Posted tagged ‘Eagle Creek Trail’

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!

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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)

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Cliff Collapse at Punch Bowl Falls!

May 28, 2018
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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

Metlako Landslide!

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

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

It started with a crack in the ground…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just the Gorge doing its thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Giant boulders scattered along Moffett Creek

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

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

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

What’s next for Metlako?

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

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

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Overflowing parking at Eagle Creek is not new..!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like losing an old friend…

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

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Improving the view at Metlako Falls

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

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

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

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

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