Hand-tinted view of the Shepperd’s Dell bridge and the Columbia River circa 1920s
Serendipity was at work after I posted this recent article on the venerable old Douglas fir that grows at the east end of the historic Shepperd’s Dell Bridge. First, I’ll share some great comments on the article from readers that shed more light on the story of the big fir. Reader Rosemary Shepperd Guttridge writes:
“I use that tree as an indication of age of photo. My photo by Weister has the top in the tree. A slightly newer photo by Kinsey with a date of 1925, the top is out.”
Rosemary is George Shepperd’s great, great-granddaughter and keeper of the Shepperd family history. You can read my 2014 interview with her and see some of Rosemary’s rare photos of Shepperd family history in this article:
Reader Jerry King shared this fascinating bit of history:
“Labor Day weekend in 2017 wasn’t this tree’s only threat. In the summer of 2016, my wife and I were westbound approaching the fir when smoke came up out of the canyon! We parked after crossing the bridge and saw flames crawling up the east bank (north of the bridge). I quickly called 911 and then began the 26-minute wait for the first Corbett Fire truck to arrive. Flames came within 20’ of the grand old fir!”
Jerry’s account raises the question of whether this earlier fire might have actually saved the big fir by burning some of the accumulated fuel and brush on the slope beneath the tree before the big fire swept through in 2017?
On the same day that Rosemary and Jerry posted their comments on the article, a couple of historic postcards I had bid on arrived in the mail. Both were of Shepperd’s Dell, and both are new images to my ever-growing collection of old photos and postcards. The first is the hand-tinted image at the top of this article. You can view a large version here:
What sets this image apart from the many Shepperd’s Dell postcards I’ve collected is the wide view that includes the Columbia River, Sand Island and the pasture land in the floodplain that has now reverted to forests, meadows – and a freeway, of course.
The second image (below) is even more unusual, so I will dissect this one a bit for some of the stories it tells. This is the full image, shot (somewhat impossibly) from the steep cliff at the west end of the Shepperd’s Dell bridge. It features a parade of touring automobiles coming across the bridge, and visitors parked at the east end pullout, as well. Like the first image, it also shows the Columbia River and Sand Island in the distance.
Traffic jam on Shepperd’s Dell bridge in the early days of the historic highway
Photographers back in the day hauled around large format cameras and even larger tripods to capture these photos – a testament to the photographer who staked out this image. There’s good reason why this view is rare!
A closer look at the three vehicles on the bridge (below) suggests that, while this was a well-planned image, it probably wasn’t staged. Only the woman in the middle of the backseat in the first vehicle is looking up at the photographer, and cars still stack up like this on the bridge today as tourists take in the amazing views of Shepperd’s Dell, no prompting required. Given the popularity of auto touring in the early 1900s, it’s likely the historic highway looked like this on any given sunny, summer afternoon (and I’m basing that on the tops down on the cars and shadows showing the sun moving toward the west horizon).
Well, at least SOMEBODY spotted the photographer on the cliff above the bridge! (…the woman looking up from the backseat of the first car)
This photo was taken between 1914 and 1917, and there are surely some auto buffs out there who can identify the makes and years of the vehicles in this image to me, too. While I’m definitely not an auto buff, I did notice that two of the three (!) vehicles on the bridge have their steering wheels on the right side of the car – not unusual at the time, as left-side steering only because predominant with the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908.
A closer look (below) at the pullout at the east end of the bridge reveals a scene with all manner of activity. Several cars are parked or stopped, with visitors walking onto the bridge for views of the river and Shepperd’s Dell waterfalls – just as we do today. Two children are playing under the big fir – perhaps picking up its fallen cones? The big tree is already impressive in this view, too – at least 3 feet in diameter more than a century ago.
Lots going on at the east end of the bridge (and below the big fir) in this scene!
The scene beyond the pullout, directly under Bishops Cap, really caught my eye. There are several people walking about in the middle of the road and what looks to be a car stopped in the middle of the road. That would be hair raising on this blind corner today, and it probably was back then, too! It is this part of the scene, along with the overall level of activity, that makes me think this photo was captured when the historic Columbia River Highway was dedicated in June 1916.
How did I narrow the image on this card to between 1914 and 1917? The message on the back is key (below), as the postmark confirms the date, and that it was sent from Portland. The Shepperd’s Dell bridge was completed in 1914, and thus this image was captured sometime during that period. The postmark means this card was sent almost exactly one year after the highway was formally dedicated.
1917 Message on the reverse of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge postcard.
As postmarked postcards go, this one is a real gem. The sender (“Margaret”) not only dated her message, she also describes her “grand trip” along the road pictured on the front of the card – surprisingly few postcards contain messages that speak to the image on the front We can only guess who young Eliott might be in relation to the sender, only that he “is a mighty good boy and wishes to be remember to Aunt Elizabeth.”
Yes, it still is a “grand trip”, Margaret!
Out of curiosity, I looked up Miss Elizabeth’s address and it turns out to be an impressive, turreted townhome (below, with red doors), now part of the Moreland Street Historic District in south Boston. Margaret and Elizabeth would be shocked at the changes both Portland and Boston have seen over the past century, for sure.
Meanwhile, the scene at Shepperd’s Dell remains largely the same as it appears in this old postcard. Even the big fir survives. We should be proud of that, as it didn’t happen by accident – beginning with George Shepperd donating his dell to the public in 1915, and later, federal protection of the Gorge as a national scenic area and restoration of the historic Columbia River Highway.
The lovely townhome in Boston where Aunt Elizabeth lived in 1917 still stands!
Reading century-old postcard messages like this always makes me wonder just what bits of ephemera from our time might even survive to be looked upon a century from now as a glimpse into how we lived. I think about this when I write these articles and post the images into a digital ether, to be stored on servers 1,000 miles away, then temporarily viewed on computer screens and electronic gadgets.
Paradoxically, the same digital era technology that reduces our words and memories to electrons also allowed me to find an old postcard sent to Massachusetts a century ago and bring it back home to Oregon.
I’m not sure there are any lessons here… just a reminder to go write a few postcards!
1920s postcard view of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge and its iconic Douglas fir (colorized for this article)
A reader reached out a few weeks ago with a question about “that big fir tree at Shepperd’s Dell, and as it turned out, I had been working on an article on that very subject! The tree in question is unmistakable: it stands near the east end of the iconic Shepperd’s Dell Bridge, perhaps the most recognizable of the many graceful bridges along the Historic Columbia River Highway.
The big tree is a Douglas fir, Oregon’s official state tree, and it has been growing here since well before this section of the historic highway was constructed in 1914. The tree grows in a protected hollow, surrounded on three sides by basalt cliffs. George Shepperd, the local farmer who donated what is today’s Shepperd’s Dell State Natural Area to become a park, walked under the tree with his family on their regular visits to visit the waterfalls at Shepperd’s Dell from their farm, located just to the east. Today, countless visitors admire it from the shady wayside at the east end of the bridge.
1910s view of the west approach to Shepperd’s Dell with the big fir rising in front of Bishops Cap
Early photos of the new Shepperd’s Dell Bridge taken in the late 1910s (above) show the tree prominently framing the rock outcrop known as Bishops Cap, more than a century ago. At the time, the tree was large enough to easily be 60-70 years old, though it still had the symetrical shape of a relatively youthful tree.
The image below shows the 1910s scene in reverse, from atop Bishops Cap, with the big Douglas fir standing out in the foreground and a few early motorists parked along the opposite side of the highway.
1910s view looking west from the top of Bishops Cap toward Shepperd’s Dell Bridge, with early motorists and the big fir front and center at the east end of the bridge
This hand-colored postcard (below) from the 1930s features Bishops Cap, and the big Douglas fir is especially prominent in this view. The construction of Historic Columbia River Highway was famously designed to blend with nature and follow the contours of the land, but that still required road engineer Samuel Lancaster to do some fairly heavy blasting and grading to complete the scenic route. At Shepperd’s Dell, he graded the slope above the big fir, but clearly took care to protect the tree from fill debris, likely extending its life for another century.
1930s hand-tinted postcard view of Bishops Cap with the big fir prominently featured to the left
Here’s another hand-tinted 1930s postcard view (below) from the west end of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge showing Bishops Cap and the big fir. When I first came across this image, I assumed that a fair amount of artist’s license was used to create the scene, since it appears to be from a point in space, where a vertical cliff drops directly below the historic highway.
1930s hand-tinted postcard view of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge and the big fir in the upper left
However, I eventually came across the 1920s era photo (below) that the previous, hand-tinted image was created from. It turns out the photographer was part mountain goat and managed to capture the scene from a vertical slope below the old highway! As in the hand-tinted view, the big Douglas fir rises beyond the bridge, on the left.
This is the 1920s photograph that the previous hand-tinted scene was based upon, with the big fir in the upper left
This 1910s view (below) is perhaps the most popular of the early images of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge. It appeared in both its black and white original form and in colorized versions on countless postcards and in souvenir folios that were popular with early motorists visiting the Gorge. At the time this photo was taken, many sections of the new highway were still unpaved, including the section at Shepperd’s Dell.
This is perhaps the most popular 1920s postcard view of Shepperd’s Dell Bridge, with the big fir on the left
Over the century since Samuel Lancaster built his iconic highway through the area, the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell has thrived, as shown in this pair of images (below). The arrows provide reference points on Bishops Cap that helps underscore just how much the old fir has grown in just over century when viewed from the same spot at the west end of Shepperd’s Dell Bridge.
A century passed between these views, but the big fir remains and has grown noticeably larger — the 2021 view is somewhat wider than the 1920s view to fully capture the big fir!
In the 1920s view, the top of the big fir was visually just a big higher than the top of Bishops Cap. By 2021, the tree had not only added some 50 feet to its height, it had also spread out and formed a more rounded crown that is typical for mature Douglas fir. The upper arrow in the 2021 image points to what was the approximate top of the tree in the 1920s. The spread of the tree is noticeable in the 2021 image, as well, as it now obscures part of Bishops Cap from this perspective.
The big fir at Shepperd’s Dell after the fire..?
The charred base of the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell in 2018, one year after the fire
Today, the Shepperd’s Dell fir remains a familiar feature to those stopping at the wayside, a true survivor that stands out from the surrounding forest. Its stout trunk is much larger than other trees in the area, and there has always been a bit of a mystery about a plank attached to the tree and metal cable that disappears into the canopy (I won’t attempt to solve that in this article!). So, when Eagle Creek Fire swept through the Gorge and reached Shepperd’s Dell over Labor Day weekend in 2017, the fate of this old tree was on my mind.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it was clear that the big tree hadn’t crowned (meaning the fire hadn’t engulfed the entire tree), but a significant part of the crown had been scorched and the bark at the base of the tree was badly blackened. The understory around the tree was completely burned away, so it was clear the fire had burned hot when it swept through. Because the fire occurred toward the end of the growing season, when conifers are becoming dormant with the approach of winter, it was impossible to know if the living cambium layers under the big fir’s thick bark had been destroyed by the heat of the burn. That would have to wait until the next spring, when the stress of producing new growth would test the its ability to survive.
By the fall of 2018 — one year after the fire – the situation was discouraging. The old tree had put out very little new growth on its remaining green limbs in its first growing season after the fire. And while it retained many of its surviving limbs over the course of that year’s summer drought, many had dropped their needles and died back (below), leaving the tree with less than half its canopy intact. Still, it had managed to survive the first year following the fire.
Looking up at the badly scorched canopy of the big fir in 2018, one year after the fire
The group of younger Douglas fir around the big tree didn’t fare as well. Some had been immediately killed by the fire, while others that survived the initial blaze seemed to have lost too much living canopy to recover from the fire (below). During that first summer, the combined loss of green canopy and stress from the annual drought season was too much for many of these trees to survive their first year after the fire.
The scorched big fir and its smaller companions in 2018, one year after the fire
As the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell entered its second winter season after the fire in 2018-19, it wasn’t looking good at all. It has put on almost no new growth that year, and the annual needle drop that fall left even more blackened, bare limbs exposed.
Worse, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) was cutting down what it deemed to be hazard trees along the historic highway in the wake of the fire. This included scores of trees around Shepperd’s Dell, some of them living trees that were impacted by the fire, but still surviving. Its haggard appearance at the time (below) put the big fir at great risk of being defined a “hazard” by highway crews, but thankfully, it was spared from the chainsaws.
The Shepperd’s Dell fir in 2019… with less than half its canopy intact, the old tree was still hanging on…
Then, in the spring of 2019, the big fir pushed out a modest flush of new growth on its surviving limbs in its second season of growth following the fire. It wasn’t much, but it did signal that the tree was finally starting to rebound from the fire. It was no longer losing ground in its recovery.
As the spring of 2020 unfolded, our world seemed to stop as the COVID pandemic swept the globe, but for the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell, things were clearly looking up. The tree put on another flush of new growth in its third year following the fire, then another flush of new growth followed in the spring of 2021. While we hunkered down in the pandemic, the big fir was making its comeback (below).
The big fir makes a comeback: three growing seasons between these images show significant recovery of the crown and middle canopy
Looking up into the canopy in 2021, the change in just three years of gradual recovery is dramatic (below). The big fir has been rebuilding its living canopy and thereby restoring its ability to actively grow, once again. Surprisingly, some of the new growth was also emerging from limbs that seemed to have been lost in that first year after the fire, but apparently had just enough living cambium layer left to allow new growth to emerge through the blackened bark.
Looking up into the recovering canopy of the big fir in late 2021
Today, the future of the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell seems much brighter. Its recovery is remarkable, considering how many of its neighbors were lost to the fire (below). But that’s no accident. Our largest conifers — Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine and Western Larch — typically drop their lower limbs as they grow. This adaption focuses growth at the top of their canopies, where they can absorb the most sunlight, but it also helps protect their living crowns when fires sweep through by denying a “ladder” of lower limbs that allow fire to climb up the tree to the main canopy.
Low intensity fires reinforce this adaptation, with the lowest limbs of moderately burned trees often succumbing to the fire, even as the tree survives, placing its crown still further above the reach of future moderate intensity burns. These “cool” fires are beneficial, helping thin the forest, remove accumulated fuel, invigorate the leafy understory and allow the largest trees to live on to continue anchoring the forest. Combined with thick, fire-resistant bark, these big conifer species define the “fire forests” along the east slopes of the Cascades, where fire is an essential part of the ecosystem, though Douglas Fir grows throughout the Cascades.
The big fir survives! But some of its companions did not…
While some of the area burned in the 2017 Eagle Creek fire fit the definition of “beneficial”, vast areas burned far too hot for any trees to survive, requiring whole ecosystems to restart from bare soil, and in turn, exposing bare soil to serious erosion. Today, modern forest management is increasingly embracing prescribed burns with moderately hot fires to mimic the frequent beneficial burns that were common before modern fire suppression began in the early 1900s. While still controversial for the risk that prescribed burns can potentially bring to rural property, their overwhelming benefit to the forest and role in preventing catastrophic fires is unquestionable.
Look closely at the burn patterns following the Eagle Creek Fire, and you will also see big conifers growing in moist canyons or shaded north-facing slopes were more likely to survive the fire. This has to do with the timing of the blaze. When the fire swept through over Labor Day weekend in 2017, Oregon’s forests were at their most stressed point in the growing season, with several months of drought and hot weather drying trees out and making their extremely vulnerable to fire.
Yet, trees with better access to moisture during the annual drought cycle are able to stay fully hydrated, and are much less vulnerable to the intense heat of a forest fire. This is also why some of our largest trees are found where summer moisture is available. Look at the bark on many of these trees, and you are likely to see ancient burn marks, often from multiple fires that these trees have survived over their long lives. As our forests cope with a changing, warming climate, these conditions favorable to survival will become increasingly important if we hope to continue to have big trees in our forests.
Aerial view of Shepperd’s Dell from 2019 showing the historic highway curving gracefully around the shaded hollow holding the big fir (ODOT image)
What does the future hold for the big fir at Shepperd’s Dell? In the near future, this old tree suddenly has less competition for water and nutrients from nearby trees that succumbed to the fire. For the longer term, it enjoys an excellent location for survival, growing in a shaded, moist bowl surrounded by protective cliffs that buffer it from the seemingly perpetual Columbia Gorge winds.
Douglas fir can live for centuries, and there’s no reason this old tree can’t outlive every human being walking on the planet today – and their children and grandchildren, too! Its most lethal threat is probably us. So, hopefully we will continue to give it the respect and space to grow that Sam Lancaster provided with his curving highway design more than a century ago, allowing many future generations to marvel at this old survivor, just as we do.
Previous WyEast Blog articles on the remarkable George Shepperd:
If you have followed this blog for a while, then you know I gather up my best WyEast images each year and publish them in the Mount Hood National Park Campaign Scenic Calendar. They are available online, and all proceeds from the calendars go the Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), a non-profit trail advocacy and stewardship organization that I’ve volunteered with since TKO formed, way back in 2007.
I’ll post more on how to order the 2022 calendar at the end of this article. But first, here’s a preview of the images, along with a few stories behind the photos.
The January image (below) and cover shot (top) in the new calendar were taken on the same magical evening at Lolo Pass, just a few weeks ago. The clouds framing the mountain were condensing right above me on this clear, cold evening, as they often do here, when moist Pacific air is compressed as it pushes over Lolo Pass on Mount Hood’s northwest shoulder. In winter, this geographic phenomenon can create a localized freezing-fog event at Lolo Pass, though it might be sunny and dry for miles in every direction!
January features Mount Hood alpengow from Lolo Pass
I’ve spent many evenings at Lolo Pass photographing alpenglow on the mountain under these conditions, and the fun (or frustration!) comes with the mountain peeking through the clouds, then quickly disappearing, once again. Because the prime evening light lasts for only a few minutes, those moments when the clouds suddenly part to reveal alpenglow on the mountain are a real thrill for photographers. On this evening, I was joined by another photographer, and we both cheered when the clouds opening up to reveal not just the mountain, but also the moonrise appearing over his shoulder! The moment was over after just a few seconds, but it is captured in the cover photo for this year’s calendar. It was the also the last time WyEast revealed himself on that memorable evening.
For February, I chose an image of Cedar Island, a botanical anomaly located in the heart of the Deschutes River canyon. This article from earlier this year tells the story of this odd group of Incense Cedar trees mysteriously growing far outside their normal range and habitat and somehow thriving in the middle of desert country, thanks to a confluence of unique conditions.
February features mysterious Cedar Island in the Deschutes River Canyon
These trees are truly oddities, but as described in the article, they’re also doing quite well. They have now established a satellite colony on the shoreline opposite the island, where a combination of shade and underground springs has allowed them to thrive. You can visit this grove by following the Deschutes River access road north from Sherars Falls for a few miles, just beyond Beavertail Campground.
As the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire begins to fade into our collective memory, and the post-fire recovery of the Columbia River Gorge continues to unfold, there are plenty of surprises. Perhaps most startling are the twin cliff collapses at Metlako Falls and nearby Punch Bowl Falls, along Eagle Creek. The Metlako overlook collapse occurred about nine months before the fire, but the Punch Bowl Falls event followed the burn. Some speculate the latter event was triggered by changes in runoff and the water table resulting from the burned forest. It’s an intriguing theory, though we may never really know for sure. What is certain is that both events are part of the ongoing evolution of the Gorge landscape, though we tend to think of it as static.
A similar collapse on a much larger scale occurred at nearby Tanner Creek in 1973, temporarily damming the creek and forming a lake that persisted for several years. The March calendar image features Wahclella Falls (below), framed by house-sized boulders that mark the many cliff collapses that have occurred here over the millennia.
March features Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek
The Eagle Creek Fire burned lightly in the lower section of the Tanner Creek canyon, sparing many of the big, old trees here. However, the story in the upper Tanner Creek canyon is starkly different, with much of the overstory completely killed. Though just four years have passed since the fire, hundreds of logs from trees burned upstream have already collected in the side channel just below Wahclella Falls (below), forming a huge log jam that spilled onto the trail! Volunteers from TKO had to saw a path through the debris to reopen the trail in the winter of 2020-21.
What will the post-fire future bring to Tanner Creek and Eagle Creek? A LOT more logs, that much is certain. Some logs will make it downstream to the lowest stretches of the Tanner Creek, where biologists once placed logs and boulders in an attempt to improve salmon habitat. Now, the Eagle Creek fire is about to provide a major assist in that work by delivering a lot more logs in coming years.
Panoramic view of the new log jam below Wahclella Falls
The logs in Tanner Creek (and other major streams in the Gorge affected by the fire) may be new to us, but they are really just a return to what used to be, before fire suppression, when the Gorge was much less forested and the streams were filled with a lot more logs. That’s good news for the health of the forest and the endangered salmon and steelhead that rely on log-filled streams to spawn, as well as wildlife that depend on a forest with a mosaic of old growth forests, recovering forests and open patches created by fire.
For April, I chose a somewhat deceptive image from a spot called Fairbanks Gap (below), in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. One deception comes from the fact that Interstate-84 is not only out of sight, but also out of hearing range from this spot, despite being directly below the cliffs that frame the gap. Another is that this scene is on private land, and thus a reminder that without the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area protections, a lot more places like this would have vacation homes (or worse) constructed on them. Instead, this remains a working cattle ranch – though I hope someday it will make its way into public ownership for permanent protection.
April features Fairbanks Gap and the east Columbia River Gorge
You can follow a nice backroad loop past the Fairbanks Gap by taking Fifteenmile Road out of The Dalles, and turning sharply uphill onto gravel (and signed) Old Moody Road at the rural crossroad community of Fairbanks (which features a lovely one-room schoolhouse). From here, Old Moody Road climbs to the gap, then traverses high bluffs above the Columbia River, with many spectacular views, before descending to Deschutes State Park, along I-84. My favorite time to visit this area is in late spring, when wildflowers line the old roads, and the eastern Gorge is verdant green.
The May image also features the eastern Gorge, this time at Rowena Plateau during the annual wildflower show. Yellow-flowered Arrowleaf balsamroot and blue-blossomed Lupine are the showy stars here, but the plateau is home to dozens of wildflower species, some found only in this part of the Gorge.
May features Rowena Plateau (and the town of Lyle, across the river)
In recent years, Rowena Plateau and the trail to McCall Point have been “discovered”, and the place is often crowded with adoring visitors. To address some of the impacts of all those feet on the trails, TKO has been working on some realignments and repairs to the McCall Point trail, with an eye toward improving the grades and drainage in a way that makes the trails more resilient to both weather and boots.
The Nature Conservancy owns much of Rowena Plateau, and continues to allow visitors to their preserve. This is a real gift for the public to enjoy, and while the vast majority come to enjoy (and revere) the scenery, big crowds inevitably mean a few thoughtless people. So, while I was frustrated to see tagging on a boulder along the lower part of the McCall Point trail on this trip, I also wasn’t surprised.
Tagging on a boulder on Rowena Plateau – a growing scourge in the Gorge
Tagging has become a problem throughout WyEast country, and especially in the Gorge. It’s especially frustrating at Rowena, where a private non-profit has shown the generosity of allowing us to visit their preserve. We probably can’t stop tagging, but you can support the Nature Conservancy of Oregon with a donation for the excellent work they are doing in the Gorge.
Our early and unusually warm spring this year came on the heels of an excellent snowpack, and that translated into heavy runoff and an impressive scene at White River Falls State Park, in the desert country east of Mount Hood. The June calendar image features a raging White River Falls (below), framed with bright green Cottonwood trees. The park encompasses the two-tiered main falls and a lesser-known lower falls, along with the fascinating ruins of a turn-of-the-20th Century hydroelectric project that once powered The Dalles.
June features White River Falls during spring runoff season
Only photographers would notice this aesthetic improvement to the main falls overlook – but sometime over the past years, a pair of long-dead Cottonwoods that partly blocked the view finally collapsed… or were perhaps were removed by park officials? The latter explanation is quite plausible, as the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has stepped up their efforts to maintain this somewhat remote park, including buttoning up the historic powerhouse, where vandals had covered some of the walls with tagging and damaged some of the old machinery.
Snaggy former view of White River Falls… these dead trees are gone!
In the years I’ve spent visiting this little park, it has gone from very obscure to quite popular, and even the boot path to the once little-known lower falls is now well-worn. In a coming article, I’ll post some trail concepts for improving some of these boot paths and adding new trails to better manage some of the human impacts as visitation continues to grow.
Lower White River Falls and Gorge
For July, I chose an image from a favorite spot along the Cooper Spur Trail, overlooking the mighty Eliot Glacier, largest of Mount Hood’s glaciers. Our long spring and record-setting summer heat were hard on Mount Hood’s glaciers, and by late summer the Eliot Glacier was looking especially beleaguered. This image (below) was captured in late September, after an early snow had given the glacier a new coat of white, and the annual summer melting had finally slowed for the year.
July features the still-magnificent Eliot Glacier
As I was shooting this image of the mountain and the Eliot Glacier, I spotted a mountain rescue team training at the base of the lower icefall. There was a time not too long ago when the seracs (or ice pinnacles) in the lower icefall with turquoise-blue and a prime ice climbing area.
Climbers training in mountain rescue below the lower Eliot Glacier icefall
But the continued retreat of the Eliot Glacier has now moved the firn line above the lower icefall in recent years, and the seracs are now dark with glacial till and rock. The firn line is where a glacier is losing more ice than it is gaining, so as the glacier recedes the firn line gradually moves higher.
This is pair of images (below) that I’ve taken over the past decade from this spot, and I post them not to make readers feel sad or discouraged, but rather, to underscore the sense of urgency we all must feel in our collective response to global warming.
The Eliot Glacier has receded markedly over just the past decade
The accelerated Eliot Glacier retreat over the past two decades has had all sort of impacts, but near the top of the list of concerns is the impact on downstream fisheries that depend on cold, dependable runoff from the glacier. A more visible impact has been the deep erosion and periodic floods and debris flows that have reshaped the Eliot Branch canyon, below the glacier.
Though I know both the science and politics are challenging, I’m hopeful that we’ll find a path toward a worldwide shift away from carbon pollution in my lifetime. Future generations may not see the Eliot Glacier as I once knew it, but hopefully there will be a smaller Eliot Glacier they can stand in awe of, still tumbling down the slopes of Mount Hood.
At the opposite end of the glacial spectrum, the August calendar image features the icy stream that flows from Mount Hood’s tiniest living glacier, the tenacious Glisan Glacier, located high on the northwest shoulder of the mountain. For some reason, this glacial outflow was never given a proper name by early mountain explorers, despite many smaller streams on the mountain being named. The oversight is a bit of a mystery, as there were several well-documented trips to this side of the mountain in the early 1920s and 1930s by the Mazamas for the very purpose of mapping and naming the features here.
August features “Glisan Creek”, the glacial outflow from the tiny Glisan Glacier
As a default, many call this “Glisan Creek”. That’s not a bad option, since there’s a good chance the glacier, itself, will fall victim to global warming in coming decades, and only the creek will remain. The Glisan Glacier was named for prominent Portlander Rodney Glisan in 1938. Some of the history of all of Mount Hood’s smallest glaciers is included in this earlier article on Mount Hood’s Pint-Size Glaciers.
After an especially long and dry spring and summer in WyEast Country, fall brought early snow and some of the best fall colors in memory to the mountain. The scene below, at the McNeil Tarns, was captured after the first dusting of snow in late September, and it’s also the calendar image for that month in the new calendar.
September features the McNeil Tarns on Mount Hood
This is a well-known spot along the Timberline Trail, as it is located along the approach to popular McNeil Point on the northwest shoulder of the mountain and visited by thousands of hikers each year. While most hikers know of the pair of McNeil tarns located immediately adjacent to the Timberline Trail, few know of the third, lesser-known tarn in this trio. It’s located just off the Mazama Trail (below). Thanks to a dense veil of trailside Huckleberries, Mountain Ash and young Mountain Hemlock, this beautiful tarn is known to surprisingly few, but it is no less lovely than its more popular siblings.
The Mazama Tarn near McNeil Point on Mount Hood
Over the past five years, I’ve posted several articles about Punchbowl Falls Nature Park, the newest public lands in WyEast Country. The new park is the product of determined volunteers at Thrive! Hood River and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), and features a surprising abundance of forest types, river scenes and waterfalls. Dead Point Falls (the October calendar image, below) is among the park highlights, especially in fall when Bigleaf Maple, Vine Maple, Western Dogwood and Oregon White Oak light up the surrounding forest in shades of orange, yellow and red.
October features Dead Point Falls and the West Fork Hood River
Meanwhile, higher up on the mountain, beautiful Heather Canyon on Mount Hood’s southeast flank is especially lovely in fall, when Huckleberry and Mountain Ash turn the canyon into a brilliant watercolor of orange and yellow. Lower Heather Creek Falls (below) is the featured image for November in the new calendar.
November features Heather Creek on the southeast slopes of Mount Hood
There are a couple ways to hike into Heather Canyon, but I always opt for the Newton Creek Trail approach, mostly to avoid walking through the Mount Hood Meadows ski resort. In the coming year, I hope to post a long-planned article with a somewhat radical proposal for rethinking Mount Hood Meadows – something we should all be considering as climate change threatens to put ski resorts as we know them out of business in coming years.
Anyone visiting Lookout Mountain on Mount Hood’s east side has probably noticed this beautifully framed view from Lookout Mountain Road (below), and I chose it for the December image in the new calendar. If the conditions are right, early snow on the mountain appears just as the Western Larch trees are turning to yellow and gold, and such was the case this year!
December features Mount Hood framed by Western Larch
I’ve photographed this spot too many times to count over the years and I’ve always thought of it as a scene only hikers knew about. However, a couple of days after capturing the calendar image, I was walking through my neighborhood grocery store and did a double take when I saw the scene on the cover of a nationally marketed calendar!
This looks vaguely familiar…
The photographer (and I’m not sure who it is) captured a less snowy version of Mount Hood, though it remains a beautiful image, and it’s great to see this lesser-known view of the mountain in wide publication.
Finally, the back cover of the new calendar features wildflower highlights from around WyEast country, ranging from the elegant Mount Hood Lily and Pacific Rhododendron to our state flower, the Oregon Grape (below).
The back cover of the calendar features a selection of wildflowers
There you have it! If you’d like to purchase a calendar, it’s easy to order direct from Zazzle:
Each page in the calendar measures 11×14 inches (or 22×14” unfolded on the wall) and I’ve designed this as a functioning calendar, with date squares that you can actually write in! Zazzle prints these with exceptional quality and ships them carefully packaged with a backer board and moisture seal.
For another week or so, the calendars will sell for $29.75, but after December 20 that price will bump up to $34.95, with the additional five dollars of markup also going to directly to TKO, bringing the total to about $10 from each calendar to TKO for the great work they do. Zazzle typically ships these within a few days of ordering, and I usually receive orders within about 10 days.
Thanks for reading this far, and as always, thanks for visiting the blog – I hope to see you here and on the trail in the coming year!
Forests of Noble fir forests spread out to the horizon along the crest of Waucoma Ridge, just north of Mount Hood (Mount Adams in the distance)
We’re coming into another holiday season when millions of Americans will set up a Christmas tree cut in Oregon. There’s a good chance it will be a Noble fir, long prized as the most beautiful and durable of Christmas trees, representing about a third of the cut tree industry here.
There was a time when Noble fir grown as holiday trees were left in their natural state, which features elegant tiers of symmetrical branches and soft, deep green, upwardly curving needles. In recent years, Nobles grown for mass-market consumption have increasingly been sheared to produce a densely branched, unnatural thicket (acknowledging my bias, here!) in the same way that Douglas fir have long been cultivated in the Christmas tree trade. Still, the un-sheared Nobles remain the gold standard, and they sell for gold-standard prices at tree lots, too.
New grown emerging on Noble fir boughs
Noble fir cones
In Oregon, families also have the option of cutting their own Christmas trees at U-cut tree farms, a popular benefit of living in a region that produces millions of holiday trees for the nation. It’s also possible to cut your own tree on National Forest land, a tradition that dates back a century or more. Though more regulated today by the U.S. Forest Service, families looking for a more adventurous option than local tree lot can head up to designated areas on the mountain (typically powerline corridors or recovering clear cuts) and bring home their own cut tree.
The author at age 11 (second from left) with family and friends on a 1973 trip to Lolo Pass to cut Christmas trees. Noble fir were always the goal, but in those days of heavier mountain snows, simply reaching the Noble fir zone in December was an adventure!
Christmas trees are pretty much the extent of public knowledge of the noblest of our true firs. As the common name might suggest, noble fir is the largest of all true firs. Their name was given in the fall of 1825 by botanist David Douglas when he ventured into the high country above the Columbia River River Gorge, in the vicinity of today’s Cascade Locks. Though he wasn’t specific about the peak he climbed on the north side of the river, it is believed to be today’s Table Mountain. A few days later, he climbed to a high point on the Oregon side, most likely today’s Benson Plateau.
On this pair of climbs, he came upon magnificent, old-growth stands of Noble fir, and gave them their well-deserved name. While they are undeniably beautiful as young trees, old-growth Noble fir are a sight to behold. Like many of our Pacific Northwest conifers, these trees grow to be giants, with the largest on record reaching nearly 300 feet in height and nearly 10 feet in diameter.
Old-growth Noble fir forests near Mount Hood’s Bennett Pass
An ancient Noble fir giant towers above the surrounding forest canopy near Bennett Pass
Noble fir are also unique to the Pacific Northwest, with a range that extends from just above of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington south to the Siskiyou Mountains in Southern Oregon and the Trinity Alps region along the northern edge of California. In their southern extent, they are known to hybridize with California’s Shasta fir, a variety of the Red fir that grows in the Sierras and extends into the southern fringe of the Noble fir range.
Despite their willingness to grow in planted rows as farmed Christmas tree seedlings in the hot, dry summers of the Willamette Valley floor, Noble fir are a subalpine species. They typically grow at elevations of 3,500 feet to 5,500 feet, where they are long-lived and acclimated to the harsh winters of our mountains. Not surprisingly, they grow more slowly under these conditions, but they are tremendously adaptable, and often grow on very steep mountain slopes and exposed, rocky ridgetops.
Centuries-old Noble fir giant near Bennett Pass
Noble fir is a sun-loving pioneer species in our forests, quickly colonizing in burn areas to form pure, long-lived stands. Hike through one of the towering old-growth stands found in the high country of the Columbia Gorge or on the peaks surrounding Mount Hood, and you’re likely walking through an old burn, with the age of the trees as a good indicator of when fire last roared through, long ago. That’s because they are not only post-fire colonizers, but also highly susceptible to fire as mature trees, as they lack the protective bark of fire-adapted conifers like Ponderosa pine and Western larch.
This cycle of burn-and-rebirth in our Noble fir forests is on full display today on the north slopes of Mount Hood, where the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire burned through sprawling stands of subalpine Noble fir. These forests were almost entirely killed where the fires swept through, yet today, the forest recovery is already well underway, with young Noble fir seedlings leading the way among other post-fire pioneer species.
Ghost forest of Noble fir skeletons where the Dollar Lake Fire swept through a decade ago
Ancient Noble fir killed by the Dollar Lake Fire will provide wildlife habitat for many decades to come as a new forest grows here
Noble fir seedling emerging from the charred ashes of the Dollar Lake Fire
Meanwhile, across the Clear Branch canyon on the north of the mountain, the forests along the crest of Blue Ridge and at Owl Point (along today’s Old Vista Ridge Trail) are made up almost entirely of Noble fir that had colonized an earlier burn there, one that occurred sometime in the early 1900s. This pair of photos (below) from Owl Point shows how the foreground was burned and just beginning to recover in 1952, while 70 years later the scene is reversed: the forests along Blue Ridge and Owl Point have largely recovered, while the north slope of the mountain is just beginning its recovery from the 2011 Dollar lake Fire.
When our Noble fir forests are spared of fire and logging, individual trees can easily live up to 400 years. The oldest known Noble fir have reached 600 to 700 years, though trees of this age are exceedingly rare after more than a century of commercial logging in the Pacific Northwest.
In the early days of extensive logging, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, true firs were considered a lesser wood, so the timber industry marketed the massive, old-growth Noble firs as “Larch”. This explains two Larch Mountains in the Columbia River Gorge, one on each side of the river, and each the site of extensive turn-of-the-century logging in the early 1900s. The better-known Larch Mountain is on the Oregon side, and its broad, high elevation slopes provided a perfect habitat for Noble fir.
Loggers felling a massive Noble fir on Larch Mountain in 1905
By the early 1900s, the Bridal Veil Mill on the Columbia River had established an upstream sister mill in the heart of these Noble fir forests, where the trees were hundreds of years old, having been spared by fire for many centuries. The upstream mill was known as the Palmer Mill (and later, New Palmer Mill, after the first mill burned), and a road on Larch Mountain still carries its name.
Loggers carried giant Noble fir cut on the slopes of Larch Mountain to the New Palmer Mill on logging railroads. This scene is from 1905
Old-growth Noble fir logs were milled at the original Palmer Mill site on the north slope of Larch Mountain. This scene is from 1896, when logging of the virgin Noble fir forests there was in its heyday
Palmer Mill was attached to the main mill by a long flume that followed Bridal Veil Creek, and it was the hub for a massive logging enterprise on Larch Mountain that felled most of the virgin Noble fir forests. Huge logs were first sent to Palmer Mill on a branched system of logging railroad spurs, then milled into rough lumber that was floated down the flume system to the Bridal Veil Mill for finishing into construction grade lumber.
Today, all but a few traces of the Palmer Mill are gone, and many of the Noble fir forests on Larch Mountain are approaching 100 years in age. The area somehow dodged the 2017 Gorge Fire that swept through vast areas of the Gorge, burning through thousands of acres of Noble fir forests in the Gorge high country.
Noble fir in the age of Climate Change
Today, Noble fir country in the western Oregon Cascades is a checkerboard of clear cuts that mark the advent of National Forest logging that began on a commercial scale in the late 1940s. When these trees were cut, the catch phrase used to justify logging ancient forests was “sustained yield”, though sustained yield forestry never envisioned restoring ancient forests to their natural state. Instead, the management philosophy was to provide a continual supply of 60-100 year-old trees from plantations that could be repeatedly logged via a vast network of logging roads built in our forests from the late 1940s through the early 1990s.
When 7.5 minute USGS maps were created in the 1950s and early 60s, there were already thousands of clear cuts on Forest Service lands that showed up on the new maps as a checkboard in heavily logged areas like Mount Hood’s Blue Ridge (shown here). Many more clear cuts followed, and sixty years later, these clear cuts are often overcrowded plantations of conifers that the Forest Service is now thinning through new timber sales
Despite the early bias against true firs, the wood produced by Noble fir eventually came to be valued for being light and strong, and was used during World War II in aircraft, as well as more common construction uses in windows, doors and paper production. This led to aggressive logging in the later years of the commercial timber boom of the 1950s-90s, when lower elevation forests had already been logged over, and high-elevation Noble fir forests were increasingly targeted.
The Pacific Crest Trail follows the crest of this ridge near Lolo Pass, where heavily logged, high-elevation Noble fir forests have been slow to recover. These clear cuts are now 40-50 years old, and yet the stunted, crowded young plantation trees are still dwarfed by the groves of big, old-growth trees that were spared the chainsaw
Clearcutting on the steep, mountainous terrain where Noble fir grow was never sustainable, at least as measured in human lifetimes. The big, high elevation Noble fir forests sold off by the Forest Service were often hundreds of years old, with even the smaller-diameter trees well over a century old. There was never a chance to produce a rotating “crop” of trees at these elevations large enough to justify logging for generations to come, but that didn’t slow the rush to log these forests.
Instead, the logging boom finally peaked with the listing of the Spotted Owl and subsequent “timber wars” in the early 1990s, and it has never fully recovered, though some logging on our national forests continues today.
This Noble fir fell across the Timberline Trail recently, and was sawed out by trail crews. While it is only about 15” in diameter, a count of the annual growth rings revealed this tree to be over 160 years old, demonstrating how elevation and mountain conditions slow the growth of these trees
It’s easily to lose perspective on just how old the trees in our mountain forests really are. The above is a timeline of human events that unfolded since this tree took root as a Noble fir seedling on Mount Hood until a windstorm knocked it down in 2020. This tree is approximately 14 inches in diameter and 160 years old.
These stumps near Bennet Pass mark some of the oldest and largest Noble fir ever logged near Mount Hood, with some of these trees approaching 300 years old when they were cut. These stumps look like they might be a couple years old, with bark still intact. In fact, these trees were logged about 30 years ago, yet the Noble fir seedlings growing in this recovering clear cut are barely six feet tall
This is the same stump that appears in the foreground in the previous photo, with approximate dates according to tree rings. When it was cut, it has lived through more than a quarter of the first millennium.
The Bennett Pass clear cut (shown above) might look recent, given the intact condition of the stumps and the young Noble fir trees just getting established. Yet, this forest was cut nearly 30 years ago, as shown in the aerial photo pair (below). Thanks to its high elevation at over 4,000 feet, and resulting slow forest recovery, this logged area is still just beginning to reforest.
After nearly 30 years, this clear cut in an old-growth Noble fir forest near Bennett Pass is only beginning to recover
These examples are typical of logged Noble fir forests throughout the Mount Hood National Forest. They simply haven’t recovered at the pace the Forest Service assumed when logging was still king. Noble fir seedlings in these cut-over areas have often grown very slowly, reaching just 6 or 8 feet in height after 30 or 40 years of post-logging recovery. The slow recovery has also compounded the fragmentation effect on wildlife that depend on uninterrupted old-growth forest habitat.
Today, the Forest Service is grappling with the perfect storm of an aging, overbuilt system of spur roads from the heyday of commercial logging coupled with increasingly catastrophic forest fires resulting from climate change and a century of fire suppression. This is especially true in high-elevation Noble fir country, where clear cut plantations are especially vulnerable to summer drought and fire, and logging roads are impacted by severe winter conditions.
To meet these challenges, along with Congressional quotas for timber production that have always been unsustainable, the Forest Service has pivoted to forest thinning the thickets of young plantation trees in previously logged areas. It’s arguable that this strategy will help restore forests to a healthy state, but sadly, the Forest Service mission isn’t to restore a mature, healthy forest. Their goal is to bring more marketable logs to maturity, the primary management objective for much of Mount Hood National Forest.
Forest thinning operation on Butcher Knife Ridge, north of Mount Hood, where roughly one third of the trees have been removed from a clear cut plantation to encourage a more diverse forest structure
Forest thinning typically produces massive piles of woody debris, as seen here on Blue Ridge, just outside the Mount Hood Wilderness. Logging debris was historically burned as “slash”, though new uses are under development to make better use of this material as we enter the age of widespread forest thinning
The jury is out as to whether forest thinning improves the health of crowded plantations better than simply doing nothing, given the impact of heavy equipment on tree root systems and the forest understory. The science does suggest that thinning can help as a preventative means for reducing forest fire severity, since it removes potential fuel from the forest. The benefit of thinning Noble fir plantations is less clear, however, since the species is already more vulnerable to fire than other conifers, and seldom survives fire.
Noble fir also tolerate crowded conditions better than other conifers, presumably because these trees are so effective at colonizing burns and often form nearly pure stands in the process. Young Noble fir forests often have little understory beyond a carpet of beargrass because the trees are so closely spaced. But these pure stands have also evolved to self-thin over time, maturing to a more open canopy that allows huckleberry, rhododendron and other mountain understory species to thrive among more widely spaced, mature trees. In these forests, young Noble fir are also part of the understory, as the forest canopy continues to regenerate.
The following images show self-thinning in a young (about 80 years old) Noble fir forest on Bald Mountain, along the Timberline Trail. A recent windstorm selectively toppled the weakest among these trees, a timeless process that Noble fir don’t need our help with.
Recent downfall in a young stand of Noble fir on Bald Mountain are part of an ongoing, self-thinning process these trees have evolved for
Recent self-thinning event in a pure Noble fir stand on Bald Mountain. If it doesn’t burn, this protected forest inside the Mount Hood Wilderness will continue to self-thin, becoming an old-growth Noble fir forest in time
With logged high-elevation forests recovering very slowly, and high-elevation spur roads failing especially badly, and the mounting negative impacts of clear cutting, continued logging of our Noble fir forests simply isn’t a sustainable practice. A new management philosophy that centers on forest restoration and climate adaptation over timber extraction is long overdue.
Instead of waiting a century or more to produce marketable Noble fir saw logs, these recovering forests could be sold for credits on the carbon market, using their gradual recovery as carbon offsets for polluting industries. Over the long term, Noble fir have immense capacity for carbon capture and storage. Scientists studying the ancient Noble fir forests at the Goat March Research Natural Area, near Mount St. Helens, have determined this forest to have a biomass second only to the coastal Redwood forests of Northern California.
A mature, thriving Noble fir forest at the 4,000 elevation on Mount Hood, with a diverse mix of mature and younger trees, and a few wildlife snags
Such a shift in Forest Service philosophy would not only help the global response to climate change, it would also yield a host of other benefits that high elevation forests in our region provide – a list that include critical wildlife habitat, cooler and more stable stream runoff for endangered salmon and steelhead and crucial water supplies for nearby communities that depend on mountain snowpack that forests help retain.
Mature Noble fir forest on Mount Hood, with towering old-growth trees mixed with younger trees and a dense understory
Such a shift in focus would also allow for the Forest Service to retire many of its deteriorating logging spur roads, and revenue from the sale of carbon credits could provide needed funding to do the work. Beyond the escalating cost to maintain them, these roads are notorious for triggering landslides and dumping sediments into streams when cut-and-fill roadbeds fail from plugged culverts or landslides. They also represent an increasing hazard in the form of human-caused forest fires and illegal dumping, as some of the worst lawless activity occurs on these remote roads where law enforcement simply cannot have a meaningful presence.
This road decommissioning work has already begun in the Mount Hood National Forest, though only in fits and starts, as it has thus far been driven by declining agency budgets more than an eye toward forest recovery and restoration. A focus on the broader outcomes of climate, water quality and fish habitat could speed up this important work with a new sense of urgency.
Where to see Noble fir
Want to see some of these trees close-up? One of the best and most accessible places is the short trail to Sherrard Point, which is the rocky summit pinnacle of Larch Mountain. The road to the summit picnic area and Sherrard Point trail is gated in the winter, but usually opens by early June. An easy, paved trail and series of stairsteps leads to the viewpoint.
Noble fir giants at sunset in WyEast country
If you’d like a longer hike, the short, steep climb to the summit of Bald Mountain, near Lolo Pass, leads through some of the best old growth Noble fir in the Mount Hood area:
Perhaps the best Noble fir forests in the Cascades are at Goat Marsh, near Mt. St. Helens. A short trail takes you into this fascinating research area and some of the largest known Noble fir trees in the world:
When it comes to bucolic alpine scenes on Mount Hood, it’s hard to beat Elk Cove. From the spectacular wildflower gardens that line ice-cold Cove Creek to the sweeping views of Mount Hood and the mighty Coe Glacier, the cove serves up one postcard scene after another.
But behind the mountain scenery are some very wild winters. The same steep walls that give Elk Cove its alpine beauty are also a setup for powerful avalanches. These mostly originate on the lower slopes of Barrett Spur and sweep across the cove with surprising regularity.
Mount Hood in 1931 from the same spot as the previous photo, when trees were more sparse at Elk Cove
Early photos of Elk Cove suggest that avalanches were once even more devastating than what we experience today, and probably more frequent, judging by the advancing stands of Mountain Hemlock that have since spread across the cove. The change is most likely a reflection of our warming climate and declining snowpack in recent decades, but winter continues to take its toll. Major avalanches still roar into the cove with regularity, leveling trees and leaving piles of debris in their wake.
The shell of the old CCC stone shelter at Elk Cove as it appeared in the early 1960s, after being hit by numerous avalanches over the prior 30 years
When the Timberline Trail was built through Elk Cove in the early 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed one of their many iconic stone shelters here, one of six that were built along the trail. They couldn’t have known the site they picked was perhaps the most exposed to avalanches of any spot within the cove, and by the early 1960s, the shelter had already been badly damaged. Today, only a few rocks mark the shelter’s former location.
The 2021 Elk Cove Avalanche
Sometime last winter, yet another avalanche swept off the lower slopes of Barrett Spur, once again landing very near where the old stone CCC shelter had once stood. The debris field left behind by the avalanche was easily spotted by hikers ascending Barrett Spur over the summer, and it is also visible from the Timberline Trail where it enters the Elk Cove.
The following schematic shows Elk Cove and the path of the 2021 avalanche in relation to Mount Hood:
This schematic gives a more detailed view of Elk Cove and the approximate path of the 2021 avalanche, including the steep wall along Barrett Spur that is so prone to avalanches (the Timberline Trail is shown in dashed yellow):
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
From the ground, the debris field left where the avalanche came to rest is striking. This series of views looking down from 99 Ridge (which forms the west wall of Elk Cove) show where the avalanche stopped, and the debris it left behind:
Mount Hood and the 2021 Elk Cove avalanche site
Closer view of Elk Cove and the avalanche debris field
More detailed view of the avalanche debris field
This detailed view from above gives a sense of scale to the hundreds of trees that were caught up in the avalanche and swept into Elk Cove
The debris comes into view where the Timberline Trail curves into the west meadow of Elk Cove, along beautiful Cove Creek. Most hikers were likely too busy looking at the wildflowers along the trail this summer to notice the pile of logs just around the bend, but for regular visitors, the avalanche debris was startling!
Elk Cove avalanche and Cove Creek from the Timberline Trail
The origin of the avalanche can be read from the orientation of the many trees caught up in the wave of snow and ice, as they generally point in the direction of the flow. The schematic below shows the path the avalanche took into Elk Cove before the snow and debris finally came to a stop last winter:
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
Up close, the awesome power of the avalanche becomes apparent. Whole trees were snapped off and stacked like cordwood in a debris pile as much as 20-foot deep.
The avalanche swept down from the slopes of Barrett Spur (to the right in this view), as indicated by the felled trees pointing to the left, in the direction of the flow
In a typical winter, Elk Cove might have 15-20 feet of snow on the ground, and this snowpack is why small trees on steep mountain slopes are often spared from avalanches, since they are buried under heavy snow in winter. In the view below, the winter snowpack also protected the lush wildflower gardens that line the upper reaches of Cove Creek (seen in the distance), with the avalanche sweeping across these gentle slopes before finally settling on the floor of the cove.
The beautiful wildflower meadows in the upper reaches of Cove Creek were spared from the debris thanks to being on gently sloped terrain and under a blanket of winter snow when the avalanche swept through
Large trees aren’t so fortunate. If they’ve managed to escape avalanches along the base of Barrett Spur long enough to grow taller than the winter snowpack, it’s only luck. In time, most of the taller trees in Elk Cove will be swept away by future avalanches.
This panoramic view of the 2021 avalanche gives a sense of the scale of the event, with the sprawling pile of debris covering roughly 2-3 acres:
By early August, when these photos were taken, it would be easy to think the avalanche was just a pile of trees roaring down the mountain, but in fact, this debris is what’s left now that most of the snow and ice has melted away. Look closely, and you can see that a layer of snow and ice has yet to melt away from under the pile when this photo was taken:
6-10 feet of snow still remains under the debris pile as of early August
The 2021 avalanche dumped part of its debris on top of Cove Creek, but the stream made quick work of the pile over the winter. By summer, it had already melted an extensive tunnel under the mountain of snow, ice and debris (below).
Cove Creek carved this snow cave under the debris pile following the avalanche
The huge pile of snow left in Elk Cove by the avalanche brought another surprise: some of the earliest blooming wildflowers were still just emerging in early August, thanks to the extra snow depth left behind by the avalanche. Among these was Western Pasque Flower, a species of Anemone that blooms within a couple weeks of snowmelt, and therefore rarely see by hikers. In fact, most know this beautiful wildflower by its whimsical seed heads, and by the name “Old Man of the Mountain”. The opening image in this article shows a field of Western Pasque Flower gone to seed.
Normally an early bloomer, this Western Pasque Flower was in bloom in early August, thanks to the late-melting margins of the avalanche debris field
How often to avalanches like this occur at Elk Cove? Probably every winter, though events large enough to topple trees seem to occur every 10 years or so, depending on snowpack and weather conditions. Avalanches are most common in mid-winter, when weak snow layers and heavy snowfalls can cause snow to begin to slide on steep mountain slopes. Once they begin, avalanches can travel nearly 60 miles per hour, giving them the destructive force to level forests and buildings in their path.
Ghosts Hiding in Plain Sight
While the 2021 avalanche at Elk Cove is impressive, it is by no means unusual. A look at aerial photos between 2010 and 2021 shows that another avalanche swept through the same area in about 2015. Based on the orientation of downed trees from his earlier event, it originated on some of the same slopes on Barrett Spur that produced the last winter’s avalanche.
In the air photo comparison, below, the location of the new, 2021 avalanche debris pile is marked in yellow. When the 2010 air photo was taken, the forests at the center of the image were intact, but by the summer of 2016, an avalanche had clearly swept through the area. Based on the lack of reddish/orange debris in the 2016 image – the color of recently killed trees – suggests that this avalanche occurred at least a year earlier. So, for the purpose of this article, I’ve described it as the “2015 Avalanche”, and marked its extend in green.
Air photos show the signs of a roughly 2015 avalanche that swept through the same part of Elk Cove as the 2021 event
In both the 2016 and 2018 views, the path of this earlier avalanche is clearly marked by downed trees that point in the direction (right to left) of the moving snow and ice. Though it impacted a larger area in the cove than the 2021 avalanche, the 2015 event brought less woody debris into the cove, suggesting that it originated on a less forested part of the west wall of Elk Cove. In fact, some of the trees in its path on the floor of the cove survived the avalanche, suggesting that the lack of woody debris in the 2015 event made it somewhat less destructive where it finally came to a stop.
While both of these avalanches are awesome reminders of the power of the elements in alpine country, Elk Cove has a few ghosts from the past that suggest much more fearsome events. Tucked into one of the mature, forested “tree islands” at Elk Cove is a ghost tree that give mute testimony to just how powerful an avalanche on Mount Hood can be. The stump of this ghost tree (below) is nearly four feet in diameter and was toppled many decades ago.
This giant ghost tree at Elk Cove was toppled long ago by a very large avalanche
This old ghost was once a very large Mountain Hemlock before it was toppled. Today, its broken remains could easily be 100 years old, marking an avalanche that might have preceded the arrival of the Timberline Trail and those 1930s CCC crews on Mount Hood.
How do we know this old tree was destroyed by an avalanche? The telltale sign is where the tree was snapped off, marking the level of the winter snowpack when the avalanche swept through, and its top is pointed downslope, in the direction the avalanche was moving. Thanks to long, cold winters and dry summers, the shattered remains of this old tree (and several others like it in the cove) have survived to tell the story.
Since that big avalanche, several good-sized trees have grown up around the old ghost tree, helping put an approximate date of 70-100 years since any avalanche of this scale has swept through the heart of Elk Cove. And though it has been many decades since that event, the days of these younger trees are surely numbered, too, as another epic avalanche in Elk Cove is inevitable.
How to Visit
If you’re an able-bodied hiker, you can visit Elk Cove most easily from the Vista Ridge trailhead. It’s a 9-mile hike round trip, but with well-graded trails and no glacial streams to navigate. If you visit the avalanche debris field, please tread lightly, as the rustic path that once led to the upper reaches of Cove Creek was partly buried with debris, and the surrounding area is covered with a fragile meadow of Western Pasque Flower.
You can find a trail description here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide. Why, you might even know the author of this field guide entry..!
Mount Hood and the White River as it appeared early in the summer of 2020
Mount Hood’s glaciers may be retreating, but if anything, the melting ice and more extreme weather that climate change is bringing to the mountain have only made the streams that emerge from its glaciers that much more volatile.
Glacial streams are inherently intimidating: ice cold and rising dramatically within hours when glacial melting accelerates on hot summer days to become churning river of mud and silt. They can make for terrifying fords for Timberline Trail hikers and wreak havoc on downstream roads and streambanks. But the worst events typically come in fall or late spring, when sudden warming and heavy rain can trigger rapid snowmelt on the mountain, turning these streams into unruly torrents.
Highway 35 was buried under a sea of boulders in the November 2006 White River debris flow (ODOT)
Such was the setting in November 2006, when a warm front with heavy rains pounded the mountain, rapidly melting the first snows of autumn that added to the explosive runoff. The worst damage to infrastructure came from the raging White River and Newton Creek, two glacial streams that emerge from the southeast side of the mountain. The streams also happen to flank the Meadows ski resort, so when both streams effortlessly swept away whole sections of the Mount Hood Loop highway (OR 35), the resort suddenly found itself cut off from the rest of Oregon.
The 2006 floods washed away the bridge approaches and stacked boulders eight feet deep on top of the former White River Bridge (ODOT)
Highway worker posing with a boulder dropped by the White River on the centerline of Highway 35 during the 2006 floods (ODOT)
Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) crews quickly restored temporary access to the resort, but the damage to the highway was profound. Newton Creek had simply swept away the roadbed along an entire section of the highway, while the White River had swept away the bridge approaches on both sides of the concrete span over the stream – then proceeded to pile a collection of boulders on top of the stranded bridge, just for emphasis!
This overflow culvert at the east end of the old bridge approach was overwhelmed in the 2006 flood, as the White River spilled over the top of the highway, instead (ODOT)
Undaunted, the highway engineers at ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration turned to a recently completed 2003 study of design solutions for several flood-prone spot along the Highway 35. From these, a pair of projects totaling $20 million were proposed to finally tame the two streams – a “permanent” fix, as the study described it.
East of the White River, the 2006 floods also sent a torrent of water and debris down Newton and Clark Creeks, erasing sections of Highway 35 near Hood River Meadows (ODOT)
Once again, the plan was to go bigger. For Newton Creek, the now rebuilt highway includes a massive, 30-foot wide, rock-lined flood channel running parallel to the highway, with box culverts periodically spaced to allow floodwaters to cross under the road. For the White River, a series of option were considered, including a tunnel (!) and completely relocating the highway. But in the end, the option of simply replacing the older span with a much larger bridge was selected. The new bridge was completed in 2012.
Options considered in the 2003 study of possible Highway 35 crossings of the White River
The preferred option for the White River also included a second span over Green Apple Creek, a small stream located just east of main crossing, and a feature that would serve as an overflow for the White River. Between the bridges, the new highway crossing is constructed on a high berm of fill, twenty feet above the expanse of sand and boulders that make up the White River floodplain, and berms also support the approaches to both bridges on either side of the floodplain.
When they were completed in 2012, six years after the floods that had swept away sections of the highway, these structures seemed gargantuan compared to the previous incarnation of the highway. Yet, looking down upon the new White River Bridge from higher up on the mountain, it is really nothing more than a speed bump for the raging monster the White River is capable of.
The White River has been moving east for several years. This view is from early summer 2020, when the upstream section of the river had already moved almost to the east canyon wall
For the past decade, the new structures seemed to be working as planned by the highway engineers. The White River continued to meander about in its wide flood channel, as it has for millennia, but it still found its way to the newer, bigger bridge opening. Until last winter, that is.
Sometime during the winter of 2020-21, the river abruptly formed another new channel along the east side of its floodplain, beginning about one mile above the new highway bridge. In recent years, the river had been gradually moving in this direction, including a smaller flood event in the fall of 2020 that spilled debris into the White River West SnoPark. Today’s radically new channel is a continuation of this eastward movement, almost to the east wall of the canyon.
This view from the fall of 2020 followed a debris flow that sent rock and gravel into the White River West SnoPark and set the stage for the big shift in the river’s course that would follow over the coming winter. The river was actively meandering across the latest flow in this view, settling on a new course
The berm in the center of this view was built after the 2006 floods to project the White River West SnoPark parking area (on the right) from future flooding (the White River floodplain is on the left). The fall 2020 debris flow managed to breach the berm, spreading rock and gravel across the southern corner of the parking area (the third car and most distant car in this photo is parked on the debris). The new (and now dry) White River Bridge is in the distance
By the spring of 2021, the White River had completely abandoned the main floodplain and now flows beyond the row of tress in the far distance
Looking downstream from the new White River Bridge in 2021, the former riverbed is now completely dry, with the river now flowing beyond the band of trees on the left
The White River Bridge is only a few years old, but now spans only a dry streambed
This decision to include a second bridge in the new design turned out to be fortuitous over the last winter, at least in the near term. This “overflow” bridge is now the main crossing of the recently relocated White River. Had ODOT opted to simply replace the culverts that once existed here, the river would have easily taken out a section of the berm that supports the highway between the two new bridges, closing the highway, once again. However, the second span is much smaller than the main span, so it is unclear whether the river will continue to cooperate with the highway engineers and stick to this unplanned route.
This view shows the new channel carved by the White River sometime during the winter of 2020-21
The White River carved a 20-foot-deep riverbed through loose floodplain material to form the new channel
The new bridge design included this secondary opening as a backup to the main bridge, though it is now the primary crossing of the relocated White River. The highway slopes downward as it moves east of here, dropping below the elevation of the White River floodplain, and thereby creating the potential for the river to migrate further east, threatening the fill section of the highway in the distance in this view
The channel shifts on the White River might seem to be sudden, but in reality, they are perpetual. The White River (along with the rest of Mount Hood’s glacial streams) bring tremendous loads of rock and silt with them. This has always been the case, with melting glaciers releasing debris caught up in the river of ice, some of it building piles of rock called moraines, and some carried off by the rivers that flow from the glaciers.
In the past few decades, the cycle of glacial erosion has been compounded by the retreat of the glaciers, themselves. All of Mount Hood’s glaciers are rapidly losing ice in the face of a warming climate, and the retreat of larger glaciers like the White River, Eliot, Sandy and Coe leaves behind bare ground once covered in ice.
When this happens, and erosion shifts from slow-moving ice to fast-running water, the amount of debris and water moving down the glacial streams grows dramatically. The following diagram (see below) explains this relationship in the context of the rapidly retreating Eliot Glacier, Mount Hood’s largest body of ice, located on the mountain’s northeast side.
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
Glaciers plow wide, U-shaped valley as they grind away at the mountain, whereas streams cut deep, V-shaped canyons. When glaciers like the Eliot retreat, they expose their u-shaped valleys to stream erosion, and their outflow streams (in this case the Eliot Branch) immediately go to work cutting V-shaped canyons into the soft, newly exposed valley floor, resulting in much more material moving downstream in more volatile events.
In the schematic, the lower part of the Eliot Glacier is somewhat hidden to the casual eye, as it’s covered with rock and glacial till. This is true of most glaciers – the white upper extent marks where they are actively building up more ice with each winter, and the lower, typically debris-covered lower extent is where the ice is actively melting with each season, leaving behind a layer of collected debris that has been carried down in the flowing ice.
The terminus of the glacier in the schematic marks the point where the Eliot Branch flows from the glacier. As the terminus continues to retreat uphill with continued shrinking of the Eliot Glacier, more of the U-shaped glacial valley floor is exposed. At the bottom of the schematic, the floor of the valley has been exposed for long enough to allow the Eliot Branch to already have eroded a sizeable V-shaped canyon in the formerly flat valley. This rapid erosion has fed several debris flows down the Eliot Branch canyon in recent years, including one as recently as this month, abruptly closing the road to Laurance Lake.
The Eliot Branch continues to spread debris flows across its floodplain, burying trees in as much as 20 feet of rock and gravel. This section of the Eliot Branch flooded again earlier this month, closing the only road to Laurance Lake
We’ve seen plenty of examples of this activity around the mountain over the past couple of decades, too. In 2006 the mountain was especially active, with flooding and debris from the Sandy, Eliot, Newton Clark and White River glaciers doing extensive downstream damage to roads – this was the event that removed the highway at the White River and Newton Creek. Smaller events occurred in 1998, as well. In the 2006 event, the Lolo Pass Road was completely removed near Zigzag and the Middle Fork Hood River (which carries the outflow from the Eliot and Coe glaciers) destroyed bridges and roads in several spots.
Even in quieter times, the White River has moved its channel around steadily. That’s because the heavy debris load in the river eventually settles out when it reaches the floodplain, filling the active river channel. This eventually elevates the river to a point where it spills into older channels or even into other lower terrain. Because of the broad width of the White River floodplain at the base of the mountain, this phenomenon has occurred hundreds of times over the millennia, and the river will continue to make these moves indefinitely.
To underscore this point, the 2003 highway study of potential solutions for Highway 35 includes this eye-opening chart that shows just how many times the White River has flooded the highway or overtaken the bridges – nearly 20 events since the highway was first completed in 1925!
[click here for a larger version of this timeline]
Therein lies the folly of trying to force the river into a single 100-foot opening (or even a second overflow opening) on a half-mile wide floodplain. The fact that much of the floodplain is devoid of trees is a visual reminder that the river is in control here, and very active. It has a long history of spreading out and moving around that long precedes our era of roads and automobiles.
But the White River has an added twist in its volatility compared to most of the other glacial streams that flow from Mount Hood. The vast maze of sandy canyons that make up the headwaters of the White River are quite new, geologically speaking – at least as they appear today. This is because of a series of volcanic events in the 1780s known as the Old Maid eruptions covered Mount Hood’s south side with a deep blanket of new volcanic debris. The same gentle south slopes that Timberline Lodge and Government Camp sit on today didn’t exist before those eruptions, just 240 years ago.
The White River Glacier (center) flows from near the crater of Mount Hood, and rests upon soft slopes of rock and ash debris that were created by the Old Maid eruptions of the 1780s. The large rock monolith poking up from the crater (left of center) is Crater Rock, an 800-foot lava dome that formed during the Old Maid eruptions
The Old Maid eruptions created other new features on the mountain – notably, 800-foot Crater Rock, a prominent monolith that was pushed up from the south edge of the crater. Meanwhile, the eruptions also generated lahars, the name given to sudden, massive mudflows that can range from ice cold to boiling, depending on the origin of the event. These flows rushed down the White River, Zigzag and Sandy River valleys, burying whole forests under debris ranging from mud and silt to boulders the size of delivery trucks.
The Old Maid eruptions take their name from Old Maid Flat, located along the Sandy River, where a new forest is still struggling to take hold on top of the volcanic debris, more than two centuries later. At the White River, trees buried by the lahars can be seen in the upper canyon, where the river has cut through the Old Maid eruption debris to reveal the former canyon floor, and trees still lying where they were knocked over (more about those buried forests toward the end of this article).
From high on the rim of the White River canyon, the endless supply of rock and ash from the Old Maid deposits is apparent – along with the impossibly tiny (by comparison) “bigger bridge” over the White River
This telephoto view of the new White River bridge from the same vantage point in the upper White River canyon reveals the structure to be a mere speed bump compared to the scale and power of the White River
For this reason, the White River has an especially unstable headwaters area compared to other glaciers on the mountain, with both glacial retreat and the unstable debris from recent lahars triggering repeated flash floods and debris flows here. That’s why the question of whether the new, bigger and bolder highway bridge over the White River will be washed out is more a question of when. It will be, and in our era of rapid climate change, the answer is probably sooner than later.
Is there a better solution? Perhaps simply acknowledging that the river is perpetually on the move, and designing the road with regular reconstruction in mind, as opposed to somehow finding a grand, permanent solution. That’s at odds with the culture of highway building in this country, as it could mean simply accepting more frequent closures and more modest bridge structures – perhaps structures that could even be moved and reused when the river changes course?
The 2003 Federal Highways study actually acknowledges this reality, even if the brawny, costly designs that were ultimately constructed in 2012 do not:
“It is imperative to remember that geological, meteorological, and hydrological processes that result in debris flows, floods, and rock fall have occurred for millions of years, and will occur for millions of years to come. They are naturally occurring phenomena that with current technology cannot be completely stopped or controlled. Thus, the best that can be hoped for is to minimize the destructive, highway– closing impacts of events at the study sites.” (FHWA Highway 35 Feasibility Study, 2003)
The White River seems to be enjoying its new channel and change of scenery…
In the meantime, the newly relocated White River an awesome sight. We’re so accustomed to bending nature to our will in this modern world that it’s refreshing to see a place where nature has no intention of being fenced in (or channeled, in this case).
Do rivers have a sense of humor or experience joy? As I looked down upon the White River sparkling and splashing down its new channel this summer, it seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the pure freedom of flowing wherever it wants to. It’s yet another reminder that “nature bats last”, and in WyEast country, the mountain – and its rivers — will always have the final word.
For us, it’s that strangely comforting reminder that we’re quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things, despite our attempts to pretend otherwise.
How to visit the White River
If you’re interested in experiencing the living geology of the White River, an easy introduction is to park at the White River West SnoPark area and trailhead, then head up the trail toward the mountain for a quarter mile or so. From here, the river has moved to the far side of the floodplain, but for the adventurous, it’s cross-country walk across sand and boulders to reach the stream. There, you can soak your feet in ice cold, usually milky water and watch the river moving the mountain in real time, pebble-by-pebble. The main trail is almost always within sight, so it would be tough to get lost in the open terrain here.
Look closely – those tan stripes near the bottom of the White River canyon mark the pre-Old Maid eruption slopes of Mount Hood, now buried under ash and debris from the lahars. Several preserved trees that were knocked down by the eruption can be seen along these margins. This viewpoint is along the Timberline Trail, just east of Timberline Lodge.
To see the relocated White River, park at the White River East SnoPark and walk to the east bridge – now the main crossing of the White River. The view upstream includes the top of Mount Hood, but watch out for speeding traffic when crossing the highway!
To see the buried White River forest, you can park at Timberline Lodge and follow the Timberline Trail (which is also the Pacific Crest Trail here) east for about a mile, where the trail drops to the rim of the upper White River canyon. The views here are spectacular, but if you look directly below for a waterfall on the nearest branch of the White River, you’ll also see the reddish-yellow mark of the former valley floor and the bleached remains of several ghost trees buried in the eruptions 240 years ago. Watch your step, here, and stay on the trail – the canyon rim is unstable and actively eroding!
St. Peters Dome rising above the January 13 Bucher Creek debris flow that swept across I-84, killing one person (ODOT)
It seems a world away as we enter yet another summer drought, with record-breaking heat waves and an early wildfire season in WyEast country. Yet, just a few months ago, on January 13th, the tragic story of a Warrendale Resident being swept away in her car by a winter debris flow in the Columbia Gorge filled our local news. The event closed a 10-mile section of I-84 from Ainsworth State Park to Tanner Creek and the area was evacuated after the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning.
Some of the local media coverage also connected the dots, reporting on the long history of dangerous debris flows in this part of the Gorge. This was not a freak tragedy, but rather, a completely predictable event. The well-known hazard zone stretches from Ainsworth State Park on the west to Yeon State Park, five miles to the east, encompassing the hamlets of Dodson and Warrendale in its path. While the steep walls throughout the Gorge are infamous for producing rockfall and landslides, this stretch is notoriously active. Why?
Geoscientists don’t have a particular name for this geologically active area, but the unifying feature is a near-vertical wall that I will call the Nesmith Escarpment for the purpose of this article. The name that comes from Nesmith Point, which has the distinction of being the tallest feature on the Gorge rim, rising nearly 4,000 feet from the banks of Columbia River. The Nesmith Escarpment was largely created by the ancient, catastrophic Missoula Floods that shaped much of what we know as the Columbia River Gorge during the last ice, more than 13,000 years ago. These floods repeatedly scoured the Gorge with torrents hundreds of feet deep, often enough to overtop today’s Crown Point and Rowena Plateau.
Tumalt Creek is the largest of the volatile streams that flow from the towering, over-steepened Gorge walls of the Nesmith Escarpment(ODOT)
As the massive Missoula Floods cut into the slopes below Nesmith Point, the over-steepened terrain began to collapse into the river. It’s a process that continues to this day, gradually expanding the escarpment and leaving behind sheer basalt towers of resistant bedrock along the lower slopes. Of these, St. Peters Dome is the most prominent, along with Rock of Ages and Katanai Rock (the informal name for the impressive monolith that rises just east of St. Peters Dome).
The headwaters of Tumalt Creek flow from the highest walls of the Nesmith Escarpment, where the red, volcanic layers of the Nesmith Volcano that rests on the Gorge rim have been exposed by erosion (ODOT)
Adding to the geologic uniqueness of the Nesmith Escarpment is Nesmith Point, itself. Located at the top of the escarpment, the familiar layer-cake stack of basalt flows that make up so much of the Gorge geology gives way at Nesmith Point to bright red and yellow layers of clay and cinders that reveal the uppermost part of the escarpment to be the remains of a volcano. The northern half of the volcano has been torn away over the millennia by the growing escarpment, leaving a visible cross-section of the volcanic dome. The surviving, southern half of the Nesmith volcano is gently sloping, like other dome volcanoes that line the Oregon side of the Gorge (the familiar peaks of Larch Mountain and Mount Defiance among them).
The result of all this erosion is a 3-mile-long amphitheater of collapsing layers of volcanic debris and basalt walls resting uncomfortably and over-steepened upon ancient sediments at the base of the cliffs that make for a slippery, unstable foundation. Rain, winter freezes and gravity will therefore continue to chip away at the escarpment for millennia.
Over the many centuries since the Missoula Floods, this relentless erosion has built a huge apron of what geoscientists call an “alluvial fan” at the base of the Nesmith Escarpment. This name describes the flood debris that accumulates where canyon streams prone to flash-flooding suddenly reach a valley floor, slowing and depositing debris over time. The resulting layers typically form a broad, gently sloped wedge shaped like a fan. For the purpose of this article, the fan at the base of the Nesmith Escarpment will be referred to as the Nesmith Fan.
(Source: State of Wyoming)
(Source: City of Scottsdale)
One of the defining features of an alluvial fan is the erratic, constantly shifting course of the streams that create them. Because of their shallow slope and the accumulation of debris, these streams continually change course as they spread their loads of rock and gravel on the fan.
If the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan were located in a desert environment, these defining features would be exposed and easy to see. But in the forested western Gorge, the dense rainforest vegetation quickly covers debris flows with new growth, often within five or ten years, making it hard to recognize how active the geology really is. It’s therefore easy to understand why settlements like Dodson and Warrendale were built upon on the Nesmith Fan, where the fertile ground and gentle terrain were friendly to farming and home sites. The spectacular cliffs of the Nesmith Escarpment simply provided a beautiful backdrop for these communities. Yet, it’s also an increasingly hazardous place for anyone to live.
The image below shows the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan in a way that wasn’t possible until LIDAR technology was developed. LIDAR allows highly detailed images of topography even in areas like the Gorge, where dense forests cover the terrain. The LIDAR view shows the steep walls of the escarpment in stark relief, including the hundreds of steep ravines that have formed along the escarpment.
Lidar view of the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan
The LIDAR view also reveals the alluvial deposits that make up the Nesmith Fan to be a series of hundreds (or even thousands) of overlapping debris flows from the roughly dozen streams that flow from the Nesmith Escarpment, each helping to gradually build the enormous alluvial fan. The wrinkled surface of the fan reveals the hundreds of flood channels that have developed over the millennia as countless debris flows have swept down from the cliffs above.
This view (looking east toward Dodson from Ainsworth State Park) shows the vulnerability of I-84 and the Union Pacific Railroad where they cross the 3-mile-wide expanse of the Nesmith Fan. The 2021 debris flows and flooding damage to the Ainsworth interchange can be seen at the center of the photo, where the interstate was temporary closed by the event (ODOT)
During the very wet winter of 1996, a series of major debris flow roared down from the Nesmith Escarpment, sweeping cars off I-84 and closing the freeway for several days. A train on the Union Pacific line was knocked off its tracks and many home were damaged.
During the event, debris from Leavens Creek, near St. Peters Dome, swept toward the Dodson area, eventually engulfing the Royse house, which was located near the Ainsworth interchange. The scene was shocking, burying the home in debris that rose to the second floor and destroying outbuildings on the Royse farm. You can read Carol Royse’s riveting account of the event on Portland State researcher Kenneth Cruikshank’s excellent web page describing the 1996 debris flows here.
The Royse House in Dodson (with St. Peters Dome beyond) after a series of debris flows on Leavens Creek engulfed the structure in 1996 (The Oregonian)
The Royse home stood half-buried and visible from the freeway for many years, becoming a prominent reminder of the power of the Gorge. By the mid-2000s, a new forest of Red alder and Cottonwood had already enveloped the debris path and the Royse home, eventually obscuring it from view until the Eagle Creek Fire destroyed both the structure and newly established forest in 2017.
The more recent debris flows in January of this year struck some of the same spots that were impacted in the 1996 and 2001 events. The Tumalt Creek drainage was once again very active, sending debris onto I-84 and closing the freeway. To the west, the Leavens and Bucher creek drainages also sent debris onto the highway and the site of the former Royse home.
As jarring as these changes are to us, this cycle of destruction, rebirth and more destruction has unfolded hundreds of times on the Nesmith Fan. It’s simply part of the ongoing evolution of the landscape.
How do they start?
Debris flows are a mud and rock version of an snow avalanche. They typically begin with oversaturated soils on steep terrain that suddenly liquifies from its own weight. Once it begins to move, the flow can incorporate still more oversaturated soil as it gathers speed, just as a snow avalanche triggers downslope snow to move. The steepness of the terrain is a key factor in how fast a debris flow can move, and on very steep slopes they can reach as much as 100 miles per hour, though they typically slow as the debris reaches the base of the slope and spreads out to form alluvial fans.
These towering twin cascades where Bucher Creek originates along the Nesmith Escarpment rival Multnomah Falls in height. The impossibly steep terrain here is the source of both the debris and sudden flash floods that have helped build the Nesmith Fan, far below (ODOT)
A heavy rain event can also trigger a debris flow by creating stream flooding that erodes and undermines stream banks, causing debris to slide from canyon walls. This form of debris flow is common in the larger canyons in the Columbia Gorge, but less so on the Nesmith Escarpment, where most of the streams are small and only flow seasonally. Here, it’s the steepness of the slopes and the unstable geology that makes the area so prone to debris flows.
Debris flows are different from landslides. A debris flow is typically quite liquid and fast moving, like cake batter being poured into pan. Landslides are typically slow, with a large mass sliding as a whole, like an omelet sliding from a skillet onto a plate. In the Gorge, landslides are common and mostly occur where the underlying geology is oversaturated and allows the overlying terrain to move. The upper walls of the Nesmith Escarpment are scared by hundreds of landslides, and in the right conditions, these slide can trigger debris flows that spread far beyond the landslide.
What about fires and logging?
A third trigger for debris flows is the sudden removal of the forest overstory. The big trees in our Pacific Northwest forests capture and hold a tremendous amount of rain on their surfaces that never reaches the ground, with some of the moisture directly absorbed by the trees and much of it simply evaporating. Clear cut logging removes this buffer, allowing much more precipitation to suddenly reach the soil, triggering erosion, landslides and debris flows.
Logging roads are especially impactful by cutting into the soil profile on steep slopes and allowing runoff to infiltrate under the soil layer and destabilized soils. This is well-documented as a source of major landslides in heavily logged areas. Thankfully, most of the forested western end of the Gorge is protected from logging, including the Nesmith Escarpment (though early white settlers logged these areas of the Gorge extensively)
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire has not only destabilized steep slopes throughout the burn by killing the protective forest cover, it also revealed the tortured landscape of braided flood channels on the Nesmith Fan once hidden under dense vegetation. This image from just after the fire shows a volunteer trail crew scouting Trail 400 where it crosses the fan. The route curves in and out of the dozens of channels and debris piles formed by past flood events
Fire can have a similar effect on runoff when the forest canopy is completely killed. This is why new research shows that attempting to log recently burned areas can have serious effects by disturbing newly exposed soils and worsening the increased erosion that would already result from fires.
In the Gorge, the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire burned most of the Nesmith Escarpment, raising serious concerns about the debris flow activity accelerating here in the coming decades. The debris flows earlier this year may have been the first major events to have been triggered as much by deforestation from the fire as by oversaturated soils. The following photo pair shows the extent of the burn on the Nesmith Escarpment, with the first photo taken just a few weeks before the fire in 2017 and the second photo taken in 2018, when the fire’s impact was clearly visible.
The January 2021 debris flow
The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been making regular flights over the Eagle Creek Fire burn since late 2017 to monitor for potential flooding and landslides. While the main purpose of these surveys is to anticipate impacts on the highway, ODOT is also amassing an invaluable library of historic photos that document the fire and resulting geologic events in a way that has never been done before.
Their most recent flight includes photos from the January 2021 debris flows that tell the story in a way that words cannot match:
This view looking west toward the Ainsworth Interchange shows how Bucher Creek had completely covered the south half of the interchange and sent mud and debris flowing east on the freeway, itself. The 1996 and 2001 debris flows impacted much of the same area (ODOT)
A closer look at the 2021 debris flows where the Ainsworth interchange was overwhelmed with debris. A green highway sign marks what used to be a freeway on-ramp (ODOT)
Bucher creek briefly pushed the lobe of mud and debris in the lower right of this view directly toward the home in the first photo, before changing direction to the path the creek is following in this photo. This is a good example of how accumulated debris regularly forces the streams that carry the debris into new channels. (ODOT)
This view looking back at the Bucher Creek debris flow lobe shows just how close it came to the home and outbuildings shown in the previous photo (ODOT)
The view down Bucher Creek debris flow toward St. Peters Dome and the Columbia River from near the crest of the Nesmith Escarpment (ODOT)
Landslide in burned timber near the crest of the Nesmith Escarpment. This landslide fed debris directly into the Bucher Creek debris flow, and onto the freeway more than 3,500 feet below (ODOT)
What to do?
It’s tempting to wish away future geologic hazards by taking comfort from what we perceive to be more predictable past. After all, the modern Gorge we know has been evolving for more than 13,000 years, and long periods of slope stabilization have marked recent centuries. But can we count on periods of stability in a future that will be shaped by global climate change?
Almost surely not. All indications are for more volatility in both weather and flood events like those that have built the Nesmith Fan. Recent evidence increasingly supports the reality that our landscapes are changing along with the climate. In a 2016 report on landslide risks by Multnomah County, the number of events escalated over the past 25 years, including at the Nesmith Escarpment (see table, below).
The best path for adapting to this reality and becoming more resilient in response to future events is to accept the ongoing risk from the Nesmith Escarpment. In the near-term, this means regularly repairing I-84 and the parallel Union Pacific railroad after flood events that will become increasingly common and disruptive. It also means installing early warning systems along these routes for the traveling public and commers, as well as the residents of the area who live in harm’s way.
The 2021 debris flow along Tumalt Creek during this year’s series of flood events on the Nesmith Fan was a textbook example of why adapting in the near-term to protect existing infrastructure is a tall order. The following images show just how unpredictable and unmanageable this steam has become for ODOT.
Once Tumalt Creek reaches the foot of the Nesmith Escarpment and begins to flow across the fan, its course continually shifts and changes, making it very difficult to predict where each debris flow event might be headed (ODOT)
A single culvert (above) carries Tumalt Creek under the freeway and frontage road, but the Nesmith Fan is a maze of shifting streambeds by definition, making it nearly impossible to force streams to obey culvert locations (ODOT)
The channel carrying the debris flow on Tumalt Creek that overwhelmed the frontage road and I-84 in February later dried up, with the creek shifting to another channel after the flood (ODOT)
This screen was installed at another culvert that Tumalt Creek has swept through in past debris flow eventsl. While this device might keep small debris flows from overwhelming the culvert, it has no chance against the increasingly large debris flows that we can expect on the Nesmith Fan (ODOT)
This is the view from the frontage road looking upstream at the large, main culvert intended for Tumalt Creek – though it had shifted out of the channel when this photo was taken a few months after the February event. The flatness of the terrain on the Nesmith Fan is evident here, with no obvious stream chanel except for the grading and contouring by highway crews (ODOT)
Adapting to a new reality
In the long term, coping with debris flows also means facing some tough questions for those who live on the Nesmith Fan. For some, it’s a place where families have settled for generations. For others, it’s a dream home they’ve put their life savings into on the Columbia River in the heart of the Gorge. But for anyone who lives here, the risks are real and growing – as the death of a local resident in this year’s debris flows reminds us.
Across the country, climate change and rising sea levels are impacting millions of homes and businesses built in floodplains formerly classified as “100-year”, but now seeing regular flooding. In the past, the U.S. Government has provided public flood insurance for those living or operating a business in a flood zone, but the increasing frequency of catastrophic events in flood and hurricane-prone regions like the Mississippi Valley, Texas, Florida and Carolina coasts is pushing federal flood insurance premiums sharply up. This does not bode well for those living and working in hazard zones in the Pacific Northwest, including the rural communities scattered across the Nesmith Fan.
Notices like this will become a way of life for Nesmith Fan residents in coming years
In some places along the Mississippi Valley, the federal government has begun simply relocating homes, and even whole towns, rather than rebuilding them in harm’s way. Could this be a model for the Nesmith Fan? Possibly, though most of the private homes in the path of debris flows are not in the flood plain, and may not be eligible for any form of subsidized federal insurance or assistance, short of a disaster.
A more direct approach that could be taken at the state level is a simple buy-out, over time. Where flood-prone areas in other parts of the country might simply have value as farm or grazing land, the Gorge is a world class scenic area, and both public land agencies and non-profits are actively acquiring land for conservation and public use. As Gorge locations go, it’s hard to find a spot as spectacular as the Nesmith Fan and the escarpment that rises above it.
Already, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks have acquired land on the Nesmith Fan for recreation and to provide habitat under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area provisions, including at least two parcels with coveted river access. Permanent funding of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund last year should also help jump-start public acquisitions in the Gorge that have stalled in recent years, and could help spur land owners considering their options.
Katanai Rock (left) and St. Peters Dome (right) rise above orchards at Dodson in this 1940s view from the old Columbia River Highway
Recent events are surely changing the dynamic for landowners in the Gorge, as well. Would some residents living on the Nesmith Fan be more open to a buy-out after witnessing the devastation of last year’s debris flows, knowing that more are likely to come in the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire? Probably. Others – especially the string of luxury homes along the Columbia River – might be more motivated by legacy, and for these folks, non-profit conservation trusts and easements could be a tool for transitioning private land into public ownership over time.
In the meantime, expect more flooding, debris flows and periodic closures of I-84 during the rainy months. And probably more fires in summer, too. This is the new normal in the Realm of St. Peter, after all, and it’s a cycle that will continue for all our lifetimes, and beyond.
Tribal fishing platforms line the Columbia River as Mount Hood floats on the horizon at the proposed Columbia Hills pumped energy project site
A few folks had questions about the Goldendale Energy Project (what I called the “Columbia Hills Energy Project” in my last post), so I thought I’d post some resources for anyone looking to learn more about the project and how to help the coalition of opponents.
Do you take scenes like this in the eastern Columbia River Gorge for granted? Read on…
As we slowly emerge from a year of pandemic, three milestones in Columbia River Gorge news are noteworthy for those who love WyEast Country. What do they have in comment? In each case, the multi-layered governance (or lack thereof) in the Gorge continues to be a hurdle, even when the news is very good… or even great!
The Great: Mitchell Point Tunnel Project
For many years the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been quietly moving toward actually replacing the legendary Mitchell Point “tunnel of many windows” with a new windowed tunnel. The new tunnel is along the bike and pedestrian trail that ODOT has been building to reconnect the original Historic Columbia River Highway, and construction began this spring. It’s a bold and visionary project, and another dramatic nod toward historic restoration along the old route. The former Oregon Highway Division destroyed the original tunnel in the 1966, when it was deemed a hazard to traffic on the modern freeway being constructed directly below, and it has been a dream for many to see it restored ever since.
The new 655-foot tunnel will have five arched windows, roughly patterned after the original Mitchell Point Tunnel. When completed, the tunnel will become the crown jewel of the larger Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, a concept 35 years in the making, with just five miles of trail remaining to be constructed. When the last five miles are complete, the trail is destined to become a world-class cycling destination that will allow visitors to ride from Troutdale to The Dalles without traveling along the modern freeway.
The iconic Mitchell Point Tunnel was completed in 1915, but it was destroyed by freeway construction just 51 years later in 1966. It lives on in our collective memory as the greatest engineering marvel of the original Columbia River Highway
This 1920s view of the original Mitchell Point Tunnel from the Washington side of the Columbia River shows both west viaduct that led to the tunnel and the famous series of windows (on the left). Freeway construction at the base of the cliffs in the 1960s destroyed both the tunnel and viaduct
The new Mitchell Point Tunnel will enter the basalt walls of Mitchell Spur, the smaller, northern offshoot of Mitchell Point, proper, and connect the existing Mitchell Point Wayside on the west side of the spur to a future trail and historic highway alignment east of Mitchell Point. Between the two new tunnel portals, five windows will frame Gorge views and light the way for visitors, providing an experience similar to what early motorists enjoyed from their Model-Ts in the early 1920s.
ODOT has posted a video on YouTube with drone footage and more background on the new tunnel:
While the new tunnel is certain to draw visitors who simply want to walk its length and enjoy the views, it also offers a terrific opportunity to create loop hikes that build upon the existing Mitchell Point Trail. This steep and difficult to maintain route is more like a goat path, but has become an increasingly popular viewpoint trail as placed like Angels Rest become overwhelmingly crowded. The Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation (OPRD) has already adopted a new loop trail concept for the west side of Mitchell Point that also would provide a better graded approach to the summit, and a loop for those willing to return along the existing, very steep route.
This ODOT rendering shows the planned approach to the west portal of the new Mitchell Point Tunnel from the perspective of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, which currently stubs out at these cliffs (ODOT)
This rendering also shows the new west portal that ODOT is constructing for the new Mitchell Point Tunnel. A bump-out viewpoint (on the left) is also included in the design (ODOT)
This concept shows the design for five windows that will be incorporated into the new tunnel at Mitchell Point. ODOT describes the tunnel interior as “modern concrete”, so the exposed rock surface in this rendering and visible in the previous portal rendering may not be part of the final plan (ODOT)
This view shows the existing overlook at the Mitchell Point Wayside, where the paved trail stubs out at berm at the base of Mitchell Spur’s cliffs. The west portal to the new tunnel will enter the cliff visible just beyond the berm, at the right in this photo. The berm will be removed to extend the trail to the new tunnel portal.
The west portal design for the new tunnel preserves this relatively new (2013) overlook at Mitchell Point, already a popular stop for Gorge visitors
The new tunnel also offers a loop trail opportunity from the east side of Mitchell Point, with the tunnel providing a return to the main trailhead. Loop trails are popular with hikers because you get to see more scenery for your effort. But they can also be managed as one-way trails where crowds are a problem, greatly lessening the impact of passing hikers on heavily traveled trails. The OPRD plan for the Gorge also includes a loop trail concept for Angels Rest with this exact purpose in mind. From a hiker’s perspective, one-way loops also mean encountering far fewer people along your hike, so it can greatly improve the outdoor experience.
Will Mitchell Point become as crowded as Angels Rest? Maybe someday, though not anytime soon, simply because it’s much farther from Portland. But it will certainly become more popular than it is today, as foot traffic here has steadily grown over the past decade or so. With this in mind, one of the disappointments of the Mitchell Point project is the failure to plan for future crowds, and especially to differentiate between visitor types in the planned parking improvements. In the past, most visitors to Mitchell Point were there to walk to the existing overlook at the wayside, spending just a few minutes there while on their driving tour of the Gorge. Hikers, meanwhile, can spend several hours laboring up the steep path to the summit.
Currently, both kinds of visitors compete for the same limited number of parking spots at Mitchell Point. As with unmanaged waysides elsewhere in the Gorge (Latourell Falls, Wahkeena Falls, Starvation Creek are just a few examples), hikers are now filling all of the spots at Mitchell Point on weekends, leaving touring families with no place to park. The new ODOT plan will create 18 parking spaces (including one disabled spot) compared to 16 today (including two disabled spaces). The net increase of two parking spaces is a drop in the bucket for this increasingly popular trailhead.
The existing parking area at Mitchell Point is relatively new – completed in early 2013, when this photo was taken. It provides a total of 16 parking spots, including two disabled spots. The construction of the Mitchell Point tunnel includes a complete reconstruction of the existing parking area
There are a couple of solutions that ODOT and OPRD could easily incorporate into the current construction phase without rivisitng the basic parking plan. First, mark a few parking spots for short-term, 30-minute parking for touring motorists to visit the wayside viewpoint and walk the new tunnel. Yes, it would have to be enforced to be effective, but even sporadic enforcement with a healthy fine would send a shockwave through hiking social media sites.
This is an ODOT rendering of the new parking area at Mitchell Point. While it’s surprising to see the fairly new parking lot being reconstructed so soon, the new design does manage to have a smaller paved area while expanding parking spaces (to a total of 18 compared to 16 today) and has a more efficient circulation design. The areas shown with picnic tables were once part of a very large parking area here as recently as 2012, so it’s disappointing that this design doesn’t better accommodate demand by included more spaces in that area (ODOT)
Second, ODOT and OPRD could take formally advantage of the long access drive to the Mitchell Point Wayside to allow for overflow parking. At a meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Steering Committee last summer, I asked if overflow shoulder parking would be allowed along the access road, and the ODOT response was a disappointing “no”.
That’s not only short-sighted, it’s also a state of denial. Already, the nearby Starvation Creek wayside routinely has cars parked along both the access and exits roads, all the way to the freeway, for lack of a trailhead space and an effective parking management plan. As a result, weekend touring motorists hoping to visit the falls or use the restrooms at Starvation Creek have no prayer of finding a spot, as the entire lot is packed with hikers, most of them on hours-long hikes to the summit of Mount Defiance. That gives ODOT and OPRD a black eye, and a similar situation will surely unfold at the new Mitchell Point trailhead if parking isn’t more actively managed.
The Sad: Oneonta Tunnel Restoration
The Oneonta Tunnel in about 1915,, soon after it opened and before this section of the Historic Columbia River Highway was paved
In other tunnel news, ODOT recently (re)completed the restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel, near Multnomah Falls. The agency once again rebuilt the timbered interior of the tunnel, restoring work that was originally done back in the mid-2000 and completely burned in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. It’s a beautiful restoration effort, and you should go see it soon, before it is once again destroyed by vandals carving up the restored woodwork. Because that sad fate is all but inevitable.
I wrote about this project recently in A Second Chance and New Vision for Oneonta? While there may be no appetite at ODOT or OPRD to pursue something more whimsical (like the museum proposed in the previous article!), it is frustrating to see the new restoration completed with zero consideration given to protecting the public’s investment from vandals. At the same meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Steering Committee last summer, I asked ODOT officials if there was a plan to secure the tunnel with gates of some kind, and the response was “no, because under national scenic area regulations, we can only restore it to its exact condition before the fire.”
Mobs of young people descended on Oneonta Gorge each summer before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire closed the area. Many made a point of vandalizing the wood interior of the Oneonta Tunnel while they were there
Still more frustrating is the fact that top officials from the U.S. Forest Service and ODOT who oversee funding for Gorge projects and scenic area regulation were part of this virtual meeting, and sat in silence when I asked whether this was a good use of public resources. Another committee member commented that vandalism in the form of tagging and graffiti has always been a problem in the Gorge. Perhaps, but is the point is that we shouldn’t care?
Well, I’m still not buying it. If there is one thing that’s certain for large, well-funded agencies like the Forest Service and ODOT, it’s that where there is a will, there is a way. The cost to install gates would have been negligible compared to what ODOT budgets for the Gorge in a given year, and surely would be less costly than another redo in the coming years. In this case, there was simply no agency interest from the Forest Service or ODOT in protecting the newly restored tunnel, and that’s really discouraging.
ODOT completed the second restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel this spring, replacing the wood lining that was burned away in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Despite its recent history of vandalism, the tunnel is now open and completely unprotected, night and day
So, as lovely as the (second) restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel is, it falls under the column of “sad” for its poor stewardship of both the historic resource and the public funds spent to restore it. But who knows, maybe once the tagging starts up and triggers some unwelcome local media coverage, we’ll see some protection installed? A late response would be better than not at all, and I’d sure like to be proven wrong on the fate of the old tunnel.
The Ugly: Columbia Hills Energy Project
These beautiful, mosaic talus slopes along the Columbia Hills are ground zero for a proposed energy project that threatens to change the area forever. A jarring sea of giant wind turbines were installed along the crest of what is a sacred ridge for area tribes over the past 15 years, and now the turbines are the basis for still more energy development in this unprotected part of the Gorge
I will reluctantly end this article with one of the toughest development proposals to emerge in the Gorge in recent years. As ugly as the project is, however, the picture is not entirely bleak. The proposal is formally known as the “Goldendale Energy Project”, taking its name from what used to be the Goldendale Aluminum Plant, located adjacent to the John Day Dam in the eastern Gorge. But the site is miles away from Goldendale, Washington, and more importantly, it’s within the Columbia River Gorge and centered on Columbia Hills, a place sacred to area tribes. So, I’ve called it the Columbia Hills Energy Project for this article.
The aluminum plant at the John Day Dam went out of business decades ago, leaving badly polluted soils and groundwater behind where smelters once stood. It has since been undergoing a gradual cleanup operation, work that is ongoing. The Columbia Hills “stored energy” project proposes to build a large water storage basin in this polluted brownfield, connected by pipes to a second basin at the crest of the Columbia Hills, 2,000 vertical feet directly above the John Day Dam and the old aluminum plant site. When wind turbines are generating excess energy, water from the lower basin would be pumped to the upper basin, and could then be released back down to the lower basin to power hydro turbines during periods of peak demand (or low wind).
The system on the right is proposed for the Columbia Hills (Rye Development)
To the Ka-milt-pah band of the Yakima Nation (known in English as the Rock Creek Band), the Columbia Hills here are sacred. Their significance goes to the very creation of the Columbia Gorge, itself. Scientists believe the ice age Bretz (or Missoula) floods continued to repeatedly overwhelm the Gorge with hundreds of feet of water for nearly 2,000 years, finally ending some 13,000 years ago. Virtually every aspect of the Gorge as we know it was shaped by the floods, including the steep, exposed cliffs and rock monoliths that give the Gorge its iconic beauty. Their oral tradition tells us that the ancestral Ka-milt-pah people climbed to these ridge tops to escape this series of massive ice-age floods, watching the cataclysm from these high vantage points.
Today, the Ka-milt-pah continue to gather first foods from these same hills, though now with the permission of farmers who own deeds to the ceded tribal lands here. In yet another insult to traditions and the defacement of their sacred places, tribal members now must gather foods under the shadow and hum of giant wind turbines that send “green” electricity to Portlanders. Unseen to urbanites are the miles of gravel access roads that were cut into pristine desert soils along these ridges to build and maintain the turbines, destroying still more of the ecosystem that the Ka-milt-pah people relied upon for millennia. And in yet another cruel irony, the windmills are now are central to the Columbia Hills Energy Project, as well.
The defunct, polluted aluminum plant at John Day dam (seen far below in this view) is proposed to hold the lower reservoir for the closed-loop energy system. This view is from the crest of the Columbia Hills, on sacred tribal land 2,000 feet above the river, where the upper reservoir would be constructed (Portland Business Journal)
The towering wind turbine that now line the Columbia Hills above John Day Dam are aggressively marketed as benign sources of clean energy, and yet each turbine requires a new road to be built, leaving a permanent scar on the land and introducing invasive plants to the largely pristine desert landscape. This snaking section of road in this view is on sacred tribal land near the proposed Columbia Hills Energy Project (Google Earth)
The service roads built for these windmills on the crest of the Columbia Hills resemble suburban cul-de-sacs, each cut into desert ground that had never even been plowed, and has provided tribal first foods for millennia (Google Earth)
Did you know that the stunning stretch of the Columbia River Gorge east of the Deschutes River does not enjoy the protections provided by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) to areas west of the Deschutes? The most jarring evidence of this second-class status are the hundreds of massive, white wind turbines that now dot the Columbia Hills along this unprotected stretch of the Gorge, from Maryhill Museum east to the John Day river and beyond. The visual impact of these turbines therefore wasn’t even a factor when they were constructed over the past 15 years.
It is truly a miracle and testament to the tenacity of Gorge advocates in the 1980s that we even have a CRGNSA to protect the Gorge, yet it’s also true that leaving the eastern portion of the Gorge out of the bill left the area tragically vulnerable to energy and development schemes that continue forever scar the Gorge we shall leave to future generations. The Columbia Hills Energy Project may be the latest scheme, but it certainly won’t be the last (lesser-known fact: the Maryhill Museum was among the opponents of the CRGNSA in the 1980s, which explains the forest of windmills that now mar the Gorge rim directly above the museum and continue for miles to the east).
The ancient and sustainable trumped by the new and industrial: the 1971 John Day Dam dwarfs traditional tribal fishing platforms, located just downstream from the dam
For the Danish corporate investors behind this project, the windmills along the Columbia Hills provide a world-class opportunity for pumped storage development. The hills rise anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 feet above the Columbia River, a ready source of water to fill storage tanks. That’s probably as much as they know. The fact that it’s also remote from Portland urbanites who might otherwise be shocked to see a development of this scale proposed in “their Gorge” is just good fortune for the investors.
And so, it has fallen to the Confederated Yakima, Umatilla and Nez Perce nations to defend their homelands from yet another assault by Europeans seeking to, once again, commodify their native lands.
Countless generations of tribal fisherman have harvested salmon on these pebble beaches in the east Gorge for millennia. The lower reservoir for the proposed “energy loop” would be a stone’s throw from this iconic scene. Is it even possible to measure economic impacts of energy project against threats to the very culture of indigenous people?
The pace of change in the eastern stretch of the Gorge has been breathtaking in the past few decades. In 1957 – just 64 years ago — the gates on The Dalles Dam closed, drowning Celilo Falls and surrounding tribal settlements under 40 feet of water. This ended a way of life for indigenous peoples who had thrived here for thousands of years. Nine years later, in 1966, ODOT blasted and filled a 4-lane swath through the Gorge to construct today’s Interstate-84, destroying miles of wetlands and beaches along the way, and cutting off access to traditional tribal fishing sites in the process. In 1971, the gates were closed on John Day Dam, at the head of slackwater created by The Dalles Dam. Another stretch of rapids along the once-wild river disappeared, along with more beaches and wetlands.
The vast, colorful pebble beaches in the east Gorge were left here by ice age floods that brought rock from the northern Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River Gorge. This river-worn piece of petrified wood is typical of these deposits
Both dams brought hundreds of steel transmission towers and thousands of miles of electrical cable that now drapes across the once-pristine Gorge landscape. And in the 2000s, big utilities rushed after state and federal renewable energy tax credits to line the Columbia Hills with hundreds of windmills, many built on sacred tribal sites. It’s true, these are all renewable energy sources that our region depends upon to power our homes and industry. Yet, it’s also true that our cheap energy has come at a catastrophic cost to tribal culture and economies, and wreaked havoc on one of the most spectacular natural landscapes on the planet. Isn’t it time to question just how “green” the energy harnessed in the Gorge really is?
Fortunately, a broad coalition of conservation advocates have joined the tribes in challenging the Columbia Hills Energy Project. They include both the Oregon and Washington chapters of the Sierra Club, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Columbia Riverkeeper, Food and Water Watch, Portland Audubon and several other organizations. This is encouraging, as corporate energy projects are famously costly and drawn-out battles with deep-pocketed (and often foreign) investors who are willing to ride out the opposition and ingratiate themselves to local elected officials. Witness that Washington Governor Jay Inslee recently signed a fast-track provision for energy storage projects just like this one (though we don’t know his position on this specific proposal).
This lovely desert gulch along the Columbia River is immediately adjacent to the proposed Columbia Hills Energy Project. How will it be impacted? We don’t know yet…
Thankfully, the Washington Department of Ecology has determined the project to have “significant environmental impact”, ensuring that some rigor will be applied in the state permitting review. Whether that review can truly measure the impact of this proposal on tribal rights and traditions remains and open question that courts will likely have to decide.
Yes, stored energy projects are a good idea. They’re a creative, sustainable solution in a world facing a global climate crisis. We should welcome them!
Killed coyote strung up on a fence along Center Ridge Road in Wasco County this winter
Author’s note: I’ve gone back and forth on whether to include some difficult images in this article. I hope readers will understand why it’s important to see them once you’ve read the piece.
As we reach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic that has turned our world upside down, I’ve been reflecting on how I spent much of my outdoor time over the past year in the desert country east of Mount Hood, where I could spend an entire day without seeing another soul. Along the way, I reconnected with some of my favorite spots, and found many more that were new to me. I was reminded why I fell in love with dry side of the mountains when I lived and worked there for seven magical summers during my youth.
Over the past year of exploring the backroads east of the mountain, I also didn’t see a single killed coyote. Not one! This surprised me. It was once commonplace in sagebrush country to find their carcasses strung on barbed wire fences. Coyotes were vermin to old-school ranchers. Then, just last month, I ran across the familiar, grim scene captured at the top of this article. It was up on Center Ridge, in the rolling wheat country above the Columbia River. And yet, scenes like this that were once routine in ranch country have become rare these days. Why?
The rolling wheat fields on Center Ridge are prime habitat for coyotes (Dalles Mountain, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier are in the distance)
Perhaps because most ranchers today have advanced degrees in agriculture, their knowledge includes a formal science education that gives them an understanding of the benefits of living with predators, not exterminating them. They understand that top predators may be a nuisance to livestock, but they are also the ecological keystone that keeps the rest of the natural system in balance, which, in turn, is of even greater benefit to ranchers and farmers.
So, these days when I run across a shot, snared or poisoned coyote slung over a fence, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s the mark of an old timer — or simply someone who just doesn’t know any better. Old ways die hard. This used to be a standard practice based on the myth that the carcass would somehow cause other coyotes to shy away. That’s a tired idea borne of ignorance and unfounded hatred for the animals, nothing more.
Today’s ranchers in Oregon are far more likely to appreciate the benefits coyotes bring to their bottom line, especially in the wheat country along the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Along with raptors, coyotes keep the rodent population (mostly rabbits, gophers, mice and voles) in check, keep grazing deer on the move and generally mind their own business as they cruise their very large territories. They also feed on snakes and sometimes carrion, as well as fruit and grass in season. Packs of coyotes may even take down young or infirm deer or antelope, though this is uncommon.
This remnant grassland view of Tygh Ridge is what much of the east side looked like before the arrival of settlement farming in the 1800s and it remains prime coyote habitat today
Coyotes often roam in organized packs, led by an alpha male and female pair that often mate for life, and that are the only breeding pair in the pack. The beta coyotes in the pack are non-breeding, and simply help hunt and feed the offspring of the alpha pair. Thus, killing an alpha male or female (or both) simply splits up the pack, opening the surviving animals to pair with lone males to create still more coyote families. For this reason, modern ranchers also understand that killing coyotes to remove them from the landscape can have exactly opposite the intended effect.
Despite over a century of systematic killing, coyotes are flourishing and expanding their territory, and now live in 49 states. This is partly because of the proliferation of new breeding packs from the extermination of alpha pairs, but mostly it’s because they’re very smart. Like the domesticated dogs that we spend billions on each year to pamper and celebrate as companions, coyotes are quick to observe every detail of human behavior and learn our ways. For wild coyotes, that means avoiding people – and our various means of exterminating them. That’s why seeing a coyote in the wild is a treat, and is typically fleeting.
Their ability to adapt has also allowed coyotes to move into urban areas, including Portland, where they have assumed top predator status. We spot them right here in my neighborhood in North Portland, where they roam the large natural areas and prey upon rats, opossum, raccoons and – especially – feral cats. While that last part might be hard for some to accept, the fact is, feral cats are a major problem in urban areas as predators of native birds. The arrival of coyotes is helping mitigate the impact of these non-native carnivore in our cities. It’s also true that coyotes can prey upon small pets in the city, a reminder to humans to keep our pets in enclosed areas and indoors at night.
This young coyote was killed and strung up by a rancher on Dalles Mountain Road a few years ago. This used to be a common sight in the ranch country of the eastern Columbia River Gorge
Coyotes have also responded to our simultaneous war on cougars and wolves that began in the 1700s, and continues to this day. Where wolves and cougars were once the apex species in many parts of the country, and preyed upon or hazed the smaller coyote, it is the coyote that has adapted and stepped into the void left by the disappearance of these larger predators. As cougars and wolves begin to rebound in a few areas in the country, they are reclaiming their top predator role, once again keeping coyotes in check. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, the coyote population dropped by 40 percent!
Because of their size and potential threat to humans, wolves and cougars will likely always be less tolerated in our world. Though we’re just beginning to appreciate it, the role of coyotes as the substitute apex species in areas once roamed by wolves and cougars has helped keep natural systems in balance for all species – plant and animal.
Coyotes have an enormous range, with packs maintaining highly organized territories of anywhere from five to fifteen square miles – enough to cover multiple ranches, even in the sprawling wheat and sagebrush country east of Mount Hood. Like our domestic dogs, they have well-traveled routes, typically along ridgetops or along the edge of clearings where they can see the terrain and hunt for rodents. Mostly, they seek to avoid people in their rambles, which is understandable, given our history of hostility toward the species.
Coyote pups (Wikipedia)
In the wild, coyotes live short lives of just 5-10 years, though in captivity they can live up to 20 years. Adults in the wild typically weigh from 20 to 35 pounds, about the size of a Siberian Husky, though urban coyotes can reach as much as 45 pounds. Coyote alpha pairs can produce a litter of 2-12 pups annually, with pups reaching maturity in about 6 months. Coyote pups have a very high mortality rate of up to 90 percent, however, and only a few survive to adulthood. Some that survive will stay with their pack, others will roam and join other packs and a few males become lone coyotes, wandering on their own.
If you have the opportunity to see a coyote in the wild, you can’t help but be taken by how closely they resemble our domestic dogs, both in their appearance and behavior. They’re truly beautiful animals, and to watch them sprint upwards of 40 mph, it’s easy to see why native cultures celebrated both their intelligence and athleticism.
If you have the good fortune to hear a pack howling at night, it’s an especially memorable experience. No, they don’t represent a real threat to us, but it’s still quite humbling to hear them in the dark, knowing they are completely adapted to that environment and completely aware of us – even if we can’t see them. At night, we are in their realm.
Adult coyote hunting (Wikipedia)
The main threats to coyotes in the wild include some of the same canine diseases that threaten our domestic dogs, as well as lack of food and winter cold. In many parts of the country, humans continue to be a major threat with competitive “kill contests” still held to exterminate coyotes. In 2017, more than 11,000 coyotes were killed in Utah, alone, for $500,000 in bounties put up by state officials. Over 100,000 coyotes are still killed every year in the United States. Though these mass killings are gradually losing favor as science wins out over folklore, it’s still common for state wildlife agencies to promote methods for exterminating coyotes.
The good news is that ranchers and farmers are increasingly coming around to the benefits of co-existing with coyotes for all the good they bring to the land. This means changing their farming practices, especially during calving and lambing season in ranch country.
In Oregon, coyotes are classified as a non-game predator. What does that mean? It means that anyone can kill a coyote, with no limit or permit required. Thankfully, science is winning here, too. Wildlife agencies and agriculture science are evolving, promoting science-based best practices for farmers and ranchers to co-exist with coyotes. Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has replaced old-school instructions for coyote extermination on its website with new-school guidelines on how to co-exist. That’s real progress, though regulating coyote hunting will be a tougher political hurdle to clear.
Urban coyote in Lincoln Park, Chicago (Wikimedia)
The more worrisome trend is urbanites moving into farm and ranch country and bringing domestic cats and toy-breed dogs with them. These small pets make for easy prey for coyotes, especially when left to roam. Worse, people moving into ranch country often encourage coyotes to lose their fear of humans by leaving pet food outside and by not treating them as wild animals. Just as urbanities living in the country are a growing nuisance to farmers with their complaints about dust, noise and pesticides that come with farming, these folks may also emerge to be a new threat to coyotes, too, simply by encouraging them to lose their fear of us.
Despite these threats, and our long war against them, coyotes continue to adapt and thrive. Scientists now recognize 19 subspecies of coyote, including urban species that are now common in city parks and preserves across the country. Coyotes have observed us and figured us out, and they are here to stay. Their ability to adapt bodes well for the species, and for the ecosystems that increasingly depend on them as top predators, too.
Epilogue… and Prologue?
Over the winter, I was coming down a gravel road from Center Ridge into a narrow Easton Canyon, just south of The Dalles. I stopped to take a photo of Mount Hood when I spotted a group of Mule deer perfectly silhouetted against the last glow of sunset. I watched this lovely scene unfold for quite a while, until the deer had moved on and stars suddenly began to fill the night sky.
Mule deer silhouetted against Mount Hood in the Center Ridge area of Wasco County
As I was quietly packing up my camera gear in the dark, I was startled by a sudden series of loud, quick yips right behind me! A coyote was in the sagebrush directly above the road, somewhere along the canyon wall. Soon, more yips began to echo from across the canyon, first below me, then from across the canyon, then further up the canyon. The chorus grew until some of the yips turned to howls, then went silent, as quickly as they had started.
It was an eerie experience that made my hair stand on end. I’d heard coyotes many times before, but I had never been in the middle of a pack. Though I knew I wasn’t in danger, the moment still triggered a primal reaction – these were wild predators, after all. I hoofed it back to the car, quickly loaded up my gear and gave thanks for a truly memorable encounter.
So, when I came across that coyote carcass a few weeks ago, senselessly killed and strung up on a barbed wire fence, I couldn’t help but appreciate what was left of this once-beautiful, brilliant animal. Much of its handsome coat was still intact and moving in the breeze, its ears still pointed and perfect. Were it not mangled, ribs protruding, I might have thought it somehow alive.
A sad, senseless practice fading with time, a grim reminder of our ignorance and folly in attempting to control the natural world around us
The sight of this animal brought back that nighttime chorus under the stars from just a few weeks before, just a couple of miles from this spot. Had this unlucky coyote been among those that I heard that night? Quite possibly. It also gave me a deeper appreciation for the resiliency and balance of nature all around us, despite our relentless efforts to upset it. The coyotes are adapting and winning. Thankfully.
As a broader society, we’re slowly changing our thinking about predators, too. We’re getting better at observing and understanding them and beginning to accept their presence – especially coyotes. We seem to be on a path of learning to simply avoid coyotes just as they avoid us, ensuring that they remain truly wild. We’re learning to co-exist.
The lost forest on Cedar Island in the Deschutes River canyon
Head north from the tiny town of Maupin into the arid desert canyon of the Deschutes River and you will eventually reach a wide gooseneck in the river, where a low ridge that forms the bend is known as the “Beavertail”. As the gravel access road crests the Beavertail, a river island dotted with trees suddenly comes into view. The scene is startling in an environment where even Western juniper struggle to survive, and the few trees that exist are mostly thickets of Red alder hugging the river’s edge.
At first glance, these seem to be Ponderosa pine, a reasonable guess, given that Ponderosa are the most drought tolerant of the big confers in Oregon. But as you approach a few of these trees that have jumped the island and flank the access road, it becomes clear that these aren’t pines at all.
In fact, this is a lost stand of about sixty Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) trees forming a completely isolated colony in the middle of the desert. They have found a way to thrive more than 20 miles east of the nearest stand, in the Cascade Mountain, where these trees grow along the forested southeast slopes of Mount Hood. Here, they survive with just 10-15” of rain per year, compared to the 40-50” their mountain cousins receive.
Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) foliage – a close cousin to our familiar Western red cedar
The thick, distinctively reddish bark on Incense Cedar gives the tree some insulation from range fires
A closer look at the bright green foliage of these trees shows Incense cedar to be a cousin to Oregon’s Western red cedar, Alaska cedar and Port Orford cedar. None of these are true cedars, but all are related members in the cypress family, and all but the Port Orford cedar grow on the slopes of Mount Hood.
Of these, the Incense cedar is the most drought-tolerant and thrives on the dry side of the Cascades, among other big conifers like Douglas fir and Ponderosa Pine. Incense Cedar tend to grow interspersed among these other trees, and seldom form pure stands. That’s part of what makes the lost grove on Cedar Island unique, though that’s also a reflection of the extreme environment they have pioneered here – one that other big conifers are not able to survive.
Young Incense cedar have a beautiful conical form that makes them popular trees in urban landscapes
Young Incense cedar are prized as cultivated trees for their brilliant foliage and symmetrical, conical shape (above). As they age, Incense cedar begin to look more like a distant cousin to Giant sequoia, with deeply furrowed red bark and tortured, often multiple-trunked forms.
Incense cedar can live for centuries and reach as much as 150 feet in height at maturity. The champion in Oregon grows in the Siskiyou Mountains, and is 150 feet tall with a circumference of nearly 40 feet. Another dual-trunked Incense cedar in Southern Oregon is known as the Tanner Lake Giant (below), measured at 137 feet tall and more than 40 feet in circumference.
The mighty, two-trunked Tanner Lake Giant in Southern Oregon is more 40 feet in diameter (Wikipedia)
Mount Hood’s Incense cedar stands mark the very northern extreme of the range of these trees, which extends as far south as a few isolated stands in Baja. In California, they grow throughout the Sierras, with big Incense Cedar sprinkled among the Giant sequoia in Yosemite Valley. The trees also grow in isolated groves throughout California’s coastal mountains. In Oregon, scattered stands grow in the Ochoco Mountains and along some of the western ridges of the Great Basin.
Incense Cedar grow from Mount Hood south to the Baja Peninsula, following the east flank of the Cascades to the Siskiyous and along the Sierras
Most of the isolated stands of Incense cedar in dry places like the California coast ranges or Oregon Ochoco Mountains mark places where mountains rise up enough to produce an island of rainfall in an otherwise dry region. The trees of Cedar Island are just the opposite. Their habitat is at the bottom of a rocky desert canyon makes their ability to thrive here all the more remarkable.
The Cedar Island lost forest of Incense cedar is truly remote. The following perspective view (below) shows just how far Cedar Island is from the green forests of the Cascades, nearly 20 miles to the west. Why did this grove of just 60 trees make its home here?
Part of the answer is the island, itself. While Incense cedar are most often found on dry sites in their typical mountain habitat, the Cedar Island grove lives on a gravel bar in the middle of the Deschutes River, where trees can touch the water table year-round with their roots. While the winters are plenty cold along the Deschutes – similar to the mountain habitat these trees prefer – the summers are intensely hot and arid. The basalt walls of the Deschutes Canyon also act to contain summer heat, creating a true oven during summer heat waves. The ability of the Cedar Island grove to maintain constant access to groundwater undoubtedly helps counter the lack of rainfall and summer heat they endure.
The Incense Cedars of Cedar Island rise above thickets of Red alder beneath the protective west wall of the Deschutes River canyon
Still, there are plenty of other gravel bars along the Deschutes, and only Cedar Island supports a grove of big conifers. What makes this gravel bar different?
Part of the puzzle is shape of the canyon walls that surround Cedar Island. At the Beavertail Bend, the Deschutes River swings sharply west, then reverses to head directly east, in each case carving near-vertical, 2,000 foot walls of basalt over the millennia. The aspect of these walls helps shade Cedar island by shortening exposure to hot summer sun by several hours per day compared to less protected parts of the canyon.
Cedar Island is protected from mid-day summer sun by towering, 2,000-foot canyon walls to the south and east
The west (upstream) end of Cedar Island seems to confirm the role of the canyon walls in allowing the Incense Cedar groves to survive. This part of the island (below) extends beyond the protective shade of the steep south wall of the canyon, and into the wide section of canyon where it is more exposed to the intense morning and midday sun during the hot summer months.
The west end of Cedar Island seems to be too exposed to summer sun for the Incense Cedars to survive there
Another piece of the puzzle is the gravel that makes up island, itself. While it allows the Cedar Island colony to reach the shallow water table with their root systems, it’s also very well-drained above the water table – something that Incense cedars prefer. At 10-12 feet above the average river level, the gravel bar is also tall enough to avoid being inundated or eroded by all but the worst flood events.
When did the Cedar Island colony become established? That’s unknown, but an image (below) taken from the east canyon rim in 1905 shows the island to be virtually cleared. There are a couple of explanations. First, the photo shows both rail lines that were under construction at the time, a race between two railroad barons that became known as “The Deschutes Railroad War”. It’s quite possible that Incense Cedar on the island were cut by the railroad crews for construction material or simply firewood. It’s also possible that the trees were actually introduced here at the time when the canyon was being intensely developed by the railroads. But the fact that the island was named for its cedars suggests the colony was here when railroad surveyors arrived.
1905 view of Cedar Island from the east canyon rim shows few trees compared to today… why?
Another explanation for the relatively bare island in 1905 could be flooding. Though the Deschutes is not prone to catastrophic floods like rivers west of the Cascades, the upstream dams didn’t exist when the first Incense Cedars pioneered the island. therefore, it’s likely that periodic floods swept across this flat sandbar – which was, itself, created by floods. The colony must have found a way to rebound from these events, assuming the Incense cedar grove has been here for centuries.
The following images (below) from 1911 were taken from the west side of the canyon and confirm that the Incense cedar grove on the island was much smaller at the turn of the century. These later images marked the end of construction of the railroad on the east side of the river. Today, a smaller colony of Incense cedar grows along the old railroad grade (now the access road) in the shade of the eastern canyon wall.
1911 view of Beavertail Bend from the west canyon rim, looking toward Cedar Island
Closer look at Cedar Island in the 1911 view showing just a few Incense cedars growing along the south margin of the island
Yet another explanation for the smaller grove in the early 1900s might be range fires. The sagebrush country of Oregon’s east side burns periodically, and fire is a natural, essential part of the ecosystem. For their part, Incense cedar have fire resistant bark that allows the trees to survive low-intensity fires (similar to Ponderosa pine and Sequoia), but when their crowns burn in more intensive fires, they have evolved to reseed and re-establish themselves quickly on burned ground. It could even be the case that railroad construction triggered a fire that cleared Cedar Island sometime before this photo was taken.
In 2018 a trio of range fires (below) swept through Wasco County, burning much of the lower Deschutes River canyon. The fires destroyed dozens of farm dwellings and outbuildings, too, a painful reminder that fires will always be part of the desert ecosystem here, even with much of the landscape converted to wheatfields. The Longhollow Fire was the middle of the three fires, and burned to the northwest bank of the Deschutes, but apparently did not jump the river to Cedar Island.
Had the fire reached the island, it could easily have crowned some of the Incense cedar trees. The open, park-like forest here has allowed the trees to keep their limbs almost to the ground, where trees in mixed forests typically lose their lower limbs.
A high crown helps protect a mature tree from low-to moderate intensity fires at its base climbing lower limbs like a ladder and potentially engulfing its crown. But unlike the forest fires that occur in the typical Incense Cedar range, range fires in open sagebrush country are generally low-intensity, fast-moving burns due to the lack of available fuels compared to forest fires, so even trees with low limbs can often survive range fires.
A closer look at the island suggests the fire did not cross the river in 2018, nor have fires burned the island in some time. First, none of the trees on Cedar Island shows burn marks on their lower trunks, a telltale sign of range fires that lasts for decades on trees that survive. Second, the presence of downed wood and a few Incense Cedar seedlings (below) confirms that no recent fires have swept the island, as young trees would almost certainly have been killed and dead forest debris completely burned.
The trunks of the Cedar Island grove don’t show burn marks, suggesting that range fires haven’t swept the island in decades
The downed alder logs in this view would almost certainly have burned in 2018, had the Longhollow Fire jumped the river. The small Incense cedar seedling toward the top of this photo would almost certainly have been killed by fire, as well.
Whatever the cause of Cedar Island being cleared at the turn of the 1900s, the grove of Incense cedars is well-established today, with large trees that could have started life soon after these early photos were taken. Yet, the lack of young trees on the island today is also noticeable, with just a few younger trees sprinkled among the mature stand. This could be due to competition, with the spacing of the trees defined by their root systems, and little moisture left for young trees to get established.
Most of the Incense Cedars on the island are mature, with few small seedlings present
Some of the younger trees that do exist are crowded along the river’s edge, suggesting that other young trees farther from the edge of the island simply couldn’t compete with the larger trees for available groundwater with their smaller, shallow root systems.
In their normal habitat, it would be rare for Incense cedars to hug a stream, but on Cedar Island it may be the only way young trees can become established
One of the secrets of the survival of the Cedar Island grove could be the small group of younger trees growing at the shaded foot of the southeast canyon wall. These are the only Incense cedars from the colony that extend beyond the island, and a number of very young trees are getting established here now. It could be that this part of the grove has helped reseed the island after flood events over the centuries.
It’s hard to see if this group of trees existed in the 1905 and 1911 photos, and it’s likely that railroad construction would have erased any trees in this area, anyway. But without any better evidence, it’s also possible that this branch of the colony is relatively new, seeded here by mature trees on the island after the railroad construction ended. If so, why did the colony move there, to steep rocky slopes far above the river and readily available water table?
This view shows a branch of the Cedar Island colony growing along the base of the eastern canyon wall. These trees are younger and seem to be expanding their presence, despite growing on rocky slopes far above the water table created by the river
The best explanation for this branch colony is probably the sun protection provided by the canyon walls, as these trees are growing in an “elbow” where the north and west facing walls meet, creating a relatively cool setting for much of the day during the hot summer season. But another part of the story is likely groundwater seeping through a steep ravine that cuts through the layers of basalt where the branch colony is centered.
The branch colony of the Cedar Island lost forest is thriving on the south wall of the Deschutes River canyon, with many young trees becoming established in this unexpected habitat
Whatever their origin, the younger grove along the canyon wall is a helpful insurance policy for the survival of the Cedar Island colony over the long haul. These are young trees, yet clearly well-established, so in the event the island trees are destroyed by fire or flood, these trees could be a source for re-seeding the island. Likewise, the island might well survive range fires that could destroy the canyon wall grove and help reseed that part of the colony.
This young Incense cedar in the branch colony may someday play a part in reseeding Cedar Island and helping the lost forest here continue to survive
The mystery of the lost forest on Cedar Island brings more questions than answers, and it deserves more study to better understand the phenomenon and help preserve the colony. I’m hoping this article might inspire a local researcher or graduate student (with a passion for rafting or kayaking!) to step up to the challenge. The island is on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and seems reasonably protected from development, though it doesn’t seem to have any sort of special protection for its unique ecological value.
The lost Incense cedar forest on Cedar Island in the Deschutes River canyon
In the meantime, the island makes for an interesting stop on a tour of the lower Deschutes River canyon, whether by car, bicycle or on the river. The island is located immediately downstream from the Beavertail campground. There are pullouts along the access road with good views of the island, and if you’re up for a walk, you can simply park at a pullout and walk the exceptionally scenic road for a stretch.
Along the way, you’ll pass another coniferous anomaly — the “Big Pine” located just north of the twin railroad bridges at Horseshoe Bend. This old Ponderosa pine grows on a gravel fan at the base of seep that gives it enough year-round water to become quite established here. The BLM has placed a picnic table under the tree and there is a toilet nearby, too.
The “Big Pine” just north of the twin railroad bridges along the Deschutes River access road
From the beginning of the well-marked access road near Sherars Bridge, it’s 17 miles to the end of the well-graded gravel road, so this makes a good adventure if you’re looking for something off the beaten path. Map 6 on the following BLM webpage covers the route from Sherars bridge to Cedar Island and Map 7 covers the remainder of the access road to Macks Canyon:
For a deeper dive into the Deschutes Railroad War, you can find out-of-print copies of Leon Speroff’s excellent book on the subject, with dozens of historic photos presented in large, coffee-table format.
Leon Speroff’s excellent book covers the surprising railroad history of the Deschutes in detail — plus some of the natural history of the canyon
The Deschutes River access road can be reached by following the Sherars Bridge Highway (OR 216) from where it joins Highway 197 in Tygh Valley. Follow signs to Grass Valley, then turn onto the well-marked access road about a mile after crossing Sherars Bridge. You’ll pass White River Falls State Park along the way, another worthy stop if you’re in the area.
One of the best times to visit the lower Deschutes is in winter and early spring, when campers and rafters are scarce and you will have the place pretty much to yourself. As with all trips to the dry east side of the mountains, ticks, poison oak and even the occasional rattlesnake are residents here, so watch your step and do a tick check when you get home.
The Riverside Fire shortly after it exploded into a major conflagration in September 2021 (USFS)
In the aftermath of the 49,000-acre Eagle Creek Fire in 2017, we learned the following essential facts:
The fire was human-caused by a careless teenager throwing fireworks over a cliff along the Eagle Creek Trail on a crowded Labor Day weekend with extreme fire conditions. 176 hikers had to be rescued after the fire exploded. The teenager was later sentenced to extensive community service working with forest crews
No human life and minimal loss of structures occurred, despite the close proximity to the town of Cascade Locks and hundreds of homes built in the forest fringes adjacent to the national forest
Though human-caused, the scale and timing of the fire was completely in line with historic large fires in the Gorge, occurring roughly every century. The last major fire on the Oregon side was also centered on the Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek areas, in the late 1800s. The massive Yacolt Burn on the Washington side occurred in 1902
The forest recovery following the fire was immediate, reassuring, and continues without human intervention (in the form of replanting)
The extreme weather conditions and risk for fire was forecast in advance by the National Weather Service, yet this information was not enough to persuade the U.S. Forest Service or the Oregon Parks and Recreation Division to reconsider public access to the Gorge that fateful Labor Day weekend.
Powerful easterly winds drove the massive Riverside Fire west, toward the Willamette Valley (USFS)
Flash forward to 2020, and we have a repeat of the Eagle Creek Fire in the form of the 138,000-acre Riverside Fire, which burned much of the Clackamas and Molalla River watersheds after it started the day after Labor Day:
Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside Fire was human-caused, as was the 36 Pit Fire that had previously burned 5,500 acres in the lower Clackamas River canyon in September 2014
Like the Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge, the extreme weather conditions that made the Riverside Fire so explosive were well-predicted and nearly certain to unfold as forecast. We were warned that high winds would blow hot desert air over the Cascade passes in Oregon and Washington, turning mountain canyons into wind tunnels of hot, exceptionally dry air all the way to the Willamette Valley
Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside burned an area that was probably overdue for fire, as measured by the approximately 100-200 year intervals between large fires on the west slopes of the Cascades. Unlike the Gorge, the Clackamas and Molalla basins had been heavily logged by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the private timber corporations for 70 years, so much of the burn consisted of crowded clear-cut plantations that turned out to be especially vulnerable to fire
Unlike the Eagle Creek Fire, thousands of acres of private, previously logged-over plantations burned, and the timber corporations have been aggressively “salvaging” burned trees in the months since the fire occurred – a practice that has been shown to be especially damaging to forest recovery
Like the Eagle Creek Fire, towns like Estacada and Molalla were spared, though the fire burned frighteningly close to Estacada. But unlike the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside fire destroyed 139 homes and outbuildings and injured four people in its path along the west slope of the Cascades.
Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside turned skies in the Portland metropolitan area orange for days, raining ash on some of the suburbs, and awakening the urban population to the health and economic impacts that large fires have always had on rural communities.
Memaloose Road after the Riverside Fire (USFS)
When it was over, the Riverside fire had burned nearly three times the area of Eagle Creek Fire. The scale of the fire is still sinking in, since the burn area is largely closed to the public, indefinitely. But the few photos the Forest Service has provided show scenes similar to the Eagle Creek Fire, from severely burned areas where the forest canopy was completely killed to areas of “mosaic” burns, a beneficial fire pattern where intensely burned areas are intermixed with less burned forest, where the tree canopy is likely to survive the fire. Early analysis of the first suggests that it was generally more severe than the Eagle Creek fire, with large areas of the Clackamas River watershed severely burned.
The lower Clackamas River canyon has now burned three times in the past 20 years, first with the Bowl Fire in 2002 that burned 339 acres, then the 36 Pit Fire in 2014, and now the massive Riverside Fire. In this recent article [https://wyeastblog.org/tag/clackamas-river/] I described a forest recovery that was already underway when the Riverside Fire swept the through the lower Clackamas River canyon last fall, and we don’t yet know how much of this recovering forest was burned.
Adjusting to our new reality…
While the Eagle Creek and Riverside fires have much in common, and the fires aren’t necessarily outliers compared to historic fires in the area, there are some important takeaways from both fires that are concerning. They underscore the reality that climate change and increased human presence in our forests are accelerating the pace of major forest fires in the Pacific Northwest.
Fire-scorched Fish Creek Campground (USFS)
First, the recent sequence of fires in the lower Clackamas River Canyon is troubling, as we are now seeing fires burn through the same forests in rapid succession. This means that surviving forest patches from the 2002 Bowl Fire also had to contend with the 2014 16 PIt Fire, and later, the 2020 Riverside Fire to continue the benefits of a “mosaic” burn to the lower canyon. While we don’t yet know, we almost certainly lost some (or perhaps all) of these surviving forests from earlier fires. These are the beneficial mosaic survivors that ensure a rapid forest recovery. Without them, we can expect a much slower forest recovery, and more erosion and earth movement will result.
Second, the Forest Service has shown an inability (or unwillingness) to simply close down recreation areas when extreme fire conditions are forecast. Their position is understandable: closing down the Gorge after the Eagle Creek Fire caused much controversy, so we can only imagine the outrage had that been done before that Labor Day in 2017, though we would almost certainly have prevented the catastrophic fire that resulted. Conversely, prevention is rarely credited in our society, so the likely public relations firestorm of closing the forest on Labor Day weekend to avoid a real firestorm in the forest would have been a truly thankless decision for the Forest Service.
Fish Creek drainage after the fire showing a mosaic burn pattern (USFS)
The same holds for the 2020 Riverside Fire. Closing down the Clackamas River recreation corridor to campers, boaters and hikers on Labor Day weekend would surely have set off a major controversy for the Forest Service, and only in hindsight can we know that it would have prevented a catastrophic fire needlessly caused by humans.
I visited the corridor on a busy weekend just before Labor Day, and I was saddened to see “dispersed” campsites all along the Clackamas with campfires burning, despite a ban on fires at the time. These unofficial campsites have a long history and tradition in our national forests, and they have been mushrooming in new places all around WyEast Country in recent years as campers seek to avoid the fees (and rules) of developed campgrounds. As a result, they are increasingly becoming havens for lawless activity, including tree cutting, dumping and illegal fires.
Mobbed “dispersed” campsite in the Clackamas corridor with multiple campfires burning a few days before the Riverside Fire
The Forest Service simply doesn’t have the capacity to meaningfully enforce fire restrictions in the growing number of dispersed sites, and it’s time we view them as the hazard to our forests that they have become. The agency has begun to close some of these sites, but if we learn that the Riverside Fire was ignited by an illegal campfire in a dispersed campsite, then we’ll have a strong case for completely banning them – everywhere.
Would that cause an outcry? Absolutely. But many tough decisions lie ahead if we hope to save our forests from our own bad behavior during a time of unprecedented environmental change.
Forest Service fire patrol attempting to monitor dispersed campers
Parking overload at a dispersed campsite in the Clackamas Corridor a few days before the Riverside Fire
Private utilities saw the fire situation differently last September. Portland General Electric (PGE) opted to shut down its powerlines in the heavily populated Mount Hood corridor and its three powerhouses and adjoining powerlines in the Clackamas River canyon in anticipation of the wind event, for fear of their power system igniting the forest.
Looking back, there’s no way to know if that would have happened, but the recent fires caused by powerlines in California (and resulting lawsuits against the utilities) surely weighed on PGE’s decision. In that light, the frustration of several thousand customers seemed a fair tradeoff to PGE, especially when you consider that the nearby Beachie Creek Fire and other fires that burned throughout Oregon during that weather event were caused by downed powerlines from the extreme wind.
Crowded clear-cut plantations like this fared poorly in the Riverside Fire (USFS)
Another important take-way is that our forests are becoming increasingly stressed by climate change. Our summers are hotter and longer, our snowpack is retreating to higher elevations and is less abundant. This makes our forests much more vulnerable to fire, especially at the end of our summer drought season in late August and into September. Little is known about how global climate change will ultimately affect our forests, but it’s becoming clear that the fire risk is only increasing and scale and frequency, and our forests on the west slope of the Cascades didn’t evolve for that.
As we move forward into this unsettling future, the real question isn’t whether we can make sound judgments about fire danger based on science and observation. We know we can, and the science is getting better and more reliable all the time. Instead, the question is whether we are willing to follow science to make the tough calls?
For this, we need only look to the global COVID-19 pandemic that we are riding out right now. The science behind basic, simple steps to prevent the transmission of the virus is solid and tested. In many societies, science alone has been persuasive enough to encourage mass compliance with prevention efforts. Not so in our country, of course, where putting on a simple face mask devolved into a debate about individual liberties, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from the coronavirus.
This appears to be “safety” logging by ODOT, not post-fire salvage logging — an increasingly discredited practice (USFS)
However, elected leaders in our corner of the country have been willing to follow the science (and face the angry wrath of a vocal few), and the public has overwhelmingly followed orders to keep our distance, shut down places where people gather and hunker down in our homes during this crisis. As loud as the dissenters are, the vast majority of Oregonians (and Washingtonians) have accepted that there are no good options in this crisis, only “least worst” options. Have we now reached a point with human-caused forest fires in our region that the public is similarly ready (or at least resigned) to accept restrictions based on our collective memory of recent, catastrophic fires?
This brings me back to the notorious month of September in WyEast, the time of year when some of our worst human-caused fires have occurred. It’s pretty clear now that the Forest Service isn’t able (or willing) to pre-emptively shut down forest access during the kind of extreme weather conditions to prevent human-caused fires that allowed the Eagle Creek and Riverside fires to explode. We saw yet another reminder of that fact a few weeks ago, when the Forest Service abruptly and unceremoniously re-opened the Eagle Creek Trail and other areas closed by the Eagle Creek Fire in the middle of the holiday vacation, and social media quickly responded, sending a crush of hikers to the trail.
Whale Creek near Indian Henry Campground after the fire (USFS)
Whale Creek before the fire
With this move, the Forest Service squandered a “reset” on access and crowd management the agency had long promised about since the closure began. Worse, the reopening of the Eagle Creek and other Gorge trails was completely at odds with warnings of COVID-19 spreading rampantly over the holidays. The risk of spreading the virus was exponentially higher in December than it had been in March 2020, when the Forest Service DID shut down trails in the Gorge. After a month of hikers crowding the reopened trail — where it is impossible to observe basic COVID precautions — Mother Nature unleashed a “Pineapple Express” deluge of rain in late January that washed out several sections of trail, closing it once again, though only “temporarily”, according to the Forest Service.
Somebody call the Governor..?
Given what we’ve learned about the inability of the Forest Service bureaucracy to act on solid science from these recent events, and especially given that climate change and our own behavior is only ramping up the fire risk, what if our state and local elected leaders were to step in? Could they make these decisions for the Forest Service in the name of public health and safety? Should they?
Mosaic burn along a section of the Clackamas showing some big trees that survived the fire while the clear-cut plantation in the distance was decimated (USFS)
The answer to the first question is yes, they probably could – especially the Governor. Last spring, the Forest Service closed most of the national forests in the Pacific Northwest in response to the broader COVID-19 shutdowns, and in their official words, did so “in consultation with state and local governments and tribes”. This probably means the national forest shutdown in Oregon and Washington occurred because the two governors had ordered a broader shutdown, as opposed to a president who was denying the pandemic at the time. So, while the governors may not have direct authority over federal lands, they appear to have functional authority (and if there are legal experts out there reading this who can answer this question more definitively, I welcome your thoughts!)
But should our elected leaders step up and make this call? The answer to this question is easy. Yes, of course they should. The pandemic has redefined the boundaries for elected leadership, at least for now. And besides, for most of us, it would be an inconvenience to stay home on Labor Day weekend out of an abundance of caution. For those who lost their homes (or the lives of loved ones) in the Oregon fires last September, it’s an especially easy call. If the pandemic has taught Americans anything, we’ve learned that much of what we do in our daily lives can be adjusted to meet needs greater than our own. As Americans, we reserve the right to complain, of course!
Aerial view of the Oak Grove area of the Clackamas basin showing a mosaic burn pattern and the untouched Roaring River Wilderness and Mount Hood, beyond (USFS)
Finally, how urgent is the need to assert some authority over the Forest Service in making the call for public closures during extreme fire conditions? It’s tempting to think the Gorge is immune from big fires for another century, now that much of the Oregon side was burned in the 2017 fire. But three fires in less than 20 years in the lower Clackamas River corridor tells us otherwise. We’re in a new fire reality, now, and the renewal of our forest depends on our ability to prevent further escalation of the fire cycle due to our own behavior.
Next time… Mount Hood?
And then there’s Mount Hood. The north and east sides burned in a series of three fires from 2005 to 2011, but much of the forest on these flanks of the mountain remains unburned, and is ripe for human caused fire by the throngs of hikers and backpackers who visit the mountain in the summer months.
1933 view of Mount Hood and burned-over Zigzag Mountain from burned-over Devils Peak. Everything in this view except for Mount Hood is now reforested. While large fires are not new to the western Cascades, they are becoming more frequent
More ominously, the south and west sides of the mountain haven’t seen major fires in more than a century. The extensive Kinzel and Sherar fires completely burned off several square miles of the forest, from near Timothy Lake all the way north to Lolo Pass, and from the community of Zigzag east to Bennett Pass. Few people lived near the mountain when these fires burned.
Today’s Mount Hood corridor travels through the middle of this largely recovered burn, and the highway is now lined with thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses and resorts. While PGE’s decision to shut down their powerlines in the Mount Hood corridor last September may well have prevented a fire being ignited from electrical lines, but it’s sheer luck that a human-caused fire didn’t occur.
The escalation of west-side fires calls to question the wisdom of continuing to build homes on the forest fringes, too. While most of these are on private land, they drive public policy, with developers and the real estate industry pushing the idea that forest fires can somehow be prevented in perpetuity. Elected officials have been wary to disagree, despite the science being on their side.
Early 1900s view of Government Camp when the south slopes of Mount Hood were still recovering from the last major fire to sweep through the area
In this emerging era of extreme weather and forests stressed by climate change, catastrophic, human-caused fires are quickly becoming an annual concern, even along the temperate west slope of the Cascades. When extreme fire conditions emerge again next summer, and with the Gorge and Riverside fires in our recent memory, are we finally ready and willing to say “no” to ourselves?
Before the COVID pandemic descended upon us last year, I would have been tempted to say “no” to that question, simply because American culture has struggled in recent years with the idea of the collective interest outweighing the individual. But the pandemic has renewed my optimism that we’re turning a page toward an era more like the 1930s and 40s, when a collective consensus emerged toward facing the dual challenges of economic despair and world war.
Despite our divisive domestic politics of the past few years, a working majority in this country has nevertheless emerged on the side of finally addressing climate change. That’s encouraging! After all, climate change is singularly a global threat that demands our collective effort. With restoring forests as one of the most important tools in combatting climate change, this could be the key to rethinking how we can prevent human-caused fires.
…and to end this article on an even more optimistic note, watch this blog for big news on the future of WyEast Country in the coming days! That’s a teaser, by the way…
As I write this annual year-end post after a calamitous 2020, the world seems just a bit more hopeful. The presidential election will shift public lands policy 180 degrees back toward conservation and restoration, and with the release of two COVID-19 vaccines, the end of the world pandemic is finally on the horizon.
And so, I share some of the stories behind this year’s Mount Hood National Park Campaign scenic calendar with a cautious spring in my step (or my fingers as they type this sentence, at least). You can pick up a copy of the calendar here for $29.95:
As always, all proceeds will go to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) to support their ongoing effort to care for trails as gateways to our public lands. Zazzle prints these calendars with exceptionally high quality, and they also have large enough boxes to be quite functional for tracking important dates and your trail plans. They make nice gifts, too, of course!
Over the years, I’ve described the Mount Hood National Park Campaign as “an idea campaign” with the simple goal of keeping alive the promise of better protections and restoring the grandeur Mount Hood and the Gorge. I started the project in 2004 as a way to continually remind Oregonians and Washingtonians living in WyEast Country that national park protection was proposed at least three times in Congress, in the 1890s, 1920s and the 1930s. Each time, logging and other extraction industries (and later, the emerging ski industry) were the chief opponents — along with the Forest Service, itself.
Thomas Cole painted this idyllic scene of Native American life in WyEast Country in the 1870s. The mountain continues to be beacon of inspiration and awe for people living in its shadow to this day
If you’ve watched Ken Burns’ magnificent National Parks series, you know that every park was a battle, typically between short-term exploitation interests and progressives looking toward posterity for future generations. There were no easy wins.
And, so it will be for Mount Hood and the Gorge until enough locals (or our children and grandchildren) recognize national park protection as both urgent and deserving for these world-class places. We haven’t treated them too well over the past 150 years, but real change is suddenly afoot in 2020. What? Yes, you read that correctly… and I will share more about that exciting news in future blog posts!
This beautiful cove at the foot of Crown Point was called “Echo Bay” when it was still connected to the Columbia River in this 1870s photo. This was among the spots that inspired the first Congressional effort to create a national park here
But until then, this article is a tour of some of the places that make WyEast country special, and are featured in the 2021 MHNP Campaign scenic calendar. As always, every image in the new calendar was captured over the past year and, as in past years, there are some lesser-known places mixed in with some of the more familiar.
The 2021 Calendar Images
Salmon River in late Autumn
The cover image for the 2021 calendar comes from a very familiar spot along the Old Salmon River Trail, near the community of Zigzag. This quiet trail was bypassed — and spared — when the Salmon River Road was built in the post-World War II logging boom. Today it offers one of the most accessible trails into ancient rainforest anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. This photo was taken just a few weeks ago, too. Because of its low elevation, it’s a trail you can hike year-round. Here’s the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description of the trail.
For January, I chose an image captured from above the West Fork Hood River Valley, on Butcher Knife Ridge. In this scene, Mount Hood is emerging from the clouds after the first big winter storm of fall. I’ll be posting more articles in 2021 about the West Fork valley, as there is some very exciting news to share about this area.
Mount Hood’s rugged northwest face in early winter as viewed from Butcher Knife Ridge
The February image is a familiar view of Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek, one of the premier trails in the Columbia River Gorge. Before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, I visited this trail several times each year, as it’s not only a personal favorite, but also a trail that makes for a great introduction to the Gorge for new hikers or visiting family.
Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek
The image in the new calendar is from a visit last winter, and it was my first since the fire. Though the fire did burn through the lower Tanner Creek canyon, many trees survived, especially around Wahclella Falls. Notably, a pair of big trees familiar to hikers also survived — the twin Douglas firs flanking the lower trail (below). As of this year, their upper canopies are still green more than two years after the fire, and that bodes well for them to survive for many years to come.
The familiar twin Douglas firs along the Wahclella Falls Trail have survived the 2017 Gorge fire… so far
What I couldn’t have guessed is that the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions kicked in just a couple weeks after my visit, and Wahclella Falls was once again closed to the public.
As hard as these Gorge trail closures have been for hikers, there are a couple of silver linings. First, they have allowed trail volunteers from TKO, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) and other volunteer trail organization to continue the hard work of restoring trails damaged by fire without having to accommodate hiker traffic. Perhaps more importantly, the closures have also allowed forest recovery to begin within the pressures that heavy visitation on popular Gorge trails brings.
Lower White River Falls in spring
The March image (above) features Lower White River Falls, a lesser-known cascade downstream from the main falls at White River Falls State Park. Where the main falls is a raucous spectacle, the lower falls is quiet waterfall in a secluded canyon, where it is framed by desert wildflowers in late spring.
Poison likes to grow in the shade of boulders along the White River — watch where you sit!
The user path to the lower falls has become increasingly prominent in recent years as more visitors discover this pretty spot (and its excellent swimming hole), but be forewarned, the path is lined with Poison Ivy. This relative of Poison Oak bears a close resemblance, but grows as a ground low ground cover in the sandy floodplain along the river, often in the shelter of boulders and old logs.
Lower White River Falls
For April, I selected another scene from Mount Hood’s rain shadow, a wildflower meadow on the edge of the tree line where forests give way to the desert country east of the Cascades. This bucolic scene looks across the rolling wheat country of Wasco County, toward the Columbia Hills and the Columbia River, on the horizon (below).
Wildflower meadows on the east slope of the Cascades near Friend
Though you wouldn’t know from this photo, the South Valley Fire swept through this area in 2018, one of three major range fires that combined that year to burn nearly 200,000 acres. Two years later, and only the scattered snags of Ponderosa pine, Western juniper and burned fence posts hint at the fire, as the sage and grass savannah has recovered in a remarkably short time. But the fires had a human toll, too. Homes and barns were burned, as well as several historic farmsteads that can never be replaced.
Only a few charred remains tell the story of the 2018 range fires east of Mount Hood
Switching back to the west side of the Cascades, I chose a scene from a visit to Silver Falls State Park for the May image. With many of the Gorge waterfall trails still closed by the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire, Silver Falls visitation has exploded over the past couple years, as hikers look for new places to get their waterfall fix.
Visiting Silver Falls State Park is pretty close to a national park experience, as the park is loaded with 1930s Civilian Conservation Corp construction and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department do an excellent job maintaining and curating the park’s network of scenic trails. Lower South Falls (below, and the May image in the new calendar) and nearby Middle North Falls are favorites among photographers in the park, and they have some similarities. Both begin as a wide curtain of falling water before crashing onto the rocky basalt aprons that make up their base, and both have a trail behind them.
Lower South Falls on Silver Creek
A few years ago, a local Republican legislator introduced a bill proposing National Monument status for Silver Creek. The bill didn’t go anywhere, but it was a nice opportunity to showcase the area and a reminder that seeking national park status can be a bipartisan effort, even in these days of deep political division.
Pandemic-compliant blogger at Silver Creek State Park
Visiting Silver Falls State Park (and most other state parks) in 2020 also meant controlling the COVID-19 virus while huffing and puffing on a buy trail. While I was discouraged by the disregard for masks on my trips to Silver Falls last spring (maybe 1 in 5 had one), there has been a noticeable uptick in mask use in our state parks national forests since. That’s good, because in a year of pandemic shutdowns and closures, the benefits of being outdoors and connecting with nature have never been greater.
Crowds of pandemic-defying hikers at Silver Falls State Park on Memorial Day 2020
For June, I chose a scene from just off the Timberline Trail, along the rim of the White River Canyon (below). This expansive Lupine meadow is only a few steps from the trail, but just out of view and thus known to surprisingly few.
Summer Lupine meadows along the rim of White River canyon
If only this blog had a virtual scratch-and-sniff, as there is nothing quite as heady as the sweetly-scented mountain air in a Lupine meadow, and this one was no exception. For those who haven’t had the experience, Lupine are in the pea family, and have the same sweet aroma as garden sweet peas — but with a mountain backdrop!
For July, I chose another wildflower scene, though this one fits more of a rock garden motif, featuring yellow Buckwheat and purple Penstemmon among the chunks of andesite scattered here. This is the historic Cooper Spur shelter, just off the Timberline Trail on the mountain’s north side. Cooper Spur, proper, rises to the left and the Eliot Glacier tumbles down Mount Hood’s north face to the right of the shelter. This is one of several stone shelters built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s and today is one of just three that still survive (the other survivors are at McNeil Point and Cairn Basin).
Cooper Spur Shelter in summer
Follow the climbers trail to the right of the shelter to the nearby moraine viewpoint (marked by large cairn) and you’ll have a front-row view of the Eliot Glacier. While I was there, a house-sized ice blocks suddenly collapsed (below), filling the canyon with a roar! It’s always a thrill to see and hear our glaciers in action.
Icefall collapse on the Eliot Glacier!
Another mountain scene fills out the summer as the August image in the new calendar. This multi-image composite assembles the impossibly massive scene at the western base of the mountain, where the Timberline Trail fords the twin branches of the Muddy Fork (below). From here, the mountain rises more than 7,000 vertical feet above the scene, and dramatic waterfalls tumble down the 800-foot cliffs that frame the canyon.
The wide-open scenery of the Muddy Fork canyon
The Muddy Fork valley is a volatile, continually changing landscape. In the early 2000s, a massive debris flow swept through, felling an entire forest and leaving a 25-foot layer of rock and sand on the valley floor. The Muddy Fork has since carved through the debris, all the way down to the former valley floor, revealing the stumps of trees that were snapped off by the event. Some are visible along the stream at the center the above photo. Meanwhile, the rest of the Muddy Fork debris flow is already dense with Red Alder, Cottonwood and Douglas Fir pioneers that are quickly re-establishing the forest, continuing the eternal cycle of forest renewal.
Several photos in this year’s calendar are from the dry country east of Mount Hood, in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range. I made several trips there while researching the strange desert mounds unique to the area (see “Mystery of the Desert Mounds“) and I fell back in love with the landscape, having spent time living there in the early 1980s. The September image in the new calendar is of a lesser-known gem in this area, the historic Nansene Community Hall (below) located on the northern slopes of Tygh Ridge.
Remains of the historic Nansene Community Hall on Tygh Ridge
The community hall dates back to the early 1900s, when sheep ranching was still the dominant industry in the area. Sprawling wheat fields and cattle have long since replaced the sheep herds, but thanks to the arid climate, abandoned wood structures from the early white settlement era can survive intact for a century or more. But they can’t survive fire, and while many historic homestead structures were destroyed by the 2018 range fires that swept through the area, Nansene Hall was among those spared.
Thankfully, the iconic grain elevator at Boyd survived the fire, too, and this photo (below) was a candidate for the calendar, save for the fact that Mount Hood isn’t peeking over the horizon!
Grain elevator on Fifteenmile Creek at Boyd
Several historic schoolhouses in the area also survived the fire, including the picturesque Center Ridge Schoolhouse (below), located a couple miles northeast of the Nansene Commumity Hall. This amazingly intact old building was designed with more aesthetics in mind than you might guess. The big windows along the west side of the structure define its single classroom, but the building was sited at an angle to ensure that Mount Hood filled the horizon through those windows, while Mount Adams looms to the north of its playground!
Center Ridge Schoolhouse and Mount Adams
While exploring the Tygh Ridge area this year, I happened upon a toxic creature that was unknown to me: the Green Blister Beetle (below), part of the legendary family of bugs that Spanish Fly is derived from. This iridescent native of the western states is highly toxic to the touch, though I only learned that later, when I was trying to identify this bug from photos I had taken while surrounded by a swarm of them in the field!
Don’t touch the Green Blister Beetle! (though the smaller beetles in this photo don’t seem to be bothered by their toxic neighbor)
Fortunately, I did not handle them, as that can lead to a potentially dangerous reaction. So, while we don’t have many toxic plants and creatures to navigate in the Pacific Northwest, here’s a new one for the list of those to avoid.
The Blister Beetle confab was unfolding in the historic Kingsley Catholic Cemetery, one of the more photogenic spots in the Tygh Ridge area. While walking among the pioneer graves that day last June, I also spotted this wonderful note hanging from a tree, a most welcome bit of hope and optimism in an otherwise grim pandemic year:
Sometimes a simple note can make a tough year a little better…
I later shared the note with a friend in the Dufur area, who in turn shared it in local circles there, hopefully drawing some interest. Little discoveries like this are poignant reminders that the future is always bright through young eyes, and it’s our job as elders to embrace their optimism and sense of promise.
For October, I selected a scene familiar to many (below). This is the view from just below the Vista Ridge trailhead, where the mountain suddenly unfolds for arriving hikers. It’s a popular roadside spot for evening photography, especially in fall when Vine Maple light up the scene.
The popular photographers’ tableau at Vista Ridge
However… when I stopped there this fall, I was quite annoyed to see that Forest Service contractors hired to brush out the road had dumped their slash right in the middle of this lovely talus slope! Sacrilege! So, I took a deep breath, put on a pair of gloves and spent a couple hours dragging the slash down the road to another debris pile that was out of view in a nearby wooded area.
Why get my dander up over this? Because talus slopes are special. They’re scenic and offer welcome views in our heavily forested region, of course. But they’re also home to species that depend on these unique places to survive. The best known are the tiny Pika who live exclusively in talus fields, but they are just part of the unique web of plants and animals found in these rocky islands. They deserve to be revered as unique places in the same way that our understanding of deserts has evolved in recent years to see them as places full of life, despite their lack of trees.
For November, I went back to yet another image from the slopes of Tygh Ridge (below). This is a view looking north across the broad, gentle apron of the ridge toward Mount Adams, shining on the far horizon. Less obvious in this autumn view are the many fallow fields where wheat was once planted, but now are carpeted with wildflowers and native grasses. What gives?
Tygh Ridge Locust trees frame Mount Adams
This photo (below) from a nearby spot was taken in June, and shows the expansive meadows that now cover formerly plowed land on Tygh Ridge. It turns out that these areas have been allowed to recover with native grassland species to benefit wildlife as part of the federal Conservation Reserve Program. It’s an opt-in program that compensates farmers for making long-term commitments (typically 10 or 15 years) to leave fields fallow for wildlife recovery. Hundreds of acres on Tygh Ridge are now part of this program.
Lupine meadows on Tygh Ridge are part of the Conservation Reserve Program that compensates famers for allowing fields to revert to natural cover to benefit wildlife
Heading back to the west side for December, I chose another image from beautiful Silver Falls State Park, though not of one of the iconic waterfalls. Instead, this scene (below) captures a classic winter rainforest scene, with the bare, contorted limbs of moss-draped Bigleaf maple revealed, now that their summer jacket of leaves has been discarded for the winter.
North Fork Silver Creek in winter
With all of the tragedy and trauma that 2020 brought to the world, this simple scene seemed most appropriate for closing out the calendar for the coming year: calming, cool and reflective, and with a needed sense of order and eternity that a misty day in the rainforest can bring us.
Riverside Fire exploding into a conflagration in September
Assembling this year’s calendar was yet another reminder of the horrendous year we are leaving behind. While spending time in the outdoors is always a needed escape, in 2020 we suddenly found many of our favorite forest sanctuaries closed by COVID-19. Later, the massive Riverside and Beachie fires roared through the Clackamas and Mount Jefferson areas, perhaps closing them for years to come, and with little known about the full impact of these fires at this time.
As I sorted through about 130 images that I’d set aside over the year, everything fell into two categories: burned in the fires or not. We still don’t know just how extensively the Riverside Fire burned the Molalla River watershed, for example, though we do know that it reached all the way to the Willamette Valley, causing evacuations in several communities on the valley floor — an unthinkable development in our recent history with fire. The Molalla River corridor remains closed, and it could be years before the Bureau of Land Management reopens the area to the public.
The Molalla Eye… before the fire
Some spots were spared, if just barely. Just south of the Molalla corridor, the Riverside and Beachie fires converged and bolted Silver Falls State Park. The park was spared, but not nearby Shellburg Falls, which was intensely burned, with no surviving forest. The Little North Fork valley was equally charred, including historic structures at Opal Creek.
Upper Butte Creek Falls… spared by the fire
Meanwhile, the fires followed ridgetops above Abiqua and Butte Creeks, but left the waterfalls and big trees there intact. Butte Creek was on my mind, as I had just made a trip there last June, when I ran into a family learning to fly fish at Upper Butte Creek Falls. While this spot didn’t burn, it will still likely be affected by the fires. As we’ve learned following the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge, stream corridors spared by the actual fire will soon fill with logs downed by the burn, and this will likely be the case in places like Butte Creek in coming years.
Fishing at Butte Creek
I’ve posted many articles about fire, and our need to come to terms with both its inevitability and benefits. And while it was frustrating to learn that the Riverside Fire was — once again — human-caused, it’s also the case that the forest will recover. With that recovery comes opportunities to rethink how we manage the Clackamas River watershed, and I’ll be posting more on that topic in the coming year. If catastrophic fires are a reset for the forest, then they can also be a reset for how we manage them.
While the wildfires took center stage in Oregon in September, the COVID-19 crisis is the tragedy that will forever mark 2020. Like many, social distancing took me outdoors, but I quickly found that my usual haunts were packed with people, and too many were without masks or observing basic precautions for preventing transmission of the virus.
So, I ventured a bit farther afield in WyEast country, visiting several places for the very first time, but also taking great pains not to interact with others and risk accidentally being a spreader, myself. Once such place was Cliffs Park, a remarkable spot along the Columbia River that offers a stunning view of the Columbia River. On a quiet Sunday, I had the place to myself, but the empty fishing platforms were a reminder that indigenous peoples have been fishing these beaches for millennia — and that in our pandemic, Native Americans have been among the hardest hit by the virus.
Tribal fishing platforms at Cliffs Park
Looking downstream at Cliffs Park, WyEast rises above the basalt walls of the Gorge, and the scene seems timeless. Turn around and look upstream, and the John Day Dam fills the horizon, another reminder of the cultural devastation that white settlement brought to the indigenous societies that had flourished along the river for millennia — and the trauma they still carry from the loss of Celilo Falls, just downstream from Cliffs Park, and inundated by The Dalles Dam in 1957. This recent piece in Portland Monthly on the subject is well worth reading:
It’s fairly easy to be socially distant (and completely alone) in the wide-open desert country east of Mount Hood, but what about some pandemic solitude on the mountain? It turns out to be in plain sight, if you’re willing to do some boulder-hopping. Over the summer, I made several cross-country forays into the White River flood zone, and to my surprise, the river channel abruptly changed sometime in late summer, before my final visit in late September.
The White River strikes back… again!
My guess is that a cloudburst or just some steady rain had kicked off a debris slide far up the canyon, but the volume was such that the entire floodplain was affected, with a couple feet of new sand and cobbles left behind by the flood. On my visit, the river was still trying to find its new course, and made a wonderful clattering noise it rocks and pebbles rolled down the stream in the muddy water.
The White River finding its new path
It’s not the first time the White River has changed course, that’s for sure, and it certainly won’t be the last. Seeing the raw forces of nature steadily at work was also quite reassuring. Yes, humanity has been struggling with a pandemic this year, but the mountain didn’t even notice. Nature has a way of putting our human frailty in helpful perspective, and reminding us that we’re temporary features here.
And, on a personal note…
Everyone has their list of reasons to hate 2020, and I certainly have mine. I’ll start with an odd one that connects some dots, and it’s about my photography. After decades of making some of the most innovative, compact cameras that seemed to be designed with hikers and active photographers in mind, Olympus announced last June that it would be selling off its camera division. What..??
It turns out that like all traditional camera makers, Olympus had seen sales sag with the explosion of smartphone and their amazingly good photo capability. No surprise, there, and I’m no exception. I marvel at what my iPhone can do. But I’ve also been a loyal Olympus user since I was 18 years old.
End of an era for this photographer? Not a chance! My newest Olympus (complete with collapsing 14-45mm zoom lens) sitting in the palm of my hand…
The good news is that the buyer of the Olympus line is planning to continue offering a full lineup under the old brand name, so we’ll see how that goes. But in the meantime, I used this troubling news as rationale to double down and pick up a few lenses and another camera body that will help me keep this blog full of photos for years to come!
Here’s where I will connect some dots, as the Olympus news had deeper significance with me, as I got the photography bug from my oldest brother Pete, who died in 2017. Pete is on my mind whenever I’m out in the forest or up in the mountains shooting with my beloved Olympus cameras. He helped me pick out my first Olympus camera when I was a teenager.
Me (left) as a 20-year old with my late brother Pete and my first Olympus way back in 1982. Pete was my photography inspiration and my mentor
Pete and I had a special connection that went beyond photography, and I’m thankful for the time I had with him, but I’m especially thankful for the time I still have to be out exploring the world. I’d wish he could still join me, and after losing him, I’ll surely never take my time on this earth for granted again.
This regrettable year also marked the passing of my dad on September 1. He was 91 years old, and like my brother Pete, had a huge impact on my life. Dad moved our family out here from Iowa in 1962, just few weeks before I was added as the last of five kids (and the only one born in Oregon). Dad was drawn to the Pacific Northwest by the active outdoor life, and passed that appreciation on to his kids — and to my mom, who passed away in September 2018. Together, they climbed mountains, backpacked, camped, fished and when it came time to retire, lived out their years on a forested hilltop.
My folks enjoying a pitcher and pizza just three years ago, in September 2017. These transplanted Iowans gave me my love of the Pacific Northwest outdoors
Needless to say, my life moving forward has changed forever with the loss of both parents and my oldest brother. But if every kid wants to make their family proud, I felt good when it came time to sort through the things my folks left behind. Their home was full of photographs, sketches and sculptures that I’d made for them over the years, and they had even saved every Mount Hood calendar I’d printed since starting these in 2004!
So, I know they were pleased that they had successfully planted that outdoor life and conservation ethic in me, and whatever I can do as a conservationist and advocate in my remaining life, it will be an extension of their influence — and Pete’s, too. I’ll always miss them, but whenever I’m in the outdoors, I’m really still with them!
Their passing is also a reminder to me (and all of us) that an essential part of being a conservationist and steward for our public lands is to pass along that ethic and passion to those who will follow us, a role that is now even more prominent in my own mind.
Looking forward to 2021!
What’s coming in 2021 for this blog? As always, I have lots of articles underway, and as I mentioned at the top, the potential for some very big news for the mountain. I will post on that topic as soon as I learn more. I also hope to see some of the Riverside Fire aftermath first-hand and report on what the Clackamas watershed looks like today, along with ongoing visits to some lesser-known spots in WyEast country.
The author at Lower White River Falls in June (with mask in stored position!)
Most of all, a return to life beyond the pandemic is on all of our minds, perhaps as soon as next summer. Until then, thanks for reading the blog and for indulging me in these annual reflections. Best to you in 2021, and I hope to see you on the trail, sometime!
Author’s note: I started this article two year ago, and set it aside because of the conflicting emotions I had from the experience described here. I’ve thought a lot about how I reacted since then. Over the past few weeks, as I watched the Riverside Fire sweep through the Molalla River canyon, memories of the event in 2018 flowed back, once again. Hopefully, a couple of years of reflection will make this a more thoughtful retelling of the story.
We live in a cruel time. Politics of fear, rage and blind ideology are stoked by countless streams of media in the endless 24-hour cycles of “news” that has little to do with our everyday lives. All of this is relentlessly boiled up daily and served as a toxic brew that feeds directly into our country’s social unrest. But the constant drumbeat is designed to make us think otherwise, of course, and to entice us tune in for another day of advertising wrapped in more fear and loathing. It’s exhausting, overwhelming and discouraging, no matter your political outlook.
So, what’s the connection to this blog? It’s in the cure. In the Pacific Northwest, we are gifted with an escape hatch from this media overload with the greatest concentration and diversity of public lands in the world. These public spaces provide us with a blissful retreat from the daily onslaught coming from cable news, talk radio and social media.
Like most, my time in the woods is almost always spent decompressing from these social stressors, and the everyday pressures of life. That’s why I spent several weekends in the spring of 2018 in the Molalla River corridor, an area that I hadn’t really explored before. It’s a strip of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land that was assembled through land swaps with private timber companies in the 1990s, and is now fully dedicated to recreation and forest restoration.
Most who visit the corridor are there to fish, explore the many mountain bike trails, swim in the crystal-clear Molalla River or simply enjoy the scenic drive. I went there in the off-season to take to beautiful rainforest scenery as spring foliage was just beginning to emerge. Much of the forest in the Molalla River corridor is recovering from century-old logging. The rebound is breathtaking and inspiring, despite the heavy logging that continues in the upper slopes of the watershed on land still owned by the timber companies.
We don’t yet know how the Riverside Fire changed the landscape in the Molalla River canyon when it swept through last month, but there’s a good chance that this riparian corridor experienced a mosaic burn, where patches of surviving forest remain among more severely burned forests. I’ll report back on that once we the smoke has cleared and we can better understand the full impact of the fire on the forest.
A change in plans…
And so, I was heading back into the Molalla River corridor on that lonely, rainy Sunday morning in 2018 to photograph the forest scenery in a couple of favorite spots I had found on previous visits. Oddly, I had passed a BLM ranger parked at one of the closed picnic sites, which surprised me on an early spring weekend. Otherwise, I had the place to myself.
Then I came upon a man lying in the middle of the road.
At first, I thought he might be a cyclist who had been struck by a car. The corridor has miles of developed mountain bike trails, but there was no bicycle in sight, nor any vehicle. Had the man in the road been hit and left there? Was he even alive? My heart was pounding as I pulled up. Then, to my relief, the man began waving for help. Thankfully, he was alive! But a wave of fear swept over me as to what his injuries might be.
I jumped from my car and yelled to him, “Are you okay?”
“Yes, but I broke my leg”, he answered, lifting himself awkwardly onto one elbow.
The man looked to be in his mid-30s. His leg was badly broken, and worse, his head was bleeding steadily from just above his left eye. He was lying on wet pavement in blue jeans and a denim jacket, both completely soaked by the steady rain. I was now very concerned about the seriousness of his injuries and whether this man was going into shock.
I ran back to the car to get a fleece blanket to cover him and asked him his name.
With a heavy accent, he said “Daniel. Daniel Hernández” offering me his wallet and identification, as if I’d asked to see it.
Now, this was not the man’s real name. I’ve simply chosen a common Hispanic surname to reflect his ethnicity, as this is central to the story.
“I fell off the cliff and broke my leg” he said, pointing at the 70-foot escarpment directly above the road. Then, quietly repeating to himself, “Damn, that was stupid… I can’t be missing work for this…”.
Kneeling there in the rain beside him, I was struck that he felt I needed to see his identification as he lay there, badly injured. As if he had to justify his presence to me, a bystander and complete stranger.
I wrapped Daniel in the blanket, and told him I had no cell service in the canyon, but that I had seen a BLM ranger a couple miles back, and wanted to drive back to try to catch him. Daniel nodded and asked if I had water for him to drink. I found a plastic cup in the car and left him on the road shivering and sipping water. It felt terrible to leave him behind, but I didn’t dare move him, and the BLM ranger might still be there and have a field radio. I could only hope that Daniel wouldn’t go into shock while I went for help, or even be hit by a car.
As I started to pull away to find help, a blue minivan suddenly appeared from the opposite direction, driving very slowly — warily — down the canyon toward us. The lone, older man inside kept his window up as he approached us, and clearly did not intend to stop. This shocked and angered me, and I jumped back out and waved him down anyway, actually stepping in front of his vehicle. He rolled his window down a few inches, and I asked him to simply stay there to keep an eye on Daniel so that I could go for help.
The man in the blue minivan reluctantly nodded, never saying a word to me or even looking me directly in the eye. He rolled his window back up and full ahead, finally stopping his vehicle a fair distance down the road. This left Daniel lying unprotected on the pavement, 30 feet behind him. The old man was clearly fearful and didn’t want to get involved, which made me both angry and sad. I didn’t blame him for being afraid, and yet his cold indifference was infuriating. Yes, it was a scary situation, but also a very human one. Couldn’t he see that?
I jumped back in my car and raced back down the corridor to the spot where the BLM ranger had been parked, just over a mile from where Daniel lay. I felt a wave of relief to round the final corner and see the ranger loading up his truck. I pulled right up to him, startling him, I think, and told him what was unfolding just up the road. He was a young man in his 20s, but clearly knew what to do. He immediately jumped in his truck and followed me back up the road to the spot where I had left Daniel.
As we approached the spot, the old man in the blue minivan quickly pulled away before we had even reached Daniel, without a word or gesture, even when I waved to him. He didn’t roll down his window or even make eye contact as he drove away. This mostly made me sad. I felt sorry for the old man, now.
The incident now took another scary turn as the BLM ranger struggled to get a 911 call out on his radio. This is apparently an ongoing problem for law enforcement and rescue within the walls of the Molalla River Canyon. He spent an agonizing 20 minutes before he finally got through, and the rain continued to fall.
While the BLM ranger worked his radio, I knelt down by Daniel to ask how he was doing.
“Okay” he replied.
“So, what were you doing up there?” I asked, immediately realizing that I sounded more suspicious than curious.
“I just needed to get out here for some peace and quiet, man. I was exploring that trail and tried to get a look at the river, and the ground just gave way”, he said, pointing to a spot at the top of the cliff where you could see the path of his fall through broken brush and ferns.
“Where’s your car?” I asked.
“Down the road, it’s a white van where the trail starts”, he said.
At this point, the BLM ranger had made radio contact, and called out that an ambulance from nearby Molalla was on the way. He then walked over to us, and stood several feet from where Daniel lay, asking him a similar series of questions, though through the lens of law enforcement. That’s one of the roles a ranger plays on our public lands, and he had clearly seen more than his share of unlawful activity in the corridor. But it was also true that Daniel was presumed suspect, even as he lay badly injured on the road.
In that moment, another wave of unexpected fear passed through me. Had I been naïve in trying to help Daniel? Had I put myself in real danger by stopping to help him?
Daniel offered the ranger his wallet, just as he had offered it to me. The ranger took it, looked at Daniel’s identification, then handed it back. Daniel had been laying there for at least an hour at that point, and was shaking. He asked if one of us had a cigarette. The ranger frowned and said “sorry”. I told Daniel I didn’t have a cigarette, either.
I kneeled there, talking with Daniel for the next 20 minutes as we waited for the ambulance. He was staying with friends near Molalla, and visited the corridor frequently to “get away”. That’s why I was there, too, after all. Yet, the ranger’s suspicion had me wondering about Daniel’s story, now. Daniel continued to quietly lament and blame himself for his fall, wondering how he would manage paying medical bills and the work missed from his injuries. He was genuinely distraught, and as he spoke, the fear and distrust about who he was that had crept into my own mind began to melt away, once again. He was just like me, right?
As we sat there in the rain, me next to Daniel and the ranger back in his truck monitoring the radio, it hit to me that Daniel wasn’t just like me at all. He had none of the security that I so take for granted in life — financial, social and even basic equipment for being in the outdoor. His life was completely different than mine, though we had both come to the forest that day to fulfill the same basic need to recharge and find some peace. Despite our very different worlds, we both needed to step away from life’s troubles and reconnect with nature. It was yet another reminder of the cruel times and divided society we live in, creeping into the sacred public refuge of the Molalla River rainforest.
Finally, we heard both an ambulance and fire engine racing up the road, and I reached out to shake Daniel’s muddy hand to wish him well. Blood was streaked down the side of his soaked face from the wound on his forehead. He squeezed my hand hard, and I felt good about making a human connection with him — even as I secretly felt ashamed of the moments of fear and suspicion that had flashed through my mind since I first found Daniel lying on the road.
When the ambulance pulled up, another wave of relief swept over me. My worst fear had been for Daniel to go into shock, and though I have a fair amount of first aid training, the idea of actually having to treat someone with serious injuries and going in shock really scared me. The rescue workers took over, checking Daniel’s condition and preparing to load him into their ambulance. Once again, Daniel offered up his now soaked wallet and identification, without being asked, and I finally realized this was a familiar, regular ritual for him.
While the rescue team worked with Daniel, I stepped back to chat with the BLM ranger. He could have been me 30 years ago — blond, outdoorsy, just out of college and looking for a career in public lands. He talked about how lawlessness was an ongoing struggle in the corridor for his agency. Despite the popularity of the area, there is still a fair amount of illegal activity, and the BLM is woefully understaffed and unable to provide a consistent presence there.
It was hard to hear such a young, enthusiastic person sound so jaded about those realities, but such is the nature of the work. And yet, it was the fact that Daniel fit a certain profile to the ranger that was most sad to me. Had I been laying on the road, I’m quite sure the reaction would have been different. Because the ranger was just like me… and Daniel was not.
When Daniel had been loaded onto a gurney and moved into the ambulance, I waved at the departing contingent of emergency vehicles and the BLM ranger. Daniel was safe, now, though his troubles in his life brought on by the fall had surely only begun. I’ll never know. We just two strangers brought together for a couple unexpected hours.
After everyone had left, I started back up the Molalla River canyon for an afternoon of soaking up the rainforest beauty. But the incident had rattled me beyond the initial shock of finding a badly injured man in the middle of a road. I spent most of that day reflecting — and regretting — my own feelings and suspicions that had emerged that morning.
On the way out that evening, I was startled to see Daniel’s white van, parked exactly where he said it would be. It was a beat-up 1980s panel van with a temporary license taped inside the rear window. Once again, my suspicions and fears surged at the sight of the old van. It looked sketchy. But why should it have mattered? Nonetheless, it did, because that judgement was in my subconscious, too.
Then I remembered Daniel’s words: “Damn, that was stupid… I can’t be missing work for this…”. I thought about him, probably in a hospital ER at that moment, running up a tab and facing weeks without work. I thought him squeezing my hand. Did he have a family or friends to help him out? Who would come get his van?
We all like to think we’re above our fears and biases, but this was one of those moments when they reared up for me, unexpected and unwelcome. How little we know about ourselves until we are pushed outside our comfort zones, and how very jarring those hidden feelings can be when they emerge.
And so, I resumed stewing about these many conflicting emotions for the long, rainy drive home in the dark that night… and for the next couple years.
* * * * * * *
I shared this story with friends and family through social media the next day, and received all manner of unexpected praise that I certainly wasn’t looking for. This only made me feel more uncomfortable and ashamed of the mixed emotions I had felt. Yes, I had helped this man, but in the moment, I had also moved toward fear and suspicion at the slightest suggestion. These are details I had not shared in my retelling at the time, and wished I had. It felt hollow and disingenuous, and I wished I had kept the entire story to myself.
So, I tucked away my notes and thoughts about the incident, periodically picking it up over the past two years and trying to figure out why it had impacted me so. Then the video of the brutal killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer swept across our already fraught social landscape last May. For so many Americans, it crystalized an urgency to finally confront the racial divides that continue to plague our society. It forced the question, “what can we do as individuals to finally end this?”
For me, the George Floyd murder took me back to Daniel Hernández. Yes, the situation was very different, but the same underlying current was there: an injured Hispanic man feeling obliged to hand over his documentation — his right to be there — to a white bystander, to a white law enforcement officer and to white emergency responders. Daniel knows he belongs to an underclass in our society, and he knew his fate that day depended on navigating the assumptions that white strangers make about him every day. That includes me, the BLM ranger, and rescue unit… and the suspicious old man in the blue minivan.
What can I do? Small steps…
Since that incident in 2018, I had been actively examining my own unconscious biases and looking for ways to be a better social advocate and ally for change, as I clearly have some unconscious biases that need to be worked through. This blog is about our public lands in WyEast Country, so I would like to share how I am putting those ideas to work when I’m out in the forest. They are very small steps, but the old trail analogy applies: a few small steps are how we begin any important journey in our lives.
For me, one overdue step was to simply get to know Hispanic culture, since this represents the largest and fastest growing minority population in Oregon (and across the country). I’m an Oregon native, and yet I knew embarrassingly little about this rapidly growing part of the Oregon family, much less the longer Hispanic history of the West that preceded white migration and settlement.
So, I decided to learn Spanish. This continues to be a choppy work in progress that has been both humbling and hopeful, but one that I remain committed to. This first step was suggested to me by a Hispanic co-worker who had immigrated to Oregon in the 1990s, and described how welcoming and inclusive it felt when an English speaker would greet her in Spanish, and even attempt a conversation, depending on their Spanish skills.
I was nervous about this idea at first, as it seemed presumptuous and perhaps even racist. Who am I to presume someone is Hispanic based on appearance or even overhearing them speak? But she was exactly right. I gave it a try, and the reaction has almost always the same: friendly and appreciative. Now, when I run into Spanish speakers on the trail, I greet them as I do everyone, but instead of “Hi”, it’s “¡Hola!” I don’t know for sure, but I suspect part of the surprise is hearing a greeting in Spanish from me, a decidedly old white guy who might not seem like a friendly face in today’s racially divisive culture. But this makes it even more rewarding for me!
Earlier this year, on a very busy Memorial Day at Silver Falls State Park, I passed dozens of hikers, including many Hispanic families. Sometimes there was a moment of surprise when I would greet them in Spanish — whois this old white dude greeting me in Spanish? But then faces would typically light up, especially from parents with young kids, and I would get an enthusiastic “¡Hola!” and “¿Cómo estás?” (“How are you?”). And I would reply “Muy bien” (“Very good”) … and then I’d have to switch to English and point out that my Spanish is pretty terrible, but I’m working on it! Even that admission usually brings broad smiles, which is doubly rewarding.
I wish I had figured this out a long time ago, but I’m thankful my Hispanic friend encouraged me take this small step. She as right, and it turns out to be much more important step than I’d imagined.
In our mind’s eye, we imagine that everyone else sees us as the enlightened human beings we aspire to be, exactly equal to everyone else. But I’m learning that being white brings along heavy baggage when it comes to meeting black and brown people on our public lands. We know this because of extensive research on the subject than runs across the spectrum of people of color. But if you are a white person wants to believe that you are welcoming and without bias, it can be hard to accept this truth.
So, if I want to be part of changing that legacy, it means owning the reality that my being white is a highly privileged status in our society, and rethinking how I interact with people of color when I’m out on the trail is how I can be part of changing that injustice.
Public lands are for everyone? Not quite…
By the year 2040, our country is expected to be “majority minority”, thanks to the large and diverse Millennial generation coming of age, and an even more diverse Zoomer generation, right behind them. Whites will still make up the largest racial category for decades to come, but we will become just another minority in the larger, increasingly diverse population. So, that means the racial tensions that stem from a white majority will resolve themselves over time… right?
Possibly. But here’s the concerning news for the present: public lands continue to the be the overwhelming realm of white people, with a much less diverse cross-section of visitors compared to the overall population. The chart below from Resources for the Future shows the wide discrepancy:
Why is this? Partly culture and tradition, but research shows that most people of color fear hostility and open racism when visiting our public lands — including those who actively hike, camp and fish there, despite their apprehensions. Think about that: people of color seeking the same release from societal pressures that white people seek with time spent in nature are denied that because of the color of their skin.
This unjust reality is well documented in research and should be an urgent wake-up call. Research shows people of color reporting reactions of surprise and stares from white people they encounter on the trail, which carries an unmistakable (however unintended) message of “what are YOU doing out here? Many have outright racism, as well. This is real and it’s unacceptable.
I’d like to think that very few white people behave this way intentionally, but the good news is that remedy is very simple: be welcoming. A smile and a friendly “Hello!” is an easy enough start. If you’re hopelessly introverted, just a warm smile or wave will also do. Still friendlier options are “Beautiful day!” or “Isn’t it beautiful out here?”. These are easy greetings to offer, and I always leave every hiker I pass with “Have a great hike!”. This welcoming ethic should apply to every other activity on our public lands, of course.
Sometimes, you’ll get no response, but that happens when I greet other white people, too. Given the current reality for people of color on our public lands, I believe white people like me have an obligation to be part of the solution. It’s a pretty small step that anyone can take — and should.
I may not be able to stop racist taunts from happening (something far too many people of color report from their experiences on our public lands, sadly), but at least I can show that as white individual, I’m committed to a different, more egalitarian future. That’s also the connection to the broader movement happening in our country, too. We can all make a difference by learning and rethinking about our own actions in everyday life. Being welcoming is a small but important step we can all take, whether on a trail, or anywhere.
1. relating to or believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.
“a fairer, more egalitarian society”
1. a person who advocates or supports egalitarian principles.
There’s also a serious conservation concern that stems from the lack of diversity on our public lands, too. If our country will soon be majority minority, and people of color have not been welcomed on our public lands, then we’re headed for a time when only a few privileged white Americans will be truly invested in conserving our natural landscapes.
I’ve been a lifelong advocate for trails public lands because they’re an egalitarian gateway to nature. While we might argue about exactly how to manage our public lands, spending time out there ensures that we all value them as special, essential spaces in our lives. Resolving to become more welcoming to people of color on our public lands has special importance in this respect. Extending a greeting is not just a welcome, it’s also a validation that acknowledges another person’s right to be there, that we ALL own these lands and we are all responsible for passing them along to the next generation. When you think about it, that’s a profoundly unifying responsibility and common purpose that could go a long way in healing a fractured society.
* * * * * * *
And this takes me back to Daniel Hernández. I finally figured out that what bothered me most about that incident in the Molalla River corridor back in 2018. Where I felt a perfect right to be out in the forest that day, Daniel knew that he didn’t share that right. On paper, perhaps, but every white person he encountered that day also carried the implicit right — privilege — to judge his motives for being there, and therefore his basic right. And while I did want to help him, I was also part of that judging, even if for a few moments of doubt and fear.
As a white person, justifying my right to be somewhere is a burden I will never have to carry. But it’s also privilege I don’t have to exercise. That’s why I’m committed to changing my own interactions with brown and black people in whatever years I have left on this planet. For me, that starts with learning, listening and questioning my own behavior, and then accepting and welcoming all who are out there soaking of the forest, just like me.
Our public lands are a priceless gift from generations before us, and for so many, they are an essential refuge from life’s burdens. Now, the task is to ensure the survival of our public lands by ensuring that all Americans can experience the same joy, freedom and sense of peace they offer. It’s the egalitarian promise of our public lands. I believe we all have a responsibility to realize that promise, and the time is right now.
* * * * * * *
I know this article is long and a bit of a departure from what I usually write about on this blog, but if you’ve read this far, I appreciate you taking the time. It’s a tough subject to confront, and you may not even agree with my conclusions. But I’m always thankful for the opportunity to share my own experience with reflections with folks who share my love for WyEast Country!
Here are some resources on the topic that I found helpful, but there is much more out there on the subject that’s both informative and transformative:
“The Barlow Cutoff” by William Henry Jackson (1930)
One of the loneliest landmarks in WyEast Country is approaching the century mark, and while the years have not been kind, it’s a spot that deserves to be preserved. The place is the Pioneer Woman’s Grave, located along a long-bypassed section of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway.
Roadbuilders discovered the grave in 1924 while building the original loop road. The grave was marked by an old wagon tongue and the remains of a woman were buried in a makeshift box built from wagon sideboards. Based on oral histories from Barlow Road tollgate operators, some historians believe this woman was survived by her husband and two young children, who continued on to the Willamette Valley after burying her here in the mid-1840s.
The Pioneer Woman’s Grave is just off OR 35 where a surviving section of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway heads off into the forest
The grave is located just east of the busy US 26/OR 35 interchange, where a small, brown sign along modern OR 35 points to the historic site along a scenic and surprisingly well-preserved section of the original highway route. Today, the site is underwhelming, to say the least. The grave is marked by a haphazard pile of stones on the shoulder of the old road, and “graced” with all manner of ephemera left by visitors.
Pioneer Woman’s Grave in 2020
Several years ago, the Forest Service installed a new interpretive sign broadly describing the origins of the grave, but without much cultural context or detail. The sign is mounted in a heavy timber frame that gives a nod to a much larger, carved version built here in the 1930s.
Relatively new Forest Service interpretive sign at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave
A brass plaque near the grave was placed here by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a non-profit organization that maintains historic markers around Oregon (and the country). The original plaque was installed on the grave, itself. The current plaque was moved to a boulder a few feet from the grave in 1982.
D.A.R. plaque at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave
D.A.R. plaque at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave
Beyond the signs and plaques, the Pioneer Woman’s Grave historic site can only be described as rundown and shabby. The set of timber steps that climb a low berm that fronts the site is rotting away. Foot traffic has largely bypassed the crude steps and trampled whatever vegetation was once growing along the berm.
Crumbling wood steps at the grave memorial
The wood cross on the Pioneer Woman’s Grave is long gone, and the remaining pile of rocks doesn’t exactly inspire reverence and respect. The few who might notice the nearby dedication plaque and interpretive sign learn that this is a grave site, but the overall scene is haphazard and kind of sad.
Remembrances… or Disrespect?
In recent years, “offerings” left by visitors have escalated at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave. They range from flowers and sentimental toys to a few religious tokens left in earnest. But mostly, the memorial has become cacophony of random tchotchkes that have little to do with the site or respect for the human remains that lie beneath the stones. To give a sense of the scene, here’s recent sampling of these offerings from a few weeks ago:
Flowers, fir cones and a plastic robot…
…superhero metal CDs…
…bubble gum and taco sauce…
…Minions, ammunition and COVID masks…
…and a severed jumper cable clamp.
If the original intent of this roadside monument was to honor nameless migrants who perished along Oregon Trail, then today’s version has lost its way. The Pioneer Woman’s Grave deserves better, and even some modest improvements would bring needed dignity to the site. More about that in a moment, but first, there is inspiration to be gained from other historic burial sites along the Oregon Trail.
Remembering the dead along the Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail was a dangerous, often deadly trip for white migrants crossing into the West, with an estimated 1 in 10 dying along the way. Most were buried where they died, and their surviving families simply continued their push westward. Many of these graves are now preserved and celebrated as part of our traditional view of white settlement of the West.
In the early 1970s, one of these graves along a branch of the Oregon Trail, just east of Casper, Wyoming, was uncovered while a rancher was building a new road. Anthropology students from Casper College exhumed the remains and discovered this to be the burial place of 1852 pioneer Quintina Snodderly.
For many years, the Quintina Snodderly story was a mystery until owners of the ranch tracked down a descendent living in Scio, Oregon. We know from her skeletal remains that she was likely crushed under a wagon wheel, perhaps stumbling or falling while walking aside a wagon. Most who arrived on the Oregon Trail walked much of the way to reduce the burden for ox teams pulling heavy wagons.
Quintina’s surviving husband Jacob and their eight children made it to Scio, in the mid-Willamette Valley of the Oregon Territory, by the fall of 1852. Jacob died in 1889 at the age of 78, thirty years after Oregon became a state in 1859, and is buried in Scio.
Newly restored Quintina Snodderly grave as it appeared in 1987 (findagrave.com)
The Oregon-California Trail Association took the lead in reburying Quintina Snodderly’s remains in 1987, covering the grave with cobbles that replicated typical burials along the trail in the mid-1800s and surrounding the grave site with a wooden corral fence (above) to help preserve it. An interpretive marker (below) describes Quintina Snodderly’s journey and story.
Quintina Snodderly plaque placed by the Oregon-California Trails Association (findagrave.com)
Not far from the Snodderly grave in the North Platte valley of Wyoming are the twin graves of Martin Ringo and J.P. Parker, who also died along the Oregon Trail. Parker was from Iowa and died in 1860, though nothing else is known about him. Martin Ringo died tragically from a self-inflicted shotgun injury that was graphically described in newspaper accounts of the day:
“Just after daylight on the morning of July 30, 1864 Mr. Ringo stepped out… of the wagon, as I suppose, for the purpose of looking around to see if Indians were in sight and his shotgun went off accidentally in his own hands, the load entering at his right eye and coming out at the top of his head. At the report of his gun I saw his hat blown up 20 feet in the air and his brains were scattered in all directions. I never saw a more heartrending sight, and to see the distress and agony of his wife and children was painful in the extreme. Mr. Ringo’s death cast a gloom over the whole company… He was buried near the place he was shot in as decent a manner as was possible with the facilities on the plains” (Liberty Missouri Tribune, 1864)
Martin Ringo’s legacy played out after his death when his grieving widow Mary pushed forward, eventually raising their children in California’s Central Valley. Their oldest son John, who was 14 years old when his father was killed, brought infamy to the respected family name. He emerged as an outlaw and gunfighter in Arizona, the man known as Johnny Ringo who was killed near Tombstone, Arizona. His murder is unsolved, but speculation has included a revenge killing by either Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp, notoriety that Martin Ringo couldn’t have imagined for his son!
The J.P. Parker and Martin Ringo graves near Casper, Wyoming (WyomingHistory.org)
Like the Snodderly grave, the Ringo-Parker graves are located on private ranch land, but have been preserved with a simple metal rail fence and marked with an interpretive marker placed by the Oregon-California Trails Association.
The Pioneer Woman’s grave was discovered during construction of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway in 1924, and were later placed under a cobble grave by road workers, much as Oregon Trail migrants buried their dead along the trail. A small cross was added to the grave (below). This soon became a popular stop for motorists along the new loop highway.
First restoration of the Pioneer Woman’s Grave along the (then unpaved) Mount Hood Loop Highway in the early 1930s
According to the Forest Service, the restored Pioneer Woman’s Grave was formally dedicated in 1931 by Forest Supervisor Thomas Sherrard and members of the Portland Progressive Club. Based on the photo of the ceremony (below), the site wasn’t improved for visitors at the time, simply marked as a gravesite.
Dedication of the restored Pioneer Woman’s Grave in 1931 (USFS)
In 1936, the DAR added a plaque to the grave, and shortly thereafter, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) craftsmen working with the Forest Service placed a large interpretive sign there that would stand for many years.
1930s view of the Pioneer Woman’s Grave with the large, carved Forest Service sign added to the site. Note the original DAR plaque installed on the grave, itself.
1930s postcard with the sign text replaced and reversed for easier reading!
The DAR has marked another “unknown” Oregon pioneer grave to the west, the Pioneer Child Grave in Multnomah County. This historic grave also survived highway builders, albeit on an epic scale compared to the Pioneer Woman’s Grave. In 1849 a family traveling the Columbia Gorge route of the Oregon Trail camped at a spring near today’s Wilkes School on their final push to Oregon City. That night, their 11-year-old daughter died, apparently after a long illness. She was buried there in the next day in a makeshift coffin and her parents moved on to Oregon City, never returning.
The current location of the Pioneer Child’s grave memorial is at the corner of NE 169th and Wilkes Avenue in Gresham.
The story of the Pioneer Child later caught the imagination of students at the original Wilkes School, located near the grave, and they took it upon themselves to build a picket fence around the site and tend to the grave. In 1949, the construction of the original Banfield Freeway threatened the grave, and a former student of Wilkes School began a campaign to mark the grave with a memorial to protect it from future freeway widening. Finally, in 1955 a large boulder brought in by the Union Pacific Railroad was placed at the grave and a bronze plaque describing the site history was installed and dedicated.
In 1989 a freeway widening project once again threatened the grave and memorial. The DAR worked with highway engineers to relocated the Pioneer Child memorial to the south side of the widened Banfield Freeway, at what is now the corner of 149th and Wilkes Road. The original grave site is also marked by a plaque set in concrete along the Union Pacific Railroad, on the opposite side of the freeway from the memorial and inaccessible to the public.
The Daughters of the American Revolution placed this plaque on the Pioneer Child grave when the first Banfield Freeway was constructed in the early 1950s
Over the years volunteers have periodically tended to the grave, though the location in front of the freeway maintenance gate and adjacent, massive freeway sound wall still seems precarious. The monument is directly across from the modern Wilkes School, and perhaps someday the school grounds might make for a more respectful and protected location.
Telling the whole story
Romanticized scenes showing Indians and white migrants in peaceful interaction continue the myth that white settlement of Indian lands was a “manifest destiny”.
In recent years, our traditional view of the Oregon Trail has continued to evolve as white Americans have begun to acknowledge the role of white settlement in the West as a major contributor to the broader genocide of Native Americans who had lived here for millennia. For their part, Indians living along the migration route were largely friendly and helpful to white settlers. This, despite the threat the steady stream of migrants posed to their way of life and how white mythology portrayed “hostile Indians” in our history and arts. In fact, more Indians than whites were killed in trail conflicts between the migrants and the native peoples whose lands the Oregon Trail invaded.
This larger story deserves more attention as we continue to curate the history of the Oregon Trail along its route, not just the story of the white migrants who traveled it. Some newer interpretive signs have begun to acknowledge that white American myths celebrating the western migration completely ignore the devastating toll and continued trauma that genocide has wrought upon Native Americans. We still have a long way to go in our society reckoning. A simple start would be to include an Indian perspective at every site where more than a simple grave marker exists.
What could the future hold for the Pioneer Woman?
1940s visitor and the massive Pioneer Woman’s Grave sign that was installed in the 1930s
Despite the somewhat new interpretive sign, the Pioneer Woman’s Grave on Mount Hood has become a sad and disrespectful eyesore. So, what could be done to improve it and pay more appropriate respect to the history of the site? The other Oregon Trail graves described in this article provide some working examples of how the site might be restored.
But the Pioneer Woman’s Grave is different, since it lies along the final stretch of the migration route to Oregon. That these pioneers came close to their dream of reaching the Willamette Valley, only to fall short by a few days is especially poignant. Does a pile of rocks convey that cruel fate? Not really. But what about a more formal marker?
Pioneer cemeteries on both side of the Cascades include many white migrants who traveled the trail, and drawing from the period style of these cemeteries could be an appropriate way to bring more dignity to the Pioneer Woman’s Grave that a heap of stones. Fine examples exist in a pair of cemeteries located in the lonely Kingsley district, just off the original Barlow Road route, on the east side of Mount Hood (and featured in this recent article on Desert Mounds). These historic cemeteries are filled with pioneer graves, most in the Victorian-style of the mid-1800s. Many include wrought-iron fences to mark family plots, as seen in this example from the upper cemetery in Kingsley (below).
The Upper Kingsley Cemetery in the desert country east of Mount Hood lies along the Barlow Road and has many graves dating to the mid-to-late 1800s. This cemetery provides inspiration for period-specific grave fencing and monuments that could be appropriate for the Pioneer Woman’s grave.
Creating a fenced, mini-cemetery could be a historically accurate way to protect the Pioneer Woman’s Grave from foot traffic and bring a sense of dignity to the site. For example, the decapitated obelisk monument (perhaps it once had a cross on top?) shown below is also in the upper Kingsley Cemetery, and dates to the late 1800s. A monument like this could also provide a non-religious model for more formally marking the Pioneer Woman’s Grave in a period-specific manner.
This century-old monument in the Upper Kingsley Cemetery lost its top, but could still be a model for a new marker at a rededicated Pioneer Woman’s Grave.
While these treatments would depart from the crude graves that were built along the Oregon Trail, they do represent what pioneers would have placed upon these graves if they’d had the means — and how they marked graves of the era in the pioneer settlements they created along the trail and in the Willamette Valley.
Other details at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave need attention, too. The crude timber steps placed in the road embankment don’t do justice to the site, nor do they help visitors. Most simply walk up the dirt slope. A low stone retaining wall with more substantial steps and a ramp would be a welcome addition in a site makeover.
A real missed opportunity at the current site is the proximity to one of the best-preserved sections of the original Barlow Road, located just a few yards from the Pioneer Woman’s Grave, where the trail fords a fork of the Salmon River. This could make for an excellent interpretive trail, perhaps built to be accessible so that visitors with limited mobility or using mobility devices could experience traveling in the path of pioneer wagons.
Deep ruts left by pioneer wagons are plainly visible just a few yards from the Pioneer Woman’s Grave and could be incorporated into the interpretive experience (Photo by John Sparks and OregonHikers.org)
Perhaps most importantly, the site needs context about the native people whose trails the Barlow Road borrowed as it was blazed over the shoulder of Mount Hood by Sam Barlow. Today’s tribes continue to fish and gather berries and other foods and plant materials from the forest, as they have for millennia. This is just one story from an Indian perspective that could be told as part of providing cultural context and acknowledging the ultimate cost of white migration to native peoples at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave.
How to Visit?
Though our forests are currently closed by fires, you can walk a section of the original wagon route from Barlow Road to the Pioneer Woman’s Grave describe in this Oregon Hikers Field Guide entry. And you can always simply stop by the grave by following the old highway segment west from the Barlow Pass trailhead or following signs on OR 35 just past the US 26 junction.