2021 Campaign Calendar!

As I write this annual year-end post after a calamitous 2020, the world seems just a bit more hopeful. The presidential election will shift public lands policy 180 degrees back toward conservation and restoration, and with the release of two COVID-19 vaccines, the end of the world pandemic is finally on the horizon.

And so, I share some of the stories behind this year’s Mount Hood National Park Campaign scenic calendar with a cautious spring in my step (or my fingers as they type this sentence, at least). You can pick up a copy of the calendar here for $29.95:

2021 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Scenic Calendar

As always, all proceeds will go to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) to support their ongoing effort to care for trails as gateways to our public lands. Zazzle prints these calendars with exceptionally high quality, and they also have large enough boxes to be quite functional for tracking important dates and your trail plans. They make nice gifts, too, of course!

Over the years, I’ve described the Mount Hood National Park Campaign as “an idea campaign” with the simple goal of keeping alive the promise of better protections and restoring the grandeur Mount Hood and the Gorge. I started the project in 2004 as a way to continually remind Oregonians and Washingtonians living in WyEast Country that national park protection was proposed at least three times in Congress, in the 1890s, 1920s and the 1930s. Each time, logging and other extraction industries (and later, the emerging ski industry) were the chief opponents — along with the Forest Service, itself.

Thomas Cole painted this idyllic scene of Native American life in WyEast Country in the 1870s. The mountain continues to be beacon of inspiration and awe for people living in its shadow to this day

If you’ve watched Ken Burns’ magnificent National Parks series, you know that every park was a battle, typically between short-term exploitation interests and progressives looking toward posterity for future generations. There were no easy wins.

And, so it will be for Mount Hood and the Gorge until enough locals (or our children and grandchildren) recognize national park protection as both urgent and deserving for these world-class places. We haven’t treated them too well over the past 150 years, but real change is suddenly afoot in 2020. What? Yes, you read that correctly… and I will share more about that exciting news in future blog posts!

This beautiful cove at the foot of Crown Point was called “Echo Bay” when it was still connected to the Columbia River in this 1870s photo. This was among the spots that inspired the first Congressional effort to create a national park here

But until then, this article is a tour of some of the places that make WyEast country special, and are featured in the 2021 MHNP Campaign scenic calendar. As always, every image in the new calendar was captured over the past year and, as in past years, there are some lesser-known places mixed in with some of the more familiar.

The 2021 Calendar Images

Salmon River in late Autumn

The cover image for the 2021 calendar comes from a very familiar spot along the Old Salmon River Trail, near the community of Zigzag. This quiet trail was bypassed — and spared — when the Salmon River Road was built in the post-World War II logging boom. Today it offers one of the most accessible trails into ancient rainforest anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. This photo was taken just a few weeks ago, too. Because of its low elevation, it’s a trail you can hike year-round. Here’s the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description of the trail.

For January, I chose an image captured from above the West Fork Hood River Valley, on Butcher Knife Ridge. In this scene, Mount Hood is emerging from the clouds after the first big winter storm of fall. I’ll be posting more articles in 2021 about the West Fork valley, as there is some very exciting news to share about this area.

Mount Hood’s rugged northwest face in early winter as viewed from Butcher Knife Ridge

The February image is a familiar view of Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek, one of the premier trails in the Columbia River Gorge. Before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, I visited this trail several times each year, as it’s not only a personal favorite, but also a trail that makes for a great introduction to the Gorge for new hikers or visiting family.

Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek

The image in the new calendar is from a visit last winter, and it was my first since the fire. Though the fire did burn through the lower Tanner Creek canyon, many trees survived, especially around Wahclella Falls. Notably, a pair of big trees familiar to hikers also survived — the twin Douglas firs flanking the lower trail (below). As of this year, their upper canopies are still green more than two years after the fire, and that bodes well for them to survive for many years to come.

The familiar twin Douglas firs along the Wahclella Falls Trail have survived the 2017 Gorge fire… so far

What I couldn’t have guessed is that the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions kicked in just a couple weeks after my visit, and Wahclella Falls was once again closed to the public.

As hard as these Gorge trail closures have been for hikers, there are a couple of silver linings. First, they have allowed trail volunteers from TKO, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) and other volunteer trail organization to continue the hard work of restoring trails damaged by fire without having to accommodate hiker traffic. Perhaps more importantly, the closures have also allowed forest recovery to begin within the pressures that heavy visitation on popular Gorge trails brings.

Lower White River Falls in spring

The March image (above) features Lower White River Falls, a lesser-known cascade downstream from the main falls at White River Falls State Park. Where the main falls is a raucous spectacle, the lower falls is quiet waterfall in a secluded canyon, where it is framed by desert wildflowers in late spring.

Poison likes to grow in the shade of boulders along the White River — watch where you sit!

The user path to the lower falls has become increasingly prominent in recent years as more visitors discover this pretty spot (and its excellent swimming hole), but be forewarned, the path is lined with Poison Ivy. This relative of Poison Oak bears a close resemblance, but grows as a ground low ground cover in the sandy floodplain along the river, often in the shelter of boulders and old logs.

Lower White River Falls

For April, I selected another scene from Mount Hood’s rain shadow, a wildflower meadow on the edge of the tree line where forests give way to the desert country east of the Cascades. This bucolic scene looks across the rolling wheat country of Wasco County, toward the Columbia Hills and the Columbia River, on the horizon (below).

Wildflower meadows on the east slope of the Cascades near Friend

Though you wouldn’t know from this photo, the South Valley Fire swept through this area in 2018, one of three major range fires that combined that year to burn nearly 200,000 acres. Two years later, and only the scattered snags of Ponderosa pine, Western juniper and burned fence posts hint at the fire, as the sage and grass savannah has recovered in a remarkably short time. But the fires had a human toll, too. Homes and barns were burned, as well as several historic farmsteads that can never be replaced.

Only a few charred remains tell the story of the 2018 range fires east of Mount Hood

Switching back to the west side of the Cascades, I chose a scene from a visit to Silver Falls State Park for the May image. With many of the Gorge waterfall trails still closed by the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire, Silver Falls visitation has exploded over the past couple years, as hikers look for new places to get their waterfall fix.

Visiting Silver Falls State Park is pretty close to a national park experience, as the park is loaded with 1930s Civilian Conservation Corp construction and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department do an excellent job maintaining and curating the park’s network of scenic trails. Lower South Falls (below, and the May image in the new calendar) and nearby Middle North Falls are favorites among photographers in the park, and they have some similarities. Both begin as a wide curtain of falling water before crashing onto the rocky basalt aprons that make up their base, and both have a trail behind them.

Lower South Falls on Silver Creek

A few years ago, a local Republican legislator introduced a bill proposing National Monument status for Silver Creek. The bill didn’t go anywhere, but it was a nice opportunity to showcase the area and a reminder that seeking national park status can be a bipartisan effort, even in these days of deep political division.

Pandemic-compliant blogger at Silver Creek State Park

Visiting Silver Falls State Park (and most other state parks) in 2020 also meant controlling the COVID-19 virus while huffing and puffing on a buy trail. While I was discouraged by the disregard for masks on my trips to Silver Falls last spring (maybe 1 in 5 had one), there has been a noticeable uptick in mask use in our state parks national forests since. That’s good, because in a year of pandemic shutdowns and closures, the benefits of being outdoors and connecting with nature have never been greater.

Crowds of pandemic-defying hikers at Silver Falls State Park on Memorial Day 2020

For June, I chose a scene from just off the Timberline Trail, along the rim of the White River Canyon (below). This expansive Lupine meadow is only a few steps from the trail, but just out of view and thus known to surprisingly few.

Summer Lupine meadows along the rim of White River canyon

If only this blog had a virtual scratch-and-sniff, as there is nothing quite as heady as the sweetly-scented mountain air in a Lupine meadow, and this one was no exception. For those who haven’t had the experience, Lupine are in the pea family, and have the same sweet aroma as garden sweet peas — but with a mountain backdrop!

For July, I chose another wildflower scene, though this one fits more of a rock garden motif, featuring yellow Buckwheat and purple Penstemmon among the chunks of andesite scattered here. This is the historic Cooper Spur shelter, just off the Timberline Trail on the mountain’s north side. Cooper Spur, proper, rises to the left and the Eliot Glacier tumbles down Mount Hood’s north face to the right of the shelter. This is one of several stone shelters built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s and today is one of just three that still survive (the other survivors are at McNeil Point and Cairn Basin).

Cooper Spur Shelter in summer

Follow the climbers trail to the right of the shelter to the nearby moraine viewpoint (marked by large cairn) and you’ll have a front-row view of the Eliot Glacier. While I was there, a house-sized ice blocks suddenly collapsed (below), filling the canyon with a roar! It’s always a thrill to see and hear our glaciers in action.

Icefall collapse on the Eliot Glacier!

Another mountain scene fills out the summer as the August image in the new calendar. This multi-image composite assembles the impossibly massive scene at the western base of the mountain, where the Timberline Trail fords the twin branches of the Muddy Fork (below). From here, the mountain rises more than 7,000 vertical feet above the scene, and dramatic waterfalls tumble down the 800-foot cliffs that frame the canyon.

The wide-open scenery of the Muddy Fork canyon

The Muddy Fork valley is a volatile, continually changing landscape. In the early 2000s, a massive debris flow swept through, felling an entire forest and leaving a 25-foot layer of rock and sand on the valley floor. The Muddy Fork has since carved through the debris, all the way down to the former valley floor, revealing the stumps of trees that were snapped off by the event. Some are visible along the stream at the center the above photo. Meanwhile, the rest of the Muddy Fork debris flow is already dense with Red Alder, Cottonwood and Douglas Fir pioneers that are quickly re-establishing the forest, continuing the eternal cycle of forest renewal.

Several photos in this year’s calendar are from the dry country east of Mount Hood, in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range. I made several trips there while researching the strange desert mounds unique to the area (see “Mystery of the Desert Mounds“) and I fell back in love with the landscape, having spent time living there in the early 1980s. The September image in the new calendar is of a lesser-known gem in this area, the historic Nansene Community Hall (below) located on the northern slopes of Tygh Ridge.

Remains of the historic Nansene Community Hall on Tygh Ridge

The community hall dates back to the early 1900s, when sheep ranching was still the dominant industry in the area. Sprawling wheat fields and cattle have long since replaced the sheep herds, but thanks to the arid climate, abandoned wood structures from the early white settlement era can survive intact for a century or more. But they can’t survive fire, and while many historic homestead structures were destroyed by the 2018 range fires that swept through the area, Nansene Hall was among those spared.

Thankfully, the iconic grain elevator at Boyd survived the fire, too, and this photo (below) was a candidate for the calendar, save for the fact that Mount Hood isn’t peeking over the horizon!

Grain elevator on Fifteenmile Creek at Boyd

Several historic schoolhouses in the area also survived the fire, including the picturesque Center Ridge Schoolhouse (below), located a couple miles northeast of the Nansene Commumity Hall. This amazingly intact old building was designed with more aesthetics in mind than you might guess. The big windows along the west side of the structure define its single classroom, but the building was sited at an angle to ensure that Mount Hood filled the horizon through those windows, while Mount Adams looms to the north of its playground!

Center Ridge Schoolhouse and Mount Adams

While exploring the Tygh Ridge area this year, I happened upon a toxic creature that was unknown to me: the Green Blister Beetle (below), part of the legendary family of bugs that Spanish Fly is derived from. This iridescent native of the western states is highly toxic to the touch, though I only learned that later, when I was trying to identify this bug from photos I had taken while surrounded by a swarm of them in the field!

Don’t touch the Green Blister Beetle! (though the smaller beetles in this photo don’t seem to be bothered by their toxic neighbor)

Fortunately, I did not handle them, as that can lead to a potentially dangerous reaction. So, while we don’t have many toxic plants and creatures to navigate in the Pacific Northwest, here’s a new one for the list of those to avoid.

The Blister Beetle confab was unfolding in the historic Kingsley Catholic Cemetery, one of the more photogenic spots in the Tygh Ridge area. While walking among the pioneer graves that day last June, I also spotted this wonderful note hanging from a tree, a most welcome bit of hope and optimism in an otherwise grim pandemic year:

Sometimes a simple note can make a tough year a little better…

I later shared the note with a friend in the Dufur area, who in turn shared it in local circles there, hopefully drawing some interest. Little discoveries like this are poignant reminders that the future is always bright through young eyes, and it’s our job as elders to embrace their optimism and sense of promise.

For October, I selected a scene familiar to many (below). This is the view from just below the Vista Ridge trailhead, where the mountain suddenly unfolds for arriving hikers. It’s a popular roadside spot for evening photography, especially in fall when Vine Maple light up the scene.

The popular photographers’ tableau at Vista Ridge

However… when I stopped there this fall, I was quite annoyed to see that Forest Service contractors hired to brush out the road had dumped their slash right in the middle of this lovely talus slope! Sacrilege! So, I took a deep breath, put on a pair of gloves and spent a couple hours dragging the slash down the road to another debris pile that was out of view in a nearby wooded area.

Aargh!

Sacrilegious!

Why get my dander up over this? Because talus slopes are special. They’re scenic and offer welcome views in our heavily forested region, of course. But they’re also home to species that depend on these unique places to survive. The best known are the tiny Pika who live exclusively in talus fields, but they are just part of the unique web of plants and animals found in these rocky islands. They deserve to be revered as unique places in the same way that our understanding of deserts has evolved in recent years to see them as places full of life, despite their lack of trees.

For November, I went back to yet another image from the slopes of Tygh Ridge (below). This is a view looking north across the broad, gentle apron of the ridge toward Mount Adams, shining on the far horizon. Less obvious in this autumn view are the many fallow fields where wheat was once planted, but now are carpeted with wildflowers and native grasses. What gives?

Tygh Ridge Locust trees frame Mount Adams

This photo (below) from a nearby spot was taken in June, and shows the expansive meadows that now cover formerly plowed land on Tygh Ridge. It turns out that these areas have been allowed to recover with native grassland species to benefit wildlife as part of the federal Conservation Reserve Program. It’s an opt-in program that compensates farmers for making long-term commitments (typically 10 or 15 years) to leave fields fallow for wildlife recovery. Hundreds of acres on Tygh Ridge are now part of this program.

Lupine meadows on Tygh Ridge are part of the Conservation Reserve Program that compensates famers for allowing fields to revert to natural cover to benefit wildlife

Heading back to the west side for December, I chose another image from beautiful Silver Falls State Park, though not of one of the iconic waterfalls. Instead, this scene (below) captures a classic winter rainforest scene, with the bare, contorted limbs of moss-draped Bigleaf maple revealed, now that their summer jacket of leaves has been discarded for the winter.

North Fork Silver Creek in winter

With all of the tragedy and trauma that 2020 brought to the world, this simple scene seemed most appropriate for closing out the calendar for the coming year: calming, cool and reflective, and with a needed sense of order and eternity that a misty day in the rainforest can bring us.

Remembering 2020..?

Riverside Fire exploding into a conflagration in September

Assembling this year’s calendar was yet another reminder of the horrendous year we are leaving behind. While spending time in the outdoors is always a needed escape, in 2020 we suddenly found many of our favorite forest sanctuaries closed by COVID-19. Later, the massive Riverside and Beachie fires roared through the Clackamas and Mount Jefferson areas, perhaps closing them for years to come, and with little known about the full impact of these fires at this time.

As I sorted through about 130 images that I’d set aside over the year, everything fell into two categories: burned in the fires or not. We still don’t know just how extensively the Riverside Fire burned the Molalla River watershed, for example, though we do know that it reached all the way to the Willamette Valley, causing evacuations in several communities on the valley floor — an unthinkable development in our recent history with fire. The Molalla River corridor remains closed, and it could be years before the Bureau of Land Management reopens the area to the public.

The Molalla Eye… before the fire

Some spots were spared, if just barely. Just south of the Molalla corridor, the Riverside and Beachie fires converged and bolted Silver Falls State Park. The park was spared, but not nearby Shellburg Falls, which was intensely burned, with no surviving forest. The Little North Fork valley was equally charred, including historic structures at Opal Creek.

Upper Butte Creek Falls… spared by the fire

Meanwhile, the fires followed ridgetops above Abiqua and Butte Creeks, but left the waterfalls and big trees there intact. Butte Creek was on my mind, as I had just made a trip there last June, when I ran into a family learning to fly fish at Upper Butte Creek Falls. While this spot didn’t burn, it will still likely be affected by the fires. As we’ve learned following the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge, stream corridors spared by the actual fire will soon fill with logs downed by the burn, and this will likely be the case in places like Butte Creek in coming years.

Fishing at Butte Creek

I’ve posted many articles about fire, and our need to come to terms with both its inevitability and benefits. And while it was frustrating to learn that the Riverside Fire was — once again — human-caused, it’s also the case that the forest will recover. With that recovery comes opportunities to rethink how we manage the Clackamas River watershed, and I’ll be posting more on that topic in the coming year. If catastrophic fires are a reset for the forest, then they can also be a reset for how we manage them.

While the wildfires took center stage in Oregon in September, the COVID-19 crisis is the tragedy that will forever mark 2020. Like many, social distancing took me outdoors, but I quickly found that my usual haunts were packed with people, and too many were without masks or observing basic precautions for preventing transmission of the virus.

So, I ventured a bit farther afield in WyEast country, visiting several places for the very first time, but also taking great pains not to interact with others and risk accidentally being a spreader, myself. Once such place was Cliffs Park, a remarkable spot along the Columbia River that offers a stunning view of the Columbia River. On a quiet Sunday, I had the place to myself, but the empty fishing platforms were a reminder that indigenous peoples have been fishing these beaches for millennia — and that in our pandemic, Native Americans have been among the hardest hit by the virus.

Tribal fishing platforms at Cliffs Park

Cliffs Park

Looking downstream at Cliffs Park, WyEast rises above the basalt walls of the Gorge, and the scene seems timeless. Turn around and look upstream, and the John Day Dam fills the horizon, another reminder of the cultural devastation that white settlement brought to the indigenous societies that had flourished along the river for millennia — and the trauma they still carry from the loss of Celilo Falls, just downstream from Cliffs Park, and inundated by The Dalles Dam in 1957. This recent piece in Portland Monthly on the subject is well worth reading:

The Rise and Fall of Kah-Nee-Ta

It’s fairly easy to be socially distant (and completely alone) in the wide-open desert country east of Mount Hood, but what about some pandemic solitude on the mountain? It turns out to be in plain sight, if you’re willing to do some boulder-hopping. Over the summer, I made several cross-country forays into the White River flood zone, and to my surprise, the river channel abruptly changed sometime in late summer, before my final visit in late September.

The White River strikes back… again!

My guess is that a cloudburst or just some steady rain had kicked off a debris slide far up the canyon, but the volume was such that the entire floodplain was affected, with a couple feet of new sand and cobbles left behind by the flood. On my visit, the river was still trying to find its new course, and made a wonderful clattering noise it rocks and pebbles rolled down the stream in the muddy water.

The White River finding its new path

It’s not the first time the White River has changed course, that’s for sure, and it certainly won’t be the last. Seeing the raw forces of nature steadily at work was also quite reassuring. Yes, humanity has been struggling with a pandemic this year, but the mountain didn’t even notice. Nature has a way of putting our human frailty in helpful perspective, and reminding us that we’re temporary features here.

And, on a personal note…

Everyone has their list of reasons to hate 2020, and I certainly have mine. I’ll start with an odd one that connects some dots, and it’s about my photography. After decades of making some of the most innovative, compact cameras that seemed to be designed with hikers and active photographers in mind, Olympus announced last June that it would be selling off its camera division. What..??

It turns out that like all traditional camera makers, Olympus had seen sales sag with the explosion of smartphone and their amazingly good photo capability. No surprise, there, and I’m no exception. I marvel at what my iPhone can do. But I’ve also been a loyal Olympus user since I was 18 years old.

End of an era for this photographer? Not a chance! My newest Olympus (complete with collapsing 14-45mm zoom lens) sitting in the palm of my hand…

The good news is that the buyer of the Olympus line is planning to continue offering a full lineup under the old brand name, so we’ll see how that goes. But in the meantime, I used this troubling news as rationale to double down and pick up a few lenses and another camera body that will help me keep this blog full of photos for years to come!

Here’s where I will connect some dots, as the Olympus news had deeper significance with me, as I got the photography bug from my oldest brother Pete, who died in 2017. Pete is on my mind whenever I’m out in the forest or up in the mountains shooting with my beloved Olympus cameras. He helped me pick out my first Olympus camera when I was a teenager.

Me (left) as a 20-year old with my late brother Pete and my first Olympus way back in 1982. Pete was my photography inspiration and my mentor

Pete and I had a special connection that went beyond photography, and I’m thankful for the time I had with him, but I’m especially thankful for the time I still have to be out exploring the world. I’d wish he could still join me, and after losing him, I’ll surely never take my time on this earth for granted again.

This regrettable year also marked the passing of my dad on September 1. He was 91 years old, and like my brother Pete, had a huge impact on my life. Dad moved our family out here from Iowa in 1962, just few weeks before I was added as the last of five kids (and the only one born in Oregon). Dad was drawn to the Pacific Northwest by the active outdoor life, and passed that appreciation on to his kids — and to my mom, who passed away in September 2018. Together, they climbed mountains, backpacked, camped, fished and when it came time to retire, lived out their years on a forested hilltop.

My folks enjoying a pitcher and pizza just three years ago, in September 2017. These transplanted Iowans gave me my love of the Pacific Northwest outdoors

Needless to say, my life moving forward has changed forever with the loss of both parents and my oldest brother. But if every kid wants to make their family proud, I felt good when it came time to sort through the things my folks left behind. Their home was full of photographs, sketches and sculptures that I’d made for them over the years, and they had even saved every Mount Hood calendar I’d printed since starting these in 2004!

So, I know they were pleased that they had successfully planted that outdoor life and conservation ethic in me, and whatever I can do as a conservationist and advocate in my remaining life, it will be an extension of their influence — and Pete’s, too. I’ll always miss them, but whenever I’m in the outdoors, I’m really still with them!

Their passing is also a reminder to me (and all of us) that an essential part of being a conservationist and steward for our public lands is to pass along that ethic and passion to those who will follow us, a role that is now even more prominent in my own mind.

Looking forward to 2021!

What’s coming in 2021 for this blog? As always, I have lots of articles underway, and as I mentioned at the top, the potential for some very big news for the mountain. I will post on that topic as soon as I learn more. I also hope to see some of the Riverside Fire aftermath first-hand and report on what the Clackamas watershed looks like today, along with ongoing visits to some lesser-known spots in WyEast country.

The author at Lower White River Falls in June (with mask in stored position!)

Most of all, a return to life beyond the pandemic is on all of our minds, perhaps as soon as next summer. Until then, thanks for reading the blog and for indulging me in these annual reflections. Best to you in 2021, and I hope to see you on the trail, sometime!


Tom Kloster | December 2020

The Four Horsemen of the (WyEast Country) Apocalypse..?

Trail hazards of Biblical proportions? Not quite… but still worth avoiding! (“Four Horses of the Apocalypse” by Viktor Vasnetsov)

As our public lands begin to reopen this spring, a “revelation” (…ahem!) occurred to me that I should post a reminder of the four notable hazards that explorers in WyEast Country should be aware of as they head into the wilds — especially the Columbia River Gorge. 

Though not quite on the epic scale of the Biblical quartet of Death, Famine, War and Conquest (arriving on horseback!), these trail threats are real for hikers and should (and can easily) be avoided. I’ve written detailed articles on a couple of our local “horsemen” in the past, and you’ll find links within this article if you’re looking for a deeper dive. The fourth “horseman” is lesser known, will likely be a surprise to you, so read on!

The First Horseman: Ticks

Several tick species are expanding their range in Oregon, so it’s a fact of life that we all need to accept and build health and safety routines into our outdoor activity. I posted this longer article on ticks several years ago:

Ticks! Ticks! 10 Common Myths

This article continues to be the most-read post on the blog, viewed 185,000 times and counting! That’s a good sign that people are aware of the threat and becoming more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, it’s also true that a LOT of misguided and potentially dangerous misinformation and folklore about ticks is out there, so that’s why I posted the original piece.

Wood tick “questing” for CO2 emissions betraying a potential host (Bay Area Lyme Foundation)

While tick bites can be painful and become infected, the more serious concern is Lyme Disease. Not long ago, it was a distant worry for Oregonians, but over the past decade several cases have been reported from tick bites in Oregon, including in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Therefore, every hiker should become familiar with the symptoms of Lyme Disease and how to react if they appear after a tick bite — this is also covered in my earlier article on Ticks.

How to avoid: Ticks are thick in the dry forests and open meadows of the Columbia River Gorge, mostly east of Cascade Locks. They seem to be most abundant in the area between Hood River and The Dalles. When hiking in this area, always wear long pants, ideally tucked into your socks, long sleeves and avoid lingering in tall grass or brush, as this is prime tick habitat. 

Ticks find us by detecting the CO2 we emit, and they simply wait on a stem of grass or twig for us (or a deer, or any other red-blooded host) to pass by, and jump on when we brush against them. Ticks are in the arachnid family, and like their spider cousins, have eight legs. Through a behavior known as “questing”, ticks hold their front legs up to function as CO2 antennae when stalking a host (below), and simply climb on when one wanders by.

Deer Tick “questing” (University of Rhode Island)

Once onboard, ticks move quickly to locate uncovered skin and latch on to their host to feed on blood. While you might notice a tick biting you, you’re more likely to discover them when you get home from a hike, firmly embedded. So, everyone should do a complete body scan (with a hand mirror) followed by a shower after spending time in the Gorge, Clackamas Country or the sagebrush country east of Mount Hood.

Should you discover a tick, I recommend using the “Pro-Tick Remedy” tool (below) to remove it. I’m an infamous “tick magnet” and have pulled many of these unwelcome guests over the years. This simple tool works best, and it’s cheap — under $10 online. I carry one in every pack and even when I’m traveling. Tiny and effetive.

Forget the tweezers and folklore about burnt matches or kerosene, this little tool is optimized for tick removal — and comes with an attached magnifier for old folks like yours truly!

By the way, if you want to ensure you’ll bring ticks home from your next hike in the east Gorge, bring your dog! You probably won’t notice the ticks until they’re crawling around the car on the drive home, and even dogs with Advantix or similar protection can still carry plenty of ticks on their fur. I have three wonderful dogs, but I leave them home when I’m in tick country. It’s just safer for my pups and me!

The Second Horseman: Poison Oak

A beautiful and adaptive plant, our native Poison Oak occurs throughout the Columbia River Gorge, in Clackamas country and along Mount Hood’s east slope. We could even use this elegant plant in our gardens if… oh, right… it’s toxic! I posted this blog article on Poison Oak several years ago:

10 Common Poison Oak Myths

 This piece continues to get heavy traffic every year, and it’s right behind the tick article as a most-read article, with over 84,000 views and counting! That’s good news, as awareness of its appearance and habitat is everything in coping with this plant. 

“Leaves of three, let it be!” A lush patch of Poison Oak along the Wahkeena Falls trail.

Unlike ticks, Poison Oak is not stalking you… though sometimes it can feel that way when you find yourself in a dense thicket! But once you know how to spot the oak-shaped leaves, grouped in threes, it’s easy to spot and avoid. Poison Oak plant has three growth forms that are also important to recognize: it can grow as a low groundcover, in a thicket as a dense shrub and as a vine, climbing 30 feet or more up a tree trunk. All three forms develop from the same species and have the same leaf form, they are just adaptations of Poison Oak to its conditions. 

Poison Oak prefers open forests, and especially forest margins along meadows or rocky outcrops. It can almost always be found among our iconic Oregon White Oak stands in the Gorge, where its leaves are easy to confuse with the true oaks. So, when hiking in White Oak country, just assume there’s Poison Oak, as well, and tread mindfully.

Poison Oak has oils on its leaves and in its stems (and roots) that are the source of skin reactions for so many of us. The plants are deciduous, so you’re much less likely to have a reaction during the winter months, though some have reported a reaction to even the bare stems. They are most toxic in spring, when their emerging, new foliage shines with oil.

Poison Oak along the McCord Creek Trail growing in the groundcover form

How to avoid: I’ve been hiking in the Gorge for the better part of a half-century, and have never had a reaction to Poison Oak. What does this mean? For starters, I know what it looks like, where it grows and I’m careful to avoid it, and I also wear long pants and long sleeves in Poison Oak country. But it could be that I’m immune — some people are. After all, I’ve certainly come in contact with Poison Oak many times, despite my best efforts to avoid it.

However, evidence suggests that once you do develop a skin reaction to Poison Oak, you are more likely to react from future exposure. This is at odds with one of the most pervasive (and dangerous) folklore remedies out there that you can create an immunity by intentionally developing a rash. Quite the opposite, and that’s good motivation for learning what Poison Oak looks like, avoiding it, and always washing up when you get home from a day in the Gorge. 

Poison Oak on the McCord Creek Trail growing as vines that can climb thirty feet into the tree canopy

Research shows that plain old soap and water is just as effective in removing toxic oils as expensive chemicals sold as poison oak “cures”. The key is to act soon in removing any oils you might have picked up on exposed skin. I carry baby wipes in the car and to do a quick pass on exposed skin before the ride home, where I immediately take a soapy shower (after a tick check) to remove any remaining residue. All clothing from the hike goes straight to the wash with regular detergent. These simple steps are good prevention for both Poison Oak and ticks, so well worth incorporating into your hiking routine.

Did you know you can develop a Poison Oak reaction without ever touching a plant? It’s true. Just take your dog into Poison Oak country — especially off-leash, where you can’t monitor where Fido has been. Dogs aren’t so worried about counting those “leaves of three”, and why should they? Dogs (and cats) are immune to the oils. But the DO pick it up on their fur, later transferring it to unsuspecting owners on the ride home, or even days later to other people they encounter. So, it’s a good idea to leave your dog home when hiking in areas where Poison Oak is abundant.

The Third Horseman: Rattlesnakes

Our Western Rattlesnakes are a maligned lot. But as our only venomous snake, they are under-appreciated for the role they play controlling rodent populations. While Western Rattlesnakes occur throughout the Columbia River Gorge and much of WyEast country, they’re most common in the east Gorge and high desert country on the east slopes of the Cascades. The fear factor associated with rattlesnakes has led to these beautiful and beneficial creatures being heavily exterminated where their habitat overlaps ours, and they are losing that battle.

Bites from Western Rattlesnakes are rare, as these quiet predators are generally shy and avoid people. Most encounters come when hikers aren’t watching the trail ahead or traveling cross-country in rattlesnake country, and surprise or even step on one. Their strikes are almost always defensive, and preceded by a warning rattle. And they are often “dry” strikes without venom. While painful, their bites rarely cause serious tissue damage if treated within 18 hours, and death from a Western Rattlesnake bite is exceptionally rare. 

Western Rattlesnake among the spring wildflowers at Dalles Mountain Ranch State Park

The Western Rattlesnake in the above photo was resting in patch of Lupine at Dalles Mountain Ranch when I came across him (her?) while exploring cross-country a few years ago. I was still at least six feet away when the rattling alerted me of its presence, and had time to set up my camera for a photo. I was never closer than four feet, and the rattlesnake simply waited me out. It was a typical encounter with this quiet species.

How to avoid: Rattlesnakes spend most of their daylight hours coiled up in a protected spot — near their dens, which are typically under a rock, log or sagebrush. When hiking (especially off-trail), simply watch your feet when you’re stepping over these natural protections. Even if you do encounter a Western Rattlesnake, you’re more likely to get an impressive warning rattle and a defensive, coiled posture than a strike. Only by stepping on one or deliberately provoking it are you likely to trigger a strike. Decent boots, boot socks and long pants are always a good idea when hiking. Rattlesnakes are just one more reason why, though quite low on the threat list compared to ticks and Poison Oak.

The Fourth Horseman: Green Blister Beetles

Here’s one you didn’t see coming! Sure, there are plenty of bugs that can bite or sting you in the outdoors, but if you don’t have bee allergies, these are mostly an itchy nuisance. But, then there’s the Green Blister Beetle. You’ve heard of these, right? 

Green Blister Beetles in a Lupine meadow near Tygh Valley

Well, me neither — but I learned about them after encountering some in the field recently, and they have quite a storied AND toxic history. From the National Poison Control Center:

“Blister Beetles excrete a toxic blistering agent called cantharidin, which can cause irritation and blistering when it comes in contact with the eyes, skin, mouth, throat, or digestive tract. The irritation and blisters that form can be painful but usually are not life-threatening. Blister Beetles are notorious for their ancient use as an aphrodisiac. Not only is such use groundless, it can also be fatal.”

Cantharidin is also known as Spanish Fly, and has a long and deadly history of use as both a medicine and supposed aphrodisiac. When I encountered hundreds of Green Blister Beetles in a lupine meadow among sagebrush, near Tygh Valley, they struck me as both beautiful and interesting. But I’m glad I didn’t think to touch one, as I later learned how they earned their name. It’s worth reading the full warning at the National Poison Control center if you spend time hiking in east side meadows and sagebrush country:

Blister Beetles: Do Not Touch!

How to avoid: Green Blister Beetles are easy to avoid. They’re not out to get you, and for the most part ramble around on vegetation stalking other bugs as prey. Like most beetles, they can fly short distances when disturbed, and in the off-chance one lands on you, the Poison Control Center recommends gently blowing it off (vs. flicking or picking it off) and washing any exposed skin it might have come in contact with.

Green Blister Beetles mating near Tygh Valley

But more importantly, I’ve included Green Blister Beetles as the Fourth Horseman because they are quite beautiful, and a natural magnet for young kids looking to catch bugs. The Poison Control Center warning includes a sobering story of a 10-month old infant becoming dangerously ill from eating one. So, if you’re taking youngsters on hikes on the east side, it’s an opportunity to teach them about these beetles and why they should never be handled… along with how to recognize Poison Oak!

Honorable Mention – Northwest Forest Scorpion

There’s only room for four “horsemen” here… but I couldn’t resist an honorable mention for our fearsome-looking Northwest Forest Scorpion here. While these rarely-seen creatures can have an uber-primal effect on people, our native species is relatively harmless. They just look scary! Biologists equate it to a bee sting which rarely requires medical attention — a welcome alternative to its deadly cousins found around the world!

Scorpion along the Tamanawas Falls Trail — intimidating to see, but not a serious hazard for hikers

Northwest Forest Scorpions are nocturnal, so you’re unlikely to ever encounter one. They belong to the Arachnid family, and spend their nights preying upon small bugs. Scorpions live in forested canyons throughout WyEast country, typically near water, and spend their days resting under rocks or logs. I came across the scorpion in the above photo while clearing a couple of large rocks from the Tamanawas Falls trail, and found this 4-inch specimen curled up underneath.

In recent years, a thriving colony of scorpions at the top of Angels Rest were spotted, and images and videos have been making the rounds in social media, triggering reactions from fascination to horror. But unless you handle or provoke one, the risk of a sting from our native scorpion is minimal.

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So, why the menacing title for this article? Mostly for fun, but also because the word Apocalypse comes from the Greek language, and describes “an unveiling of things not previously known.” Hopefully, this article has been a pint-sized “apocalypse” by that definition! 

And while our four “horsemen” are certainly consequential hazards worth avoiding in WyEast Country, they shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the outdoors. Simple awareness and a few precautions do the job, and besides… that long highway drive to the trailhead is infinitely more dangerous than what you might encounter along the trail!

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Tom Kloster | WyEast Blog