Archive for the ‘Cultural History’ category

Big Changes coming to the Gorge Power Line…

May 31, 2017
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These venerable steel towers will soon be a memory in the Gorge

 

Author’s preface: having spent more than 30 years in public service, it frustrates me to see any level of government making anything less than a consistent, substantial and meaningful effort to engage the broader public in its decision making. All public entities should be held to this high standard, whether local, state or federal.

So, when I stumbled across the Bonneville Power Association (BPA) decision to significantly rebuild the prominent power line corridor that links Bonneville Dam to Hood River, I was disappointed to learn that the decision involved a handful of select stakeholders and two short windows for public comment that saw little notice or participation. We should expect more, and the BPA should step up its commitment to real public engagement, not meager efforts that do little more than check regulatory boxes.

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According to a retired BPA employee who once joined me on a hike near Starvation Creek, the daring alignment of the power line corridor that provided the first electricity from Bonneville Dam to Hood River is the doing of no less than Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the story goes, FDR was on his famous tour of the Mount Hood Loop Highway on September 28, 1937, with stops to inspect Bonneville Dam and dedicate Timberline Lodge.

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BPA workers building the daring new power lines across Shellrock Mountain in 1937 (BPA)

After leaving Bonneville, FDR asked about the power lines that were under construction, and a BPA official told the president they would be built on slopes high above the Gorge, where the terrain was easier to navigate. FDR reportedly barked at the official “I want those power lines down here, where the people can see the electricity that we’re bringing to their communities!”

So began the project to build the BPA power lines across the rugged cliff faces of the Columbia River Gorge. Amazingly, most of the work was done by hand, with pack mules carrying materials to the often dizzying cliff-top tower locations. While it’s hard to view any power line as “scenic”, the sheer audacity in how these towers were designed and built can’t help but impress hikers passing under them today.

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The Shellrock Mountain power line and trail today

The Bonneville to Hood River corridor is one among many power lines that transmit hydro-power along the Columbia, but this corridor is notable in that much of it is serviced through a network of trails where the terrain was too extreme to support service roads. Many of these trails have morphed into recreation trails over the years.

Big Changes Coming this Summer

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Trees marked for cutting at Viento State Park

After eighty years of maintaining the Gorge power line corridor in much the same state, the BPA is about to significantly change both the look of the towers and some of the access routes. I stumbled across this reality earlier this spring when I was exploring the area above Viento State Park, where I encountered a few dozen mature Douglas fir marked for cutting.

At first, I thought it might be a thinning project of some sort, but upon some research, discovered that the BPA was about to replace all of the steel towers and many of the wood pole towers along the corridor and expand several of the access spur roads. Up to 30 of the new towers will be steel “mono-poles”, a departure in both look and height from somewhat rustic old structures that now exist on the corridor.

The project also proposes to remove up to 747 trees to allow access roads to be widened and rebuilt, and the BPA proposes “temporary disturbance” to over 58 acres and “permanent disturbance” to about one-third of an acre.

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More trees marked for cutting in the Gorge power line corridor

For the scoping phase of this project, the BPA opened a public comment period of six weeks and held a public meeting in Hood River in the spring of 2014. They received 12 written comments during the scoping phase and four people attended this meeting. Sadly, this dismal turnout was during the critical window for raising issues to be considered by the BPA as part of the environmental assessment.

The agency also reached out to tribes and a few interest groups they have long engaged in their public outreach, but their effort falls short of a meaningful commitment to fully engage the public, as evidenced by the meager input they received. The BPA held a second public meeting and opened a final six-week comment period on the draft environmental assessment last fall. As one of the largest and most reliably funded public agencies in existence, the BPA can and should do better.

Who Weighed in?

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The BPA’s overly aggressive removal of native vegetation in the power line corridor and subsequent abundance of invasive species was a theme in comments received

While the BPA received very little input from their limited effort to reach out to the public, there were a few commenters. The Friends of the Columbia River Gorge were one again our reliable and invaluable watchdogs in the Gorge weighed in with extensive comments, including the following on the BPA proposal:

[The BPA should] mitigate scenic impacts by installing new structures that would be less visually discordant in the landscape. Where steel towers are needed, we ask that weathering steel be employed to reduce visibility.

Include a robust invasive species eradication and restoration strategy. The BPA transmission line corridor is frequently infested with invasive plants, such as Armenian blackberry. While replacing structures, BPA should remove invasive plants and restore native vegetation communities that would be compatible with long-term vegetation management requirements. 


BPA should also thoroughly document existing native vegetation communities and determine the need for future vegetation management. BPA’s past vegetation removal efforts have removed vegetation that poses no threat to the transmission line system, which unnecessarily harms wildlife habitat and creates openings for invasive plants.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association also weighed in, with concerns about how the proposed changes could degrade the PCT where the power line crosses the trail near the Bridge of the Gods trailhead. Among their concerns:

The existing view from the trail is a long line of sight down a decidedly unnatural appearing power line corridor, crisscrossed with roads. Forest Service scenery management principles dictate that developments viewed from a sensitive viewing area should strive to mimic “the form, line, color, texture, and pattern common to the landscape.”

Contrary to this, the improved roads will stand out visually as artificial, in what’s already an artificial corridor of cleared vegetation. The improvements would disrupt the PCT traveler’s experience because they clearly mark human manipulation and diminish the desired sense of remoteness from civilization.

While it’s suboptimal for the PCT to follow any road at all, at least the existing condition of the road is rustic. Upgrades to the road, including resurfacing with imported materials, will make it appear and feel more industrialized for the PCT traveler. A related effect, because the road is already dominant over the trail, is that people get lost and continue to follow the road, despite trail signage. Improving the road would exacerbate this situation. 


 The trail crosses directly under one of the structures, in fact, between the poles and their guy lines. This site can’t help but appear impacted by the proposed improvements. There will be three poles instead of two, and, clearly a good deal of ground disturbance involved in upgrading this structure. 


These exacerbated visual impacts to the trail could be best ameliorated by reconfiguring the intersection, and reconstructing portions of the PCT where necessary to meet the BPA line in a spot that lends itself better to disguise. Such a trail relocation would be as much as .5 mile long, and would require its own NEPA study. We propose that this NEPA study, and subsequent trail construction by PCTA’s volunteer crews, be funded by BPA as a mitigation measure. 


The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) unit of the U.S. Forest Service wrote extensive comments, mostly reminding the BPA of regulatory requirements related to the Gorge and the need to conduct environmental assessments when trails or other recreation facilities within the corridor would be significantly impact. The CRGNSA did not comment on opportunities to improve the access trails along the corridor to serve as recreational trails.

What to Expect this Summer?

This project is now going forward in largely the form that was first proposed in 2014 as the preferred action by the BPA. What does this mean for your favorite trails in the Gorge? Here’s are some key excerpts from the BPA’s 410-page draft environmental assessment, beginning with a project overview:

“The Proposed Action is to: (1) rebuild portions of the Bonneville-Hood River transmission line within the rebuild area for the Project (the 22-mile-long segment from structure 1/5 to the Hood River Substation); (2) rebuild the Cascade Locks Tap [author’s note: this is the point where the community of Cascade Locks taps into the power line corridor]; and (3) improve and extend the access road and trail system that allows BPA access to and from the transmission line. Specifically, the Proposed Action would involve the following components:

  • Removal of wood-pole and lattice-steel H-frame transmission line structures constructed prior to 1999 (including cross arms, insulators, hardware, and guy wires) and replacement with a combination of wood-pole H-frame structures and steel-monopole structures. 

  • Retirement of unnecessary transmission line structures. 

  • Replacements of conductors and guy wires. 

  • Replacement of insulators and hardware in locations with no structure or conductor replacement. 

  • Improvement, reconstruction, and extension of existing access roads and trails. 

  • Installation or replacement of bridges, fords, culverts, and access road gates. 

  • Establishment of temporary staging areas, helicopter flight yards, and tensioning sites (for pulling and tensioning conductors). 

  • Installation of temporary guard structures for stringing lines over roads and other utilities. 
  • Removal of vegetation at various locations along the transmission line right-of-way and access 
roads. 

  • Re-vegetation of areas disturbed by construction activities.

Hikers are mostly likely to notice the changes on trails that also serve as access to the power lines or cross the corridor, including the Pacific Crest Trail, Starvation Ridge, Mount Defiance, Wygant and Mitchell Point trails. Off-trail explorers will also see changes in the bluffs above Viento State Park and on Shellrock Mountain.

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The Mount Defiance and Starvation Ridge Trails could be noticeably affected where they pass through the power line corridor

Here’s an except from the environmental assessment that describes the changes we will likely see in these places:

“BPA currently uses a combination of existing roads and foot trails to access the transmission line. BPA holds permits and access road and foot trail easements for access across public and private land. Through these permits and easements, BPA has previously constructed roads and foot trails to access the transmission line. These access roads and foot trails are primarily located within the transmission line right-of-way, but there are also some access roads and foot trails located outside the right-of-way where required due to terrain constraints or other factors.

In a few locations, BPA currently does not have express easement rights to use some existing roads or foot trails that provide access to the transmission line. At these locations, BPA would acquire about 4.4 miles of easement rights to use various sections of the existing roads and trails. Generally, BPA obtains a 50-foot-wide easement for access road rights and 20-foot-wide easements for foot trails.  

BPA’s existing access roads for the line are typically 14 feet wide with an additional 3-foot offset from each side for slopes or drainage ditches, resulting in a total disturbance width of about 20 feet. Access road reconstruction and improvement activities associated with the Proposed Action would occur within this prism, except in areas with curves or on steep slopes where work would occur outside of this prism because of necessary cut and fill.

In areas with identified sensitive resources, such as wetlands or sensitive habitat, access road widths would be reduced to 12 feet and the offsets on either side would be reduced to 2 feet, for a total area of disturbance of 16 feet to minimize temporary and permanent impacts.  

Trail reconstruction or extension activities would result in a typical trail bed width of 18 inches that would require a total clearing area of 2 to 4 feet. For trails crossing steep talus areas, such as Shellrock Mountain, trail bed widths may be as small as 12 inches due terrain constraints. To provide trail stability in these steep areas, sideboards would be installed with rebar or rocks would be keyed into the hill.

On talus slopes, the trail bed would be comprised of compacted course surface material. In non-talus areas, the trail bed would be at grade and would consist of native material. All trail work areas would be accessed by foot and trail improvement, reconstruction, or extension work would be conducted with hand held equipment.”

More information on the project can be found on the BPA’s project website.

It’s never to late to be heard…

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BPA power line tower to be replaced on the Viento Bluffs

With a little more effort in their public outreach (like contacting trail organizations), the BPA would certainly have heard plenty of comments from the general public, and especially from hikers who regularly visit the corridor. Much of the commentary would likely have focused on how popular trails like Starvation Ridge and Mount Defiance will be impacted by the project.

But it could also have been an opportunity for hikers to propose expanded use of the power line trails by hikers, including areas like Shellrock Mountain and the area between Starvation Creek and Viento Creek that have tremendous scenic value. While the Forest Service declined to call out this opportunity, these trail sections also could help complete Gorge Trail 400.

No doubt the BPA wouldn’t be enthusiastic about bringing more hikers to the corridor, but the land belongs to the public and there’s no reason not to make full use of the routes the BPA will be building and maintaining with our public funds.

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The BPA corridor crossing Shellrock Mountain (BPA)

Is it too late to weigh in? Yes, for the most part. The project entered the final stage of the environmental impact process this spring and is scheduled to move into construction this summer. But if you’re concerned about how the construction is proceeding on the ground, you can contact the BPA directly with your concerns or comments:

Chad Hamel

Project Manager

Bonneville Power Administration

P.O. Box 61409

Vancouver, WA  98666-1409

Tel 800-622-4519

The most interesting section of BPA trail that is not currently a signed route is the trail over Shellrock Mountain. While this is only for the most experienced hikers today, it’s a great adventure that includes magnificent views of the Gorge that few enjoy. Hopefully, this route will someday be connected to Gorge Trail 400 — as it should have been as part of this project.

In the meantime, consider exploring the corridor by visiting the connecting trails at Mitchell Point, Wygant Peak, Starvation Creek and where the PCT crosses the corridor on the route to Dry Creek Falls.

Most of the land in the corridor is in public ownership and managed by Oregon Parks and Recreation or the U.S. Forest Service, so you are free to walk the trails and service roads here. This is the best way to see first-hand how your public lands are being managed, even if the BPA has let us down in their efforts to involve the public in this project.

Punchbowl Park is (mostly) open for Business!

April 30, 2017
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Punchbowl Falls

Spring is a wonderful time to visit the new Punchbowl Falls County Park, located on the West Fork of the Hood River, near Dee. This article is offered an update on the new trails that area gradually being constructed in the park and a guide to visiting this beautiful area for a sneak preview while the trails are being completed.

Punchbowl Falls Park was acquired from a private timber company by the Western Rivers Conservancy just a few years ago, and finally came into public ownership in 2015 when Hood River County received a state grant to transfer the land from the conservancy. Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) has since been busy constructing a new loop trail geared toward families and casual hikers looking for an easy stroll with a lot of scenery.

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New entry sign at Punchbowl Falls Park

In 2016, TKO volunteers completed most of the West Fork Trail, a scenic route that traverses the open bluffs above the Punchbowl Gorge before arriving at a spectacular cliff-top viewpoint above Punchbowl Falls. The remaining segment of the West Fork Trail is expected to be completed by early summer, and will include a short spur to a viewpoint of beautiful Dead Point Falls, where a boisterous Dead Point Creek cascades into the West Fork.

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Punchbowl Falls Park Trails

(Click here for a large, printable trail map)

Over the summer and fall, TKO also expects to complete the Dogwood Trail, a short forest hike that will create a loop back to the trailhead. The completed loop will be just 0.8 miles in length, making it ideal for families and casual hikers. While the West Fork portion features views and rugged terrain, the Dogwood Trail offers a quiet forest and vibrant fall colors from vine maple and dogwoods that thrive under the Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine canopy.

The West Fork Trail

You can hike most of the new West Fork Trail now. Just look for an obvious new path heading off to the left about 100 feet down the park service road from the gate at the trailhead. The new trail descends briefly through forest before providing the first of many views into the Punchbowl Gorge.

As you travel this section, you’ll pass through several groves of gnarled Oregon White Oak that thrive along the rocky bluffs. Watch for the collapsing remains of an old stairwell making its way down the cliffs on the far side of the Gorge, too. These stairs were built in the 1950s, when the concrete fish ladder was constructed along the west side of the falls. While the ladder mars the natural beauty of the area, it does provide passage to extensive upstream fish habitat for salmon and steelhead.

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The old stairway to the fish ladder has seen better days…

You will also pass a series of faint trails that cross the new hikers route. While these informal paths are often used by kayakers to portage the falls, they were originally travelled by tribal fishermen visiting the falls. The area below the falls is still reserved for tribal fishing, and you may see local Native Americans fishing for salmon and steelhead from the cliffs inside the Punchbowl, just as their ancestors have for centuries.

The new trail soon descends through more Oregon White Oak groves to the spectacular viewpoint of Punchbowl Falls. Plan to spend some time here watching the mesmerizing churn of the falls into the huge pool below. Keep an eye on kids and pets, here — there are no railings along the abrupt cliff edge.

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The massive amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

On clear days the viewpoint above Punchbowl Falls has an added surprise: Mount Hood rising in the distance, above the Punchbowl Gorge. From this viewpoint, you may also see tribal fishermen on the rocks below — while it is fine to watch them work from above, please be courteous.

The fish ladder to the right of the falls was completed in 1959. Here’s what Punchbowl Falls looked like before the ladder was constructed:

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Punchbowl Falls before the fish ladder was constructed in 1959

Hopefully, the ladder can someday be rebuilt in a way that restores some of the beauty of this spot, as it surely could not have been built in this manner under today’s environmental protections. This amazing place has deep significance to Native Americans, and it seems appropriate to undo some of the impacts of our modern age on a place so valued by the tribes.

From the Punchbowl overlook, the route climbs back into forest for a few hundred yards. TKO crews are still completing the groomed tread, but the rough path is easy to follow. Watch for a faint side trail heading off to the left a few yards before the West Fork Trail ends at the service road. This spur path leads to a terrific view of Dead Point Falls, where Dead Point Creek cascades into the West Fork. Watch kids and pets here, too, as the viewpoint is unprotected.

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Deadpoint Falls

While the West Fork Trail currently ends at the park service road, the Dogwood Trail will soon begin on the opposite side of the road and provide a loop trail back to the trailhead. In the meantime, read on for other places to explore…

Exploring the Confluence

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The Confluence

It’s easy to explore the northern section of Punchbowl Falls Park using the park service road and some of the fishing trails that crisscross the area. One of the most dramatic places to visit is the confluence of the West and East forks of the Hood River.

To reach the confluence, turn left on the service road from the end of the West Fork Trail and follow it to an obvious turnaround, where the road makes a sharp turn to the right, around the nose of a ridge. Look for a fisherman’s path on the left, heading steeply downhill hill to the confluence.

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Rowdy East Fork Hood River at the Confluence

The two rivers area study in contrasts. The East Fork is unruly and filled with glacial till, and has built a huge pile of cobbles were it meets the West Fork at the confluence. The West Fork is cold and clear, with a large eddy that makes for good fishing and safe place for kids to wade in summer.

Wildflowers and Fall Colors

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Grass Widow above the Punchbowl Gorge

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Punchbowl Falls Park. In spring the waterfalls are at their best, and there are wildflowers blooming throughout the park. In fall, the park lights up with autumn colors that only the east side forests can offer. Both seasons are quiet compared to the summer months, when the park can be quite busy with swimmers and floaters on weekends.

Wildflowers at the park are a unique blend of east and west. In April, the bluffs above Punchbowl Gorge are blanketed with Grass Widow (above), a desert flower common in the Columbia Gorge east of Rowena. The same meadows of grass widow are shared by Larkspur (below), more common in the wet west end of the Gorge.

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Larkspur along the West Fork Trail

In forested areas, you’re likely to see Trillium (below), a hallmark of the rainforests of the western Gorge, and in early spring you’ll find Glacier Lily (below) where the trail passes through Oregon White Oak groves.

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Trillium along the Dogwood Trail

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Glacier Lily near the Punchbowl Falls overlook

Watch closely and you might spot Calypso Orchid (below). This is another native more common in the wet forests of the west Gorge, but makes its home in the transitional forests of Punchbowl Falls Park.

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Calypso Orchid along the Dogwood Trail

In autumn, Pacific Dogwood (below) brings brilliant color to the forest understory throughout the park. In western Oregon, dogwood generally fade to pale yellow or pink in the fall, but on the east side of the Cascades, these graceful trees take on brilliant shades of coral, crimson and burgundy. In spring, Pacific Dogwood also blooms with handsome white flowers. When completed, the new Dogwood Trail will pass through several groves of these beautiful trees.

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Dogwood in Autumn at Punchbowl Falls Park

Vine Maple is everywhere in the forests of Punchbowl Falls Park, and like the native dogwood, these graceful trees light up in autumn, providing shades of crimson, orange and bright yellow. Vine Maple crowd the route of the new Dogwood Trail, and will combine with the dogwoods to make this an exceptionally beautiful autumn hike.

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Vine Maple in Autumn

Fall colors in Punchbowl Park peak in mid-October and spring wildflowers are at their best from mid-April through early June.

A View into the Gorge

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West Fork entering Punchbowl Gorge

If you still have time after visiting the West Fork Trail and the confluence, once last corner of Punchbowl Falls Park you might want to explore is the dizzying view from the bridge located just beyond the trailhead parking area. Simply walk about 200 yards to the soaring bridge for a spectacular look into Punchbowl Gorge, but use care — the railings are uncomfortably low!

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The Narrows in Punchbowl Gorge

The view upstream from the bridge encompasses the West Fork roaring into the narrow mouth of the Gorge, framed by towering walls of columnar basalt. The small structure just upstream is a river gauge used to monitor stream flows on the West Fork. The view downstream from the bridge peers into the narrows section of the gorge, with the West fork carving stunning curves and pools into the basalt walls.

These scenes, and the massive basalt amphitheater of Punchbowl Falls area among the best Columbia River basalt formations found anywhere in the region. It’s mind-boggling that this spectacular canyon was in the hands of a private timber company for more than a century! Thankfully, it is now protected in perpetuity as a nature park.

What’s Ahead?

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The author with TKO volunteers and county officials at a recent scouting trip at Punchbowl Park

Much work lies ahead for Punchbowl Falls Park this year. TKO has several volunteer work parties planned (you can learn more about them here), and Hood River County will begin improving the parking area at the trailhead to be a more accessible.

By fall of 2017, the new Dogwood Trail should be completed, and TKO volunteers will install trail signs on both the West Fork and Dogwood trails, officially opening the new loop to visitors. Over the long term, Hood River County and TKO are also planning an extension of the West Fork trail to the confluence and other trails in the new park.

Where to Find Punchbowl Falls Park?

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Punchbowl Gorge and bridge from the West Fork Trail

It’s easy to get to the new park! From Hood River, take 12th Avenue south where it soon becomes Tucker Road (aka Route 281). Follow Tucker Road and signs pointing to Lost Lake. After crossing the Hood River at Tucker Bridge, watch for the Dee Highway immediately veering off to the right.

Follow Dee Highway (also part of Route 281) to the rusty, dusty remains of the old mill town of Dee. Veer right again, crossing railroad tracks and then the East Fork Hood River, then turn right again onto Punchbowl Road just beyond the bridge. Stay straight on Punchbowl Road at a 3-way junction, then enter forest at a hairpin turn. Watch for the parking area on the right, just short of the high bridge over the West Fork Hood River.

The new trail begins just beyond the metal gate that marks the park service road.

Enjoy!

 

 

Bierstadt in Oregon

March 31, 2017
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Albert Bierstadt’s magical 1869 vision of Mount Hood

Long before white settlement had reshaped the American West, artists were traveling with early explorers to capture scenes of the stunning landscape and native peoples. This was the first view most Easterners in our young country had of places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite — places that would eventually become the crown jewels of our national park system.

And just as Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge are still believed by many to be part of the national park system, the painters and photographers of the mid-1800s captured them in their untouched state along with the other great places in the West. This article tells the story of how Albert Bierstadt and other artists of the era came to Oregon to capture the beauty of our mountain and the Columbia River, how their art helped inspire the original national parks movement and how their work still resonates with us today.

Longing for Nature

In the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the cities along America’s east coast, and the public was beginning suffer from its effects. In booming New York, massive tenements were constructed to house factory workers in apartments that were often without daylight and access to fresh air or plumbing.

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Crowded life in New York’s tenements of the mid-1800s led to a public yearning for a greener world

Coal burning was creating stagnant clouds of pollution that coated our eastern cities in soot, and there was a growing yearning for the greener, simpler world of our agrarian past. The carnage of the America Civil War in the 1860s only compounded the nostalgia. Thus, the Romantic period of the 19th Century was a movement that responded to pressures of the Industrial Revolution, glorifying a past rooted in nature.

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Simple access to light and fresh air was a luxury in New York’s mid-1800s tenements

The Romantic movement emphasized the sublimity and beauty of nature, and dominated American art during this period, especially the untamed American West that was glorified in monumental landscapes by artists of the Hudson River School.

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Thomas Cole’s 1847 “Home in the Woods” envisioned an idyllic green world in stark contrast to life in the big cities of the Industrial Revolution

The Hudson River School was a mid-19th century American art movement embodied by a group of landscape painters whose aesthetic vision came to define romanticism in this country. The paintings for which the movement is named originally depicted the Hudson River Valley and its founding is generally credited to Thomas Cole, who painted until his early death in 1848.

The Second Wave

Cole was followed by a second wave of Hudson River artists who grew to become celebrities in their time, including Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and later, Thomas Moran.

Bierstadt and Moran became best known for their epic paintings of the untamed American West in the last half of the 1800s. Their paintings were the popular equivalent of movie blockbusters today, with huge canvases dramatically unveiled in sensational public events.

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Thomas Moran’s dramatic scene of a storm over the Grand Canyon still wows viewers today

While the Hudson River School artists often glorified nature, they also brought people into their scenes in an idealized way, as part of the epic landscape. Native Americans were portrayed as nobly beautiful in these romanticized landscapes, and conversely, Bierstadt also created similarly noble scenes of white settlers migrating west in his Oregon Trail paintings, on their way to claim lands belonging to Native Americans.

The two ideas are a strange contradiction, given the de facto genocide that was unfolding upon Native Americans in the West when Cole and Bierstadt were creating these masterpieces. But the Hudson River artists were glorifying nature (and American Indians) as a divine creation of their Christian God, and so it makes sense that their paintings also fit the “manifest destiny” justification for westward migration of white settlers, however contradictory.

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Just as Bierstadt’s “Last of the Buffalo” (1889) brought the reality of the slaughter of America’s bison herds to Easterners in the 1800s, it now provides a window into the past for new generations of Americans learning about the western migration. It was the last of his monumental paintings, and directly triggered the first bison census, leading to protections for the species.

While Hudson River artists worked in dramatic realism, their romanticized scenes were often an idealized hybrid of multiple locations captured by the artists in their field studies in the West. Both Cole and Bierstadt made regular trips to what were often very remote, rugged locations for their studies, then returned to their studios to create the massive masterpieces that evoked the overall sense of wonder they had experienced in the West.

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Bierstadt’s “Oregon Trail” (1869) helped establish the enduring mythology of westward migration.

This is often a point of criticism for these painters, as the country was also experiencing the invention of photography, and realism in painting was increasingly being held up against tintype photos by early photographers to gauge their accuracy. Yet, just as photographers attempt to capture light and subject in a way that captures the drama and feeling of a place, Hudson River artists were similarly compiling scenes that captured their own memories and experiences in a West.

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The author on a recent pilgrimage to view Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra” (1868), on permanent display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Hudson River artists also influenced the creation of our first national parks, with masterpieces of Yellowstone and Yosemite that persuaded Congress to establish the very first protections for our most spectacular wild places. Albert Bierstadt painted many scenes in Yosemite over the years, along with many other wild places across the West that would ultimately be protected from exploitation.

Bierstadt in Oregon

Albert Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1832, but soon immigrated with his parents to New Bedford, Massachusetts at the age of two. He began drawing as a child, and by his early twenties was painting with oils as part of the Hudson River School movement. He would paint over 500 paintings over the course of his remarkable life.

In 1859, he traveled west with a U.S. Government survey crew, sketching scenes that he would later turn into his epic masterpieces in his studios in New York and Rome. This was one of many trips west for Bierstadt over his long painting career. One of these paintings, “Landers Peak, Rocky Mountains”, sold for $25,000 after it was completed in 1863, an astronomical figure for that time (Bierstadt later purchased this painting from the buyer to give to his brother).

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Albert Bierstadt “Landers Peak, Rocky Mountains” (1863)

 [click here for a large view]

Bierstadt’s huge, panoramic paintings were an immediate sensation with the public, and he quickly became the preeminent painter of the American West during the mid-1800s.

Bierstadt first came to Oregon beginning in the early 1860s, and painted Mount Hood at least four times — the most of any Pacific Northwest scene. He made at least three extended trips to Oregon, twice in the 1860s and later in the 1890s, as his career was winding down.

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Albert Bierstadt in the mid-1800s

This undated, possibly earliest Bierstadt work shows a scene on the Columbia River, with trio of canoes and a towering version of Mount Hood, basking in alpenglow. At first, the peak looks more like Mount Rainier, but a closer look shows a reasonably accurate rendering of the Sandy Headwall and other west face features, albeit with a healthy dose of artistic license:

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One of Albert Bierstadt early paintings of Mount Hood (date unknown)

Another early Bierstadt work from the same lower Columbia River perspective shows alpenglow lighting up the mist along the river and, notably, what appears to be Barrett Spur on the mountain’s north flank, makes this a somewhat more literal image:

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Albert Bierstadt “Morning Thirst – Mount Hood” (date unknown)

In the fall of 1863, Bierstadt made his second trip west and painted a pastoral scene on the north side of the mountain, as viewed from the Hood River Valley. This spare, relatively small portrayal (just 20 inches wide) is much more literal, with many familiar north face features captured, along with Lookout Mountain, to the east. Bierstadt also used artistic license to include Mount Jefferson peeking over the west shoulder of Mount Hood:

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Albert Bierstadt’s 1863 view of Mount Hood from the Hood River Valley

This painting is thought to have been in preparation for the much larger paintings of Mount Hood that would follow. His companion on the 1863 trip, Fritz Hugh Ludlow, recalled the visit in a published account that followed:

“After a night’s rest, Bierstadt spent nearly the entire morning making studies of Hood from an admirable post of observation at the top of one of the highest foothills — a point several miles southeast of town, which he reached under the guidance of an old Indian interpreter and trapper” (Atlantic Monthly. December 1864)

In 1865, Bierstadt completed a very large piece that pictures an idealized, but much more literal Mount Hood towering over the Columbia Gorge. Multnomah Falls and even Larch Mountain are included in the artist’s blend of iconic features. Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters float on the distant horizon:

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Albert Bierstadt’s massive 1865 painting of Mount Hood created a public sensation

[click here for a large version]

This massive painting measures ten feet wide by six feet tall, and created a sensation with the American public when it was unveiled. In 1876, it was one of six monumental paintings selected by Bierstadt for display at the Paris World’s Fair, bringing Mount Hood to international fame.

The painting was one of many portraits of Mount Hood that become part of the public’s imagination of the West, finally putting a face on the towering icon that settler accounts had described at the end of the Oregon Trail. Today, this painting can be viewed at Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This stunning work shows the mountain and Gorge in much more detail than his earlier studies. Mount Hood’s most familiar features — Barrett Spur, Yocum Ridge and Illumination Rock — are detailed, along with Multnomah Falls, Latourell Falls, Phoca Rock and Sherrard Point atop Larch Mountain.

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Detail from Bierstadt’s “Mount Hood” (1865)

The Gorge peaks are oddly deforested in this view. While logging in the Gorge cleared most of the slopes around Larch Mountain by the end of the 1800s, the forests probably would have been much more intact in 1865, when access to the Gorge was still extremely limited, so the barren slopes are more likely artistic license. Yet, Bierstadt did include trees in the foreground that are true to the Gorge, with rugged conifers typical of ancient Douglas fir that have survived the extreme Gorge elements, twisted white oaks and a billowy group of bigleaf maple in the right foreground.

In 1869, Bierstadt completed what to many is his ultimate masterpiece of Mount Hood: a smaller (five feet wide by just over four feet tall), more refined version of his 1865 work that brings all of the elements of the earlier painting with much more dramatic, evening light.

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Albert Bierstadt 1869 refinement of his more famous 1865 Mount Hood portrait

[click here for a large version]

This final piece is housed right here our very own Portland Art Museum, and worth the price of admission, alone. Bierstadt’s final take on our mountain remains the most glorious of the Romantic period paintings of Mount Hood.

While it’s easy to critique Bierstadt’s creative rearranging of geography, it’s also understandable: visitors today still seek that “perfect spot” where all of the pieces of the tableau that make up the Gorge and Mount Hood experience.

The view from Sherrard Point on Larch Mountain comes close, for example, with its 360-degree view encompassing the Gorge, Columbia Delta, Mount Hood, the string of big Cascade volcanoes in the distance and the craggy top of Larch Mountain and its magnificent stand of Noble fir filling the foreground. A mind’s eye recollection of the view of being there brings all of these pieces together as part of the memory, just as Bierstadt combined elements in his paintings that were about the experience of being there, not simply documentation of the elements.

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A closer look at Bierstadt’s 1869 masterpiece shows Multnomah Falls (left), Latourell Falls (center), Larch Mountain and Sherrard Point (center right) and Mount Jefferson in the distance

Mid-1900s Mount Hood Loop Highway visitors picked up postcard folios at souvenir stands and roadhouses along the loop looking to capture their memory in a similar way. These little booklets contained a series of cards showing off the most iconic spots in the Gorge and on the mountain that a visitor might have seen in a day spent driving the loop, but just as Bierstadt rearranged scenic elements, the folio covers of these postcard collections often blended the images to create a mosaic that pulled all of the pieces together.

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1940s Loop Highway Postcard Folio

More recently, cartographic artist Jim Niehues created a magnificent, modern-day mental map of the area with just enough cartographic license to capture the feeling of being there, while still preserving the basic geography of the Gorge and mountain.

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Like Bierstadt before him, Jim Niehues brought a mind’s eye view of Mount Hood and the Gorge together in this stunning piece of cartographic art

Bierstadt visited the region long before the south side of Mount Hood had become the focus of tourism in the 1920s, with the arrival of the loop highway. Instead, his visits took him to the north side of the mountain to points along the Columbia River and in the Hood River Valley that were accessible by rail.

It’s unknown if he actually visited the slopes of the mountain on his visits in the 1860s and 70s, when his famous works of Mount Hood were created, but Jack Grauer’s “A Complete History of Mount Hood” shows Bierstadt visiting Cloud Cap Inn in 1890. According to Grauer, Bierstadt is third from the right in this rare photo, wearing a light hat:

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Closer views suggest and older and grayer Bierstadt:

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Albert Bierstadt would have been 60 years old at the time of this visit. Clearly, this trip shows that he remained an intrepid explorer in his later years. The trip to Cloud Cap Inn, which had opened just one year prior, entailed a train ride from Portland to Hood River, where the horse-drawn Cloud Cap Stage was waiting to take visitors on a rugged, five-hour ride up the mountain to the lodge that was not for the faint-of-heart.

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Albert Bierstadt stood here!

Today, you can still see the ruts of the original stage road that led to the inn at grades in excess of 20 percent. Since the 1940s, a new road has criss-crossed the original stage route in a graded series of switchbacks, allowing modern-day visitors to marvel at the ordeal that earlier visitors like Bierstadt endured on the way to Cloud Cap!

Bierstadt’s Other Works in the Region

While Bierstadt’s epic paintings of Mount Hood were widely known and celebrated, his rendering of Multnomah Falls is less known, possibly because it came later in his career, and at just 3 by 5 feet, was relative “small” compared to his huge panoramic scenes. Bierstadt captures Multnomah Falls with much literal accuracy on a typically misty autumn day:

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Bierstadt’s “Multnomah Falls” (late 1800s)

[Click here for a large version]

Today, Bigleaf maples still frame the falls in gold in autumn, but Bierstadt did add a rocky bluff beyond the falls to add depth to the painting:

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Though this painting is undated, Bierstadt likely created it before a log bridge spanning the lower falls was built in the early 1880s:

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The stream detail in the foreground gives a sense of what it must have been like to approach our tallest waterfall in its truly wild state, before today’s developed paths and viewpoints were built:

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Bierstadt painted the Columbia River as a foreground for most of his Mount Hood scenes, but surprisingly, a view down the Columbia Gorge from near Crown Point was not one of his subjects. This undated Bierstadt painting of the Columbia captures a scene that may be on the east side of the Cascades in desert country, perhaps in the vicinity of today’s Horsethief Butte State Park, looking west:

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Albert Bierstadt’s Columbia River scene

If Bierstadt did make it to the mid-Columbia region, it’s unclear whether he visited Celilo Falls. It surely would have provided all of the elements for one of his panoramic paintings, complete with a Native American villages and fisherman working the salmon runs, yet there are no paintings of Celilo among his works.

Instead, we can only wonder what his take might have been, perhaps alogn the lines of Thomas Moran’s stunning portrayal of “Shoshone Falls” (1900) on the Snake River:

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Thomas Moran’s “Shoshone Falls” (1900)

Bierstadt painted several of the big Cascade Mountain volcanoes, including this view of Mount Adams, perhaps inspired by alpine meadows above Takhlakh Lake the mountain’s west side:

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Albert Bierstadt’s “Mount Adams” (1875)

He made a few paintings of Mount St. Helens, all from the shore of the lower Columbia River. This scene shows Mount Adams (or possibly Mount Rainier) peeking over the shoulder of St. Helens:

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Albert Bierstadt’s “Mount St. Helens” (date unknown)

Bierstadt painted mighty Mount Rainer from the tidal flats of Puget Sound, near Tacoma, in a scene that includes our native Madrona trees (on the left), a nice touch of literal accuracy:

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Albert Bierstadt’s “Mount Rainier” (date unknown)

Finally, for avid hikers this small, untitled Bierstadt piece sure looks like Mount Jefferson as viewed from northwest of Jefferson Park, above the Whitewater trail:

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Untitled Bierstadt piece — is this Mount Jefferson?

At the time Bierstadt was in Oregon, this would have been a remarkably rugged, remote area for anyone reach, so it’s probably more likely coincidence that this so closely resembles Jefferson, but who knows? Maybe we will discover another undocumented chapter in his travels in the future.

The Other Painters

There were many fine paintings of Mount Hood made by other artists during the 1800s, when Bierstadt was visiting the region. Explorer and self-taught artist Paul Kane is best known for his early portraits of native people in the West. Kane was among the earliest to arrive in Mount Hood country and paint the mountain while spending the winter of 1846 at Fort Vancouver.

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Paul Kane in the 1840s

Among Kane’s best known work is a scene depicting Chinook people living along the lower Columbia River in the early 1850s, with Mount Hood as the backdrop:

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Paul Kane’s “Chinook Indians in front of Mount Hood” (1850s)

John Mix Stanley was another prominent explorer and self-taught painter who visited the region. Stanley first came west in 1842, and was known for his portraits of Native American life captured during the first half of the 1800s.

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John Mix Stanley

His 1855 lithograph of Mount Hood shows tribal life along the Columbia, as viewed from near The Dalles:

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In 1865, a fire at the Smithsonian destroyed much of his work, and Stanley set about recreating some of the most memorable scenes from his travels in the West from sketches and memory.

His trip through the Columbia Gorge by boat in 1853 apparently made a special impact on Stanley, and his 1870 “Mountain Landscape with Indians”, captured these memories in composite. This painting was also likely inspired by the success of Bierstadt’s panoramic 1865 view of Mount Hood, as well:

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Stanley’s first rendition of Mount Hood from the Columbia River (1870)

In 1871, Stanley created a much larger (five by eight feet!) version of the same scene with a more stylized Mount Hood. This masterpiece blends the west face of Mount Hood, familiar as the view on Portland’s skyline, and elements from throughout the Gorge, including a Native American village:

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Stanley’s panoramic 1871 masterpiece of Mount Hood and the Columbia River

[click here for a large version]

Boston artist Robert Swain Gifford created a somewhat bizarre version of Mount Hood in 1874 that continues to circulate widely today as a collectable print:

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R.S. Gifford’s stylized 1874 take on Mount Hood

This exaggerated view attempts to capture the mountain from the north side, in the vicinity of Hood River, but is oddly cartoonish in comparison to other, more realistic works that were being created at that time.

In the 1880s, Gifford created this much more accurate etching of Mount Hood from the Columbia River narrows at The Dalles:

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R.S. Gifford’s 1880s engraving of Mount Hood from The Dalles

Though he was not known for his western art, Gifford’s 1880s rendering of Mount Hood has been widely published and remains popular with print collectors today.

Another painter by the name of Gifford (though unrelated) was Sanford Robinson Gifford, another Hudson River School artist. Sanford Gifford created this dreamlike view of Mount Hood and the Columbia River in 1875:

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Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “Mount Hood” (1875)

Sanford Gifford’s scene is not too far from reality, with elements that nearly exist in reality as viewed from the north side of the river near today’s Washougal.

Artist Frederick Ferdinand Schafer was a German immigrant with a studio in San Francisco. He painted scenes from throughout the West, including this view of Mount Hood described as being from The Dalles:

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Ferdinand Schafer’s “Mount Hood” (date unknown)

Schafer worked from field notes and sketches, which might explain why this scene “from The Dalles” looks nothing like the area. Instead, this perspective of the mountain could be from the upper Hood River Valley, possibly merging the canyon of the East Fork Hood River with the mountain as it appears from the valley. The trees on the right look a lot like mountain hemlock, though they might be inspired by Ponderosa pine that are found through the east Gorge.

Connecticut painter Gilbert Munger was another student of the Hudson River School, and a friend of John Mix Stanley. Munger served as an engineer in the Civil War, and traveled west after the war as part of an emerging movement of more literal, grounded landscape painting that adhered to geographic accuracy.

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Gilbert Munger in the 1870s

Munger painted at least two versions of Mount Hood in the 1870s that show his characteristic attention to accuracy, both from the Hood River area:

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Both of Munger’s pieces faithfully show the iconic, open foothills that define the east Gorge today from Hood River eastward. His paintings have enough detail to show the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood’s northeast slope with surprising accuracy for the time.

San Francisco artist Julian Walbridge Rix created one of my favorite early paintings of Mount Hood, an 1888 scene from the Hood River area that faithfully captures both the geography of the mountain and the local geology and ecology of the east side forests:

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“Mount Hood” (1888) by Julian Rix

Rix was a member of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club and may have been encouraged by Albert Bierstadt as he began his landscape painting career in the 1870s.

A truly pioneering painter who should be more celebrated here in Mount Hood country is Grafton Tyler Brown. He painted in the late 1800s, and was notable as the first African American painter to work in the Pacific Northwest and California. Brown was born in Philadelphia, where his father was a freeman and abolitionist.

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Grafton Tyler Brown in his studio

Brown moved to San Francisco while in his twenties and working as a lithographer. He later lived in Portland and Victoria, British Columbia during his painting career. Brown painted at least two surviving paintings depicting Mount Hood. The first was completed in 1884 and shows a bright scene along the Hood River, near the town of Hood River:

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Brown’s “Mount Hood” (1884)

The detail on this piece looks almost like it was painted with modern acrylics.

A later piece completed by Brown in 1889 shows a classic Columbia River scene near The Dalles with Mount Hood reflecting in the river:

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John Englehart arrived later on the scene, painting western landscapes in the 1890s and early 1900s. In 1902, Englehart moved his studio from San Francisco to Portland, where he exhibited in the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905.

Englehart’s Mount Hood paintings follow the Hudson River School style, but the art world had moved on to European impressionism by the time he was creating these scenes, and he never attained the acclaim of earlier Hudson River artists.

This Englehart scene shows Barrett Spur on the left, suggesting a view from the west or northwest, perhaps along the Sandy River:

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Mount Hood scene by John Englehart

This Englehart painting is a different take on the mountain, with a river scene that seems too small to be the Columbia River, though there’s no reason to assume that the artist didn’t simply stylize that detail for the purpose of his composition:

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Englehart’s vision of Mount Hood… and the Columbia River?

These Englehart pieces appear to be from the 1890s.

Eliza Barchus was another pioneering artist based in Portland who made her name at the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition, where she won a gold medal for her landscapes. Barchus was widowed at the age of 35, and her artwork became the sole source of income for her family at a time when very few women were working artists. She ran a downtown studio in Portland and later expanded her business to include construction and homebuilding.

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Eliza Barchus in the 1890s

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Eliza Barchus in her Portland studio in the early 1900s

Barchus painted romantic scenes of Mount Hood, the Columbia Gorge, Multnomah Falls and many other familiar scenes here in Mount Hood country during her long life (she lived to be 102 years old).

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“Mount Hood” (early 1900s) by Eliza Barchus

William Samuel Parrott also had a studio in downtown Portland in the late 1800s, and specialized in Pacific Northwest landscapes. Like Munger, his paintings were geographically accurate, yet also captured the romantic sensibility of the Hudson River School. This Mount Hood scene by Parrott is in the Portland Art Museum collection, though not currently on public display:

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William Parrott’s rendering of Mount Hood (late 1800s)

There were other landscape artists working the Pacific Northwest during the late 1800s, but the public was moving on toward new trends in art. The popularity of the Hudson River style had faded from public favor by the turn of the 20th Century, replaced by interest in impressionism and other more modern artistic movements.

It’s not coincidental that the romantic landscape era of painting faded with end of the Western frontier, as the two were intertwined in the American imagination. But art from the era still offers a lasting sense of this remarkable period in our history in way that early photography or writing from the period don’t fully capture. Thanks to the vision and audacity of artists like Bierstadt, we can still experience what it felt like to live in that time of wonder and exploration.

Bierstadt is still inspiring our imagination…

Bierstadt died in 1902, twelve years after his last visit to Mount Hood. For many decades during the era of modern art, his work was dismissed and ignored as out of fashion, but he was rediscovered in the 1970s. His legacy has since been celebrated in popular art, including a couple of U.S. postage stamps in recent years.

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Bierstadt’s “Last of the Buffalo” celebrated by the U.S. Postal Service in 1998

Why the resurgence in interest? While Bierstadt’s work in the 1800s served to capture the pristine spectacle of the American West, today it serves as a reminder of what once what, and what might be — what should be — as we move into an new era of restoration in our country’s evolution.

There’s an ironic tragedy in the fact that Bierstadt’s career centered on celebrating the wild, unspoiled beauty of the west, yet culminated with “The Last of the Buffalo” a stark warning of what we had already lost — and what he had witnessed in the half-century he spent documenting the American West. We’ll never know if Bierstadt had misgivings about the effect his paintings had in spurring western migration, but he was clearly aware of the effects that white settlement of the West had wrought.

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One of Bierstadt’s many stunning takes on Yosemite appeared on this stamp in 2008

It’s also no accident that I’ve used Bierstadt’s Mount Hood masterpiece as the backdrop for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website. In this magical piece, Bierstadt brought together the essential elements of what makes the Mount Hood area so unique, and so worthy of Park Service protection as a national shrine.

It’s true, much restoration is needed and a completely different management mindset is in order to bring Mount Hood and the Gorge back to their former ecological state. But Bierstadt’s dreamlike portrayal provides the perfect inspiration to aim for that lofty vision, and break away from our current, unsustainable path of incremental over-development and exploitation.

Postscript

A disclaimer from the author upon posting this article: while I’m an avid fan of the Hudson River School artists who traveled to the American West in the 1800s, I’m certainly no scholar on the subject! I welcome any corrections or additions that more knowledgeable readers might provide.

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The author on a recent visit to see the great western landscape paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

This article has been in the works for about five years, as I’ve not only had to learn the subject matter, but was also surprised to discover that the life of Albert Bierstadt is poorly covered by historians. This may be due to his art falling out of favor by the time of his death in 1902, but hopefully the future will bring a more thorough look at this remarkable American.

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Bierstadt’s “Mount Hood” (1869) is on permanent display at the Portland Art Museum (courtesy Portland Art Museum)

In the meantime, make your own pilgrimage to the Portland Art Museum to see our very own Bierstadt Mount Hood masterpiece in person. You will surely be inspired by his timeless vision of our mountain!

Metlako Landslide!

January 31, 2017
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Metlako Falls from the viewpoint that is no more…

The buzz in hiking circles over the past few weeks has been the massive cliff collapse at iconic Metlako Falls on Eagle Creek. While the falls, itself (and the gorgeous surrounding amphitheater that also includes 100-foot Sorenson Creek Falls) was not affected by the collapse, the cliff-edge viewpoint that countless hikers have visited over the decades is now only a memory.

It started with a crack in the ground…

In late November, local hiker Karl Peterson posted a report with images of a deep, ominous crack in the forest floor above the Metlako viewpoint at his Portland Hikers Facebook group. Karl correctly predicted that some sort of collapse or landslide was imminent, though few expected something of this scale.

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The foreboding crack that formed in November (photo: Karl E. Peterson)

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Another view of the crack in late November (photo: Karl E. Peterson)

While major landslides and cliff collapses are regular events that continue to shape the Gorge as we know it, Karl’s discovery of the crack appears to be the first time an imminent collapse was observed and predicted in this way. Karl also reported trees leaning toward the 200-foot abyss, a more common predictor of landslides.

Roughly a month after Karl’s discovery, a massive 300-400 foot long section of the east wall of the gorge below Metlako Falls dropped 200 feet into Eagle Creek. The collapse occurred sometime between December 17 (currently, the date of the last known photo taken from the overlook) and 26 (when the first known photos of the collapse were taken), but was apparently not witnessed by anyone – and thankfully, nobody was injured or killed by the event.

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Metlako Falls from above the old viewpoint – for reference, the arching maple in front of the falls is the same as the one to the left of the falls in the opening photo in this article (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Given the year-round crowds on the Eagle Creek trail, the lack of eyewitnesses suggests the collapse occurred at night, or perhaps on a day when travel was especially light due to winter weather in the Gorge that week.

The sheer volume of debris in the creek was enough to temporarily block the stream, and a deep pool is still backed up behind the jumble of automobile-sized boulders and smaller material, as shown in these amazing photos by Karl, and fellow photographers Don Nelsen and Nathan Zaremskiy:

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A view of the sheer escarpment where the cliff split off and the large pool created by the debris in the creek below (photo: Don Nelsen)

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A wider view of the new escarpment and debris at the base of the cliff, with Metlako Falls in the distance (photo: Don Nelsen)

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This dizzying view looks straight down from the brink at Eagle Creek, pushed against the west cliff wall by the debris pile (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

The escarpment left by the collapse is sheer and still unstable, with trees and remnants of forest floor still dangling on the edge, as shown in these photos taken after the event:

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This view looks downstream toward the old viewpoint location and the full extent of the collapse (photo: Don Nelsen)

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Another view looking downstream from just below the old viewpoint, and toward the bend in Eagle Creek at the north end of the Metlako gorge (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

A portion of the short spur trail to the old Metlako viewpoint still exists… until it ends at this scary abyss:

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The old spur trail ends abruptly at the edge of the new escarpment… yikes! (photo: Karl E. Peterson)

Nathan Zaremskiy also created this stunning YouTube video of the scene after the collapse:

Just the Gorge doing its thing?

It turns out that the collapse at Metlako is as routine to the evolution of the Gorge landscape as rain, waterfalls and basalt cliffs, albeit measured over decades and centuries.

Several collapses have occurred over the past few decades, and are fairly well documented. One of the most dramatic occurred on September 6, 1995 when a massive, bus-sized slab of basalt dislodged from the vertical cliff behind Multnomah Falls.

Even in the era before ubiquitous cell phone cameras, one visitor managed to capture this startling image of the of the rockfall exploding into the splash pool at the base of the falls, completely inundating Benson Bridge (you can see it if you look closely) with water and debris:

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The astonishing photo capturing the rockfall at Multnomah Falls in 1995 (USFS)

One person on the bridge was slightly injured with flying rock debris, but amazingly, no deaths or other injuries were reported.

In 1973, a massive cliff collapse along Tanner Creek below Wahclella Falls was so large that it temporarily stopped the flow of the creek, cutting off the water supply downstream to the Bonneville Hatchery. The landslide created a lake on Tanner Creek that persisted until the late 1970s, long enough to show up on USGS topo maps:

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The lake formed by the Tanner Creek cliff collapse in 1973 lasted just long enough to appear on USGS maps.

Today, this slide is still recovering, and remains one of the most visible and fascinating places to witness the power of nature at work. The trail to Wahclella Falls was rebuilt as a loop in the late 1980s, with the western leg traveling over the toe of the landslide, among the giant boulders left in its wake.

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The view downstream toward the Tanner Creek landslide debris field (and west leg of the loop trail).

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The giant boulders in this downstream view are at the toe of the Tanner Creek landslide, and initially dammed the creek here to form a small lake.

The east leg of the loop trail climbs high above the creek, providing a birds-eye view of the scene, and true sense of scale of the event:

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This view across Tanner Creek canyon shows hikers along the trail section that crosses the debris field below one of several house-sized boulders scattered in the rubble.

Though we don’t know exactly how or when the jumble of house-sized boulders scattered below Wahclella Falls arrived there, they each bring their own story of a catastrophic wall collapse that is part of a continuum as the Gorge streams continue to etch their canyons into the underlying basalt.

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Each of the giant boulders scattered below Wahcella Falls has its own story of a major cliff collapse.

A less-traveled canyon just over the ridge from Tanner Creek also experienced a major wall collapse sometime in the recent past. Moffett Creek cascades over its own spectacular series of wateralls, but no trails lead into this remote canyon. Instead, explorers follow the stream, where massive boulders are scattered along the way. In one section, they form a beautiful moss-covered garden, with glacier lilies blooming on top of the boulders in early spring:

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Giant boulders scattered along Moffett Creek

At Moffett Falls, the first waterfall on the stream, a major rockfall dropped the garage-sized boulders in front of the cascade sometime in the late 1980s or 1990s:

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The huge boulders below Moffett Creek Falls are relatively new arrivals to the scene.

This event also obliterated an alder forest that extended along the canyon floor below the falls, perhaps as the debris dam abruptly collapsed under the pressure of Moffett Creek backing up behind it.

What’s next for Metlako?

Eagle Creek is perhaps the most visited trail in the Gorge, with hikers crowding the area since the trail first opened nearly a century ago, but the history of the old spur trail and viewpoint at Metlako Falls is unclear.

Because of the early popularity of the trail, it’s odd that old photos of the falls don’t seem to exist, compared to the many photos and postcards from the 1920s and 1930s of other waterfalls and overlooks along the trail. This suggests that the viewpoint at Metlako Falls was developed later.

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Overflowing parking at Eagle Creek is not new..!

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Early photos of Punchbowl Falls and other sights along the Eagle Creek trail are common… so why not Metlako Falls?

The galvanized steel posts and cable railings at the old viewpoint were newer than the original hand cables that famously line several of the exposed cliff sections along the trail, so it seems likely they were added later – perhaps with the spur trail, itself.

One possibility could be that Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers built the spur and overlook in the 1930s, when other trails were being added throughout the Gorge. The railing design also matches that of other trails built in the 1930s and 1940s in the Gorge.

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Panoramic view of the old viewpoint at Metlako, now lost to the ages.

(click here for a large view of the old Metlako viewpoint)

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The steel railings at Metlako seemed newer than the original trail (and the tagging still newer)

For now, the Forest Service has roped off the short spur trail that once led to Metlako Falls, warning hikers to stay away from the still-unstable area. But the agency is also reported to be exploring the possibility of a new viewpoint of the falls.

Such a viewpoint seems unlikely, based on early reports by hikers. The collapse took away an enormous amount of cliff, yet left a section near the falls that now blocks the view from the new cliff wall downstream. If so, Metlako may live on mostly as a memory for most, though photographers with drones will no doubt attempt to recreate the iconic view that once was!

Like losing an old friend…

…and on a personal note, the news of the Metlako viewpoint collapse came hard, as I had been doing periodic maintenance of the overlook several years ago as a volunteer for Trailkeepers of Oregon to preserve the view.

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Improving the view at Metlako Falls

The work consisted of carrying an 18-foot pole pruner to the site and trimming the thicket of bigleaf maple shoots, ocean spray and snowberry that blocked the view and encouraged visitors to climb over the railing (!) for a look at the falls.

It was fun and rewarding work, albeit unnerving to watch the trimmings float over the vertical brink of the 200-foot cliff and into the creek, below. I worked with the sure safety of a the cable fence, but always thought about the rugged early trail builders who worked along these cliffs to create the original Eagle Creek trail – brave souls!

So, to close out this article, I’ll post one of the last photos I took from the old viewpoint in June 2016…

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Metlako Falls as it will live on in photographs and memories.

…and along with so many other hikers and waterfall lovers, say goodbye to this wonderful spot…

2017 Campaign Calendar!

December 24, 2016

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[click here for a large image]

Each year since the Mount Hood National Park Campaign began in 2004, I’ve published a wall calendar to celebrate the many reasons why Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge should be our next national park. You can pick up a calendar here:

 2017 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar

The calendar sales help cover some of the costs of keeping the campaign website and WyEast blog up and running. More importantly, they ensure that I continue to explore new places in the gorge and on the mountain, as each calendar consists exclusively of photos I’ve taken in the previous year. In this article, I’ll provide some of the stories behind the photos in the new Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar.

 The Calendar

Beginning in 2016, I’ve published the calendar at Zazzle, where the quality of printing and binding is much better than my former printer. The excellent print quality shows in the front cover (above), a view of the northwest face of Mount Hood from Cathedral Ridge where the color accuracy does justice to the vibrant cliffs on this side of the mountain.

An added bonus with Zazzle is the ability to include a full-color spread on the back of the calendar. As with the 2016 calendar, I’ve used this space to show off some of the flora I’ve photographed over the past year – and this year, I added berries and a butterfly to the mix, too:

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[click here for a large image]

The monthly layout remains the same as last year, with a classic design that serves nicely as a working calendar for kitchens or offices:

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The finished calendar hangs 14 inches wide by 22 inches tall, with a white wire binding.

 The Images

The following is a rundown of the 12 images inside the calendar by month, with a link to a large version of each image, too. This year, I’ve posted especially large versions to allow for a closer look at these scenes (in a new window), and you can see them by clicking the link beneath each preview image.

The 2017 calendar begins with a chilly Tamanawas Falls for the January image. This impressive waterfall is located on Cold Spring Creek on Mount Hood’s east slope:

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Tamanawas Falls in winter clothes

 [click here for a large image]

This popularity of this trail in winter has ballooned in recent years, from almost no visitors just a decade ago to traffic jams on winter weekends today.

The scenery explains the popularity. While the trail is lovely in the snow-free seasons, it’s downright magical after the first heavy snows in winter. The scene below is typical of the many breathtaking vistas along the hike during the snow season.

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Cold Spring Creek gets just a little bit colder

It’s still possible to have the place to yourself, however. Go on a weekday, and you’re likely to find just a few hikers and snowshoers on the trail. Thus far, no Snow Park pass is required here – though that will surely come if the weekend crowds continue!

For February, I picked an image of Mount Hood’s steep north face, featuring the icefalls of the Coe and Ladd glaciers:

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Mount Hood’s mighty north face from Owl Point

[click here for a large image]

This view is unique to the extent that it was taken from the Old Vista Ridge trail to Owl Point – a route that was reopened in 2007 by volunteers and provides a perspective of the mountain rarely seen by most visitors.

 For March, I selected an image of Upper Butte Creek Falls:

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Lovely Upper Butte Creek Falls in spring

[click here for a large image]

This is on the margins of Mount Hood country, but deserves better protections than the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) can ever provide, given their constitutional obligation to log state forests to provide state revenue.

While ODF has done a very good job with the short trails that reach the waterfalls of Butte Creek, the bulk of the watershed is still heavily managed for timber harvests. Who knows, someday maybe it will be part of a Mount Hood National Park? It’s certainly worthy.

On this particular trip last spring, I returned to the trailhead to find these notes on my windshield:

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Our future is in good hands!

Not much damage to the car, and the note more than made up for it! I did contact Jesse, and ended up speaking to his dad. I thanked him for being an excellent parent. With dads (and moms) like this, our future is in good hands!

For April, I picked this scene from Rowena Crest at the height of the Balsamroot and Lupine bloom season:

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Rowena Crest in April splendor

[click here for a large image]

Just me and a few hundred other photographers up there to enjoy the wildflowers on that busy, sunny Sunday afternoon! Look closely, and you can see a freight train heading west on the Union Pacific tracks in the distance, lending scale to the enormity of the Gorge.

For the May image, I chose the classic scene of Punch Bowl Falls along the popular Eagle Creek Trail in the Gorge:

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Punch Bowl Falls in spring

 [click here for a large image]

The spring rains faded quickly this year, resulting in much lower flows along Eagle Creek by the time spring greenery was emerging, making it less chilly to wade out to the view of the falls. To the right of the falls you can also see the latest downfall to land in front of the falls. To my eye, this adds to the scene, so I see it as a plus.

This isn’t the first big tree to drop into the Punch Bowl in recent years. In the mid-2000s, another large tree fell directly in front of the falls, much to the frustration of photographers:

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Punch Bowl Falls in 2006 with an earlier fallen tree in front of the falls

 That earlier tree was flushed out a few years ago, only to be replaced by the current, somewhat less obtrusive downfall a couple of years ago. Here’s a wider view showing this most recent addition, including the giant root ball:

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Gravity at work once again at Punch Bowl Falls

This pattern will continue as it has for millennia, as other large Douglas fir trees are leaning badly along the rim of the Punch Bowl. They eventually will drop into the bowl, too, frustrating future generations of photographers!

 The Punch Bowl, itself, changes over time. This early view from the 1920s shows a lot more debris inside the bowl compared to recent decades, possibly from erosion that followed an early 1900s forest fire in the Eagle Creek canyon:

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Punch Bowl Falls in the 1920s

Look closely and you can see flapper-era hikers on the rim of the bowl and several rock stacks left by visitors on the gravel bar – some things never change!

The June image in the new calendar is the opposite of Punch Bowl Falls. While thousands visit Eagle Creek each year, the remote spot pictured below is rarely visited by anyone, despite being less than a mile from Wahtum Lake and the headwaters of Eagle Creek. This view is from a rugged, unnamed peak along Waucoma Ridge, looking toward another unnamed butte and snowy Mount Adams, in the distance:

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A place of ancient significance, yet lost in our modern time

[click here for a large image]

For the purpose of keeping track of unnamed places, I’ve called the talus-covered butte in the photo “Pika Butte”, in honor of its numerous Pika residents. The peak from which the photo is taken is an extension of Blowdown Ridge, a much-abused, heavily logged and mostly forgotten beauty spot that deserves to be restored and placed under the care of the National Park Service.

The view of “Pika Butte” was taken while exploring several off-trail rock knobs and outcrops along Blowdown Ridge, but what made this spot really special was stumbling acxross a cluster of Indian pits (sometimes called vision quest pits). One pit is visible in the lower left corner of the wide view (above) and you can see three in this close-up view from the same spot:

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If only these stones could tell us the story behind the mystery!

Nobody really knows why ancient people in the region made these pits, but it’s always a powerful experience to find them, and imagine the lives of indigenous peoples unfolding in the shadow of Mount Hood. These pits had a clear view of the Hood River Valley, with the Columbia River and Mount Adams in the distance. Indian pits often feature a sweeping mountain or river view, adding to the theory that they were built with a spiritual purpose.

For July, another photo from Owl Point along the Old Vista Ridge trail. This wide view shows some of the beargrass in bloom on the slopes of Owl Point on a sunny afternoon in July:

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Mount Hood fills the skyline from Owl Point

[click here for a large image]

Since this historic trail was adopted by volunteers in 2007, it has become increasingly popular with hikers. Several geocaches are located along the way, as well as a summit register at Owl Point with notes from hikers from all over the world. A few recent entries among hundreds in the register show the impact that this amazing “new” view of Mount Hood has on visitors to Old Vista Ridge:

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In a few months I’ll share some exciting news about the Old Vista Ridge Trail, Owl Point and the surrounding areas on Mount Hood’s north slope. Stay tuned!

For August, I picked another scene on the north side of the mountain, this time at iconic Elk Cove along the Timberline Trail:

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Swale along Cove Creek in Elk Cove

[click here for a large image]

The hiker (and his dog) approaching me in this photo stopped to chat, and I was surprised to learn that he was a regular reader of this blog!

As we talked about the changes to the cove that came with the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire (that burned the north and west margins of the cove), he mentioned finding the foundation from the original Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) shelter in the brush near Cove Creek! We crossed the creek and in a short distance, came to the unmistakable outline of the shelter:

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The old Elk Cove shelter foundation is surprisingly intact – but hidden

This structure was once one of several along the Timberline Trail, but fell into disrepair following avalanche damage sometime in the 1950s or early 1960s. This image is apparently from the mid-1960s, showing the still somewhat intact ruins of the shelter:

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The beginning of the end for the Elk Cove shelter in the 1960s

The location of the shelter was a surprise to me, as I had long thought the building was located near a prominent clearing and campsite near the middle of Elk Cove. Now that I know the exact location, I plan to reproduce the 1960s image on my next trip to the cove, for comparison.

For September, I chose a quiet autumn scene along Gorton Creek, near the Wyeth Campground in the Columbia Gorge (below). This is a spot I’ve photographed many times, just downstream from popular Emerald Falls:

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Pretty Gorton Creek in the Wyeth area of the Gorge

[click here for a large image]

This area has a fascinating history, as today’s Wyeth Campground is located on the grounds of Civilian Public Service Camp No. 1, a World War II work camp for conscientious objectors. The men serving at this camp built roads and trails throughout the Gorge, in addition to many other public works projects. The camp operated from 1941-1946. You can learn more about the Wyeth work camp here.

The October scene is familiar to anyone who has visited the Gorge. It’s Multnomah falls, of course, dressed in autumn colors:

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A bugs-eye view of Multnomah Falls?

[click here for a large image]

If the photo looks different than your typical Multnomah Falls view, that’s because I blended a total of eight images to create a horizontal format of this very vertical falls to better fit the calendar. Here’s what the composite looked like before blending the images:

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To young photographers of the digital age, blending photos is routine. But for those of us who started out in the age of film photography and darkrooms, the ability to blend and stack images is nothing short of magical – and fun! While younger photographers are increasingly exploring film photography as a retro art, the digital age is infinitely more enjoyable than the days of dark rooms, chemicals and expensive film and print paper for this photographer.

I paused before including a winter-season photo of Wahclella Falls for the November calendar image (below). Why? Because I’ve used a photo from this area in nearly every calendar since I started assembling these more than a decade ago. It’s my favorite Gorge hike – I visited Tanner Creek and Wahclella Falls five times in 2016 – and have photographed this magnificent scene dozens of times, and yet it never gets old.

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Wahclella Falls is a winter spectacle!

[click here for a large image]

I decided to include this Wahclella Falls scene because it captured a particularly wild day on Tanner Creek last winter. The stream was running high, filling the canyon with mist and seasonal waterfalls drifted down the walls of the gorge on all sides.

The huge splash pool at the base of the falls was especially wild – more like ocean surf than a Cascade stream, and if you look closely, you can also see a hiker braving the rain and cold to take in this view:

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Roaring falls, big boulder… and tiny hiker

I also liked the turbulent stream below the falls, which also boiled more like ocean surf than a mountain stream:

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Tanner Creek comes alive in winter

 So, another calendar featuring Wahclella Falls? Yes, and it certainly won’t be the last. This is among the most magical places in the Gorge – or anywhere!

 Finally, for the December image I selected a photo from my first official attempt at capturing the Milky Way over Mount Hood. This view is across Laurance Lake, on the north side of the mountain:

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Milky Way rising over Laurance Lake and Mount Hood

[click here for a large image]

The glow on the opposite side of the lake is a campfire at the Kinnikinnick Campground, and was just a lucky addition to the scene. While we waited for the Milky Way to appear, there were several campers arriving, making for some interesting photo captures. With a 30-second exposure set for stars, this image also captures the path of a car driving along the south side of the lake to the campground:

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Headlights and campfires in a Laurance Lake time exposure

My tour guide and instructor that evening was Hood River Photographer Brian Chambers, who I profiled in this WyEast Blog article in June. Thanks for a great trip, Brian!

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The author with Brian Chambers somewhere under the Milky Way

So, if you’re looking to support the blog and Mount Hood National Park campaign or just have an ugly fridge to cover, you can order the new calendar on Zazzle.

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…and finally, given the unusual events in our recent national election, some reflections on what it might mean for Mount Hood and the Gorge…

Post-election deju vu: back to the future..?

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Viewed through the lens of protecting public lands and the environment, the presidential election results on November 8 are discouraging, at best. For those of us who have voted in a few elections, it feels a lot like the Reagan Revolution of 1980.

So, the following is a bit of speculation on what lies ahead based upon what we’ve been through before, but with the caveat that unlike that earlier populist surge against government, the environmental agenda of the coming Trump administration is somewhat less clear and appears less ideologically driven.

Ronald Reagan’s vision for government brought a very specific mission to dismantle environmental regulations and open up public lands to commercial interests. To carry out the mission, President Reagan appointed the highly controversial James Watt to head the Department of Interior, and the nearly as controversial Anne Gorsuch to run the EPA. John Block was tapped to head of the Department of Agriculture (which oversees the U.S. Forest Service). Watt and Gorsuch were attorneys, Block a farmer who had entered politics as an agriculture administrator in the State of Illinois.

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James Watt’s radical vision for our public lands threatened to derail Ronald Reagan in his first term

Watt and Gorsuch became infamous for their open disdain for conservationists and the agencies they were appointed to administer. Watt was the Reagan administration’s sympathetic gesture to the original Sagebrush Rebellion. Block focused primarily on an ideological rollback of farm subsidies and programs that dated to the Dust Bowl, and that would eventually be his downfall.

The important lesson is that all three rode in with a “revolution” mandate, and over-reached in their zeal to rewrite American policy overnight. The blowback was instant, and though they did harm our conservation legacy during their embattled tenures, they didn’t have the lasting impact many had feared. Both Watt and Gorsuch were forced to resign before the end of President Reagan’s first term, and Block resigned in the first year of Reagan’s second term.

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Even Readers Digest covered the EPA Superfund scandal that drove Anne Gorsuch out of office!

Gorsuch was eventually pushed out by Reagan for attempting to conceal EPA Superfund files from Congress as part of an unfolding scandal, becoming the first agency head to be cited for contempt of Congress. Before the scandal drove her from office, Gorsuch became Anne Gorsuch Burford when she married James Burford, Reagan’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) chief, further fueling concern about whether environmental protections could be objectively enforced on BLM lands.

John Block lasted five years, but was pushed out in early 1986 as the worst farm crisis since the Great Depression unfolded under his tenure. Watt left in more spectacular fashion after stating (apparently a joke) that an ideally balanced advisory panel would include ”a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” (and in the age of Google, he has been deservedly forgotten, with the more consequential James Watt – inventor of the steam engine – reclaiming his name in history).

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Bloom County has some fun with Oregon’s Rajneeshee saga… and Ronald Reagan’s failed cabinet appointees

Will history repeat itself? We’ll see, but there is no reason to assume that the conservation community – and, importantly, the American public – will be any less motivated to speak out if the Trump administration attempts a similar rollback on public land and environmental protections to what the Reagan Administration attempted.

Yes, there will be lost ground, but there will also be unexpected gains. That’s our system. Recall that the same President Reagan who brought James Watt to the national stage also signed the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area Act into law thirty years ago, on November 17, 1986 (famously “holding his nose”, in his words). In his first term, President Reagan signed the Oregon Wilderness Act into law on June 26, 1984, creating 22 new wilderness areas covering more than 800,000 acres.

As President Obama said in his reflection on the election, “democracy is messy”. He also reminded the president-elect that our system of governance is more cruise ship than canoe, and that turning it around is a slow and difficult process, no matter what “mandate” you might claim. That is by design, of course.

…and the WyEast Blog in 2017..?

Looking ahead toward 2017, I hope to keep up my current pace of WyEast Blog articles as I also continue my efforts as board president for Trailkeepers of Oregon, among other pursuits. And spend time on the trail, of course!

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The author somewhere in Oregon’s next national park…

As always, thanks for reading the blog, and especially for the kind and thoughtful comments many of you have posted over the years. The blog is more magazine than forum, but I do enjoy hearing different perspectives and reactions to the articles.

Despite the election shocker this year, I’ve never felt better about Mount Hood and the Gorge someday getting the recognition (and Park Service stewardship) they deserve! That’s because of a passionate new generation of conservations are becoming more involved in the direction of our nation and our public land legacy. The 2016 election seems to have accelerated the passion this new generation of stewards brings to the fight.

Our future is in very good hands, indeed.

 See you on the trail in 2017!

 Tom Kloster | Wy’East Blog

 

Warren Falls: A Postscript (Part 1 of 2)

November 27, 2016
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Warren Falls lives! Well, on a few days each year, after heavy rainfall…

The campaign to restore Warren Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is over, at least for now.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is putting the final touches on the latest section of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, from Starvation Creek to Lindsey Creek (more on that in part two of this article), and undoing their diversion tunnel at Warren Falls was not part of the deal.

While Warren Creek now has an especially handsome bridge on the new state trail, the dry cliffs of beautiful Warren Falls (below) will continue to be a ghostly testament to the arrogance and carelessness of our modern age – except on those rare stormy days each winter when the falls briefly reappears (above).

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Warren Falls as it exists most of the time… for now…

Restoring the falls would have been the perfect companion to the HCRH State Trail project, itself an epic restoration project. Samuel Lancaster would surely have approved, too. It was a once in a century opportunity to do the work while heavy equipment was right in front of the falls. But if fighting City Hall is an uphill battle, then the castle walls at ODOT are still more foreboding.

The agency isn’t a monolith. There was encouragement and support from sympathetic professionals at ODOT along the way, albeit plenty of opposition from others. In the end, the agency formerly known only as the Oregon Highway Department revealed its roots, reluctant to step beyond its narrow right-of-way.

And yet the Historic Highway State Trail project, itself, is a bold step forward from simply building highways, and one the agency has been truly committed to. Thus, I’m hopeful about ODOT’s future, and the new state trail has much for us to be proud of.

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So very close… but not this time…

[click here for a larger view]

Perhaps most disappointing is ODOT’s lack of ownership and sense of responsibility for a stream diversion project that today would be considered a crime against nature. Even when Warren Creek was diverted and the falls destroyed in 1939, it was jarringly at odds with the vision and reverence for the landscape of Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway, and should have sent up red flags for the Highway Department.

Still more astonishing was learning during the course of this project that none other than Conde McCullough – engineering deity to many as the designer of Oregon’s most treasured highway bridges of the 1920s and 30s – signed off on the diversion project while serving as chief engineer!

Worse, we also learned along the way that it was completely illegal to destroy the falls, even back in 1939, as revealed in this article on the blog.  Oregon wasn’t a very big place back then, so it’s hard to believe the law protecting the falls went unnoticed at the time… but the truth on that point will likely never be known.

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Warren Falls flows briefly in 2015

Perhaps the greatest irony in the Warren Falls saga is that the original diversion project was designed to protect one the bridges on Sam Lancaster’s famous new road – by destroying one of the more spectacular waterfalls along the route. Lancaster died in March 1941, so it’s doubtful that he was even aware of the project as it moved forward in 1939. Let’s hope so, anyway.

Today, the crumbling diversion dam and tunnel are still listed as “assets” by ODOT, but are really just orphans, and now all but forgotten by the agency for the foreseeable future. Short of Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD) taking on the decommissioning as part of some sort of larger Warren Creek restoration project, the most likely outcome is continued deterioration of the diversion structure until nature finally reclaims it.

So, the campaign to restore Warren Falls is over… or is it?

Postscript… and premonition?

After years of attending meetings, writing letters, giving tours to all manner of advocates and officials and even a segment on OPB’s “Oregon Field Guide”, there weren’t many stones left to turn in coaxing ODOT to bring Warren Falls back to its original glory. On the surface, there’s very little to show for the effort.

But is that really true? It depends on how you define victory.

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OPB crew at Warren Falls in 2012

Yes, in the immediate future ODOT will continue to treat Warren Creek like a glorified storm culvert, and the former Warren Falls will continue to be a depository for “trash” (what the original engineers called the rock and woody debris we now know are essential to a stream health) separated from the creek’s flow. That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity for the agency to show that it has evolved from its “Highway Department” past.

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OPB crew above Warren Falls in 2012

But over the past five years, tens of thousands of people have learned the story of Warren Falls thanks to the OPB coverage, thousands more have viewed the WyEast Blog stories here and on the Restore Warren Falls Facebook page, and hundreds have visited the falls site, with more making the side trip each year to pay homage to what once was – and will be, again.

Until they see the silent cliffs where Warren Falls once flowed, most of these visitors have no idea that today’s Hole-in-the-Wall Falls is simply a man-made attraction that came at the cost of destroying Warren Falls. Armed with the history of Warren Falls, few who visit can view it as anything less than an environmental tragedy.

So, despite losing this round, Warren Falls has a lot of new friends, and a lot of people who love the Gorge have gained a better understanding of the lasting cost of “progress” and the chore of undoing our handiwork, even in places we seek to protect most.

Which brings me to…

(Not so) Secrets of the Monkey Wrench Gang…

Oh, how I wish I could share all of the schemes for liberating Warren Falls that have come my way over the past five years! They range from temporary performance art to more permanent alterations that would probably be illegal… if any governing entities were actually concerned about the fate of Warren Falls.

Still more surprising is the range of Monkey-Wrench-Gang-wannabes who proposed taking the restoration of Warren Falls into their own hands: you’ll just have to use your imagination, but some were rather prominent folks who left me speechless with their audacious plans.

So, I’ll share a few highlights, with the strict caveat from the WyEast Blog Legal Department:

NONE OF THESE ACTIVITIES APPEARS TO BE LEGAL, at least not without prior permission from the OPRD or ODOT (and good luck with that, by the way), and therefore the following DOES NOT CONDONE OR ENDORSE these ideas in any way!

Whew. Okay, well one of the most popular schemes is to roll plastic tarps over the giant “trash rack” that forms the screen over the Warren diversion tunnel. This would allow the pristine waters of Warren Creek to ride a plastic liner above the tunnel and over the natural falls. Sort of a giant slippery-slide, but with a real surprise at the end!

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The massive “trash rack” that turned Warren Falls dry in 1939

Someday (on my deathbed, or possibly at the dedication of a restored Warren Falls?) I may reveal an especially prominent individual who personally pitched a version of the slippery slide to me – truly, one of the more unexpected twists in this five-year saga!

Most versions of the slippery slide focused on getting a really good look at what an unaltered Warren Falls looked like via a temporary restoration. But Warren Creek gets pretty wild and wooly in winter, so this would likely be a very brief restoration.

There’s also the question of what would happen to the tarps, once swept away, as there is a lot of potential for adding more man-made junk to an already defaced stream (assuming the tarps didn’t get hung up on the cliffs or left hanging form the outflow to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls).

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OPB’s Michael Bendixen filming the “trash rack” above the brink of Warren Falls in 2012

Others suggested (WyEast Blog Legal Department repeat notice: not condoning this!) speeding up the “weathering” process that has already begun to expose and compromise the steel beams that form the “trash rack” at the top of the falls.

It turns out that in just the ten years since I’ve been advocating to restore the falls, this part of the diversion has shown noticeable deterioration, and seems to be speeding up. It turns out the top of the “trash rack” is the weakest point in the design, and is steadily unraveling. So, I’m not sure Mother Nature needs much help at this point, despite the enthusiastic volunteers out there.

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OPB’s Michael Bendixen on top of the “trash rack” that rests on a cobble dam that is gradually eroding away

These photos show the vulnerability of the steel “trash rack” beams where the mortar that once fully embedded them above the diversion tunnel has been significantly compromised since 1939 by the relentless flow Warren Creek:

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A closer look at the lip of the “trash rack” showing the masonry cap on the cobble dam

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The masonry cap has worn thin where it anchors the top of the “trash rack” and a small garden flourishes where debris has clogged the giant grate

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Creative types see an opportunity to speed up the demise of the “trash rack” where these steel beams are almost freed from the concrete cap by weathering

The motive for speeding up the release of the beams varies among schemes and schemers.

One version is to allow enough stream material to pass under the protective “trash rack” to plug up the surprisingly narrow diversion tunnel leading to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls. Which is just 60” in diameter. This is probably what Mother Nature has in mind, though it may take awhile.

Another angle on speeding up the weathering at the top of the steel beams is to allow larger debris (logs, large rocks) to wedge between the beams, thus acting as levers to literally tear it apart with hydraulic pressure during high stream flow. To a large extent, this is already happening, as at least half the rack is plugged with smaller cobbles that are twisting and bending the steel beams with the effects of freeze and thaw during the winter months.

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Vince Patton from Oregon Field Guide inspecting the access vault on the west end of the “trash rack”

At least one Warren Falls fan spotted the open vault above the west end of the diversion structure and suggested diverting the creek into this hole (WyEast Blog Legal Department reprise: this is not an endorsement! Plus, you might fall into a tunnel that spit out as a man-made waterfall!), where it could move debris large enough to plug the bypass tunnel. I’m not positive, but I think solid basalt prevents this from happening – either through creative monkey-wrenching or courtesy Mother Nature. But I was impressed at the attention to detail from those who love Warren Falls!

As much as I enjoyed hearing these inspired pitches for a DIY restoration of Warren Falls, one of the reasons I advocated for removing the “trash rack” structure and filling the bypass tunnel in an orderly way was to avoid having a bunch of steel debris entombed at the lip of this beautiful falls. I’d still much prefer a thoughtful decommissioning of the diversion over a disorganized mess – whether triggered by humans or nature.

We owe it to future generations to do this right. And who knows, we may still get the chance!

What the Future Holds: Warren’s Cousins

Short of an unforeseen intervention, the restoration of Warren Falls by forces of nature will take awhile. But it turns out that Warren Falls has some similarly trod-upon cousins in the area who have suffered flagrant abuse, then been abandoned to recover on their own.

The good news: in all cases, nature is winning… albeit, very slowly.

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White River Falls needlessly goes dry each summer, thanks to a derelict Pacific Power diversion that sends the river around the falls (visible dropping in on the right).

A spectacular example is White River Falls, located in a state park by that name on the east side of Mount Hood. The falls is just upstream from the confluence of the White River with the Deschutes River.

More than a century ago, the Wasco Milling Company diverted much of the falls to a giant pipeline that fed a powerhouse downstream. Energy from the powerhouse was transmitted to The Dalles. Wasco Milling later sold the plant to Pacific Power, and it was finally shut down in 1960, when the land was transferred to the state of Oregon.

Pacific Power left quite a mess behind. The abandoned power plant, numerous pipelines and the diversion dam all still survive on state park land today. During high runoff in winter and spring the diversion channel is overwhelmed, and the former glory of White River Falls is on display. But by late summer, the entire flow is still diverted into the bypass channel, tumbling around the falls where the diversion pipe once existed.

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The derelict diversion channel at White River Falls

In this way, the situation at White River is not unlike present-day Hole-in-the-Wall Falls burping out of the Warren Falls bypass tunnel where it once connected to a flume that carried the creek over the old highway and to the Columbia River.

And like Warren Falls, the bypass channel “falls” at White River is a sad, ugly duckling compared to the magnificent original falls. But while there is no plan to formally decommission the diversion at White River Falls, the approach to the diversion dam is increasingly clogged with silt and debris, and should eventually fail, finally closing the chapter on the Wasco Milling Company era.

A few years ago, I reported on a now-scrapped scheme by Wasco County officials to reboot the White River generating plant, proving once again the wise words of John Muir: “Nothing dollarable is safe.” Even in an Oregon state park, it turns out.

A closer cousin to Warren Falls is popular Bridal Veil Falls, located at the far west end of the Columbia Gorge. Though few of the thousands of visitors who hike to the base of Bridal Veil Falls each year can even imagine what this spot looked like just a few decades ago, it was one of the most heavily degraded areas in the Gorge.

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The lower tier of famous Bridal Veil Falls was altered for mill operations! Who knew?

The mill town of Bridal Veil was once located just 100 yards below the falls, though the town is now nothing more than concrete foundations and rusted cables covered in moss and undergrowth. In this eastward view (below) from the early 1900s, today’s Bridal Veil exit from I-84 to Multnomah Falls would be located near the buildings at the far end of the mill town.

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The mill town of Bridal Veil in the early 1900s

The pile of rough-cut timber in the foreground marks the terminus of log flumes that fed the Bridal Veil mill. At least three timber flumes carried logs and rough lumber to the mill from the slopes of Larch Mountain. One flume closely followed Bridal Veil Creek with the kind of roller coaster ride theme park “log rides” have tried to replicate ever since.

In the scene below (from about 1900) the audacious scale of the flume is evident as it courses down the canyon, about a mile above Bridal Veil Falls, and just below Middle Bridal Veil Falls. The area had already been heavily logged by this time and the stream was viewed as nothing more than a steady water source and convenient path for moving old-growth timber to the mill.

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The main flume followed a ravaged Bridal Veil canyon to the mill

This view (below) of the converging flumes coming into the mill site conceals Bridal Veil Falls, which is located directly beneath the flumes. Today’s trail to the falls would have travelled under all three flumes where they converge in this scene.

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Flumes over Bridal Veil Falls (the falls is located directly below the flumes)

Bridal Veil Falls not only had a trio of log flumes passing overhead, the falls itself was also modified by the mill, presumably to carry water to the mill (though this is just my own speculation – I’d love to hear from mill historians who know more about this!)

The photo below shows the falls in the late 1800s, just before the lower tier had been raised about 15 feet, creating a pool below the upper tier and allowing for a diversion structure (?) to presumably carry a piped portion of the creek to the nearby mill.

During periods of low water today, you can still see parts of the diversion structure at Bridal Veil Falls poking from the water (below).

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Lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls as it exists today

Here are detailed views of the diversion structure that raised the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls to what we see today:

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A closer look at what seems to be a cobble dam that raised the height of the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls…

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…and a still closer look…

This rare view from the early 1900s shows the diversion structure already in ruins or perhaps under construction? In either case, its purpose only lasted a short period, and in this way the falls is a kindred spirit to Warren Falls, where the short-lived diversion functioned for barely a decade before becoming obsolete and abandoned.

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The cobble dam shortly after construction… or perhaps after it was abandoned?

Today, there are still a lot of concrete and steel reminders of the mill town, though they’re often hidden in plain sight, under layers of rust, moss and ferns. For example, this view (below) of the stream below Bridal Veil Falls reveals a “boulder” that is actually a concrete footing and an intake pipe for one of the mill ponds.

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Mill relics hiding under moss at Bridal Veil Falls

Other large waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were impacted by the mill operation, but have recovered dramatically in the decades since the mill finally closed in the 1960s. Here are then-and-now photos of Middle and Upper Bridal Veil Falls:

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[click here for a larger version]

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[click here for a larger version]

In more recent years, stolen automobiles have periodically been pushed from the cliffs along historic Palmer Mill Road into Bridal Veil canyon. Some of these dumped vehicles have been pulled from the canyon, but others are too difficult to reach, and are slowly fading into the forest.

While they have undoubtedly released engine fluids into the creek and have plastic parts that will last for decades, nature and Bridal Veil Creek are nonetheless making short work of the rest of these vehicles.

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Moss and ferns consuming a dumped Hyundai Santa Fe just above Upper Bridal Veil Falls (photo courtesy Jamen Lee)

Unlike Warren Falls, the waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were never completely diverted from their natural streambed, yet the overall impact of logging and milling at Bridal Veil had a much larger impact on the larger watershed than anything Warren Creek endured. The fact that Mother Nature has consumed most of what wasn’t salvaged when the flumes were pulled from Bridal Veil canyon in the mid-1900s is an inspiration for the ongoing recovery of Warren Falls.

In time, all traces of our impact on the environment really can heal – provided we allow it to happen. Responsibly cleaning up after ourselves would be a more noble path, of course, but at least nature seems to forgive us in time… so far.

Warren Falls Lives!

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False alarm! Horsetail does look a lot like Warren Falls, though…

A few weeks ago, the local waterfall hunting community had a brief moment of excitement when a vintage 1918 film seemed to include a rare view of Warren Falls! But after looking more closely at the images, it turned out to be Horsetail Falls in very low flow. So, the hunt for a photograph of Warren Falls before the 1939 diversion project continues.

But the similarity was real, so the following is a rough guess of what we might see – and perhaps, sooner than we think: Warren Falls flowing again, returning its amazing amphitheater to mossy green, as the diversion structure continues to crumble into history.

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For waterfall devotees, this is Horsetail Falls superimposed on Warren’s dry cliff with the reversed base of Dry Creek Falls providing the foreground.

[click here for a large version]

Of course, we already know what a small amount of flow over Warren Falls looks like during high runoff events, as shown in previous photos in this article. What we don’t know is what the full force of Warren Creek might look like coming over this 120-foot escarpment, and especially what it might do with 77 years of accumulated stream debris piled at the base of the natural falls.

We have a pretty good idea, though, based on recent dam removals around the Pacific Northwest. It turns out that streams are surprisingly quick to redistribute accumulated debris and restore themselves to their natural stream state, as we’ve seen with dam removals on the Hood, Little Sandy and White Salmon rivers.

Today, Warren Creek below falls has been reduced to ditch, radically moved by ODOT from its former channel in the 1950s and devoid of the rocks and woody debris essential to a healthy stream since 1939, thanks to the “trash rack”.

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Add some rocks and logs to lower Warren Creek and it might look like this someday

[click here for a large version]

When Warren Falls returns, the huge pile of stream debris will begin to move downstream, and the debris-starved lower section of Warren Creek will develop the pools and eddies necessary for salmon and steelhead to spawn, as imagined above.

The good news is that the new HCRH State Trail passes high and wide over Warren Creek, ensuring that the creek can evolve back to a natural state in the future without a redux of the 1930s highway impacts that led to the diversion of Warren Falls.

When will Warren Falls return? Not just now… but perhaps sooner than we think.

Meanwhile, we wait… and watch.

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(Part two of this article will focus on a review of the newly completed Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail segment from Starvation Creek to Wonder Creek, and passing Warren Falls)

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 To revisit the complete history of the Restore Warren Falls project, here are earlier WyEast blog articles on the subject:

 An Overdue Warren Falls Update (and a bombshell!)

“Warren Falls Lives… Again?”

Warren Falls Solutions

“Warren Falls, we’re ready for your closeup…”

 Warren Falls Mystery… Solved!

Restoring Warren Creek Falls

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Warren Falls on Oregon Field Guide

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Restore Warren Falls on Facebook!

 

 

 

Dollar Lake Fire: Five Years After

October 22, 2016
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The Dollar Lake Fire from Bald Butte in August 2011

In 2006, the Bluegrass Fire raced along Bluegrass Ridge, torching the subalpine forests above Elk Meadows on Mount Hood’s east flank. In 2008, the Gnarl Fire burned a much larger swath of the east slope, from just above Elk Meadows to the Eliot Branch canyon, nearly destroying century-old Cloud Cap Inn, Snowshoe Lodge and the historic structures at nearby Tilly Jane Campground. Heroic efforts by Forest Service firefighters spared these priceless jewels of Mount Hood’s history, with the fire burning within a few yards of these old structures.

In August 2011, the Dollar Lake Fire was the third in a string of major fires that would ravage the slopes of Mount Hood in a period of just five years, this time burning the north slopes of the mountain. Lightning started the Dollar Fire started on a weekend, just below the popular Elk Cove trail and was immediately reported by hikers in the area.

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The Dollar Lake Fire burning below Elk Cove

The Dollar Fire soon erupted to become one of the most fiercely fought and carefully documented fires in recent memory as it swept to the west, eventually threatening Bonneville Power Administration transmission lines at Lolo Pass and the nearby Bull Run Watershed, source of Portland’s drinking water.

The fire wasn’t fully contained until the end of September of that year, eventually burning more than 6,200 acres of forest (maps and photos of the fire can still be viewed on the InciWeb interagency website).

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Flare-up in the Dollar Lake Fire in August 2011

Firefighting efforts were initially slow to arrive at the Dollar Fire, and some (including the media and members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation) accused the Forest Service of purposely allowing the fire to grow because it was inside the Mount Hood Wilderness where it didn’t threaten areas open to commercial logging. But a subsequent investigation pointed to overstretched firefighting resources, a growing problem as the federal land agencies struggle to fund the spiraling forest fire phenomena across the west.

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Location of the Dollar Lake and Gnarl fires

 [click here for a large map]

By the time fall rains arrived, the fire had burned almost the entire north slope of Mount Hood, a 5-mile swath stretching from the Eliot Branch on the east to Cathedral Ridge on the west. Almost all of the burn was subalpine Noble fir forest, though a few old-growth mountain hemlock stands along the Timberline Trail were burned at Elk Cove and Cairn Basin.

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Timeline and extent of the Dollar Lake fire

[click here for a large map]

The eastern extent of the Dollar Burn contained large stands of Western larch, a fire forest species adapted to frequent, low intensity fires. Most of these trees did not appear to survive the fire, however, due to its extreme heat and intensity.

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Ground zero for the Dollar Lake fire is the foreground in these views from the Elk Cove Trail taken before the burn and five years after the fire

 [click here for a large map]

In fact, very few trees survived the fire except along its margins, where a beneficial mosaic burn pattern left standing trees and some undergrowth to help begin the recovery phase. This is the new reality facing our forests, as a century of fire suppression continues to fuel catastrophic fires that completely destroy forest on a massive scale.

Summer 2012: Immediate Aftermath

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Total destruction along Vista Ridge in 2012

The dense network of trails that cross through the Dollar Burn provide a front-row seat to how (and if) our forests recover from catastrophic fires inside a protected wilderness, without human intervention. In the immediate aftermath of the Dollar Fire, the picture was bleak. In the heart of the burn, the forest kill was nearly complete, as even the duff layer on the forest floor was burned away, exposing a thin layer of volcanic soils vulnerable to erosion.

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Blackened trees in 2012, before scorched bark began to peel away

One of the first lessons of the fire was the importance of tree debris in stabilizing the unprotected soil. The living trees in this forest weren’t burned so much as boiled alive as their living cambium layer was superheated beneath their bark. The surprising result in the first season after the fire was scorched bark peeling away to reveal untouched wood underneath.

The piles of peeled bark provided an immediate layer of mulch over the exposed soil, with smaller twigs and limbs also helping to form the beginnings of a new duff layer on the burnt soil.

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Trees inside the burn shed their scorched bark in the first year, helping stabilize exposed soils

The roots of some understory plants in the worst of the burn zone also survived the fire, including huckleberry, beargrass and avalanche lilies. Two years after the fire, seeds blown into the burn began to establish, and the recovery was underway in surprisingly short order. Read more about the initial recovery in this 2012 WyEast Blog article.

2016: Five Years of Recovery

This year marks the five-year anniversary of the fire, and the recovery within the Dollar Burn is in full swing, though it will take a century or more for the area to fully recover – more on that in a moment.

How does the Dollar Burn of today compare to the first summer after the fire? As the July scenes along the Vista Ridge Trail (below) show, the understory is recovering rapidly.

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Comparison of the recovery along the Vista Ridge Trail in 2012 and 2016

In 2012, avalanche lilies sprung from bulbs spared by the heat of the fire, creating striking stripes of white blossoms and bright green foliage where these plants survived. A few beargrass (a close relative of the lily family) also survived, thanks to deep underground roots that escaped the fire. A few scattered huckleberry and other understory shrubs also sprouted from surviving roots in the first summer after the fire.

In recent years, the beargrass and avalanche lily display in the Dollar Burn has become a spectacular attraction for early season hikers on the Vista Rigde Trail as these fire survivors continue flourish and spread in the bright new conditions. Other shrubby survivors, like huckleberry, have also continued to recover, thriving in the bright new conditions created by the fire.

But the story in the last few years of the recovery has been the arrival of new plants in the burn zone, blown in by seed or deposited by wildlife. These include more understory species, but also the first few conifers to take root.

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This trailside log was a favorite resting spot for hikers on the Vista Ridge Trail before the Dollar Fire. Since the fire, hikers still rest here and have begun to polish away the charred surface along the top of the log – presumably with a charcoal backside as their souvenir!

After five years, most of the scorched bark has fallen from the torched trees, and the trunks underneath have bleached from their initial golden shades of newly exposed wood to weathered silver and gray shades of a “ghost forest”.

The standing ghost trees still retain a surprising number of their limbs, and perhaps more surprising, very few have toppled in the five years since the fire. This is testament to the fact that the core of these trees didn’t burn. Most will stand for decades before insects and decay finally bring them down.

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These felled Noble fir along Vista Ridge Trail reveal a forest that was more than 300 years old before the fire

A few trees in the burn zone were cut by firefighters in an attempt to create fire lines. Today, these cut stumps provide a look at the age of this forest. While the trees in the Dollar Burn aren’t particularly large by Pacific Northwest standards, they were actually quite old. The cut tree shown above was more than 300 years old and stump below is from a tree that had grown on Vista Ridge for 360 years!

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This ancient Noble fir was 360 years old when it succumbed to the catastrophic Dollar Lake fire

The extreme weather conditions and thin soils make for a hard life for subalpine trees, stunting their relative size compared to lower-elevation forests.

The relatively modest size of these trees compared to their impressive age is another reminder of the vulnerability of our subalpine Noble fir forests that are still being logged commercially. While they continue to be “harvested” in unprotected areas under the premise of sustainability, these trees take centuries to reach a size worthy of commercial cutting, making the “harvest” more like mining than tree farming.

The Pioneers

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Fireweed is the rock star of the pioneer plants species in the burn zone

The understory in the Dollar Burn is noticeably greener just five years after the fire, and a closer look reveals a handful of plant species doing the heavy lifting at this stage in the forest recovery. At the top of the list of pioneer species is fireweed, (described here in the previous article in this blog).

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Fireweed crowding the Vista Ridge Trail in 2016

True to its name, fireweed has evolved to be the first in line to resettle burned or disturbed areas. These plants produce massive quantities of winged seeds that can quickly reach very large areas. They are also hardy perennials with large root systems, so also play an important role in stabilizing exposed soil.

In the Dollar Burn, fireweed has already colonized large areas, creating a spectacular flower displays from mid-summer through fall.

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Showy blooms of Fireweed in late summer on Vista Ridge

Look between the drifts of fireweed and you’ll find other pioneers taking root. One surprising species is the diminutive wild dwarf bramble (sometimes called wild strawberry for its resemblance of its runners and leaves to domestic strawberries). These tiny plants are now found throughout the burn, threading through piles of bark and limbs.

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Wild dwarf bramble growing over charred bark along the Vista Ridge Trail

Huckleberries also continue their comeback, mostly from the surviving roots of established plants that grew before the fire but also as seedlings. In a few spots, the understory was not completely destroyed, and in these areas huckleberry is responding strongly to the bright conditions with abundant berry production.

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Huckleberry seedlings emerging on Vista Ridge

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Huckleberry seedlings growing from the base of a burned snag on Vista Ridge

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Huckleberries that survived the fire are producing abundant berry crops in the suddenly sunny environment in the Dollar Burn

Though they were among the few understory survivors, the recovery of beargrass has been more gradual than expected. Most plants seem to be growing from roots that survived the fire, though the first big bloom of these survivors (and the seeds they produced) only arrived over the past two years.

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Beargrass emerging from surviving roots are just beginning to produce blooms within the burn zone

Clumping grasses have also arrived throughout the burn, as well as the occasional rush in moist, protected pockets.

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Rush growing in a moist hollow on Vista Ridge

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Clumping grasses are taking root in some of the driest areas of the Dollar Burn

Elderberry is among the few woody understory pioneers to arrive in this stage of the Dollar Burn recovery. These plants are scattered widely, growing in less burned areas, and may also be growing from surviving roots.

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This young Elderberry shrub is just getting started in the burn zone in 2016

Conifers are just getting started five years after the Dollar Fire. Almost all of the conifer seedlings at this point in the recovery are Mountain hemlock and Noble fir, the dominant evergreens in Mount Hood’s subalpine forests.

By counting branch tiers, a few young trees as old as four years can be found, but most are one or two year-old seedlings. But if you look closely, there are also many seedlings that have not survived the harsh summers in the burn zone, where there is little shade and the sandy mountain soils are extremely dry by the time rain reappears in the fall.

This is the sorting process at work, where only a few seedlings will survive winter cold, summer heat and competition from understory plants to someday become part of the new forest canopy.

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Young Mountain hemlock in the Dollar Burn in 2016

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Three-year old Noble Fir in the Dollar Burn in 2016

Though most of the Dollar Fire was an overheated catastrophe for the forest, killing almost everything, there are a few spots where the fire cooled and burned in a “mosaic” pattern, leaving a few surviving trees and much of the understory.

These areas are lush islands of life just five years after the fire, underscoring their importance in the recovery and why cooler mosaic burns can be beneficial to the long-term health of a forest. Pioneer species are much more abundant in heavily burned areas that are immediately adjacent to these surviving patches than in other parts of the burn, as plants quickly spread from these islands of green.

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Island of green where the Dollar Lake Fire spared a section of forest that now serves as a nursery for regenerating the burn zone

While the Dollar Burn is recovering at nature’s pace, without human intervention, the Forest Service has given the nearby Gnarl Burn section along Cloud Cap Road a recovery boost by planting conifer seedlings. These trees were planting in 2010, about a year before the Dollar Lake Fire and following commercial removal of burned trees along the historic road.

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Planted conifers in the Gnarl Burn along Cloud Cap Road in 2016

Today, these trees are thriving, and the main effect of replanting is the diversity of species, including lodgepole pine, western larch, Western white pine, Englemann Spruce and even whitebark pine at higher elevations. Noble fir and mountain hemlock do not seem to have been part of the replanting, perhaps because these species are the most likely to recover without human intervention.

The Long View?

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Hazard tree warning at the Vista Ridge trailhead

Hikers on the north side of Mount Hood will continue to have a front-row seat to the forest recovery in the Dollar Burn. Already, there are some surprising lessons.

First, the main victims of blowdown since the fire have often been the few trees that survived the fire intact. This is because of the sudden exposure of their canopy to winter winds and snow loads, and is a surprising blow to the forest recovery these trees would otherwise be helping to seed the burn zone.

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Toppled surviving Noble fir in the burn zone in 2016

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A surviving canopy becomes a liability in a burned forest, as surviving trees along Vista Ridge were tipped by winter storms in 2016

The Dollar Burn generally stayed well below timberline (and the Timberline Trail), leaving most of the alpine zone intact. But where the fire did burn into places like Elk Cove, Eden Park and Cairn Basin, we will also have an opportunity to watch how alpine ecosystems react to fire.

Some of Mount Hood’s most ancient forests grow in this zone, and have presumably survived because they are somewhat isolated from lower-elevation forests and often grow in moister conditions where snowpack is greater and summer days are cooler. But the forest could take centuries to recover in these areas, impacting the many species of plants and wildlife that live exclusively at this elevation.

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It could take centuries for this high-elevation forest of Mountain hemlock and Whitebark pine on Vista Ridge to recover from the fire

In human terms, it’s hard to see forest fire cycles in perspective, but in the case of the Dollar Burn, we have the benefit of early photographs from the area. Forest surveys show that the Red Hill area on the north edge of the Mount Hood Wilderness burned in the early 1900s, and were barely recovering by the 1950s (see below).

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The view from Owl Point in 1952 and 2016 shows the cycle of fire on Mount Hood’s north slope over the past century (top photo courtesy Hood River History Museum)

[Click here for a larger version]

Today, the forest in this northern edge of the wilderness has substantially recovered after a century of regrowth, and now the view is reversed: the silvery ghost forests of the Dollar Fire now mark the once-green slopes of Mount Hood as viewed from Owl Point, while green forests and beargrass meadows cover the former Red Hill burn in the foreground.

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Looking down on the Dollar Burn and Owl Point in the distance from the Timberline Trail in 2016

So far, so good, but the larger question in an era of climate change is whether our forests will continue to recover from catastrophic fire – or logging – in the way that we have always assumed they will.

As the recovery unfolds in the Dollar Lake, Gnarl and Blue Ridge burns on Mount Hood we’ll learn how resilient our forests really are, and hopefully make better decisions in protecting them for the benefit of future generations.