Posted tagged ‘Dollar Lake Fire’

WyEast Blog at 10 years! (and counting!)

January 1, 2019
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First snow of autumn 2018 on Mount Hood as seen from Dufur Mill Road

Last November marked 10 years since I started the WyEast Blog, way back in 2008. It was a pretty hopeful year, as you may recall, followed by some very progressive reforms for how our public lands are managed.  And my, how things can change — elections do have consequences! So, as always, the work continues as we weather another round of political attacks on our hard-fought protections for public lands.

Much has changed in WyEast country over the past 10 years, too, but certainly not my commitment to a better future for Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. I’m frequently asked “do you reallythink Mount Hood will become a national park?” and my response is always the same, “a little more every day!”Why? Because despite the currently bleak situation in Washington D.C., we’re (finally) witnessing the start to a changing of the guard in generational leadership at all levels of our society. The Millennials are here!

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Author on my last visit to Eagle Creek, about a year before the September 2017 fire

What will history say about the Baby Boomers as they (reluctantly) hand over the reins to a younger generation? For all they have given us in their epic contributions to art and culture, they have also been surprisingly awful when it comes to conservation, woefully lacking in both courage and imagination. It’s true the Millennials are overdue in taking the reins, but since twice delivering the first African American to the U.S. presidency (a man who the Boomers voted overwhelmingly against, history shall note), they have steadily expanded their presence on the local, state and national political scenes. The 2016 elections represented the beginning of what will become a tidal wave in coming years, too.

By wide margins, Millennials are genuinely committed to conservation and sustainability, more balanced in their personal lives in how they manage ambition and status, and much less materialistic and consumptive than their elders. The numbers prove this. And thus my confidence that the Millennials’ turn at governance can (and will) return us to the bold conservation legacy of past eras and previous generations of leadership. The pendulum will swing, once again, and I believe that expanding our national park system will be part of that renaissance.

In the beginning…

Ten years ago, I started this blog with a rather obscure look at a couple of dead trees at a favorite roadside viewpoint of mine, along Dufur Mill Road. Here’s what that spot used to look like:

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The two snags featured in the very first article on this blog… but what about the big fir on the right?

Sometime that year, both snags on the left side of the photo were felled, possibly for firewood, a common activity in that area. At the time I was dismayed at the senseless loss of a couple of valauble and (to me) beautiful snags. Mount Hood’s old ghost trees are essential for wildlife and forest health, after all! And thus, my first article began what would become many looks at the lesser-known and under-appreciated corners of WyEast country, all in celebration of our magical mountain and gorge!

Today, the view from this spot on Dufur Mill Road is still much the same, minus the old snags. Here’s what it looked like a couple of weeks ago (below), where you can pick out individual trees in the background that appear much the same. The large Douglas fir on the right side of the original photo still stands, too, but what about the apparent change in height of this tree between the above and below photos?

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Today the two snags are long gone, but the big Douglas fir is still standing

Yes, the old fir did grow, but not by that much. It turns out that in the 10 years since the original photo was taken, a young Douglas fir has grown from just a few feet tall to nearly 20 feet — blocking the original view! Here’s what today’s scene looks like as viewed from the exact spot as the 2008 photo:

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The only true constant in the forest… is change!

The changes in this favorite spot of mine are a good metaphor for so many places on Mount Hood and in the Gorge over the past ten years, where the only constant is change. This article explores some of the changes, plus a rundown of the most read and least read articles on the blog. Hope you enjoy the look back!

The Articles

Including this retrospective, I’ve posted 184 articles on the blog since November 2008, ranging from the incredibly obscure (my favorite!) to the surprisingly popular.

In the first five years, visitors grew gradually to a couple thousand annually, then abruptly jumped to 30,000 in 2013 and 60,000 in 2014! Since then, visitors have hovered between 70,000 and 90,000 annually. A decent share also click through to the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website, and who knows? One of those visitors might be the future congresswoman or senator who introduces a bill to make Mount Hood and the Gorge a national park! That’s the goal of an “idea campaign”, after all — and why I started the blog.

But blog metrics don’t really tell the full story, as a select few posts have been the major drivers in visits over the years. These posts continue to pop up each week in the blog stats, years after they were first published.

At the top of that list is an article debunking the many persistent myths about ticks that continue to circulate among the hiking community. I published “Ticks! Ticks! (10 Common Myths” in April 2013, and it’s the main reason for the big jump in traffic that year that has since continued. The article now has 173,000 views and counting — and that’s great news, as ticks present a growing health risk in the Gorge now that Lyme disease has spread to our region.

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Nobody likes ticks… but people do like this article!

Right behind ticks in our apparent collective anxiety is poison oak, and a companion piece called “10 Common Poison Oak Myths” is thus the second most read article on the blog. A lot of bad information circulates online among hikers on both the risks and treatment for poison oak exposure. This article was posted in 2012, before the tick article, but caught fire after the piece on ticks began to drive search engines toward the blog. Today, the poison oak article has had 78,000 visitors and shows up every week in blog stats.

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I’d been itching to write the sequel to this one…

The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire kicked off a series of articles covering the aftermath of the fire. The first article featured some of the earliest views into the burn as seen from the Washington side of the Gorge, just after the smoke had cleared. This article was widely shared in social media, with 23,000 views and counting.

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The first look into the smoky aftermath…

Later articles spotlighting the burn were based on State of Oregon aerial reconnaissance photos that provided exceptional detail of the devastation at iconic places in the Gorge and the nearly immediate signs of recovery that was already underway. One of these revealed a massive cliff collapse at Punch Bowl Falls in early 2018, just a few months after the fire.

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Perhaps more shocking than the Eagle Creek Fire, itself, were the dual cliff collapses at Metlako Falls and Punchbowl Falls on Eagle Creek.

We will never know if the cliff collapse resulted from the effects of the fire, but when the State of Oregon aerial surveys revealed the collapse, it came as a shock to anyone who knew this spot. More than 25,000 readers have viewed the article and it continues to be visited regularly.

While it’s great to see a big response to an article, truth be told, my favorite posts are among the least read. This describes mostof the posts on the blog, of course!

One of these lesser-read pieces was in 2010, when I posted a proposal to restore Warren Falls, a virtually unknown spot near Starvation Creek that had been brutally altered by Highway Department engineers in the 1930s. I had long been saddened to see how this beautiful spot had been manhandled by the same Highway Department that had gracefully navigated other waterfalls in the Gorge with beautiful bridges, viaducts and overlooks, and hoped that ODOT might incorporate restoration of the falls into a major effort to reconnect the original Historic Columbia River Highway.

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This became a bit of a crusade for a few years, including a featured spot on OPB’s Oregon Field Guide, but in the end, ODOT wasn’t interested in owning up to their crime against nature (and as I pointed out in one of the follow-up articles, the diversion was a clear violation of state statute, too!). Score another one for the highway builders, but I remain hopeful that someday we will undo this travesty.

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Warren Falls comes (briefly) alive in 2014!

In the meantime, a vestige of the original falls appears a few times each winter when ODOT’s diversion dam and bypass tunnel are overwhelmed by high runoff, bringing Warren Falls back to life, if only briefly.

And while ODOT once again turned its back on Warren Creek, Mother Nature may bring her wrath upon the diversion structures in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire. Ironically, the original project was in response to Warren Creek carrying heavy rock and wood debris onto the old highway following an early 1900s burn in the upper canyon Eighty years later, the upper canyon has burned again, and another cycle of heavy debris flows is likely in coming years. She does bat last, after all…

In happier ODOT news, an August 2012 article proposing a “Boot Loop” transit service around the mountain and through the gorge seemed far-fetched at the time, but ODOT has since operated transit in the west end of the Gorge and helped fund transit to Timberline Lodge. Currently, a “round the mountain” transit study is underway to explore the potential for completing the loop. That’s great news!

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Not such a goofy idea after all..?

The Gorge Express and Mount Hood Express bus lines are general purpose, too, whereas the “Boot Loop” idea was more narrowly aimed at recreation. The broader transit service we’re now seeing on the ground is far better, providing essential service to places where basic transit connections were long overdue. Kudos to ODOT for moving beyond their highway roots and bringing much-needed transportation alternatives to the mountain and gorge!

10 years of Big Changes

Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge have seen some epic changes over the past 10 years, perhaps most notably the Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood’s north slope in 2012 and the Eagle Creek Fire that burned much of the Oregon side of the Gorge in 2017. But there were many other significant changes, too, albeit somewhat overshadowed by the big fire events. The following are a few “then and now” highlights of these notable changes in WyEast country over the past ten years.

Global warming? Absolutely. Despite the frustrating, science-defying (and completely cynical) state of denial coming from the White House and Republican Party, bright red warning flags are showing up all around us, including on Mount Hood. As the photo pair below shows, the Eliot Glacier continues to recede at an alarming rate, as do the rest of Mount Hood’s twelve glaciers. I’ve marked a couple of prominent rock outcrops adjacent to the lower Eliot Galcier icefall to show how the “firn” line has retreated. The firn line is the point in a moving glacier that marks equilibrium, with the glacier is accumulating ice above the line and losing ice (melting) where it flows below the firn line.

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Blue ice still spilled over the lower Eliot Glacier icefall in 2008

As the photos show, the lower icefall (just above and left of the outcrop marked “A”) is notably smaller and darker, with debris carried within the glacier now exposed by melting at this level due to the rising firn line. Both photos were taken in late summer, when summer melting was at its peak.

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Global warming is rapidly changing the once-mighty Eliot Glacier

The once-permanent snowfields on the margins of the glacier are also noticeably smaller and seem doomed in the near future. Permanent snowfields are the most vulnerable ice features on the mountain and a good visual indicator of the speed in which global warming is melting our glaciers.

While future generations may forgive us for failing to actually slow or stop global warming, they surely will never forgive us for willful denial of its existence as a human-caused crisis of our own making. Let’s hope we can make up some lost ground in the near future, with the Millennial generation finally taking charge.

The changes to the Eliot Glacier are also being felt downstream, no more so than in the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch canyon, where a more volatile glacial outflow is rapidly carving into the once glacier-covered valley floor, constantly changing the landscape. In 2006, the stream flooded once again, greatly deepening the canyon and making it unsafe to cross for hikers on the Timberline Trail. This situation languished for nine years, with many hikers choosing to scale the crumbling canyon wall (shown below) with the aid of a worn rope anchored to a boulder!

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The ever-deepening canyon on the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch

This blog played a small part in helping the Forest Service move forward with a new crossing of the Eliot Branch when a ranger from the Hood River District read this 2014 article and reached out to discuss options for a new, downstream crossing. Along the way, I updated the map from the blog article to align with Forest Service and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) plans for the restored crossing, and it even made the cover of a local newspaper in Hood River! (…okay, so it’s an advertising tabloid…!)

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Not exactly the New York Times, but I’ll take it!

The newly reconnected trail drops steadily from Cloud Cap Inn to a section of the raging Eliot Branch that has (somewhat) stabilized, and can be reasonably crossed in the summer months. Though there are no immediate plans for a trail bridge here, the Forest Service moved large boulders in the stream to serve as stepping stones, hopefully making the crossing a bit safer for hikers. The restored trail opened in 2017.

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The newly constructed Timberline Trail just above the Eliot Crossing (photo: USFS)

Moving down to the Hood River Valley, the iconic view of Mount Hood from this field along Laurance Lake Road (below) looks much the same today as it did in 2008, albeit with some logging on private land in the distance. What you can’t see in the 2008 view is that it was captured just a year after voters approved Measure 49, which reversed 2004’s deceptive Measure 37. This earlier measure would have almost certainly brought resort development and luxury McMansions to the Hood River Valley.

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The timeless view of Mount Hood from Laurance Lake Road

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…still pretty much the same ten years later!

Even better, this farm has since come under the ownership of a member of the Parkdale Valley Land Trust, and is now even more likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Which, in turn, means that a spot that hasn’t change since the 1950s (below) might look much the same in the 2050s. That’s a great legacy being carried forward to future generations.

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Maybe past really can be prologue..? (photo: State Archives)

Here’s another view of the Parkdale area in the Upper Hood River Valley from Middle Mountain, a mostly county-owned forested ridge that separates the upper and lower valleys. From this spot, the most notable change is a silver band of ghost trees marking the 2012 Dollar Lake burn, clearly visible along the northern shoulders of the mountain.

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The upper Hood River Valley ten years ago…

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…and earlier last year…

The Dollar Lake Fire was the third in rapid succession (following the Bluegrass Fire in 2006 and Gnarl Ridge Fire in 2008) to burn the slopes of Mount Hood. As jarring as the changes may be, these new burns provide a front-row seat to the rapidly recovering forest, a timeless and essential cycle that has been disrupted by the Forest Service policy of aggressive fire suppression over the past century.  State and federal land agencies have only just begun to rethink their approach to fire moving forward, a change in culture that will take many years to fully achieve, especially in the era of climate change.

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Huckleberries sprouting from the base of a burned snag in the Dollar Lake Burn

One unexpected benefit of the fires on Mount Hood was preparing those (like me) who love the mountain and gorge for the devastating Eagle Creek Fire that raged through the western Columbia River Gorge in September 2017. The Mount Hood fires helped many who understood the abstract benefit of forest fires come to grips with the emotional reality of seeing a favorite place changed, and begin to appreciate the stark beauty in the burned landscape and witness the unfolding forest rebirth.

For the past year, thousands of volunteers with organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) have been working with the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks to begin digging out miles of burned trails in the gorge. Last November, the Forest Service officially opened the first of these cleared trails, including the iconic Larch Mountain Trail that follows Multnomah Creek, giving hikers their first look at the changed landscape, and a chance to expand their own understanding and acceptance of fire in our forests.

Earlier last year, I joined TKO crews to work on the trail and capture photos of familiar scenes as they now appear, after the fire. This set shows Weisendanger Falls from the same spot before and after the fire:

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Weisendanger Falls on Multnomah Creek ten years ago…

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…and in spring 2018, after the Eagle Creek Fire swept through

While the area below Weisendanger Falls shows signs of the fire — notably , more logs in the creek — this photo pair shows the extent of the burn above the falls, where the forest was more substantially impacted:

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Weisendanger Falls before…

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…and after the fire, in spring 2018

Similar scenes can be found throughout the Eagle Creek Burn, where the fire generally left a beneficial “mosaic” pattern, with heavily burned areas mixed with largely intact forest. These areas are expected to recover quickly, with healthy patches of surviving forest helping adjacent burned areas recover by reseeding, providing cover for wildlife and creating shade. But there are exceptions, especially Oneonta canyon, where the burn was especially catastrophic. The recovery in these places will span decades.

* * * * *

Thus far in this 10-year retrospective article, the focus has been on big changes brought by nature (albeit with an assist from man), but there have been plenty of changes brought by humans over the past ten years, too — both good and bad.

Let’s start with the bad (and ugly). Tragically, corporate timber behemoth Weyerhaeuser became the major private land owner in the West Fork Hood River valley over the past decade, taking ownership of private forests that had long been held by Longview Fibre (and then briefly by a Canadian equity trader). Though Longview Fibre had greatly accelerated logging in the 2000s, Weyerhauser has ramped up the destruction and embarked on a complete liquidation of the forests along a West Fork. Their purported “sustainability” mission is laughable in the modern area of chasing stock prices with massive, unsustainable clear cutting.

This scene is along the spectacular West Fork canyon, just above the Lake Branch confluence. It’s a crime against nature that any private entity should own land of this scenic and ecologic value, and Weyerhauser’s recent “stewardship” is proof:

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Weyerhauser didn’t own it yet, but the assault had begun…

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…but Weyerhauser greatly accelerated the deforestation of the West Fork

Not seen in these photos are the miles of shoddy logging roads cut into steep slopes in order to haul out the logs and the millions of gallons of liquid herbicide sprayed on the slopes of the West Fork canyon to kill whatever vegetation managed to survive the logging show. Modern corporate logging is about exterminating native forests and replacing them with hybridized tree farms, make no mistake about it.

Some of the more appalling Weyerhaeuser logging practices are on display along the canyon section of the West Fork, where the river cascades beneath towering basalt cliffs where the scenery would merit park status anywhere else in the country. In this spot, a healthy forest directly adjacent to the canyon wall was cut in 2016 and sprayed with herbicides in 2017, with no regard to the river corridor, directly below:

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A forested bluff above the West Fork canyon ten years ago…

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…and in 2018 after Weyerhaeuser had “sustainably managed” it…

While it’s tough to see healthy forests cut on such a reckless scale, it’s also possible that Weyerhaeuser’s new lust for quick profits over sustainability could tempt the company to sell their cut over lands to the public in the interest of protecting the West Fork valley over the long term. After all, it will take decades for these forests to recover, and Weyerhaeuser seems to have lost patience with timelines on that scale. The sooner we can reclaim these precious lands for the public, the better.Watch for a future blog proposal on that subject!

On to more positive developments!  2018 also marked the grand re-opening of the Old Vista Ridge Trail, a wonderful “lost” trail that winds north from the Vista Ridge Trailhead to a dramatic view of Mount Hood’s north side from a rocky spur known as Owl Point. The trail was unofficially reopened in 2007 by volunteers from the Oregon Hiker’s forum and maintained ever since, a project that led to the formation of Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).

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User-made trail signs ten years ago…

Over that time, it became clear that the trail needed to be officially recognized by the Forest Service in order to be properly maintained over the long haul. After much discussion, the agency signed an agreement with TKO in 2017 to adopt the trail, caring for it in perpetuity.

The grand re-opening was originally planned for the fall of 2017, but the Eagle Creek Fire intervened, with much of the north side of Mount Hood closed to the public for fear of the fire moving south into the West Fork valley and toward the mountain.

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…replaced with official Forest Service signs last summer!

In July of last year, the rescheduled re-opening finally happened, with an official “cutting of the survey tape” with loppers and a log saw by TKO’s executive director Steve Kruger and Hood River District Ranger Janeen Tervo. A celebratory stewardship day followed on the trail, and so began a new era for this wonderful trail. TKO and the Forest Service are planning other new trails in the area, so hopefully Old Vista Ridge marks the beginning of a trail renaissance on Mount Hood.

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Making it official!

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TKO volunteers celebrate at Owl Point on dedication day

The Old Vista Ridge Trail is snowed in for the winter, now, but you can visit most years from mid-June through October to admire the view and the new, official trail signs! Read more about the trail in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.

Not far from Old Vista Ridge, another “lost” spot was saved in 2015 when the Western Rivers Conservancy rescued it from Weyerhauser through a direct land purchase. Western Rivers later sold the land to Hood River County at a deep discount, thanks to a Oregon Parks and Recreation Grant, which in turn was submitted on behalf of the county by another non-profit, Thrive Hood River (then called the Hood River Valley Residents Committee). Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was in the mix, too, offering to build a trail system in the new county park as part of matching contribution toward the state grant.

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This sign marks a new era for Punchbowl Falls

Sound complicated? It was! But the good news today is that most of the trails envisioned in the original park concept are now complete, and can be explored today. There are still a few finishing touches (notably, trail signs, which are currently in progress thanks to a Hood River scout troop — this is very much a DIY park!), but the main pieces to this new nature park are in place for all to enjoy.

The main focus of the new park is dramatic Punchbowl Falls, a powerful waterfall on the West Fork of the Hood River that has carved an enormous amphitheater from solid basalt. The area just below the falls is also reserved for tribal fishing, a native tradition here that spans millennia and continues to plays a central cultural and economic role for local tribes.

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The massive basalt amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

When the new trail network at Punchbowl Falls Park was first scouted in 2016, great care was taken to respect fishing paths used by the tribes to access the falls, while also providing a way for park visitors to enjoy the many views in this beautiful canyon. Another goal was to consolidate the confusing maze of user trails in the area. All of the work was completed by volunteers from 2016 through last fall.

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Volunteers scouting the proposed trail network

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Building the Dogwood Trail in 2017

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Building the lower Yew Trail last year

The newest trail was completed last November, and follows the West Fork to the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Hood River, another popular feature in the park. Though the trails won’t be signed until early next year, they’re easy to follow and explore, and the park is especially peaceful in winter if you’re looking for a quiet walk in the forest. You can read about the hike here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.

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The completed Yew Trail along the West Fork this fall

The new Punchbowl Falls Park spans roughly two miles of river, forever protecting land that had been left to the mercy of private timber corporations for more than a century. As if to underscore this point, Weyerhauser promptly logged off an entire hillside that rises directly above the new park before the site had even been transferred to county ownership.  Thankfully, they spared the Punchbowl property from a similar fate before selling it to Western Rivers.

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Thanks for the new view from Punchbowl Bridge, Weyerhauser…

Another big change over the past decade came to perhaps the most popular trail on Mount Hood, the venerable Mirror Lake trail, located near Government Camp. For nearly a century, this beloved trail to a small mountain lake was a “first hike” to thousands visiting the mountain for the first time, including me!

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One last snowshoe trip to Mirror Lake before ODOT closed winter access

A series of early articles in this blog focused on an ill-conceived ODOT project to widen Highway 26 in the Laurel Hill section, just west of Government Camp. The original Mirror Lake trailhead was part of the collateral damage of this now-completed road widening project. Even before the widening project, ODOT began closing the old trailhead during the winter months, cutting off access to legions of snowshoers and skiers who had used it for years. Later, the widening project finished the job permanently, and the old trailhead is now closed – including removal of the old footbridge over Camp Creek.

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Dogged snowshoers were not easily deterred by the winter closure in 2010

While ODOT focused on highway widening, a little known federal highway agency known as the Federal Lands Division worked with the Forest Service to design and build a new Mirror Lake trailhead at the west end of the Mount Hood Ski Bowl parking lot. This arm of the Federal Highway Administration also oversaw the recent replacement of the White River Bridge and restoration of the Historic Sahalie Falls Bridge, near Hood River Meadows. The new Mirror Lake Trailhead opened just a few weeks ago, and was immediately filled to overflowing with visitors.

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The new Mirror Lake Trailhead

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The new trailhead features toilets and handsome stone work

I’ll post a proper review of the new trailhead and trail once the snow melts this year, but perhaps the best outcome is restored winter access to the Mirror Lake area. Another important element of the project is a barrier-free design from the trailhead to a new footbridge over Camp Creek, a much-needed addition to the very limited number of accessible trails in the Mount Hood area.

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Paved, barrier-free section of the new Mirror Lake Trail

One of the more profound changes of the past ten years came when President Obama signed a major wilderness bill into law in 2009 that greatly expanded wilderness protection in the Gorge and around Mount Hood. That law protected several small areas on the margins of existing wilderness that had been left out of earlier legislation. One such area is along the western margins of the lightly visited Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, which ironically is the closest designated wilderness to the Portland metropolitan area. The expanded boundary incorporates forested slopes of Wildcat Mountain and McIntyre Ridge that had long been tempting targets for Forest Service timber sales.

At about that time in the late 2000s, the Bureau of Land Management abruptly closed a northern access point to the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, where an old logging spur provided access to the McIntyre Ridge Trail. Hikers soon discovered a new way to access McIntyre Ridge from another logging spur located on Forest Service land, which in turn led to an ancient roadbed from a long-ago era when a forest lookout tower stood on Wildcat Mountain.

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This section of the McIntyre Ridge Trail follows a former lookout access road

The Forest Service still has not embraced the “New McIntyre Trailhead”, as it is known to hikers, but this unofficial trailhead has restored public access to this newly protected corner of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness. More importantly, this is an area where “eyes on the forest” are especially important, as the Wildcat Mountain area has a long history of lawlessness and abuse from shooters, dumpers and 4-wheelers.

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Blaze along the McIntyre Ridge Trail

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Shooters can’t seem to resist destroying public property… and anything else they can shoot

The good news is that hikers have continued to use the McIntyre Ridge trail over the ensuing years, though there are still too many reports of illegal activity. Just last summer, a local hiker came across a pair of pickups that had driven at least a mile into the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness along McIntyre Ridge and set up a camp in the middle of the trail! Worse, off-roaders have cut completely new roads into the wilderness on the margins of the Salmon Huckleberry, especially in this area. These are federal crimes, of course, though Forest Service resources for enforcing the law are minimal.

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Rogue off-roaders well inside the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness earlier this year (photo: Walrus)

Fortunately, public land law-breakers are well aware of their illegal behavior and tend to shy away from busy recreation areas. Therefore, my hope is that the Forest Service will eventually recognize and champion the New McIntyre trailhead as for protecting the wilderness through “eyes on the forest”. More to come in future articles on this little corner of Mount Hood country..

And the next 10 years..?

Looking at the many profound changes in the Gorge and around Mount Hood over the past ten years, it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed and discouraged by the pace and scale of change. The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire was especially traumatic for so many who love the Gorge. But the changes are also a reminder of the ongoing need for vigilance in protecting these special places and the role we all have to continue moving Mount Hood and the Gorge toward a new vision of restoration and renewal and away from our exploitive, often destructive past.

I’m optimistic that we’ll continue making progress in coming years, just as we have over the past decade that I’ve documented with this blog.  I plan to continue posting articles here to track the changes and make regular deep dives into the lesser known corners of the Gorge and Mount Hood. And I’ll also dream a bit about how we might better care for these places that we all love while making our public lands more accessible to everyone.

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Hiking with Mom on Park Ridge in my formative years!

Over the course of the past ten years, I’ve tried to post at least once per month, but you might have noticed that I haven’t quite kept that pace over the past year or two.  That’s largely due to the fact that my elderly folks have suddenly needed more help as they both struggled with failing health. In September, my mom passed away after a long and cruel struggle with memory disease, so we’ve now shifted to supporting my 89-year old dad as he adjusts to suddenly living alone after 68 years of marriage.

While sorting through family memories of Mom, I came across a photo (above) from a family backpack through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, way back in 1974 when I was 12 years old. I was already an experienced hiker and backpacker at that point in my life, thanks to the love of the outdoors my Iowan parents shared in their beloved, adopted Pacific Northwest.

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Me (standing on the rock, of course!) with my mom and sister on a Timberline Trail backpack in 1976

That’s a precious gift my folks gave to me and I’m thankful every day for my good fortune to have been raised with boots on my feet and a pack on my back! Too many in our spectacular corner of the world take our public lands for granted, and barely make the time or effort to explore them, often because they don’t really know how to. That’s another motivation for the blog and the Mount Hood National Park “idea campaign”. Our public lands are a gift for all of us, and I’ll also continue to post articles that celebrate this legacy and provide tips for how to explore the lesser-known corners of WyEast country.

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Older, grayer but ready for another 10 years of celebrating WyEast!

Well, that’s probably more than enough for this retrospective article. But if you’re read this far, thank you for taking the time to visit the blog and especially those who’ve reached out with a comment or e-mail over the years. Much appreciated! I’ve got a bunch of articles and a few surprises in the works heading into 2019, and I’m looking forward to another 10 years!

I hope to see you here along the way — and on the trail, too!

_________________

Tom Kloster • January 2019

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.

 

Dollar Lake Fire: Five Years After

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

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

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

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The Dollar Lake Fire burning below Elk Cove

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

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

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Flare-up in the Dollar Lake Fire in August 2011

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

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Location of the Dollar Lake and Gnarl fires

 [click here for a large map]

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

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Timeline and extent of the Dollar Lake fire

[click here for a large map]

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

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

 [click here for a large map]

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

Summer 2012: Immediate Aftermath

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Total destruction along Vista Ridge in 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016: Five Years of Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pioneers

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

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

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Fireweed crowding the Vista Ridge Trail in 2016

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

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

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Showy blooms of Fireweed in late summer on Vista Ridge

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

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

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

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Huckleberry seedlings emerging on Vista Ridge

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

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

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

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

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

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Rush growing in a moist hollow on Vista Ridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Young Mountain hemlock in the Dollar Burn in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long View?

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Hazard tree warning at the Vista Ridge trailhead

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

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

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Toppled surviving Noble fir in the burn zone in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Click here for a larger version]

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

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

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

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

After the Dollar Lake Fire

June 22, 2012

The Dollar Lake Fire from Bald Butte on September 3, 2011

On August 26, 2011, a lightning strike ignited what was to become the Dollar Lake Fire, on Mount Hood’s rugged north side. The fire started in the Coe Branch canyon, just below the Elk Cove trail, and was spotted by numerous hikers.

Initially, it seemed small and manageable. But over the next few days and weeks, arid conditions and strong winds spread the fire from Stranahan Ridge on the east to Cathedral Ridge on the northwest side of the mountain, eventually consuming some 6,300 acres of high elevation forest. The blaze burned through September and into early October, when fall rains finally arrived.

Hot spot erupts along Stranahan Ridge on September 3, 2011

Some of the burn was of the beneficial form, a mosaic fire leaving islands of surviving trees, but much of the fire was too hot and the accumulated forest fuel too plentiful to prevent devastating crown fires from sweeping across the forest. Eventually, the fire destroyed most of the standing timber and burned the forest duff down to mineral soil throughout most of the burn area.

The fire was contained entirely within the Mount Hood Wilderness, thanks to the recent Clear Branch additions that expanded the wilderness boundary on the north to encompass the Clear Branch valley and the high country surrounding Owl Point, to the north. While this complicated fire fighting, it has also created a living laboratory for forest recovery, as the USFS is unlikely to assist the reforestation process inside the wilderness boundary. The Forest Service map, below, shows the broad extent of the fire.

Final extent of the Dollar Lake Fire (outlined in red)

Though the fire burned to the tree line in several spots, a surprising amount of terrain along the iconic Timberline Trail was somehow spared. While the burn touched Elk Cove and Cairn Basin, WyEast Basin and Barrett Spur are well beyond the burned area. The Clear Branch wilderness additions to the north were mostly spared, as well.

The New Vista Ridge: After the Fire

The following is a photo essay from my first visit to the burn, on June 22, 2012, and is the first in what will eventually be a series of articles on the aftermath of the fire.

The devastation left by the fire is awesome to witness, but also starkly beautiful when you consider the context of a forest fire. After all, this event is part of the natural rhythm of the forest just as much as the changing of seasons.

From this point forward, we will have a front-row seat to the miracle of life returning to the fire zone, much as we’ve watched life return to the Mount St. Helens blast zone over the past 32 years. And as my photos show, the rebirth of the forest ecosystem has already begun on Mount Hood’s northern slopes.

Untouched trailhead at Vista Ridge.

From the Vista Ridge trailhead, I followed the Vista Ridge Trail to the snow line, above about 5,000 feet. The Vista Ridge trailhead is completely untouched, though the fire swept through a vast area immediately to the south. Yet, no sign of the fire is evident at the trailhead marker (above).

A bit further up the trail, at the Old Vista Ridge trailhead, the fire zone comes into view. Where green forests existed last summer, browned foliage and a burned forest floor spread out east of the junction. This fringe of the fire is of the healthy “mosaic” form, sparing large trees, while clearing accumulated forest debris.

Old Vista Ridge trailhead spared by fire… just barely.

An unexpected benefit of the fire came last fall, when the USFS added the long-neglected Old Vista Ridge trail to official agency fire maps (below) released to the public. Volunteers began restoring this beautiful trail in 2007, but formal acknowledgement of the route on USFS maps is a welcome development.

Welcome development: Old Vista Ridge trail reappears on USFS fire fighting maps

Clearly, the restoration of the Old Vista Ridge trail helped fire fighters reach this area, and could have served as a fire line had the blaze swept north, across the Clear Branch. Hopefully this is an indication that the Old Vista Ridge trail will someday reappear on the USFS maintenance schedule, too.

Turning south on the Vista Ridge trail from the Old Vista Ridge junction, the wilderness registration box and map board seem to have received divine intervention from the fire — the blaze burned within a few feet of the signs, yet spared both. From here, the Vista Ridge trail abruptly leaves the scorched fringe of the fire, and heads into the most devastated areas.

Vista Ridge trail signs were spared… by divine guidance?

A few yards up the Vista Ridge trail, the devastation quickly intensifies.

From about the 4,700 foot level, the Dollar Lake Fire burned the forests along Vista Ridge to bare earth. In this area, the entire forest crowned, leaving only a scattering of surviving trees where protected by topography or sheer luck. Forest understory, woody debris and duff burned to mineral soil, leaving a slick, muddy surface of ash. For those who have hiked through the previous Bluegrass Fire or Gnarl Fire zones on the east slopes of Mount Hood, this eerie scene is familiar.

The surprisingly intact trail curves through the devastated forests along Vista Ridge.

Crown fires have killed almost all of the standing forests along Vista Ridge.

Amid the devastation in this hottest part of the Dollar Lake Fire, signs of life are already emerging. At this elevation, one of the toughest survivors is beargrass, a member of the lily family with a deep rhizome that allows plants to survive even the hottest fires. These plants are normally evergreen, but were completely scorched in the fire. The new grown in this photo (below) has emerged this spring.

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) emerges from underground rhizomes protected from the fire.

Another surprise is avalanche lily, one of the more delicate flowers in the subalpine ecosystem. Like beargrass, these plants survive thanks to a bulb located deep enough in the soil to escape the heat of the fire. As one of the early bloomers in the mountain forests, these plants area already forming bright green carpets in the sea of fire devastation (below).

Avalanche Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) emerging from the ashes.

A ribbon of green, these Avalanche Lilies are emerging along the Vista Ridge trail.

Another of the beneficial aspects of the fire comes into view a bit further up the trail: several sections of Vista Ridge had long been overgrown with thickets of overcrowded, stressed trees that were ripe for a burn.

Over the coming years, these areas are likely to evolve into beargrass and huckleberry meadows like those found at nearby Owl Point or along Zigzag Mountain, where fires have opened the landscape to sun-loving, early succession plants.

Unhealthy forest thickets cleared by fire — a beneficial outcome of the blaze.

One human artifact was uncovered by firefighters — a coil of what must be telephone cable (below). This is a first along the Vista Ridge trail, but makes sense given the insulators and cable found along the Old Vista Ridge trail.

It’s hard to know what this connected to, but on the north end, it served the old Perry Lake Guard Station and lookout, just east of Owl Point. It’s possible this line extended to the Bald Mountain lookout, though I have been unable to verify this on historic forest maps.

Telephone cable on Vista Ridge – gathered up and coiled by firefighters?

Though much of the devastation zone still consists of blackened trees and soil, some of the burned forest has begun to evolve into the uniquely attractive second phase. This happens when scorched bark peels away from trees to reveal the often beautiful, unburned wood beneath.

Soon, all of the trees in this forest will shed their bark. The skeletons of thousands of trees will emerge in colors of red, yellow and tan, then gradually fade to a bleached gray and white with time.

The burned trees of Vista Ridge are just beginning to shed their blackened bark, revealing beautiful trunks unscarred by the fire.

Mount Hood rises behind the new ghost forests of Vista Ridge

This second phase of the fire is helped along by winter snow. As the scene above shows, the freeze-thaw and compacting effects of the snow pack have already stripped many trees of their bark beneath the now-melted snowpack. Hot summer sun will continue this process, shrinking the remaining bark until it drops from the drying tree trunk.

This process of de-barking is the first in a post-fire sequence of events that will recycle much-needed organic matter to the forest floor. Twigs and tree limbs will soon fall, and over time, whole trees will begin to drop. This is a critical phase in stabilizing the forest soil, when low vegetation is still just beginning to re-establish in the fire zone.

Strips of tree bark are the first organic layer to accumulate on the floor of the burn zone.

The next few images show the extent of the Dollar Lake Fire, as viewed from Vista Ridge. To the east (below), The Pinnacle was mostly burned, but the fire somehow missed stand of trees just below the north summit.

These trees will play an important role in reforestation of the area, partly because so few trees survived the fire, but also because of their geographic location above the surrounding forest, where wind will widely scatter their seeds.

The Pinnacle, where a small grove of of trees on the north slope survived the fire.

To the south, the area above Elk Cove known as 99 Ridge (shown below) was partly spared, though the fire did scorch the east slopes of the ridge. From this side (to the west), the Timberline Trail corridor was almost completely spared. Ironically, Dollar Lake — the namesake for the fire — appears to have been spared, as well.

To the west of 99 Ridge, WyEast Basin was also spared, but the area along the Timberline Trail to the west of the basin, along the upper sections of Vista Ridge, was largely burned.

Forests along 99 Ridge were spared by the fire.

This panoramic view (below) encompasses the entire mid-section of the fire, from Stranahan Ridge on the horizon to Vista Ridge, on the right. This is a new viewpoint along a largely unnoticed rocky scarp on the east shoulder of Vista Ridge, now revealed thanks to the fire.

(Click here for a much larger panoramic view]

A Changed Landscape

Those who have explored Mount Hood’s north slopes over the years will surely mourn the loss of the beautiful forests of noble fir and mountain hemlock that once stood here — I certainly have. But this is also a chance to watch the ecosystem recover and restore itself over time, as it has for centuries. Among the surprising benefits are the new scenic vistas that are suddenly available, giving a bit more meaning to the name “Vista Ridge.”

The new views from Vista Ridge include Laurance Lake and Bald Butte, to the east.

By following the true ridge top of Vista Ridge, the new views extend east across Laurance Lake and the Clear Branch valley to Bald Butte and the Columbia Basin (above). Most of the area below the ridge is not burned, and this new perspective on the recent additions to the Mount Hood Wilderness is both unexpected and beautiful.

To the north, the new views include the rugged and little-known Owl Point area of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness (reached by the Old Vista Ridge trail). Mount Adams rises in the distance, above the talus fields and meadows of Owl Point.

Owl Point and Mount Adams from newly revealed viewpoint on Vista Ridge.

This suddenly very scenic “true” ridge along the lower portion of Vista Ridge is easy enough to hike by simply following the ridge top where the existing trail heads into a narrow draw, about one-half mile from the Old Vista Ridge trail junction. It’s worth the visit if you’d like to inspect the scenery and Dollar Lake Fire up-close.

But in the spirit of recasting the Vista Ridge trail in the aftermath of the fire, and taking in these new views, now would be the perfect time to simply realign the trail along the ridge top. As shown on the map (below), this project could be done in a weekend by volunteers, if approved by the Forest Service.

(Click here for a larger map]

The fire has already done the heavy work of trail building by clearing the ground to mineral soil: designing and completing a realigned trail here would be quite straightforward. The slope of the ridge top, itself, is surprisingly gentle and would allow for an easy grade, similar to the current trail.

I hope to pitch this idea to the Forest Service, so if you’re interested in getting involved, watch the Portland Hikers forum for updates. That’s where volunteer work parties will be organized if there is interest from the USFS.

Until then, take the time to explore the fire zone, and watch the unfolding forest recovery firsthand. Visit the Portland Hikers Field Guide for directions to the Vista Ridge Trailhead.