Archive for the ‘Natural History’ category

Warren Falls: A Postscript (Part 1 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So very close… but not this time…

[click here for a larger view]

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

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

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

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Warren Falls flows briefly in 2015

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

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

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

Postscript… and premonition?

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

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

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OPB crew at Warren Falls in 2012

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

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OPB crew above Warren Falls in 2012

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

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

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

Which brings me to…

(Not so) Secrets of the Monkey Wrench Gang…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Future Holds: Warren’s Cousins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The derelict diversion channel at White River Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The mill town of Bridal Veil in the early 1900s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls as it exists today

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

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

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…and a still closer look…

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

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

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

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Mill relics hiding under moss at Bridal Veil Falls

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

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[click here for a larger version]

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[click here for a larger version]

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

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

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

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

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

Warren Falls Lives!

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large version]

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large version]

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

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

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

Meanwhile, we wait… and watch.

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

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

 An Overdue Warren Falls Update (and a bombshell!)

“Warren Falls Lives… Again?”

Warren Falls Solutions

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

 Warren Falls Mystery… Solved!

Restoring Warren Creek Falls

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Warren Falls on Oregon Field Guide

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Restore Warren Falls on Facebook!

 

 

 

Dollar Lake Fire: Five Years After

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

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

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

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The Dollar Lake Fire burning below Elk Cove

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

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

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Flare-up in the Dollar Lake Fire in August 2011

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

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Location of the Dollar Lake and Gnarl fires

 [click here for a large map]

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

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Timeline and extent of the Dollar Lake fire

[click here for a large map]

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

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

 [click here for a large map]

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

Summer 2012: Immediate Aftermath

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Total destruction along Vista Ridge in 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016: Five Years of Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pioneers

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

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

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Fireweed crowding the Vista Ridge Trail in 2016

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

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

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Showy blooms of Fireweed in late summer on Vista Ridge

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

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

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

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Huckleberry seedlings emerging on Vista Ridge

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

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

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

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

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

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Rush growing in a moist hollow on Vista Ridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Young Mountain hemlock in the Dollar Burn in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long View?

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Hazard tree warning at the Vista Ridge trailhead

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

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

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Toppled surviving Noble fir in the burn zone in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Click here for a larger version]

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

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

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

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

Fireweed: a rose by any other name..?

September 5, 2016
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Fireweed frames Umbrella Falls on the East Fork Hood River

Somewhere in the long history of botanical naming slander was committed, as the common name “Fireweed” was given to one of the most beautiful and useful plants found in our forests – and around the world. Thus, the noble Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) comes to be associated with notoriously invasive plants like Horseweed, Bindweed, Chickweed, Tumbleweed and Pigweed!

But Fireweed is anything but a weed, at least by the most common definitions:

weed  (wēd) noun

A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one that grows where it is not wanted and often grows or spreads fast or takes the place of desired plants.

To the contrary, Fireweed is a widespread native in northern latitudes, growing from sea level to timberline in a remarkable range of habitats. The common name is half-right, as Fireweed is among the first and most prolific plants to return to burned areas, performing an essential role in stabilizing soil and providing shade for other flora to gradually return. Fireweed is equally at home in moist meadows, forest margins and wherever the ground has been disturbed by human or natural activity.

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Fireweed has carpeted the 2011 Dollar Fire on the north slopes of Mount Hood

The string of fires over the past decade on the east and north slopes of Mount Hood have brought a sea of brilliant Fireweed blossoms to the mountain each summer. Fireweed spreads readily by seed, but are hardy perennials, so they provide years of soil stabilization once established in burned forests or disturbed areas.

Fireweed blossoms are spectacular: their spikes can grow as tall as six feet, though typically they are 3-4 feet in height. Their flowering plumes can have 50 or more blossoms, opening first at the base of the spike and progressing through their long blooming season, typically from June to September.

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Fireweed flower spike

Each Fireweed blossom has four petals that alternate with four narrow sepals, surrounding white stamen and a pistil that splits in fourths.

Depending on your eyes, the blossoms are anything from hot pink to bright fuchsia. The flower stems are often bright crimson, as well, adding to the striking appearance of these plants during their bloom season.

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Fireweed flower spike

The leaves on Fireweed long, narrow strips, radiating from the stem like steps on a ladder. Their leaves give the Fireweed its Latin name of “angustifolium” (meaning narrow-leaved). A close look at the leaves reveals an unusual feature: circular veins looping back to the leaf stem instead of terminating at the edges like most plants.

Given their adaptability to the wide range of habitats we have in Oregon, it’s not surprising that Fireweed is found across much of North America, as well as northern Europe:

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Fireweed is especially common in the boreal snow forests of Alaska and Canada, where the provincial flag of the Yukon Territory incorporates the Fireweed blossom:

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While Fireweed has an important ecological role as a pioneer species in burned areas, it was also collected by native peoples in the Northwest for a variety of human uses. Its leaves were brewed to make tea, and nutrient-rich spring shoots were collected as edible greens. Even the fluffy silk from its seed pods were used for weaving.

Today, Fireweed honey and other products from its nectar are still made where the flower is in abundance in places like Alaska, Canada and Northern Europe.

Fireweed Life Cycle

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Young Fireweed patch in a recently burned area

Fireweed is a perennial species with the spirit of an annual. While it springs to life from hardy roots and stems each spring, Fireweed grows as easily from its abundant seeds as any annual species, and thus its ability to quickly colonize burned or disturbed areas.

Young plants often produce one large flower spike and a couple of small spikes from auxiliary buds along the main stem. The young Fireweed shown in the photo above are typical, with young plants growing in a dense patch, each producing one main flower spike.

As Fireweed plants continue to grow over successive seasons, they form multiple branches, each with one or more large flower spike. In this way, a single mature plant is eventually capable of producing dozens of spikes. The image below shows a larger, mature Fireweed with several large flower clusters growing from the main plant.

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Mature Fireweed with multiple stems

Just as the blossoms of Fireweed open progressively beginning from the base of the flower spikes toward, older blossoms soon produce elongated pink seed capsules (below) even as the tip of the flower spike is still producing blossoms.

Within each capsule, seeds are attached to a fluff of silk that acts as a tiny parachute to carry them far and wide when the capsule splits open. This is the secret to the Fireweed’s remarkable ability to colonize.

A single Fireweed plant can produce 300 to 400 seeds per capsule and as many as 80,000 seeds per plant that will float as far as the wind will take them. Seeds can persist in the soil for years and survive fire, further helping the plant function as a pioneer species in burned areas.

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Fireweed seed capsules opening to reveal silk seed parachutes (USDA)

Fireweed seedlings quickly grow to form their first flower spike and produce seeds by their second year, while also establishing rhizomes that allow mature plants to spread and form clumps.

The first seedlings in a burn often take root where fire debris provides protection and mulch, with new plants quickly filling in the gaps in the first years after a fire. First year Fireweed seedlings look like this:

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First year Fireweed seedlings

This two-year old seedling is coming into its prime in a still scorched area of the Dollar Fire burn, along the Vista Ridge trail:

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Second-year Fireweed with a main flower spike and several auxiliary spikes

This more mature Fireweed plant has begun to spread its rhizomes and form a clump as it sends up multiple flower spikes in a protected spot by a fallen tree:

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Mature Fireweed

Adding to their colorful display, Fireweed leaves often turn to blazing shades of red and crimson in autumn, another showy feature of this remarkable plant:

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Fireweed foliage in autumn shades of red (USDA)

At higher elevations, the perennial stems of Fireweed are flattened by winter snowpack, but can survive the winter cold to produce broader clumps when new growth emerges in the next growing season.

What’s in a name?

With all of its beauty, versatility and ecological function, why isn’t the Fireweed more celebrated – outside of the Yukon Territory, that is?

Oh, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”

(Juliet Capulet, upon seeing her first Fireweed..?)

 One reason might be its humble name, so one option would be to revert to the British name of “Rosebay Willowherb”, a common name with origins in its herbal use dating to the late 1500s.

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Fireweed frames Mount Hood from Waucoma Ridge

But in the spirit of bucking norms and traditions, how another option that could be a more complimentary, modern version of it’s weedy current name? Like Fireroot? Or Fireflower? How about Fireleaf? Nope… doesn’t quite work.

How about… Firestar! Hmm… this minor adjustment would honor its essential role in stabilizing burned forests, but with a positive spin – after all, it is a “star” in this role! What do you think?

Yes, it would be a really big lift. A quick web search reveals an aerospace company, energy crystals, software brand, sci-fi novel, rolling fire doors and… a mutant Marvel Comics superheroine! If all of the above are anything like the Yukon Territory, they’d be honored to share their corporate namesake with a beautiful wildflower, right?

Where to see Fire…. star!

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Fireweed crowds the Vista Ridge trail as it passes through the Dollar Fire burn

I’m not really sure how to go about establishing a new common name for a flower, but since many have multiple common names, it must be possible. So, why not try?

In that spirit, here are a couple of trails where you can enjoy magnificent displays of Firestar on the slopes of Mount Hood from mid-July into September:

Elk Cove Trail: this moderately steep trail travels through the heart of the 2011 Dollar Fire, passing near the origin of the fire just below the Coe Overlook and lots of Firestar. The overlook makes a good stopping point for those looking for a shorter hike, though Elk Cove is always a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

Vista Ridge to Eden Park & Cairn Basin: this moderately graded trail hikes through the western expanse of the 2011 Dollar Fire, passing fields of Firestar along the way before looping through idyllic Eden Park and Cairn Basin. Be prepared for a couple crossings of Ladd Creek, a glacial stream that fluctuates with summer melt on hot afternoons.

Enjoy!

A New Vision: Restoring Hiyu Mountain

July 31, 2016
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Early 1900s view of Mount Hood and Bull Run Lake, with Hiyu Mountain on the far right and Sentinel Peak on the left

Hidden in plain sight at the foot of Mount Hood and the headwaters of Portland’s Bull Run watershed, Hiyu Mountain is a little-known, much abused gem. No one knows why this graceful, crescent-shaped mountain was named with the Chinook jargon word for “much” or “many”, and sadly, only a very few know of Hiyu Mountain today.

This little mountain deserves better. The broader vision of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign is to heal and restore Mount Hood and the Gorge as a place for conservation and sustainable recreation, ending a century of increasing commercial exploitation and profiteering. As part of this vision, Hiyu Mountain could once again become a place of “hiyu” beauty, where snowcapped WyEast fills the horizon and where Bull Run Lake, indigo source of Portland’s drinking water, could finally be seen and celebrated by the public these lands belong to.

Two Worlds

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Dodge Island and Mount Hood from Bull Run Lake; Hiyu Mountain is the tall, crescent-shaped ridge rising behind the island (photo courtesy Guy Meacham)

Hiyu Mountain rises 1,500 feet directly above Bull Run Lake, the uppermost source of Portland’s water supply. Lolo Pass is on the south shoulder of the mountain, connecting the Hood River and Sandy River valleys. The two sides of Hiyu Mountain mountain couldn’t be more different.

The northern slope that forms the shoreline of the Bull Run Lake is almost untouched by man, almost as pristine as it was when the Bull Run Watershed was established in the late 1800s.

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Early 1900s map of Hiyu Mountain and Bull Run Lake

Massive old growth Noble fir forests tower along these northern slopes, where rain and snow from Pacific storm fronts is captured, emerging in the crystal mountain springs that form the headwaters of the Bull Run River.

Almost no one visits this part of Bull Run, save for an occasional Portland Water Bureau worker. This land has been strictly off-limits to the public for nearly 120 years, and remained untouched even as the Bull Run Reserve was developed as a municipal watershed.

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Early 1900s map showing Hiyu Mountain and the first trails over Lolo Pass

On the south slope of Hiyu Mountain things were surprisingly pristine until the 1950s. This area was also part of the original Bull Run Reserve, but was later ceded – in large part because the south slopes of Hiyu Mountain drain to the Clear Fork of the Sandy River, and away from the Bull Run watershed.

Since the 1950s, a conspiracy of forces has almost completely altered the south face of the mountain and its summit crest. By the mid-1950s, the Forest Service had begun what would become an extensive industrial logging zone here, mining ancient trees in dozens of sprawling, high-elevation clear cuts in the remote Clear Fork valley.

These forests will take centuries to recover, and are today mostly thickets of plantation conifers in woeful need of thinning. The maze of logging roads constructed to cut the forests are now buckling and sliding into disrepair on the steep mountain slopes.

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1927 map of Hiyu Mountain, Bull Run Lake and the south corner of Lost Lake

By the late 1950s, a logging road had finally pushed over the crest of Lolo Pass. At just 3,330 feet, Lolo is the lowest of mountain passes on Mount Hood and a route long used by Native Americans. But surprisingly, it was the last to see a road in modern times. The road over Lolo Pass coincided with the completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957, some 50 miles east on the Columbia River.

While the dam is most notorious for drowning Cello Falls, a place where native peoples had lived, fished and traded for millennia, it also sent half-mile wide power transmission corridors west to Portland and south to California. Thus, the new road over Lolo Pass enabled the most egregious insult to Hiyu Mountain, with the parade of transmission towers we see today tragically routed over the shoulder of Mount Hood.

The power corridor took advantage of the easy passage over Lolo Pass, an absence of tourists and public awareness (at the time) on this remote side of the mountain, and was built with complete disregard for the natural landscape. It remains as Mount Hood’s worst scar.

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The Bonneville Power Administration’s quarter-mile wide perpetual clearcut that follows their transmission lines over the shoulder of Hiyu Mountain

 Today, the south side of Hiyu Mountain remains a jarring landscape of ragged clearcuts, failing logging roads and the quarter-mile wide swath of power lines.

With regular clearing and herbicides, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) ensures that nothing much grows under its transmission lines except invasive weeds. It’s a perpetual, linear clearcut that serves primarily as a place for illegal dumping and a shooting range for lawless gun owners who ignore (or shoot) the hundreds of BPA “no trespassing” signs. It is truly an ugly and shameful scene that cries out for a better management vision.

The Lookout Era

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The original lookout tower on Mount Hood in the late 1920s

By 1929, the Forest Service had built a 20-foot wooden lookout tower with an open platform atop Hiyu Mountain (above). It was an ideal location, with sweeping views of both the Bull Run Reserve and the entire northwest slope of Mount Hood. A roof was soon added to the original structure, but in 1933 a more standard L-4 style lookout cabin replaced the original structure (below). The new lookout provided enclosed living quarters for lookout staff, complete with a cot, table and wood stove – and an Osborne fire finder in the center of the one-room lookout.

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The 1933 Hiyu Mountain Lookout in the 1950s

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Osborne Fire finder in the 1930s (USDA)

When the new Hiyu Mountain lookout was constructed in 1933, the Forest Service was also completing a comprehensive photographic survey from its hundreds of lookout sites throughout Oregon. These photos are now an invaluable historical record. Forest Service photographers used a special panoramic camera to capture the full sweep of the view from each lookout, creating a trio of connecting panoramas from each location.

The following photographs are taken from a panoramic survey at Hiyu Mountain in 1934, and tell us what the area looked like in those early days.

The first photo (below) looks north, toward Bull Run Lake, but also shows the fresh fire lane cut into the forest along the Bull Run Reserve boundary – visible on the right and along the ridge at the top of the photo.

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Bull Run Lake from Hiyu Mountain in 1934

(click here for a larger photo)

The fire lane is no longer maintained and has now largely reforested. The northern view also shows a simple wind gauge mounted on a pole below the lookout tower and the perfect cone of Mt. St. Helens on the horizon, as it existed before its catastrophic 1980 eruption.

The view to the northeast (below) shows Mount Adams on the distant horizon, and a completely logged West Fork Hood River valley, below. The Mount Hood Lumber Company milled the old growth trees cut from this valley at the mill town of Dee, on the Hood River. The ruins of their company town (and a few surviving structures) can still be seen along the Lost Lake Highway today. Trees cut in the West Fork valley were transported to Dee by a train, and a portion of today’s Lolo Pass road actually follows the old logging railroad bed.

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The logged-over West Fork valley from Hiyu Mountain in 1934

(click here for a larger photo)

Unfortunately, much of the West Fork valley continues to be in private ownership today. Longview Fiber owned the valley for decades, but sold their holdings in a corporate takeover in the late 2000s to a Toronto-based Canadian trust. More recently, Weyerhauser took ownership of the valley, and has embarked on a particularly ruthless (and completely unsustainable) logging campaign that rivals the complete destruction seen in these photos from the 1930s (watch for a future WyEast Blog article on this unfortunate topic).

To the southeast (below), Mount Hood fills the horizon in spectacular fashion, but there are some interesting details in the photo, too. In the foreground, the rocky spur that forms the true summit of Hiyu Mountain has been cleared to enhance the lookout views. The continued swath of logging in the West Fork valley can be seen reaching the foot of Mount Hood on the left.

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Mount Hood from Hiyu Mountain in 1934

(click here for a larger photo)

A detailed look (below) at the western panorama in the Hiyu Mountain series shows a lot of cleared forest, a necessity as the summit ridge continues in this direction for than a mile, blocking visibility for the new lookout. In this detailed scene, we can also see stacked logs and lumber that were presumably used to build a garage and other outbuilding that were added to the site in the 1930s.

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Recently cleared trees at the Hiyu Lookout site in 1934

 (click here for a larger photo)

When it was constructed, the lookout on Hiyu Mountain was remote and reached only by trail. Materials for the new structured were brought in by packhorse. The nearest forest guard station was at Bull Run Lake, where Portland Water Bureau rangers staffed log cabins while guarding the water supply.

A dense network of trails connected the Hiyu Mountain lookout to Bull Run Lake and other lookouts in the area. As the 1930s era Forest Service map (below) shows, a telephone line (the dash-dot line) also connected Hiyu Mountain to other lookouts on Hiyu Mountain and to the cabins at Bull Run Lake. The phone line north of the lookout followed the fire lane, and is likely still there, lost in the forest regrowth.

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1930s map of Hiyu Mountain showing the extensive trail network of the pre-logging area

The 1930s forest map also shows the original alignment of the (then) new Oregon Skyline Trail, now the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). According to the map, the trail crossed right through the logged-over area of the West Fork valley (between the tributaries of Elk Creek and McGee Creek on the map) in the 1934 panorama photos, so not exactly a scenic alignment. Today’s McGee Creek trail is a remnant of this earlier route from Mount Hood to Lost Lake.

Today’s PCT stays near the ridge tops, roughly following some of the old forest trails from Mount Hood to Lolo Pass, then across the east slope of Hiyu Mountain, toward Sentinel Peak. A 1946 forest map (below) shows the Oregon Skyline Trail to already have been moved to the ridges between Bald Mountain and Lost Lake, though the area was still without roads at the time.

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1946 forest map of the Hiyu Mountain area – oddly, Lolo Pass is not even marked!

By the early 1950s, there were dozens of forest lookouts in the area north of Mount Hood, with structures on nearby Buck Mountain, Indian Mountain, Lost Lake Butte, Bald Mountain, East Zigzag Mountain, West Zigzag Mountain and Hickman Butte. All were within sight of the lookout on Hiyu Mountain, and must have provided welcome — if distant – company to lookout staff.

During the 1950s, roads were finally pushed into the Clear Fork valley and over Lolo Pass as the industrial logging era began on our national forests. During this period, a logging road was constructed between Lolo Pass and Bull Run Lake, including a spur that climbs to the summit of Hiyu Mountain.

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Bull Run Lake from Hiyu Mountain in the 1950s

Though not widely known today, the logging agenda of the U.S. Forest Service from the 1950s through the 1980s did not spare the Bull Run Reserve. In the 1960s and 70s, alone, some 170 mile of logging roads were cut into the mountain slopes of Bull Run. By the 1990s, 14,500 acres of these “protected” old growth forests of 500-year old trees had been cut, or roughly 20 percent of the entire watershed had been logged. Public protests and legal challenges to stop the logging began as early as 1973, but only in 1996 did legislation finally ban the destruction of Bull Run’s remaining ancient forests.

By the early 1960s, the Forest Service had begun to phase out the forest lookouts, and Hiyu Mountain’s lookout structure was removed by 1967. Since then, the main function of the summit road has been to log the south slope and summit ridge of the mountain and to provide access to radio antennas where the old lookout building once stood. The easy road access to the summit also brought one of Mount Hood’s seismic monitors to Hiyu Mountain in more recent years.

The Ridiculous Red Zone

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Hiyu Mountain is the long, dark ridge rising above Bull Run Lake and in front of Mount Hood in this 1960s photo

As recently at the 1980s, it was still legal – and physically possible – to follow the old, unmaintained lookout trail from Lolo Pass to the summit of Hiyu Mountain. Sadly, the Forest Service has since officially closed the trail as part of their stepped-up campaign with the City of Portland Water Bureau to deny any public access to the Bull Run Reserve, even for areas outside the physical watershed.

A few have dared to follow the Hiyu Mountain trail in recent years, and report it to be overgrown, but in excellent shape. The trail climbs through magnificent old Noble fir stands before emerging at the former lookout site. The route doesn’t come remotely close to the actual water supply in Bull Run, which underscores the ridiculousness of the no-entry policy.

Meanwhile, in recent years the City of Portland has been forced to flush entire reservoirs at Mount Tabor and in Washington Park because of suspected contamination from vandals. Yet, these reservoirs continue to be completely accessible and uncovered and in the middle of the city, protected only by fences.

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Mount Hood from Bull Run Lake – Hiyu Mountain is the tall ridge immediately in front of Mount Hood in this view (Portland Water Bureau)

Why so little security in the middle of Portland, where the actual water supply is in plain sight and easily vandalized, and so much security where there is little chance of coming anywhere near the water source?

The answer seems to be a mix of dated laws, entrenched bureaucracy and a heavy dose of smokescreen marketing. Portland’s water supply has been under scrutiny by federal regulators in recent years for its vulnerability to tampering – or, perhaps more likely, natural hazards like landslides (Bull Run Lake was created by one, after all), catastrophic forest fires or even a volcanic eruption at nearby Mount Hood. This is because the water coming into city pipes is currently unfiltered.

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Portland’s Water Bureau provides day tours for a limited number of Portlanders each summer willing to pay $21 for the trip. This is the only way the public can legally visit Bull Run (Wikimedia)

Portland’s elected officials are loathe to fund the price tag for modernizing the system to make it more safe and resilient. In their effort to avoid having to fund and build a filtration system, the City has instead relied heavily on the feel-good mystique of the Bull Run Reserve as a pristine, off-limits place where such measures simply aren’t needed. So far, Portlanders seem content to buy this excuse for preserving the status quo.

That’s too bad, because it’s always shortsighted to exclude the public from access to our public lands, especially if the purpose is as important as ensuring safe drinking water in perpetuity.

A better approach for both the City and the Forest Service would be just the opposite: look for opportunities to involve Portlanders in their Bull Run watershed, including trails like the route to Hiyu Mountain that could give a rare look at the source of our drinking water. Which brings us to…

A New Vision for Hiyu Mountain?

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The popular reproduction lookout tower at the Tillamook Forest Center (Portland Tribune)

We already have a model for honoring Hiyu Mountain’s history at the Tillamook Forest Center, in Oregon’s Coast Range. This relatively new interpretive site is occasionally mocked for its prominent forest lookout tower without a view, but the purpose of the lookout is to educate visitors, not spot fires. Each year, thousands of visitors get a glimpse of how these lookouts came to be, and why they have largely disappeared from the landscape.

A similar project could work at Hiyu Mountain, though a restored lookout tower there could be for the dual purpose of educating visitors on both the history of forest lookouts and the story of the Bull Run Reserve, with birds-eye view of Bull Run Lake from the tower. A restored Hiyu Mountain tower could also provide a more aesthetic alternative for mounting Forest Service communications equipment now installed on top of the mountain.

The concept below would reopen the road to the summit of Hiyu Mountain to the public, with a restored lookout tower as the main attraction. Visitors would have stunning views of Mount Hood and into Bull Run Lake. The old lookout trail from Lolo Pass would also be reopened, providing a way for more active visitors to explore the area and visit the restored lookout tower.

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(Click here for a larger map)

This concept would not put anyone in contact with Bull Run Lake or any of Portland’s Bull Run water, though it would provide a terrific view of the source of our drinking water. It would also pull back the shroud of secrecy around our watershed that allowed hundreds of acres of irreplaceable Bull Run old growth to forest be quietly logged just a few decades ago – the very sort of activity the public should know about when it’s happening on our public lands.

Another feature in this concept is an accessible trail (see map, below) to viewpoints of Bull Run Lake and a pair of scenic ponds that somehow survived the massive Forest Service clearcutting campaign on Hiyu Mountain’s crest.

The idea is to provide much-needed trail experiences for people with limited mobility or who use mobility devices, such as canes, walkers or wheelchairs. Trails with this focus are in short supply and demand for accessible trails is growing rapidly as our region grows. Why build it here? Because everyone should be able to see and learn about their water source, regardless of their mobility.

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(Click here for a larger map)

These recreational and interpretive features would also allow Hiyu Mountain to begin recovering from a half-century of abuse and shift toward a recreation and interpretive focus in the future. While logged areas are gradually recovering, the area will need attention for decades to ensure that mature stands of Noble fir once again tower along Hiyu Mountain’s slopes.

What would it take..?

What would it take to achieve this vision? The Hiyu Mountain lookout trail is in fairly good shape, and could be restored by volunteers in a single season if the entry ban were lifted. The concept for an accessible loop could be funded with grants that specifically target accessible trails if the Forest Service were to pursue it. And forest lookout organizations already maintain several historic lookouts in Oregon, so they could be a resource for recreating and maintaining a lookout at Hiyu Mountain.

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Welcome to your Bull Run watershed… (Wikimedia)

Most of the infrastructure is already in place, and just waiting for a better management vision for Hiyu Mountain. I’ve described one here, and there are surely others that could provide both public access and restoration.

But only the U.S. Forest Service and City of Portland Water Bureau can move us away from the antiquated entry ban at Bull Run. Hiyu Mountain would be the perfect place to start!

 

 

 

Meet Brian Chambers!

June 13, 2016

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Editors note: periodically, I feature local artists and writers in this blog. Brian Chambers is a local photographer in Hood River who has been capturing stunning images of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. Here’s a recent conversation with Brian.

Brian has also offered to donate a portion of any sales resulting from this interview to the Friends of the Gorge, Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) and the Columbia Land Trust, so be sure to mention the blog if you purchase Brian’s photos! (more info following the interview)

_______________

WyEast Blog: Great to meet you, Brian! How long have you been shooting landscape photography in the area?

Brian Chambers: I first came to Hood River on vacation in 1996. I immediately fell in love with the place and had moved here within one year. That was back in the old days of film. I had done a ton of photography way back in high school and had my own darkroom but did less and less as I got older. I was doing a little bit of photography when I moved here but it wasn’t until I bought my first DSLR in 2008 that my hobby became a full-blown addiction.

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Mount Hood from the Eastern Gorge

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

WyEast: What are your favorite Gorge locations for shooting – the ones you go back over and again?

Brian: It changes so much from year to year. I tend to find a new location and maybe pre-visualize some images in my mind. I will go back over and over until I am satisfied with the images I can capture with my camera. I will keep trying until I get that special combination of light and composition that really matches what I had seen in my mind.

The thing I like the most about the gorge is the variety. If I had the energy I could shoot a fresh snow fall on a mountain stream at sunrise, at lunch take on moss covered waterfall, at sunset capture the most amazing wildflower scene, and a midnight capture an abandoned house in the middle of a wheat field. I really feel the options are arguably the best in the country.

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Upper Hood River Valley orchards at sunrise

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Some of my favorites include shooting the orchards of Hood River, Hood River itself with the river in the foreground and the mountain behind it, the view down the gorge anywhere there is exciting light from places like Rowena, Underwood viewpoint, Mitchell point. I have been heading to some of the more off-trail waterfalls and really enjoying the exploring aspect of that. I love Mt Adams in the fall for the color. I could go on all day.

Early in the spring I am really drawn to the east hills. A few years ago it was the Rowena crest, then it was Dalles Mountain, then it was the Memaloose Hills Hike area.

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Sunrise a Rowena Crest

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

WyEast: What makes those locations special?

Brian: One big factor is the flowers. Especially this year, although it was an early bloom, it was off the charts good. I don’t think I have ever seen it that good. I love the openness of the land, being able to see the light interacting with terrain. The different compositional options, with 360 degree views and the amazing mountain and gorge views in the background. Sitting in a field of wildflowers all alone watching the rising sun dancing with Mount Hood and lighting up the flowers. It doesn’t get much better than that.

WyEast: What about your favorite Mount Hood locations?

Brian: Well in the winter I spent a ton of time snowshoeing up the White River. It has such an easy access to an amazing mountain view with the river in the foreground. I am almost embarrassed to say how many times I have gone up there looking for the perfect light. I finally got a couple of images I am pretty happy with this year. Persistence can pay off.

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Sunrise on Mount Hood and the White River

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

In the summer I often am heading up to the WyEast Basin and Cairn Basin area. I like that you can take several different trails to get there and it is this wonderful mix of high alpine, lush wildflowers, refreshing streams and small waterfalls with some of the best close-up views of the mountain. The number of great subjects in such a small area is almost mind-boggling.

WyEast: Some of your most stunning photos are shot during the golden hours of early morning or evening – do you have any tips for shooting in those conditions?

Brian: Getting up earlier and staying out later is usually the simplest thing people can do to greatly improve their photography. It is very difficult to get as compelling a photo in the middle of the day. The rapidly changing light around sunrise and sunset can really add a ton of interest, color and excitement to your images. Watch the sky, satellite images and weather forecasts to see if there is going to be enough clouds to make the sky interesting but not too many so that the sun is blocked.

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Late afternoon wildflowers near Cairn Basin on Mount Hood

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

A tripod is critical for getting clear shots when it is darker. I suggest shooting in RAW not JPEG and bracketing your exposures to capture all of the detail in the brightest and darkest parts of the image.

Be Patient. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been taking pictures and all the other photographers have left and 10 minutes after a boring sunset the sky just lights up.

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Autumn sunset at Mount Adams

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

That being said, I would be lying if I didn’t say I am just like everyone else in that I sometimes can’t pull myself out of bed in the early morning and I sometimes head to the brewpub at sunset rather than out to shoot. My family is pretty tolerant of me heading out to shoot but I try to balance life and responsibility with photography. Find the balance that makes you happy.

WyEast: You also have some amazing photos that feature the night sky. How exactly do you capture those images?

Brian: It is surprisingly easy if you have a fairly new digital camera. Have a solid tripod. I suggest getting to your location before it gets dark. Set up all your gear, compose your image and focus. Cameras are unable to auto-focus in the dark so you need to focus before it gets too dark and then set your camera to manual focus so it will not try to refocus.

Start taking pictures before it is totally dark and see what happens. Learn how to adjust your camera in manual exposure. Set your aperture to wide open (the smallest number possible), your shutter speed to around 20 or 30 seconds. Crank your ISO up to 800 or 1600 or even higher and fire away. The beauty of digital is it doesn’t hurt to mess up. If it is too dark crank up your ISO higher or lengthen your shutter speed. If it is too bright turn your ISO down.  Look at your results and see what works and what doesn’t. Play and have fun.

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Milky Way and Mount Hood from below Cooper Spur

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

WyEast: Those are great tips! Some of your images of Mount Hood and the Gorge also feature lightning, which seems especially challenging to capture. Other than not standing on high ground – which, actually, it looks like you were – what can you tell us about getting a great lightning photo?

Brian: First of all be safe. I think a lot photographers tell stories of risking life and limb to “get the shot”. Probably not worth it and often just an embellishment to make it sound more dramatic. I like to find a place where I can shoot while sitting in the car or at least find shelter immediately.

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Thunderstorm lighting up the East Gorge

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

It helps to have a cable release or some other way of triggering your camera like a remote control. That allows you to be safe in the car while the camera is outside. If it is dark and you can use a long exposure you can just set the camera to shoot continuously. Sort of a “spray and pray” method but there is nothing worse than missing that solitary lightning bolt.

If it is daylight, the “spray and pray” method doesn’t work because most cameras get bogged down and stop shooting after 20 seconds or so. In that case you can just watch and try to push the button with every strike. It sounds impossible but it can work with a little practice. We don’t get much lightning here so I have yet to invest in a lightning trigger but it’s a device that senses the lightning and takes the photo for you. Pretty handy if you do a ton of lightning shots.

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Lightning at Mount Hood and Lost Lake

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

I have a couple of apps that show you live lightning hits so you can see if it’s worth heading out. And be ready if the conditions change. One of my favorite lightning shots at Lost Lake (above) was purely luck. I was there to take a photo of the sunset when a small storm popped up. I kept taking pictures until I got my shot.

WyEast: You’re based in Hood River, Brian. I’m wondering where you see the fine art scene going in the Gorge over the long term? Do you see art becoming a significant part of the Gorge and Mount Hood economy in the future?

Brian: It is definitely growing. I don’t think there were any art galleries in town when I moved here in 1997. Now it seems like there is one on every block. Many restaurants and breweries also display local artists. Hood River has over 20 new outdoor works of art on display around town. There are so many talented artists in the gorge. I think people are drawn to the quality of life and inspired by amazing beauty at our doorstep.

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Stormy Gorge evening

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Art can play a significant part in the economy. It is just one more great reason for people to visit the gorge and it fits well with the winery and brewery tours, the Fruit Loop orchard tour and outdoor recreational tourism that the gorge is so rightly known for. I think the artwork can be a long-term reminder of the specialness of the area and for both tourists and people who live here. I love when people look at one of my pictures and it reminds them of some special times they have had here.

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Spirit Falls on the Little White Salmon River

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

One thing that I am very excited about is helping to organize a temporary art gallery event in downtown Hood River on July 1st -3rd week. Eighteen local artists, including myself, have banded together to showcase and hopefully sell our work. We are having beer and wine and small plates of food, with an opportunity to view work from wide variety of different types of artists.

We will all be on hand all three days to discuss our artwork. The event will be at 301 Oak Street in downtown Hood River. I encourage anyone interested to stop in and say “hello”!

WyEast: That sounds like a great event, Brian! As an artist working in the Gorge, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced in becoming established?

Brian: It has been a slow steady process. Sometimes it seems agonizingly slow.  When I first started taking pictures I didn’t dream that people would want to purchase them. I looked around and saw so many great photographers.

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Abandoned homestead near Dufur, Oregon

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Early in my progression as a photographer I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Columbia Center for the Arts. At that time it was a critical place of support for me. They encouraged me and treated me as a true artist so that I began to think of myself that way. I started to sell some work and began to grow in confidence. Every year they would have a photo contest and I was fortunate enough to win first place among hundreds of entries, including some really talented photographers.

That was a big step for me. Then I branched out and started displaying my work in local bakeries, restaurants and brewpubs. I started to gain more followers and confidence. In the last year or so, I have started to post more consistently on Facebook (www.facebook.com/BrianChambersPhotography/) and connect with people there.

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Brian teaching photography on a recent Friends of the Gorge outing

I have also begun teaching a little (including the Friends of the Gorge hike where we met). It is something I really enjoy and want to get better at, and something I have considered doing more frequently in the future.

Hood River is full of talented photographers and artists and most of them have been really supportive and welcoming to me.

WyEast: When we met recently on that Friends of the Gorge hike, we talked about the controversy over oil and coal trains traveling through the Gorge. Since then, of course, a worst-case scenario unfolded when an oil train derailed in Mosier on June 3 of this year. What are your thoughts on the oil and coal trains moving through the Columbia River rail corridor?

Brian: That was a real eye opener for me.  I had been out for a road bike ride in the exact location ½ hour before the accident. When I heard about it I actually went to take pictures from across the river. You can see a time lapse I took on my Facebook page. Just watching all the black smoke block out the view of Mt Hood was really a horrible sight.

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Brian captured this video of the June 3rd oil train crash in Mosier, Oregon

 (click here to view a large version of this video in Brian’s gallery)

I got stuck in a traffic jam heading home. It took me 2 hours to get home when it would normally take me 10 or 15 minutes. It really made me think about how the unique geography and infrastructure of the Gorge can really amplify any disaster. There are very limited driving options, and if one or two roads are closed people can become trapped.

I also think the accident was not a worst-case scenario. It was lucky it didn’t happen in the center of Mosier or Hood River, where there is a lot more potential for damage and it was lucky it happened on an unusually light wind day. If it had been windy I can only imagine how bad the fire could have been.

WyEast: You’ve hiked the trails of Mount Hood and the Gorge and have seen the growing crowds. Many are concerned that the area is being loved to death. What are your thoughts?

Brian: Wow, what a question. This is something I think about almost daily. Even in my short time here I have seen a tremendous change in the volume of hikers to areas that were once quiet and relatively unknown, like the Columbia Hills Park and Memaloose Hills. I used to go there in the spring and see almost no one. This year they were just packed with people. Which, on one hand, is wonderful that people are out there learning to love the gorge and discovering new places. It is great for society that people are out exercising and recharging in nature. I feel like people will fight to save places once they see how special they are.

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Columbia Hills State Park in spring

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

On the other hand, overcrowded trails and unsafe parking lots are a real concern and take away from everyone’s enjoyment.  As a photographer, I am always looking for the un-crowded wild places and I am afraid as I share them I might be contributing to them becoming crowded and over used.

There is an area near The Dalles that I am just in love with right now and I went there more than a dozen times the last couple years during the wildflower bloom and saw less than a handful of other hikers, and usually didn’t see anyone. Although part of the reason for that is starting my hike before 5 AM! I am torn between never telling anyone about it and wanting everyone to know how amazing it is. The word is already getting out and I suspect it will be packed in a couple years.

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Mount Hood from an “undisclosed location”…

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

I guess I am an optimist. Nature seems to have the ability to not just heal people, but also itself. Just last week I was walking through the Dollar lake fire on Mt Hood. A few years ago it was a scene of total destruction. Everything dead and blackened. Now it’s hard to see the ground due to the huge number of flowers. If we can just try to get out of the way the land can usually do amazing things to recover from damage.

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Gorge Sunset near Mitchell Point

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Ultimately, I think the best answer is more trails. That is why I fully support the work you and others like you are doing. Saving the remaining wild places and creating sustainable hiking trails. I hope as the crowds worsen that will become a bigger priority for more and more people.

WyEast: Last question, and one you probably knew was coming: you’re a veterinarian by trade, so I’m wondering if you’d like to weigh in on bringing dogs into the Gorge? And in particular, what are some tips you would offer for keeping dogs (and people) safe, based on your experiences as a care giver?

Brian: Well, one disease that people new to the area may not have heard of is salmon poisoning. Don’t let your dog eat raw salmon or steelhead. It can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea that can be fatal. As I am sure all hikers already know, there are a few ticks in the area! There are plenty of good tick control medications available for your dog.

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East Gorge rainbow

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

There are lots of dangers out on the trails and roads most of which can be avoided by keeping your dog on a leash and using common sense. I just recently saw a dog that was bitten by a rattlesnake on Dog Mountain. I have seen dogs killed by heat stroke, dogs killed by trains, falls from cliffs, cuts caused by skis, dogs lost in the wilderness, attacked by coyotes and other wild animals, falls from the back of pickup trucks, and too many hit by cars to count.

We also have a lot of poison oak in the Gorge. Keeping your dog on a leash is also a good way to make sure he stays out of poison oak, which can also be transferred to you from your dog’s coat.

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Spring sunset in the Gorge from Memaloose Hills

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Lastly, just like you and I, you should avoid overdoing the activity level for your dog’s fitness level. If you have an out of shape dog that doesn’t exercise, don’t start with a long bike ride on a hot day. As your dog starts to age you need to start to reduce the length of the hikes and bikes to ones that will not cause them pain or distress.

It can be hard to do because the dogs often want to go, even when their body is unable. Talk with your vet if your dog is slowing down or seeming stiff and sore, as there are plenty of options to help with that.

WyEast: That’s great information! Thanks for taking the time to chat, Brian – and for celebrating the Gorge and Mount Hood with your amazing photography. We look forward to seeing more of your work!

Brian: It really was my pleasure.

_______________

You can support Brian Chambers’ photography by following him on Facebook:

Brian Chambers Photography on Facebook

Through July 15th, Brian will be donating 20% of proceeds from photos he sells to people who mention this article to the Friends of the Gorge, Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) and the Columbia Land Trust, so it’s a great time to support him! (please note that this excludes the July 1-3 pop up gallery)

 Check out more of Brian’s images at:

Brian Chambers Gallery on Zenfolio

 And you can contact Brian directly through e-mail by clicking here.

And finally, learn more about the July 1-3 pop up art gallery in Hood River at:

Art in the Gorge on Facebook

 

Meet the (Northwest) Maples!

May 31, 2016
MeetMaples01

The author hanging out with a few Bigleaf Maple giants

Fair or not, we’re not really known for our native maple trees here in the Pacific Northwest. And while we can’t compete with the fall color spectacle of New England’s sprawling maple forests, our trio of native maples have (arguably) a lot more personality!

For example, our massive Bigleaf Maple is the largest maple species in the world, dwarfing anything found in New England forests in scale and grandeur. Likewise, the diminutive Vine Maple is prized as an ornamental for its graceful beauty and dependable fall color. Lesser known is our Douglas Maple, a close cousin of the Vine Maple, but with a personality all its own.

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Comparison of the three Northwest maple species

This article is brief introduction to our native maples, and tips for identifying them on the trail next time you’re out exploring our Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macroplyllum)

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Bigleaf Maple grove forming a green awning over Tanner Creek

Bigleaf Maple can grow to 100 feet tall and 50 feet wide, towering over most other broadleaf trees in Northwest forests. These are high-octane maples: young trees can grow 5-6 feet per year, and stumps from cut or fallen trees typically sprout dozens of new shoots that often grow to become impressive, multi-stemmed trees.

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Bigleaf Maple

As their name suggests, Bigleaf Maple have leaves that can grow to as much as 12” across, and are commonly up to 8” wide. If you have young kids, you’ve undoubtedly brought them home by the handful as souvenirs, as their sheer size is irresistible to young hikers.

In spring, Bigleaf Maple are covered with clusters of yellow-green blossoms that mature to become fuzzy “samaras”, the familiar winged seeds that float through the air when they ripen, like tiny helicopters. In fall, their leaves turn to bright yellow and light orange, depending on exposure. Their bark is rough and becomes deeply furrowed with age.

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Bigleaf Maple in autumn

Bigleaf Maple like moist soils with good drainage, so you’ll find them along canyon floors and lower-elevation mountain slopes from the Cascades west to the Pacific. However, you can sometimes spot them in the arid eastern end of the Columbia Gorge, growing along the shady north side of cliffs or in slot canyons protected from the harsh desert climate.

In their preferred west side rainforests, mature Bigleaf Maple are usually draped with a thick layer of moss, which in turn creates the perfect habitat for Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a species that gets its name from the licorice-flavored rhizomes it uses to ramble over rocks and up mossy tree trunks.

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Moss-draped Bigleaf Maple with Licorice Fern

Bigleaf Maple aren’t commonly planted as urban trees, in part because of their ultimate size and huge root systems can overwhelm a small garden and lift patios and sidewalks. But you can find them in many urban parks where they have more room to spread out. Though their main commercial value comes as firewood, woodworkers also value burled wood from mature maples.

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The author (with his better half) circa 1993 with the world’s largest Bigleaf Maple. This giant stood near Jewell Oregon until it fell to a storm in March 2011

The largest Bigleaf Maple in the world stood near the elk refuge at Jewell, Oregon until just a few years ago. This massive tree was estimated to be 200 years old with a trunk measured at 12 feet in diameter! A Pacific storm in March 2011 toppled this gnarled patriarch. Another giant in Marion County has since assumed the title of largest in the world.

Vine Maple (Acer circinatum)

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Vine Maple sprawling in front of Ponytail Falls

Vine Maple is easy to love. These graceful little trees are as tough as they are adaptable, happily growing as a sprawling “vine” in the shade of deep forests and as a dense, stocky shrub in full sun. In Cascade rainforest environments, Vine Maple can dominate the understory, forming an impressive thicket for off-trail explorers to navigate.

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Vine Maple

These little trees rarely exceed 20 feet in height, and usually form multiple sprawling trunks as they mature. Their leaves are small – just 2-4” in diameter, with 5-9 lobes (most often 7 lobes).

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Vine Maple in autumn

In fall, forest-dwelling Vine Maple take on a bright yellow color, while those growing in full sun take on dazzling shades of crimson and orange.

Like their Bigleaf cousins, Vine Maple reproduce with winged samaras, though in their deep forest habitat, they usually spread by simply sprawling and rooting where their contorted stems touch the ground. Their bark is bright green in shade and tan or yellow-green in full sun.

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Vine Maple samaras

Vine Maple have roughly the same range in the Pacific Northwest as Bigleaf Maple, favoring moist mountain canyons and slopes. This puts Vine Maple square in the path of industrial logging, but if there is a tree that can cope with the timber industry, this is it.

Vine Maple not only survive clear cutting operations, they often survive the destructive mass herbicide treatments still used by the timber industry to destroy all native vegetation prior to planting a monoculture conifer seedlings on logged-off land.

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Though Weyerhauser Inc. did its corporate best to kill anything that survived their logging operations in this clearcut with the practice of post-logging herbicide treatments, this Vine Maple is cheerfully pushing up a thicket of new shoots from the base of its poisoned trunk

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A closer view of this tough Vine Maple reveals new shoots sprouting from a limb burned and cracked by heavy application of post-logging industrial herbicides

Vine Maple are a perfect native species for urban gardens in the Pacific Northwest, thriving on neglect and adaptable to sun or shade. As a result, they are readily available in commercial nurseries, but you can also collect them from most public lands for non-commercial use with a permit. The best time to dig is early spring, before buds break, so it pays to learn how to identify them by their stems before you dig.

Douglas Maple (Acer glabrum)

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Douglas Maple

The least known of the Northwest maples, the Douglas Maple (sometimes called the Rocky Mountain Maple) is quite similar to the Vine Maple. While the two share the same range from the Cascades west to the Pacific, Douglas Maple is more likely to inhabit drier sites on mountain slopes and talus margins. Its range also extends to the Blue Mountains and Northern Rockies.

Douglas Maple are more upright in form than Vine Maple, growing to 20 feet in a spreading vase shape. Their leaves are small, just 2-5” wide with 3 lobes, and noticeably serrated compared to Vine Maple. These are key features in distinguishing the two, as these species often grow right next to each other in their native habitat. Douglas Maple bark is also like Vine Maple, light green becoming tan as trees age.

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Three lobes, serrated (or “serrate”) leaf edges and bright red stems help distinguish Douglas Maple from its cousin, the Vine Maple

Like its maple cousins, the Douglas Maple also reproduces with winged samaras. In fall, their leaves take on brilliant shades of yellow, red and orange that rival Vine Maple for showiness.

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Douglas Maple in autumn

Though uncommon as a urban tree, Douglas Maple are just as adaptable as Vine Maple to city gardens. Because they are rarely found in commercial nurseries, collecting them from public lands with a permit is the best option.

Where to See Them?

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Winter is a great time to see Bigleaf Maple, when bare branches reveal their gnarled, moss-blanketed form. This winter scene is along Tanner Creek in the Columbia Gorge.

You can see magnificent Bigleaf Maple stands in the Columbia Gorge along most of the popular streamside trails, though some of the best can be found along the Latourell Falls loop trail and the popular Eagle Creek trail. The loop trail at Silver Creek State Park near Silverton is also famous for its Bigleaf Maple stands and impressive shows of fall color.

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Vine Maple thrive in the understory of tall conifer stands like this in the Columbia River Gorge

Vine Maple can be seen on most any trail in the Gorge or on Mount Hood, but for fall color, it’s hard to beat the view of Mount Hood from the Lost Lake loop trail, framed with brilliant Vine Maple. The Ramona Falls loop on the west side of Mount Hood has beautiful stream scenes frames by Vine Maple.

Though its range extends to the Pacific, Douglas Maple is most prominent on the east slopes of the Cascades, including most trails in the eastern Columbia Gorge from Starvation Creek to Mosier. The Tamanawas Falls trail at the eastern foot of Mount Hood has especially abundant stands, with excellent fall color shows in early October.

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Bigleaf Maple in autumn along McCord Creek in the Columbia River Gorge.

For a trifecta hike that includes all three of our native maple species along a single trail, try the Elowah Falls hike, where magnificent Bigleaf Maple line McCord Creek, Vine Maple fill the understory under tall conifer stands and Douglas Maple grow from the rocky slopes high above Elowah Falls.

All of these hikes can be found in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide. Enjoy!

WyEast Roundup!

February 26, 2016

Lots going on as we enter 2016 in WyEast country, so this article is a bit of a roundup, beginning with yet another commemorative nod from our federal government in the form of…

Columbia River Gorge Priority Mail Express Stamp!

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On December 30, 2015 the U.S. Postal Service released another stamp celebrating the Columbia River Gorge, joining the 1992 USPS postcard of the same, classic scene of Crown Point as viewed from Chanticleer Point (Women’s Forum Park).

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While the 1992 commemorative card was an affordable $0.19, the new Gorge stamp is a hefty $22.95, making for a steep addition to stamp collections! This new Priority Mail Express stamp is available in panes of 10 (for a mere $229.50!), and in the words of the Postal Service, the new stamp “celebrates the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge” with the following:

Approximately 80 miles long and up to 4,000 ft. deep, the gorge runs along the Columbia River to form part of the border between Oregon and Washington. The stamp art captures the beauty of the Columbia River as it winds its way through the steep cliffs of the Cascade Mountain Range. The historic Vista House sitting atop Crown Point and overlooking the river 725 ft. below shimmers in the golden light of the setting sun.

Illustrator Dan Cosgrove of Chicago worked under the direction of Phil Jordan of Falls Church, VA, to create the stamp image.

The artists captured a faithful rendering of the scene, but I can’t help but wonder why a local illustrator wasn’t selected? After all, the Portland region is home to so many, including Paul A. Lanquist (PAL), the creative force behind dozens of “new retro” posters of Pacific Northwest scenes, like this view of Vista House:

Courtesy: Discover the Northwest

Courtesy: Discover the Northwest

So, save your money on that spendy USPS stamp and consider supporting a Northwest artist, instead. You can find Paul Lanquist’s posters at Discover the Northwest and many other outlets.

Still Creek Trails

As part of a recent series of articles on the Mirror Lake backcountry and Wind Creek Basin, I proposed the following concept for eventually expanding trails in this pocket wilderness:

WyEastRoundup02StillCreek01

(click here for large map)

After posting these articles, I happened to be researching the area for a related topic and was surprised to find many of my “proposed” trails on early maps. I’m going to chalk that up as “imitation being the sincerest form of flattery” as I’m sure I’ve studied these maps before, and must have noticed these earlier trails! Or so it would seem?

Nonetheless, it was a pleasant (re)surprise to discover that we once had a hefty trail network here, as it helps make the case for bringing more trails in this area to reality someday. Past is prologue! And who knows, maybe some of these old treads still survive?

WyEastRoundup02StillCreek02

(click here for large map)

A closer look at the 1937 forest map (above, marked with red arrows) reveals a rim trail that followed the north side of Still Creek valley from Camp Creek to – what’s that? – a trail between Still Creek and Mirror Lake!

These old trails show up on a more “official” 1939 forest map (below), with added detail showing the connector to Still Creek continuing south to (what still exists today as) the Eureka Peak trail. This explains what has always been an odd trail fragment at Eureka Peak and raises the intriguing question of whether the segment north of Still Creek to Wind Lake and beyond still exists?

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(click here for large map)

These old routes persist on forest maps dating into the late 1940s, when the commercial logging assault on our forests began wiping out hundreds of miles of old trails (below).

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(click here for large map)

But Mirror Lake, the Wind Creek Basin and Still Creek valley were still recovering from the catastrophic Sherar Burn when the logging bonanza took off in the mid-1900s, and were mostly spared from clear cutting and logging roads. That not only gave today’s pocket wilderness, but it also bodes well for traces of these old trails to still survive – and someday be rediscovered and restored, perhaps?

Eliot Crossing Update

Lots of news on the Eliot Crossing proposal, first described in this WyEast Blog article from 2014. As reported earlier, the Forest Service is moving a trail project forward this year that will finally restore the missing section of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch crossing.

The following map originally appeared in this blog, but later became a Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) map for the purpose of the Eliot Crossing project, and now is being shared with the Forest Service, as well:

WyEastRoundup03EliotCrossing

(click here for large map)

In January, Claire Pitner, Forest Service project manager for the new trail at the Hood River Ranger District, sent this good news to local non-profits involved in the project:

“I wanted to let you know that the environmental analysis for the Eliot Reroute was signed yesterday. Furthermore, earlier this week we received word that the Regional Office is providing funding to complete the project. Much of the work will be done using a contractor with volunteer assistance as well.

“We are working on finalizing the contract package in hopes of having a contractor long before we are able to access and do work at the site. I’m looking forward to working with TrailKeepers to get some good work done this summer!”

By early February, the local media picked up on the story with (surprise!) mentions of the WyEast Blog in The Oregonian and Willamette Week – a nice plug for the blog and the Eliot Crossing project!

In early March, the TKO board will be meeting with the Forest Service and several other non-profit organizations to begin planning volunteer activities related to the project. It should be a fun, family-friendly opportunity for volunteers to be part of the project, and I’ll post updates on the project as more details become available.

LG TV Mystery Mountain Ad

I’ll end the roundup on a whimsical note, courtesy LG, the electronics giant. I spotted the following print ad over the holidays and something about it looked too familiar – as it should have. This is our very own Trillium Lake…

Do not attempt to adjust your television…

Do not attempt to adjust your television…

…except it isn’t, unless you’re looking in the rear-view mirror of your kayak (or canoe). A closer look at the mountain (below) shows all the major features of WyEast reversed, with a misplaced White River glacier flowing down the southwest slope of the mountain (imagine the mayhem in Rhododendron!), and poor Illumination Rock and Mississippi Head rudely moved to the east side of the mountain:

This looks vaguely familiar…

This looks vaguely familiar…

But the really goofy part of this ad is the appearance of what seems to be an Italian (Burano?) or perhaps Icelandic fishing village teleported to the Oregon Cascades:

Preview of a future Forest Service concession..?

Preview of a future Forest Service concession..?

As always, it’s good to see our mountain (and Gorge) making regular appearances in print media from around the world, even if the graphic artists can’t resist making a few improvements. Even with the artistic tinkering, these ads underscore the world-class nature of these amazing places… and their national park-worthiness, of course!