanche debris field
How often to avalanches like this occur at Elk Cove? Probably every winter, though events large enough to topple trees seem to occur every 10 years or so, depending on snowpack and weather conditions. Avalanches are most common in mid-winter, when weak snow layers and heavy snowfalls can cause snow to begin to slide on steep mountain slopes. Once they begin, avalanches can travel nearly 60 miles per hour, giving them the destructive force to level forests and buildings in their path.
Ghosts Hiding in Plain Sight
While the 2021 avalanche at Elk Cove is impressive, it is by no means unusual. A look at aerial photos between 2010 and 2021 shows that another avalanche swept through the same area in about 2015. Based on the orientation of downed trees from his earlier event, it originated on some of the same slopes on Barrett Spur that produced the last winter’s avalanche.
In the air photo comparison, below, the location of the new, 2021 avalanche debris pile is marked in yellow. When the 2010 air photo was taken, the forests at the center of the image were intact, but by the summer of 2016, an avalanche had clearly swept through the area. Based on the lack of reddish/orange debris in the 2016 image – the color of recently killed trees – suggests that this avalanche occurred at least a year earlier. So, for the purpose of this article, I’ve described it as the “2015 Avalanche”, and marked its extend in green.
Air photos show the signs of a roughly 2015 avalanche that swept through the same part of Elk Cove as the 2021 event
In both the 2016 and 2018 views, the path of this earlier avalanche is clearly marked by downed trees that point in the direction (right to left) of the moving snow and ice. Though it impacted a larger area in the cove than the 2021 avalanche, the 2015 event brought less woody debris into the cove, suggesting that it originated on a less forested part of the west wall of Elk Cove. In fact, some of the trees in its path on the floor of the cove survived the avalanche, suggesting that the lack of woody debris in the 2015 event made it somewhat less destructive where it finally came to a stop.
While both of these avalanches are awesome reminders of the power of the elements in alpine country, Elk Cove has a few ghosts from the past that suggest much more fearsome events. Tucked into one of the mature, forested “tree islands” at Elk Cove is a ghost tree that give mute testimony to just how powerful an avalanche on Mount Hood can be. The stump of this ghost tree (below) is nearly four feet in diameter and was toppled many decades ago.
This giant ghost tree at Elk Cove was toppled long ago by a very large avalanche
This old ghost was once a very large Mountain Hemlock before it was toppled. Today, its broken remains could easily be 100 years old, marking an avalanche that might have preceded the arrival of the Timberline Trail and those 1930s CCC crews on Mount Hood.
How do we know this old tree was destroyed by an avalanche? The telltale sign is where the tree was snapped off, marking the level of the winter snowpack when the avalanche swept through, and its top is pointed downslope, in the direction the avalanche was moving. Thanks to long, cold winters and dry summers, the shattered remains of this old tree (and several others like it in the cove) have survived to tell the story.
Since that big avalanche, several good-sized trees have grown up around the old ghost tree, helping put an approximate date of 70-100 years since any avalanche of this scale has swept through the heart of Elk Cove. And though it has been many decades since that event, the days of these younger trees are surely numbered, too, as another epic avalanche in Elk Cove is inevitable.
How to Visit
If you’re an able-bodied hiker, you can visit Elk Cove most easily from the Vista Ridge trailhead. It’s a 9-mile hike round trip, but with well-graded trails and no glacial streams to navigate. If you visit the avalanche debris field, please tread lightly, as the rustic path that once led to the upper reaches of Cove Creek was partly buried with debris, and the surrounding area is covered with a fragile meadow of Western Pasque Flower.
You can find a trail description here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide. Why, you might even know the author of this field guide entry..!
Mount Hood and the White River as it appeared early in the summer of 2020
Mount Hood’s glaciers may be retreating, but if anything, the melting ice and more extreme weather that climate change is bringing to the mountain have only made the streams that emerge from its glaciers that much more volatile.
Glacial streams are inherently intimidating: ice cold and rising dramatically within hours when glacial melting accelerates on hot summer days to become churning river of mud and silt. They can make for terrifying fords for Timberline Trail hikers and wreak havoc on downstream roads and streambanks. But the worst events typically come in fall or late spring, when sudden warming and heavy rain can trigger rapid snowmelt on the mountain, turning these streams into unruly torrents.
Highway 35 was buried under a sea of boulders in the November 2006 White River debris flow (ODOT)
Such was the setting in November 2006, when a warm front with heavy rains pounded the mountain, rapidly melting the first snows of autumn that added to the explosive runoff. The worst damage to infrastructure came from the raging White River and Newton Creek, two glacial streams that emerge from the southeast side of the mountain. The streams also happen to flank the Meadows ski resort, so when both streams effortlessly swept away whole sections of the Mount Hood Loop highway (OR 35), the resort suddenly found itself cut off from the rest of Oregon.
The 2006 floods washed away the bridge approaches and stacked boulders eight feet deep on top of the former White River Bridge (ODOT)
Highway worker posing with a boulder dropped by the White River on the centerline of Highway 35 during the 2006 floods (ODOT)
Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) crews quickly restored temporary access to the resort, but the damage to the highway was profound. Newton Creek had simply swept away the roadbed along an entire section of the highway, while the White River had swept away the bridge approaches on both sides of the concrete span over the stream – then proceeded to pile a collection of boulders on top of the stranded bridge, just for emphasis!
This overflow culvert at the east end of the old bridge approach was overwhelmed in the 2006 flood, as the White River spilled over the top of the highway, instead (ODOT)
Undaunted, the highway engineers at ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration turned to a recently completed 2003 study of design solutions for several flood-prone spot along the Highway 35. From these, a pair of projects totaling $20 million were proposed to finally tame the two streams – a “permanent” fix, as the study described it.
East of the White River, the 2006 floods also sent a torrent of water and debris down Newton and Clark Creeks, erasing sections of Highway 35 near Hood River Meadows (ODOT)
Once again, the plan was to go bigger. For Newton Creek, the now rebuilt highway includes a massive, 30-foot wide, rock-lined flood channel running parallel to the highway, with box culverts periodically spaced to allow floodwaters to cross under the road. For the White River, a series of option were considered, including a tunnel (!) and completely relocating the highway. But in the end, the option of simply replacing the older span with a much larger bridge was selected. The new bridge was completed in 2012.
Options considered in the 2003 study of possible Highway 35 crossings of the White River
The preferred option for the White River also included a second span over Green Apple Creek, a small stream located just east of main crossing, and a feature that would serve as an overflow for the White River. Between the bridges, the new highway crossing is constructed on a high berm of fill, twenty feet above the expanse of sand and boulders that make up the White River floodplain, and berms also support the approaches to both bridges on either side of the floodplain.
When they were completed in 2012, six years after the floods that had swept away sections of the highway, these structures seemed gargantuan compared to the previous incarnation of the highway. Yet, looking down upon the new White River Bridge from higher up on the mountain, it is really nothing more than a speed bump for the raging monster the White River is capable of.
The White River has been moving east for several years. This view is from early summer 2020, when the upstream section of the river had already moved almost to the east canyon wall
For the past decade, the new structures seemed to be working as planned by the highway engineers. The White River continued to meander about in its wide flood channel, as it has for millennia, but it still found its way to the newer, bigger bridge opening. Until last winter, that is.
Sometime during the winter of 2020-21, the river abruptly formed another new channel along the east side of its floodplain, beginning about one mile above the new highway bridge. In recent years, the river had been gradually moving in this direction, including a smaller flood event in the fall of 2020 that spilled debris into the White River West SnoPark. Today’s radically new channel is a continuation of this eastward movement, almost to the east wall of the canyon.
This view from the fall of 2020 followed a debris flow that sent rock and gravel into the White River West SnoPark and set the stage for the big shift in the river’s course that would follow over the coming winter. The river was actively meandering across the latest flow in this view, settling on a new course
The berm in the center of this view was built after the 2006 floods to project the White River West SnoPark parking area (on the right) from future flooding (the White River floodplain is on the left). The fall 2020 debris flow managed to breach the berm, spreading rock and gravel across the southern corner of the parking area (the third car and most distant car in this photo is parked on the debris). The new (and now dry) White River Bridge is in the distance
By the spring of 2021, the White River had completely abandoned the main floodplain and now flows beyond the row of tress in the far distance
Looking downstream from the new White River Bridge in 2021, the former riverbed is now completely dry, with the river now flowing beyond the band of trees on the left
The White River Bridge is only a few years old, but now spans only a dry streambed
This decision to include a second bridge in the new design turned out to be fortuitous over the last winter, at least in the near term. This “overflow” bridge is now the main crossing of the recently relocated White River. Had ODOT opted to simply replace the culverts that once existed here, the river would have easily taken out a section of the berm that supports the highway between the two new bridges, closing the highway, once again. However, the second span is much smaller than the main span, so it is unclear whether the river will continue to cooperate with the highway engineers and stick to this unplanned route.
This view shows the new channel carved by the White River sometime during the winter of 2020-21
The White River carved a 20-foot-deep riverbed through loose floodplain material to form the new channel
The new bridge design included this secondary opening as a backup to the main bridge, though it is now the primary crossing of the relocated White River. The highway slopes downward as it moves east of here, dropping below the elevation of the White River floodplain, and thereby creating the potential for the river to migrate further east, threatening the fill section of the highway in the distance in this view
The channel shifts on the White River might seem to be sudden, but in reality, they are perpetual. The White River (along with the rest of Mount Hood’s glacial streams) bring tremendous loads of rock and silt with them. This has always been the case, with melting glaciers releasing debris caught up in the river of ice, some of it building piles of rock called moraines, and some carried off by the rivers that flow from the glaciers.
In the past few decades, the cycle of glacial erosion has been compounded by the retreat of the glaciers, themselves. All of Mount Hood’s glaciers are rapidly losing ice in the face of a warming climate, and the retreat of larger glaciers like the White River, Eliot, Sandy and Coe leaves behind bare ground once covered in ice.
When this happens, and erosion shifts from slow-moving ice to fast-running water, the amount of debris and water moving down the glacial streams grows dramatically. The following diagram (see below) explains this relationship in the context of the rapidly retreating Eliot Glacier, Mount Hood’s largest body of ice, located on the mountain’s northeast side.
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
Glaciers plow wide, U-shaped valley as they grind away at the mountain, whereas streams cut deep, V-shaped canyons. When glaciers like the Eliot retreat, they expose their u-shaped valleys to stream erosion, and their outflow streams (in this case the Eliot Branch) immediately go to work cutting V-shaped canyons into the soft, newly exposed valley floor, resulting in much more material moving downstream in more volatile events.
In the schematic, the lower part of the Eliot Glacier is somewhat hidden to the casual eye, as it’s covered with rock and glacial till. This is true of most glaciers – the white upper extent marks where they are actively building up more ice with each winter, and the lower, typically debris-covered lower extent is where the ice is actively melting with each season, leaving behind a layer of collected debris that has been carried down in the flowing ice.
The terminus of the glacier in the schematic marks the point where the Eliot Branch flows from the glacier. As the terminus continues to retreat uphill with continued shrinking of the Eliot Glacier, more of the U-shaped glacial valley floor is exposed. At the bottom of the schematic, the floor of the valley has been exposed for long enough to allow the Eliot Branch to already have eroded a sizeable V-shaped canyon in the formerly flat valley. This rapid erosion has fed several debris flows down the Eliot Branch canyon in recent years, including one as recently as this month, abruptly closing the road to Laurance Lake.
The Eliot Branch continues to spread debris flows across its floodplain, burying trees in as much as 20 feet of rock and gravel. This section of the Eliot Branch flooded again earlier this month, closing the only road to Laurance Lake
We’ve seen plenty of examples of this activity around the mountain over the past couple of decades, too. In 2006 the mountain was especially active, with flooding and debris from the Sandy, Eliot, Newton Clark and White River glaciers doing extensive downstream damage to roads – this was the event that removed the highway at the White River and Newton Creek. Smaller events occurred in 1998, as well. In the 2006 event, the Lolo Pass Road was completely removed near Zigzag and the Middle Fork Hood River (which carries the outflow from the Eliot and Coe glaciers) destroyed bridges and roads in several spots.
Even in quieter times, the White River has moved its channel around steadily. That’s because the heavy debris load in the river eventually settles out when it reaches the floodplain, filling the active river channel. This eventually elevates the river to a point where it spills into older channels or even into other lower terrain. Because of the broad width of the White River floodplain at the base of the mountain, this phenomenon has occurred hundreds of times over the millennia, and the river will continue to make these moves indefinitely.
To underscore this point, the 2003 highway study of potential solutions for Highway 35 includes this eye-opening chart that shows just how many times the White River has flooded the highway or overtaken the bridges – nearly 20 events since the highway was first completed in 1925!
[click here for a larger version of this timeline]
Therein lies the folly of trying to force the river into a single 100-foot opening (or even a second overflow opening) on a half-mile wide floodplain. The fact that much of the floodplain is devoid of trees is a visual reminder that the river is in control here, and very active. It has a long history of spreading out and moving around that long precedes our era of roads and automobiles.
But the White River has an added twist in its volatility compared to most of the other glacial streams that flow from Mount Hood. The vast maze of sandy canyons that make up the headwaters of the White River are quite new, geologically speaking – at least as they appear today. This is because of a series of volcanic events in the 1780s known as the Old Maid eruptions covered Mount Hood’s south side with a deep blanket of new volcanic debris. The same gentle south slopes that Timberline Lodge and Government Camp sit on today didn’t exist before those eruptions, just 240 years ago.
The White River Glacier (center) flows from near the crater of Mount Hood, and rests upon soft slopes of rock and ash debris that were created by the Old Maid eruptions of the 1780s. The large rock monolith poking up from the crater (left of center) is Crater Rock, an 800-foot lava dome that formed during the Old Maid eruptions
The Old Maid eruptions created other new features on the mountain – notably, 800-foot Crater Rock, a prominent monolith that was pushed up from the south edge of the crater. Meanwhile, the eruptions also generated lahars, the name given to sudden, massive mudflows that can range from ice cold to boiling, depending on the origin of the event. These flows rushed down the White River, Zigzag and Sandy River valleys, burying whole forests under debris ranging from mud and silt to boulders the size of delivery trucks.
The Old Maid eruptions take their name from Old Maid Flat, located along the Sandy River, where a new forest is still struggling to take hold on top of the volcanic debris, more than two centuries later. At the White River, trees buried by the lahars can be seen in the upper canyon, where the river has cut through the Old Maid eruption debris to reveal the former canyon floor, and trees still lying where they were knocked over (more about those buried forests toward the end of this article).
From high on the rim of the White River canyon, the endless supply of rock and ash from the Old Maid deposits is apparent – along with the impossibly tiny (by comparison) “bigger bridge” over the White River
This telephoto view of the new White River bridge from the same vantage point in the upper White River canyon reveals the structure to be a mere speed bump compared to the scale and power of the White River
For this reason, the White River has an especially unstable headwaters area compared to other glaciers on the mountain, with both glacial retreat and the unstable debris from recent lahars triggering repeated flash floods and debris flows here. That’s why the question of whether the new, bigger and bolder highway bridge over the White River will be washed out is more a question of when. It will be, and in our era of rapid climate change, the answer is probably sooner than later.
Is there a better solution? Perhaps simply acknowledging that the river is perpetually on the move, and designing the road with regular reconstruction in mind, as opposed to somehow finding a grand, permanent solution. That’s at odds with the culture of highway building in this country, as it could mean simply accepting more frequent closures and more modest bridge structures – perhaps structures that could even be moved and reused when the river changes course?
The 2003 Federal Highways study actually acknowledges this reality, even if the brawny, costly designs that were ultimately constructed in 2012 do not:
“It is imperative to remember that geological, meteorological, and hydrological processes that result in debris flows, floods, and rock fall have occurred for millions of years, and will occur for millions of years to come. They are naturally occurring phenomena that with current technology cannot be completely stopped or controlled. Thus, the best that can be hoped for is to minimize the destructive, highway– closing impacts of events at the study sites.” (FHWA Highway 35 Feasibility Study, 2003)
The White River seems to be enjoying its new channel and change of scenery…
In the meantime, the newly relocated White River an awesome sight. We’re so accustomed to bending nature to our will in this modern world that it’s refreshing to see a place where nature has no intention of being fenced in (or channeled, in this case).
Do rivers have a sense of humor or experience joy? As I looked down upon the White River sparkling and splashing down its new channel this summer, it seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the pure freedom of flowing wherever it wants to. It’s yet another reminder that “nature bats last”, and in WyEast country, the mountain – and its rivers — will always have the final word.
For us, it’s that strangely comforting reminder that we’re quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things, despite our attempts to pretend otherwise.
How to visit the White River
If you’re interested in experiencing the living geology of the White River, an easy introduction is to park at the White River West SnoPark area and trailhead, then head up the trail toward the mountain for a quarter mile or so. From here, the river has moved to the far side of the floodplain, but for the adventurous, it’s cross-country walk across sand and boulders to reach the stream. There, you can soak your feet in ice cold, usually milky water and watch the river moving the mountain in real time, pebble-by-pebble. The main trail is almost always within sight, so it would be tough to get lost in the open terrain here.
Look closely – those tan stripes near the bottom of the White River canyon mark the pre-Old Maid eruption slopes of Mount Hood, now buried under ash and debris from the lahars. Several preserved trees that were knocked down by the eruption can be seen along these margins. This viewpoint is along the Timberline Trail, just east of Timberline Lodge.
To see the relocated White River, park at the White River East SnoPark and walk to the east bridge – now the main crossing of the White River. The view upstream includes the top of Mount Hood, but watch out for speeding traffic when crossing the highway!
To see the buried White River forest, you can park at Timberline Lodge and follow the Timberline Trail (which is also the Pacific Crest Trail here) east for about a mile, where the trail drops to the rim of the upper White River canyon. The views here are spectacular, but if you look directly below for a waterfall on the nearest branch of the White River, you’ll also see the reddish-yellow mark of the former valley floor and the bleached remains of several ghost trees buried in the eruptions 240 years ago. Watch your step, here, and stay on the trail – the canyon rim is unstable and actively eroding!
St. Peters Dome rising above the January 13 Bucher Creek debris flow that swept across I-84, killing one person (ODOT)
It seems a world away as we enter yet another summer drought, with record-breaking heat waves and an early wildfire season in WyEast country. Yet, just a few months ago, on January 13th, the tragic story of a Warrendale Resident being swept away in her car by a winter debris flow in the Columbia Gorge filled our local news. The event closed a 10-mile section of I-84 from Ainsworth State Park to Tanner Creek and the area was evacuated after the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning.
Some of the local media coverage also connected the dots, reporting on the long history of dangerous debris flows in this part of the Gorge. This was not a freak tragedy, but rather, a completely predictable event. The well-known hazard zone stretches from Ainsworth State Park on the west to Yeon State Park, five miles to the east, encompassing the hamlets of Dodson and Warrendale in its path. While the steep walls throughout the Gorge are infamous for producing rockfall and landslides, this stretch is notoriously active. Why?
Geoscientists don’t have a particular name for this geologically active area, but the unifying feature is a near-vertical wall that I will call the Nesmith Escarpment for the purpose of this article. The name that comes from Nesmith Point, which has the distinction of being the tallest feature on the Gorge rim, rising nearly 4,000 feet from the banks of Columbia River. The Nesmith Escarpment was largely created by the ancient, catastrophic Missoula Floods that shaped much of what we know as the Columbia River Gorge during the last ice, more than 13,000 years ago. These floods repeatedly scoured the Gorge with torrents hundreds of feet deep, often enough to overtop today’s Crown Point and Rowena Plateau.
Tumalt Creek is the largest of the volatile streams that flow from the towering, over-steepened Gorge walls of the Nesmith Escarpment(ODOT)
As the massive Missoula Floods cut into the slopes below Nesmith Point, the over-steepened terrain began to collapse into the river. It’s a process that continues to this day, gradually expanding the escarpment and leaving behind sheer basalt towers of resistant bedrock along the lower slopes. Of these, St. Peters Dome is the most prominent, along with Rock of Ages and Katanai Rock (the informal name for the impressive monolith that rises just east of St. Peters Dome).
The headwaters of Tumalt Creek flow from the highest walls of the Nesmith Escarpment, where the red, volcanic layers of the Nesmith Volcano that rests on the Gorge rim have been exposed by erosion (ODOT)
Adding to the geologic uniqueness of the Nesmith Escarpment is Nesmith Point, itself. Located at the top of the escarpment, the familiar layer-cake stack of basalt flows that make up so much of the Gorge geology gives way at Nesmith Point to bright red and yellow layers of clay and cinders that reveal the uppermost part of the escarpment to be the remains of a volcano. The northern half of the volcano has been torn away over the millennia by the growing escarpment, leaving a visible cross-section of the volcanic dome. The surviving, southern half of the Nesmith volcano is gently sloping, like other dome volcanoes that line the Oregon side of the Gorge (the familiar peaks of Larch Mountain and Mount Defiance among them).
The result of all this erosion is a 3-mile-long amphitheater of collapsing layers of volcanic debris and basalt walls resting uncomfortably and over-steepened upon ancient sediments at the base of the cliffs that make for a slippery, unstable foundation. Rain, winter freezes and gravity will therefore continue to chip away at the escarpment for millennia.
Over the many centuries since the Missoula Floods, this relentless erosion has built a huge apron of what geoscientists call an “alluvial fan” at the base of the Nesmith Escarpment. This name describes the flood debris that accumulates where canyon streams prone to flash-flooding suddenly reach a valley floor, slowing and depositing debris over time. The resulting layers typically form a broad, gently sloped wedge shaped like a fan. For the purpose of this article, the fan at the base of the Nesmith Escarpment will be referred to as the Nesmith Fan.
(Source: State of Wyoming)
(Source: City of Scottsdale)
One of the defining features of an alluvial fan is the erratic, constantly shifting course of the streams that create them. Because of their shallow slope and the accumulation of debris, these streams continually change course as they spread their loads of rock and gravel on the fan.
If the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan were located in a desert environment, these defining features would be exposed and easy to see. But in the forested western Gorge, the dense rainforest vegetation quickly covers debris flows with new growth, often within five or ten years, making it hard to recognize how active the geology really is. It’s therefore easy to understand why settlements like Dodson and Warrendale were built upon on the Nesmith Fan, where the fertile ground and gentle terrain were friendly to farming and home sites. The spectacular cliffs of the Nesmith Escarpment simply provided a beautiful backdrop for these communities. Yet, it’s also an increasingly hazardous place for anyone to live.
The image below shows the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan in a way that wasn’t possible until LIDAR technology was developed. LIDAR allows highly detailed images of topography even in areas like the Gorge, where dense forests cover the terrain. The LIDAR view shows the steep walls of the escarpment in stark relief, including the hundreds of steep ravines that have formed along the escarpment.
Lidar view of the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan
The LIDAR view also reveals the alluvial deposits that make up the Nesmith Fan to be a series of hundreds (or even thousands) of overlapping debris flows from the roughly dozen streams that flow from the Nesmith Escarpment, each helping to gradually build the enormous alluvial fan. The wrinkled surface of the fan reveals the hundreds of flood channels that have developed over the millennia as countless debris flows have swept down from the cliffs above.
This view (looking east toward Dodson from Ainsworth State Park) shows the vulnerability of I-84 and the Union Pacific Railroad where they cross the 3-mile-wide expanse of the Nesmith Fan. The 2021 debris flows and flooding damage to the Ainsworth interchange can be seen at the center of the photo, where the interstate was temporary closed by the event (ODOT)
During the very wet winter of 1996, a series of major debris flow roared down from the Nesmith Escarpment, sweeping cars off I-84 and closing the freeway for several days. A train on the Union Pacific line was knocked off its tracks and many home were damaged.
During the event, debris from Leavens Creek, near St. Peters Dome, swept toward the Dodson area, eventually engulfing the Royse house, which was located near the Ainsworth interchange. The scene was shocking, burying the home in debris that rose to the second floor and destroying outbuildings on the Royse farm. You can read Carol Royse’s riveting account of the event on Portland State researcher Kenneth Cruikshank’s excellent web page describing the 1996 debris flows here.
The Royse House in Dodson (with St. Peters Dome beyond) after a series of debris flows on Leavens Creek engulfed the structure in 1996 (The Oregonian)
The Royse home stood half-buried and visible from the freeway for many years, becoming a prominent reminder of the power of the Gorge. By the mid-2000s, a new forest of Red alder and Cottonwood had already enveloped the debris path and the Royse home, eventually obscuring it from view until the Eagle Creek Fire destroyed both the structure and newly established forest in 2017.
The more recent debris flows in January of this year struck some of the same spots that were impacted in the 1996 and 2001 events. The Tumalt Creek drainage was once again very active, sending debris onto I-84 and closing the freeway. To the west, the Leavens and Bucher creek drainages also sent debris onto the highway and the site of the former Royse home.
As jarring as these changes are to us, this cycle of destruction, rebirth and more destruction has unfolded hundreds of times on the Nesmith Fan. It’s simply part of the ongoing evolution of the landscape.
How do they start?
Debris flows are a mud and rock version of an snow avalanche. They typically begin with oversaturated soils on steep terrain that suddenly liquifies from its own weight. Once it begins to move, the flow can incorporate still more oversaturated soil as it gathers speed, just as a snow avalanche triggers downslope snow to move. The steepness of the terrain is a key factor in how fast a debris flow can move, and on very steep slopes they can reach as much as 100 miles per hour, though they typically slow as the debris reaches the base of the slope and spreads out to form alluvial fans.
These towering twin cascades where Bucher Creek originates along the Nesmith Escarpment rival Multnomah Falls in height. The impossibly steep terrain here is the source of both the debris and sudden flash floods that have helped build the Nesmith Fan, far below (ODOT)
A heavy rain event can also trigger a debris flow by creating stream flooding that erodes and undermines stream banks, causing debris to slide from canyon walls. This form of debris flow is common in the larger canyons in the Columbia Gorge, but less so on the Nesmith Escarpment, where most of the streams are small and only flow seasonally. Here, it’s the steepness of the slopes and the unstable geology that makes the area so prone to debris flows.
Debris flows are different from landslides. A debris flow is typically quite liquid and fast moving, like cake batter being poured into pan. Landslides are typically slow, with a large mass sliding as a whole, like an omelet sliding from a skillet onto a plate. In the Gorge, landslides are common and mostly occur where the underlying geology is oversaturated and allows the overlying terrain to move. The upper walls of the Nesmith Escarpment are scared by hundreds of landslides, and in the right conditions, these slide can trigger debris flows that spread far beyond the landslide.
What about fires and logging?
A third trigger for debris flows is the sudden removal of the forest overstory. The big trees in our Pacific Northwest forests capture and hold a tremendous amount of rain on their surfaces that never reaches the ground, with some of the moisture directly absorbed by the trees and much of it simply evaporating. Clear cut logging removes this buffer, allowing much more precipitation to suddenly reach the soil, triggering erosion, landslides and debris flows.
Logging roads are especially impactful by cutting into the soil profile on steep slopes and allowing runoff to infiltrate under the soil layer and destabilized soils. This is well-documented as a source of major landslides in heavily logged areas. Thankfully, most of the forested western end of the Gorge is protected from logging, including the Nesmith Escarpment (though early white settlers logged these areas of the Gorge extensively)
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire has not only destabilized steep slopes throughout the burn by killing the protective forest cover, it also revealed the tortured landscape of braided flood channels on the Nesmith Fan once hidden under dense vegetation. This image from just after the fire shows a volunteer trail crew scouting Trail 400 where it crosses the fan. The route curves in and out of the dozens of channels and debris piles formed by past flood events
Fire can have a similar effect on runoff when the forest canopy is completely killed. This is why new research shows that attempting to log recently burned areas can have serious effects by disturbing newly exposed soils and worsening the increased erosion that would already result from fires.
In the Gorge, the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire burned most of the Nesmith Escarpment, raising serious concerns about the debris flow activity accelerating here in the coming decades. The debris flows earlier this year may have been the first major events to have been triggered as much by deforestation from the fire as by oversaturated soils. The following photo pair shows the extent of the burn on the Nesmith Escarpment, with the first photo taken just a few weeks before the fire in 2017 and the second photo taken in 2018, when the fire’s impact was clearly visible.
The January 2021 debris flow
The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been making regular flights over the Eagle Creek Fire burn since late 2017 to monitor for potential flooding and landslides. While the main purpose of these surveys is to anticipate impacts on the highway, ODOT is also amassing an invaluable library of historic photos that document the fire and resulting geologic events in a way that has never been done before.
Their most recent flight includes photos from the January 2021 debris flows that tell the story in a way that words cannot match:
This view looking west toward the Ainsworth Interchange shows how Bucher Creek had completely covered the south half of the interchange and sent mud and debris flowing east on the freeway, itself. The 1996 and 2001 debris flows impacted much of the same area (ODOT)
A closer look at the 2021 debris flows where the Ainsworth interchange was overwhelmed with debris. A green highway sign marks what used to be a freeway on-ramp (ODOT)
Bucher creek briefly pushed the lobe of mud and debris in the lower right of this view directly toward the home in the first photo, before changing direction to the path the creek is following in this photo. This is a good example of how accumulated debris regularly forces the streams that carry the debris into new channels. (ODOT)
This view looking back at the Bucher Creek debris flow lobe shows just how close it came to the home and outbuildings shown in the previous photo (ODOT)
The view down Bucher Creek debris flow toward St. Peters Dome and the Columbia River from near the crest of the Nesmith Escarpment (ODOT)
Landslide in burned timber near the crest of the Nesmith Escarpment. This landslide fed debris directly into the Bucher Creek debris flow, and onto the freeway more than 3,500 feet below (ODOT)
What to do?
It’s tempting to wish away future geologic hazards by taking comfort from what we perceive to be more predictable past. After all, the modern Gorge we know has been evolving for more than 13,000 years, and long periods of slope stabilization have marked recent centuries. But can we count on periods of stability in a future that will be shaped by global climate change?
Almost surely not. All indications are for more volatility in both weather and flood events like those that have built the Nesmith Fan. Recent evidence increasingly supports the reality that our landscapes are changing along with the climate. In a 2016 report on landslide risks by Multnomah County, the number of events escalated over the past 25 years, including at the Nesmith Escarpment (see table, below).
The best path for adapting to this reality and becoming more resilient in response to future events is to accept the ongoing risk from the Nesmith Escarpment. In the near-term, this means regularly repairing I-84 and the parallel Union Pacific railroad after flood events that will become increasingly common and disruptive. It also means installing early warning systems along these routes for the traveling public and commers, as well as the residents of the area who live in harm’s way.
The 2021 debris flow along Tumalt Creek during this year’s series of flood events on the Nesmith Fan was a textbook example of why adapting in the near-term to protect existing infrastructure is a tall order. The following images show just how unpredictable and unmanageable this steam has become for ODOT.
Once Tumalt Creek reaches the foot of the Nesmith Escarpment and begins to flow across the fan, its course continually shifts and changes, making it very difficult to predict where each debris flow event might be headed (ODOT)
A single culvert (above) carries Tumalt Creek under the freeway and frontage road, but the Nesmith Fan is a maze of shifting streambeds by definition, making it nearly impossible to force streams to obey culvert locations (ODOT)
The channel carrying the debris flow on Tumalt Creek that overwhelmed the frontage road and I-84 in February later dried up, with the creek shifting to another channel after the flood (ODOT)
This screen was installed at another culvert that Tumalt Creek has swept through in past debris flow eventsl. While this device might keep small debris flows from overwhelming the culvert, it has no chance against the increasingly large debris flows that we can expect on the Nesmith Fan (ODOT)
This is the view from the frontage road looking upstream at the large, main culvert intended for Tumalt Creek – though it had shifted out of the channel when this photo was taken a few months after the February event. The flatness of the terrain on the Nesmith Fan is evident here, with no obvious stream chanel except for the grading and contouring by highway crews (ODOT)
Adapting to a new reality
In the long term, coping with debris flows also means facing some tough questions for those who live on the Nesmith Fan. For some, it’s a place where families have settled for generations. For others, it’s a dream home they’ve put their life savings into on the Columbia River in the heart of the Gorge. But for anyone who lives here, the risks are real and growing – as the death of a local resident in this year’s debris flows reminds us.
Across the country, climate change and rising sea levels are impacting millions of homes and businesses built in floodplains formerly classified as “100-year”, but now seeing regular flooding. In the past, the U.S. Government has provided public flood insurance for those living or operating a business in a flood zone, but the increasing frequency of catastrophic events in flood and hurricane-prone regions like the Mississippi Valley, Texas, Florida and Carolina coasts is pushing federal flood insurance premiums sharply up. This does not bode well for those living and working in hazard zones in the Pacific Northwest, including the rural communities scattered across the Nesmith Fan.
Notices like this will become a way of life for Nesmith Fan residents in coming years
In some places along the Mississippi Valley, the federal government has begun simply relocating homes, and even whole towns, rather than rebuilding them in harm’s way. Could this be a model for the Nesmith Fan? Possibly, though most of the private homes in the path of debris flows are not in the flood plain, and may not be eligible for any form of subsidized federal insurance or assistance, short of a disaster.
A more direct approach that could be taken at the state level is a simple buy-out, over time. Where flood-prone areas in other parts of the country might simply have value as farm or grazing land, the Gorge is a world class scenic area, and both public land agencies and non-profits are actively acquiring land for conservation and public use. As Gorge locations go, it’s hard to find a spot as spectacular as the Nesmith Fan and the escarpment that rises above it.
Already, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks have acquired land on the Nesmith Fan for recreation and to provide habitat under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area provisions, including at least two parcels with coveted river access. Permanent funding of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund last year should also help jump-start public acquisitions in the Gorge that have stalled in recent years, and could help spur land owners considering their options.
Katanai Rock (left) and St. Peters Dome (right) rise above orchards at Dodson in this 1940s view from the old Columbia River Highway
Recent events are surely changing the dynamic for landowners in the Gorge, as well. Would some residents living on the Nesmith Fan be more open to a buy-out after witnessing the devastation of last year’s debris flows, knowing that more are likely to come in the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire? Probably. Others – especially the string of luxury homes along the Columbia River – might be more motivated by legacy, and for these folks, non-profit conservation trusts and easements could be a tool for transitioning private land into public ownership over time.
In the meantime, expect more flooding, debris flows and periodic closures of I-84 during the rainy months. And probably more fires in summer, too. This is the new normal in the Realm of St. Peter, after all, and it’s a cycle that will continue for all our lifetimes, and beyond.
Tribal fishing platforms line the Columbia River as Mount Hood floats on the horizon at the proposed Columbia Hills pumped energy project site
A few folks had questions about the Goldendale Energy Project (what I called the “Columbia Hills Energy Project” in my last post), so I thought I’d post some resources for anyone looking to learn more about the project and how to help the coalition of opponents.
Do you take scenes like this in the eastern Columbia River Gorge for granted? Read on…
As we slowly emerge from a year of pandemic, three milestones in Columbia River Gorge news are noteworthy for those who love WyEast Country. What do they have in comment? In each case, the multi-layered governance (or lack thereof) in the Gorge continues to be a hurdle, even when the news is very good… or even great!
The Great: Mitchell Point Tunnel Project
For many years the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been quietly moving toward actually replacing the legendary Mitchell Point “tunnel of many windows” with a new windowed tunnel. The new tunnel is along the bike and pedestrian trail that ODOT has been building to reconnect the original Historic Columbia River Highway, and construction began this spring. It’s a bold and visionary project, and another dramatic nod toward historic restoration along the old route. The former Oregon Highway Division destroyed the original tunnel in the 1966, when it was deemed a hazard to traffic on the modern freeway being constructed directly below, and it has been a dream for many to see it restored ever since.
The new 655-foot tunnel will have five arched windows, roughly patterned after the original Mitchell Point Tunnel. When completed, the tunnel will become the crown jewel of the larger Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, a concept 35 years in the making, with just five miles of trail remaining to be constructed. When the last five miles are complete, the trail is destined to become a world-class cycling destination that will allow visitors to ride from Troutdale to The Dalles without traveling along the modern freeway.
The iconic Mitchell Point Tunnel was completed in 1915, but it was destroyed by freeway construction just 51 years later in 1966. It lives on in our collective memory as the greatest engineering marvel of the original Columbia River Highway
This 1920s view of the original Mitchell Point Tunnel from the Washington side of the Columbia River shows both west viaduct that led to the tunnel and the famous series of windows (on the left). Freeway construction at the base of the cliffs in the 1960s destroyed both the tunnel and viaduct
The new Mitchell Point Tunnel will enter the basalt walls of Mitchell Spur, the smaller, northern offshoot of Mitchell Point, proper, and connect the existing Mitchell Point Wayside on the west side of the spur to a future trail and historic highway alignment east of Mitchell Point. Between the two new tunnel portals, five windows will frame Gorge views and light the way for visitors, providing an experience similar to what early motorists enjoyed from their Model-Ts in the early 1920s.
ODOT has posted a video on YouTube with drone footage and more background on the new tunnel:
While the new tunnel is certain to draw visitors who simply want to walk its length and enjoy the views, it also offers a terrific opportunity to create loop hikes that build upon the existing Mitchell Point Trail. This steep and difficult to maintain route is more like a goat path, but has become an increasingly popular viewpoint trail as placed like Angels Rest become overwhelmingly crowded. The Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation (OPRD) has already adopted a new loop trail concept for the west side of Mitchell Point that also would provide a better graded approach to the summit, and a loop for those willing to return along the existing, very steep route.
This ODOT rendering shows the planned approach to the west portal of the new Mitchell Point Tunnel from the perspective of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, which currently stubs out at these cliffs (ODOT)
This rendering also shows the new west portal that ODOT is constructing for the new Mitchell Point Tunnel. A bump-out viewpoint (on the left) is also included in the design (ODOT)
This concept shows the design for five windows that will be incorporated into the new tunnel at Mitchell Point. ODOT describes the tunnel interior as “modern concrete”, so the exposed rock surface in this rendering and visible in the previous portal rendering may not be part of the final plan (ODOT)
This view shows the existing overlook at the Mitchell Point Wayside, where the paved trail stubs out at berm at the base of Mitchell Spur’s cliffs. The west portal to the new tunnel will enter the cliff visible just beyond the berm, at the right in this photo. The berm will be removed to extend the trail to the new tunnel portal.
The west portal design for the new tunnel preserves this relatively new (2013) overlook at Mitchell Point, already a popular stop for Gorge visitors
The new tunnel also offers a loop trail opportunity from the east side of Mitchell Point, with the tunnel providing a return to the main trailhead. Loop trails are popular with hikers because you get to see more scenery for your effort. But they can also be managed as one-way trails where crowds are a problem, greatly lessening the impact of passing hikers on heavily traveled trails. The OPRD plan for the Gorge also includes a loop trail concept for Angels Rest with this exact purpose in mind. From a hiker’s perspective, one-way loops also mean encountering far fewer people along your hike, so it can greatly improve the outdoor experience.
Will Mitchell Point become as crowded as Angels Rest? Maybe someday, though not anytime soon, simply because it’s much farther from Portland. But it will certainly become more popular than it is today, as foot traffic here has steadily grown over the past decade or so. With this in mind, one of the disappointments of the Mitchell Point project is the failure to plan for future crowds, and especially to differentiate between visitor types in the planned parking improvements. In the past, most visitors to Mitchell Point were there to walk to the existing overlook at the wayside, spending just a few minutes there while on their driving tour of the Gorge. Hikers, meanwhile, can spend several hours laboring up the steep path to the summit.
Currently, both kinds of visitors compete for the same limited number of parking spots at Mitchell Point. As with unmanaged waysides elsewhere in the Gorge (Latourell Falls, Wahkeena Falls, Starvation Creek are just a few examples), hikers are now filling all of the spots at Mitchell Point on weekends, leaving touring families with no place to park. The new ODOT plan will create 18 parking spaces (including one disabled spot) compared to 16 today (including two disabled spaces). The net increase of two parking spaces is a drop in the bucket for this increasingly popular trailhead.
The existing parking area at Mitchell Point is relatively new – completed in early 2013, when this photo was taken. It provides a total of 16 parking spots, including two disabled spots. The construction of the Mitchell Point tunnel includes a complete reconstruction of the existing parking area
There are a couple of solutions that ODOT and OPRD could easily incorporate into the current construction phase without rivisitng the basic parking plan. First, mark a few parking spots for short-term, 30-minute parking for touring motorists to visit the wayside viewpoint and walk the new tunnel. Yes, it would have to be enforced to be effective, but even sporadic enforcement with a healthy fine would send a shockwave through hiking social media sites.
This is an ODOT rendering of the new parking area at Mitchell Point. While it’s surprising to see the fairly new parking lot being reconstructed so soon, the new design does manage to have a smaller paved area while expanding parking spaces (to a total of 18 compared to 16 today) and has a more efficient circulation design. The areas shown with picnic tables were once part of a very large parking area here as recently as 2012, so it’s disappointing that this design doesn’t better accommodate demand by included more spaces in that area (ODOT)
Second, ODOT and OPRD could take formally advantage of the long access drive to the Mitchell Point Wayside to allow for overflow parking. At a meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Steering Committee last summer, I asked if overflow shoulder parking would be allowed along the access road, and the ODOT response was a disappointing “no”.
That’s not only short-sighted, it’s also a state of denial. Already, the nearby Starvation Creek wayside routinely has cars parked along both the access and exits roads, all the way to the freeway, for lack of a trailhead space and an effective parking management plan. As a result, weekend touring motorists hoping to visit the falls or use the restrooms at Starvation Creek have no prayer of finding a spot, as the entire lot is packed with hikers, most of them on hours-long hikes to the summit of Mount Defiance. That gives ODOT and OPRD a black eye, and a similar situation will surely unfold at the new Mitchell Point trailhead if parking isn’t more actively managed.
The Sad: Oneonta Tunnel Restoration
The Oneonta Tunnel in about 1915,, soon after it opened and before this section of the Historic Columbia River Highway was paved
In other tunnel news, ODOT recently (re)completed the restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel, near Multnomah Falls. The agency once again rebuilt the timbered interior of the tunnel, restoring work that was originally done back in the mid-2000 and completely burned in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. It’s a beautiful restoration effort, and you should go see it soon, before it is once again destroyed by vandals carving up the restored woodwork. Because that sad fate is all but inevitable.
I wrote about this project recently in A Second Chance and New Vision for Oneonta? While there may be no appetite at ODOT or OPRD to pursue something more whimsical (like the museum proposed in the previous article!), it is frustrating to see the new restoration completed with zero consideration given to protecting the public’s investment from vandals. At the same meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Steering Committee last summer, I asked ODOT officials if there was a plan to secure the tunnel with gates of some kind, and the response was “no, because under national scenic area regulations, we can only restore it to its exact condition before the fire.”
Mobs of young people descended on Oneonta Gorge each summer before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire closed the area. Many made a point of vandalizing the wood interior of the Oneonta Tunnel while they were there
Still more frustrating is the fact that top officials from the U.S. Forest Service and ODOT who oversee funding for Gorge projects and scenic area regulation were part of this virtual meeting, and sat in silence when I asked whether this was a good use of public resources. Another committee member commented that vandalism in the form of tagging and graffiti has always been a problem in the Gorge. Perhaps, but is the point is that we shouldn’t care?
Well, I’m still not buying it. If there is one thing that’s certain for large, well-funded agencies like the Forest Service and ODOT, it’s that where there is a will, there is a way. The cost to install gates would have been negligible compared to what ODOT budgets for the Gorge in a given year, and surely would be less costly than another redo in the coming years. In this case, there was simply no agency interest from the Forest Service or ODOT in protecting the newly restored tunnel, and that’s really discouraging.
ODOT completed the second restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel this spring, replacing the wood lining that was burned away in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Despite its recent history of vandalism, the tunnel is now open and completely unprotected, night and day
So, as lovely as the (second) restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel is, it falls under the column of “sad” for its poor stewardship of both the historic resource and the public funds spent to restore it. But who knows, maybe once the tagging starts up and triggers some unwelcome local media coverage, we’ll see some protection installed? A late response would be better than not at all, and I’d sure like to be proven wrong on the fate of the old tunnel.
The Ugly: Columbia Hills Energy Project
These beautiful, mosaic talus slopes along the Columbia Hills are ground zero for a proposed energy project that threatens to change the area forever. A jarring sea of giant wind turbines were installed along the crest of what is a sacred ridge for area tribes over the past 15 years, and now the turbines are the basis for still more energy development in this unprotected part of the Gorge
I will reluctantly end this article with one of the toughest development proposals to emerge in the Gorge in recent years. As ugly as the project is, however, the picture is not entirely bleak. The proposal is formally known as the “Goldendale Energy Project”, taking its name from what used to be the Goldendale Aluminum Plant, located adjacent to the John Day Dam in the eastern Gorge. But the site is miles away from Goldendale, Washington, and more importantly, it’s within the Columbia River Gorge and centered on Columbia Hills, a place sacred to area tribes. So, I’ve called it the Columbia Hills Energy Project for this article.
The aluminum plant at the John Day Dam went out of business decades ago, leaving badly polluted soils and groundwater behind where smelters once stood. It has since been undergoing a gradual cleanup operation, work that is ongoing. The Columbia Hills “stored energy” project proposes to build a large water storage basin in this polluted brownfield, connected by pipes to a second basin at the crest of the Columbia Hills, 2,000 vertical feet directly above the John Day Dam and the old aluminum plant site. When wind turbines are generating excess energy, water from the lower basin would be pumped to the upper basin, and could then be released back down to the lower basin to power hydro turbines during periods of peak demand (or low wind).
The system on the right is proposed for the Columbia Hills (Rye Development)
To the Ka-milt-pah band of the Yakima Nation (known in English as the Rock Creek Band), the Columbia Hills here are sacred. Their significance goes to the very creation of the Columbia Gorge, itself. Scientists believe the ice age Bretz (or Missoula) floods continued to repeatedly overwhelm the Gorge with hundreds of feet of water for nearly 2,000 years, finally ending some 13,000 years ago. Virtually every aspect of the Gorge as we know it was shaped by the floods, including the steep, exposed cliffs and rock monoliths that give the Gorge its iconic beauty. Their oral tradition tells us that the ancestral Ka-milt-pah people climbed to these ridge tops to escape this series of massive ice-age floods, watching the cataclysm from these high vantage points.
Today, the Ka-milt-pah continue to gather first foods from these same hills, though now with the permission of farmers who own deeds to the ceded tribal lands here. In yet another insult to traditions and the defacement of their sacred places, tribal members now must gather foods under the shadow and hum of giant wind turbines that send “green” electricity to Portlanders. Unseen to urbanites are the miles of gravel access roads that were cut into pristine desert soils along these ridges to build and maintain the turbines, destroying still more of the ecosystem that the Ka-milt-pah people relied upon for millennia. And in yet another cruel irony, the windmills are now are central to the Columbia Hills Energy Project, as well.
The defunct, polluted aluminum plant at John Day dam (seen far below in this view) is proposed to hold the lower reservoir for the closed-loop energy system. This view is from the crest of the Columbia Hills, on sacred tribal land 2,000 feet above the river, where the upper reservoir would be constructed (Portland Business Journal)
The towering wind turbine that now line the Columbia Hills above John Day Dam are aggressively marketed as benign sources of clean energy, and yet each turbine requires a new road to be built, leaving a permanent scar on the land and introducing invasive plants to the largely pristine desert landscape. This snaking section of road in this view is on sacred tribal land near the proposed Columbia Hills Energy Project (Google Earth)
The service roads built for these windmills on the crest of the Columbia Hills resemble suburban cul-de-sacs, each cut into desert ground that had never even been plowed, and has provided tribal first foods for millennia (Google Earth)
Did you know that the stunning stretch of the Columbia River Gorge east of the Deschutes River does not enjoy the protections provided by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) to areas west of the Deschutes? The most jarring evidence of this second-class status are the hundreds of massive, white wind turbines that now dot the Columbia Hills along this unprotected stretch of the Gorge, from Maryhill Museum east to the John Day river and beyond. The visual impact of these turbines therefore wasn’t even a factor when they were constructed over the past 15 years.
It is truly a miracle and testament to the tenacity of Gorge advocates in the 1980s that we even have a CRGNSA to protect the Gorge, yet it’s also true that leaving the eastern portion of the Gorge out of the bill left the area tragically vulnerable to energy and development schemes that continue forever scar the Gorge we shall leave to future generations. The Columbia Hills Energy Project may be the latest scheme, but it certainly won’t be the last (lesser-known fact: the Maryhill Museum was among the opponents of the CRGNSA in the 1980s, which explains the forest of windmills that now mar the Gorge rim directly above the museum and continue for miles to the east).
The ancient and sustainable trumped by the new and industrial: the 1971 John Day Dam dwarfs traditional tribal fishing platforms, located just downstream from the dam
For the Danish corporate investors behind this project, the windmills along the Columbia Hills provide a world-class opportunity for pumped storage development. The hills rise anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 feet above the Columbia River, a ready source of water to fill storage tanks. That’s probably as much as they know. The fact that it’s also remote from Portland urbanites who might otherwise be shocked to see a development of this scale proposed in “their Gorge” is just good fortune for the investors.
And so, it has fallen to the Confederated Yakima, Umatilla and Nez Perce nations to defend their homelands from yet another assault by Europeans seeking to, once again, commodify their native lands.
Countless generations of tribal fisherman have harvested salmon on these pebble beaches in the east Gorge for millennia. The lower reservoir for the proposed “energy loop” would be a stone’s throw from this iconic scene. Is it even possible to measure economic impacts of energy project against threats to the very culture of indigenous people?
The pace of change in the eastern stretch of the Gorge has been breathtaking in the past few decades. In 1957 – just 64 years ago — the gates on The Dalles Dam closed, drowning Celilo Falls and surrounding tribal settlements under 40 feet of water. This ended a way of life for indigenous peoples who had thrived here for thousands of years. Nine years later, in 1966, ODOT blasted and filled a 4-lane swath through the Gorge to construct today’s Interstate-84, destroying miles of wetlands and beaches along the way, and cutting off access to traditional tribal fishing sites in the process. In 1971, the gates were closed on John Day Dam, at the head of slackwater created by The Dalles Dam. Another stretch of rapids along the once-wild river disappeared, along with more beaches and wetlands.
The vast, colorful pebble beaches in the east Gorge were left here by ice age floods that brought rock from the northern Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River Gorge. This river-worn piece of petrified wood is typical of these deposits
Both dams brought hundreds of steel transmission towers and thousands of miles of electrical cable that now drapes across the once-pristine Gorge landscape. And in the 2000s, big utilities rushed after state and federal renewable energy tax credits to line the Columbia Hills with hundreds of windmills, many built on sacred tribal sites. It’s true, these are all renewable energy sources that our region depends upon to power our homes and industry. Yet, it’s also true that our cheap energy has come at a catastrophic cost to tribal culture and economies, and wreaked havoc on one of the most spectacular natural landscapes on the planet. Isn’t it time to question just how “green” the energy harnessed in the Gorge really is?
Fortunately, a broad coalition of conservation advocates have joined the tribes in challenging the Columbia Hills Energy Project. They include both the Oregon and Washington chapters of the Sierra Club, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Columbia Riverkeeper, Food and Water Watch, Portland Audubon and several other organizations. This is encouraging, as corporate energy projects are famously costly and drawn-out battles with deep-pocketed (and often foreign) investors who are willing to ride out the opposition and ingratiate themselves to local elected officials. Witness that Washington Governor Jay Inslee recently signed a fast-track provision for energy storage projects just like this one (though we don’t know his position on this specific proposal).
This lovely desert gulch along the Columbia River is immediately adjacent to the proposed Columbia Hills Energy Project. How will it be impacted? We don’t know yet…
Thankfully, the Washington Department of Ecology has determined the project to have “significant environmental impact”, ensuring that some rigor will be applied in the state permitting review. Whether that review can truly measure the impact of this proposal on tribal rights and traditions remains and open question that courts will likely have to decide.
Yes, stored energy projects are a good idea. They’re a creative, sustainable solution in a world facing a global climate crisis. We should welcome them!
Killed coyote strung up on a fence along Center Ridge Road in Wasco County this winter
Author’s note: I’ve gone back and forth on whether to include some difficult images in this article. I hope readers will understand why it’s important to see them once you’ve read the piece.
As we reach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic that has turned our world upside down, I’ve been reflecting on how I spent much of my outdoor time over the past year in the desert country east of Mount Hood, where I could spend an entire day without seeing another soul. Along the way, I reconnected with some of my favorite spots, and found many more that were new to me. I was reminded why I fell in love with dry side of the mountains when I lived and worked there for seven magical summers during my youth.
Over the past year of exploring the backroads east of the mountain, I also didn’t see a single killed coyote. Not one! This surprised me. It was once commonplace in sagebrush country to find their carcasses strung on barbed wire fences. Coyotes were vermin to old-school ranchers. Then, just last month, I ran across the familiar, grim scene captured at the top of this article. It was up on Center Ridge, in the rolling wheat country above the Columbia River. And yet, scenes like this that were once routine in ranch country have become rare these days. Why?
The rolling wheat fields on Center Ridge are prime habitat for coyotes (Dalles Mountain, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier are in the distance)
Perhaps because most ranchers today have advanced degrees in agriculture, their knowledge includes a formal science education that gives them an understanding of the benefits of living with predators, not exterminating them. They understand that top predators may be a nuisance to livestock, but they are also the ecological keystone that keeps the rest of the natural system in balance, which, in turn, is of even greater benefit to ranchers and farmers.
So, these days when I run across a shot, snared or poisoned coyote slung over a fence, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s the mark of an old timer — or simply someone who just doesn’t know any better. Old ways die hard. This used to be a standard practice based on the myth that the carcass would somehow cause other coyotes to shy away. That’s a tired idea borne of ignorance and unfounded hatred for the animals, nothing more.
Today’s ranchers in Oregon are far more likely to appreciate the benefits coyotes bring to their bottom line, especially in the wheat country along the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Along with raptors, coyotes keep the rodent population (mostly rabbits, gophers, mice and voles) in check, keep grazing deer on the move and generally mind their own business as they cruise their very large territories. They also feed on snakes and sometimes carrion, as well as fruit and grass in season. Packs of coyotes may even take down young or infirm deer or antelope, though this is uncommon.
This remnant grassland view of Tygh Ridge is what much of the east side looked like before the arrival of settlement farming in the 1800s and it remains prime coyote habitat today
Coyotes often roam in organized packs, led by an alpha male and female pair that often mate for life, and that are the only breeding pair in the pack. The beta coyotes in the pack are non-breeding, and simply help hunt and feed the offspring of the alpha pair. Thus, killing an alpha male or female (or both) simply splits up the pack, opening the surviving animals to pair with lone males to create still more coyote families. For this reason, modern ranchers also understand that killing coyotes to remove them from the landscape can have exactly opposite the intended effect.
Despite over a century of systematic killing, coyotes are flourishing and expanding their territory, and now live in 49 states. This is partly because of the proliferation of new breeding packs from the extermination of alpha pairs, but mostly it’s because they’re very smart. Like the domesticated dogs that we spend billions on each year to pamper and celebrate as companions, coyotes are quick to observe every detail of human behavior and learn our ways. For wild coyotes, that means avoiding people – and our various means of exterminating them. That’s why seeing a coyote in the wild is a treat, and is typically fleeting.
Their ability to adapt has also allowed coyotes to move into urban areas, including Portland, where they have assumed top predator status. We spot them right here in my neighborhood in North Portland, where they roam the large natural areas and prey upon rats, opossum, raccoons and – especially – feral cats. While that last part might be hard for some to accept, the fact is, feral cats are a major problem in urban areas as predators of native birds. The arrival of coyotes is helping mitigate the impact of these non-native carnivore in our cities. It’s also true that coyotes can prey upon small pets in the city, a reminder to humans to keep our pets in enclosed areas and indoors at night.
This young coyote was killed and strung up by a rancher on Dalles Mountain Road a few years ago. This used to be a common sight in the ranch country of the eastern Columbia River Gorge
Coyotes have also responded to our simultaneous war on cougars and wolves that began in the 1700s, and continues to this day. Where wolves and cougars were once the apex species in many parts of the country, and preyed upon or hazed the smaller coyote, it is the coyote that has adapted and stepped into the void left by the disappearance of these larger predators. As cougars and wolves begin to rebound in a few areas in the country, they are reclaiming their top predator role, once again keeping coyotes in check. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, the coyote population dropped by 40 percent!
Because of their size and potential threat to humans, wolves and cougars will likely always be less tolerated in our world. Though we’re just beginning to appreciate it, the role of coyotes as the substitute apex species in areas once roamed by wolves and cougars has helped keep natural systems in balance for all species – plant and animal.
Coyotes have an enormous range, with packs maintaining highly organized territories of anywhere from five to fifteen square miles – enough to cover multiple ranches, even in the sprawling wheat and sagebrush country east of Mount Hood. Like our domestic dogs, they have well-traveled routes, typically along ridgetops or along the edge of clearings where they can see the terrain and hunt for rodents. Mostly, they seek to avoid people in their rambles, which is understandable, given our history of hostility toward the species.
Coyote pups (Wikipedia)
In the wild, coyotes live short lives of just 5-10 years, though in captivity they can live up to 20 years. Adults in the wild typically weigh from 20 to 35 pounds, about the size of a Siberian Husky, though urban coyotes can reach as much as 45 pounds. Coyote alpha pairs can produce a litter of 2-12 pups annually, with pups reaching maturity in about 6 months. Coyote pups have a very high mortality rate of up to 90 percent, however, and only a few survive to adulthood. Some that survive will stay with their pack, others will roam and join other packs and a few males become lone coyotes, wandering on their own.
If you have the opportunity to see a coyote in the wild, you can’t help but be taken by how closely they resemble our domestic dogs, both in their appearance and behavior. They’re truly beautiful animals, and to watch them sprint upwards of 40 mph, it’s easy to see why native cultures celebrated both their intelligence and athleticism.
If you have the good fortune to hear a pack howling at night, it’s an especially memorable experience. No, they don’t represent a real threat to us, but it’s still quite humbling to hear them in the dark, knowing they are completely adapted to that environment and completely aware of us – even if we can’t see them. At night, we are in their realm.
Adult coyote hunting (Wikipedia)
The main threats to coyotes in the wild include some of the same canine diseases that threaten our domestic dogs, as well as lack of food and winter cold. In many parts of the country, humans continue to be a major threat with competitive “kill contests” still held to exterminate coyotes. In 2017, more than 11,000 coyotes were killed in Utah, alone, for $500,000 in bounties put up by state officials. Over 100,000 coyotes are still killed every year in the United States. Though these mass killings are gradually losing favor as science wins out over folklore, it’s still common for state wildlife agencies to promote methods for exterminating coyotes.
The good news is that ranchers and farmers are increasingly coming around to the benefits of co-existing with coyotes for all the good they bring to the land. This means changing their farming practices, especially during calving and lambing season in ranch country.
In Oregon, coyotes are classified as a non-game predator. What does that mean? It means that anyone can kill a coyote, with no limit or permit required. Thankfully, science is winning here, too. Wildlife agencies and agriculture science are evolving, promoting science-based best practices for farmers and ranchers to co-exist with coyotes. Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has replaced old-school instructions for coyote extermination on its website with new-school guidelines on how to co-exist. That’s real progress, though regulating coyote hunting will be a tougher political hurdle to clear.
Urban coyote in Lincoln Park, Chicago (Wikimedia)
The more worrisome trend is urbanites moving into farm and ranch country and bringing domestic cats and toy-breed dogs with them. These small pets make for easy prey for coyotes, especially when left to roam. Worse, people moving into ranch country often encourage coyotes to lose their fear of humans by leaving pet food outside and by not treating them as wild animals. Just as urbanities living in the country are a growing nuisance to farmers with their complaints about dust, noise and pesticides that come with farming, these folks may also emerge to be a new threat to coyotes, too, simply by encouraging them to lose their fear of us.
Despite these threats, and our long war against them, coyotes continue to adapt and thrive. Scientists now recognize 19 subspecies of coyote, including urban species that are now common in city parks and preserves across the country. Coyotes have observed us and figured us out, and they are here to stay. Their ability to adapt bodes well for the species, and for the ecosystems that increasingly depend on them as top predators, too.
Epilogue… and Prologue?
Over the winter, I was coming down a gravel road from Center Ridge into a narrow Easton Canyon, just south of The Dalles. I stopped to take a photo of Mount Hood when I spotted a group of Mule deer perfectly silhouetted against the last glow of sunset. I watched this lovely scene unfold for quite a while, until the deer had moved on and stars suddenly began to fill the night sky.
Mule deer silhouetted against Mount Hood in the Center Ridge area of Wasco County
As I was quietly packing up my camera gear in the dark, I was startled by a sudden series of loud, quick yips right behind me! A coyote was in the sagebrush directly above the road, somewhere along the canyon wall. Soon, more yips began to echo from across the canyon, first below me, then from across the canyon, then further up the canyon. The chorus grew until some of the yips turned to howls, then went silent, as quickly as they had started.
It was an eerie experience that made my hair stand on end. I’d heard coyotes many times before, but I had never been in the middle of a pack. Though I knew I wasn’t in danger, the moment still triggered a primal reaction – these were wild predators, after all. I hoofed it back to the car, quickly loaded up my gear and gave thanks for a truly memorable encounter.
So, when I came across that coyote carcass a few weeks ago, senselessly killed and strung up on a barbed wire fence, I couldn’t help but appreciate what was left of this once-beautiful, brilliant animal. Much of its handsome coat was still intact and moving in the breeze, its ears still pointed and perfect. Were it not mangled, ribs protruding, I might have thought it somehow alive.
A sad, senseless practice fading with time, a grim reminder of our ignorance and folly in attempting to control the natural world around us
The sight of this animal brought back that nighttime chorus under the stars from just a few weeks before, just a couple of miles from this spot. Had this unlucky coyote been among those that I heard that night? Quite possibly. It also gave me a deeper appreciation for the resiliency and balance of nature all around us, despite our relentless efforts to upset it. The coyotes are adapting and winning. Thankfully.
As a broader society, we’re slowly changing our thinking about predators, too. We’re getting better at observing and understanding them and beginning to accept their presence – especially coyotes. We seem to be on a path of learning to simply avoid coyotes just as they avoid us, ensuring that they remain truly wild. We’re learning to co-exist.
The lost forest on Cedar Island in the Deschutes River canyon
Head north from the tiny town of Maupin into the arid desert canyon of the Deschutes River and you will eventually reach a wide gooseneck in the river, where a low ridge that forms the bend is known as the “Beavertail”. As the gravel access road crests the Beavertail, a river island dotted with trees suddenly comes into view. The scene is startling in an environment where even Western juniper struggle to survive, and the few trees that exist are mostly thickets of Red alder hugging the river’s edge.
At first glance, these seem to be Ponderosa pine, a reasonable guess, given that Ponderosa are the most drought tolerant of the big confers in Oregon. But as you approach a few of these trees that have jumped the island and flank the access road, it becomes clear that these aren’t pines at all.
In fact, this is a lost stand of about sixty Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) trees forming a completely isolated colony in the middle of the desert. They have found a way to thrive more than 20 miles east of the nearest stand, in the Cascade Mountain, where these trees grow along the forested southeast slopes of Mount Hood. Here, they survive with just 10-15” of rain per year, compared to the 40-50” their mountain cousins receive.
Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) foliage – a close cousin to our familiar Western red cedar
The thick, distinctively reddish bark on Incense Cedar gives the tree some insulation from range fires
A closer look at the bright green foliage of these trees shows Incense cedar to be a cousin to Oregon’s Western red cedar, Alaska cedar and Port Orford cedar. None of these are true cedars, but all are related members in the cypress family, and all but the Port Orford cedar grow on the slopes of Mount Hood.
Of these, the Incense cedar is the most drought-tolerant and thrives on the dry side of the Cascades, among other big conifers like Douglas fir and Ponderosa Pine. Incense Cedar tend to grow interspersed among these other trees, and seldom form pure stands. That’s part of what makes the lost grove on Cedar Island unique, though that’s also a reflection of the extreme environment they have pioneered here – one that other big conifers are not able to survive.
Young Incense cedar have a beautiful conical form that makes them popular trees in urban landscapes
Young Incense cedar are prized as cultivated trees for their brilliant foliage and symmetrical, conical shape (above). As they age, Incense cedar begin to look more like a distant cousin to Giant sequoia, with deeply furrowed red bark and tortured, often multiple-trunked forms.
Incense cedar can live for centuries and reach as much as 150 feet in height at maturity. The champion in Oregon grows in the Siskiyou Mountains, and is 150 feet tall with a circumference of nearly 40 feet. Another dual-trunked Incense cedar in Southern Oregon is known as the Tanner Lake Giant (below), measured at 137 feet tall and more than 40 feet in circumference.
The mighty, two-trunked Tanner Lake Giant in Southern Oregon is more 40 feet in diameter (Wikipedia)
Mount Hood’s Incense cedar stands mark the very northern extreme of the range of these trees, which extends as far south as a few isolated stands in Baja. In California, they grow throughout the Sierras, with big Incense Cedar sprinkled among the Giant sequoia in Yosemite Valley. The trees also grow in isolated groves throughout California’s coastal mountains. In Oregon, scattered stands grow in the Ochoco Mountains and along some of the western ridges of the Great Basin.
Incense Cedar grow from Mount Hood south to the Baja Peninsula, following the east flank of the Cascades to the Siskiyous and along the Sierras
Most of the isolated stands of Incense cedar in dry places like the California coast ranges or Oregon Ochoco Mountains mark places where mountains rise up enough to produce an island of rainfall in an otherwise dry region. The trees of Cedar Island are just the opposite. Their habitat is at the bottom of a rocky desert canyon makes their ability to thrive here all the more remarkable.
The Cedar Island lost forest of Incense cedar is truly remote. The following perspective view (below) shows just how far Cedar Island is from the green forests of the Cascades, nearly 20 miles to the west. Why did this grove of just 60 trees make its home here?
Part of the answer is the island, itself. While Incense cedar are most often found on dry sites in their typical mountain habitat, the Cedar Island grove lives on a gravel bar in the middle of the Deschutes River, where trees can touch the water table year-round with their roots. While the winters are plenty cold along the Deschutes – similar to the mountain habitat these trees prefer – the summers are intensely hot and arid. The basalt walls of the Deschutes Canyon also act to contain summer heat, creating a true oven during summer heat waves. The ability of the Cedar Island grove to maintain constant access to groundwater undoubtedly helps counter the lack of rainfall and summer heat they endure.
The Incense Cedars of Cedar Island rise above thickets of Red alder beneath the protective west wall of the Deschutes River canyon
Still, there are plenty of other gravel bars along the Deschutes, and only Cedar Island supports a grove of big conifers. What makes this gravel bar different?
Part of the puzzle is shape of the canyon walls that surround Cedar Island. At the Beavertail Bend, the Deschutes River swings sharply west, then reverses to head directly east, in each case carving near-vertical, 2,000 foot walls of basalt over the millennia. The aspect of these walls helps shade Cedar island by shortening exposure to hot summer sun by several hours per day compared to less protected parts of the canyon.
Cedar Island is protected from mid-day summer sun by towering, 2,000-foot canyon walls to the south and east
The west (upstream) end of Cedar Island seems to confirm the role of the canyon walls in allowing the Incense Cedar groves to survive. This part of the island (below) extends beyond the protective shade of the steep south wall of the canyon, and into the wide section of canyon where it is more exposed to the intense morning and midday sun during the hot summer months.
The west end of Cedar Island seems to be too exposed to summer sun for the Incense Cedars to survive there
Another piece of the puzzle is the gravel that makes up island, itself. While it allows the Cedar Island colony to reach the shallow water table with their root systems, it’s also very well-drained above the water table – something that Incense cedars prefer. At 10-12 feet above the average river level, the gravel bar is also tall enough to avoid being inundated or eroded by all but the worst flood events.
When did the Cedar Island colony become established? That’s unknown, but an image (below) taken from the east canyon rim in 1905 shows the island to be virtually cleared. There are a couple of explanations. First, the photo shows both rail lines that were under construction at the time, a race between two railroad barons that became known as “The Deschutes Railroad War”. It’s quite possible that Incense Cedar on the island were cut by the railroad crews for construction material or simply firewood. It’s also possible that the trees were actually introduced here at the time when the canyon was being intensely developed by the railroads. But the fact that the island was named for its cedars suggests the colony was here when railroad surveyors arrived.
1905 view of Cedar Island from the east canyon rim shows few trees compared to today… why?
Another explanation for the relatively bare island in 1905 could be flooding. Though the Deschutes is not prone to catastrophic floods like rivers west of the Cascades, the upstream dams didn’t exist when the first Incense Cedars pioneered the island. therefore, it’s likely that periodic floods swept across this flat sandbar – which was, itself, created by floods. The colony must have found a way to rebound from these events, assuming the Incense cedar grove has been here for centuries.
The following images (below) from 1911 were taken from the west side of the canyon and confirm that the Incense cedar grove on the island was much smaller at the turn of the century. These later images marked the end of construction of the railroad on the east side of the river. Today, a smaller colony of Incense cedar grows along the old railroad grade (now the access road) in the shade of the eastern canyon wall.
1911 view of Beavertail Bend from the west canyon rim, looking toward Cedar Island
Closer look at Cedar Island in the 1911 view showing just a few Incense cedars growing along the south margin of the island
Yet another explanation for the smaller grove in the early 1900s might be range fires. The sagebrush country of Oregon’s east side burns periodically, and fire is a natural, essential part of the ecosystem. For their part, Incense cedar have fire resistant bark that allows the trees to survive low-intensity fires (similar to Ponderosa pine and Sequoia), but when their crowns burn in more intensive fires, they have evolved to reseed and re-establish themselves quickly on burned ground. It could even be the case that railroad construction triggered a fire that cleared Cedar Island sometime before this photo was taken.
In 2018 a trio of range fires (below) swept through Wasco County, burning much of the lower Deschutes River canyon. The fires destroyed dozens of farm dwellings and outbuildings, too, a painful reminder that fires will always be part of the desert ecosystem here, even with much of the landscape converted to wheatfields. The Longhollow Fire was the middle of the three fires, and burned to the northwest bank of the Deschutes, but apparently did not jump the river to Cedar Island.
Had the fire reached the island, it could easily have crowned some of the Incense cedar trees. The open, park-like forest here has allowed the trees to keep their limbs almost to the ground, where trees in mixed forests typically lose their lower limbs.
A high crown helps protect a mature tree from low-to moderate intensity fires at its base climbing lower limbs like a ladder and potentially engulfing its crown. But unlike the forest fires that occur in the typical Incense Cedar range, range fires in open sagebrush country are generally low-intensity, fast-moving burns due to the lack of available fuels compared to forest fires, so even trees with low limbs can often survive range fires.
A closer look at the island suggests the fire did not cross the river in 2018, nor have fires burned the island in some time. First, none of the trees on Cedar Island shows burn marks on their lower trunks, a telltale sign of range fires that lasts for decades on trees that survive. Second, the presence of downed wood and a few Incense Cedar seedlings (below) confirms that no recent fires have swept the island, as young trees would almost certainly have been killed and dead forest debris completely burned.
The trunks of the Cedar Island grove don’t show burn marks, suggesting that range fires haven’t swept the island in decades
The downed alder logs in this view would almost certainly have burned in 2018, had the Longhollow Fire jumped the river. The small Incense cedar seedling toward the top of this photo would almost certainly have been killed by fire, as well.
Whatever the cause of Cedar Island being cleared at the turn of the 1900s, the grove of Incense cedars is well-established today, with large trees that could have started life soon after these early photos were taken. Yet, the lack of young trees on the island today is also noticeable, with just a few younger trees sprinkled among the mature stand. This could be due to competition, with the spacing of the trees defined by their root systems, and little moisture left for young trees to get established.
Most of the Incense Cedars on the island are mature, with few small seedlings present
Some of the younger trees that do exist are crowded along the river’s edge, suggesting that other young trees farther from the edge of the island simply couldn’t compete with the larger trees for available groundwater with their smaller, shallow root systems.
In their normal habitat, it would be rare for Incense cedars to hug a stream, but on Cedar Island it may be the only way young trees can become established
One of the secrets of the survival of the Cedar Island grove could be the small group of younger trees growing at the shaded foot of the southeast canyon wall. These are the only Incense cedars from the colony that extend beyond the island, and a number of very young trees are getting established here now. It could be that this part of the grove has helped reseed the island after flood events over the centuries.
It’s hard to see if this group of trees existed in the 1905 and 1911 photos, and it’s likely that railroad construction would have erased any trees in this area, anyway. But without any better evidence, it’s also possible that this branch of the colony is relatively new, seeded here by mature trees on the island after the railroad construction ended. If so, why did the colony move there, to steep rocky slopes far above the river and readily available water table?
This view shows a branch of the Cedar Island colony growing along the base of the eastern canyon wall. These trees are younger and seem to be expanding their presence, despite growing on rocky slopes far above the water table created by the river
The best explanation for this branch colony is probably the sun protection provided by the canyon walls, as these trees are growing in an “elbow” where the north and west facing walls meet, creating a relatively cool setting for much of the day during the hot summer season. But another part of the story is likely groundwater seeping through a steep ravine that cuts through the layers of basalt where the branch colony is centered.
The branch colony of the Cedar Island lost forest is thriving on the south wall of the Deschutes River canyon, with many young trees becoming established in this unexpected habitat
Whatever their origin, the younger grove along the canyon wall is a helpful insurance policy for the survival of the Cedar Island colony over the long haul. These are young trees, yet clearly well-established, so in the event the island trees are destroyed by fire or flood, these trees could be a source for re-seeding the island. Likewise, the island might well survive range fires that could destroy the canyon wall grove and help reseed that part of the colony.
This young Incense cedar in the branch colony may someday play a part in reseeding Cedar Island and helping the lost forest here continue to survive
The mystery of the lost forest on Cedar Island brings more questions than answers, and it deserves more study to better understand the phenomenon and help preserve the colony. I’m hoping this article might inspire a local researcher or graduate student (with a passion for rafting or kayaking!) to step up to the challenge. The island is on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and seems reasonably protected from development, though it doesn’t seem to have any sort of special protection for its unique ecological value.
The lost Incense cedar forest on Cedar Island in the Deschutes River canyon
In the meantime, the island makes for an interesting stop on a tour of the lower Deschutes River canyon, whether by car, bicycle or on the river. The island is located immediately downstream from the Beavertail campground. There are pullouts along the access road with good views of the island, and if you’re up for a walk, you can simply park at a pullout and walk the exceptionally scenic road for a stretch.
Along the way, you’ll pass another coniferous anomaly — the “Big Pine” located just north of the twin railroad bridges at Horseshoe Bend. This old Ponderosa pine grows on a gravel fan at the base of seep that gives it enough year-round water to become quite established here. The BLM has placed a picnic table under the tree and there is a toilet nearby, too.
The “Big Pine” just north of the twin railroad bridges along the Deschutes River access road
From the beginning of the well-marked access road near Sherars Bridge, it’s 17 miles to the end of the well-graded gravel road, so this makes a good adventure if you’re looking for something off the beaten path. Map 6 on the following BLM webpage covers the route from Sherars bridge to Cedar Island and Map 7 covers the remainder of the access road to Macks Canyon:
For a deeper dive into the Deschutes Railroad War, you can find out-of-print copies of Leon Speroff’s excellent book on the subject, with dozens of historic photos presented in large, coffee-table format.
Leon Speroff’s excellent book covers the surprising railroad history of the Deschutes in detail — plus some of the natural history of the canyon
The Deschutes River access road can be reached by following the Sherars Bridge Highway (OR 216) from where it joins Highway 197 in Tygh Valley. Follow signs to Grass Valley, then turn onto the well-marked access road about a mile after crossing Sherars Bridge. You’ll pass White River Falls State Park along the way, another worthy stop if you’re in the area.
One of the best times to visit the lower Deschutes is in winter and early spring, when campers and rafters are scarce and you will have the place pretty much to yourself. As with all trips to the dry east side of the mountains, ticks, poison oak and even the occasional rattlesnake are residents here, so watch your step and do a tick check when you get home.