Archive for the ‘Sentinel Trees’ category

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.

 

Meet the (Northwest) Maples!

May 31, 2016
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The author hanging out with a few Bigleaf Maple giants

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

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

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Comparison of the three Northwest maple species

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

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macroplyllum)

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Bigleaf Maple grove forming a green awning over Tanner Creek

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

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Bigleaf Maple

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

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

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Bigleaf Maple in autumn

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

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

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Moss-draped Bigleaf Maple with Licorice Fern

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

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

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

Vine Maple (Acer circinatum)

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Vine Maple sprawling in front of Ponytail Falls

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

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Vine Maple

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

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Vine Maple in autumn

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

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

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Vine Maple samaras

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

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

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

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

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

Douglas Maple (Acer glabrum)

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Douglas Maple

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

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

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

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

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Douglas Maple in autumn

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

Where to See Them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Hood’s Ancient Whitebarks

August 2, 2013
Ancient Whitebark pine on Gnarl Ridge

Ancient Whitebark pine on Gnarl Ridge

If you have spent much time in Mount Hood’s alpine country, you probably already recognize the Whitebark pine. This rugged cousin to our more common Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines thrives where no other trees can, braving subzero winters and hot, dry summers at the upper extreme of timberline.

Ancient Whitebark pine grove on Lookout Mountain

Ancient Whitebark pine grove on Lookout Mountain

Whitebark pine is easy to identify on Mount Hood. True to their name, they have white bark on younger limbs, and their typically gnarled, picturesque forum is iconic in our Cascade Mountain landscape. These slow-growing patriarchs often live to 500 years or more, with some trees known to survive for more than 1,000 years.

In protected stands below the tree line, they can grow 60-70 feet tall (around Cloud Cap Inn), while in open areas, they creep along the ground, forming a “krummholz” — a low mat of branches stunted by the elements (famously, on Gnarl Ridge, which draws its name from the ancient Whitebarks that grow there).

Whitebark pines have limber branches to withstand the elements

Whitebark pines have limber branches to withstand the elements

Up close, Whitebark pine can be identified by its needles, with five per bundle (compared to two for Lodgepole and three for Ponderosa pine). Whitebark cones don’t open when dry, yet are hardly ever found intact. That’s because of the unique, mutual relationship these trees have with a bird called Clark’s nutcracker, named for William Clark, co-captain of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery expedition.

Clark’s nutcracker subsists almost entirely on the large, nutritious seeds hidden in Whitebark cones. These birds have evolved with an ability to crack the cones and store the seeds in buried caches, for later consumption. The Whitebark pine, in turn, is almost completely dependent on these birds for reproduction, when young seedlings sprout from seeds cached by the nutcracker.

Clark's Nutcracker at Crater Lake (Wikimedia)

Clark’s Nutcracker at Crater Lake (Wikimedia)

In this way, the Whitebark pine is considered by scientists to be a “keystone” species at the center of a broad, highly dependent web of life. In addition to its co-mutual relationship with Clark’s nutcracker, Whitebarks also support other high-elevation species, serving as “islands” of life in otherwise barren alpine zones. These islands shelter mammals, birds and insects migrating through alpine areas and serve as permanent habitat for many mountain plant and animal species.

Whitebark pine seeds serve as a direct food source for several other species in addition to Clark’s nutcracker. The seeds are large and high in fat, and at least 12 species of birds are known to feed on them. The seeds are also a primary good source for ground squirrels living in alpine zones, where they store large quantities of seed in “middens”.

Surprisingly, Whitebark seeds are also an important food source for black bear and the grizzly bear, with both bear species raiding the middens of ground squirrels. For grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area, Whitebark pine seeds are considered so important in the their diet that the long-term viability of the bear population is linked to the survival of the Whitebark.

A Species in Trouble

Sadly, the Whitebark pine is in deep trouble. The triple threat of (1) an exotic fungal disease known as white pine blister rust, (2) mass infestations of mountain pine beetle and (3) the effects of fire suppression have weakened and killed millions of these trees across Mountain West.

Blister rust (boundary shown in red) has affected almost all Whitebark pine range (green) in North America

Blister rust (boundary shown in red) has affected almost all Whitebark pine range (green) in North America

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) estimated in 2007 that 800,000 acres of Whitebarks have been lost across the west, an startling statistic given the small, rare alpine habitat that these trees need to survive.

Global warming may turn out to be the nail in the coffin for this venerable species, as less hardy tree species continue to crowd and compete for space in areas once habitable only by the Whitebark pine.

Massive Whitebark pine die-off in Yellowstone (USFWS)

Massive Whitebark pine die-off in Yellowstone (USFWS)

Several efforts to save the species are underway. In July 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that the Whitebark pine needed federal protection and that without it, the tree would soon be extinct within as few as two to three generations. However, the tree has not been formally listed in the United States as endangered, due to federal agency funding constraints.

In June 2012, the Canadian federal government declared Whitebark pine endangered, making it the first tree species to be declared endangered in Western Canada.

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The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation is a science-based, non-profit organization that exists to conserve and restore the Whitebark pine, but their efforts are dependent on support from the public in making the survival of this species a priority with our land management agencies.

Conservation efforts for the Whitebark focus on harvesting seeds from trees that seem to have a natural resistance to white pine blister rust and restoring the role of fire in forest management. Both strategies will require the full engagement of our federal land agencies, and thus the need for a non-profit like the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation to press the issue in our utterly dysfunctional national government. Please consider supporting them!

Lookout Mountain Sentinels

One of the best places to view ancient Whitebark pine up close is along the crest of Lookout Mountain, located due east of Mount Hood. Like most Whitebark stands around Mount Hood, the trees on Lookout Mountain are in decline, yet hundreds have (so far) survived the triple threat facing the species.

A large stand of Whitebark pine just below the main summit of Lookout Mountain provides a stark example of the die-off that is affecting the species. As shown in the photos below (1983 and 2008), scores of trees in this stand have died in recent years:

Healthy stands of Whitebark pine thrived on the south slope of Lookout Mountain in 1983

Healthy stands of Whitebark pine thrived on the south slope of Lookout Mountain in 1983

Over the past decade, almost the entire stand of Whitebark pine on the south slope has died

Over the past decade, almost the entire stand of Whitebark pine on the south slope has died

The Lookout Mountain grove is on the hot, dry south slope of the peak, so the trees here are clearly stressed by the environment, even without the blister rust and beetle attacks now affecting the species.

On the more protected east slope of the main summit, a remarkable group of ancient Whitebark pine (pictured below) is soldiering on, though some of the oldest sentinels in this group now seem to be fading fast.

Whitebark patriarch near the summit of Lookout Mountain beginning to show stress in 2002

Whitebark patriarch near the summit of Lookout Mountain beginning to show stress in 2002

By 2013, only one of the ancient tree's five trunks is still alive, though healthy younger trees are growing nearby

By 2013, only one of the ancient tree’s five trunks is still alive, though healthy younger trees are growing nearby

Some of the trees in the eastern group are truly ancient. Several were cut in 1930, when a road was built to the summit and a lookout tower constructed. Amazingly, the bleached stumps of these old trees still survive, more than 80 years later.

One of these stumps measuring about a foot across still shows its growth rings, showing that it was 280 years old when it was cut in 1930! This means the tree started life on Lookout Mountain in 1650, twenty years before the Hudson Bay Company was formed under a charter from King Charles II. This tree was already 174 years by the time Dr. John McLoughlin established his Hudson Bay Company outpost at Fort Vancouver, in 1824, and more than 200 years old before tiny Portland, Oregon was incorporated in 1851.

A particularly ancient patriarch in this grove (shown in the photo pairs above and below) grows due east of the summit, along the Divide Trail. This old survivor appears to be the oldest Whitebark pine on Lookout Mountain. While it’s age is unknown, the diameter of its multiple trunks substantially exceeds that of the nearby cut trees, so this ancient sentinel could be 300-500 years old, or more.

A profile view of the patriarch tree in 2002 shows health growth on the eastern trunk (center)

A profile view of the patriarch tree in 2002 shows health growth on the eastern trunk (center)

This profile view from 2013 shows significant dieback on the eastern trunk over the past decade (center)

This profile view from 2013 shows significant dieback on the eastern trunk over the past decade (center)

Sadly, this old veteran is fading fast, with only one living trunk surviving as of this summer. Even as the old tree succumbs to the elements, it continues to serve as a fascinating, beautiful testament to the struggle that Whitebark pines face in their preferred habitat.

A closer look at the old tree (below) shows five sprawling trunks, each more than a foot in diameter. This old survivor looks a bit like a huge, grey octopus (complete with two weathered eyes, looking back at you!).

At its center, the patriarch Whitebark sprawls like an octopus, with five major trunks, each more than a foot in diameter

At its center, the patriarch Whitebark sprawls like an octopus, with five major trunks, each more than a foot in diameter

Ancient Whitebarks at this elevation are typically a twisted tangle of living and dead trunks, and in the case of the Lookout Mountain patriarch tree, only the north and east of the five main trunks survive.

As the photos that follow illustrate, the north trunk may have seen its last summer this year, as its remaining needles suddenly died back as of early July. The surviving east trunk is in better shape, with several green boughs, but its needles obviously lack the vigor of nearby, younger Whitebarks. Clearly, the old giant is in its final years of living after centuries on this unforgiving mountain slope.

A rusty remnant from the days when a lookout tower stood on the mountain hangs on one of the living limbs of the patriarch Whitebark pine

A rusty remnant from the days when a lookout tower stood on the mountain hangs on one of the living limbs of the patriarch Whitebark pine

The bleached bones where the patriarch tree has died back can survive for decades in the arid alpine climate of Lookout Mountain

The bleached bones where the patriarch tree has died back can survive for decades in the arid alpine climate of Lookout Mountain

Yellowing needles on the remaining (east) living trunk of the patriarch Whitebark spell trouble for this old tree

Yellowing needles on the remaining (east) living trunk of the patriarch Whitebark spell trouble for this old tree

This view shows the north trunk of the Patriarch tree, thriving as recently as 2002, but now reduced to a thicket of dead shoots

This view shows the north trunk of the Patriarch tree, thriving as recently as 2002, but now reduced to a thicket of dead shoots

After centuries of growth, this dying cluster of limbs on the north trunk of the patriarch Whitebark marks the last sign of life on this trunk of the old tree, a startling reminder of how quickly our Whitebark pine forests are fading

After centuries of growth, this dying cluster of limbs on the north trunk of the patriarch Whitebark marks the last sign of life on this trunk of the old tree, a startling reminder of how quickly our Whitebark pine forests are fading

As discouraging as the plight of the Whitebark pine might be, the efforts by our federal land agencies and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation provide at least a shot at saving the species — and the complex alpine ecosystem that it anchors.

The saga of the American bison provides some encouragement. The species numbered 60 million prior to western expansion, but was decimated to an estimated 541 animals before protection and restoration efforts began in earnest. Today, about 500,000 bison are known to exist, with about 15,000 restored as wild herds. Hopefully, a similar success story for the Whitebark pine will be recounted by future generations, thanks to our current efforts to save the tree.

Exploring Lookout Mountain

The loop hike to Lookout Mountain from High Prairie makes a fine summer outing for families. The full loop covers just 3.2 miles and climbs about 550 feet, and the sweeping summit views provide a big payoff for the moderate effort.

Though the trail is usually snow-free from late June through mid-October, the hike is best in late July and early August, long enough after snowmelt to be mostly bug-free, but early enough to enjoy some of the wildflowers that summer brings to the mountain.

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(click here for a large, printable map)

The best way to hike the loop is to start with the west leg. This is a rustic trail that immediately heads to the right from the High Prairie trailhead, gently climbing through beautiful meadows and open forests. Stay straight where boot paths appear from both sides at about 0.8 miles, and soon reach the first dramatic view along the hike: Mount Hood, framed by a brick-red slope of volcanic cinders and spires.

Red cinders frame Mount Hood from the east leg of the Lookout Mountain loop

Red cinders frame Mount Hood from the east leg of the Lookout Mountain loop

At about 1.3 miles, the west leg meets the Gumjuwac Trail on the south slope of Lookout Mountain. Turn left here, and soon reach the west summit of Lookout Mountain, with a commanding view of Mount Hood and the East Fork Hood River valley, more than 3,000 feet below.

The flat rock outcrops here make for a nice destination in their own right, but to see the old Whitebark pines, you’ll want to continue the hike. The trail now turns east, and follows the summit crest of Lookout Mountain, with several dramatic viewpoints and interesting rock outcrops along the way. A number of Whitebark pine also line the trail, though these trees are protected enough to be in an upright form. The views from the crest are into the winding canyons of the Badger Creek valley, to the south.

Mount Hood from the west summit of Lookout Mountain

Mount Hood from the west summit of Lookout Mountain

The summit crest traverse continues for about 0.3 miles before reaching the old lookout road in a saddle below the main summit. To reach the top, go right (uphill) on the old road and pass through one of the decimated Whitebark stands as you near the main summit of Lookout Mountain. You will reach the summit about 0.2 miles from the saddle, where you can see the crumbing foundations of the 1930 lookout structure and nearby garage.

From the summit, views extend far into the high deserts of Eastern Oregon, south to Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters and north to Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams. Mount Hood dominates the western skyline. A bit closer are the meadows of High Prairie, where you started your hike, and the tiny lookout tower atop Flag Point, to the east. Badger Lake can also be seen nestled in the forested wilderness to the south.

The view east from the summit of Lookout Mountain

The view east from the summit of Lookout Mountain

To complete the east leg of the loop, simply follow the old lookout road back to the trailhead, passing through handsome mountain hemlock forests and the upper meadows of High Prairie along the way.

To visit the patriarch Whitebark pine described in this article, watch for the Divide Trail on your left as you descend from the top — just a few hundred feet from the summit. The patriarch tree is on the left, just a few yards down the Divide Trail. Use care around the tree so that future generations can enjoy its beauty — whether still living or as a bleached reminder of what once was.
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Directions to High Prairie

To reach the trailhead at High Prairie, follow Highway 35 from Hood River (or Government Camp) to the Forest Road 44 junction, where signs point to Dufur and Camp Baldwin. Drive 3.8 miles on this paved road and watch for a poorly signed, gravel Road 4410 on the right. Follow this dusty collection of washboards and potholes for 4.5 miles to High Prairie, turning right at a T-intersection in the meadow to drive the final 200 yards to the trailhead.

A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park here. Pit toilets are provided. Carry water, as no reliable sources are found on this hike.

The Ancient Rowena Oak

May 27, 2013
The Rowena Oak

The Rowena Oak

Somewhere under the heading of “hidden in plain sight” is a remarkable Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) growing just a few yards from the Historic Columbia River Highway, near Rowena Crest. I stumbled across this old sentinel a few weeks ago while exploring the sprawling fields of arrowleaf balsamroot that Rowena is known for.

The venerable Rowena oak is not a particularly graceful tree: you won’t find it in coffee table books or on postcards. Though the gnarled trunks of these slow-growing trees are often living works of art, the Rowena oak is as much a battered monument to simple survival as it is a living sculpture. But it’s well worth a visit for anyone who loves ancient trees, and makes for a unique stop for those exploring the old highway.

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

The tree is located in a most unlikely spot, near the brink of craggy Dry Canyon, a Missoula Flood feature that is part of the Rowena Dell canyon complex.

The sheer canyon walls are a reminder that the oaks surviving the harsh Rowena climate are anchored in a very thin layer of soil, atop hundreds of feet of layered basalt. This semi-desert ecosystem has an average of just 14 inches of rain per year, with hot, dry summers and freezing winters, and our infamous Gorge winds ready to strike up at any time, year-round.

The fact that Oregon white oaks can live to be hundreds of years old in this environment is truly remarkable. Part of their secret lies in a large taproot that not only anchors the trees in this windy, hostile environment, but also provides trees access to deep groundwater stored in the layers of basalt bedrock. The main taproot in these trees is complemented by a strong lateral root system, giving our native oaks an especially impressive root structure compared to most other tree species.

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

Despite these challenges, the oak trees of the dry savannah found at Rowena are thriving, and even the ancient sentinels in these groves are blooming and producing acorns with each spring.

The Rowena Oak grows just a few yards from the historic Dry Canyon bridge, and was clearly here to witness the construction Samuel Lancaster’s Historic Columbia River Highway and Conde McCullough’s iconic highway bridge over the rocky gorge in 1921. The old tree probably stood witness to first railroads being built in the late 1800s, as well — and the rise and fall of the salmon canning industry that swept through the Gorge toward the end of the 1800s.

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

In fact, at roughly two feet in diameter, the Rowena Oak could easily pre-date the arrival of Europeans in this part of North America. An Oregon State University (OSU) study of similar Oregon white oak habitat in Southern Oregon found that trees greater than 15″ in diameter were consistently 200 years or more years in age. The oldest oak in the OSU study was a whopping 429 years old, truly a testament to survival.

The huge, cascading Rowena Oak hangs into the protected niche of Dry Canyon

The huge, cascading Rowena Oak hangs into the protected niche of Dry Canyon

The arid climate at Rowena may be tough on trees, but it also helps preserve the life history of the old giants as they gradually succumb to the elements. Their broken tops and limbs are often preserved exactly where they fell decades ago, as mute testimony to the years of hardship these ancient trees have endured.

The Rowena oak is a great example, as it is surrounded by its own debris from decades of the ice storms, relentless winds and even the occasional lightning strike that are part of survival in the Gorge. The density of Oregon White oak wood helps in the preservation, as well — the same hardness that preserves its wood in the wild is also why these trees have historically been used to make furniture, flooring and barrels.

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

The Rowena oak has huge, twin trunks, the top of each toppled long ago by the elements. Lacking a top, the tree relies on four massive, sprawling limbs to survive, highlighting another survival secret of this species: Oregon White Oak sprouts prolifically from dormant buds on stumps and along trunks when tops are cut or broken off. This ability to adapt helped the Rowena oak survive what could have been catastrophic damage for most tree species.

The eastern of the two trunks points two massive, arching limbs toward the rim of Dry Canyon, and a closer look reveals yet another survival secret of this ancient tree: a tangle of branches cascade over the cliff like a leafy waterfall, with a lush canopy protected from the worst of the Gorge weather that sweeps across the top of the plateau.

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

A third major limb, nearly a foot thick, snakes a surprising 50 feet from the eastern trunk, along the exposed cliff edge of the canyon. This huge limb hovers just 2-3 feet above the ground — yet doesn’t touch — thanks to the tremendous strength of its wood.

The huge, contorted limbs of the Rowena Oak have "eyes" that seem to be watching curious visitors!

The huge, contorted limbs of the Rowena Oak have “eyes” that seem to be watching curious visitors!

The western of the two main trunks has just one surviving major limb, a crooked, cracked affair that touches ground at several points, surrounded by the bleached bones of its own branches, broken off over the decades. Each of the fracture points in this broken old limb is marked with a thicket of new sprouts, showing how this old tree continues to regenerate, extending its long life.

One of the many bleached "bones" that help tell the survival story of the Rowena Oak

One of the many bleached “bones” that help tell the survival story of the Rowena Oak

While the Rowena Oak may look haggard, its growing limbs are healthy, putting out annual bursts of new leaves each spring, along with surprisingly abundant flower clusters. These will soon yield acorns, completing a reproductive cycle this tree has likely repeated since the time when Lewis and Clark passed by, if not longer.

Spring brings another flush of new leaves on the venerable Rowena Oak

Spring brings another flush of new leaves on the venerable Rowena Oak

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

Though most have been stripped by the elements or wildlife, several acorns from last year’s crop are still attached to the Rowena Oak, waiting to be dispersed. A mature Oregon white oak can produce anywhere from 20 to 50 lbs of acorns in a season, depending on growing conditions.

Acorns may look tough, but they are designed to sprout new tree seedlings as soon as moisture and warmth allow, as the seeds only remain viable for a year or so. Only a very few will sprout, and only a tiny fraction of seedlings will survive to become trees.

A few acorns from last season are still attached to the Rowena Oak

A few acorns from last season are still attached to the Rowena Oak

The thickets of younger Oregon white oak trees we see in some parts of the Gorge today may be the result of fire suppression over the past century. Studies of Oregon white oak groves in the Willamette Valley by Oregon State University suggest that pre-settlement fires regularly thinned out seedlings, allowing established oak trees to thrive without the competition of young oaks. Fire also kept other, competing tree species at bay that otherwise would have crowded out the native white oaks.

Visiting the Rowena Oak

Though the spectacular fields of yellow balsamroot and blue lupine have mostly faded, Rowena is always fascinating to explore. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages a sizeable conservation preserve covering much of the area.

Visiting the Rowena Oak

Visiting the Rowena Oak

(click here for a larger map in a new window)

A lower trail leads across the Rowena Plateau to a cliff-edge view of the Columbia River, and an upper trail climbs to McCall Point to a sweeping view of Mount Hood and the Gorge. Less adventurous hikers can still enjoy terrific views of the Gorge by simply hiking the first quarter mile or so of these trails, so there are hiking options for every ability.

The Rowena Oak is located just a few steps off the Historic Columbia River Highway, immediately west of the Dry Canyon Bridge. Roadside parking is available as you approach the bridge from Mosier. Simply walk uphill along the west edge of the canyon, and you will immediately spot the old oak from a low rise adjacent to the highway. This is an easy, rewarding stop for families with young kids, as the tree tells a fascinating story of survival.

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

The longer hikes to the Rowena Plateau and McCall Point are quite busy during April and May during the wildflower bloom, but you’ll have them to yourself later in summer and fall, when the flowers are gone but the landscape is just as impressive. While the upper trail leads to broad views of the Columbia River and Mount Hood, the lower trail has a unique pair of “kolk” lakes formed during the Missoula Floods, and equally impressive views of the river and Rowena Dell.

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

As with all eastern Gorge hikes, use caution hiking in the heat of summer, as there is little tree canopy to shade these trails. The Nature Conservancy also asks that you stay on the trails, and be aware of the triple hazard of rattlesnakes, poison oak and ticks that are standard for the eastern Gorge. The first two in this list are easy to avoid, but you should prepare for ticks, and follow more rigorous precautions (see this recent article on ticks for a few tips). Note that the trails at Rowena are closed in the winter, when they can be slick and potentially hazardous.

The Wahclella Maple

July 27, 2012

Autumn sunburst lights up the Wahclella maple in late 2011

Sometime last winter a picturesque bigleaf maple framing Wahclella Falls tumbled into Tanner Creek, likely under the stress of heavy snow or ice. In any other spot, this event might have gone unnoticed, but the Wahclella maple had the distinction of a front row seat at one of the most visited and photographed waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge.

“Change is the only constant. Hanging on is the only sin.”
-Denise McCluggage

Tanner Creek gorge is no stranger to change. In the spring of 1973, a massive collapse of the west wall, just below Wahclella Falls, sent a huge landslide into the creek, temporarily forming a 30-foot deep lake behind the jumble of house-size boulders. Today, the popular Wahclella Falls trail crosses the landslide, providing a close-up view of the natural forces that have created this magnificent place.

By contrast, the demise of the Wahclella maple is a very small change, indeed. But a closer look provides a glimpse into some of the more subtle changes that are part of the perpetually unfolding evolution this beautiful landscape. The following are nearly identical photos captured six years apart, in 2006 and 2012, and the changes over that short span are surprising:

[Click here for a larger view]

Comparing these images, one obvious change is in the stream, itself where (1) an enormous log has been pushed downstream by the force of Tanner Creek, testament to the power of high water. In the center of the scene (2) a young bigleaf maple has doubled in height, obscuring the huge boulder that once sheltered the tree, and on course to obscure the footbridge, as well. New growth is also filling in (3) along the new section of raised trail built on gabions in the 1990s (gabions are wire mesh baskets filled with rock, and were used to build up the trail along the edge of Tanner Creek)

The main change to this scene is the Wahclella maple (4), itself. Because the tree fell into a brushy riparian thicket, the fallen trunk and limbs have already been largely overtaken by lush spring growth of the understory. In a few short years, the fallen tree will disappear under a thick layer of moss and ferns, completing the forest cycle.

[Click here for a larger view]

But the story of the fallen Wahclella maple doesn’t end there, thanks to the unique adaptive abilities of bigleaf maple. Unlike most of our large tree species, bigleaf maple is prolific in sprouting new stems from stumps or upturned root balls. The massive, multi-trunked giants that appear in our forests are the result of this form of regeneration.

The Wahclella maple is already re-growing from its shattered trunk

[Click here for a larger view]

In this way, the Wahclella maple already seems to be making a comeback. With its former trunk still lying nearby, the shattered base of the tree has sprouted several new shoots this spring. In time, there’s a good chance that some of these shoots will grow to form a new, multi-trunked tree, perhaps one that is even more magnificent for future generations of photographers.

In the meantime, the old maple tree is a reminder that the beauty of the area is forever a work in progress, and how fortunate we are to watch the each stroke of nature unfold.

“The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.”
-Dean Acheson

_______________________________

How to visit Wahclella Falls

Though hardly a secret anymore , the hike to Wahclella Falls remains a less traveled alternative to other short waterfall hikes in the Gorge. The trail is generally open year-round, though the best times for photography are in May/June, when spring greenery is at its peak, and in late October, when the bigleaf maples light up the forest with bright yellow and orange hues.

[Click here for a larger, printable version of this map]

This is a terrific family trail, thanks to several dramatic footbridges, two waterfalls, a staircase, caves (!) and several streamside spots safe for wading or skipping stones. Young kids should be kept close, however, since there are also some steep drop offs along sections of the trail. For kids, midweek in midsummer is a perfect time to visit.

Another fascinating time to visit with kids is during the fall spawning season, when the stream below the hatchery diversion dam is filled with returning salmon and steelhead within easy view of the trail.

Wahclella Falls is a family favorite

The trailhead for Wahclella Falls is easy to find. Follow I-84 east from Portland to Bonneville Dam (Exit 40), turning right at the first stop sign then immediately right into the trailhead parking area along Tanner Creek, where a Northwest Forest Pass is required. Portable toilets are provided at the trailhead from spring through early fall.

The trail begins at a gate at the south end of the parking area, and initially follows a rustic gavel road to a small diversion dam that provides water for the Bonneville Fish Hatchery. From here, the route crosses a footbridge in front of Munra Falls, and becomes a proper hiking path. Head right (downhill) at a fork in the trail 0.7 miles from the trailhead to begin the loop through the towering amphitheater surrounding Wahclella Falls, then retrace your steps 0.7 miles to the trailhead after completing the 0.6 mile loop portion of the trail. Enjoy!

White River Buried Forest

September 18, 2011

The summer of 2011 will be remembered as the year of the Dollar Lake Fire in the Mount Hood area, as much of the north side is still smoldering from a lightning-caused wildfire that ignited on August 26. Though a calamity to those who loved the verdant forests on Mount Hood’s northern slopes, the fire is a blip on the screen when compared to the many explosive events that have rearranged the mountain’s forests and topography over the millennia.

Among the most recent and fascinating of these events are the Old Maid eruptions. These explosions knocked over entire forests on the mountain’s south side like matchsticks, burying them under a deep layer of ash and volcanic debris. This article describes the Old Maid events, and how to see traces of their aftermath today.

The Old Maid Eruptions

While most tourists at Timberline Lodge on a given day are blissfully unaware that Mount Hood is living volcano, the occasional, heady odor of sulfur fumes blowing down from the crater are a reminder the “quiet” spell we are enjoying is only temporary.

[click here for a larger version]

In geologic terms, the Old Maid eruptions are incredibly recent, finally winding down in our recorded history of the early 1800s. The events are named for Old Maid Flats, the debris plain created by the eruptions in the Sandy River canyon, though the impact on the mountain was much broader.

Scientists have determined the Old Maid eruptive period to have occurred within from about 1760 to 1810 A.D. In fact, when Lewis & Clark described the shallow “quicksand” delta of the Sandy River in 1804-05, they were looking at volcanic sediments that had only recently flooded down the river from the active slopes Mount Hood.

The former floor of the White River canyon is visible as a thin layer of oxidized soil, dotted with mummified trees.

The scientific accuracy of these dates is made possible by thousands of mummified trees swept over by the Old Maid debris flows, and later exposed by streams cutting into the sediments. The White River buried forest is one of the more prominent locations where these flattened forests and the former valley floor can plainly be seen.

The Old Maid eruptions originated in the modern crater of Mount Hood, where sulfur fumes still rise from the vents known as the Devils Kitchen. The massive, 800-foot volcanic dome of Crater Rock, itself, is just 200 years old and formed during these eruptions. The heat of rising magma in the crater eventually sent pyroclastic flows down the Sandy and White River canyons — rolling clouds of super-heated ash and debris that buried the entire landscape.

A closer look at the buried valley floor reveals mummified trees.

The Old Maid eruptions deposited about one hundred feet of debris throughout the upper White River canyon, filling the formerly U-shaped glacial valley with a flat fan of volcanic boulders, cobbles and fine ash. The outflow from the White River Glacier has since carved deeply into the debris flow, revealing the old valley floor and some of the thousands of mummified trees knocked over by the Old Maid event.

A flat-topped ridge in the middle of the White River canyon known as Mesa Terrace (see earlier schematic) is a remnant of the debris flow that shows the original depth of the debris above the valley floor.

Close-up of an entire tree, tipped over and buried where it fell on the former valley floor.

Two types of debris flow swept down the southern slopes of Mount Hood during the Old Maid eruptions. The most destructive were the pyroclastic flows, which many of us are familiar with from the colossal Mount St. Helens eruption of May 18, 1980.

In addition to the hot pyroclastic flows, cooler mudflows from flash-melted glaciers and snowfields also swept down Mount Hood’s south slopes during the Old Maid events. We know the buried forests at the bottom of White River Canyon fell victim to these mudflows, as pyroclastic flows would have instantly incinerated the standing timber. Instead, the cooler debris flows simply knocked the forests over, and buried them under layers of mud and debris.

Scientists believe these trees were partially buried, then broken off by subsequent flows.

Scientists believe the old valley floor now being revealed by erosion was of glacial origin, dating back to the last major glacial advance of the White River Glacier some 10,000 years ago. Thus, forests grew undisturbed along the former valley floor of the White River for a very long time.

Hiking to the Overlook

Hiking to the White River buried forest overlook is easy and scenic, as well as historic and iconic: it follows Mount Hood’s famous Timberline Trail for 0.7 miles to the impressive rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail also serves as the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,000-mile epic trek from Mexico to Canada.

To find the trailhead, park in the lower, overflow lot located to the east of Timberline Lodge. Park near a gated dirt on the west side of the parking area. Follow this old road steeply uphill for about 200 yards to an obvious junction with the Timberline Trail, and turn right (or, if you’re coming from the lodge, follow any of the trails beyond the lodge uphill to the Timberline Trail and turn right). The Timberline Trail quickly traverses into a side-canyon, crossing the headwaters of the Salmon River.

Next, the Timberline Trail rambles across pumice-covered slopes and soon reaches a sign marking the Richard L. Kohnstamm Wilderness, created in 2009 as an addition to the wilderness complex that encircles Mount Hood. Kohnstamm was the resort operator responsible for resurrecting a struggling Timberline Lodge in the 1950s, and setting the resort on the successful path that it continues to enjoy today.

[click here for a larger, printable map]

Beyond the wilderness boundary, the trail descends across another pumice slope, then drops more steeply on a surface of loose glacial till as it traces the west moraine of the White River canyon. Soon, you will reach the overlook where the Timberline Trail follows the moraine crest, and arrives at a stand of trees. This is a good spot to stop and take in the scenery, and especially to pick out the signs of the buried forest, at the bottom of the canyon, below.

The south-facing slopes and open terrain can make this a hot, dusty hike in late summer, so be sure to carry water. You will also want a pair of binoculars to view the buried forest details more closely. If you have the time and energy after visiting the buried forest overlook, you can retrace your step to the dirt access road, then turn right and follow it to Silcox Hut, about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. The hut was the original upper terminal for the first Magic Mile ski lift in the late 1930s, and today is maintained as an historic structure.

The Tollgate Maples… and the Highway

July 17, 2011

The two remaining Tollgate maples

Last week, the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) jointly announced that the main trunk of one of two remaining Barlow Road Tollgate heritage maple trees would be coming down soon:

“A 130-year-old bigleaf maple, which marks the spot of the western-most tollgate of the historic Barlow Road, has substantial decay and poses a hazard to travelers on U.S. Highway 26 (Mt. Hood Highway). The tree is planned to be felled within the next three weeks.”

(download the press release here)

On its face, the decision is both reasonable and expected. The maples were planted in the 1880s by tollgate keeper Daniel Parker, and have lived the typical lifespan of our native bigleaf maple. A third maple apparently survived until the mid-1990s, and along with the tree that will soon be removed, framed the old tollhouse that once stood on the north side of the tollgate (where the highway is located, now).

The large trunk on the right will be removed, but the three smaller trunks on the left will be spared

The good news is that the tree will live on, through suckers that have grown to become three separate trunks – a typical form for bigleaf maples. From the press release:

“The old bigleaf maple to be felled has several stems: a main stem, with a diameter of 25 inches, and three smaller 4- to 6-inch diameter stems growing from the base of the trunk. These three smaller stems, each about 25 feet tall, will be untouched by the project, while the decaying main stem will be reduced to a height of two to three feet.”

Hopefully the companion tree on the south side of the gate will also survive through new stems someday growing from its base. This is the larger of the two trees, and because of its distance from the highway, will be allowed to grow undisturbed.

The remaining maple is far enough from the road that it will be allowed to remain, undisturbed

As trees around Mount Hood go, the two maples at Tollgate aren’t particularly remarkable — there are plenty of larger, older and more impressive bigleaf maple trees growing in less traveled areas of the surrounding forests. The uniqueness of these trees, of course, is the tie to the Oregon Trail, itself, a piece of Amercian history that is deeply embedded in our cultural identity.

Sam Barlow’s Road

Most Oregonians know the story of Sam Barlow, and his daring expedition over the shoulder of Mount Hood with Joel Palmer in the fall of 1845, in search of a land route through the Cascades.

Sam Barlow and his legendary road

By 1846, the route the two men had scouted and led their own wagons over had become a business venture for Barlow: a notoriously rough toll road that thousands of Oregon settlers would travel over in the years that followed. Many described it as the worst part of their 2,000-mile journey.

The tollgate site marked by the twin maples was the final location of at least five tollgate sites that existed along the Barlow Road over the years, with this final tollgate operating from 1883 to 1918. The gatekeeper charged $5 per wagon, with smaller fees for livestock, foot travelers and even the first automobile, which arrived at the tollgate in 1903. This was a handsome price in its day, but for most travelers, it was also a one-time charge on the way to the Willamette Valley.

The Tollgate wayside fronts one of the few remaining Highway 26 segments that has remained largely unchanged little since the first highway was built in the 1920s

As the toll road era faded away in the early 1900s, plans for the first loop highway around the mountain were underway, and much of the new route followed the original Barlow Road when first leg was completed in the 1920s.

Because the Barlow Road had a number of evolving alignments over the years, many traces of the route survived the highway-building era, and can still be seen today. The original loop highway was used through the 1950s, and was then replaced with the modern alignment we know today.

The Future of Barlow Road… and Highway 26?

The tentative tone in the opening paragraph if this article stems from the terrible record ODOT and the Forest Service have in protecting the historic, scenic and environmental legacy of the Barlow Road corridor.

Highway 26 “improvement” just east of Tollgate in 2004

While the Forest Service and ODOT have made a reasonable case for removing the heritage maple at the Tollgate site, the agency has a long history of aggressive, senseless tree removals along the Mount Hood Loop. Most of this sad legacy stems from ODOT’s unstated objective to widen the highway to four lanes through the entire Mount Hood corridor at all costs — usually cloaked as a “safety” or “preservation” projects to ensure that their policy makers and the general public don’t get in the way of the underlying road widening mission that continues to drive the agency.

One strategy used by highway engineers to ease the path toward eventual road widening is to cut trees way back along highway sections in advance, as a divide-and-conquer strategy. The goal is to avoid jeopardizing a future road-widening project with public outcry over tree removal.

This practice is also rationalized under the “safety” banner, but actually encourage speeding by removing the traffic calming effect that a tree canopy creates. The use of street trees and landscaping in urban areas to discourage speeding is a widespread and fully accepted practice in the modern transportation design, but clearly hasn’t penetrated the ODOT offices yet.

Highway 35 “improvement” currently underway near Hood River Meadows is predictably cutting trees back from the roadway

In 2004, ODOT cleared the shoulders along several sections of US 26 in the vicinity of the Tollgate site, and one concern in hearing the news of the heritage tree is that this project is a precursor to tree removal along this final stretch of mostly original highway, where big trees still grow near the road.

The unstated ODOT mission to widen the loop highway to an urban freeway standard is described in detail in these earlier WyEast Blog articles:

• Highway 26 Widening – Part One

• Highway 26 Widening Projects – Part Two

• Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

Unfortunately, the projects described in these articles continue to advance, with a few cosmetic details thrown in to keep them moving. Sadly, they represent almost $30 million in public dollars that will make the highway a lot more like an urban freeway, while ignoring their own consultant recommendations for far less costly, more effective safety solutions.

The first phase of ODOT’s “safety and preservation” work is slated to begin just east of Tollgate this summer, and — right on schedule — the project has already been “updated” to include widening for a new westbound travel lane, along with “separate projects to remove select trees for safety reasons.” Just as predicted.

A New Vision for the Mount Hood Loop

The beautiful wayside at Tollgate is a great example of the very kind of feature that ought to be the focus of a tourism-oriented highway design along the Mount Hood Loop. Yet ODOT is about to make changes to the highway that will make it much less friendly for visitors. Is there an alternative?

1950s Mount Hood Loop wayside at White River

In a coming piece, I’ll present a different vision for the Mount Hood Loop that rejects the current ODOT plans for road widening, and the dubious “safety” claims that ODOT officials are using to cloak nearly $30 million in projects that will turn the corridor into a freeway.

This alternative vision will offer a less costly, sustainable long-term design that actually IS safer, and also much more enjoyable for the visitors to the mountain that drive the local economy.