Posted tagged ‘Eagle Creek Fire’

Restore the Metlako Viewpoint?

March 25, 2019
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A view of Metlako Falls from days gone by…

The Eagle Creek canyon is the undisputed jewel of the Columbia River Gorge, thanks to a string of dramatic waterfalls and a precarious, cliff-hugging trail built over 100 years ago by visionary Forest Service pioneers. But starting in late 2016, a series of calamities over the course of just a year reshaped Eagle Creek for the foreseeable future.

The first of these events came in late December 2016, when a huge section of cliff at Metlako Falls calved off, damming Eagle Creek with a massive pile of debris and erasing the iconic viewpoint of the falls (where the above photo was taken in 2013) forever.

Round two was the sprawling Eagle Creek Fire the followed in September 2017, burning all but a few strips of streamside forest in the Eagle Creek draining. Then, sometime in early 2018, another massive cliff collapse occurred at Punchbowl Falls, rerouting the entire creek and forever changing still another iconic view.

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The old viewpoint at Metlako Falls

Changes on this scale are nothing new in the Gorge. In fact, they are the very processes that created the scenery we enjoy today. Without fire, we wouldn’t have cliff top meadows, gnarled Oregon white oak groves and huckleberry fields on the highest ridges that rim the Gorge. Without landslides and cliff collapses, we wouldn’t have vertical basalt canyons and the towering waterfalls within them. In this way, the changes at Eagle Creek have given us a rare look at the natural forces behind the beauty, and a chance to better understand and appreciate the ongoing evolution of this very unique place.

Since the 2017 fire, volunteer trail crews have been working with the Forest Service to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. The fire heavily impacted the trail (see Eagle Creek: One Year After the Fire), and volunteers have invested thousands of hours clearing logs and debris and rebuilding much of the trail tread. For its part, the Forest Service is working to replace several large footbridges that were destroyed by the fire.

With the reopening of the trail imminent (perhaps as early as this year) there remain plenty of questions about how Eagle Creek will be better managed in the future to prevent a recovering ecosystem from being impacted by swarms of visitors. This article focuses on anticipating and managing these impacts at Metlako Falls, where hikers will almost certainly create a cobweb of user trails in search of an alternative to the collapsed viewpoint, especially now that the dense understory that once hid the falls from the trail has burned away in the fire.

Opportunity from calamity..?

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The author trimming brush at the old Metlako Viewpoint in 2013 (Photo: Christopher Alley)

The joy of the old Metlako Falls overlook was in the discovery. A pair of modest spur trails dropped through forest to a sudden and spectacular overlook, where a pair of braided cable railings stood between you and the sheer, 200-foot drop into Eagle Creek.

As iconic as the view up the narrow gorge to Metlako Falls was, it was also tedious to maintain. The cliff top just below the railings was dense with understory, which regularly grew to obscure the view of the falls. Trimming the brush required professional crews equipped to descend the cliff with ropes or volunteers willing to pack a pole pruning saw up the trail. It was an ongoing battle, with the understory winning — and hikers inevitably crawling over the railing for a better look. It’s a miracle that nobody (that I know of) slipped over the side at the old overlook!

In this way, the cliff collapse in 2016 and fire in 2017 offer an opportunity to create a new viewpoint at Metlako Falls that is both easier to maintain and provides less incentive for hikers to explore beyond the trail. I believe such a spot exists and that a spur trail to this new viewpoint could easily be developed by the volunteer crews already working to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. I also believe that without creating a new viewpoint, the crush of hikers who use this trail will seek one out, creating a hazard for hikers and harming the recovering landscape in the process.

Cue the helicopter!

Here’s a not-so-secret scoop: for the past decade or so, daredevil kayakers have been sailing over Metlako Falls as part of the “extreme kayaking” phenomenon of waterfall jumping. These stunts at Metlako Falls have been regularly recorded for social media (of course!) and thus a well-worn user path already descended to a viewpoint directly opposite the falls well before the Eagle Creek Fire swept through the area.

The post-fire absence of forest understory will make this user trail all the more obvious, and thus my confidence that it will become a heavily used boot path when the main trail reopens if a planned alternative isn’t provided. The time to act is now, before hordes of hikers are allowed back into Eagle Creek.

So, where is this not-so-secret user path? The following views from one of the State of Oregon helicopter surveys of the Eagle Creek Burn were taken in 2018, and show the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint nicely.

This wide view (below) is looking downstream, with Metlako Falls hidden in trees, but the deep pool created by the 2016 cliff collapse showing up prominently. I’ve marked both the site of the original viewpoint and where the proposed new viewpoint would be, roughly located where the kayaker path now leads:

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This closer view (below) shows more detail of the proposed new viewpoint. Notably, it’s located atop a sheer basalt cliff that would provide a clear view, but could also discourage hikers from venturing beyond the viewpoint. Also notable are the many surviving conifers on the bench that forms the viewpoint that will help stabilize this area in coming years as the understory recovers from the fire.

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What does Metlako Falls look like from this new perspective? It’s a straight on view that resembles a verytall Punch Bowl Falls, based on the many kayaker photos out there. This unattributed social media image shows a kayaker jumping the falls from the not-so-secret viewpoint in about 2015:

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Metlako daredevil as viewed from the proposed viewpoint (Source: Unknown)

This State of Oregon aerial view (below) was taken from almost directly above Eagle Creek as is rushes toward the brink of Metlako Falls and provides another good look at the basalt columns that are the foundation for the proposed new viewpoint:

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This aerial view (below) is from above the proposed viewpoint, looking back at Metlako Falls. From this angle, it really does resemble a very tall Punch Bowl Falls, complete with a deep amphitheater behind the falls and rock fins hemming in the splash pool on the downstream side:

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This wide view (below) is the reverse of the opening State of Oregon aerial, looking upstream toward Metlako Falls. This view shows the debris from the 2016 cliff collapse and the dammed section Eagle Creek above the debris pile.

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But there’s also a surprise next to Metlako Falls in this view. The slender cascade dropping into the opposite side of the Metlako amphitheater is Sorenson Falls, a seldom-seen beauty not visible from the old viewpoint. Could the new viewpoint be designed to allow this beautiful falls to be seen, as well? I think so — and in that way, the new viewpoint might be even more spectacular than the old one!

So, how do we do this?

While the Forest Service has been reluctant to even consider new trails in the Gorge in recent years, the Eagle Creek Fire may have created a window of opportunity for rethinking the status quo. However, the need for a formal environmental assessment is often a Forest Service obstacle to building new trails, even if the agency is open to the idea. But there’s a shorter path for the proposed Metlako Falls viewpoint. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) calls out “categorical exclusions” for certain activities that exempts them from having to complete an environmental assessment. The proposed viewpoint easily meets this test.

This is because one of the “exclusions” under NEPA are trails negatively impact by natural events (like a fire or cliff collapse) and the Act gives great latitude to the Forest Service when relocating or realigning trails in response to such events. The Forest Service would still need to rely on agency scientists to complete a site evaluation of a proposed spur route for soil stability and other design considerations, but much of the expensive and effort required for a full environmental assessment can be avoided.

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The new spur trail would be very short — only about 100 yards in length and descending about 50 feet in elevation from the existing Eagle Creek Trail (see schematic, above). This not only helps make the case for a categorical exclusion, it also puts the proposed trail within reach for volunteers to both design and construct in cooperation with the Forest Service.

The viewpoint, itself, would likely require the Forest Service to design of some sort of cable railing, perhaps similar to the old viewpoint and the Punch Bowl Falls overlook, or possibly a deck similar to the structure at Panther Creek Falls. But even this detail is within reach for trail volunteers to constructing, with the Forest Service simply providing the design and materials.

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Misty Metlako Falls in the winter of 2014

If some other alternative isn’t provided, hikers will almost certainly follow the kayaker’s user trail to the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint when the Eagle Creek Trail is reopened. With volunteer crews already working to reopen the trail, it makes sense to build this viewpoint spur now. My hope is that we can be proactive and create a stable, sustainable way for hikers to view the falls before thousands of boots on poorly aligned user trails force the Forest Service to react.

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Postscript: I probably should have included this when I posted the article, but you can comment directly to the Forest Service in support of this proposal on their website:

Click here for the Forest Service comments page

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!

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Tom Kloster • January 2019

Eagle Creek Trail: One Year After the Fire

December 19, 2018
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Charred trail sign inside the Eagle Creek Burn restricted zone (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

September marked the one-year anniversary of the Eagle Creek Fire, the now-infamous, human-caused burn that charred 50,000 acres on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. Today, much of the burn is still closed to public access, though Forest Service and Oregon State Parks crews have been working with volunteers within the restricted zone to steadily reopen the miles of trails that were affected by the fire.

I met Nate Zaremskiy on one of those volunteer efforts last spring, where we worked with a Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) crew to restore the Larch Mountain Trail above Multnomah Falls. Nate is an avid hiker, outdoor photographer and Gorge advocate. At just 20 years old, he is one of the heroes in the Gorge recovery effort and the inspiring face of a new generation of Oregonians dedicated to conservation and stewardship.

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The author and Nate working on the Larch Mountain Trail earlier this year

Nate has been busy this year as regular trail crew volunteer with the Gorge Recovery Team partner organizations on restoration projects throughout the restricted zone, including both TKO and the Pacific Crest Trail Association(PCTA).

In September, Nate served on an overnight PCTA crew focused on restoring the upper section of the Eagle Creek Trail, in the heart of the burn. On this trip, he was part of a small scouting party that was the first to visit the section of trail from High Bridge to Twister Falls. His photos from the scouting trip both jarring and encouraging, as they show not only the impact of the burn but also how the Gorge ecosystem has already begun to recover in this first year after the fire.

The following is a recent interview with Nate that features startling photos from his amazing scouting visit to the Eagle Creek Trail.

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Tom: Nate, thanks for taking the time to share your experience from the one-year anniversary trip to Eagle Creek and for all your recovery work in the Gorge this year! Tell us about this particular trip to Eagle Creek — it was an overnight PCTA project, is that right?

Nate: My pleasure, Tom! Thanks for having me on your blog! Yes it was, the crew set out on the morning of September 1 from Wahtum Lake, which happened to be the eve of the fire’s anniversary. The goal for this trip was just like any other I’ve been on, except I wouldn’t be enjoying a nice big burger in Cascade Locks for a couple nights. Instead the crew would be enjoying our stay together at campsite in a small island of surviving trees, sharing stories and just having a good time.

Our goal for the next couple days on the project was to clear brush, do some tread reconstruction and create a passable trail on some of the rougher stuff trail sections near Tunnel falls.

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Entering the restricted zone from the Wahtum Lake trailhead (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: Your photos from the trip capture the descent from the green forests around Wahtum Lake to the total burn in the upper reaches of the Eagle Creek canyon. What was it like to drop into the burn in this way, knowing that you were among the first to be there after the fire?

Nate: It was a very interesting and a unique hike. It is definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, simply because of the sheer scale of the Gorge Trails Recovery Team efforts in the burned area this year.

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Descending into the burn along the upper Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Hiking past the crystal clear blue waters of Wahtum Lake and the thick greens along the upper trail, only to eventually come to a place where almost nothing is alive, really hits you. I’m not really sure what word I’m looking for to describe the feeling. It felt awesome that we were among the first back to the canyon, which felt really special, very special.

I’m not sure if everyone felt the same way, but I felt like this was more than my day crew experiences elsewhere in the Gorge. This was something more sacred, I guess you could say, at least to me.

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Heavily burned section of the upper Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: When we met on the Larch Mountain Trail last spring, one of the really notable changes at that relatively low elevation was the amount of regrowth from understory plants whose roots has survived the fire. Lots of sword fern and vine maple had survived, and many of the bigleaf maple and red alder also had new growth bursting from the base of burned trunks. Did you see a similar recovery occurring at higher elevations along the upper sections of Eagle Creek?

Nate: I did, in many places! Especially down in the canyon. I saw lots, and I mean LOTS, of new growth taking over the burnt remains. Even in the most burned parts of the trail, I saw at least some green on the ground trying to recover, a lot of ferns, mainly.

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Completely burned forest along upper Eagle Creek (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: We also saw a “mosaic” burn pattern along the Larch Mountain Trail, where the intensity of the fire varied greatly from place to place, allowing the forest over story to survive in many areas. Was that true along the upper section of Eagle Creek, as well?

Nate: From where we first entered the burn zone to just a mile and a half above 7½ Mile Camp, the forest was just completely blackened. However, as we got closer to the creek, we saw more and more live trees, especially near streams. I can’t remember exactly, but it looked like the ridge across Eagle Creek from 7½ Mile Camp might have burned more in the mosaic pattern, but I can’t really be sure. I did notice that a lot of trees beside Eagle Creek survived.

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Sevenmile Falls after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: One of your photos shows Sevenmile Falls, which is the uppermost in the string of waterfalls along Eagle Creek, and located just above Twister Falls. It looks like much of the forest canopy survived there — can you describe it in more detail?

Nate: Sevenmile Falls was one of the more promising spots along the trip, the trees around it survived very well. The trail was pretty torn up, and lots of slides and small trees made for a bit of a treacherouspassage, but a lot of vegetation and large trees have survived pretty well in that area, especially on the south side of the falls where the sun didn’t dry the cliff out as much.

Tom: You also have several shots of Twister Falls, and it looks like more of a mosaic burn pattern here. What did you see on this part of the trail? Did the steepness of the canyon here affect the burn?

Nate: Amazingly, the base of the falls and a few hundred feet downstream looked untouched, pretty much pure Gorge jungle. Looking above the falls, I saw a lot of burned trees, though, so I’m not really sure if the canyon had much to do with it.

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Eagle Creek Trail and the brink of Twister Falls after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: The Eagle Creek trail is famous for being built right into the cliffs, and the section just below Twister Falls is known as the “Vertigo Mile” for the dizzying turn it makes high above the falls. Your photos show a pretty significant fire impact on the forest in this area. But the actual trail, including those VERY helpful hand cables, looks like it survived, is that right?

Nate: You’re right, the cables did look like they survived the fire, enough for us to hold onto them at least! I’m not sure if they are one hundred percent trustworthy, though, simply because of their age and going through a fire. You never know what has fallen on them, and if the heat from the fire affected the metal at all.

The trail was in really good condition from Twister Falls to just before the turn toward Tunnel Falls. The overhanging cliff probably acted as a barrier and sent rockslides out just enough to avoid impacting the majority of Vertigo Mile section of trail.

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“Vertigo Mile” section of the Eagle Creek Trail after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

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“Vertigo Mile” after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

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Eagle Creek Trail post-fire damage just below the”Vertigo Mile” (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: Perhaps the most iconic spot along the Eagle Creek Trail after Punch Bowl Falls is Tunnel Falls, at about the six-mile mark on the trail. In an earlier WyEast Blog article on the fire, I posted aerial photos that showed this part of the canyon to be pretty heavily burned. Can you describe how the area fared, especially the trail and tunnel behind the falls?

Nate: So, the tunnel is in perfect condition, if not better, because of the ferns growing down from it created such a neat little curtain around the edges when hiking out of it. Without hiker traffic over the past year, the plants growing out of the cliff wall near tunnel are actually overtaking the cables, so much that it was difficult to even find the cable! The plants have grown so much along the cliff that they’re in your face if you do hold onto the cable.

The area around Tunnel Falls did not fare too well. There were a few trees near the falls that had a green crown or had completely survived, but the rest of the forest here burned. A few of the burned trees had a bit of green remaining, just we will have to wait and see if some of these recover.

The south (upstream) side of the falls had a few landslides and a wash out, but the north (downstream) side of the falls is just terrible, with lots of work needed to get the trail restored. Some parts in this section are completely washed out, some are buried under slides and the rest will need a little reconstruction, so we’ll see what the future holds here.

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Tunnel Falls one year after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

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Downstream view of Tunnel Falls one year after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: Your photos show a real surprise just below Tunnel Falls, where the trail passes a cliff section high above Grand Union Falls. You came across a cliff collapse here that covered the trail with debris! Was the trail, itself, intact under the debris? And how did you manage to get through that section..? It looks pretty sketchy!

Nate: Oh, that was a surprise. It was just so unbelievable. The scouting trip almost ended right there and it wasn’t even close to noon. I’m not sure if the trail is perfectly intact, it’s really difficult to make that call considering there was up to five feet of microwave-size rock on top of it. But whatever is holding the debris is most likely the trail shelf, so maybe the trail is intact under all that rockfall.

If I may add, the cliff collapsed right onto the “pothole” section of the trail [where blasting the original trail left concave bowls in the columnar basalt], so it’ll be interesting to see if any of those formations happened to survive.

We spent a good 20 minutes deciding if we would be able to continue past the rockfall and searching for a safe route across. I’ve opted to crawl my way over the rocks and hug the wall as slowly as I could, since it seemed stable enough to hold my weight so long as I watched my step. My scouting partner opted to go below this cliff section, scrambling below the trail, traversingthe rockfall, and climbing back up to the trail beyond the collapse.

Our crew leader and another volunteer also scrambled across the slide later to meet us when we were coming back up the trail, so three people were cross the collapse in both directions, but it definitely was not safe enough for regular work crews. Based on our experience, the collapse was declared impassible for safety reasons, as it is just too risky to send people across.

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Cliff collapse along the trail above Grand Union Falls (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Cliff collapse above Grand Union Falls (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: When I first saw the photos of the cliff collapse, my immediate reaction was how much fun —but also dangerous— it will be to roll those boulders off the trail, since it’s a good 50 to 70 foot drop-off! Does the PCTA have plans for volunteers to do this work, or will it be left to Forest Service crews?

Nate: Both of us thought the same thing! How fun would it be to watch and listen to those rocks tossed over the edge! The project I worked on along lower Eagle Creek had many of those and it always brought a “Woooo!” moment to everyone. I’m not really sure who is going to tackle this rock fall. There was a PCTA crew planned shortly after our trip but winter weather has forced the project to be postponed until next spring. So, we’ll see.

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Cliff collapse along the trail with Grand Union Falls in the distance (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: One of the photos you took in the trail section near Wy’east Camp and Blue Grouse Camp shows Western hazel sprouting from its charred base. Can you describe the recovery in this part of the canyon? Did the tree canopy survive here, too? How did the trail, itself, fare in this section?

Nate: Those sprouts were everywhere! In every direction you’d see sticks poking out of the ground and at the base of them is a little or big patch of green, so these guys are wasting no time in recovering. Amazingly, Wy’east Camp was left completely untouched. My scouting partner described it as “a little oasis”. Most of the canopy has survived around Wy’east camp as well, and looked promising for the future. It still amazes me how Wy’east Camp was spared that way, and it might be one of the few places along a Gorge trail that survived that well.

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Western hazel sprouting new growth from roots that survived the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: It would good to see the intact 4½ Mile Bridge in your photos! The photo below shows several big conifers just below the bridge that survived the fire, too, plus a large downfall. Can you describe what you saw in this section of trail?

Nate: Just above 4½ Mile Bridge there was a section of trail that was kind of in a little valley of it’s own, and most of it was buried under a foot or two of rock for a good hundred or so feet. The cliff section downstream from the bridge was buried in a few feet of soil and rock, so had to dig in some steps to get through because of how steep the slide had settled. The canopy in the cliff section also survived pretty well, but immediately downstream from the bridge the forest mostly burned up with only a few survivors to tell the tale to new growth.

The big tree across the trail will definitely need a patient crew to tackle it because of its size. There were many downed trees on the trail, with lots of branches that forced us to either crawl over, through or under the trees. I even had to to take my pack off in one place just to get through.

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4½Mile Bridge on Eagle Creek (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: The photo of 4½ Mile Bridge also slows a lot of plants growing right across the trail! That’s surprising to see, after just one year of this trail not having heavy foot traffic. Was this common along the trail?

Nate: For most of the trail there was just a whole lot of rock, downed trees, and a lot of stuff trying to grow back. So yes, it was pretty common to see a bush or some ferns branching out over the trail, or grass creeping in on it. It really is incredible to see everything grow back so quickly! Just like the trip on the Larch Mountain Trail, where the big ferns have already grown over the trail and needed a lot of trimming. I felt bad for hacking at all those huge ferns, but it needed to be done. I can only imagine how much grow will happen next spring at lower elevations.

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Downed Western red cedar near High Bridge (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: One of the surprises from your scouting photos was the view of Skoonichuk Falls from the trail! While this is one of the major waterfalls along Eage Creek, it was also one of the most difficult to see from the trail. It looks like the fire not only opened up the view, but also burned pretty intensely here. Can you describe the scene in more detail?

Nate: It was really cool to see! New views thanks to the fire, really. Skoonichuk had been a waterfall I’d always miss because it was so protected from view. And you’re right, the fire did burn more intensely here, with the majority of the canopy gone. There were a few lucky survivors here and there that are just barely holding on. I’m guessing it’s probably because the trail was a little higher in that area and had more sun exposure to dry out over the summer before the fire, which just let the fire roar through. The trail was in pretty decent shape in this section, considering it was a high intensity burn in there. Just some branches and rocks on the trail, but otherwise pretty good shape.

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Skoonichuk Falls on Eagle Creek one year after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: Another surprise in this section of trail is the pinnacle along a section of cliffs that had been hidden in the forest before the fire. What is this, exactly?

Nate: This was a cool find, I’ve never noticed the pinnacle before the fire, and seeing the burned trees with its branches still attached provided a clear explanation why the pinnacles were not visible before the fire. And like you’ve said, the fire definitely opened up the view, which is very common throughout the trail and the Gorge. I noticed many more new views from the trail because of the fire, the pinnacles being one of them, which is pretty neat. Seeing dozens of new views and a few amazing ones, it makes me wonder what other secrets are hiding out there.

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Pinnacle near High Bridge revealed by the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: Your scouting photos end at the upstream end of High Bridge, another iconic spot along the Eagle Creek Trail. It looks like some of the forest survived, here, but I can see why you didn’t go farther downstream — the wood deck burned away on the bridge! The thought of crossing a 90-foot deep gorge there without the benefit of bridge decking is more than a little scary. Can you tell us more about how this area was affected by the fire?

Nate: So, some of the trees around the bridge survived completely, and most of the trees around the bridge survived, though a little scorched. Most of Tenas Camp had burned completely away, canopy and all, leaving nothing but rock, roots and snags behind where tent spots used to be, which was a fantastic example of just how much material had burned away with the fire.

If the thought of crossing High Bridge in its current condition is scary, imagine standing at the edge of it! We’d already crawled over the cliff collapse above a major drop, but just standing beside the burned bridge made me nervous. You won’t find me crossing this bridge any time soon without a reliable safety harness. Heck, even when it had decking the bridge still wasn’t a comfortable place to lean over!

Even though we had only ¾ of a mile to Fern Creek Bridge, which was our goal, the obvious decision was to end the scouting trip at High Bridge. That leaves that little ¾ mile section below the bridge as “the land of the unknown”, as I call it, since crews scouting the lower trail have only made it to Fern Creek Bridge. To this day it’s bugging me that we were so close, and yet it’s still a mystery.

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The deep gorge at High Bridge after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

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Deck-less High Bridge after the fire…yikes! (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: That’s right, so earlier this year, you were also part of volunteer crews working the lower section of the Eagle Creek Trail. How close did you get to High Bridge from the other side? Can you tell us how that section of trail fared?

Nate: What I’ve heard is that later crews made it as far up as Fern Creek Bridge, which was burned out like High Bridge and declared impassible, splitting the upper and lower Eagle Creek trail sections in two for now.

The furthest I’ve made it up the lower section was to Tish Creek Bridge, which I was so happy to see intact! I’d been on the volunteer crews back in February 2017 that cleared a snow path for the installation of that bridge, and when we were back there after the fire, I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a bridge before!

Lower Eagle Creek Trail has taken a very heavy beating from the fire. Slide after slide after slide, some taking multiple trail volunteers and multiple crew trips to clear. Much of the trail was just littered with baseball-sized rock, with a big slide in a gully along the trail. Yet, lower Eagle Creek canyon had many more trees survive the fire.

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PCTA crews restoring the upper Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: The main purpose of the PCTA overnight crew in September was to work on the upper section of the Eagle Creek Trail, and you took several photos of the volunteers working on trail restoration. Can you describe what we’re seeing in this sequence?

Nate: Much of what we were doing in places like that is bringing the tread back up to standard and removing logs from the trail. A couple volunteers were working ahead doing some brushing in places that that were a bit overgrown, followed by crews doing tread reconstruction and clearing small logs and branches.

In the above photo, the volunteer in distance is brushing the trail corridor and the two volunteers in the middle are following behind, cutting the trail back into its original location. This system worked pretty well and we managed to restore a pretty good chunk of trail in just a few hours.

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PCTA volunteers hiking on a freshly restored section of the Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

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Freshly restored section of the Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tom: Nate, thanks for all the time and energy you’ve put into helping with the Gorge recovery. Would you like to share any other thoughts on the experience and what it has meant for you?

Nate: Thanks again, Tom! It’s been an incredible and truly life changing summer. The whole experience really is once in a lifetime. This is a fire that will go down the ages because of how many people were affected by it, and really, because the Gorge is like a national park to people. If Yosemite Valley burned the way the Gorge did, it would never be forgotten.

I believe the fire has been the best thing to happen to the Gorge since being designated as a national scenic area, because it brought people from as far as D.C to work together on the recovery. Without the fire, the Gorge Trails Recovery Team would never have been created, and the way the fire brought thousands of people together to get out on the trails and help in the recovery is truly historic. It had been almost impossible to get a spot on a volunteer crew earlier this year because of how fast they filled up!

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PCTA volunteer taking a break along the upper Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

We’ve always had the Gorge right there and available, so when it suddenly shut down overnight, I feel like everyone suddenly realized how fragile it is. Most of the best trails were closed and the places we knew and loved were so close but so out of reach. Hopefully this will inspire more people take better care of our environment.

This trip and the past summer has meant the world to me. It has changed the way I look at fires, how the Gorge recovers from them, and how much work goes into maintaining a trail. I’ve met a lot of great people on the trails, and that is probably the best part about it. It’s been a rough summer for me, both mentally and financially, and being out there fixing a trail that millions enjoy brought me a lot of peace and really made me a much better person. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything!

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Trail hero Nate Zaremskiy scouting the upper Eagle Creek Trail one year after the fire, in September 2018

Tom: Thanks for taking the time to share this experience, Nate! I look forward to seeing you on the trail, again!

Nate: You’re welcome! And thanks again for having me on here. I’m sure we will cross paths again one of these days.

Tom: No doubt about that, Nate!

_______________________________

You can learn more about Nate Zaremskiy and see his beautiful landscape photography on his website:

Nathan Zaremskiy

Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) and the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) are leading trail recovery projects in the Gorge, year-round. Here’s where you can learn more about upcoming volunteer projects or make donations to help support these organizations:

Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO)

Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA)

_______________________________ 

2019 Campaign Calendar!

December 9, 2018
00CoverWhaleCreek

Calendar cover for 2019 featuring Whale Creek

[Click here for a large image]

‘Tis the season for top ten lists and year-end retrospectives, so in that spirit my annual Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar is pretty good snapshot of 12 favorite spots of mine across WyEast country this year. Since 2004, I’ve created an annual calendar dedicated to the campaign, each with a fresh set of photos. If you’d like a 2019 calendar, there’s info at the bottom of the article and ALL proceeds will once again go to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).

________________

The annual campaign calendar has been a great motivator for exploring new terrain and improving my photography skills over the years. Each year the calendar project also renews my conviction that Mount Hood and the Gorge are uniquely special places, and deserve better care.

This article is a short tour of the 12 spots that made it into the 2019 calendar, with a few stories behind the photos and reflection on these increasingly fragile landscapes.

Starting with the cover image (at the top of the article), the calendar begins at lovely Whale Creek, a tributary of the Clackamas River that is also featured in the March image, so more about that spot in a moment.

Next up, the January image (below) captures the awesome west face of Mount Hood, where the Sandy Headwall towers 3,000 feet above the Sandy Glacier. This snowy view was captured from near Lolo Pass last winter.

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January features the awesome Sandy Headwall

[Click here for a large image]

Not included in the close-up view are the bare slopes of Barrett Spur (below) and other alpine ramparts of Mount Hood that still didn’t have their winter snowpack in early February, when these photos were taken. While it’s not uncommon to have a late snowpack in the Cascades, these events are becoming more common as global warming unfolds in our own backyard.

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Low snow on Barrett Spur in February tells the story of our changing climate

For February, I chose a close-up perspective of the ice “pillows” that form at the base of Tamanawas Falls (below) in winter. This has become a very popular winter destination in recent years, thanks in large part to social media! (…ahem…)

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February features Tamanawas Falls

[Click here for a large image]

Tamanawas is Chinook jargon for “guiding spirit”, and is one version among a couple variations in spelling. More challenging is the pronunciation, and with the advent of social media, all manner of spoken variations are being used. For some reason, an especially popular spoken version that doesn’t even correlate to the actual spelling is “tah-ma-WAHN-us”.

It turns out the most accepted pronunciation is “ta-MAH-na-wahs”. I’ve been saying a slight variation of “ta-MAN-a-wahs” for most of my life, so I’ll need to work on that!

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Cold Spring Creek and Tamanawas Falls in winter

As mentioned earlier, the March calendar image is from Whale Creek (below), located in the heart of the Clackamas River canyon. The creek is hidden in plain sight, flowing through the Indian Henry Campground and next to the east trailhead of the Clackamas River Trail. This area features some of the finest rainforest in WyEast country.

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March features a rainforest scene along Whale Creek

[Click here for a large image]

Whale Creek was just one of many places in the Clackamas and Molalla River watersheds that I found myself exploring this year while much of the Oregon portion of the Columbia River Gorge was closed by the Eagle Creek fire. I visited the lower reaches of Whale Creek after seeing stunning photos of a string of waterfalls on the upper reaches of the creek, and quickly fell in love with this pretty stream. Watch for a future article on a trail concept I’ve been working on for Whale Creek with TKO and some area waterfall explorers.

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Whale Creek in the Clackamas River canyon

Sadly, the Clackamas River corridor has a bad reputation, thanks to a history of lawless behavior (the recent Pit Fire was started by illegal target shooting, for example) and a long history of Forest Service management that viewed the area more like a tree farm than a forest — and the two go hand in hand, by the way.

Yet, hidden in the now-recovering rainforests of the Clackamas are dozens of spectacular waterfalls, towering basalt walls and rugged vistas that rival the Columbia River Gorge in beauty. There are also a lot of big trees that somehow dodged the logging heyday of past decades.

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Whale Creek in winter

The Clackamas River corridor holds great promise for future recreation alternative to places like the Gorge, and the proven cure for lawless behavior is lawful recreation. I’m optimistic that we’ll make that transition here, and begin valuing places like Whale Creek for the intrinsic value of its forests, not just the saw logs it can produce.

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April features White River Falls State Park

[Click here for a large image]

For the April calendar image, I selected a photo of White River Falls, both for the contrast in WyEast country ecosystems it displays and because this little state park could use some love and expanded boundaries. I posted an article with just such a proposal a few years ago, you can find it over here.

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White River Falls with unprotected desert country beyond

The May calendar image features a sweeping view of the Upper Hood River Valley (below) from little known, seldom-noticed Middle Mountain. Its name tells the story, as forested Middle Mountain divides the upper and lower portions of the Hood River Valley. I learned of this spot about ten years ago from a local photographer and have gone back pretty much every year since.

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May features the Upper Hood River Valley as viewed from Middle Mountain

[Click here for a large image]

Zooming in a bit to this idyllic landscape reveals a seemingly timeless farm scene that is easy to take for granted. And yet, these farms were at great peril just a few years ago, when voters passed the deceptive Measure 37 in 2004. The law was pitched as a way for landowners to “seek compensation” for land use regulation, but in truth was just another end-run around Oregon’s protections for farm and forestlands.

Voters later passed Measure 49, in 2007, blunting the impact of the earlier measure, but only after hundreds of urban-scale developments were approved in rural areas across Oregon (including a pair of giant, illuminated billboards along the Mount Hood Highway that still remain today). It was a reminder that while our farms may look timeless, we can never take them for granted. They will always need our support and protection if we want places like this to exist for future generations.

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Timeless farm scene below Middle Mountain

Much of Middle Mountain is owned by the public, where county-owned forest lands continue to be (mis)managed as a cash register by Hood River County (the county likes to refer to these land as their “tree farm”). Local residents no doubt enjoy their modest tax rates, as a result, but I’m hoping the rapidly changing demographics in Hood River will bring a different mindset to how the thousands of acres of county forests that ring the Hood River Valley are managed.

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Logging is still king on Middle Mountain…

One immediate concern on Middle Mountain is the manner of logging. Large clear cuts, like those scarring the slopes of Middle Mountain, are an unsustainable practice, with proven harmful impacts to forest health, water quality and salmon and steelhead populations. Clear cuts are also the cheapest, easiest way to bring haul logs out of the forest. That bottom line might be unavoidable for private forests, but as a public agency, Hood River County should at least adopt a selective harvest policy that leaves standing trees in logged areas.

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…keeping Hood River County coffers full…

The county should also reject the reckless use of herbicides sprayed on logged over lands. This is a practice the private industry uses to shortcut the natural forest recovery and speed up the next harvest. The idea is to destroy the recovering forest understory in a logged area so that plantation seedlings might grow a little faster.

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The forest on the left is next to go…

I’m not certain the county uses this practice on public lands, but it seems to be the case. Consider this notice posted a few days ago on their website:

“Recreation trails are sometimes temporarily closed during additional forest management operations. Operations such as the burning of slash, herbicide application, and the planting of seedlings, will necessitate trail closures. Trails are re-opened once operations are complete.”

This certainly sounds like the private industry practice…

05fMiddleMountainTimberSaleBoundarySign

…might as well add “for now” to the last line on this boundary marker, unfortunately.

Of course, the county could show real leadership and simply ban this practice on private lands in Hood River County, as well. That is, if water quality, wildlife, salmon and steelhead habitat, long-term forest health and tourism are a county priority over the fastest route to clear cutting more logs. My sense is that voters in Hood River County are increasingly focused on these broader concerns, even if the county leadership isn’t there yet.

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June features Shotgun Falls in the Molalla River canyon

[Click here for a large image]

For the June calendar image, I selected another lesser-known spot, graceful Shotgun Falls (above) in the Molalla River canyon. This pretty, off-trail waterfall has been on my list for some time, and the Gorge closure inspired me to finally make this trip last spring for a much-needed waterfall fix.

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Shotgun Falls

Shotgun Falls is a classic “Oregon” waterfall, cascading over a tall, mossy basalt cliff. The falls is a short creek walk from the Molalla River Road, but protected by a 20-foot barrier falls just downstream that requires a slippery scramble to navigate. It’s an increasingly popular off-trail trip, and the streambed is starting to show the wear and tear, making this a great candidate for a proper trail that families with young kids and hikers looking for an easy waterfall trip could enjoy. More to come on this idea..!

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Time for a real trail, here…

Sometimes a random moment burns a place and time in the forest into your memory. One such moment occurred on my trip to Shotgun Falls when my pack suddenly tipped while shooting photos from high above the falls. To my horror, it went bounding into the canyon, finally stopping just short of Shotgun Creek, about 60 feet below. Thankfully, my camera gear was safely zipped inside and I didn’t even end up with a soggy pack — the difference between a fond memory and forgettable one!

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Takes a licking, keeps on zipping!

The July calendar image features a picture-perfect wildflower scene along Cove Creek (below), located at the base of Barrett Spur in Elk Cove. This idyllic spot is kept open by a deep, lingering snowpack in spring and regular winter avalanches that shear off trees, allowing the alpine meadows to thrive.

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July features Cove Creek and Barrett Spur

[Click here for a large image]

Looking downstream along Cove Creek (below), 99 Ridge can be seen in the distance, covered with ghost trees killed by the 2012 Dollar Lake Fire. The fire reached the margins of Elk Cove, but passed over most of the forests here.

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The Dollar Lake Burn swept over 99 Ridge, in the background in this view of Cove Creek

On this trip to Elk Cove, I met a pair of hikers carrying their exhausted pup down the trail. When I chatted briefly with them, I was reminded that hikers are really nice people: they didn’t even know each other. The man carrying the dog had run into the woman as she struggled to carry her dog back to the trailhead. He offered to carry the poor pup the rest of the way!

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Hikers are nice people! (…see text…)

For the August calendar image, I selected a familiar view of Mount Hood from high on the shoulder of Cooper Spur (below). The Eliot Glacier dominates the view here, even as it recedes from global warming. As the glacier recedes, the exposed canyon floor once covered by ice has rapidly eroded, which in turn has  begun to destabilize the moraines that flank the canyon.

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August features the mighty Eliot Glacier

[Click here for a large image]

I experienced the hazards of the destabilized moraines firsthand when I stopped along the South Eliot Moraine that day and set my pack on a 4-foot long boulder that seemed to be the perfect trailside bench. Before I could park myself on the “bench”, it suddenly gave way, careening end-over-end into the Eliot Branch canyon, kicking off dozens of other rocks and an impressive dust storm along the way!

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The south Eliot Moraine continues to crumble…

Thankfully, there were no hikers below — and I was also relieved that I’d snapped up my pack before the boulder disappeared over the edge! Clearly, my pack has nine lives… though I’m not sure how many remain…

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Seeing the boulder finally land among the jumbled rocks 300 feet below was powerful reminder of the scale of this place, as the 4-foot “bench” rock was dwarfed by dozens of larger boulders scattered below the moraine.

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A 4-foot boulder becomes a pebble among the debris rolling into the Eliot Branch canyon

The September calendar image captures fall colors along Still Creek, on Mount Hood’s southwest side. This photo was taken on a visit to a recent Forest Service project designed to restore salmon and steelhead habitat on Still Creek.

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September features a grove of Red Alder along Still Creek wrapped in brilliant Vine Maple foliage

[Click here for a large image]

The project site was a badly overused “dispersed” campsite that had become an eyesore over the years. To rehabilitate the site, the Forest Service excavated a large trench to block vehicle access to the streamside campsite, reinforced the barrier with a row of boulders. So far, these barriers seems to be working, as there were no signs of continued camping or off-road vehicle use in the area.

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Forest Service stream restoration work on Still Creek

At the heart of the restoration project, several very large logs with root wads attached (below) were hauled into the stream to create the natural “woody debris” habitat that our native salmon and steelhead rely upon. The logs and roots create deep pools and places for small fish to hide from predation as they mature to adulthood.

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Bringing back logs and root wads that create prime fish habitat

There’s something primeval about uprooted trees lying across the creek. This is what most of our streams looked like before the settlement era, when forests were logged, streams were tamed and few big trees were left to become “woody debris”. The panorama below shows the full extend of this Forest Service restoration project.

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Panoramic view of the restoration site

[Click here for a large image]

On a select few days each fall, the first high elevation snow of the season is followed by a few days of bright, clear weather — and with any luck, all of this coincides with fall colors. Such was the case in the calendar image I selected for October (below), with Mount Hood framed by flaming Vine Maple, as viewed from the Lolo Pass area.

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October features an early snow on Mount Hood, framed by Vine Maples

[Click here for a large image]

Whenever I shoot this scene, an image of a scalloped-edge vintage postcard is in my mind. Thanks to many postcards from the 1940s, 50s and 60s that captured this side of the mountain in autumn, the scene is iconic. This card (below) from the 1950s is typical of the era, and was captured just around the corner from where I shot the 2019 calendar image.

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Timeless inspiration, with fancy scalloped edges!

For the November calendar image, I selected a rainforest scene from along the Molalla River (below), where bare winter trees reveal the contorted, mossy limbs of Bigleaf and Vine Maple.

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November features a pristine rainforest scene along the Molalla River

[Click here for a large image]

While the above certainly scene looks pristine, it’s really not. One of my favorite photographic themes is to capture “pristine” scenery in places that are not — but could be, if managed with an eye toward restoration. Such was the case with the previous photo from Lolo Pass, where transmission towers were literally buzzing overhead, and with the Molalla River, where a road culvert dumped the little stream in the photo from a 4-foot galvanized pipe.

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…which turns out to not be all that pristine..!

Beauty can be found everywhere, and the path to restoration in even the most impacted areas in WyEast country begins when we see places not just for what they once were, but for what they could be, again.

The December calendar image is a freezing fog scene from the east slopes of Mount Defiance (below). This stunning phenomenon occurs a few times each winter when temperature inversions blanket the eastern Columbia River Gorge with dense fog and frigid temperatures. The effect is magical, though traveling the roads in these conditions can be treacherous!

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December features a crystal wonderland from freezing fog on the slopes of Mount Defiance

[Click here for a large image]

The frosting of ice coating the forest in these scenes is called “soft rime”, and is made up of feathery, fragile crystals that can be brushed off like a fine powder. Soft rime forms when super-cooled vapor in fog accumulates directly on tree surfaces in delicate, elaborate crystals. Hard rime is defined as ice forming from freezing fog that first condenses to water droplets, then freezes on surfaces, creating a clear, hardened ice layer.

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Freezing fog on Mount Defiance

Soft rime accumulations can be quite impressive in the Gorge, depending on how long the fog event lasts. These scenes were captured after five days of freezing fog and represent about the maximum amount of ice that can accumulate before crystals break off under their own weight.

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Freezing fog on Mount Defiance

This photo (below) is a close-up of soft rime accumulations on a Golden Chinkapin growing on the slopes of Mount Defiance. These crystals as much as three inches long.

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Soft rime ice crystals

The scene below shows an odd transition from bare road (and car) to frosted forest that looks like a photoshop creation. In this spot the rime had coated the trees and understory, but not the gravel road in the foreground, creating the strange two-tone scene. This photo is also a bit of a farewell, as my venerable trail car of the past many years years is featured. This old friend was retired to quiet a life in the city just a few months after this photo was taken, at the ripe old age of 13 years and 212,000 miles!

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Farewell to an old friend…

The back page of the 2019 calendar features nine wildflower images from the past year. If you’ve followed articles on the blog, you’ll recognize a several photos featured in stories on Horkelia Meadow and Punchbowl Falls.

From top left and reading across, these flowers are Hackelia micrantha (Horkelia Meadow), Chocolate Lily (Punchbowl Falls Park), Oregon Iris (Shellburg Falls), Buckwheat (Horkelia Meadow), Calypso Orchid (Punchbowl Falls Park), Oregon Grape (Molalla River), Horkelia fusca (Horkelia Meadow), Collomia grandiflora (Clackamas River) and Skyrocket Gilia (Horkelia Meadow).

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A year in wildflowers!

[Click here for a large image]

So, that’s it for the 2019 campaign calendar! I’ve already started colleting images for next year’s calendar and I’m looking forward to yet another year of exploring all corners of America’s next national park. Maybe I’ll even see you out on the trail!

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Old goat that wandered up a creek…

In the meantime, you can order the 2019 calendar over at Zazzle. They’re beautifully printed, oversized designs with functional writing space — they’re working calendars and make great gifts! The calendars sell for $29.95, but Zazzle regularly offers deep discounts, so it’s worth watching for sales. This year, all proceeds from calendars will go to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).

You can order a 2019 campaign calendar here

Thanks for reading this far, and I hope you’re able to get out and explore Mount Hood and the Gorge over the holidays!

_______________

Tom Kloster  •  December 2019

Cliff Collapse at Punch Bowl Falls!

May 28, 2018

00EagleCreekCollapse

Punch Bowl Falls as it once was…

Sometime over the past few months, a huge basalt wall just below iconic Punch Bowl Falls collapsed. Today, a huge debris pile of truck-size boulders have rerouted Eagle Creek and changed this idyllic spot for centuries to come.

The collapse follows a similar basalt wall collapse at Metlako Falls in late 2016, and is another powerful reminder that the spectacular landscape of the Columbia River Gorge continues to be a work in progress, always changing, and never on our terms. We can only react and adapt.

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The great amphitheater at Punch Bowl Falls as it once was…

The news of the collapse comes from a second, major aerial photo assessment in late April by the State of Oregon of the Eagle Creek Burn, the second survey following hundreds of December 2017 images described previously in this article and this article in the WyEast Blog.

A four-person Forest Service crew also reached the scene a few weeks ago, before being turned back by extensive damage to the Eagle Creek Trail. They also reported the massive changes at Punch Bowl Falls as a scene of devastation.

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This sketch shows the approximate area that has now collapsed into Eagle Creek

The collapse at Punch Bowl Falls clearly occurred after the earlier aerial images were captured, as the wall is clearly intact in the December 2017, view, below. With the Eagle Creek Trail closed by the fire and largely impassable to hikers due to debris, it was a stroke of good fortune that nobody was there to be injured or killed — just as the Metlako Falls collapse in late 2016 somehow occurred during the busy Christmas holiday week without harming hikers.

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This December 2017 image clearly shows the west wall (upper left) of the Punchbowl Falls amphitheater still intact (State of Oregon)

This article examines the Punch Bowl collapse in detail from the new images and also includes an update on the Metlako collapse and our first post-fire views of Tunnel Falls.

The Great Mossy Grotto

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“The Grotto” in 2016, with hikers peeking into the entrance to the Punch Bowl

The cathedral-like space below Punch Bowl Falls is known informally as “The Room” or the “Grotto” to hikers, and is the spectacular prelude to the iconic peek into the Punch Bowl, one of the most photographed scenes in the world. The massive space begins at Lower Punch Bowl Falls and leads to the narrow entrance to the Punch Bowl, proper.

On a typical summer day in years passed, the cobble beach at the Grotto was filled with hikers soaking feet in the cold water of Eagle Creek, stacking stones and wading into the creek for photos of Punch Bowl Falls — a necessary commitment to photographing the falls during much of the year, and part of what made the trip so memorable.

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The Punch Bowl cliff collapse of 2018 (State of Oregon)

The cliff collapse has changed all of this. A 300-foot section of the sheer, 150-foot high wall that formed the west side of the Grotto calved off, leaving a huge bench of debris in what used to be the main channel of Eagle Creek (shown in the annotated photo, above).

A closer look at the debris pile (below) shows roughly a dozen giant basalt slabs that survived the collapse intact. Their closely fitted position — like pieces in a basalt jigsaw puzzle — also suggests that the wall calved off as one huge slab, tipping over like a domino before breaking apart where it landed in Eagle Creek.

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The former cliff wall now resides flat, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle (State of Oregon)

This look (below) at the debris pile shows one of the larger boulders (in the upper left) sitting squarely in the narrow entrance to the Punch Bowl. Depending on your aesthetic, this boulder will block the classic view of Punch Bowl Falls, provide an interesting foreground once covered in moss and ferns — or, perhaps, provide the ultimate viewpoint? But the view here has clearly been changed forever.

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These giant boulders landed in one of the most photographed scenes in the world… (State of Oregon)

This annotated “before” view of Punch Bowl Falls gives a sense of where the large new boulder (and a few smaller boulders) rests:

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A large, new boulder sits here — and is approximately the same height as the rounded, fern-covered rocks on the right in this “before” view.

This close view (below) focuses on the boulders that now reside in the entrance to the Punch Bowl. At the time of the collapse, it’s likely that Eagle Creek was completely dammed behind the new debris, and quickly carved a new channel around the east edge of the landslide (in the lower right corner).

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Eagle Creek made quick work of a debris pile that almost certainly plugged the outlet to the Punch Bowl, forming the new channel in the lower right in this view (State of Oregon)

This close view (below) shows more detail of the series of horizontal slabs that make up the debris pile, with Eagle Creek turning abruptly to the east in its new channel. It’s likely that the “viewpoint” boulder sitting in the entrance to the Punch Bowl was originally connected to the rest of the debris pile following the collapse, with the stream carving channels on both sides of the rock as it found a new path past the debris.

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Reaching the new “viewpoint” boulder (shown with logs lying across it) could be challenging during the wet months (State of Oregon)

The large, blocky boulder tipped on edge near the left side of the above photo looks large enough to block the creek from further eroding the west  side of the debris pile (below the new cliff face) in the near future. If so, Eagle Creek may have already found its permanent channel around the new terrain.

Eagle Creek is a powerful stream that cannot be safely forded for much of the year. If this is the “new” main channel, with a vertical cliff on one side and a couple of garage-size boulders on the other, the new land created by the debris pile will only be accessible during the low water months of late summer. This could be a good thing if it means fewer boots and flip-flops on the new terrain as it slowly recovers — though frustrating to visitors hoping for a look into the Punch Bowl.

This more vertical perspective (below) shows all of the pieces in context — Punch Bowl Falls in the extreme upper left corner, the new debris pile and fresh cliff scarp on the right, re-routed Eagle Creek in the center and Lower Punch Bowl Falls at the bottom center:

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Big changes at Punch Bowl Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a very large version of the above photo]

This even closer, annotated version (below) shows the new features in detail:

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The Punch Bowl cliff collapse in detail (State of Oregon)

As jarring as these changes to Punch Bowl Falls may be to look at, there’s (hopefully) some comfort in knowing this is simply part of the geologic process that continues to make the Columbia River Gorge such a unique and exceptionally beautiful place.

Consider that exactly 45 years ago, a similar, somewhat larger collapse occurred at Tanner Creek, the next drainage to the west of Eagle Creek. Today’s Wahclella Falls trail meanders through the still-fresh looking landslide there, and like the collapse at Eagle Creek, huge basalt slabs survived collapse at Tanner Creek intact.

In fact, the Tanner Creek canyon below Wahclella Falls is littered with giant basalt reminders that the steep cliffs of the Gorge are in a continual state of erosion, though in our short life spans these events seem rare. Each of the the dramatic, moss-covered boulders in this view of Wahclella Falls (below) tells a story much like the one unfolding at Eagle Creek.

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The long history of landslides at Wahclella Falls is on full display with dozens of truck and house-sized basalt boulders crowding Tanner Creek

The cliff collapse at Punch Bowl Falls follows the same storyline, with Eagle Creek carving a new channel through the debris, removing smaller material in the process, and leaving the larger, solid blocks of basalt in place. The annotated photo (below) shows how the new channel and debris pile will appear at stream level, from the foot of the Lower Punch Bowl trail — once hikers are allowed to return here:

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Approximate location of the new Eagle Creek channel through the Grotto

This annotated panoramic view (below) of Punch Bowl Falls and the Grotto wall before the collapse shows the extent of the cliff that has dropped away. As the photo shows, Eagle Creek had significantly undercut the cliff, leaving an overhang 10-15 feet deep that was likely the main cause of the eventual cliff collapse.

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Panoramic view of Punch Bowl Falls (left) and the Grotto wall overhang before the collapse

The overhang along the Grotto wall at Eagle Creek had much in common with another recent collapse that occurred in Oregon’s Coast Range. At Drift Creek Falls, a similarly undercut basalt wall (below) abruptly dropped into the creek, exploding into a large debris pile and a few large, intact slabs of the former cliff face. Like Eagle Creek, the Drift Creek trail happened to be closed for construction at the time of the collapse, preventing what might have been a human tragedy on this very popular trail.

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Drift Creek Falls before the 2010 cliff collapse (Photo by Greg Lief)

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Drift Creek Falls immediately after the 2010 cliff collapse (U.S. Forest Service)

A series of views looking downstream at the Punch Bowl cliff collapse round out the new images captured by the State of Oregon. The view below shows a clearly “overfilled” Punch Bowl, raised a few feet from its previous level by the new debris pile, downstream. This annotated view also shows the Punch Bowl overlook along the Eagle Creek Trail.

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Downstream perspective on the big changes that have come to Punch Bowl Falls (State of Oregon)

This is a somewhat closer look at the Punch Bowl and debris pile, looking downstream:

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Downstream view of the Punch Bowl and debris pile now blocking the lower entrance (State of Oregon)

This annotated view (below) shows the narrow entrance to the Punch Bowl, now blocked by the new “viewing” boulders, with the debris pile and new cliff scarp, beyond:

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View of the entrance to the Punch Bowl and the new debris pile and cliff scarp (State of Oregon)

This very close view (below) of the “viewing” boulders shows a fair amount of debris under the surface of the Punch Bowl pool, and the beginning of what will almost certainly be a substantial log pile at this location:

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Close-up of the new “viewing” boulders that landed in the entrance to the Punch Bowl on Eagle Creek (State of Oregon)

Forest Service officials surveying the impact of the Eagle Creek Burn linked the cliff collapse at Punch Bowl Falls to the fire, and it’s true that many of the burned slopes of the Gorge have been experienced severe erosion and landslides since the fire. But a similar collapse happened just downstream at Metlako Falls, before the fire, showing these dramatic events to simply be part of the ongoing shaping of the Columbia River Gorge.

As shown previously, the basalt wall in the Grotto at Punch Bowl Falls had already been significantly undercut by Eagle Creek over centuries, and was ripe for collapse. If the fire had an effect, it’s most likely that increased runoff from burned slopes sped up the inevitable by seeping into cracks that were already forming in the cliff, and triggering the event.

If this is true, then we may see more cliff collapses in the Gorge in coming years — but rather than being caused by the fire, they represent part of an ongoing process in the Gorge that conditions like heavy rain events, runoff from burned areas, extended freezes or even seismic events (the theory behind the ancient Bridge of the Gods landslide!) can trigger.

More Metlako Collapse Images

The new aerial series of the Eagle Creek Burn provides more views of the 2016 cliff collapse at Metlako Falls. In the five months since the first series of photos were captured, Eagle Creek has continued to carve away at the debris pile dam. Logs from the fire are also already entering Eagle Creek in large quantities, and dozens more were stacked on the Metlako debris pile over the winter, doubling the size of the logjam just since December.

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Eagle Creek has been busy stacking logs on the new debris pile below Metlako Falls (State of Oregon)

A closer look (below) at the debris pile shows a difference in how this cliff came down compared to the more recent collapse at Punch Bowl. While the wall at Punch Bowl appears to have tipped forward and crashed face-down into Eagle Creek, the collapse at Metlako appears to have slipped down vertically, partly intact. This is suggested by the large basalt slab holding back the logjam, where the weathered, mossy former face of the cliff is facing up on this huge remnant.

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Close of view of the huge log pile on top of the Metlako Falls debris pile, and the dam that still backs up Eagle Creek (State of Oregon)

While the Punch Bowl cliff collapse involved the entire vertical face of the cliff, a closer look at Metlako collapse shows that an upper layer of basalt split off, landing in front of a largely intact, lower basalt layer. The annotated view below shows the newly exposed rock face of the upper basalt layer and the clear break between the two layers of basalt. This might explain why the rock slipped into the canyon here, as opposed to tipping over and landing face down, like the Punch Bowl collapse.

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The Metlako collapse appears to have slipped in, not tipped over (State of Oregon)

[click here for a very large version of the above photo]

The above view also suggests that similar collapses have occurred downstream along this section of the Metlako gorge (to the left, in the photo) and went unnoticed — perhaps because this adjacent area was out of view from the former Metlako spur trail and viewpoint. The moss layer on the cliff face in the downstream area show this collapse to have occurred prior to the December 2016 event, while the still raw debris pile below this adjacent cliff face suggest it was still a relatively recent collapse.

In both cases, the presence of underground springs suddenly emerging at the new cliff scarp as a pair of waterfalls suggests a lot of water flowing between the basalt layers in this cliff section, destabilizing the upper basalt layer until it finally collapsed under its own weight.

Finally, Tunnel Falls Images

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Our first look at Tunnel Falls shows a heavily burned landscape (State of Oregon)

[click here for a very large version of the above photo]

Finally, the new State of Oregon images give us a look at Tunnel Falls, on Eagle Creek, a spot that was missed in the December images. While much of the lower portion of the Eagle Creek canyon was moderately burned in the fire, the area around Tunnel Falls appears to be more severely affected.

While the slope above the falls appear heavily burned, the protected canyon at the base of the falls (below) appears to have experienced more of a mosaic burn, with several large conifers surviving the fire. This bodes well for a rapid recovery of the riparian corridor along this part of Eagle Creek.

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Several large trees along the East Fork survived the fire in a “mosaic” burn pattern (State of Oregon)

Before the Eagle Creek Fire started in September 2017, an earlier blaze called the Indian Creek Fire had been burning for weeks in the headwaters of Eagle Creek, on the slopes of Indian Mountain. These fires merged soon after the Eagle Creek fire erupted. The new State of Oregon images provide the first look at the Indian Creek area, and show an extensively burned landscape with the forest mostly killed by the fire.

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Indian Mountain is badly burned in the headwaters of Eagle Creek (State of Oregon)

As recently as the early 1980s, the upper slopes of nearby Tanner Butte were still largely open meadows, and recovering from fires that burned there in the early 1900s. Today, dense beargrass still lines the trail to Tanner Butte, a remnant of when beargrass and huckleberry meadows that once covered the butte, and scattered conifers that became today’s forests were just taking hold.

The northern slopes of Indian Mountain (in the distance in the above view) are still recovering from the same early 1900s fire that burned Tanner Butte, and still consist of mostly open beargrass meadows and a scattering of stunted subalpine trees.

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Detailed look at the severe burn that occurred along the slopes of Indian Mountain, at the headwaters of Eagle Creek (State of Oregon)

As the new Eagle Creek Burn moves into recovery, we’re likely to see a similar landscape emerge on the high ridges here over the coming decades. Lower, wetter slopes will initially recover with thickets of red alder, vine maple and other deciduous trees before conifer forests once again become established. The dry, upper slopes will take much longer, with beargrass and huckleberries as the first pioneers.

This new burn will take decades to recover, but because it is protected as wilderness, it will also provide a unique opportunity to study a western Cascade forest recovery as nature intended, without human intervention.

Making peace with the changed landscape…

Sometimes when it rains, it pours. In the span of just over a year, the landscape of our beloved Eagle Creek, a place that is nothing short of a temple to so many, has radically changed. The collapse of the idyllic viewpoint of Metlako Falls in December 2016 was shocking, and the human-caused Eagle Creek Fire still seems surreal to those who consider the Gorge their refuge from the everyday stresses of life.

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Punchbowl Falls in the early 1900s, when piles of gravel released from turn-of-the-century fires filled the bowl

The first set of aerials after the fire had some good news — Punch Bowl Falls had dodged the worst of the fire! But now the recent cliff collapse at Punch Bowl has forever changed a spot that is perhaps most sacred to those who love the Gorge. It’s still hard to absorb the reality of these events, even as we study the images.

I wrote this article with an eye toward describing and understanding the natural history of these events, and hopefully in a way that also respects the emotional ties that so many have to Eagle Creek and Punch Bowl Falls. I share that sense of loss and sadness at these changes, too.

It will be awhile before hikers are allowed back into the Punch Bowl Falls area. The Eagle Creek trail has been heavily impacted by loose debris and falling trees from the fire, and the wall collapse at the Punch Bowl will almost certainly be closed to the public until the terrain has stabilized. More changes are likely, too — inevitable, in fact— as the area continues to recover.

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The Tanner Creek collapse in the spring of 1986, just 13 years after the massive landslide occurred. Today’s loop trail crosses the base of the landslide, and the landslide has become part of the landscape.

I was just eleven years old when the collapse at Wahclella Falls briefly dammed Tanner Creek and forever changed that area. While it was shocking to see the aftermath, over time the landscape has begun to recover. Just 20 years after the collapse, the new (modern) trail through the landslide was built, and today the giant boulder garden created along Tanner Creek is part of the awesome beauty and spectacle of the area. I look forward to watching a similar recovery at Eagle Creek — and hopefully I’ll live long enough to see the newly created landscape wrapped in moss and ferns, and framed by young stands of Bigleaf maple and Western red cedar!

We’re so fortunate to live in a place where the natural landscape is still under construction, though it does require us to take a longer view to adapt to the big changes that inevitably occur. The recovery will take years, so finding peace in witnessing and understanding the awesome natural processes at work is my own refuge for coping with the changes.

I hope you can find some refuge there, too.

_____________

Editor’s note: for the first time since starting this blog in the fall of 2008, I fell behind my usual pace of posting at least monthly, as I’ve been tending to some challenging family needs. But I do have a nice backlog of topics and will hopefully make up for lost time over the next few months!

As always, thanks for taking the time to stop by!

Tom Kloster • May 2018

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

February 27, 2018

00McCordSunset

January sunset in the Eagle Creek burn, near Elowah Falls

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

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

_______________________

Ainsworth State Park and McCord Creek

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Scorched Wauneka Point after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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McCord Creek Delta (State of Oregon)

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

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

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Elowah Falls and McCord Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

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

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Post-fire landslide damage below Elowah Falls

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

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

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

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Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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Upper McCord Creek Falls in January

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

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

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Upper McCord Creek Falls framed by Red alder before the fire

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

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

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

04aMcCordCreekCanyon

Upper McCord Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moffett Creek, Munra Point and Tanner Creek

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

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Moffett Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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Moffett Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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Moffett Falls in April 2017

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

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Moffett Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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Wahe Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Kwaneesum Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

07cMoffettCreekKwanesumBurnDetail

Complex burn patterns along Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

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

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

08aMunraPoint

Munra Point and Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

08bMunraPointDetail

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

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

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

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Bonneville hatchery and Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Lower Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

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

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Tanner Creek and Wahclella Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

10bTannerCreekWahclellaFalls

Wahclella Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

11aUpperTannerCreekValley

Upper Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Cleared talus slopes above Tanner Creek (State of Oregon)

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

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Pika gathering huckleberry leaves (ODFW)

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

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

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

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

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Tooth Rock after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Historic Highway viaduct at Tooth Rock (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

Eagle Creek: at the Heart of the Inferno

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

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

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

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Looking into the Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Lower Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

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

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West side of lower Eagle Creek (State of Oregon)

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

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

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Metlako Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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Early 1900s view of Punch Bowl Falls

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

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Tish Creek Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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Loowit Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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Upper Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Skoonichuk Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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Twister Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twister Falls before the fire

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

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Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

Herman Creek and Shellrock Mountain

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

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Herman Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Mosaic burn pattern at Herman Creek (State of Oregon)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Summit Creek and Camp Benson Falls (State of Oregon)

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

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Shellrock Mountain forests after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

After the Fire: the Verdict

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Smoky skies in the Gorge during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire

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

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

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

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

[click here for a more readable version]

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

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

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

Epilogue: Learning to Embrace the Burn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

________________

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

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

________________

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

January 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

Shepperd’s Dell to Multnomah Creek

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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Historic Shepperd’s Dell bridge (State of Oregon)

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

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Aerial view of Angels Rest (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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Aerial view of Angels Rest (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Detailed view of Angels Rest Trail (State of Oregon)

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

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Aerial view of Wahkeena Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Detailed view of Wahkeena Falls (State of Oregon)

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

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

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Aerial view of Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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Aerial view of Multnomah Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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Stately Weisdanger Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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Beautiful Ecola Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

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

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

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

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

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

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Aerial view of upper Multnomah Basin (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Close-up of the Larch Mountain Trail and Multnomah Basin

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

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

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Upper Multnomah Creek before the fire (Tom Kloster)

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

Oneonta Creek to Ainsworth State Park

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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Close-up of Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aerial view of Oneonta Bluff (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Middle Oneonta Falls (State of Oregon)

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

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

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Beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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