Archive for the ‘Natural History’ category

Fire in WyEast Country

October 31, 2017
01MirrorLakeHood1920s

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…

02YocumFallsTomDickMountain1936

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.

03PunchbowlFalls1920s

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

04WaunaFire1991

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?

05MultnomahFallsFire1991

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

06TripleFallsOneonta1890s

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.

07ShellrockMountain1950s

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.

08BridgeOfGodsWaunekaPoint1930s

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.

09BonnevilleAldrichHamilton1936

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.

10BonnevilleConstruction1935

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)

11BasinPointNorth1933

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)

12BuckPeakNorth1933

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)

13BullofWoodsEast1934

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)

14ChinidereNorth1934

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)

15ChinidereWest1934

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)

16DevilsPeakNorth1933

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)

17GreenPointWest1934

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)

18HighRockNorth1933

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)

19LostLakeButteWest1933

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)

20RakerPointWest1933

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)

21SignalButtesNorth1933

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)

22SquawMtnEast1933

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)

23SummitMeadowsNorth1930

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.

23aGovernmentCamp1915

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)

24TannerButteWest1930

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)

25WildcatMtnNorth1933

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)

26WolfCampButteEast

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)

27WaunaPointNorth1936

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)

28AldrichButteNorth1941

[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)

29AldrichButteSouth1941

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)

30AldrichButteWest1941

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.

31DollarLakeMosaicPattern

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.

32DollarLakeFireProgressionMap

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.

33DollarFireRecovery

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
GorgeFire01

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.

GorgeFire02

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.

GorgeFire03

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.

GorgeFire04

(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.

GorgeFire05

(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.

GorgeFire06

(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.

GorgeFire07

(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.

GorgeFire08

(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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.

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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?

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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:

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[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:

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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:

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[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?

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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:

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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.

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[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.

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[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..!

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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!

Punchbowl Park is (mostly) open for Business!

April 30, 2017
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Punchbowl Falls

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

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

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New entry sign at Punchbowl Falls Park

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

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Punchbowl Falls Park Trails

(Click here for a large, printable trail map)

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

The West Fork Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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The massive amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

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

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

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Punchbowl Falls before the fish ladder was constructed in 1959

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

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

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Deadpoint Falls

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

Exploring the Confluence

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The Confluence

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

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

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Rowdy East Fork Hood River at the Confluence

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

Wildflowers and Fall Colors

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Grass Widow above the Punchbowl Gorge

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

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

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Larkspur along the West Fork Trail

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

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Trillium along the Dogwood Trail

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Glacier Lily near the Punchbowl Falls overlook

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

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Calypso Orchid along the Dogwood Trail

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

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Dogwood in Autumn at Punchbowl Falls Park

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

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Vine Maple in Autumn

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

A View into the Gorge

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West Fork entering Punchbowl Gorge

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

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The Narrows in Punchbowl Gorge

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

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

What’s Ahead?

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

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

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

Where to Find Punchbowl Falls Park?

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Punchbowl Gorge and bridge from the West Fork Trail

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

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

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

Enjoy!

 

 

Bierstadt in Oregon

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

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

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

Longing for Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bierstadt in Oregon

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

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

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

 [click here for a large view]

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

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

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Albert Bierstadt in the mid-1800s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large version]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large version]

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

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

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

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

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

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1940s Loop Highway Postcard Folio

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

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

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

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

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Closer views suggest and older and grayer Bierstadt:

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

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Albert Bierstadt stood here!

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

Bierstadt’s Other Works in the Region

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

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

[Click here for a large version]

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

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

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

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

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Albert Bierstadt’s Columbia River scene

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

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

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Thomas Moran’s “Shoshone Falls” (1900)

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

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Albert Bierstadt’s “Mount Adams” (1875)

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

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

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

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

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

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Untitled Bierstadt piece — is this Mount Jefferson?

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

The Other Painters

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

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Paul Kane in the 1840s

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

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

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

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John Mix Stanley

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large version]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gilbert Munger in the 1870s

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

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

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

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“Mount Hood” (1888) by Julian Rix

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

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

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Grafton Tyler Brown in his studio

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

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Brown’s “Mount Hood” (1884)

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

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

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

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

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

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Mount Hood scene by John Englehart

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

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

These Englehart pieces appear to be from the 1890s.

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

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Eliza Barchus in the 1890s

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Eliza Barchus in her Portland studio in the early 1900s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bierstadt is still inspiring our imagination…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

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

Metlako Landslide!

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

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

It started with a crack in the ground…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just the Gorge doing its thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Giant boulders scattered along Moffett Creek

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

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

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

What’s next for Metlako?

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

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

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Overflowing parking at Eagle Creek is not new..!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like losing an old friend…

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

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Improving the view at Metlako Falls

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

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

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

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

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