Archive for the ‘Natural History’ category

After the Fire: A Closer Look (Part 2 of 2)

February 27, 2018

January sunset in the Eagle Creek burn, near Elowah Falls

This is the second article in a two-part series that explores a remarkable set of stunning, often startling aerial photos captured by the State of Oregon in early December. Their purpose was to assess the risks for landslides and flooding from the bare, burned Columbia River Gorge slopes following the September 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. But these amazing photos also provide the first detailed look at the impact of the fire, and for those who love the Gorge, a visual sense of how our most treasured places fared.

The first article covered the west end of the burn, from Shepperd’s Dell to Ainsworth State Park. This article covers the eastern part of the burn, from Yeon State Park to Shellrock Mountain. More information on the photos follows the article.


Ainsworth State Park and McCord Creek

This first image in this second part of the series looks east from above Ainsworth State Park, toward Bonnevillle Dam. The Gorge was heavily burned along this stretch, from the banks of the Columbia River at the community of Warrendale to the tall crests of Wauneka Point and Nesmith Ridge.


Looking east from above Ainsworth State Park toward Bonneville Dam (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The huge amphitheater along the Nesmith Point trail is on the right in the above view, and appears to be heavily burned. Little-known Wauneka Point is in the upper left corner of the photo, and also appears to be badly burned, as shown in a close-up view (below):


Scorched Wauneka Point after the fire (State of Oregon)

Wauneka Point is notable for its remoteness. Some reach this spot by scaling the ridge from nearly 3,000 feet below, at Elowah Falls, while others follow the faint Wauneka Point Trail from the headwaters of Moffett Creek. This is fortunate, as the rocky outcrop of Wauneka Point also has one of the most elaborate and unusual Indian pit complexes found in the Gorge.

Fires here are a regular occurrence, too — photos from the early 1900s show a recovering forest and hundreds of bleached snags along Wauneka Ridge, much as the ridge now appears after the Eagle Creek Fire. It’s likely that Native Americans living along the lower Columbia River periodically burned these ridge tops to promote huckleberry, beargrass and other sun-loving foods and materials that were gathered in the higher elevations of the Gorge.

Another detailed look at this photo helps explain why parts of the Upper McCord Creek Trail were so heavily impacted by debris after the fire. This close-up view (below) shows extensive landslides on the slopes above the trail that have released tons of loose rock and debris onto the section of trail that switchbacks up the slope beneath the cliff band. While slides like these will eventually be stabilized by recovering forests, more debris is certain in the near-term, as the forest understory begins to take hold.


Landslides on the slopes above the Upper McCord Creek Trail (State of Oregon)

Another detail that emerges from this photo is the widely varied pattern of a “mosaic” fire, from blackened, completely burned forests to green, intact conifer stands that have survived the initial heat and stress of the fire. A closer look (below) at a section of forest that straddles the Nesmith Point Trail shows a heavily burned area in the center, surrounded by surviving forest.


Mosaic burn patterns straddling the Nesmith Point Trail (State of Oregon)

This mosaic burn pattern is beneficial for the forest ecology, as it rejuvenates the understory where the canopy has survived, while creating forest openings that will eventually create a more diverse forest where the burn destroyed old canopy:

This close-up view (below) shows the McCord Creek delta, where it enters the Columbia River:


McCord Creek Delta (State of Oregon)

Tributary deltas like these are likely to grow significantly throughout the Eagle Creek Burn area in coming years as erosion from burned slopes loads up the creeks with extra rock and gravel. This is another beneficial aspect from the fire cycle, with gravel deltas and debris in streams providing some of the best fish and riparian habitat in the Gorge.

This spectacular image (below) from the State of Oregon series captures the massive amphitheater that holds Elowah Falls, on McCord Creek. The twin cascade of Upper McCord Creek Falls is also visible, just above Elowah Falls, as well as the bridges of I-84, the Union Pacific Railroad and the recently built Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail:


Elowah Falls and McCord Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Though much of the McCord Creek drainage was badly burned in the fire, some of the tree canopy survived, especially the tall conifers that grow along the creek below Elowah Falls (below).


Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

We won’t know the fate of the beautiful Bigleaf maple groves that line the creek in the lower McCord Creek canyon until later this spring, but it’s unlikely their crowns have survived. Unlike Douglas fir and other conifers, maples lack thick, insulating bark needed to survive the heat of the fire, nor the height to protect their upper branches from the flames. Instead, maples have evolved to simply regrow from their surviving roots after fire, often forming multi-trunked trees with a circle of shoots that emerge from around the skeleton of the parent tree.


Elowah’s graceful Bigleaf maple groves in autumn, lighting up the forest in 2014

While many riparian strips within the Eagle Creek Burn resisted the fire, some of the steepest slopes along McCord Creek below Elowah Falls (below) were badly burned. The geology of this section of the canyon doesn’t help the cause, as it consists of loose, slide-prone Eagle Creek Formation clays and gravels. This notoriously unstable formation is responsible for most of the ongoing slides and collapses that occur in the Gorge, including the epic Table Mountain landslide that briefly created the fabled Bridge of the Gods in 1450 A.D., near today’s Cascade Locks.


Slide-prone McCord Creek below Elowah Falls (State of Oregon)

On a recent tour of this section of the McCord Creek Trail with State Park officials, it was clear (below) that a complete re-route of this iconic trail may be needed over the long term if this already slide-prone section of the trail further deteriorates as a result of the fire:


Post-fire landslide damage below Elowah Falls

As difficult as it is to absorb these images of devastation from the Eagle Creek Fire in places like this, it’s also an opportunity to watch and learn from the forest recovery that is already underway. While I won’t see tall groves of mossy Bigleaf maples arching over McCord Creek again in my lifetime, many of today’s Millennials will live to see a substantial return of forests across much of the Eagle Creek Burn.


Beautiful McCord Creek canyon before the fire; today’s Millennials will live to see young forests like this return to the Gorge in their lifetime

This photo provides a even closer view of the Elowah Falls amphitheater and Upper McCord Creek Falls:


Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The fire was more intense in the McCord Creek canyon, above Elowah Falls, including these slopes (below) above Upper McCord Creek Falls, as this close-up view shows. Here, the trail can be seen on the bare slope adjacent to the falls:


Upper McCord Creek Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Here is a closer look at Upper McCord Creek Falls from a January visit with State Park officials that confirms the devastating impact of the fire here:


Upper McCord Creek Falls in January

Few trees survived in this area, and erosion is severe in several of the small streams that flow into McCord Creek from Nesmith Ridge. Yet, even with the devastation from the fire, signs of the recovery were already apparent in January, just four months after the fire, with new vegetation emerging in the middle of winter.

The burned riparian forest along the upper section of McCord Creek included 50-60 year old stands of Bigleaf maple and Red alder, and both species appear to have been killed by the fire. Unlike maple, the alder stands are less likely to regrow from surviving roots, and instead mostly rely on new seedlings. Red alder are uniquely adapted and prolific at this, and are among the first trees to colonize burned or disturbed areas.


Upper McCord Creek Falls framed by Red alder before the fire

Still considered a “weed tree” by a timber industry more interested in lumber than healthy forests, these trees (and other pioneering, soil-stabilizing broadleaf species) are still sprayed with herbicides in recovering clearcuts to allow rows of hand-planted Douglas fir seedlings to grow, instead. Yet, Red alder are an essential species in the process of natural forest recovery in the Pacific Northwest. While the big conifers will take many decades to once again tower above McCord Creek, a scene with Red alder framing the creek, like the one shown above, may be just 20-25 years in the future if they are allowed to grow.

As an early colonizer, Red alder not only help to quickly stabilize exposed soils, they also serve as a nitrogen fixer, restoring 80-200 pounds of nitrogen per acre through their roots when pioneering a disturbed site. As the forest recovery unfolds in the Eagle Creek burn, these humble trees will stabilize some of the toughest terrain and help other species that follow become established in the rich soil they create. This process may not be the fasted way to grow lumber, but it’s the most sustainable way to ensure the long-term health of our forests.

This photo from the State of Oregon series shows a mostly scorched forest in the upper McCord Creek canyon, with only a few surviving trees:


Upper McCord Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at the photo shows a few surviving bands of forest that will help begin the recovery. This section of surviving trees will also help shade a section of McCord Creek as other, more heavily burned parts of the watershed recover:


Patches of surviving forest along upper McCord Creek (State of Oregon)

This photo also provides another peek at Wauneka Point, mostly burned but with a few surviving tree stands that will help restore the forest on this ridge:


A few surviving trees at Wauneka Point after the fire (State of Oregon)

The faint, historic trail to Wauneka Point from the Moffett Creek trail was already in jeopardy of being lost to lack maintenance and use, and sadly, the fire may seal its fate in becoming another “lost trail”. Debris from burned trees will quickly overwhelm the path without some periodic maintenance, something that has not occurred here for many years.

The burn provides an opportunity to rethink trails like the one on Wauneka Point, including making new connections to allow hikers to more easily use them from more accessible trailheads along the highway corridor.

Moffett Creek, Munra Point and Tanner Creek

Moving east of Wauneka Point, the next photo of the Eagle Creek Burn provides a glimpse into remote Moffett Creek canyon, one of the wildest, most untouched places in the Columbia River Gorge:


Moffett Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

At about the time the original Columbia River Highway was built in the early 1900s, a group of Portlanders proposed a daring trail into Moffett Creek canyon, much like what was built along Eagle Creek at the time, but the project stalled. Today there are no trails into Moffett Creek canyon, though a few visit Moffett Falls each year by following the creek a mile upstream from where the stream flows into the Columbia River. A few more explorers climb farther, to beautiful Wahe Falls, but only the most intrepid explorers have rappelled down the string of 11 spectacular waterfalls hidden in the depths of Moffett Creek canyon.

Some of the big conifers in the lower canyon appear to have survived the fire, but this close-up view (below) of Moffett Falls shows that the forest around the falls was less fortunate:


Moffett Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Last April, I visited Moffett Falls with a friend, and was surprised by the number of fallen trees and debris in the lower canyon from the rough winter of 2016-17, but I never imagined that the entire forest would soon burn. This is Moffett Falls as it looked last spring, before the fire:


Moffett Falls in April 2017

This photo from the State of Oregon series shows the lesser-known mid-section of Moffett Creek canyon, with Wahe Falls at the bottom of the photo:


Moffett Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This section of Moffett Creek canyon was heavily impacted by the fire, and most of the forest killed by the flames. The recovery here will go unnoticed by most, though the few who explored this beautiful canyon before the fire will find these images difficult to absorb.

Here’s a close-up view of Wahe Falls from the previous photo, showing that all the big conifers around the falls were killed by the fire:


Wahe Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Moving upstream, the burn was less devastating in the next section of Moffett Creek canyon, where towering Kwaneesum Falls is located:


Upper Moffett Creek canyon and Kwaneesum Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Kwaneesum is the tallest of Moffett’s eleven waterfalls, named by local waterfall explorer Zach Forsyth with the Chinook word meaning “forever, eternity or always.” This closer look at Kwanesum Falls shows many of the big conifers below the falls surviving the fire:


Kwaneesum Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

An even closer look (below) at the forest below the falls reveals the complex burn patterns that result from the unusually steep topography of the Columbia River Gorge. Here, some trees were killed by the fire, while others survived. The Western red cedar on the left was singed on just one side, and may have enough green foliage to survive:


Complex burn patterns along Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

Few have ever seen Moffett Creek and few of us were ever destined to because of its remoteness. The canyon will also recover beyond the reach of humans, as it has many times before over the centuries. For a wonderful glimpse into some of the secrets this canyon holds, and a look at the lush beauty before the fire, you can pick up Zach Forsyth’s excellent Moffett Creek book in his “Hidden Treasures” series over here.

The next photo in the series (below) shows the lower canyon of Moffett Creek and the eastern flank of popular Munra Point, a rocky spine that towers above the Bonneville area, and forms the divide between Moffett and Tanner creeks:


Munra Point and Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Munra Point is perhaps the most popular “unofficial” trail in the Gorge — or Oregon, for that matter. While it was once a lightly visited secret, the growing Portland region and advent of social media has turned this steep goat path into an actual zoo on summer weekends. The Forest Service has made no attempt to manage the user trail to Munra Point, as it’s “off the system” and in recent years it has suffered serious damage and erosion as the web of steep user paths has grown here.

This closer view (below) of the trail corridor suggests that the Eagle Creek F Fire had it out for the Munra Point trail, as the worst of the burn managed to focus on the route of this unofficial trail:


The user trail to Munra Point follows the burned ridge at center-left in this view (State of Oregon)

The burned forest and subsequent erosion on these steep slopes will make it dangerous and unsustainable for hikers to continue to flock to this trail. It’s time for the Forest Service to officially close the unofficial Munra Point trail. The slopes will take decades to recover from the fire, and maybe someday a better-designed trail could be reopened, once the forest has recovered. For now, Munra Point deserves a long rest from our collective hiking boots.

Moving east, the next photo in the series (below) shows the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, the bridges of I-84, the Union Pacific Railroad bridge and (if you look closely) the old Tanner Creek Bridge on the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. Just beyond is the lower section of the Tanner Creek canyon, one of the most beloved places in the Gorge:


Bonneville hatchery and Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

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Despite being just one ridge away from the origin of the Eagle Creek Fire, the lower Tanner Creek canyon seems to have fared surprisingly well, as shown by this close-up view (below). Some of the largest, oldest trees in the Columbia River Gorge make their home here, and many seem to have survived the fire intact.


Lower Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

This photo in the series is taken from high above the lower Tanner Creek canyon, looking into the amphitheater that holds Wahclella Falls, one of the most visited and loved places in the Gorge:


Tanner Creek and Wahclella Falls (State of Oregon)

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This view also shows the narrow gorge above Wahclella Falls, where little-known Swawaa and Sundance falls are located just upstream along Tanner Creek. The wide view also shows how much more severely the upper canyon burned, above the waterfalls.

In past articles, I’ve proposed extending the Tanner Creek trail to this string of upstream waterfalls, but it’s unclear if the fire will open new opportunities for trails or slow down efforts to build them. There will be pressures in both directions within our public land agencies and among Gorge advocates. My hope is that we can build new trails while the terrain is relatively open and it’s relatively easy to survey, plan and build new routes.

While the fire clearly swept through the understory of this part of Tanner Creek canyon, much of the conifer forest immediately around iconic Wahclella Falls seems to have survived the fire, as seen in this close-up from the photo above:


Wahclella Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This will come as relief to many, though we’ll only know the long-term fate of these survivors after they have endured a couple of summer drought cycles.

The fate of the groves of Bigleaf maple and Oregon white oak (below) that also thrived here is less certain. We’ll know in spring when deciduous trees begin leafing out.


Bigleaf maples lighting up Wahclella Falls in autumn 2012, before the fire

The next photo in the series (below) shows upper Tanner Creek canyon, with an extensive mosaic burn pattern, and many trees along the canyon floor and west canyon wall surviving. The east slope of the canyon, below Tanner Ridge and Tanner Butte, appears to have burned more severely:


Upper Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This close-up (below) of an unnamed rock outcrop and talus slope on the west wall of the canyon shows another potential benefit of the fire. Among the signature habitats in the Columbia River Gorge are the many remote talus slopes that support unique species, and in particular, the Pika. These tiny relatives of rabbits live exclusively in talus, and the Gorge is home to the only known low-elevation population in the world, as Pika typically live in subalpine talus.


Cleared talus slopes above Tanner Creek (State of Oregon)

Assuming low-elevation Columbia Gorge pika living in talus slopes like these survived the fire, itself, the effect of burning off encroaching forest is a long-term benefit for these animals by preserving the open talus and promoting growth of sun-loving grasses, wildflowers and huckleberries that Pika depend on.


Pika gathering huckleberry leaves (ODFW)

Another larger species that might benefit from cleared talus and ridge tops is the mountain goat — if it is reintroduced here, or migrates from where it has been re-introduced elsewhere. A 1970s effort to bring them back to the Columbia Gorge was not successful, but perhaps now is the time to try again?

This close-up view (below) of upper Tanner Creek shows the high degree of mosaic burn on the canyon floor that will not only help the forest recover, but also allow for a healthier forest of mixed, multi-aged stands to develop over coming decades:


Mosaic burn pattern along upper Tanner Creek (State of Oregon)

The next photo in the State of Oregon series shows the impact of the Eagle Creek Fire on Tooth Rock, the legendary pinch-point for travel through the Columbia Gorge, from early railroads to modern freeways:


Tooth Rock after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Tooth Rock is just a couple of miles from where the fire started, and one of the first places to burn, closing the highway and railroad for days. This close-up view (below) from the above photo shows a section of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail at Tooth Rock where erosion and landslides unleashed from the burn will be an ongoing concern until the understory recovers:


Historic Highway viaduct at Tooth Rock (State of Oregon)

If you’ve traveled through the Columbia Gorge since the fire, you have probably noticed the protective fencing above the Tooth Rock Tunnel and fresh stumps where burned trees were cut by the highway department to prevent them from falling onto the highway.

This close-up view (below) shows the larger concern, where active slides threaten the historic highway, as well as the portal to the Tooth Rock Tunnel and Union Pacific tunnels, located below the westbound I-84 viaduct:


Stacked transportation routes threatened by slides at Tooth Rock (State of Oregon)

And so the ongoing struggle to find passage around Tooth Rock continues, as the successive roads, rails, tunnels and viaducts making their way around and through the rock over the past 150 years may all share a common fate if these landslides continue to grow.

Eagle Creek: at the Heart of the Inferno


Eagle Creek forest burning as the fire began to unfold last September (US Forest Service)

The intensity of the fire damage to the forests in Oneonta, McCord and Tanner creek canyons might lead you to think the Eagle Creek canyon would have fared worse, since the fire was started here. But the State of Oregon aerial photo series shows the forest canopy in many of the most treasured spots along Eagle Creek surviving the fire, with many areas having a beneficial, mosaic burn pattern.

The mosaic pattern is immediately apparent in this opening view, looking into the canyon from above the Eagle Creek fish hatchery and I-84:


Looking into the Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this view shows that much of the forest along the lower canyon near the Eagle Creek trailhead survived. The historic Eagle Creek Campground is also located in this area:


Lower Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

A still closer look (below) shows that the understory on the west (right) side of Eagle Creek in area stretch burned, while much of the conifer overstory has survived, so far:


West side of lower Eagle Creek (State of Oregon)

The next photo in the series jumps two miles upstream along Eagle Creek to Metlako Gorge, so the extent of the burn in the intervening section of the Eagle Creek Trail is still only known to Forest Service rangers who have been busy assessing trail conditions in the burn area.

This photo (below) looking south into Metlako Gorge shows more mosaic burn pattern, with an intact forest canopy in some areas and dying trees in others. Sorenson Creek Falls (on the left) and Metlako Falls spill into the gorge at the far end:


Metlako Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo shows that the understory was cleared by the fire on the slopes below the Eagle Creek Trail, located directly above the falls. The two familiar Douglas fir trees that lean over the gorge just below Metlako Falls also seem to have been killed by the fire:


Sorenson Creek Falls and Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This fascinating (below) photo from the series shows the former Metlako Falls viewpoint, once located on a short spur trail through a wooded ravine that led to a dizzying perch along the gorge rim. In late December 2016, a massive section of the basalt cliff fell away here, taking the viewpoint (and its cable railings!) with it and filling the gorge below with 30 feet of debris:


The 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

In this earlier blog article, I covered the landslide event in detail, but the new aerial views provide a much more complete understanding of the full scope and scale of the collapse.

This closer look at the photo (below) shows the scale of the collapse, including a barn-sized chunk of solid basalt that managed to land in Eagle Creek intact. The giant, intact boulder gives a good sense of just how much of the original cliff broke away:


Close-up view of the 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide (State of Oregon)

A still closer look (below) shows the impact of the collapse on Eagle Creek, with a deep bank of rock and soil debris banked against the east wall of the gorge, and huge pile of boulders in the creek trapping a log jam of whole trees behind it:


Logjam created by the 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide (State of Oregon)

This photo from the series (below) of the newly formed Metlako Gorge cliff face helps explain why the cliff collapse happened. The waterfall cascading down the newly exposed scarp is located just upstream from where the overlook was located, and emerges from the small ravine the spur trail followed to the old overlook:


Metlako Gorge landslide scarp after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this new waterfall (below) shows that the entire stream actually emerges at the brink of the falls, where groundwater flowing beneath the forest surface has reached the solid basalt layer and is forced toward the cliff.

Constant hydraulic pressure and occasional freezing where this underground water source seeped into cracks in the basalt layer and the sheer weight of the vertical cliff pulling outward created the conditions for what is a fairly regular event in the Columbia River Gorge: outer layers of exposed basalt cliffs calving off as the elements pry them loose.


A new waterfall where the Metlako Falls viewpoint once was (State of Oregon)

What did Metlako Gorge look like before the landslide? It was an idyllic, widely photographed scene of exceptional beauty. This image (below) is no longer possible after the cliff collapse, but the 2017 Eagle Creek fire also destroyed some of the big trees that framed the falls. This view will only live in our photos and memories:


Metlako Falls before the viewpoint collapse — and the Eagle Creek fire

This aerial view from the series provides a more detailed look at Metlako Falls, including a rarely seen section of Eagle Creek just above the falls and the surrounding forest:


Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this photo shows that the fire completely burned away the understory around the falls, and many of the trees here are clearly struggling to survive. Soils in the rocky Columbia Gorge canyons are thin and competition is fierce among big trees during summer droughts, so we won’t really know how trees with this degree of fire damage will fare for another year or two.


Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

As I worked my way through the hundreds of photos in the State of Oregon series, I expected to find a shot of Punch Bowl Falls similar to the previous view of Metlako Falls. After all, Punch Bowl is easily among most photographed spots in the Columbia Gorge (and Oregon), second only to Multnomah Falls. But after my first pass through the set, I was disappointed not to find a good view of the Punch Bowl, of all places!

However, I later came across the following image in a group of several that were more difficult to identify, and noticed the undercut cliff wall tucked among the trees in the lower left edge of the photo:


Is that Punch Bowl Falls down there..? (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Looking more closely (below) at this part of the photo reveals it to be the “weeping wall” that towers above the lower Punch Bowl amphitheater, across from the cobble beach that fills with hundreds of hikers and swimmers on summer weekends. Then I noticed a bare spot that marks the “jumping” spot on the high cliff that hangs above the east side of Punch Bowl Falls — and the trail overlook, in the trees high above the falls:


…that’s a downstream view of Punch Bowl Falls! (State of Oregon)

The good news from this photo is that several stands of big conifers immediately around Punch Bowl Falls not only survived the fire, but look to have completely dodged the flames. That would be good news, as these trees may now live to grow for another century or two, helping the surrounding burn recover and passing along their survivor genes in the process.

Many of the big trees around Punch Bowl Falls have survived at least one other major fire, as much of the Eagle Creek canyon burned in a fire around the turn of the 20th Century. This early 1900s view (below) shows the aftermath of that fire, with large gravel bars filling the Punch Bowl, itself. This material was released by erosion that resulted from that earlier fire, and in coming decades, we are likely to see new gravel bars like this appear in Eagle Creek, once again:


Early 1900s view of Punch Bowl Falls

Most hikers on the Eagle Creek Trail know Tish Creek from its tall — and recently replaced — footbridge. But a few intrepid hikers know that a beautiful waterfall on Tish Creek is located upstream from the trail, reachable by a rough off-trail bushwhack. This little-known spot also seems to have dodged the worst of the fire, as seen in this view aerial view from the series:


Tish Creek Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Moving upstream from Punch Bowl Falls, the photo from the series shows Loowit Gorge, just downstream from Loowit Falls and High Bridge:


Loowit Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Eagle Creek was clearly a barrier for the fire in this area, with the west (right) slopes near Loowit Creek completely burned, while the forest canopy on the east slope (where the Eagle Creek Trail is located) seems to have mostly survived, but with burned trunks to show for it.

This aerial view from the series shows Loowit Falls (at the bottom, where it joins Eagle Creek) and little-known Upper Loowit Falls in the distance:


Loowit and Upper Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this view of Loowit Falls shows a forest that was largely killed by the fire, as even the trees with a few surviving limbs in their crowns are unlikely to survive the stress of losing so much of their canopy:


Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

What did Loowit Falls look like before the fire? It was among the most graceful and photographed in the Columbia Gorge, drifting down a moss-covered basalt wall into a perfect bowl carved into solid rock over the millennia:


Loowit Falls before the burn, surrounded by big conifers (State of Oregon)

Upper Loowit Falls fared worse (below), with the entire forest killed by the fire. In recent years, the word has gotten out on the relatively easy off-trail route to this falls, so like Middle Oneonta Falls, this might be a good candidate for formalizing a spur trail. This could be done as part of restoring the overall trail system at Eagle Creek, when trail planners can see the terrain as never before, and have the opportunity to provide more hiking options in this popular area.


Upper Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This photo from the series looks downstream along a section of Eagle Creek above High Bridge:


Eagle Creek above High Bridge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The burn is extensive here, though a few stands of forest canopy seem to have survived. A close look at the tributary falls in the upper left corner of this view shows Benson Falls, another beautiful, lesser-known waterfall that only a few have visited:


Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Graceful Benson Falls can be reached by scrambling up a side canyon from near High Bridge. This similar view from another photo in the series shows the falls more clearly, and while the burn cleared much of the understory here, many of the big conifers near the falls appear to have survived:


Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Benson Falls could be another candidate for a short spur trail as part of restoring the Eagle Creek Trail in the burn area and providing new trail opportunities.

Moving upstream, the next photo in the State of Oregon series shows a section of Eagle Creek located below Skoonichuk Falls, the next in the chain of waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail:


Eagle Creek and Skoonichuk Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Much of the forest in this section of Eagle Creek canyon was completely killed by the fire, though a few conifers survived immediately around Skoonichuk Falls, as seen in this close-up view:


Skoonichuk Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Unfortunately, the aerial photo series does not include a view of Grand Union Falls and Tunnel Falls (on the East Fork), the next two major waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail, so only the Forest Service rangers know the extent of the fire impact there. But the photo series does include this view of Twister Falls, located on the main fork of Eagle Creek, just up the trail from Tunnel Falls:


Twister Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Eagle Creek formed another firebreak here, though in the opposite direction from what previous photos showed at Loowit Gorge. Here, the forest canopy on the west (right) side of the canyon appears to have mostly survived, while the east side canopy was mostly killed by the fire.

This close-up view (below) of the photo shows the infamous “Vertigo Mile” section of the Eagle Creek Trail, where the exposed route curves around a dizzying cliff above Twister Falls. The fire damage here is readily apparent on the slopes above the trail, with only a few conifers hanging on to some of their foliage:


Twister Falls and the Vertigo Mile after the fire (State of Oregon)

These trees are unlikely to weather summer drought stress in coming years as they attempt to survive with only portion of their crowns intact. As will be the case throughout the burn, debris from heavily burned slopes like this will continue to slide onto adjacent trails until the forest understory has returned to stabilize the soil. This will likely play out for several years.

The groves of big conifers at the base of Twister Falls (below) seem to have fared much better, possibly untouched by the fire:


These big trees below Twister Falls survived the fire (State of Oregon)

Like the big trees that survived by Punch Bowl Falls, these giants will help the surrounding burn recover by helping to reseed burned slopes and providing shade to help keep Eagle Creek cool in summer and early fall.

This view from the brink of Twister Falls (below) from before the fire shows the narrow slot that holds this tall waterfall. In coming years, watch for logjams to form in narrow spots like this along Eagle Creek:


Twister Falls before the fire

This photo in the series shows Sevenmile Falls, the last in the string of major waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail:


Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The understory burned off in this section of forest, but the conifer overstory seems to have survived, mostly intact. This close-up view from the photo shows a more impacted section of forest where the Eagle Creek Trail passes Sevenmile Falls:


Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This photo from the series provides a view from high above the upper Eagle Creek canyon, looking downstream (north) toward the Columbia River, and gives a sense of how the forests in the upper canyon fared:


Upper Eagle Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

While forests along many of the ridge tops were completely killed by the fire, many of the lower slopes in this photo (below) show a beneficial mosaic burn, with wide bands of surviving forest canopy:


Mosaic burn pattern in the upper Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

The condition of trails in this part of the Eagle Creek network is unknown, as the Eagle Creek fire merged with the earlier Indian Creek fire in this area. The Indian Creek fire started weeks before the Eagle Creek fire, but spread less aggressively, mostly burning in relatively high elevation areas above the canyon floor.

Herman Creek and Shellrock Mountain

The State of Oregon photo series doesn’t provide much detail on the Herman Creek canyon, though the fire clearly burned significant portions of Nick Eaton Ridge (seen below, forming the east side of the canyon on the left in the photo). This photo was taken from directly above the Port of Cascade Locks, looking south:


Herman Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

From this limited view, the pattern seems similar to Eagle Creek: killed forests along ridge tops, mosaic burn patterns closer to the canyon floor and some of the largest conifers surviving along Herman Creek (below).


Mosaic burn pattern at Herman Creek (State of Oregon)

The final image in this set focuses on Shellrock Mountain, the eastern extent of the State of Oregon photo survey (below):


Summit Creek and Shellrock Mountain after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at the lower left corner of the photo (below) shows little-known Camp Benson Falls, the lower of two significant waterfalls on Summit Creek, and the ongoing construction of the latest phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail:


Summit Creek and Camp Benson Falls (State of Oregon)

Most of the burn here is also in a mosaic pattern, including along the steep talus slopes of Shellrock Mountain (below). Switchbacks from an old trail leading to the summit show in this view, as well:


Shellrock Mountain forests after the fire (State of Oregon)

The amazing photo survey ends here, roughly coinciding with the eastern extent of the Eagle Creek Fire. Though the photos were focused on assessing potential impacts of burned slopes on highways and other infrastructure in the Gorge, they also serve as an invaluable snapshot of conditions as they existed immediately after the fire. These images will give future land managers and researchers a highly detailed benchmark for tracking the recovery of the Gorge ecosystem over coming decades.

While simply restoring the historic trail network will be a big job, the reality of growing demand in our region for new trails and experiences in the Gorge didn’t go away with the fire. These photos also provide a unique opportunity for today’s State Parks and Forest Service planners to consider new trails and trail realignments while the terrain is easy to survey and trail construction more straightforward than when the understory is intact.

The fire has created a once in a century opportunity to rethink the trails in the Gorge with our rapidly growing population in mind, and is an opportunity that should not be missed. It also provides an opportunity to link the responsible expansion of recreation opportunities to the forest recovery, itself, allowing hikers to watch and learn as a new forest grows here.

After the Fire: the Verdict


Smoky skies in the Gorge during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire

Those who love the Gorge already know this unfortunately sequence of events: the Eagle Creek Fire began on September 2, 2017, when a Vancouver teenager tossed illegal fireworks into the canyon from cliffs along the Eagle Creek trail. The fire quickly exploded into an inferno, burning more than 48,000 acres along the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, and briefly igniting a small fire on the Washington side when embers floated over to the slopes of Aldrich Mountain.

This month, a Hood River County judge sentenced the teen to five years of probation and 1,920 hours (48 weeks) of community service with the U.S. Forest Service. That’s more volunteer time that many Americans contribute over a lifetime. Much of that work will be in the form of restoring and rebuilding trails damaged by the fire, no doubt, and hopefully this mandated service will inspire the unnamed teen to dedicate his life to protecting our public lands after this tragedy.

The public reaction to the sentence was swift: many felt it was too lenient, given the scope and devastation of the fire. Others felt it fair and forgiving, as it gives the teen a chance to potentially direct his life toward stewardship and protecting the Gorge. Here is the statement the young man made to the court as part of sentencing:


Letter of apology from the teen who started the Eagle Creek Fire

[click here for a more readable version]

I fall into the second category in my own reaction, and don’t see a reason to destroy a young life because of a mistake that went horribly wrong. Most of us made similarly stupid decisions in our teens, and were simply fortunate enough not to have had consequences of this scale to answer to.

I also see this sequence of events as a metaphor that all who love the Gorge can learn from: today’s kids are increasingly isolated from nature and spending time on our public lands. Learning to understand, appreciate and respect nature is something that all kids should experience, and might have prevented the Eagle Creek Fire, too.

The teen who started the Eagle Creek Fire will spend nearly a year in his young life working to help with the recovery effort as part of his sentence and will surely learn these lessons. But what if all kids in our growing region simply spent a few hours working on a trail or helping to restore the burn in some other way? How would that change the way in which future generations care for the Gorge? How could we all help to bring out youth closer to nature as we work to restore the Gorge?

Epilogue: Learning to Embrace the Burn


Bleached snags from the 1991 Multnomah Falls fire rising from a sea of young conifers in 2004

Reactions to the first in this two-part article ranged from sadness and anger over places lost to the fire to a degree of hope and guarded optimism about the opportunity to rethink how we manage the Gorge in the future.

While the full impact of the Eagle Creek Fire is still being assessed, the best option moving forward is to embrace the reality of the burn as an opportunity to learn, grow and pitch in. That’s something we can all do, including supporting organizations like Friends of the Gorge and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) who will be at the forefront of bringing volunteers to the major job of restoration.

So far, the public response has been overwhelming, with several TKO trail events filling up almost immediately this year, and long waiting lists forming for future events. That’s encouraging! Let’s hope it continues, as the recovery will take many years.

Many will continue to grieve the magnificent forests and idyllic landscapes lost to the fire, too. That’s a very human response to losing a place that is home to so many of us. But it’s also true that the recovery has already begun, and that each year in the recovery process will bring new opportunities to learn and appreciate how the Gorge ecosystem has recovered countless times from fire over the millennia.


Young conifers growing among the snags from the 1991 Multnomah Falls fire in 2004

For those of us at (or past) the middle of our lives, our memories of what was will have to fill some of the void we feel. But younger visitors to the Gorge will see whole new forests grow among the bleached snags that will soon mark much of the burn area, and the very youngest visitors will live to see tall forests grow here, again.


2004 view of young trees rapidly filling in the 1991 burn area above Angels Rest

What will the recovery look like? The 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire gives us the best glimpse into what to expect as the Eagle Creek recovery unfolds. For those who were around in 1991, the Multnomah Falls Fire swept from the falls west to Angels Rest, scorching much of the Gorge wall along the way. I’ve included a few photos of the burn area taken in 2004, just 13 years after the fire.

At that point in the recovery, trees killed by the 1991 fire still dominated the landscape, but a young forest seemed to be exploding from the burn area, with conifers already 10-15 feet tall and growing quickly. Today, some of these trees are twice that tall, and on the way to becoming a mature forest canopy.


2004 view of the 1991 Multnomah Falls burn, with young trees rapidly overtaking the ghost forest of burned trees

It shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that the Gorge ecosystem can recover quickly and without our help. But with thousands of people living in the Gorge and millions visiting each year, we will also need to learn how to accept fire as part of the forest cycle if we hope to avoid catastrophic burns like the Eagle Creek Fire in the future.

What will that take? One essential tool will be prescribed burns. These are purposely set fires designed to burn a relatively small, controlled area with a relatively cool fire that most of the forest canopy can survive. The goal of a prescribed burn is a mosaic pattern like those found in parts of the Eagle Creek Burn where the fire intensity was less and allowed most trees to survive.


2015 prescribed burn in Yosemite National Park (National Park Service)

Prescribed burns are typically set in late fall, when humidity is high and the rainy season is near and can be counted on to completely extinguish the fire. The Eagle Creek burn occurred in late summer when humidity was low, the forests very dry after two months of drought and the first substantial fall rains were weeks away. The famous Gorge winds only added to the volatility. These conditions combined to allow the fire to burn hot and spread for weeks.

Prescribed burns are now an accepted forest practice, and increasingly used by the Forest Service and National Park Service to reverse the harm done by a century of fire suppression. But preventing future fires on the scale of the Eagle Creek Fire will also require all of us to accept limits on how we use the Gorge. This may be more difficult to accept than prescribed burning, especially given the patchwork of public agencies responsible for managing the Gorge.

What sorts of limits are needed? Restored trails in the burn area will be vulnerable for years to come, and subject to more damage if the same level of foot traffic experienced before the fire is allowed to return. The public agencies that manage the Gorge will need to define and identify reasonable carrying capacities for the most popular trails, and enforce access limits with trail-specific permits, parking management and by offering new trail options for a growing region.


Our children’s grandchildren will experience the Eagle Creek burn like this: scattered ghost stumps from today’s burned trees among a green rainforest of 100-year old trees

Seasonal limits may be required, too. The Gorge was a tinderbox waiting to burn last September when the Vancouver teen tossed fireworks into the Eagle Creek canyon, starting the fire. But it could have easily started from an untended campfire or careless smoker, too.

In the future, seasonal trail limits and temporary closures should also be considered when fire conditions in the Gorge are especially dangerous. This could not only help prevent overly destructive burns in the forests that still remain, but also acknowledges that thousands of Gorge residents and their homes were also threatened by the fire. Their safety should be a core consideration in deciding when to close Gorge trails because of fire risk.

Changes to current management practices will be hard to bring about with a reluctant public, but the Eagle Creek Fire might have given us the perfect moment to educate ourselves on the need to change our ways and think about how our impact on the Gorge will play out for future generations. While much was lost in the fire, we’ve also been given a unique opportunity to change course for the better. I’m optimistic that we will!


Back to the future: the Gorge was recovering from an earlier fire in this 1903 view (WyEast Blog)

[click here for a large image]

I chose the above, hand-colored photo to close this two-part article, as it provides needed perspective of our place in the broader cycle of life in the Columbia Gorge. This Kiser Brothers image was taken in 1903 from a spot just downstream from Beacon Rock, on the Washington side of the river. Across the still, reflective Columbia, the cliffs marking McCord Creek canyon can be seen, with the snow-covered slopes of Nesmith Ridge and Wauneka Point rising above.

In 1903, the Oregon side of the Gorge was just beginning to recover from an extensive fire that swept a good portion of what we now know as the Eagle Creek Burn. Past is prologue, and this is what the Gorge will look like in our immediate future, as another burn cycle unfolds.

While it’s very different scene than the green forests we have enjoyed, it’s also undeniably beautiful in a rugged, wild way. The fire is part of an essential cycle, and more importantly, an opportunity for all of us to rethink how we care for our Gorge.

I’ve also included a link to a large version of the Kiser Brothers photo, and encourage you to print a copy to hang on a bulletin board or your refrigerator as part of learning to embrace the Eagle Creek burn. This snapshot from the distant past has helped me begin to embrace the new reality of the Gorge, and I hope will help you, too.

Thanks for reading!


Author’s note about the photos: a friend of the blog pointed me to the amazing cache of photos featured in this two-part article, and while you could probably acquire them from the State of Oregon, I would encourage you to let our public agency staff focus their time on the Gorge recovery, not chasing down photo requests.  

With this in mind, I’ve posting the very best of the photos here, and have included links to very large images for those looking to use or share them. These photos should be credited to “State of Oregon” where noted in this article, not this blog. They are in the public domain.


After the Fire: A Closer Look (Part 1 of 2)

January 31, 2018

Burned sign along Gorge Trail 400 in January (Tom Kloster)

 State Park and Forest Service rangers and local trail volunteers have been busy this winter assessing the impact of the Eagle Creek Fire. A few photos have been released from their trips into the still-closed burn zone, showing extensive damage to many of our favorite Gorge trails. The early glimpses are sobering and much work clearly will be needed to begin reopening trails to the public. More importantly, they gave us the first sense of just how long it will take for the Gorge to recover — and it’s going to take awhile.

In early December, a far more comprehensive set of oblique aerial photos was captured by the State of Oregon as part of assessing the risks for landslides and flooding from the bare Gorge slopes. These amazing photos provide the first detailed look at how our most treasured places in the Gorge fared after the fire. This article features some of the most stunning of these startling images.


Weisendanger Falls and Multnomah Creek in better days (Tom Kloster)

My first reaction while first poring over the photos was shock and sadness. Like many of you, the Gorge was (and is) my second home, and it’s still hard to accept that the magnificent green Eden I grew up exploring has been destroyed. I’ll always long for the Gorge as it existing before the fire, even as I watch and learn from the miracle of forest recovery that will unfold in coming years. This is a paradox that we’ll all need to accept.

But moving forward, we also need to refocus our love for the Gorge of memories on the urgent work that lies ahead, not only to restore what was lost, but also set a new direction for how this amazing place can be sustainably managed in perpetuity. We owe it to future generations who will only know the old Gorge from our photos to never allow a man-made catastrophe like the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 be repeated. The lesson from the fire is not just that it was human-caused, but that the fire and its severity resulted from our own unwillingness to set limits on how we manage and use the Gorge. This is our challenge moving forward.


This article is the first of a two-part series that features the best of the amazing new aerial photos. You can explore a large version of each photo in great detail by clicking on the “large view” link, which will open a 2000×1300 pixel version in a new window or tab. I’ve also enlarged some of the most fascinating highlights from these photos for the article.

Shepperd’s Dell to Multnomah Creek

The first half of the tour covers the west portion of the Eagle Creek Burn, beginning at Shepperd’s Dell, and moving east to the Ainsworth State Park area.

This photo is a birds-eye view looking down at the tiered waterfalls of Young Creek, in Shepperds Dell, and the iconic Historic Columbia River Highway bridge that spans the dell:


Aerial view of Shepperd’s Dell (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Like so many areas within the burn, it sometimes seems like the fire sought out our most treasured places. In this case, the fire wrapped around Shepperd’s Dell, proper, killing trees on top of the domed rock formation at the east (left) end known as Bishop’s Cap and on the cliffs directly above Shepperd’s Dell.

In contrast, the area to the west of Young Creek and Shepperd’s Dell experienced a beneficial burn, with the understory cleared but many of the large conifers surviving:


Shepperd’s Dell, including the upper tier of the falls (State of Oregon)

This view also reveals the top tier of the four-step waterfall that cascades through the Dell. Though part if the second tier can be seen from the wayside, the tall upper tier is completely hidden by walls of basalt from below.

The historic bridge at Shepperd’s Dell was unharmed by the fire, but some of the stone walls along the west approach were damaged by falling trees, as shown in this view:


Aerial view of Shepperd’s Dell (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The historic footpath that descends to the lower tier of waterfalls in Shepperd’s Dill is not significantly damaged, though it is vulnerable to falling rock and debris from the burned cliffs, above. Rangers have therefore closed this trail for safety reasons, for now.

This close-up view (below) shows the picturesque stand of Oregon white oak growing on a prominent basalt outcrop next to Shepperd’s Dell bridge. These trees were scorched by the fire, but still hold their browned foliage, so it’s unclear if these will survive. We’ll know if they leaf out this spring.


Historic Shepperd’s Dell bridge (State of Oregon)

Next up, a photo that provides a close look at the popular Angels Rest trail. This view shows the north side, where the switchbacks along the upper section of the trail are clearly visible:


Aerial view of Angels Rest (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This part of Angels Rest burned in the 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire, and was still recovering last year when the Eagle Creek Fire swept through. A comparison of how these burns overlapped on Angels Rest is included in this earlier article on the fire.

One interesting lesson from the fire is how living trees don’t really “burn” thanks to their water content, even if a tree is killed by the heat. Instead, the wood in killed trees usually survives fully intact, becoming bleached snags as burned park peels off in the year or two following the fire. Because the unburned wood is so sound, snags from fires as far back as the early 1900s are still standing in many places around the Cascades.

Yet, many of the dried-out, bleached snags from the 1991 Gorge fire were burned to nothing but stumps of charcoal. This was true throughout the burn, where dead trees and old snags from previous fires were reduced to ashes in places while nearby living trees often survived the fire with only a blackened trunk.


Detailed view of the Angels Rest Trail (State of Oregon)

This photo shows Angels Rest from the west, also with the upper switchbacks along the trail leading to the summit:


Aerial view of Angels Rest (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

While the north side of Angels Rest burned hot enough to char the landscape down to blackened soil, the west side fire seems to have been less intense, with much of the understory appearing to survive, and many of the old snags from the 1991 burned black, but still standing along the lower edge of this close-up view (below).


Detailed view of Angels Rest Trail (State of Oregon)

Moving east, the next photo shows the fire’s impact on Wahkeena Falls, among the more hallowed spots in the Gorge. While the burn affected slopes on both sides of the falls, much of the forest here survived the flames.


Aerial view of Wahkeena Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look shows Lemmon’s Point (the overlook east of the falls) to have burned, along with the steep cliffs to the west of the falls. Other photos in the set show the Wahkeena Trail above the falls to be heavily affected by the fire, with a lot of debris and fallen trees covering this iconic trail.


Detailed view of Wahkeena Falls (State of Oregon)

News coverage has provided many views of Multnomah Falls since the fire began, but the new set of aerial views gives a much better look at the impact of the fire on the area. Like Wahkeena Falls, the fire here raged around the falls but left many of the big trees scorched, but alive.

As shown in this photo, the most heavily impacted area near the falls is along the cliffs east of Multnomah Creek, where the Larch Mountain Trail begins its many switchbacks to the top of the falls, and on the steep slopes directly above the falls:


Aerial view of Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This close-up view shows the low bluff to left of the falls to have been more significantly impacted. The Larch Mountain trail passes through this section of burned forest:


Close-up view of fire damage below Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

This photo shows a bit more of the west side of the falls and a peek into the Multnomah Creek canyon, above Multnomah Falls:


Aerial view of Multnomah Falls and lodge (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows burned trees along Multnomah Creek, just above the falls, and along the ridge to the east of the falls that marks the high point for hikers following the Larch Mountain Trail to the viewpoint at the top of the falls. The Forest Service reports that the viewing platform there was undamaged by the fire, though the spur trail to the viewpoint has been impacted by falling debris.


Close-up view of the canyon just above Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

This photo from just east of Multnomah Falls (below) provides a better look at the slopes where the Larch Mountain Trail scales the Gorge wall. Here, a mosaic burn has left many trees standing, which bodes well for this steep slope holding together as the recovery begins, but will also mean years of falling debris from killed trees and loose slopes for trail crews to clear.


Aerial view of the east side of Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This close-up look at the photo reveals the upper switchbacks of the Larch Mountain Trail as it approaches the ridge crest:


Close-up view of the Larch Mountain Trail where it climbs to the top of the falls (State of Oregon)

One of the challenges here will be keeping hikers on the trail, as switchback cutting has been a perennial problem in the Gorge, and especially along this very popular route. The fire provides an opportunity to better educate visitors about the damage that cutting trails can cause, but will require close coordination among state and federal land managers, and help from trail advocates.

This photo (below) provides a view down Multnomah Creek canyon from (roughly) above the Wahkeena Trail junction, and gives a good sense of how the forests here fared. Though heavily burned, much of the burn pattern is still a mosaic pattern. If the living trees in this photo survive their first summer of drought stress after the fire, they should recover quickly and help the surrounding forest regenerate.


Aerial view of Multnomah Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This closer look at the photo (below) gives an excellent sense of how fire affects forests in a mosaic burn. While some trees were killed outright by the heat of the fire, others survived with some or all of their living canopy intact.


Close-up view of the burn along Multnomah Creek (State of Oregon)

When fires are hot enough to explode into tree canopies, fire fighters call this “crowning”, and it almost always means the tree will die. Less heat means that the cambium layer can survive under thick-barked older trees, and fires that don’t rage into the crowns of trees allow foliage to survive, as well.

If the fire burns low to the ground and with less heat, trees like Douglas fir have evolved to have thick, fire-resistant bark that can survive this stress. Even in a relatively small area, as shown in the above photo, all of these fire behaviors can play out leaving a mosaic of living and killed trees. The mosaic effect, in turn, not only allows for a faster rebound of the burned forest and less erosion, but also provides a more diverse ecosystem that benefits the most plant and animal species. Before our intervention over the past century of fire suppression, mosaics from fire were the normal state of our forests.

This is the crux of why prescribed burning — the practice of purposely setting forest fires in a controlled manner to reduce fuels and rejuvenate the understory — is the most ecologically sound path forward for the Gorge. Prescribed fires are usually set in late fall, when the approaching rainy guarantees a short burn and cooler weather encourages fires that are less hot and burn closer to the ground.

For the next photo (below), you’ll need to adopt the perspective of a dive-bombing bird, as this is a near-vertical view of Weisendanger Falls (the splash pool is at the bottom of the photo) on Multnomah Creek (which flows up in this view). This is the first big waterfall above Multnomah Falls, and though a few trees around the falls were scorched, the forest canopy here mostly survived.


Aerial view of Weisendanger Falls on Multnomah Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows the Larch Mountain Trail switchbacks that climb above the creek at Weisendanger Falls. Like the switchbacks on lower parts of the trail, this area will require some diligence to keep hikers cutting the switchbacks in the absence of an understory that was burned off in the fire.

Education will be key, as there are simply too many burned switchbacks throughout the Eagle Creek Burn to protect with barriers or other physical means, and these fragile slopes will only recover if they’re left undisturbed.


Close-up view of the trail below Weisendanger Falls (State of Oregon)

To give a sense of what happened here, this is what Weisendanger Falls looked like from the first switchback along this section of trail a few years ago, before the fire. The good news is that many of the tall conifers here survived the fire, though the lush understory in this old view will take many years to recover.


Stately Weisdanger Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

Here’s another birds-eye photo of Multnomah Creek, just upstream from the previous image. This view shows Ecola Falls at the center, the third and final large waterfall on Multnomah Creek, with the creek flowing to the left in this view:


Aerial View of Ecola Falls on Multnomah Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at the photo (below) shows the brink of Ecola Falls more clearly (on the left side of the image), as well as the burned-off cliffs at the top of the photo, above the falls. What shows up here as a brown slope is actually a basalt wall that was once covered in green moss and ferns — you can see a surviving sliver of moss clinging to a vertical section of the cliff in the upper left corner of the photo.


Close-up of the top of Ecola Falls (State of Oregon)

While it won’t happen overnight, the “re-mossing” of burned cliffs and talus slopes in the Gorge will occur in the relative near term of the next decade or so. How do we know this? From recent rock falls and slides in the Gorge, where raw surfaces have been “re-greened” after just a few years of exposure to the cool, wet rainforest environment.

What did Ecola Falls look like before the fire? Most never saw the falls from stream level, as the Larch Mountain Trail passed above the brink of the falls atop a high cliff. But a steep descent into the canyon provided this stunning view for waterfall chasers:


Beautiful Ecola Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

The understory burned away here, too, though many of the large conifers around Ecola Falls survived. Trees killed by the Eagle Creek fire will eventually drop into Multnomah Creek and in the future, and for many decades to come, we will see log piles accumulate below the major waterfalls.

While this may take some getting used to, log piles were a normal part of stream ecology before fire suppression and logging. This scene along a wild section of Mount Hood’s Salmon River is typical of what our waterfalls once looked like:


Log-filled Frustration Falls on the Salmon River in the early 1960s (USFS)

Beyond aesthetics, in recent years stream ecologists have learned that logs and woody debris in streams are an essential ingredient to healthy fish habitat. So in this way, we’re simply returning to the way things have always been in the Gorge, and the coming wave of logs is only new to our eyes.

This photo is from below Larch Mountain, looking down Multnomah Creek toward Multnomah Basin, in the distance. Large stands of old-growth forest dodged the fire here:


Aerial view of upper Multnomah Basin (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows the Larch Mountain Trail where it traverses a large talus slope along Multnomah Creek:


Close-up of the Larch Mountain Trail and Multnomah Basin

In many areas, the fire seems to have skipped over talus slopes like this, hopefully allowing the unique, low elevation population of Pikas that live in these areas of the Columbia Gorge to survive the burn. We’ll know soon enough, as the Gorge Pikas are active year-round, and their distinctive “beep” is unmistakable for passing hikers.

What did upper Multnomah Creek look like before the fire? Here’s a view of the big conifers that lined much of the creek before the burn:


Upper Multnomah Creek before the fire (Tom Kloster)

In many areas, these trees seem to have survived, though many were lost to the fire. We’ll know the full impact of the fire in the next year or two, after trees that survived the burn have faced their first summer drought and subsequent winter season.

Oneonta Creek to Ainsworth State Park

The following series of images are especially tough to look at. For many, Oneonta Creek is (or was) second only to Eagle Creek for its spectacular waterfalls, famous slot gorge and — until now — magnificent forests. All of this has changed.

As the following photos show in jarring detail, the forests of the lower Oneonta Creek canyon were almost completely destroyed by the fire, with only a few scattered trees surviving. Worse, many of these surviving trees are still fire damaged and likely to die under the added stress of drought next summer.

This photo (below) looks up the canyon from the mouth of Oneonta Gorge, and tells the hard story: a few trees on the west slope of the gorge survived, but the canyon beyond is completely burned. Scorched Oneonta Falls can be seen at the head of mile-long Oneonta Gorge in this view:


Aerial view of the devastation at Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at Oneonta Gorge (below) shows the devastation more clearly. One of the obvious impacts of the fire is that the infamous logjam at the lower entrance to the gorge is about to get a LOT bigger, as burned logs begin to roll into Oneonta Creek by the hundreds over coming decades.

While the logs will benefit the ecological health of the creek, the logjam in Oneonta Gorge could prove catastrophic to the historic highway bridges downstream, as described in this earlier article on the blog. The fire may finally spur some sort of intervention by ODOT and the Forest Service to remove the logjam.


Close-up of Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

The aftermath of the fire also provides the Forest Service with an opportunity to finally close Oneonta Gorge to swarms of teenage waders who overwhelm this place each summer. It’s time give this precious place a much needed rest from the crush of people who have “discovered” it in recent years, and in the long-term, severely restrict access with an enforced permit system.


The summer conga line of kids waiting to cross the logjam at Oneonta Gorge (photo: John Speth)

The fire also burned away the wood lining of the recently restored Historic Highway tunnel at Oneonta Bluff, on the left in the above photo, and shown in the photo below. This is another opportunity for a reboot of this historic feature.


Oneonta waders had already destroyed the historic tunnel before it burned in last year’s fire (Tom Kloster)

ODOT should absolutely rebuild the historic wood lining, but as thousands of young people proved by thoughtlessly carving their names and messages into the soft cedar surface, the public can’t be trusted with uncontrolled access to this restored treasure.

If it is rebuilt, the tunnel must be securely gated, and only opened on weekends when visitors can be monitored by agency staff or volunteer. This is one of many examples where we have a unique opportunity to set limits on how we use the Gorge, and ensure we pass it along to future generations in better shape than what we inherited.

This photo of Oneonta Bluff, taken above the tunnel and east of Oneonta Gorge, shows a few interesting details on the behavior of the fire:


Aerial view of Oneonta Bluff (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This close-up view (below) from the left side of the photo shows how the fire burned away a segment of the cliff face, while leaving ferns, moss and a few trees clinging to an untouched section of cliff, just feet away. The understory at the top of the cliff was completely burned, but a stand of Douglas fir survived to help begin the recovery here. The Horsetail Creek trail passes through this stand of trees on Oneonta Bluff.


Close-up of burn patterns on Oneonta Bluff (State of Oregon)

A closer look at the burned crest of the bluff (below) shows trees cut several feet above the ground. These trees were removed after the fire because of their falling hazard to the highway below, not as part of the fire fighting effort:


Logged trees above the historic highway on Oneonta Bluff (State of Oregon)

This photo of the entrance to Oneonta Gorge (below) shows the cliff walls inside the gorge green and intact — an encouraging sign that the rare plant and animal species that live here may have survived the burn.


Aerial view of the logjam in Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows the logjam at the entrance to Oenonta Gorge already growing with new logs released by the fire:


Close-up view of the logjam in Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

This close-up view (below) shows good detail of trees that survived the fire on the cliffs above Oneonta Gorge, despite having their lower trunks burned black in the blaze:


Trees that survived the flames on the cliffs above Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

Moving upstream, this photo (below) provides startling detail of the Oneonta Trail, much of it heavily impacted by the fire. This photo also shows the lower Oneonta footbridge, located just above Oneonta Falls where it drops into the narrow slot of Oneonta Gorge:


Aerial view of the devastation above Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Sadly, the forest was completely killed in this idyllic spot. In this close-up view of the photo (below), Oneonta Bridge Falls, the small cascade above the bridge, can be seen with the first of what will be many more logs filling this stream in decades to come. And while the lower Oneonta footbridge seems to have survived the fire intact, the steep, terraced switchbacks climbing the canyon east of the bridge appear to be heavily impacted by erosion that followed the fire.


Close-up of the fire damage above Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

What did this spot look like before? This is the verdant scene that existed here until last September, as viewed from the footbridge looking downstream at the brink of Oneonta Falls where drops into the narrow gorge, beyond:


Looking over the top of Oneonta Falls and into Oneonta Gorge before the fire (Tom Kloster)

How soon will this area recover? The forests will take decades to return to Oneonta canyon, but the understory will bounce back much more quickly. In this close-up view from the aerial photos, ferns and moss on the steepest walls of the canyon near the lower Oneonta Bridge survived the fire, and will help fuel the recovery here:


Close-up of the lower Oneonta footbridge (State of Oregon)

This close-up view (below) of the terraced switchbacks to the east of the lower Oneonta footbridge shows Licorice ferns surviving along the vertical stone walls, marking the otherwise buried trail:


Close-up of the steep switchbacks on the east side of the bridge (State of Oregon)

Another surprising lesson from the fire is the important role of the ubiquitous Licorice fern and the moss carpets they inhabit in holding loose rock and talus slopes together in the Gorge. These tiny plants are the living glue that keep the Gorge slopes intact. Fortunately, these will also be among the first plants to return to burned areas.

This photo (below) captures Oneonta canyon from Oneonta Bridge Falls (at the bottom, marked by a log lying across the falls) to little-known Middle Oneonta Falls, in the huge basalt cavern at the top of the photo. The terraced switchbacks above the lower Oneonta footbridge can also be seen in the lower left corner of this view:


Aerial view of devastated Oneonta Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This closer view (below) gives a good sense of what we can expect to see over the next few years throughout the burn zone: deep erosion where burned trees and an absence of understory vegetation leaves steep slopes exposed. This view shows a small landslide that has already toppled several burned trees into the canyon:


Close-up view of a landslides triggered by the fire (State of Oregon)

Waterfall explorers have long visited beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls and its deep cave by following a steep, sketchy boot path on the west side of the canyon. In recent years, a major landslide not only took out the Oneonta Trail, proper, but also this little-known boot path, completely blocking the descent to the middle falls.

This photo of Oneonta canyon (below) shows what waterfall lovers have dreamed of for years: a clear route for a future trail along the east bank of the creek to Middle Oneonta Falls. While the fire has impacted the forest here for generations to come, it also brings an opportunity to enhance the trail network as part of the restoration with a once-in-a-century view of the landscape laid bare.


Aerial view of little-known Middle Oneonta Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

These close-up views (below) from the previous photo show Middle Oneonta Falls in fine detail. The forest and understory here were completely destroyed by the fire:


Middle Oneonta Falls (State of Oregon)


Middle Oneonta Falls and its huge cave (State of Oregon)

What did Middle Oneonta Falls look like before the fire? It was among the most idyllic spots in the Gorge, though rarely seen. Here’s a photo from better days, when it was a sylvan paradise:


Beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

The grove of Douglas fir on the left side of this image were 50-70 years old before the fire destroyed them, so while I won’t live to see this scene restored, many in today’s Millennial generation will. It’s difficult to confront the loss, but these images from before the fire will be important for younger generations as a visual reminder of what coming the Gorge restoration is working toward.

The following is perhaps the most difficult to view of the new aerial photos of Oneonta canyon. This view shows Triple Falls, the best-known scenic highlight of the Oneonta Trail and one of the most photographed, picturesque scenes anywhere. The fire killed the entire forest and completely erased the understory here:


Aerial view of the devastation at Triple Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This closer look at the photo (below) shows the braided spur trails leading to the exposed viewpoint opposite the falls. The fire burned hot here, rolling into the crowns of many trees, as indicated by blackened bark extending to the tops of tree trunks:


Close-up view of Triple Falls and the viewpoint trail (State of Oregon)

What did Triple Falls look like before the fire? It was one of the most visited and iconic scenes in the Gorge. Only today’s younger Millennials will see anything like this again in their lifetimes:


The iconic scene at Triple Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

The upper Oneonta footbridge at Triple Falls was also heavily damaged by the fire, and may be completely compromised. As this close-up view (below) shows, the decking and railings are completely burned away, and the log span may also be burned beyond repair:


Burned-out upper footbridge above Triple Falls (State of Oregon)

The burned-away understory (below) also reveals lost trail segments at the Triple Falls viewpoint. A close look at this image shows an upper, abandoned trail alignment (complete with stone wall) that likely dates back to the Civilian Conservation Corps, but had been lost in the undergrowth. The modern route is the most prominent trail in the center of this trail maze:


Network of new and old trails at the viewpoint revealed by the fire (State of Oregon)

The burn gives the Forest Service an opportunity to rethink and redesign the trails at this overlook, where heavy foot traffic was already causing serious erosion and loss of vegetation, even before the fire swept through last fall.

This photo (below) of the upper Oneonta Canyon shows that it fared better than the steep lower canyon in the fire, as revealed in this view from above the confluence of Oneonta and Bell creeks:


Aerial view of upper Oneonta canyon at Bell Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows a mosaic burn, with large stands of ancient conifers surviving the blaze, while others were less fortunate:


Close-up of ancient forests in the upper Oneonta canyon (State of Oregon)

Another close look at this photo (below) shows that the fire often killed young, recovering forests (from past fires) while older, nearby stands survived:


Burn pattern detail in the upper Oneonta Canyon (State of Oregon)

While counter-intuitive at first glance, this is another important lesson from the Eagle Creek fire: part of the natural selection process in our forests is the ability for trees to grow fast, large and tall enough to survive periodic fires, thus surviving to generate the seedlings that will begin the recovery of the surrounding burn.

Moving east from the tragically scorched Oneonta canyon, the scene along nearby Horsetail Creek is somewhat less devastating, as this photo from above Horsetail Falls shows:


Aerial view of Horsetail Falls and canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at familiar Horsetail Falls shows many of the big conifers around the falls surviving, even though the fire swept down to the edge of the Historic Columbia River Highway. The Horsetail Creek Trail can be seen climbing the slope to the left of the falls in this view, and appears to be somewhat impacted by falling trees and debris.


Close-up of the fire impact on Horsetail Falls (State of Oregon)

This close-up view of the photo (below) shows the sharp contrast in the severity of the burn in the Oneonta canyon (blackened area to the right) and the Horsetail canyon (mosaic burn to the left). This detail shows how topography and wind patterns work together to determine the path and severity of forest fires:


Contrasting burn patterns along the divide between Horsetail and Oneonta canyons (State of Oregon)

Fans of the informal Rock of Ages trail will find rough going in the future along this informal route that climbs above Horsetail Falls. In this close-up view (below), the entire ridge appears to be burned over. Because the trail is not officially recognized or maintained, falling debris and erosion will take a toll on this route, even if hikers work to keep the unofficial route open.


Fire impact on Rock of Ages ridge (State of Oregon)

This vertical photo (below) of Horsetail Falls and Ponytail Falls from directly above shows that much of the forest canopy along the lower section of Horsetail Creek survived the fire:


Birds-eye aerial view of Horsetail Falls and Ponytail Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this photo shows a few killed trees near Ponytail Falls, but mostly a green canopy sufficient to carry most of these trees through next summer’s drought and to long lives ahead:


Close-up of Ponytail Falls showing the scope of the burn (State of Oregon)


What did Ponytail Falls look like before the fire? It was yet another green grotto in the Gorge, framed by graceful stands of Vine Maple. It’s unknown if these small understory trees survived the fire:


Graceful Ponytail Falls on Horsetail Creek in better days (Tom Kloster)

Like the upper Oneonta canyon, the upper Horsetail Creek drainage is largely a mosaic burn. This photo (below) shows large sections of surviving trees that will greatly benefit forest recovery here:


Aerial view of Horsetail canyon, above the waterfalls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A close look at this photo (below) shows Archer Mountain on the Washington side of the Gorge. This view gives a good sense of just how massive the Eagle Creek fire really was, as embers from the fire were carried more than a mile across the Columbia River where they ignited a small fire on the slopes of Archer Mountain.


Closer view of Horsetail Canyon and Archer Mountain, across the Columbia River (State of Oregon)

Firefighters were briefly concerned with the possibility of the fire spreading broadly across the Washington side of the Gorge, but managed to contain the fire to a few acres on Archer Mountain.

The final photo (below) in the first part of this series shows Yeon Mountain and Katanai Rock in the Ainsworth State Park area. The small community of Dodson spreads out at the base of the 3000-foot high Gorge wall in this area:


Aerial view of Yeon Mountain and Katanai Rock (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The fire was surprisingly agile here, burning ancient trees perched on remote ledges across the 3-mile long cliff face here (below). The vertical topography protected many old trees, too, where many isolated giants remained out of reach from the flames. The geology of this area is notoriously unstable, with frequent rock falls and mudflows. The loss of forests to fire here is expected to accelerate erosion for decades to come.


Close-up view of burn pattern on Katanai Rock (State of Oregon)

One such mudflow spilled down these slopes in the 1990s, burying a farmhouse to the second story and spreading across Interstate-84, closing the freeway for days. This mudflow had since grown a dense stand of Cottonwood and Red Alder trees (below), obscuring the abandoned, buried farmhouse over the past quarter century.


Detailed view of the 1990s landslide near Dodson, now burned over by the Eagle Creek Fire (State of Oregon)

Surprisingly, the Eagle Creek Fire seemed to seek out this young stand of trees, burning it entirely, and finally destroying what was left of the old farmhouse, which can be seen as a rectangle of white ashes in the close-up view, above. Older conifer forests (on the right) bordering the mudflow survived the flames, as did irrigated fields where fence lines served as firebreaks. Scenes like this help us better understand how fires shape the evolution of our forests over time.

Looking ahead…

These photos are hard to look at. For so many of us, the Gorge is a sacred place where we go to escape the stress of urban life and ground ourselves in the perfection and serenity of nature at its most sublime. Seeing the once lush, green landscape reduced to blackened tree skeletons and ashes is shocking, to say the least.

But moving forward, every year will mark what is expected to be a rapid recovery. It also offers us a chance to be part of the recovery. If the 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire is our guide, we’ll see young trees established within a decade and new forests well on their way to maturity by the time today’s Millennials begin receiving their Social Security checks.

That’s reassuring, as learning to understand our place in the natural landscape begins with accepting that we are just passing through ecosystems that existed long before us, and will thrive long after we are gone. Our role is to ensure that future generations inherit healthy, thriving ecosystems that are enhanced by our actions, not harmed by them.


Sword fern front sprouting from its roots after being scorched by the fire (Tom Kloster)

In the meantime, you can do something about the Gorge recovery right now! How? Sign up for a Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) trail project. TKO already has several events lined up beginning in February, and there will be many more events to coming for years to come.

This is a great way to give back and be part of restoring our Gorge trails, and no experience is required — just an able body and passion for the Gorge! If you can dig in your garden or rake leaves, you can be a volunteer on a trail crew. You can also support TKO with a donation through their website.

Next up in Part 2 of this article: McCord Creek, Moffett Creek, Tanner Creek, Eagle Creek and Shellrock Mountain.


Author’s note about the photos: a friend of the blog pointed me to the amazing cache of photos featured in this article, and while you could probably acquire them from the State of Oregon, I would encourage you to let our public agency staff focus their time on the Gorge recovery, not chasing down photo requests.  

With this in mind, I’ve posting the very best of the photos here, and have included very large images for those looking to use or share them. These photos should be credited to “State of Oregon” where noted in this article, not this blog. They are in the public domain.



2018 Mount Hood National Park Calendar!

December 24, 2017

Mount Hood’s imposing west face is featured on the cover

[click here for a large image]

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

2018 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar

The monthly layout remains the same as last year, with a classic “grid” design that serves nicely as a working calendar for kitchens or offices. The finished calendar hangs 14 inches wide by 22 inches tall, with a white wire binding, and the print quality of the photos is excellent!


In the past I’ve used calendar sales help cover some of the modest costs of keeping the campaign website and WyEast blog up and running, but beginning this year I will shift to sending all proceeds to Trailkeepers of Oregon, and in turn, TKO’s coming efforts to help recover our Columbia River Gorge trails from the impacts of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.

The great thing about putting these calendars together is that it ensures I continue exploring new places in the gorge and on the mountain, as each calendar consists exclusively of photos I’ve taken over the previous year. In this year’s calendar article, I’ll provide some of the stories behind the photos in the new Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar — sort of a visual year-in-review!

The WyEast Year in Images

The following is a rundown of the 12 images inside the calendar by month, with a link to a large version of each image, too (you can see them by clicking the link beneath each preview image).

The 2018 calendar begins with the cover image (at the top of the article), featuring the steep Sandy Headwall on Mount Hood’s imposing west face. This is the view Portlanders have of their mountain from afar, but a close-up look from along the Timberline Trail reveals the crevassed Sandy and Reid glaciers tumbling down the slopes and the deep Muddy Fork canyon, almost directly below. This is Mount Hood’s “tallest” side, with a vertical rise of more than 7,000 feet from the Muddy Fork valley floor to the 11,250-foot summit.

The January image in the new calendar features a chilly Cold Spring Creek on Mount Hood’s east slope:


Cold Spring Creek in Winter

[click here for a large image]

Only a few years ago, the snowshoe hike along Cold Spring Creek to Tamanawas Falls was completely off the radar for most, but in recent years its popularity has soared, and the trailhead is now packed on winter weekends.

One twist this year was a Forest Service noticed tacked up at the trailhead:



As it turned out, what apparently was a difficult rock fall to negotiate over the summer was much easier to travel with a couple feet of snow covering the debris. The rocks fell in a section of canyon just below the falls that experienced an enormous cliff collapse in the early 2000s, and continues to be active.

For February, I selected a photo from a near-perfect winter day in the upper White River Canyon, along the popular Boy Scout Ridge snowshoe route:


Upper White River Canyon

[click here for a large image]

The day began with clear blue skies, which is glorious, of course, but not so great for photography. After reaching a favorite viewpoint in the upper canyon, though, bands of clouds began floating in, making for some memorable scenes of a cloud-framed mountain. The photo below was taken on the way out that day, as evening shadows began to stretch across the lower canyon.


White River and Mount Hood

[click here for a large image]

As covered in previous articles, fire in the Columbia River Gorge is as much a part of the ecology as the trees, themselves. But if you had told me the extent of the Eagle Creek Fire last spring, I wouldn’t have believed you.

For hikers, it’s almost like the Eagle Creek Fire was connecting dots among favorite Columbia River Gorge beauty spots, with only a few of the iconic waterfalls that make the Oregon side of the Gorge famous escaping the flames. So, even knowing and accepting that fire is a necessary and beneficial part of the ecosystem still doesn’t blunt the harsh reality that this fire felt personal. And it’s going to take awhile to heal.

As the fire raged west toward Portland last September, my immediate thought was Tanner Creek, the next drainage to the west of Eagle Creek and directly in the path of the inferno. If I had to pick a spot that embodies almost everything that defines the Columbia River Gorge, Tanner Creek’s lower canyon is it, culminating with spectacular Wahclella Falls.

This canyon is as fine a temple as nature can create, and it’s a sanctuary I visit many times each year. This is my most treasured place in the Gorge… and now I wondered “Would it burn?”


Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek

[click here for a large image]


Waterfall enthusiasts visiting the altar at Wahclella Falls last spring

I didn’t know the answer to that question until a week or two ago, when I came upon some aerial photos of the Gorge taken sometime this fall. My scientific acceptance — embrace, in fact — of fire in our forests aside, I was selfishly relieved to see that the deep gorge surrounding Wahclella Falls had somehow been missed by the fire. Or had simply resisted it.

This photo shows Wahclella Falls and its iconic grove of Western Red Cedar mostly intact, though much of the surrounding Tanner Creek canyon was severely burned:


Wahclella Falls after the fire

Wahclella Falls is at the bottom of the photo, and Tanner Creek’s lesser-known upper gorge and the string of waterfalls that continue above Wahclella Falls can also be seen in this view. This is a place where I hope to see a trail, someday. Maybe in the destruction of the forest we’ll see new trails to places like this, where we take in new sights while also watching our Gorge recover?

For the March image, I selected another Gorge waterfall. This is the last in a string of waterfalls on Moffett Creek, located immediately to the west of Tanner, Creek. This falls is generally known as Moffett Creek Falls or simply Moffett Falls:


Moffett Falls

 [click here for a large image]

This waterfall is off-trail, and requires walking a mile or so up the streambed of Moffett Creek to reach it. I first visited this falls in the early 1980s, and have returned several times over the years. Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a massive rock fall occurred here, and completely changed the landscape below the falls and the canyon slopes to the west.

Before the fire, the scene was already one of recovering forests, with young groves of Red Alder flanking the falls and lining the rearranged creek for 100 yards downstream. The Eagle Creek fire was just the most recent calamity to sweep through this spot, and such is the dynamic, often cataclysmic nature of the Columbia River Gorge.


Snowdrifts on Moffett Creek in mid-April!

Our trip last April was complicated by an extremely late snowpack, following a very wet and snowy winter in the Gorge. The canyon, itself, was a tangle of downfall from the harsh winter, making it a rough trip compared to previous years.

How did the fire affect Moffett Falls? Much more significantly than Wahclella Falls, on nearby Tanner Creek. Like Tanner Creek, Moffett Creek is located just west of Eagle Creek and was in the direct path of the fire during its most explosive, early phase. As this aerial photo taken sometime this fall shows, the entire forest around Moffett Falls appears to have been killed by the flames:


Someday, I hope to see a trail to Moffett Creek’s waterfalls, too. Who knows, maybe the changes wrought by the fire will allow the Forest Service to consider that possibility? It turns out this idea isn’t new, at all. In fact, it was proposed in January 1916, when the brand new (now historic) Columbia River Highway was about to open:


Excerpt from The Oregonian (January 30, 1916)


Map excerpt from The Oregonian showing the proposed Moffett Creek Trail (January 30, 1916)

More about that trail concept, and the need for a long-term trail plan for the Gorge in a future article…!

Did you know that today’s Silver Creek State Park has been proposed to become a national monument or park at least a couple of times in the past? It makes sense, given the spectacular concentration of waterfalls within this beautiful preserve, and especially with the legacy of trails and lodges left by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during their 1930s heyday. Many believe it to be a national park or monument today!

With this in mind, I selected a scene from a May visit to Silver Creek’s North Fork as a reminder that there are more than simply the show-stopper waterfalls to this amazing place:


North Fork Silver Creek

[click here for a large image]

While our current regime in Washington D.C. is more focused on tearing away protections from our public in order to sell our resources off to corporate interests at bargain prices, it’s also true that the exploitation/conservation pendulum in our country swings both ways.

In some ways, the outrageous anti-environment, anti-science and anti-public lands extremism we’re seeing with the Trump administration has already kicked off a counter-movement. It can’t come soon enough, and hopefully you’ve joined in the opposition, too.


Misty Silver Creek Forest

Someday, when the pendulum does swing, Silver Creek would make an excellent unit of a future Mount Hood National Park. Why? Because the current park contains just a small slice of Silver Creek’s larger ecosystem, and today’s beautiful scenes of waterfalls and mossy glades are increasingly threatened by upstream development and industrial-scale logging. Watch for a future article on this topic, too!

While on the subject of threatened places, the June image in the 2018 calendar captures another such spot on the other side of Mount Hood: Bald Butte, located along the east wall of the Hood River Valley:


Mount Hood in late May from Bald Butte’s sprawling meadows

[click here for a large image]

This lovely butte rises directly above the Hood River Ranger Station, so close that Forest Service workers can enjoy the expansive wildflower spectacle from their offices, about a mile-and-a-half away as the crow flies, and some 2,200 vertical feet below.

You’d think being at the Forest Service’s front door would give pause to those who view our public lands as their personal playground to destroy. But Hood River County has a lot of off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts, and some in that community make a point of illegally driving their jeeps, quads and dirt bikes up the fragile slopes of Bald Butte — despite prominent signage prohibiting their use and periodic efforts to block them.

This is an ongoing battle with rogues that will someday be won, but it will take the OHV community policing itself to make the change happen. There will never be enough Forest Service crews to fill that void.


Growing OHV damage to Bald Butte

How bad it is? Well, the old lookout track that serves as the hikers trail to the summit has become deeply rutted by illegal jeep and motorcycle users, which in turn, has inspired them to form parallel tracks on the open wildflower slopes (above). It will take decades for the damage to recover, even if the law breakers were stopped today.

Meanwhile, dirt bikers have hauled in chainsaws in order to carve new trails through the forests on the east slopes of Bald Butte. It’s not a pretty picture, and so far, nobody in the OHV community seems to be stepping up to confront the lawlessness.


Dirt bike tracks don’t lie…

The Forest Service has indicated an interest to work with trail organizations (like TKO) to step up the efforts to keep OHV vandals out of Bald Butte, but in the meantime, they’re doing a lot of damage — which, in turn, is a black eye for anyone who enjoys using OHVs responsibly. Let’s hope they will join in the effort to protect Bald Butte, too.

For more about Bald Butte, and comparison photos that show the rapid progression of the OHV damage there, please see this earlier article on the blog – you can read it here.

For the July calendar image, I picked this 3-part composite of the Muddy Fork and Mount Hood. Look closely and you can see the series of towering waterfalls that drop from the hanging valleys on Yocum Ridge, in upper right. This is one of Mount Hood’s most rugged and untamed spots:


Mount Hood’s Muddy Fork canyon

[click here for a large image]

Though we had a decent snowpack in the Cascades in 2017, it melted fast when summer arrived, and many trails on Mount Hood’s west slopes were opening by late June. So, when college friends David and Robin, from Colorado, called to say they would be in Portland and wanted to spend a day on the mountain, the hike to the Muddy Fork Crossing was the perfect choice!


Old friends and The Mountain

It turned out to be a bluebird day, but what I found most interesting as we caught up on our parallel lives was their reaction to being in Pacific Northwest alpine country, again. Though David grew up here, he still marveled at the magnificence of our forests, especially the huge Noble fir groves we passed through, and Robin was especially taken with the amount of water, everywhere!

It was a timely reminder for me to never take our unique ecosystems for granted. Colorado has more big peaks than most any state of the country, but we are unique in our abundance or water and the verdant landscape it brings, from our rainforests, streams and lakes to the glaciers that hang from our peaks.

As we head into the uncertainty of climate change in coming decades, we’ll need to learn to view these seemingly abundant resources as precious and threatened, and no longer something to take for granted.



Another surprise along the hike was a new sign — finally! — marking the well-trod “cut off” that shortcuts the Timberline Trail where Bald Mountain (not to be confused with Bald Butte) meets McGee Ridge. I’m sure there was some official slight-of-hand required for the Forest Service to post this junction, as it is simply a user trail, and thus unsanctioned. But it’s a good call that will help hikers better negotiate the maze of trails in this area.

For August, I selected a photo from a favorite meadow perched along a ridge I call the White River Rim. A fragile island of Whitebark Pine, Mountain Hemlock and Subalpine Fir groves grow here, hemmed in on both sides by deep, perpetually eroding canyons of loose sand and boulder.


Lupine fields on the White River Rim

[click here for a large image]

To the east of the rim is a maze of deep ravines that make up the White River Canyon. As the White River continues to cut into the loose volcanic slopes, here, whole sections of the ridge-top forests and wildflower meadows perched on the rim slide into the canyon.

The Salmon River is gradually eroding the rim from the west, as well, though less voraciously than the White River. In some spots, the flat ridge top is just a few feet wide, and losing ground fast. This is one of the most dynamic areas on the mountain.

The image below is also from along the rim above the White River, looking south and away from the mountain. This view captures the skeleton of a magnificent Mountain Hemlock and its still-surviving grove companions:


Sentinel Whitepark Pine on the White River Rim

[click here for a large image]

Mountain Hemlock often growth in tight, circular groves, and I suspect botanists will someday discover that these groves communicate in some way as part of their collective strategy for survival, just as Douglas Fir are now known to communicate. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard summed it us this way:

“I wondered, could Douglas fir recognize its own kin, like mama grizzly and her cub? So we set about an experiment, and we grew mother trees with kin and stranger’s seedlings. And it turns out they do recognize their kin. 

“Mother trees colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings.

“So we’ve used isotope tracing to trace carbon moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network and into her neighboring seedlings, not only carbon but also defense signals. And these two compounds have increased the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. So trees talk.”

Botanists once viewed a dying or dead tree in a grove like this as one whose biomass had grown too large to support in drought periods, but could another explanation be that the larger tree simply opted to turn over the future of the grove to its younger siblings? We still have so much to learn from our forests…

The September image in the new calendar captures an intersection of three threads of good fortune: an afternoon away form work to visit the mountain, clear weather after an early autumn snowstorm and moonrise over Illumination Saddle, the narrow ridge that connect Illumination Rock to the main summit ridges of Mount Hood.


Moonrise over Illumination Saddle

[click here for a large image]

Time off from work on a clear autumn day was by design, but the moonrise was pure luck. While there are web tools for figuring out celestial paths from any point on the ground, I do confess that I’m not likely to use them. I simply sat at a favorite spot on the summit of Bald Mountain (not Bald Butte!) for an hour or so, waiting for the sunset, and was suddenly treated to the moon emerging over the saddle as an unexpected surprise!

So, why not use the modern tools? Partly, it just seems like a chore in what should be an enjoyable hobby. But I’d also be turning what was a wonderful surprise into one more thing to worry about — and that’s not why I head into the woods, after all. There’s something to be said for turning over the keys to Mother Nature, right?

And on that point, perhaps the best memory from that cold evening on Bald Mountain last fall was watching the sun set through the trees on the hike back down through the ancient Noble Fir forest.


Winter sunset in the Noble forest

This grove of 300-year old giants somehow escaped the chainsaws when the Clear Fork valley, below, was logged in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It remains as a rare reminder of what used to be — and what will be again, if we allow it.

For the October image, fall colors were in order, and with the Gorge trails mostly closed by the Eagle Creek Fire, I headed south to Butte Creek, located just north of Silver Falls State Park in the Santiam State Forest. I picked a serene scene along the creek…


Butte Creek in autumn

[click here for a large image]

…though this peaceful spot is just 100 yards or so above Butte Creek Falls, which was raging that day, after a series of Pacific fronts had rolled through.

Butte Creek Falls is among my favorites, anywhere, and I’ve included it in past calendars. So, thus the quieter stream scene for 2018, but here’s a look at the high water at the falls that day:


Butte Creek Falls

[click here for a large image]

Even more than nearby Silver Falls State Park, the Butte Creek canyon (and its twin, Abiqua Creek, just over the ridge) is in desperate need of a better management vision, and would make for an excellent extension of a future Mount Hood National Park. More about that in a future article, as well..!

Though I’ve hiked the short loop trail at Butte Creek many times, the fire in the Gorge had forest ecology and the role of fire in my mind on this visit, and noticed a small army of “legacy trees” throughout the rainforest here.


The skeletons of Butte Creek’s “legacy trees” are hiding in plain sight

These ancient stumps and snags are from the last big fire to come through the area are called “legacy trees” for the benefits they bring from the old forest to the new. This area likely burned more than a century ago, yet the skeletons of the old forest still serve a crucial role in the health of the new forest.

As they slowly decay, old snags and stumps provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, and once fallen, they become “nurse logs”, upon which new trees grow. They also provide nutrients to the precious mountain soil as they decay — something a log hauled off to become lumber or cardboard can never do.

For November in the new calendar, I selected an image from the upper Hood River Valley, with Mount Hood rising above fields owned by a family that has continuously farmed the valley since the 1800s. On this day in late October, the Cottonwood grove at the center of the photo was in peak form, and the fresh coat of snow on the mountain was softened by a light haze in the air from farmers burning orchard trimmings.


Upper Hood River Valley in autumn

[click here for a large image]

But this wasn’t my first attempt at the photo! As shown below, I’d stopped here a couple of weeks earlier, after another early snowfall had blanketed the mountain. At that point, the Cottonwoods were still in their summer green, but what a different two weeks makes! I’ve cropped images from both visits identically for comparison:


Hood River Valley scene in mid-October…


…and two weeks later!

Notice how much sharper the mountain was on the earlier visit? It could have been wind conditions sweeping away smoke from orchard fires that day, or perhaps the burning season hadn’t begun, yet? Nonetheless, I liked the depth created by the haze in the second view, too.

For the December image, I picked this view of Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek, captured the same day as the opening photo of the creek in the January image. This is always a magical spot, but I’ll share a couple of details about the trip that made the day memorable.


Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek

[click here for a large image]

First, it’s always an icebox in Cold Spring Canyon in winter. Why? Because the low sun angle in winter months can’t reach the canyon floor due to the steep terrain in all directions. So, while the above image looks like it was taken on an overcast day, the view straight up was of a bright blue sky.

The image below shows the cliff section where the recent rock fall occurred, and you can see that the trees on the canyon rim are basking in sun and have shed much of their snow.


Sunshine above, icebox below…

For slow shutter speed waterfall photographers (like me), this icebox canyon effect means a perpetually cold canyon in winter, but also very good photo conditions. There is one exception to the shady icebox, and that’s when the sun very briefly finds its way through the upper canyon of Cold Spring Creek and lights up the top of the falls for a few minutes. Here’s what that looked like on a trip in 2015:


Patience pays if you want to catch the winter sunburst at Tamanawas Falls!

The other story behind this photo is found in the following image. The black metal wand is actually part of a tripod leg (and possibly a piece of my pride, too) that snapped off when I took a fairly long, unscheduled slide down the ice-covered slopes near the falls that day.


Winter gear, somewhat intact…

My mistake was trying to get a little too close for a different angle on the falls, and my humility was only magnified by the fact that a young snowshoeing family watched the whole thing unfold in front of them. As I pretended to calmly fold up my mangled tripod as if it were all a planned event, I overheard their young son say to his parents “Woah! Did you see that man crash and burn??” Yes, I’m afraid everyone did..!

The Zazzle calendar format I’ve been using for the past couple of years also offer a back page, so I’ve continued to use that for wildflower photos that otherwise wouldn’t make it into the calendar.

From the top left for the 2018 calendar, reading right, they are Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Mariposa Lily, Oregon Sunshine, Bicolor Triteleia, Paintbrush, Lupine, Tiger Lily, Larkspur and Bleeding Heart:


[click here for a large image]

That’s it for the 2018 calendar, but what about the photos I couldn’t fit in..?

One that didn’t make it…


Elk Cove on Mount Hood’s north side

[click here for a large image]

I’ve made at least one trip to Elk Cove every summer for as long as I can remember, and have a particular spot that I always shoot from (though I also try new spots each year, too!). It’s a favorite scene, but has also been in many calendars in past years, so Elk Cove is taking the year off from the 2018 calendar.

But worse, it seemed like bad luck to use this photo, given the somewhat scary tumble I took on the way back to the trailhead later that day.

It began with staying too late on the mountain for that gorgeous early evening light, then getting waylaid on the way down the Vista Ridge Trail trail by (more!) plump huckleberries. I filled another water bottle, then hoofed it at high speed in the growing darkness, hoping to avoid digging that annoying headlamp out of my pack.

That was my final error. Just 3/4 mile from the trailhead, where the Vista Ridge Trail crosses a rocky, dusty section in the Dollar Lake Burn, I tripped on a particularly sneaky rock and went airborne, crashing into the base of a bleached snag. Fortunately for my head, I had put my arm out ahead of me in the fall. Unfortunately for my arm, it took the brunt of the blow.

It hurt a LOT, and I just laid there for a moment, trying to figure out if I was seriously hurt. Nope, all parts seemed to be functioning… except better my better judgment, of course!


Ridiculous… but functional!

What followed was a frantic search, first for my tripod (which I had hurled into the ravine below the trail during the fall), then in my pack for my headlamp (where WAS it?) as my right forearm ballooned up to alarming dimensions. Then came a very long 3/4 mile down the trail to the car.

Once there, I was further chagrined to see that I was, in fact, the last person on the trail that day… more humble pie on the menu! Fortunately, I wasn’t more seriously injured in the fall, or worse, knocked unconscious. Gulp. I ran through a list of the emergency supplies I keep in my pack in my mind…

Meanwhile, my bloated arm was now turning purple, so I turned an extra boot sock into a makeshift wrap and packed a couple of ice bricks from the cooler. I feared a broken arm — after all, I’d broken this arm twice as a kid (don’t ask). The long drive down the mountain was “interesting” without the benefit of an opposing thumb on my sore arm, and I let out a big sigh of relief when I finally arrived at home later that night.


The radiologist remarked on my unusually curvy bones, courtesy a pair of childhood breaks… but no break this time!

X-rays a few days later confirmed that I just had a very deep bruise (to both forearm AND pride, it turns out), and several weeks of alternating hot and cold packs followed as things gradually got back to normal.

But MORE importantly, I was able to return to the scene of the crash a couple weeks after the event and recover my tripod — yes, the tripod I purchased to replace the one I smashed at Tamanawas Falls!

Here are a couple of schematics that tell the embarrassing story:


The scene of the crash…


…and my poor tripod!

The Elk Cove trip was my most painful fiasco of 2017, but not the only one over the past summer. The other would belong to…

…an epic eclipse fiasco!


Recon data for the eclipse!

You may have heard: we experience a total eclipse in WyEast Country last August! I thought long and hard about setting up camp somewhere south of Mount Hood, in the path of totality, but having taken just one day off work, decided to avoid the predicted crowds and traffic jams (which did happen!)

Instead, I set up at my beloved Owl Point, on the north edge of the Mount Hood wilderness, and just outside the path of totality (as shown in the map, above). I’m not sure what I expected, but I came prepared with two cameras and two tripods (below) to document the scene at five-minute intervals. I left home at 5 AM and was on the trail by 7:30, anticipating great things!


Dual camera setup, weird light underway

It did turn out to be a memorable experience, but certainly not the beautiful spectacle I had imagined.

First, the strange light during the eclipse was not really pleasant — more just weird and eerie. It made sense to me later, that simply blocking out the sun mid-day would create a cast more like what we see when there’s heavy forest fire smoke in the atmosphere — harsh reddish-yellow — as opposed to the soft colors we see at sunset, when the sun’s rays are filtered through a lot more atmosphere.

I also learned what the scientists had been telling us: that even with near totality, the sun is blindingly powerful, so from this point just outside the path of totality, it was more “dimmed” than “dark” outside. That said, the birds did go quiet, as advertised. That part was surprisingly creepy.

While I plunked away at intervals with my big cameras, I also captured a few with my phone — including this panorama as totality approached. An eerie scene, yes, but what really jumped out is that I also captured the image of the sun in the lens reflections. I’ve enlarged a section, below:


Just short of totality… note the blue dots!


Close-up of blue dots reveals the to be reflections of the eclipse in the camera lens!

The following views capture the scene just before and during totality from Owl Point:


The view from Owl Point just before totality… weird!


The view from Owl Point at totality… kinda creepy!

What I found most interesting (beyond the weird colors) is that I could see the far side of the path of totality over the west shoulder of the mountain during totality. That gave me the best sense of what the event was all about, and I was glad to have experienced it, though it was definitely not what I was expecting. Just a very interesting experience.

On the way out that day in August, I took the opportunity to pick a water bottle full of plump huckleberries, and also some time to reflect on my place in the universe. I had lost a close family member in July, and a day alone on the mountain was just what I needed to sort out my feelings and replay some good memories in my mind.


Tasty consolation prize!

The mountains are great for that sort of thing, and we’re so lucky to live in a place where we have that luxury right in our backyard.

And the huckleberries? They were converted into tasty muffins the next day!

Looking ahead to 2018

I’m looking forward to posting a few more articles in the coming year than has been my recent pace. There’s a lot to cover on the WyEast beat, and I’ll be refocusing my volunteer efforts a bit more on advocacy this year, including this blog.

The Eagle Creek recovery effort will be a recurring theme, of course. There is so much to learn from the fire, and there are many crucial choices ahead for land management, too. In particular, I’ll be weighing in on a few topics that I think our non-profit advocates have a blind spot for, or perhaps are shying away from.


The author at Abiqua Falls a week or so ago…

Most importantly, I’ll spend as much time as I can out in WyEast Country, exploring, documenting and celebrating our precious public lands. As always, thanks for reading the blog, and I hope to see you out there, too!

See you on the trail in 2018!

Tom Kloster

WyEast Blog

Fire in WyEast Country

October 31, 2017

Scorched Mirror Lake just beginning to recover from the Sherar Burn in early 1900s

Oh, if only our lives spanned 800 years instead of 80! No doubt we would see (and zealously protect) our world differently with the benefit of that long perspective. And it turns out that Bowhead whales, Greenland sharks and even pond Koi can live well beyond two centuries. Heck, the lowly Icelandic clam can live up to 500 years! The advantage these creatures have over humanity is the ability to see the cycles of life as a perpetual rhythm, not simply discrete events.

Which brings us to the deep sadness that so many of us are experiencing with Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 in the Columbia River Gorge. To so many of us, losing the lush green forests that framed the waterfalls and cliff-top vistas in the Gorge is like losing an old friend.

Yet, with a bit more longevity, we’d be able to see the cycles of fire and recovery repeat in succession, and we could even look forward to walking again among 200 year old forest giants along today’s scorched trails in the Gorge. Oh, to be an Icelandic clam…


Yocum Falls and Tom Dick and Harry Mountain as they appeared after the Sherar Burn in the early 1900s

[click here for a larger view]

For many of us, the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 feels like a redux of 2008 and 2011, when the Gnarl Ridge and Dollar Lake fires burned off forests on the east and north sides of Mount Hood, respectively. Just as fire crews worked this month to protect Multnomah Falls Lodge and the Vista House at Crown Point from fire in the Gorge, crews in 2008 and 2011 scrambled to protect iconic Cloud Cap Inn, the nearby Snowshoe Lodge and the many historic CCC structures at Tilly Jane from the fires.

For those of a certain age, the hike to Mirror Lake on Mount Hood once involved walking beneath hundreds of bleached snags reaching to the sky. These were the remnants of the Sherar Burn that scorched the entirety of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, along with the upper Still Creek valley and points south in the early 1900s. The visible traces of this fire lasted prominently well into the 1980s, though the forest has largely recovered today.


The prominent gravel bar at the base of Punch Bowl Falls on Eagle Creek in the early 1900s resulted from erosion from a nineteenth century fire.

The Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 in the Columbia Gorge will also follow this timeless sequence of destruction and renewal. There’s also some comfort to be gained from knowing that we’ve had a steady stream of fires in the Gorge, even in the very short timeframe of white settlement:

1902 – Yacolt Fire (238,000 acres)

1910 – Carson Fire (2,716 acres)

1917 – Stevenson Fire (7,606 acres)

1927 – Rock Creek Fire (52,500 acres)

1929 – Dole Valley Fire (202,500 acres)

1936 – Born Fire (7,897 acres)

1949 – Beacon Rock Fire (3,658 acres)

1952 – Skamania Fire (1,057 acres)

1991 – Wauna Point (375 acres)

1991 – Multnomah Falls Fire (1,200 acres)

1997 – Eagle Creek Fire (7 acres)

2000 – Oneonta Fire (5 acres)

2003 – Herman Creek Fire (375 acres)

2017 – Eagle Creek Fire (33,000+ acres)

The Forest Service reports that nearly all of the reported Gorge fires in recent decades (98%) have been human caused, but that certainly doesn’t mean the Gorge wouldn’t have burned without human behavior. The Forest Service describes the uniquely explosive fire conditions in the Gorge as follows:

“From early September through mid-October the west end of the gorge offers the best of all worlds from a fire’s perspective. The tremendous fuel loading of a west side forest coupled with hot and dry wind and incredibly steep terrain make for some of the most spectacular burning conditions the Pacific Northwest has to offer.”

Early white settlers to the Gorge called this “the Devil Wind” after the inferno that was the Yacolt Fire burned a quarter million acres on the north side of the river in less than 36 hours.

1991 Gorge Fires


Wauna Fire burning above Eagle Creek in 1991

Few remember it today, but in 1991 a pair of fires burned a sizeable stretch of the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. The Multnomah Falls fire was a spectacular event, burning 1,200 acres along the Gorge wall from Multnomah Falls to Angels Rest, and nearly burning the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge. Sound familiar?


Multnomah Falls fire in 1991

The Multnomah Falls burn of 1991 has recovered quickly, and few hikers realize that the young forests along the popular Angels Rest trail were the direct result of the burn, though bleached snags still stand to tell the story. Visitors to Multnomah Falls still walk along the jumbo-size debris nets installed below the Benson Bridge to catch debris from the burned slopes of the 1991 fire, above. A major casualty of the 1991 fire was the beloved Perdition Trail that once connected Multnomah Falls to Wahkeena Falls on a route etched into the Gorge cliffs.

In 1991, the smaller Wauna Fire also burned 375 acres on the slopes directly above the west bank of Eagle Creek, below Wauna Point. This area has also largely recovered in the years since.

Early Fires in the Gorge


This unusual photo of Triple Falls from the 1890s shows snags from an earlier fire in Oneonta canyon in the background.

Early photos show that fire has been a routine part of the Columbia River Gorge ecology. That pattern changed with fire suppression efforts in the 20th century, which in turn, set the conditions for the catastrophic Eagle Creek Fire of 2017. Photos from Oneonta canyon (above) in the 1890s show slopes covered in bleached snags, suggesting a major fire sometime in the 1800s.


Shellrock Mountain’s east and south slopes were still recovering from fire in this 1940s view from the old Columbia River Highway.

Further east, places like the east slopes of Shellrock Mountain (above) were much less forested than today, thanks to repeated fires in the Gorge.


Snow covers the burned east slopes of Wauneka Point, the ridge that divides McCord and Moffett Creeks, in this 1930s view from Bridge of the Gods. This ridge burned again in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.

[click here for a larger view]

The above photo of the (then) new Bridge of the Gods in the early 1930s also shows large open slopes on Wauneka Point in the background, marked by winter snow. These slopes had largely reforested in subsequent years, but burned again in the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, repeating a timeless cycle.


Burned over Aldrich Mountain and Hamilton Mountain in 1936.

[click here for a larger view]

Construction-era photos of Bonneville Dam in the late 1930s also provide detail on the state of the forests in Gorge at that time. The view north (above) shows burned-over Aldrich and Hamilton Mountains, both completely burned in the catastrophic Yacolt Burn.


Burned over Ruckel Ridge and Benson Plateau in 1937.

[click here for a larger view]

Looking to the southwest from the dam site, Ruckel Ridge and Benson Plateau (above) were also largely burned over in the late 1930s. These areas burned again in the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017.

1931-34 Lookout Survey: A History of Fires

Given that we’re stuck with relatively short stints on this planet, we humans do have the unique ability to record history for the benefit of our descendants. And it turns out that in the 1930s and early 1940s, early forest rangers in WyEast country did just that with a series of lookout tower panoramas.

This rich photographic resource was mostly forgotten until just a few years ago, when caches of these images archived in university photo collections were scanned and uploaded to the web in high resolution. They provide an astonishing, invaluable amount of detail, most from the years 1930-36.

Ironically, these panoramic images were captured as part of the massive U.S. Forest Service effort to prevent fires, with each set providing a 360-degree survey from the hundreds of lookout sites that were developed on public lands across the country.

In the Pacific Northwest, the panoramic photos provide an excellent glimpse into the way our forests had evolved for millennia, and before fire suppression took hold. The following are a few clips from this archive for places through the Mount Hood country and in the Columbia River Gorge.

Basin Point (1933)


Mount Hood from obscure Basin Point, now overgrown with trees.

[click here for a larger view]

Basin Point is largely forgotten today, but at one time this high spot north of today’s Timothy Lake provided a lookout location for the upper Oak Grove Fork basin. This lookout site probably wouldn’t have been used had it not been for a fire that had fairly recently swept over the butte, burning away a young forest that was still getting established here. The view is from the south edge of the Sherar Burn, a fire that swept across a large area south of Government Camp sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

Buck Peak (1933)


This view is from Buck Peak toward the burned-over Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek Valleys.

[click here for a larger view]

Today, Buck Peak is known for its sweeping views of Mount Hood and Lost Lake, but view (above) to the north from the former lookout site also shows the burned over Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek Valleys, with burned Tanner Butte as the prominent peak left of center. The upper slopes of the mostly unburned Lake Branch valley, to the right, also show signs of fire.

Bull of the Woods (1934)


The view looking southeast to Mount Jefferson from Bull of the Woods lookout shows a healthy mosaic of recent burns and recovering forest in the 1930s.

[click here for a larger view]

Fires have returned in recent years to Bull of the Woods, thanks in part to its wilderness protection that puts the land off-limits to timber harvesting (and thus “okay to burn” from a fire suppression perspective). This view looking toward Mount Jefferson shows a mosaic of recent burns and recovering forest, a healthy pattern that is returning with new fires in recent years.

Chinidere Mountain – North (1934)


This view looking north from Chinidere Mountain into the Herman Creek valley shows much of the drainage burned in the 1930s.

[click here for a larger view]

Today, the view to the north from popular Chinidere Mountain is gradually being obscured by recovering forests. This 1934 view shows the large burn that extended across the Herman Creek drainage at the time, from Benson Plateau (left of center) over Tomlike Mountain (right of center) toward Green Point Mountain (left edge of this photo). Though the forest here had almost completely recovered, much of the area in this view was burned again in the Eagle Creek fire of 2017.

Chinidere Mountain – West (1934)


This view west from Chinidere Mountain shows recovering forests in the Eagle Creek drainage.

[click here for a larger view]

This view looking west from Chinidere Mountain into the Eagle Creek drainage shows a recovering forest in the upper valley and on the adjacent slopes of Indian Mountain (to the left) and Tanner Butte (right of center).

This area was at the heart of the Eagle Creek and Indian fires in 2017, and much of the area shown in this view burned.

Devils Peak (1933)


This 1930s view from Devils Peak shows an extensive burn on Zigzag Mountain and lower slopes of Devils Peak.

[click here for a larger view]

The old lookout tower still survives on Devils Peak, located within the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, but the view of Mount Hood has nearly disappeared behind the recovering forest. This 1930s view shows the extensive burn that encompassed the long ridge of Zigzag Mountain (center, in the distance) and lower slopes of Devils peak, in the foreground. Both areas have since mostly reforested in the era of fire suppression.

The west end of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain is the burned-over ridge extending below Mount Hood in this photo, part of the late 1800s Sherar Burn. The burned lower slopes of Devils Peak and upper Still Creek valley were also burned in this historic fire.

Green Point Mountain (1934)


This view from Green Point Mountain shows an extensive pattern of fires in the upper Herman Creek Valley.

[click here for a larger view]

In this view from Green Point Mountain, evidence of a mosaic burn stands out, with completely burned forest near the summit and surviving forest just below. The heavily burned slopes of Tomlike Mountain (center) and Chinidere Mountain (left of center) are in the distance are part of a wide mosaic of burns in the upper Herman Creek valley.

Old growth trees along Herman Creek today are proof that even large fires here didn’t completely burn the drainage. The Eagle Creek fire of 2017 burned a significant part of the Herman Creek drainage, and it is unknown how the old growth stands fared in the face of this recent fire.

High Rock (1933)


The Abbott Burn encompassed the area surrounding High Rock, including the upper Roaring River drainage.

[click here for a larger view]

The view from High Rock looking north to Mount Hood was once surrounded by the extensive Abbott Burn, which engulfed much of the Roaring River watershed and part of the Salmon River backcountry sometime in the 1800s or early 20th century.

In the 1930s, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was established on the shoulder of High Rock, and a small army of CCC workers planted thousands of trees across the Abbott Burn. Many survived, and much of the reforestation in the Roaring River valley resulted from this forest intervention effort. But the rocky high country of Signal Buttes and other nearby ridges are still largely open and covered in fields of huckleberries, with the forest recovery advancing much more slowly.

This pattern of open, regularly burned peaks and ridge alternating with lush canyon floors is the natural state of our forests. Lightning-caused fires regularly burn away forests surviving on the thin, dry soils found higher slopes and ridges, and larger trees in moist soils on lower slopes and canyon bottoms are better able to survive natural fires.

Lost Lake Butte (1933)


The burned upper slopes of Lost Lake Butte as they appeared in the 1930s, with Lost Lake in shimmering the distance.

[click here for a larger view]

Though the old-growth giants on the shores of Lost Lake have dodged or resisted fire for centuries, the forests on the dry, upper slopes of Lost Lake Butte were burned sometime in the late 1800s in a classic mosaic pattern that can be seen in the 1930s panoramic photos.

In the photo above, strips of larger, surviving trees can be seen within the burn, and a distinct line between the young,recovering forest in the burn area and larger trees that survived the fire is clearly visible along the near shore of Lost Lake. Raker Point (featured in the next photo) is visible as the open spur at the far right edge of the Lost Lake Butte panorama.

Raker Point (1933)


Hundreds of snags along the crest of Sawtooth Ridge and Raker Point (in the distance) show the extent of fire on the north side of Lost Lake, sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

[click here for a larger view]

Raker Point is a little known peak located just north of Lost Lake, on the west end of Sawtooth Ridge (Raker Point is the distant open spur right of center in this photo). The ridge and Raker Point were burned sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s, possibly in the same fire that scorched Lost Lake Butte. The recovery on Raker Point was well under way in the 1930s photos, with 10-20 year old seedlings rising up among the hundreds of bleached snags left from the fire.

Lost Lake was one of the earliest recreation destinations in WyEast country, with hardy visitors from the Hood River Valley making their way to campsites along the lake shore as early as the 1890s. In the 1920s, a “modern” dirt road was finally completed to Lost Lake, roughly along the same route as today’s paved highway.

Signal Buttes (1933)


Located west of High Rock, the Signal Buttes were completely burned in the Abbott fire of the early 1900s, and are still recovering today.

[click here for a larger view]

Today, the Signal Buttes are at the heart of the Roaring River Wilderness, and as described above, are still slowly recovering from the Abbott Burn fire that swept the area, despite efforts by the CCC in the 1930s to replant the forest here. The patch of unburned forest on the floor of the Roaring River valley (in the low area of the photo, below Mount Hood) are old growth Douglas fir and Western red cedar that survived the Abbot Burn — and likely many fires before that, as trees more than 1,000 years old are found here.

It’s also likely that the Signal Buttes will continue to be an open expanse of Beargrass meadows and Huckleberry fields if fires are allowed to burn here, once again. In this way, the Roaring River Wilderness is well on its way to a more natural condition of open ridges and a mosaic of old and recovering forests on the canyon floor and walls. Because the area was permanently protected as wilderness in 2009, future generations will have an opportunity to watch the forest here continue to evolve with fire, once again.

The rugged ridges and peaks just beyond Signal Buttes in this panorama are the high country of today’s Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. In contrast to the Signal Buttes, this northern extent of the Abbott Burn has largely recovered, with just a few peaks and ridgetops remaining as open Beargrass and Huckleberry fields.

Tumala Mountain (1933)


This view looking east from Tumala Mountain shows the burned ridges of the Salmon River and Roaring River high country in the 1930s. Mount Hood is on the extreme left.

[click here for a larger view]

This remarkable panorama from Tumala Mountain shows a burned-over landscape in much of what are today’s Salmon-Huckleberry (areas to the left) and Roaring River (areas to the right) wilderness areas. Most of this landscape is now heavily forested, with the exception of a few ridge tops and the crest of the Signal Buttes, described earlier and visible as the completely burned ridges in the upper right of this photo.

This photo also shows a healthy mosaic burn pattern on the nearby mountains immediate slopes, with bands of trees surviving between burned strips. This more natural fire pattern creates a rich habitat that, in combination with the series of lakes in the glacial valley at the foot of the peak, makes for an ideal landscape for wildlife.

You may notice that the photo markings on the left identify this as “Squaw Mountain”. In 2007, the Oregon Geographic Names Board renamed this peak out of respect for indigenous peoples, as the term “squaw” is considered derogatory. This change is part of a larger effort to rename other landmarks using “squaw” across the state. The word Tumala means “tomorrow” or “afterlife” in Chinook jargon, and is an apt name for this idyllic spot in WyEast country.

Summit Meadows (1930)


This 1930 view of Summit Meadows shows signs of an extensive fire along the south slopes of Mount Hood in the vicinity of Government Camp.

[click here for a larger view]

Early photos of Government Camp and Summit Meadows on Mount Hood’s south side show thousands of bleached snags marking a fairly recent fire in the area. These could mark a series of discrete fires or could be related to the larger Sherar Burn or the fires that swept Zigzag Mountain in roughly the late 1800s.


Extensive burns on Mount Hood above Government Camp in 1915 (Courtesy: History Museum of Hood River County)

The extent of the historic fires on Mount Hood’s south side is especially interesting given the degree of resort development here in the century since fire suppression began. The volcanic soils on Mount Hood’s south shoulder are among the youngest on the mountain, as much of the area was buried in fresh volcanic debris from eruptions that occurred in the late 1700s.

This makes the forests here especially vulnerable to fire because of the poorly developed soils, southern exposure and late summer stress from seasonal drought. Yet, the degree of development on this side of Mount Hood also makes it unlikely that forest fires will ever be allowed to burn naturally. Instead, these forests are good candidates for prescribed, controlled burns that could restore the forests to a more natural state while also protecting the hundreds of structures located here.

Tanner Butte (1930)


This 1930 view from massive Tanner Butte looks west through charred forests toward Tanner Creek canyon, the Bull Run Watershed (on the left) and Larch Mountain (on the right horizon).

[click here for a larger view]

Tanner Butte and its long northern ridge is a prominent landmark in the backcountry of the Columbia River Gorge, dividing the Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek drainages. The panoramic photos from 1930 show a heavily burned landscape in this area, and longtime hikers can still remember when the ridges around Tanner Butte were still covered with open meadows, as recently as the 1970s.

More recently, the forests had recovered across almost all of the burned areas shown in this panorama, but the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 appears to have hit the Tanner Creek basin especially hard. This could be a result of the relatively young, even-aged forest here, but fire suppression almost certainly played a role in this fire becoming catastrophic.

Much of the area visible here is within the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness, and will provide yet another laboratory for future generations to watch and learn from as the forest recovers.

Wildcat Mountain (1933)


The view from Wildcat Mountain toward McIntyre Ridge and Portland in the far distance.

[click here for a larger view]

Wildcat Mountain lies at the western edge of the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, and Portland’s downtown high-rises are visible from its summit. Or, at least they were a couple of decades ago, before the recovering forests here enveloped the summit with a stand of Noble fir and Mountain hemlock.

Broad McIntyre Ridge (pictured in the distance in this photo) still has a few open Beargrass meadows with sweeping views of Mount Hood, but even here the forest is advancing rapidly.

The 1930s panoramic view shows a completely different landscape, with mixed stands of forests in the valleys below the Wildcat Mountain and its ridges that suggest a long history of mosaic burns. Without fire suppression, McIntyre Ridge and Wildcat Mountain would likely have burned again since the 1930s.

Since 1984, this area has been protected as wilderness, so future fires will likely be allowed to burn. If the recent Eagle Creek fire in the Gorge is any indication, the young forests that have grown since this panorama was taken are likely to be the first to burn, as we saw in the Tanner Creek and Eagle Creek areas.

Wolf Camp Butte (1933)


This view doesn’t exist anymore, thanks to a completely recovered forest on Wolf Camp Butte.

[click here for a larger view]

Wolf Camp Butte is another lookout site made obscure by the recovering forest that has completely covered the summit. More of a high spot than a peak, this 1933 view from the former lookout site provides us with an excellent look at the extent of the Sherar Burn. The canyon in on the right holds the Salmon River, descending from the Palmer Glacier on Mount Hood (just out of view to the left).

This fire burned north to present-day Government Camp and south to at least the Salmon River, encompassing a very large area. Parts of the Sherar Burn may have been replanted by the CCC in the 1930s, and the area is almost completely reforested today.

Wauna Point (1936)


This view is from Wauna Point on the Oregon side of the Gorge, looking toward Table Mountain on the Washington side.

[click here for a larger view]

This view from Wauna Point, directly above Eagle Creek, shows a long history of fire in the Gorge, with a mosaic forest pattern on the slopes of Table Mountain on the far side of the river that extends eastward toward Wind Mountain. The big trees on the Oregon side mark the Eagle Creek campground, a section of forest that also survived the recent catastrophic fire. The spot where this panorama was taken burned in the small 1991 Wauna Fire, and has since largely recovered.

1940s Gorge Lookout Surveys

In the years following completion of Bonneville Dam in 1937, a series of panoramic lookout photos were made from spots around the dam. Like the earlier 1930s panoramas, these photos provide a valuable snapshot of the state of forests in the Gorge at a time when fire suppression had just begun. They’re also nicely annotated with major landmarks identified!

Aldrich Butte – North (1941)


[click here for a larger view]

Like the view from Wauna Point on the Oregon side, this view toward Table Mountain shows a healthy blend of big trees that have survived periodic fires and more recently burned slopes covered on meadows and recovering forest.

Aldrich Butte nearly burned again in 2017, when embers from the Eagle Creek Fire floated more than a mile across the Columbia River and ignited a small fire here.

Aldrich Butte – South (1941)


The view south from Aldrich Butte toward Bonneville Dam and Oregon side of the Gorge.

[click here for a larger view]

This expansive view from Aldrich Butte shows the complex mosaic forest patterns created by repeated fires on Benson Plateau and “County Line Ridge”, which is now more commonly known as Wauna Ridge or Tanner Ridge.

This amazing photo not only shows how fire has shaped the forests on the upper slopes and ridges of the Gorge, but also how big trees in the canyons and at river level have often dodged or resisted fire.

Aldrich Butte – West (1941)


The view west from Aldrich Butte shows Hamilton Mountain (in Washington) and the steep wall of the Oregon side of the Gorge in the distance.

[click here for a larger view]

Like the view of Benson Plateau on the Oregon side, this view of Hamilton Mountain from Aldrich Butte shows a complex mosaic of forest types and ages that resulted from fire. On the far side of the river, the burned slopes of Wauneka Point can also be seen on the far left. Wauneka Point and the steep face of the Oregon side of the Gorge was heavily burned in the Eagle Creek fire of 2017.

Our Next Century with Fire?

There are so many variables at work in how we move from a century of forest fire suppression to — hopefully — an era where we learn to live with and appreciate the role of fire.

Will the public accept the inevitability of forest fires, and the implicit need to rethink building vacation homes and resorts in our forests? Will a return to sustainable, beneficial fires resume quickly, or will the catastrophic fires that suppression has set the stage for continue for decades or even centuries?

An even larger question is whether climate change will significantly accelerate the number of catastrophic fires? And how will climate change affect the ability for forests to regenerate in burned areas?

These are the difficult questions that future generations will be grappling with for decades to come.


Parts of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire in the Mount Hood Wilderness burned in a beneficial mosaic pattern, as seen here at Eden Park. This is the goal of restoring the role of fire in our forests.

But signs of a shift in thinking are encouraging, starting with a broad consensus among forest scientists that fire suppression has been disastrous over the long term. Good public lands policy is always rooted in good science, and some of our scientists have also emerged to become influential leaders of agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, too. Let’s hope that continues.

Events like the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 are also important learning opportunities for the general public. Over the next several decades, the millions who treasure the Columbia Gorge as their own “backyard” will have an unprecedented opportunity to better understand the role of fire in the Gorge ecosystem. Gorge land managers and advocates are already telling this story, as are local media outlets. That’s encouraging.


New mapping tools allowed land managers to document the daily progression of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire with unprecedented detail. This information will be a gift to future generations of scientists and land managers.

New mapping tools that allow us to document fires in astonishing detail are also helping scientists better understand the dynamics of fires and forest recovery. This new level of documentation will help us move back to a sustainable relationship.

Even better, the flood of new fire mapping and data will be our gift to the future, helping future generations continue to better understand our forests, just as the lookout panoramas from the 1930s are helping us today. Hopefully, our actions now will ensure that future generations inherit forests that look more like those 1930s panoramas, as well.


From death comes renewal: huckleberry seedling growing from the bark of a tree in the burn area of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire.

There’s good news on that front, too. Our youngest generations who had their first outdoor experiences on Mount Hood and in the Gorge will also be the scientists and policy makers of the future, and will steer public lands policy.

Their close-up experiences with fire in their formative years will surely drive their passion to move our forests back toward a health relationship with fire, so long as we all continue to learn and appreciate the essential role of fire in WyEast country.

First Look at the Gorge Fire

September 12, 2017

Eagle Creek Fire during the initial, explosive phase (US Forest Service)

Officially the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge is still fully involved, now at 35,000 acres and just 10 percent contained by firefighters. Rain in the forecast for the coming week suggests that the fire will continue to slow as October approaches, and our attention will turn toward the changes that fire has once again brought to the Gorge.

The Gorge is a second home for many of us, and in some ways the fire was akin to watching our “home” burn. But that’s a human perspective that we should resist over the long term if we care about the ecological health of the Gorge. Fire is as natural and necessary as the rain in this amazing place, though that’s a truth that we have been conditioned to resist. I’ll post more on that subject in a subsequent article.


Surreal Gorge landscape under smoky skies from the Eagle Creek Fire (US Forest Service)

For now, we’re just beginning to learn about the impact of the fire, even as it continues to burn. Thankfully, no lives have been lost, no serious injuries reported and very few structures have been lost. That’s a testament to our brave emergency responders (many of them volunteers) and the willingness of most Gorge residents to abide by evacuation orders. It has surely been a frightening and stressful time for those who call the Gorge home.

The impact on public lands is still largely unknown, but the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge has one of the most concentrated, most heavily used trail systems in the world, and the damage to trails is likely to be significant. The Forest Service is likely to close affected trails for months or even years in order to assess the damage and determine how best to restore them.


1930s hiker at a viewpoint along the Perdition Trail (with Multnomah Falls beyond)

If you’ve lived here for awhile, you’ll also recall that we lost the Perdition Trail, an iconic, prized connection between Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls, to the 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire. The reasons were complex, and it will tempting for the Forest Service to let some trails go, given their shrinking trail crews. We should not allow this to happen again.

Every trail should be restored or re-routed, and new trails are also needed to spread out the intense recreation in the Gorge. Trails advocates will need to work together to ensure this. Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) has set up a mailing list dedicated to Gorge trail restoration, if you’re interested in working on future volunteer projects. You can sign up for periodic updates and events here.


On September 10, I drove SR 14 on the Washington side of the Gorge for my first look at the fire, starting in Hood River. Below each of the following annotated photos, I’ve linked to much larger versions that I encourage you to view if you’re reading this on a large monitor, as they provide a better sense of the fire’s impact.

As hoped, much of the burn is in a patchy “mosaic” pattern, a healthy and desirable outcome for the ecosystem. This is how fires used to occur in our forests, before a century of suppression began in the early 1900s. Mosaic burns allow for mixed forest stands and exceptional wildlife habitat to evolve, even as we might mourn the loss of familiar green forests.

The wind pattern on Sunday had shifted from westerly to a northwesterly direction, producing a bizarre effect: smoke from the fire hugged the vertical wall that is the Oregon side of the Gorge, while the Washington side was cleared of smoke and under a bright blue sky. The view, below, shows this split-screen effect from near Wind Mountain.


(Click here for a large view)

Moving west, the combination of ongoing wildfire and back-burning by firefighters was producing a continuous plume along the base of the Oregon cliffs, from Herman Creek east to Shellrock Mountain, as seen below. The Pacific Crest Trail traverses this section, and is undoubtedly affected by the fire.


(Click here for a large view)

From the Bridge of the Gods wayside, opposite Cascade Locks, the impact of the fire on the canyons that fan out from Benson Plateau is visible. Some areas (below) show a healthy mosaic burn, while some of the upper slopes show wider swaths of forest impacted. The alarming proximity of the fire to the town of Cascade Locks is also evident in the scorched trees visible just above the bridge in this view. This was a close call for those who live here.


(Click here for a large view)

Turning further to the east from the Bridge of the Gods wayside (below), the ongoing wildfire and back-burning shown in the previous photos can be seen in the distance, beyond the town of Cascade Locks.


(Click here for a large view)

The scene at the Bridge of the Gods bridgehead (below) is an ongoing reminder that we’re a long way from life returning to normal for Cascade Locks residents. For now, I-84 remains closed and this is the only route into town, and only open to those with proof of residency.


(Click here for a large view)

Moving further west, the 2000-foot wall of cliffs in the St. Peters Dome area that stretches from McCord Creek to Horsetail Creek (below) come into view.

Here, the fire has also burned in mosaic pattern, with many patches of green forest surviving. But the frightening effects of the firestorm that occurred in the first days of the fire is also evident, with isolated trees on cliffs hundreds of feet above the valley floor ignited by the rolling waves of burning debris that were carried airborne in the strong winds that initially swept the fire through the Gorge.


(Click here for a large view)

A second view (below) of the St. Peters Dome area shows the burn extending toward Nesmith Point, nearly 4,000 vertical feet above the Gorge floor.


(Click here for a large view)

Moving west along SR 14 to the viewpoint at Cape Horn, the impact of the fire on areas west of Horsetail Falls comes into view (below), along with a better sense of the mosaic pattern of the burn. This view shows the Horsetail Creek trail to be affected by the first, as well as the slopes on both sides of Oneonta Gorge.

In this earlier piece on Oneonta Gorge, I described the dangerous combination of completely unmanaged visitor access and an increasingly dangerous logjam at the mouth of the Gorge. The fire will almost certainly trigger a steady stream of new logs rolling into Oneonta Gorge and adding to the massive logjam in coming years.


(Click here for a large view)

Moving further west, the area surrounding iconic Multnomah Falls and Wahkeena Falls comes into view (below). As with other areas, the fire burned in vertical swaths along the Gorge face, leaving more mosaic patterns in the burned forest. From this view, trees along the popular 1-mile trail from Multnomah Falls Lodge to the top of the falls looks to be affected by the fire, as are forests above Wahkeena Falls.


(Click here for a large view)

This wide view looking east from above Cape Horn (below) shows most of the western extent of the fire, with the north-facing slopes of Angels Rest heavily burned, while the west and south-facing slopes were less affected.


(Click here for a large view)

A closer look at Angels Rest shows that the burned area in the current fire closely matches the area that burned in the 1991 (below), along with slopes on the opposite side of Coopey Falls. The Angels Rest Trail was heavily impacted by the 1991 fire, and will clearly need to be restored after this fire, as well.


(Click here for a large view)

I’ve marked an approximation of the 1991 fire extent at Angels Rest in this closer look (below) at the summit of Angels Rest, based on tree size. Tall conifers burned in today’s Eagle Creek fire survived the 1991 fire, and mark the general margins of that earlier fire.

Areas within the 1991 burn were still recovering and consisted largely of broadleaf trees, like Bigleaf and Vine maple. Depending on the heat of the fire and whether their roots survived, these broadleaf trees may be quick to recover, sprouting from the base of their killed tops as early as next spring.

The recurring fires at Angels Rest offer an excellent case study for researchers working to understand how natural wildfires behave in successive waves over time. This, in turn, could help Gorge land managers and those living in the Gorge better plan for future fires.


(Click here for a large view)

Finally, a look (below) at the western extent of the fire shows a few scorched areas in Bridal Veil State Park, including the forest around the Pillars of Hercules. Bridal Veil Canyon appears to have escaped the burn, though some trees near Bridal Veil Falls may have burned.


(Click here for a large view)

I’ve titled this article as my “first look” because the story of the Eagle Creek fire is still being written. Only after the fall rains arrive in earnest will we have a full sense of the scale of the fire.

As new chapters in the Eagle Creek saga unfold, I’ll continue to post updates and share perspectives on this fire and our broader relationship with fire as part of the natural systems that govern our public lands. With each new fire in close proximity to Portland, we have the opportunity to expand and evolve how we think about fire, and hopefully how we manage our public lands in the future.

More to come…

Owl Point Sentinel Tree

July 31, 2017

Mount Hood from Owl Point in October 2006

Just over a decade has passed since I first visited Owl Point, a spectacular rocky viewpoint along the Old Vista Ridge Trail, on Mount Hood’s north side. At the time, the trail had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect, but it has since rebounded thanks to volunteers pitching in.

Since that first visit, I’ve been to Owl Point every year to admire and photograph the dramatic view of Mount Hood and enjoy the relative solitude, compared to many other places on the mountain. I’ve watched the landscape change, sometimes dramatically, as was the case with the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire that swept the north side of Mount Hood. But I’ve also watched more subtle changes as the details of this beautiful spot become ever more familiar.


The author at Owl Point in 2008 (Photo: Andy Prahl)

One of those more subtle features is a craggy Noble Fir perched among the boulders on the exposed south flank of Owl Point. This old survivor can be seen in the far left of one of the first photos I shot in 2006 (at the top of the article) and in the photo, above, taken in 2008 by trail volunteer Andy Prahl.

If you’ve followed this blog over the years, you’ve seen earlier articles about “sentinel trees”. These are trees that seem to defy the odds and elements in their size, grandeur or simple tenacity in finding a way to survive. This tree certainly qualifies.

From an aesthetic perspective, the old Noble Fir at Owl Point is a gift for photographers, adding testimony to the rugged, often harsh conditions found there. The old tree also adds a nice visual balance and interest to the scene. So, in this way the Owl Point sentinel tree has become an old friend to this photographer.


Owl Point in July 2011, with the old Noble Fir on the left – just days before the Dollar Lake Fire

In 2011, I visited Owl Point just a few days before the catastrophic Dollar Lake Fire swept across the north slopes of Mount Hood, burning 6,300 acres of subalpine wilderness. The photo above is among the last that I captured of the once-green forests on the mountain before the fire changed the landscape.

Though the fire burned for more than two months that summer, Owl Point and the Old Vista Ridge Trail were somehow spared and the craggy old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Old Point lived on.


The Dollar Lake Fire in 2011

After the fire, Owl Point served as one of the best places to absorb the full scope of the Dollar Lake Fire, with nearly the entire extent of the burn visible from there. While the brown swath of scorched trees was jarring to look at, it was also a reminder that fire is a regular and necessary visitor to our forests.

The forests we lost to the fire have since given us a new window into how new forests emerge from the ashes, a process as old as the forests, themselves.


Browned slopes of Mount Hood one year after the fire in 2012

The old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Owl Point had witnessed fire before the Dollar Lake Fire, and from a much closer vantage point. Sometime in the early 1900s, a similarly large fire swept across the high country north of Mount Hood, scorching Owl Point and thousands of acres in the surrounding area.

This 1952 photo (below) shows the forest recovery from this earlier fire at Owl Point just getting underway, decades after the burn. In fact, the area is still in recovery today, a century after the fire.


Early 1900s burn that swept across Owl Point (Courtesy: Hood River History Museum)

The view from 1952 is an inverse scene from what we see today, with a scorched foreground and lush, green slopes on Mount Hood. These contrasting images over time area a reminder of the fire cycles that are as natural to the area as rain and wind.

A closer look at the 1952 photo reveals several trees that survived the older fire, thanks to their isolation in the open talus fields below Owl Point:


These trees on the talus slopes of Owl Point survived the earlier fire

One of these fortunate survivors is the sentinel tree at Owl Point that we know today. Though only 30-40 feet tall, it could easily be a century or more old, stunted by the harsh conditions on the talus slope.

While the old Noble Fir at Owl Point appears to have dodged a couple of forest fires in its lifetime, the tree began to show signs of stress in 2012, the year after the Dollar Lake Fire. Foliage (below) from some of its lower limbs began to drop, suggesting the beginning of its decline.


Owl Point sentinel tree in 2012, one year after the Dollar Lake Fire

By 2014 (below), the signs of stress were more ominous, and it was clear that the old sentinel tree was losing its battle to survive the elements at Owl Point.


Owl Point sentinel tree in 2014

After the snowpack melted off in 2016, the situation for the old tree had become dire as it struggled to maintain the remaining foliage in its crown (below), a sign that the tree might not survive the season.


Stress claims the crown of the Owl Point sentinel tree in 2016

But a closer look (below) this summer at the dying tree tells a different story. While the exposed upper portion of the tree has clearly lost its battle, a fringe of healthy new foliage is thriving around the base of the tree. It turns out that while the Owl Point Noble Fir has lost its main trunk, it is still very much alive.


Owl Point sentinel tree finally succumbs to the elements in 2017

An even closer look at the base of the old tree (below) shows the secret of “krummholz”, the name for stunted trees that survive in harsh alpine environments. Trees like this Noble Fir adapt to their conditions by producing new leaders from their lowest branches to replace dying or broken tops.

These new leaders on Noble Fir growing as krummholz often form dense mats of foliage at the base of a tree, low enough to be protected by winter snowpack from the harshest weather conditions. This is clearly the case for the Owl Point sentinel tree.


A new beginning for the Owl Point Noble Fir…

The classic example of a krummholz in Mount Hood country is the Whitebark Pine, a tree that thrives above 5,000 feet, often gnarled beyond imagination by the elements. The example below shows the skeleton of an ancient Whitebark Pine (on Lookout Mountain), surrounded by new leaders that have merged from limbs flattened to the ground by winter snowpack.


Ancient Whitebark Pine krummholz on Lookout Mountain

While winter conditions regularly shear off new growth that pokes above the snowpack on a krummholz, a rapidly growing new trunk like the one emerging at the base of the Owl Point sentinel tree can eventually survive and grow to replace the older tree. This is clearly a slow process, and one that I won’t likely be around to witness!

But in the near-term, photographers like me will be able to watch the dying trunk of the Owl Point sentinel tree gradually weathering to become a dramatic sun-bleached snag that will be photogenic in its own right. And, as the new leader continues to rise from the base of the old trunk, this striking old tree will continue tell a powerful story of survival.


You can visit Owl Point and see its sentinel Noble Fir by following the 4-mile round trip Old Vista Ridge hike from the Vista Ridge Trailhead. The hike is described here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.


Proposal: Raker Point Trail

June 30, 2017

The view from Raker Point in a 1930s postcard

Each year, thousands visit beautiful Lost Lake, one of the most beautiful and iconic places in Mount Hood country. The view of Mount Hood mirrored in the lake has been photographed countless times and has graced hundreds of postcards, calendars and scenic books. Some visitors to the lake climb the old lookout trail to Lost Lake Butte, which provides a sweeping view of the mountain, but only glimpses of the lake as once-burned forests continue to recover there.

Yet, not long ago, another dramatic view was possible: Lost Lake nestled in the forests beneath Mount Hood, framed with blooming Pacific Rhododendrons. This scene was captured from the crest of Raker Point, a rocky spur due north of Lost Lake, and briefly a forest lookout site in the early 1930s.


The view from Raker Point as captured in a Ray Atkeson postcard in the late 1940s

The view from Raker Point appeared in early postcards, and was later captured by Oregon’s famed photographer Ray Atkeson (above) in images that appeared widely in calendars, postcards and even automobile ads (below) in the 1950s.


1951 Lincoln ad featuring the view from Raker Point

Ironically, the famous images captured by Atkeson were made possible by the industrial logging that began sweeping our national forests in the decades following World War II. By the late 1940s, a logging spur pushed over the saddle between Sawtooth Ridge and Raker Point, providing easy access to the spectacular view, even as it enabled the destruction of old growth forests that once grew there.

Today, the old logging road to Raker Point has been decommissioned by the Forest Service and the clearcut slopes are slowly recovering. Now, Raker Point has become all but forgotten.

Where is Raker Point?


Raker Point isn’t the tallest or most impressive among the Cascade peaks that rise up around Lost Lake, but it is the best positioned for a grand view of the lake and Mount Hood. Raker Point can be seen from the Lakeshore Trail, where it rounds the south end of the lake, as shown above.

When the Forest Service first brought a road to Lost Lake and lookout towers to the Lost Lake area in the 1920s and early 1930s, Raker Point was much more prominent, thanks to wildfires in the early 1900s that had cleared both Raker Point and Lost Lake Butte. Their open summits made ideal forest lookout sites.

This early 1930s view shows Raker Point and other nearby peaks from Hiyu Mountain, another lookout site located several miles to the south, and Raker Point’s bald summit clearly stands out:


[click here for a larger image]

A closer 1933 view from nearby Lost Lake Butte in 1933 shows the scorched summit of Raker Point much more clearly. The impressive old growth forests of the Lost Lake Basin are also on display in this view:


Scorched Raker Point from Lost Lake Butte in the early 1930s

This rare 1933 perspective of Raker Point and Lost Lake is from Sawtooth Ridge, where a temporary (and misnamed) “Raker Point” lookout was briefly located:


[click here for a larger panorama]

The origin of Raker Point’s name is unclear, but it’s likely that an early Forest Service ranger or surveyor named the peak — and perhaps was the namesake, too?

Today, forests have returned to all but the rocky summit and surrounding talus slopes on Raker Point. This view (below) from the Lake Branch Road shows the now green slopes, with just a small opening near the top of the butte. Does this mean the classic view of Lost Lake and Mount Hood captured by Ray Atkeson in the 1940s has been lost?


Raker Point rises above the talus fields along the Lake Branch Road

The answer can be found on the opposite side of Raker Point. This view from Indian Mountain, located a few miles north and across the Lake Branch Valley from Raker Point, shows the still open, rocky crest framed in talus slopes and groves of Noble Fir:


The rocky crest of Raker Point from the north, as viewed from Indian Mountain

While rhododendrons may not thrive on the summit, the views of Mount Hood and Lost Lake are clearly still intact, though probably framed in Noble fir boughs and drifts of huckleberries.

The Proposal

The Lost Lake area already has a fine network of trails, but a new route to Raker Point would bring needed opportunities to this popular recreation area.

First, the classic view from Raker Point is reason enough to warrant trail access to the summit. But a trail to Raker Point would also serve as a more attainable challenge for families visiting Lost Lake.

Today, hikers can make the 2-mile trek to the summit of Lost Lake Butte. Yet, while the view from there is excellent, it pales in comparison to Raker Point. More importantly, a trail to Raker Point would shave 400 feet of elevation gain in half the distance compared to the Lost Lake Butte hike, making it much more accessible to casual hikers and families with young children.


[click here for a large map]

The proposed trail is simple: it would begin along a segment of the Old Skyline Trail that traverses the base of the Raker Point, and connects to the nearby campground, resort cabins and lodge at Lost Lake.

Trail building would be straightforward, as well. The area is outside protected wilderness, so would not present limitations on the use of power saws and or other heavy equipment in the construction. The modest 1-mile length of the proposed new trail also puts it within financial reach in this era of cash-strapped federal land agencies.


[click here for a large panorama]

The new trail would also be accessible from trailheads along the Lake Branch Road, allowing hikers to visit the trail without adding to the crowds and congestion at Lost Lake, proper.

What would it take to make this happen? Interest from Forest Service officials, for sure, but support from the Lost Lake Resort operators, in particular, could put this new trail on a fast track. The resort would clearly benefit from a new family-friendly trail option near the lodge, and would be powerful advocates if they were to bring this argument to the Forest Service.

So, consider mentioning the idea if you happen to visit the resort this summer..!


Postscript: at about the time I was writing this article, uber-adventurer Paul Turner was exploring Raker Point and nearby Sawtooth Ridge. He posted some excellent photos from his trip over here on the Oregon Hikers forum. Thanks, Paul!