Archive for the ‘Sentinel Trees’ category

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.

Gorge Aspen Colony

July 6, 2011

Quaking Aspen grove near Bridal Veil

Just east of Bridal Veil on the Historic Columbia River Highway, a colony of white-barked Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) suddenly appear along the road, seemingly transported from somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Though these are North America’s most widespread tree species, they are uncommon in Western Oregon.

Many who spot these unlikely trees might reasonably assume they were intentionally planted here, given the nearby residential district. That’s possible, but it’s more likely that this is a native stand, one of only a few sprinkled on the western fringes of the aspen range, where it extends south from Canada along the eastern crest of the Cascades.

Quaking Aspen appear suddenly along the Scenic Highway near Bridal Veil (Google Streetview)

The stand is easy to find: drive one-third mile beyond the Angels Rest trailhead in the Bridal Veil area and watch for the trees on the south side of the road. There’s room to pull off, but use caution before wading in — this might be the only Aspen grove in Oregon with knee-deep poison oak! The stand is also fringed with lupine, coltsfoot and many other wildflowers in mid-spring, making for a dramatic scene.

Why Here?

Topographic maps give a hint as to why Aspen would grow here: marshy, river bottom soils, cool mountain air flowing off Larch Mountain and down Coopey Canyon and the generally brisk Gorge winters mimic prime aspen habitat. The grove also appears to be on public land, within Shepperds Dell State Park (see map, below).

The Quaking Aspen grove is near Coopey Creek, below Angels Rest

It’s hard to know the future of Oregon’s aspen trees, given the expected effects of climate change on most northern species. The following map shows just how fragile the aspens along the Cascade Range are compared to the broad habitat found in the Rockies, Great Lakes region and Canada:

North American extent of Quaking Aspen (Wikimedia)

Even more isolated and fragile are the groves that dot the basin and range country of Southeast Oregon. These are the aspens growing on alpine islands in the desert, including Steens Mountain, Hart Mountain and a few other tall peaks in the high desert country.

Ecology of the Aspen

The name “Quaking Aspen” comes from the unique trembling that the slightest breeze creates among the leaves of Aspen trees. This is also where the botanical name of “tremuloides” is derived.

The “quaking” comes from flattened petiole, or stem, that connects the leaves to tree branches, and vibrates in the wind. The soft rustling is unmistakable to anyone who has spent time in Aspen country. Though Aspen are famous for their brilliant yellow fall color, the Gorge grove tends to be a paler yellow, possibly reflecting the milder fall temperatures at the site, compared to typical Aspen habitat.

Quaking Aspen leaves

Quaking Aspen reproduce mostly through root sprouts, with the young trees called “clones”, since they are genetically identical, and usually still connected to the parent tree. Whole groves of Aspen often consist of clones from a single originating tree, and share a single root system, and are thus called clone colonies.

This shared root system help explain why these colonies leaf out in spring and abruptly turn color in the fall as a complete unit, but often out of sync with nearby colonies running on their own clock.

Moss on Aspen trees: a uniquely Oregon thing?

The survival advantage of a clone colony can be seen in the Pando colony in Southern Utah, located high on the Colorado Plateau. Scientists estimate the 100-acre colony to have nearly 50,000 individual “stems” (trees) in the grove, all sharing a common root system. Amazingly, the root system is estimated to be at least 80,000 years old, with some scientists estimating the colony to be over million years old. This makes the Quaking Aspen both the oldest and largest organism on the planet, as defined by a continuously living DNA marker.

One disadvantage of clone colonies is that Aspen trees come in male and female varieties, and thus the clones in a colony are usually the same sex, making seed production more difficult.

Young Aspen clones emerging at the edge of the grove

Even when Aspen seeds are produced, they lack sufficient food and coating to make them durable enough to survive for long in harsh environments. This could be why Aspen rarely grow from seed, but also underscores the vulnerability of the species, since seed reproduction allows a species to migrate much more quickly in period of rapid climate change.

Aspen Die-Off

Older Aspens dying off in Southern Colorado (USFS)

In the mid-1990s, scientists began to notice a mass die-off in Quaking Aspen trees across the Western US. Often, the older trees in a grove were afflicted, but increasingly, entire clone colonies have died. There are a variety of theories about the decline, though most attribute it to a combination of changing climate and a century of fire suppression.

Like most western trees, Aspen are well adapted to fire, and quickly spring back after a burn, since the common root system of a colony is generally left unscathed, even if fire kills most of the trees growing from the root system. Under this theory, the die-off is a response to older Aspen groves simply outliving their viability, and abruptly falling victim to disease.

Entire Aspen groves dying in New Mexico (USFS)

Another theory focuses on the drought conditions that have plagued the west during the past two decades. Some scientists believe this has simply left Aspen too stressed to cope with insects and diseases that normally not be life-threatening to the trees. One study showed that more than 80% of the die-off has occurred in areas predicted to lose Aspen trees as a result of climate change — usually south-facing and lower-elevation habitats. This evidence also reinforces the risks that climate change will eventually bring for the Aspen forests.

Yet another theory is that over-grazing is causing the decline, with young tree sprouts being grazed before they can reach maturity, and replace older trees within a grove. In a unique study of wolves at Yellowstone, a variation on this research showed the same relationship where deer and elk populations were not checked by predators, causing a similar decline in Aspen colonies.

The phenomenon is now known collectively as “Sudden Aspen Decline”, and is the focus of much concern among researchers.

Though the die-off seems to be slowing in recent years, thanks to record rainfall in several previously drought-stricken areas, the damage has been extensive: Colorado has lost nearly 500,000 acres of aspen since the die-off began, or nearly 20 percent of its standing aspen. Other Rocky Mountain stands show similar damage, with scientists estimating that Aspen groves surviving today accounting for just 40% of what stood in the mid-1800s.

The Future of the Gorge Aspen?

Aspen can’t compete for long with Bigleaf Maple (seen in background) and other large species

The recent ecology of Aspen in the west is alarming, but researchers are busy looking for answers. In Oregon, studies are underway on the resiliency of Quaking Aspen in the Warner and Trout Creek mountains, and Oregon State University is providing ongoing research with The Aspen Project.

And what is the future of the Aspen grove near Bridal Veil? The good news is the trees seem to be on public land, and thus easier to protect and manage. New clones can also be seen growing at the edge of the stand, though the trees still face heavy competition from a thicket of underbrush, and a growing canopy of big conifers and Bigleaf Maple. In the long term, these Aspen won’t survive the competition unless the colony is actively managed to help them survive.

The western-most Quaking Aspen grove?

Other small Aspen stands dot the Gorge and the western foothills of Mount Hood, including one emerging stand along US 26, just east of Gresham, that might just be the western-most in the state. Much larger stands flank the east slope of the Cascades in places like the Hood River Valley, Metolius River and Klamath Lake.

While these isolated stands are small and remote from the prime Aspen habitat of the Rockies and Canada, that could be a very good reason to help them survive: it’s possible that these intrepid Oregon Aspen will be better situated to survive climate change, and may represent a genetic insurance policy for the species.

Scientists are learning much about Aspen and how to perpetuate the species in the face of the die-off. Hopefully, Oregon’s public land managers will also apply these lessons to the tiny, isolated healthy stands in places like the Gorge, as one more safeguard for an increasingly vulnerable species.

Where the heck is Tamarack Rock?

July 30, 2009

TamarackRock01

You won’t find Tamarack Rock on any maps, though this rugged knoll is hidden in plain sight — just off the Surveyors Ridge Road (FR 17) on the east side of Mount Hood. The rock didn’t get much respect during the logging heyday of the late 1900s, with gravel spur roads wrapping almost entirely around the rock, and big ponderosa trees felled from its gentle southern flank.

But through all the destruction that reigned here, a lone Western larch tree survived in a most unlikely spot, among the huge boulders near the crest. The tree is among the most magnificent of its kind in the area, a massive, gnarled, determined old sentinel that has managed to dodge lightning strikes and fires, as well as chainsaws.

Mount Hood at dusk from Tamarack Rock

Mount Hood at dusk from Tamarack Rock

The view from the rock is glorious, with the broad northeastern face of Mount Hood towering over waves of forest ridges, and the tiny farms and orchards of the Upper Hood River Valley, spread far below. The forested Mill Creek Buttes complete the scene, to the east. The scenery is so sweeping that it’s easy to forget the maze of logging roads and clearcuts all around. In this way, Tamarack Rock survives, surprisingly intact.

A birds-eye view of Tamarack Rock

A birds-eye view of Tamarack Rock

I had passed the rock countless times over the years, always promising myself that I’d explore this postage-stamp wilderness someday. This spring, I finally made good on the promise, and explored the landmark from all sides. Trail riders and hikers are already familiar with the rugged west face of the rock, where it towers above the popular Surveyors Ridge Trail. From this angle, the rock has a “face”, which in turn led to a spirited discussion among the PortlandHikers.org community on just what to call the rock — if it didn’t already have a name.

The "face" of Tamarack Rock from the Surveyors Ridge Trail.

A quick survey of those familiar with the area didn’t reveal a local name for the rock, so I posted a survey on PortlandHikers.org to poll a few options. When the votes were counted, the uncanny resemblance of the “face” to a certain Hollywood film director won the day, and it appeared that this landmark might become “Hitchcock Rock” to recreationists. Fortunately, the story didn’t end there, though it led to some creative photo interpretations (see below).

The backup filming location for "North by Northwest", perhaps?

This is where the PortlandHikers.org discussion sent me back to the rock, because it was unclear from my early photos whether the ancient tree near the crest was living, dying or dead — or simply a larch in dormant winter phase, sans needles. My second visit a few weeks later revealed a fresh burst of new needles covering the old giant, and redirected the naming discussion to the tree in question.

Given the proximity of Larch Mountain (and other features) using the larch as namesake, the PortlandHikers.org consensus was to fudge a bit by using the “tamarack” name, instead. This is botanically incorrect, but as we learned in our debate on the subject, a good portion of the west actually uses the name “tamarack” to describe Western larch, and it had a nice ring to it, besides: Tamarack Rock!

I wasn't the first to the top, and surely won't be the last..!

I wasn't the first to the top, and surely won't be the last..!

On this follow-up visit to the rock, I also discovered a long history of visitors, beginning with a geocache box tucked into an inconspicuous hiding spot. The journal inside listed a visitor earlier the same day, remarking on a “large coyote” seen near the rock. Other visitors simply commented on the impressive views.

Not far from the geochache were a couple of homemade memorials, honoring Adam J. Dietz Sr. (1917-1997) and Alfred West (1910-1998). Clearly, these two gentlemen had some connection with the rock, but for now, I can only assume they worked or hunted in the forest, and might have been local to the area. But their presence further cemented the idea of a more respectful name for the rock, no matter the Hitchcockian resemblance.

The rustic Adam J. Dietz Sr. Memorial on Tamarack Rock

The rustic Adam J. Dietz Sr. Memorial on Tamarack Rock

Yet the human history of Tamarack Rock seems to go back even further, and perhaps by millennia: a few yards from the aluminum Alfred West memorial cross, there are at least two, and possibly three Native American ceremonial pits. One is quite obvious, a second somewhat compromised and a third barely visible. The pits are located in full view of the mountain, and mimic similar pits in the area, including this subject of an earlier post.

Finding all this human history in gathering twilight on that brisk spring evening was exhilarating, to say the least. It was yet another reminder that we are all just passing through, and how we treat this land will be our only real legacy. Tamarack Rock has clearly been admired and loved for generations, and how fortunate we are that the even the era of road building and forest destruction didn’t destroy this unique place.

In another century, there’s a good chance the old larch tree will still live, clinging to this rock, long after we’re gone. If the old tree does survive, it will be a pretty good measure of our collective will to leave the Mount Hood country in better shape than we found it. It will also reflect our human capacity to honor places like this simply because of their spiritual significance to those who came before us.

I think we’re up to that challenge.