Mount Hood rises over the Western Juniper forests on the east side of the Cascades
One of the most startling features of the Cascade Range comes from the rain shadow effect the mountains have on approaching Pacific storms. Through a process known as “orographic lifting”, weather systems rolling in from the ocean are forced up and over the wall of mountains when they reach the Cascades. This lifting has the effect of wringing out moisture from the clouds, resulting in rainforests on the west side and deserts on the east side of the mountains.
The rain shadow effect it especially prominent in WyEast country, where the Cascade range is at its narrowest, just 50 miles wide, compared to more than 100 miles or more across in much of the range. In less than an hour traveling through the Columbia Gorge from Troutdale to Hood River, the landscape changes from deep rainforests where up to 140 inches of rain fall annually to the Ponderosa pine and Oregon White Oak forests of the east slope, where annual rainfall dips below 20 inches.
Western Juniper finally give way to desert grasslands and sage in the rain shadow of Mount Hood, where annual rainfall drops below 10 inches
In the extreme rain shadow of the Cascades, where rainfall dips below 10 inches annually, the big conifers that define our forests finally give way to a sagebrush, grasslands and a rugged desert tree, the Western Juniper. Long overlooked as “non-commercial” (meaning it is not easily harvested as saw logs), these scrappy trees have been flourishing over the past century on the desert plains and buttes east of the mountains.
Mount Hood has its own juniper forests, though they are less widespread here than elsewhere in Oregon’s high desert country. The reason for this is agriculture. Much of the rolling desert terrain east of the mountain has been cultivated for well more than a century, originally for intensive grazing, and today for highly productive wheat farming.
Western Juniper still thrives at Juniper Flat, taking hold wherever the ground isn’t actively plowed
Yet, there are still Western juniper stands sprinkled through even the most heavily cultivated areas, and as you move away from the farms and the lowlands of the Columbia River Basin — Western Juniper mostly grow above 2,000 feet elevation — there remain many thriving Western Juniper forests.
The most extensive of these is (appropriately) at Juniper Flats, located 25 miles to the southeast of the mountain, on a rocky tableland adjacent to the White River Canyon. This is typical Western Juniper country — cold, sometimes snowy winters and hot, very dry summers. The soils here are thin, resting on a bedrock of basalt. The few areas that can be farmed have been cultivated, but the rest of Juniper Flat is grazing country where Western Juniper flourish.
When Juniper Flat got its modern name from white settlers arriving on the Oregon Trail, it’s very likely the juniper forests here looked much different than what we see today. That’s because our juniper forests are on the move and expanding.
Botanists generalize juniper forests into three community types:
• Mixed forests – these are where Western Juniper are mixed with Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir and other big conifers on the margins of the mountain forest zone.
Large Ponderosa Pine anchor this mixed forest, surrounded by lighter green Western Juniper that take on a tall, slender form in mixed forests
•Juniper forests – these occur where Western Juniper dominates and the trees grow relatively close together, with a canopy that typical covers 10-20% of the landscape
Juniper forest on the march at Juniper Flat where these trees are recolonizing a fallow farm field
•Juniper savanna — where Western Juniper are widely scattered in desert grasslands and their canopy covers less than 10% of the landscape
Juniper are widely scattered across this savanna in the shadow of Mount Hood, along the west edge of Juniper Flat
Scientists have documented an exponential increase in Western Juniper growing in Oregon since the late 1800s, in many cases transforming former juniper savannah to become juniper forests. This was likely the case at Juniper Flat, and today it mostly qualifies as a juniper forest.
In a landmark report published in the late 1990s, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found that over half of Oregon’s juniper forests we established between 1850 and 1900. Still more startling is the spread of Western Juniper since the 1930s, when the first comprehensive assessment was made. At the time the BLM study was released in 1999, an estimated a five-fold increase in juniper forest coverage had occurred over the previous 60 years.
That number of Western Juniper in Oregon continues to increase today, though there is an upper limit for these trees. Their sweet spot is desert lands above 2,000 feet elevation and between 10” and 20″ of annual rainfall. They do not seem to spread much beyond these areas, and in Oregon they are now present across most areas that meet these criteria.
Western Juniper berries are a critical winter food source for coyotes, foxes, rabbits and many desert bird species. These are also the berries the Dutch famously learned to distill in the 17th Century to make gin (a word derived from the Dutch word “jenever” for juniper), and a craft distillery industry using these berries has emerged in Oregon
Western Juniper foliage is evergreen and made up of tiny, overlapping scale-like leaves that help these trees conserve moisture in their harsh desert habitat
Western Juniper bark is tough, shaggy and fire-resistant, allowing larger trees to survive moderate intensity range fires
Given their recent spread in Oregon, Western Juniper forests are also remarkably age-diverse when compared to the even-aged stands we often see with young conifer forests. A typical juniper forest contains a diverse range of trees, from young to old. These trees are tough survivors, with fully one quarter of Oregon’s juniper forests more than a century old, and over a third of these forests have century-old trees in their mix.
Why are Western Juniper forests spreading? One answer is lack of wildfire in the ecosystem over the past century due to human fire suppression. Another could be effects of climate changes that scientists are only beginning to understand. Still another is the parceling and residential development of our desert lands, and a shift away from farming and ranching, where juniper forests were routinely cleared or burned.
Most think of Nevada as the heart of Western Juniper country, but more than three quarters of Oregon falls within its range, and a good share of California, Washington is also prime habitat for these rugged trees
As desert survivors, Western Juniper have adapted in ways that help them out-compete with other desert plants. They have enormous root systems that can extend several times beyond the size of their crown, spreading up to two and half times the height of the tree in all directions, compared to most trees with root systems roughly proportional to the width of their crown. This helps explain the wide spacing of Western Juniper. Where our big mountain conifers often grown just a few feet from one another, juniper forests might have as few as ten trees per acre, thanks to their huge root systems.
Western Juniper crowns are also part of their competitive strategy. Their dense foliage is estimated to capture more than half the precipitation that falls upon them. Some of this is absorbed, some evaporates, but the net effect is less moisture making it to understory plants or the soil.
The small Western Juniper on the left will have to work hard to complete with its larger neighbor for water and soil nutrients. Juniper are highly efficient in their ability to gather and store moisture, out-competing other species and even their own seedlings to survive
Juniper root systems also out-compete the desert understory species that are most associated with juniper forests. These include several sagebrush species, Bitterbrush, Rabbitbrush and a few other hardy desert shrubs, along with desert grasses and wildflowers. This has emerged as a chief concern for the BLM, since this translates into impacts on the cattle industry that leases federal grazing allotments. Beyond the economics of cattle grazing (and more importantly), the loss of understory also has impacts that ripple through wildlife populations, as well.
Another concern with the spread of our juniper forests is the potential risk to private property and human life from wildfire. Western Juniper is adapted to fire, and large trees are likely to survive low-intensity fires, but they can also burn hot when conditions are right. If juniper forests have spread rapidly in Oregon’s deserts over the past century, human development in juniper country has spread still faster, placing tens of thousands of rural homes at risk to wildfire.
This BLM fuels reduction work removed about one third of the trees in this juniper forest – mostly larger trees. The cut wood and limbs are simply stacked and left to decompose. The goal is to mimic the effect of fire in maintaining and open forest and understory that might otherwise be pushed out by juniper
These concerns have led the BLM to carry out “fuels reduction” projects in juniper forests on federal lands in Oregon as early as the late 1980s. One approach is controlled burns, a practice used in other conifer forests to reintroduce wildfire to the ecosystem after a century of aggressive fire suppression. This method ideally leaves the largest junipers standing and thins out younger trees, and it has been used successfully throughout juniper country. However, fires sent intentionally continue to be a controversial practice, as evidenced by the massive New Mexico wildfires currently burning that were ignited by controlled burns. In the era of climate change, land managers will need to revisit “safe” seasons for using this tool or risk public backlash that threatens to ban the practice completely.
Another approach to “fuels reduction” is simply cutting down trees and leaving them behind as debris piles, as pictured above. This approach works where there isn’t enough understory to support a controlled burn, or where proximity to private property makes a controlled burn too dangerous. However, it’s also labor intensive compared to controlled burns and still leaves cut debris behind as potential fuel.
In areas where these approaches were employed in the 1980s and 90s, subsequent monitoring by the BLM slowed that young juniper were already colonizing burned or cleared areas within just five years. Therefore, so long as natural wildfires are suppressed in juniper country, techniques like these will be needed in perpetuity to maintain some semblance of a natural ecosystem and to protect human life and property.
This craggy old fire survivor is surrounded by young Western Juniper quickly colonizing a former burn
This points to the larger problem of rural over-development throughout the West that continues to encroach on our forests. We’ve created a perfect storm with fire suppression and sprawling that climate change is only escalating, with whole communities now facing the risk of being swept up in catastrophic fires.
In Oregon, strict land use planning has blunted rural sprawl since the 1970s, yet some of the impetus for statewide planning was the “sagebrush subdivisions” that were already underway when legendary Governor Tom McCall railed against them in 1973. Loopholes in county zoning codes have since allowed thousands more homes to be built in the deserts of Central Oregon, in particular. For these spread-out communities that already exist in juniper country, fire prevention campaigns are encouraging those living there to “harden” their homes against fire. Yet, if you spend much time in juniper country, you know that the vast majority of homes continue to be built with wood siding and most of the older homes have highly flammable composition roofing.
Many of these areas should never have been developed as home sites, of course. And as fires continue to consume whole communities in the West, there’s a good chance that cost of fire insurance or the inability to secure home loans might prevent simply rebuilding when fires in high-risk areas do occur. We’ve seen this play out in chronically flooded areas in other parts of the country, after all. The West is still coming to grips with the permanent reality of wildfire, however, and it’s unclear if we have the collective will to say no to development in fire-prone areas like our juniper forests.
Before farming, much of the juniper country near Mount Hood looked like this – open desert grasslands and scattered groves of Western Juniper. This remnant landscape at the edge of Juniper Flat, looking north to Tygh Ridge
Meanwhile, the juniper forests continue to spread and flourish in Oregon. The situation in Wy’East country is more complex, though: much of the historic juniper habitat east of Mount Hood was converted to agriculture long ago. Yet, today, some of that ground is going fallow, whether by economic realities in a global agriculture market, or because large farm parcels are being picked up by non-farmers, reverting to native plant cover. Some fallow land is being purchased for conservation purposes, either by public agencies or conservation non-profits. If these trends continue, we may see the juniper forests spreading in Mount Hood’s shadow, too.
There aren’t great trails or developed recreation sites in Mount Hood’s juniper forests (someday, hopefully!), as much of the area is in private hands. But if you like exploring rustic backroads, Juniper Flat and nearby Smock Prairie are scenic and rich with history. Dozens of abandoned homesteads and barns, a couple old schoolhouses and some fascinating pioneer cemeteries are sprinkled along the gravel roads that crisscross the hay fields and juniper groves. Juniper Flat is located immediately west of the community of Maupin and about 125 miles from Portland, along US 197.
After nearly ten years of informal meetings and town halls, Senator Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer recently released a much-anticipated framework for legislation that will fundamentally change the management direction for Mount Hood and expand protections for the Columbia River Gorge.
The legislative details are forthcoming, but for now Sen. Wyden and Rep. Blumenauer are asking for public comment on a general legislative concept by January 7 – this Friday! That’s a very short comment period, but if you love WyEast Country (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t!) please consider weighing in, even if only to send a sentence or two on what is most important to you as this legislation takes shape.
Here are 10 things to know about this new proposal for Mount Hood and the Gorge:
1. It’s a very big deal for Mount Hood! At this time, it’s still a legislative concept, but it will frame the ultimate details of the legislation, and the scope of the concept is broad. This is the most sweeping legislation proposed for Mount Hood since the Oregon National Forest was created in 1908 (and later renamed the Mount Hood National Forest in 1924). This is a big deal for Mount Hood. More than the original Mount Hood Wilderness area created with the Wilderness Act in 1964, more than the subsequent wilderness additions in 1978, 1984 and 2009. And more than the Northwest Forest Act of 1992.
Why? Because the legislation would shift the core function of the forest away from commercial logging and toward forest restoration and enhanced recreation. This is a sea change for the Forest Service – and for the mountain. The degree to which this pivot is enforced in law depends solely on what the coming legislation says, and therefore the importance of weighing in early and often (as Rep. Blumenauer likes to say).
2. It’s big deal for the Gorge, too! While the greatest impact of the proposed legislation would be on Mount Hood and the federal lands that surround the mountain, additional protections and recreation enhancements for the Gorge are part of the proposal. They represent the most important step forward since the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area was established in 1986.
Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge
3. Say it with me: Mount Hood National Recreation Area! The central and most powerful feature of the legislative concept is a dramatic expansion of the Mount Hood National Recreation Area (NRA). “Expansion” you might ask? Since when has a Mount Hood NRA even existed? Since 2009, as it turns out – though few know this, and it’s understandable. The awkwardly titled “Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness” bill that President Obama signed into law in 2009 added new wilderness and a number of other protections for Mount Hood, but tucked into the bill were three small areas to the east and southeast of the mountain deemed the “Mount Hood NRA”.
At the time, the creation of these NRA postage stamps was really just a consolation prize to mountain bikers who stood to lose access to trails falling inside the new wilderness areas. This is a frustrating and contentious issue among should-be conservation allies that was never anticipated when the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964 (bicycles are interpreted as mechanized, and thus excluded under the law). Though token as the original Mount Hood NRA units were, I wrote in this article several years ago that they also represented an opportunity to someday help Mount Hood achieve full recognition as a national treasure worthy of permanent protection. It was legislative foot in the door that may be about to open much wider.
The power of the NRA is clear in the legislative concept: it would encompass most of the Mount Hood National Forest north the Clackamas River, or roughly half the forest. The Forest Service would be thereby directed to write a new management plan for this vast area that focuses on forest restoration, recreation and watershed and water quality. This is a long-overdue change from the commercial logging mission that has hammered the mountain since the 1950s. As envisioned in the legislative concept, the new mandate would be to restore forest health and promote recreational activities that are in concert with a recovering forest that will be allowed to grow old, once again.
Rainforest along Whale Creek on the Clackamas River Trail
Did you know the current plan guiding the Forest Service for their management decisions was adopted more than 30 years ago, in 1990? The Portland region, alone, has grown by well over 1 million residents in that time, but aside from expansion of the commercial ski resorts, recreation opportunities on Mount Hood haven’t expanded — with the resulting traffic and trailhead crowding we see as a familiar reminder. The legislative concept speaks directly to this crisis in management, with a clear directive to the Forest Service to change its focus to better reflect the interests and concerns of a changed region. This is a sea change for Mount Hood.
Conservationists remain wary of the NRA, however. Why? Because they rightly point to the fact that every NRA in this country is a bit different, each tailored to the specific area they were created for. In Oregon, this includes the Oregon Dunes and Hells Canyon, for example. While some NRAs are written with conservation in mind, others are relatively toothless and don’t give the Forest Service much direction in how to manage these areas. This is why the details in the legislative language matters.
4. More Wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers. Senator Wyden has been particularly focused on expanding Oregon’s system of Wild & Scenic Rivers in recent years, a protection that mostly prevents rivers from being dammed, but also offers other protections intended to keep river corridors healthy and functioning for wildlife. The proposed legislation would add sections of the West Fork Hood River, Lake Branch, Coe and Eliot Branches, Cold Spring Creek and the Dog River to the Wild & Scenic River system in the Hood River basin, alone. On the west side of the mountain, sections of the Clear Fork of the Sandy River, Zigzag River and Still Creek would be added to the Wild & Scenic River system. The limit to this protection is that it only applies to public lands, and most of these streams flow through private lands, as well. These stretches located outside public ownership are not included in the legislative concept.
Wilderness expansions are an expected part of any new conservation bill for Mount Hood and the Gorge, even though most of the truly wild areas have already protected through past legislation. Therefore, most of the new areas being proposed are expansions of existing wilderness, including Lost Lake Butte, the middle Coe and Eliot Branch canyons near Cloud Cap, popular Tamanawas Falls, the east side of Bluegrass Ridge, the Red Hill area along the Old Vista Ridge trail and several small expansions along the east end of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness.
Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek, one of the new wilderness areas in the proposed legislation
5. Moving trail stewardship up the Forest Service priority list? Ask someone who volunteers as a trail steward for one of the non-profits who work in WyEast Country (Trailkeepers of Oregon, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Mazamas, Backcountry Horsemen, Oregon Equestrian Trails, and Oregon Mountain Biking Coalition, to name among the most active) and they will tell you that one of the main obstacles in putting tools in the hands of volunteers on our trails is the Forest Service, itself. Compared to working with local and state land managers, navigating the Forest Service is a real challenge, even when you’re trying to bring needed resources in the form of volunteer labor.
The legislative concept builds on outreach conducted by Rep. Blumenauer’s staff to most of these groups to figure out what’s missing in the current Forest Service structure and what could be done differently to make trail stewardship volunteering easier. As written, the concept is a bit squishy, but the general themes of dedicating more Forest Service staff to serve as a coordination hub, and giving them new tools for coordinating virtually with volunteers is a good start. More thoughts on this topic follow in this article.
6. Talking with the tribes. This legislative concept has been in development for a while, and to the credit of Rep. Blumenauer and Sen. Wyden, it was slowed along the way to ensure meaningful consultation with affected tribes. As drafted, the legislative concept focuses on Forest Service obligations to better consult and coordinate with the tribes and to specifically to deliver on a first foods plan that would be added to the policies that guide forest management. More thoughts on this topic follow, as well.
Looking across the Columbia River to the town of Lyle from Rowena Plateau
7. Gorge Towns to Trails vision. Long advocated by Friends of the Columbia Gorge, this is a bold, long-term vision to create a European-style trekking network encircling the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The legislative concept gives a nod to the vision in all but name, along with a general direction to the Forest Service to develop a comprehensive system plan for all trails the Gorge.
It’s no secret that in the past the Columbia Gorge Commission staff has viewed new trails in the Gorge quite negatively, and National Scenic Area staff have also been reluctant to consider trail expansion, as well. This, despite the overwhelming growth in demand and resulting overcrowding that is apparent to anyone who spends time in the Gorge. The proposed legislation would guide staff at both agencies with a clearer vision for how and where trails will be expanded in the Gorge, and how existing trails experiencing overuse can be better managed.
8. Improving Mount Hood & Gorge Transportation. Who can argue with this? It can only get better, right? And yet, this is perhaps the squishiest of the elements in the legislative concept, as most of what it calls for is already being provided and the concept simply calls for more – as in more public transit and transportation “options” (read: bikeways?), more rest areas, more law enforcement, more emergency response capacity. What the concept misses is that transportation, itself, is a recreation experience, not just a service. More thoughts on this topic follow below, as well.
The Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood (September 2, 2011)
9. Forest Fire “management”? Well, it’s safe to say that as a society we are beginning to grapple with the reality that a century of aggressive forest fire suppression coupled with a warming climate has set up an impossibly volatile circumstance in our forests. But I would emphasize the word “beginning”, because while the scientists and public agencies (and even a few politicians) understand the situation, there remains intense public pressure to somehow prevent forest fires – especially from people who live in the so-called “urban-rural interface”. This is policy jargon for people who live on private forested acreages abutting our public lands in places like the U.S. 26 corridor, and who are at real risk from catastrophic forest fires.
At best, we might be able to reduce the number of human-caused fires. These are still the majority, including the massive Riverside (2020) and Eagle Creek (2017) fires that scorched a large chunk of Mount Hood National Forest in the past five years. The proposed legislation tries to ease into this with by requiring the Forest Service to create a “mitigation and adaptation” plan for managing both fire risk and response. “Mitigation” would include prescribed burns and thinning crowded plantations on old clear cuts to improve forest health and fire resilience – two of the main ways the Forest Service is responding to the growth in catastrophic fires in the West.
“Adaptation” is less defined in the proposed legislation, however. The elephant in the room are the thousands of homes and summer cabins (hundreds of them on federal land through 99-year leases) located in that “urban-rural interface”. Can they be protected? The fire that tore through the communities of Talent and Phoenix in Southern Oregon in 2020 didn’t stop at the urban-rural interface, they burned right in developed urban areas. “Adaptation” suggests that we might change how and where we live in relations to forests in the future, so what does that mean for the urban-rural interface, before or after fire? I don’t envy the Forest Service on this task, nor will this legislation solve the larger policy dilemma, but there’s no question it will need to be part of developing a Mount Hood NRA plan.
In a rare moment of justice, these target shooters were caught in a no shooting zone on Wildcat Mountain, and asked to clean up their trash while the deputy watched (2010)
10. Who isn’t for public safety in our forests? This is another topic the proposed legislation didn’t have much choice in acknowledging. Most who visit Mount Hood in the Gorge are keenly aware of the lawless activity that finds refuge in a vast area with little law enforcement presence. The legislative concept calls for more funding, including for local law enforcement, as well as “public education”. More thoughts on this topic follow, as well.
So, I’ve highlighted the main take-aways as a WyEast advocate who has long dreamed of a fundamental shift on management focus like this, but the legislative concept has more.
This will take you to an online form for sharing your thoughts. The following are what I plan to share during this comment period – and they might be useful to you, as well.
What’s Missing from the Concept?
Though there’s a looming comment deadline of January 7 (this Friday!), this legislative process is just getting started, and there will be more opportunities to weigh in while congressional staff drafts the actual legislation. With any luck (and some will be needed!) and enough support, this just might make it through the most divisive Congress in recent memory.
Here are a few things I’d like to see in the new Mount Hood legislation:
1. Restorative justice for the tribes. This means more than “living up to our statutory obligations”, as currently written in the legislative concept. Most of the statutes governing tribes in this country are rooted in our dark history of displacement and oppression of native populations, and the presumption that what was taken from the tribes must forever be lost. Restorative justice means to reverse the harm, and for Mount Hood and the Gorge might include restoring the ecosystems that provide first foods – as included in the legislative concept. But it might include dedicating or expanding public lands for the sole purpose of restoring exclusive tribal access to sacred places.
Restorative justice should include an inventory of interpretive and directional signage and symbols, too, to become inclusive of pre-white settlement history and customs, and reverse some of the cultural erasure caused by place names and white-centric written history. The most egregious examples are interpretive signs located along the Oregon Trail and Barlow Road. In my view, every one of these should include the perspective of native peoples who were pushed aside by westward expansion. But only the tribes can speak to this history from a perspective of cultural suffering, loss and continuing harm these migratory roads represent.
Only by meaningfully engaging and listening to the tribes can the Forest Service know what a larger restorative justice commitment would look like, but it should be part of their mandate for the proposed Mount Hood NRA.
Restorative justice for tribes begins with never forgetting — nor accepting — the cultural harm to native peoples caused by white settlement in WyEast country (Celilo Falls in the late 1950s, a few years before it disappeared behind The Dalles Dam)
2. Making public lands truly public. Show up at a popular trailhead in the Gorge or on Mount Hood and you’ll immediately see that our public lands are an overwhelmingly white space. This is especially true for trails and campgrounds, as many recent studies have documented. Why is this?
Ask a person of color, and researchers will tell you that white people who dominate the trails and campgrounds are a big part of the problem. The hostility ranges from outright and overt racist attacks to simple comments like “it’s so nice to see a person like you out here.” Well meant? Perhaps, but also unwelcome and uninvited when a simple “hello” is how a white person might have been greeted. Official signage at trailheads and campgrounds can be similarly hostile and unwelcoming in ways that are racist. It’s a problem that requires a plan of action to change.
Removing the barriers that make our public lands unwelcoming to people of color is within our reach, and must be at the core of how the proposed Mount Hood NRA is managed
The legislative concept should speak explicitly to this in the provisions required for the Mount Hood NRA management plan. As written, the concept vaguely mentions providing a “variety of recreational experiences to serve diverse users”. It should be more specific: our public lands have a racial diversity problem that implies specific bias that prevents black and brown Americans from sharing these special places equally. That’s unacceptable and should be a filter for everything in the new management plan.
Like the previous topic on restorative justice for tribes, this work must begin with the Forest Service directly engaging – and listening — to communities of color as they develop a plan of action. This conversation also means meeting black and brown communities where they are, not at a remote ranger station located miles from the nearest population center. It’s a long-overdue conversation and the proposed Mount Hood NRA is the perfect vehicle to begin this work.
3. Law enforcement without all the baggage? When I walked into White River Falls State Park last summer with a friend who is a young Black man, he groaned, cringed visibly and shook his head at a giant new sign (below) that the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department had placed at the trailhead. No doubt it was installed to deal with heavy vandalism in recent years to the historic structures in the park, but I’m quite sure the park managers didn’t intend the reaction my friend experienced. They message was intended to protect the very resources he came here to enjoy, but made him feel deeply unwelcome, instead.
This sign at White River Falls betrays a tone-deafness to how images of law enforcement might impact communities of color – in this case, literally the image a faceless authoritarian with a finger pointed at arriving visitors
It’s a painful fact that we live in fraught times with our law enforcement. So, when I read the public safety element of the legislative concept, I had that new sign at White River Falls in mind. What is the law enforcement issue there? Largely, young people tagging historic structures. I doubt the new sign with have much impact (except to become a new target for tagging?), but an occasional human law enforcement presence might help – or perhaps a security camera?
I don’t presume to know the answers, but having my own vehicles broken into a couple of times at trailheads — and having encountered much more troubling lawless behavior away from the more popular areas—I do think the idea of providing federal funding for expanded law enforcement through local counties is a good one. But given the times we live in, I’d also like to see that funding come with strings attached: the officers should be uniformed distinctly and differently from their local agency, as Mount Hood NRA officers. Creating a new, hybrid law enforcement identity would also be an opportunity to build some racial diversity in the generally rural law enforcement jurisdictions that would carry out this work.
I’m also quite open to security cameras at trailheads – as most hikers are (especially younger hikers). There was a time when this might have been controversial (say, ten years ago?) but today these are among the few public places that don’t have some sort of security monitoring, right down to our front doors, complete with doorbell cams. Lawless people know this, and it’s evidenced by the piles of broken glass than can be found throughout most of the major trailheads in the Gorge and on Mount Hood.
Law enforcement on public lands is a thorny topic, indeed, but one that needs more thought and attention than is reflected in the current legislative concept.
Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) volunteers building new trail at Punchbowl Falls Park
4. Set benchmarks for recreation. You may know that Congress has a long history of setting annual logging quotas for the Forest Service that must be met. So, if the purpose of the Mount Hood NRA is to shift the management emphasis of the forest from commercial logging to forest recovery and recreation for Mount Hood and the Gorge, why not set quotas for recreation?
This could be in the form of new trails and trailheads constructed, or the number of hikers who show up at trailheads – or both – measured per capita, as defined by the population living within 100 miles of the Mount Hood NRA, for example. Since the late 1960s, the Forest Service has acknowledged an ongoing growth in demand for trails, yet the system hasn’t grown, and what we have has increasingly fallen into disrepair. Why is this?
One of the greatest barriers to expanding trails is simply a mindset within the Forest Service. After decades of inadequate funding from Congress for trail construction and maintenance, the agency culture has been apprehensive to even talking about new trails. This, despite the obvious demand and overcrowding on the existing system. The problem also includes doing the needed planning, engineering and environmental assessments needed to advance new trail projects when funding does come – a critical obstacle that only the Forest Service can remove.
The proposed Mount Hood NRA provides an opportunity to link the new agency focus on recreation to both the growing interest in trails and sheer numbers of people living in proximity to the forest. If specific benchmarks were set up as funding incentive in the legislation, it could speed the transition of the Forest Service culture from logging to forest recovery and recreation, including making the planning work needed to move new trail projects from concept to construction a priority in agency budgets.
The opening segment of the new Mirror Lake Trail, the first accessible trail built on Mount Hood in decades
5. Accessible trails and trailheads are not a luxury. For too long our public land agencies have viewed recreation opportunities for people with disabilities as something outside the norm. The result is a woefully inadequate system of accessible outdoor trails for people who use walkers, wheelchairs or other mobility devices. As our population becomes increasingly older in coming years, and the share with disabilities grows, this unmet need for accessible trails will only accelerate.
There have been some shining successes – the Lost Creek nature trail and Little Crater Lake trail area couple of my favorites. But even these trails fail to get the basic maintenance needed to remain fully accessible. The legislative concept should include a specific provision that a complete system of accessible recreation facilities and sites be incorporated into the Mount Hood NRA plan and constructed as part of the benchmarked targets described above.
Who hasn’t stopped here to admire this roadside view?
6. Transportation IS a recreation experience! There’s a spot near Hood River, along the Mount Hood Loop, that I blogged about years ago. The view of Mount Hood and the upper Hood River Valley that unfolds there is world class. More often than not on a clear day, there’s a car or two pulled over, with someone taking photos with their phone. It’s not surprising, as since the original Mount Hood Loop was completed in the early 1920s, it has been a classic touring route. It just hasn’t been managed that way for many years.
It’s true that the modern Mount Hood Loop carries a lot of traffic, and the proposed legislation concept speaks to the basic transportation needs that exist – the lack of meaningful transit, the complete lack of a safe bikeway along Highway 35 and U.S. 26 and (less explicitly) the lack of what planners call “demand management” to promote incentives for visitors to use travel options like transit and visit outside of peak travel times. Demand management would include managing peak period parking at major trailheads and destinations in the Gorge and on Mount Hood – again, implied, but not specific.
These are all good things needed to make traveling around the mountain and through the Gorge a better experience, and less of a barrier to people who don’t have access (or prefer not to use a car), in particular. But the legislative concept should also call for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Forest Service to work collaboratively to create a transportation vision – a long-range plan to make the experience of traveling to and around the mountain a destination, in itself.
Congress can’t directly regulate ODOT, but it can regulate an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation known as the Western Federal Lands Highway Division. This is an agency with a regional office in Vancouver that has led several projects on Mount Hood in recent years, including the White River Bridge replacement, the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge restoration and designing and constructing the new Mirror Lake Trailhead. They have long worked with ODOT, and could be the avenue for the new legislation to be specific about improving the traveling experience on the mountain through a collaborative planning effort with ODOT.
ODOT’s designs for new structures in the Columbia Gorge draw from a carefully developed policy guidance developed by the agency (the new Fifteenmile Bridge on I-84)
Elements of a Mount Hood NRA transportation plan could build on the excellent design policy that ODOT has followed for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area over the past two decades. This policy guides the design and maintenance details of I-84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway from the smallest details (did you know the back of freeway signs in the Gorge are painted “national park brown”?) to bold, as ODOT gradually replaces old slab-style concrete freeway bridges in the Gorge with handsome new structures that are a visual complement to scenic area (shown above).
A Mount Hood NRA transportation plan should also incorporate the re-imagining of several long- abandoned or bypassed sections of the old loop highway into a continuation of the world-class Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail that is nearing completion in the Gorge. ODOT has built the in-house expertise for this work, and will soon have the capacity once their work on the Gorge trail “final five” miles is completes over the new few years. I posted two articles on this concept for Mount Hood early in 2021 (and have also shared these with congressional staff – please feel free to mention them in your comments, too!)
Another piece of the transportation puzzle that calls for a plan under the new Mount Hood NRA are the off-highway, paved forest routes, like Lolo Pass Road (FR 18/ FR 1810), Dufur Mill Road (FR 44) and White River Road (FR 48) that function as scenic drives, but suffer badly from disrepair and a complete lack of visitor amenities. Each of these routes needs a management plan and vision for making them the positive recreational experience that the public is already seeking when the venture on to these roads.
Which brings me to a final element of a Mount Hood NRA transportation plan – gateways, enhanced directional signage, waysides, pullouts and interpretive displays that tell the story of WyEast country to the traveling public. These are all things you would find in a parkway design in one of our national parks, and the Mount Hood NRA should have parkway designations for Highway 35, U.S. 26 and the off-highway routes mentioned above, too, with design guidelines to ensure a great travel experience as the system is developed over time. There are plenty of great parkway plans to draw from, the proposed legislation just needs to provide the mandate to do the work.
Civilian Conservation Corps crews building trail in the 1930s
7. The CCC? It was a great idea in 1932… And it’s still a great idea: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to get young, idle men off the street and into productive work that would give them job skills, food, housing, clothing and a modest paycheck ($30/month, of which $25 was sent to their families!). It was among the most popular New Deal programs, but sadly, the CCC was disbanded in 1942 as our country went to war.
The proposed Mount Hood NRA provides a unique opportunity to revive the CCC model, but in modernized form. The benefits to the NRA are clear, with youth workers helping to restore, build and maintain trails, trailheads and campgrounds, along with habitat and forest restoration work – all things the original CCC did, and whose work still shapes what we see in our forests today.
A modern CCC would be open to all youth, not just young men, and compensation could include college tuition credits, along with a paycheck, room and board. Mount Hood already has Forest Service facilities that could (again) become CCC camps – Camp Zigzag, Timber Lake in the Clackamas River corridor and the Herman Creek work center in the Gorge, to name some of the more obvious options.
The legislative concept hints at this possibility, but it should be fully incorporated as a core element of the vision for the Mount Hood NRA in order to drive the needed Congressional funding.
Badger Creek Wilderness and Mount Hood from the White River Wildlife Area
8. Let’s get the boundaries right.The overall scope of the Mount Hood NRA, as expressed on the draft map [link], is terrific. Notably, it includes both Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands along the west edge (along the US 26 corridor), as well as the various pieces of federal land that frame the upper Hood River Valley. It would have been easy to leave these small parcels out, but they provide an important starting point for public land acquisition by the Forest Service to better define the Mount Hood NRA – though a directive to do this work should be included in the legislation. The now-permanent Land and Water Conservation Fund already provides an important funding conduit for these needed land acquisitions.
There are also a few pieces missing from the proposed Mount Hood NRA on the concept map. First, most of the Badger Creek Wilderness is excluded. This is a big oversight if the goal of the proposed Mount Hood NRA is to shift the Forest Service focus to recreation. Why? Because the Badger Creek Wilderness has a deep backlog of trail maintenance needs that are out of reach for urban volunteers doing day trips, as many of the Badger Creek trails are remote and require overnight crews.
Second, the nearby Dog River drainage that falls within The Dalles watershed management area is excluded. The Dog River is proposed to become a Wild and Scenic River in the legislative concept, and the Dog River basin already has a lot of recreation activity, as it is not a fenced watershed. Well-traveled Dufur Mill Road (FR 44) travels extensively through the watershed, and a number of other forest roads, hiking and biking trails are in or near the watershed, including the popular High Prairie trailhead. It makes sense to include Dog River in the Mount Hood NRA in order to more effectively manage these activities — and to ensure that recreation will continue to be allowed here.
Pup Creek Falls is excluded from the proposed Mount Hood NRA, along most of the Clackamas River National Recreation Trail
A third map oversight is along the south edge of the proposed Mount Hood NRA, where the south half of the Roaring River Wilderness is left outside the proposed recreation area, along with a section of the Clackamas River that is traversed by the Clackamas River National Scenic Trail. Some of this area was burned in the 2020 Riverside fire, and that reality, alone, is reason enough to bring it into the NRA to direct resources toward rebuilding and restoring trails and campgrounds. While I would like to see the entire Clackamas basin brought into the NRA, that will have to wait for future legislation. For now, extending the proposed Mount Hood NRA boundary south to the Collawash River confluence would be a reasonable start.
The Upper Sandy Guard Station in better days. Today, it is on the brink of being unsalvageable, despite being on the National Historic Register
9. Don’t forget our history! Finally, an important missing element in the legislative concept is some sort of recognition that we are rapidly losing historic structures through the Mount Hood National Forest. The 2020 Riverside Fire destroyed several of these priceless buildings, so recognizing and preserving the remaining gems is even more urgent today. The Mount Hood NRA management plan should include an updated historic resources inventory and plan for capital investments needed to stabilize or restore sites and structures – ideally, in partnership with non-profit partners.
What can you do?
That’s a deep dive into the legislative concept, along with ways it might be improved. If you have read this far, kudos for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Gorge! The next step is to weigh in, and you’d be surprised how much your thoughts matter to congressional staff – they really do care! The timeline for commenting on the concept and map is short – they must be submitted by this Friday, January 7. Again, here’s the online form for commenting:
That said, if you’re not able to weigh in during this round, watch this space – I’ll post updates on the legislation as it (hopefully) moves forward. While there is a lot of major legislation churning through Congress right now, it’s entirely possible that this concept will get turned into a bill that makes it through both chambers… with a little luck and a push for all who love Mount Hood and the Gorge!
Forests of Noble fir forests spread out to the horizon along the crest of Waucoma Ridge, just north of Mount Hood (Mount Adams in the distance)
We’re coming into another holiday season when millions of Americans will set up a Christmas tree cut in Oregon. There’s a good chance it will be a Noble fir, long prized as the most beautiful and durable of Christmas trees, representing about a third of the cut tree industry here.
There was a time when Noble fir grown as holiday trees were left in their natural state, which features elegant tiers of symmetrical branches and soft, deep green, upwardly curving needles. In recent years, Nobles grown for mass-market consumption have increasingly been sheared to produce a densely branched, unnatural thicket (acknowledging my bias, here!) in the same way that Douglas fir have long been cultivated in the Christmas tree trade. Still, the un-sheared Nobles remain the gold standard, and they sell for gold-standard prices at tree lots, too.
New grown emerging on Noble fir boughs
Noble fir cones
In Oregon, families also have the option of cutting their own Christmas trees at U-cut tree farms, a popular benefit of living in a region that produces millions of holiday trees for the nation. It’s also possible to cut your own tree on National Forest land, a tradition that dates back a century or more. Though more regulated today by the U.S. Forest Service, families looking for a more adventurous option than local tree lot can head up to designated areas on the mountain (typically powerline corridors or recovering clear cuts) and bring home their own cut tree.
The author at age 11 (second from left) with family and friends on a 1973 trip to Lolo Pass to cut Christmas trees. Noble fir were always the goal, but in those days of heavier mountain snows, simply reaching the Noble fir zone in December was an adventure!
Christmas trees are pretty much the extent of public knowledge of the noblest of our true firs. As the common name might suggest, noble fir is the largest of all true firs. Their name was given in the fall of 1825 by botanist David Douglas when he ventured into the high country above the Columbia River River Gorge, in the vicinity of today’s Cascade Locks. Though he wasn’t specific about the peak he climbed on the north side of the river, it is believed to be today’s Table Mountain. A few days later, he climbed to a high point on the Oregon side, most likely today’s Benson Plateau.
On this pair of climbs, he came upon magnificent, old-growth stands of Noble fir, and gave them their well-deserved name. While they are undeniably beautiful as young trees, old-growth Noble fir are a sight to behold. Like many of our Pacific Northwest conifers, these trees grow to be giants, with the largest on record reaching nearly 300 feet in height and nearly 10 feet in diameter.
Old-growth Noble fir forests near Mount Hood’s Bennett Pass
An ancient Noble fir giant towers above the surrounding forest canopy near Bennett Pass
Noble fir are also unique to the Pacific Northwest, with a range that extends from just above of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington south to the Siskiyou Mountains in Southern Oregon and the Trinity Alps region along the northern edge of California. In their southern extent, they are known to hybridize with California’s Shasta fir, a variety of the Red fir that grows in the Sierras and extends into the southern fringe of the Noble fir range.
Despite their willingness to grow in planted rows as farmed Christmas tree seedlings in the hot, dry summers of the Willamette Valley floor, Noble fir are a subalpine species. They typically grow at elevations of 3,500 feet to 5,500 feet, where they are long-lived and acclimated to the harsh winters of our mountains. Not surprisingly, they grow more slowly under these conditions, but they are tremendously adaptable, and often grow on very steep mountain slopes and exposed, rocky ridgetops.
Centuries-old Noble fir giant near Bennett Pass
Noble fir is a sun-loving pioneer species in our forests, quickly colonizing in burn areas to form pure, long-lived stands. Hike through one of the towering old-growth stands found in the high country of the Columbia Gorge or on the peaks surrounding Mount Hood, and you’re likely walking through an old burn, with the age of the trees as a good indicator of when fire last roared through, long ago. That’s because they are not only post-fire colonizers, but also highly susceptible to fire as mature trees, as they lack the protective bark of fire-adapted conifers like Ponderosa pine and Western larch.
This cycle of burn-and-rebirth in our Noble fir forests is on full display today on the north slopes of Mount Hood, where the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire burned through sprawling stands of subalpine Noble fir. These forests were almost entirely killed where the fires swept through, yet today, the forest recovery is already well underway, with young Noble fir seedlings leading the way among other post-fire pioneer species.
Ghost forest of Noble fir skeletons where the Dollar Lake Fire swept through a decade ago
Ancient Noble fir killed by the Dollar Lake Fire will provide wildlife habitat for many decades to come as a new forest grows here
Noble fir seedling emerging from the charred ashes of the Dollar Lake Fire
Meanwhile, across the Clear Branch canyon on the north of the mountain, the forests along the crest of Blue Ridge and at Owl Point (along today’s Old Vista Ridge Trail) are made up almost entirely of Noble fir that had colonized an earlier burn there, one that occurred sometime in the early 1900s. This pair of photos (below) from Owl Point shows how the foreground was burned and just beginning to recover in 1952, while 70 years later the scene is reversed: the forests along Blue Ridge and Owl Point have largely recovered, while the north slope of the mountain is just beginning its recovery from the 2011 Dollar lake Fire.
When our Noble fir forests are spared of fire and logging, individual trees can easily live up to 400 years. The oldest known Noble fir have reached 600 to 700 years, though trees of this age are exceedingly rare after more than a century of commercial logging in the Pacific Northwest.
In the early days of extensive logging, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, true firs were considered a lesser wood, so the timber industry marketed the massive, old-growth Noble firs as “Larch”. This explains two Larch Mountains in the Columbia River Gorge, one on each side of the river, and each the site of extensive turn-of-the-century logging in the early 1900s. The better-known Larch Mountain is on the Oregon side, and its broad, high elevation slopes provided a perfect habitat for Noble fir.
Loggers felling a massive Noble fir on Larch Mountain in 1905
By the early 1900s, the Bridal Veil Mill on the Columbia River had established an upstream sister mill in the heart of these Noble fir forests, where the trees were hundreds of years old, having been spared by fire for many centuries. The upstream mill was known as the Palmer Mill (and later, New Palmer Mill, after the first mill burned), and a road on Larch Mountain still carries its name.
Loggers carried giant Noble fir cut on the slopes of Larch Mountain to the New Palmer Mill on logging railroads. This scene is from 1905
Old-growth Noble fir logs were milled at the original Palmer Mill site on the north slope of Larch Mountain. This scene is from 1896, when logging of the virgin Noble fir forests there was in its heyday
Palmer Mill was attached to the main mill by a long flume that followed Bridal Veil Creek, and it was the hub for a massive logging enterprise on Larch Mountain that felled most of the virgin Noble fir forests. Huge logs were first sent to Palmer Mill on a branched system of logging railroad spurs, then milled into rough lumber that was floated down the flume system to the Bridal Veil Mill for finishing into construction grade lumber.
Today, all but a few traces of the Palmer Mill are gone, and many of the Noble fir forests on Larch Mountain are approaching 100 years in age. The area somehow dodged the 2017 Gorge Fire that swept through vast areas of the Gorge, burning through thousands of acres of Noble fir forests in the Gorge high country.
Noble fir in the age of Climate Change
Today, Noble fir country in the western Oregon Cascades is a checkerboard of clear cuts that mark the advent of National Forest logging that began on a commercial scale in the late 1940s. When these trees were cut, the catch phrase used to justify logging ancient forests was “sustained yield”, though sustained yield forestry never envisioned restoring ancient forests to their natural state. Instead, the management philosophy was to provide a continual supply of 60-100 year-old trees from plantations that could be repeatedly logged via a vast network of logging roads built in our forests from the late 1940s through the early 1990s.
When 7.5 minute USGS maps were created in the 1950s and early 60s, there were already thousands of clear cuts on Forest Service lands that showed up on the new maps as a checkboard in heavily logged areas like Mount Hood’s Blue Ridge (shown here). Many more clear cuts followed, and sixty years later, these clear cuts are often overcrowded plantations of conifers that the Forest Service is now thinning through new timber sales
Despite the early bias against true firs, the wood produced by Noble fir eventually came to be valued for being light and strong, and was used during World War II in aircraft, as well as more common construction uses in windows, doors and paper production. This led to aggressive logging in the later years of the commercial timber boom of the 1950s-90s, when lower elevation forests had already been logged over, and high-elevation Noble fir forests were increasingly targeted.
The Pacific Crest Trail follows the crest of this ridge near Lolo Pass, where heavily logged, high-elevation Noble fir forests have been slow to recover. These clear cuts are now 40-50 years old, and yet the stunted, crowded young plantation trees are still dwarfed by the groves of big, old-growth trees that were spared the chainsaw
Clearcutting on the steep, mountainous terrain where Noble fir grow was never sustainable, at least as measured in human lifetimes. The big, high elevation Noble fir forests sold off by the Forest Service were often hundreds of years old, with even the smaller-diameter trees well over a century old. There was never a chance to produce a rotating “crop” of trees at these elevations large enough to justify logging for generations to come, but that didn’t slow the rush to log these forests.
Instead, the logging boom finally peaked with the listing of the Spotted Owl and subsequent “timber wars” in the early 1990s, and it has never fully recovered, though some logging on our national forests continues today.
This Noble fir fell across the Timberline Trail recently, and was sawed out by trail crews. While it is only about 15” in diameter, a count of the annual growth rings revealed this tree to be over 160 years old, demonstrating how elevation and mountain conditions slow the growth of these trees
It’s easily to lose perspective on just how old the trees in our mountain forests really are. The above is a timeline of human events that unfolded since this tree took root as a Noble fir seedling on Mount Hood until a windstorm knocked it down in 2020. This tree is approximately 14 inches in diameter and 160 years old.
These stumps near Bennet Pass mark some of the oldest and largest Noble fir ever logged near Mount Hood, with some of these trees approaching 300 years old when they were cut. These stumps look like they might be a couple years old, with bark still intact. In fact, these trees were logged about 30 years ago, yet the Noble fir seedlings growing in this recovering clear cut are barely six feet tall
This is the same stump that appears in the foreground in the previous photo, with approximate dates according to tree rings. When it was cut, it has lived through more than a quarter of the first millennium.
The Bennett Pass clear cut (shown above) might look recent, given the intact condition of the stumps and the young Noble fir trees just getting established. Yet, this forest was cut nearly 30 years ago, as shown in the aerial photo pair (below). Thanks to its high elevation at over 4,000 feet, and resulting slow forest recovery, this logged area is still just beginning to reforest.
After nearly 30 years, this clear cut in an old-growth Noble fir forest near Bennett Pass is only beginning to recover
These examples are typical of logged Noble fir forests throughout the Mount Hood National Forest. They simply haven’t recovered at the pace the Forest Service assumed when logging was still king. Noble fir seedlings in these cut-over areas have often grown very slowly, reaching just 6 or 8 feet in height after 30 or 40 years of post-logging recovery. The slow recovery has also compounded the fragmentation effect on wildlife that depend on uninterrupted old-growth forest habitat.
Today, the Forest Service is grappling with the perfect storm of an aging, overbuilt system of spur roads from the heyday of commercial logging coupled with increasingly catastrophic forest fires resulting from climate change and a century of fire suppression. This is especially true in high-elevation Noble fir country, where clear cut plantations are especially vulnerable to summer drought and fire, and logging roads are impacted by severe winter conditions.
To meet these challenges, along with Congressional quotas for timber production that have always been unsustainable, the Forest Service has pivoted to forest thinning the thickets of young plantation trees in previously logged areas. It’s arguable that this strategy will help restore forests to a healthy state, but sadly, the Forest Service mission isn’t to restore a mature, healthy forest. Their goal is to bring more marketable logs to maturity, the primary management objective for much of Mount Hood National Forest.
Forest thinning operation on Butcher Knife Ridge, north of Mount Hood, where roughly one third of the trees have been removed from a clear cut plantation to encourage a more diverse forest structure
Forest thinning typically produces massive piles of woody debris, as seen here on Blue Ridge, just outside the Mount Hood Wilderness. Logging debris was historically burned as “slash”, though new uses are under development to make better use of this material as we enter the age of widespread forest thinning
The jury is out as to whether forest thinning improves the health of crowded plantations better than simply doing nothing, given the impact of heavy equipment on tree root systems and the forest understory. The science does suggest that thinning can help as a preventative means for reducing forest fire severity, since it removes potential fuel from the forest. The benefit of thinning Noble fir plantations is less clear, however, since the species is already more vulnerable to fire than other conifers, and seldom survives fire.
Noble fir also tolerate crowded conditions better than other conifers, presumably because these trees are so effective at colonizing burns and often form nearly pure stands in the process. Young Noble fir forests often have little understory beyond a carpet of beargrass because the trees are so closely spaced. But these pure stands have also evolved to self-thin over time, maturing to a more open canopy that allows huckleberry, rhododendron and other mountain understory species to thrive among more widely spaced, mature trees. In these forests, young Noble fir are also part of the understory, as the forest canopy continues to regenerate.
The following images show self-thinning in a young (about 80 years old) Noble fir forest on Bald Mountain, along the Timberline Trail. A recent windstorm selectively toppled the weakest among these trees, a timeless process that Noble fir don’t need our help with.
Recent downfall in a young stand of Noble fir on Bald Mountain are part of an ongoing, self-thinning process these trees have evolved for
Recent self-thinning event in a pure Noble fir stand on Bald Mountain. If it doesn’t burn, this protected forest inside the Mount Hood Wilderness will continue to self-thin, becoming an old-growth Noble fir forest in time
With logged high-elevation forests recovering very slowly, and high-elevation spur roads failing especially badly, and the mounting negative impacts of clear cutting, continued logging of our Noble fir forests simply isn’t a sustainable practice. A new management philosophy that centers on forest restoration and climate adaptation over timber extraction is long overdue.
Instead of waiting a century or more to produce marketable Noble fir saw logs, these recovering forests could be sold for credits on the carbon market, using their gradual recovery as carbon offsets for polluting industries. Over the long term, Noble fir have immense capacity for carbon capture and storage. Scientists studying the ancient Noble fir forests at the Goat March Research Natural Area, near Mount St. Helens, have determined this forest to have a biomass second only to the coastal Redwood forests of Northern California.
A mature, thriving Noble fir forest at the 4,000 elevation on Mount Hood, with a diverse mix of mature and younger trees, and a few wildlife snags
Such a shift in Forest Service philosophy would not only help the global response to climate change, it would also yield a host of other benefits that high elevation forests in our region provide – a list that include critical wildlife habitat, cooler and more stable stream runoff for endangered salmon and steelhead and crucial water supplies for nearby communities that depend on mountain snowpack that forests help retain.
Mature Noble fir forest on Mount Hood, with towering old-growth trees mixed with younger trees and a dense understory
Such a shift in focus would also allow for the Forest Service to retire many of its deteriorating logging spur roads, and revenue from the sale of carbon credits could provide needed funding to do the work. Beyond the escalating cost to maintain them, these roads are notorious for triggering landslides and dumping sediments into streams when cut-and-fill roadbeds fail from plugged culverts or landslides. They also represent an increasing hazard in the form of human-caused forest fires and illegal dumping, as some of the worst lawless activity occurs on these remote roads where law enforcement simply cannot have a meaningful presence.
This road decommissioning work has already begun in the Mount Hood National Forest, though only in fits and starts, as it has thus far been driven by declining agency budgets more than an eye toward forest recovery and restoration. A focus on the broader outcomes of climate, water quality and fish habitat could speed up this important work with a new sense of urgency.
Where to see Noble fir
Want to see some of these trees close-up? One of the best and most accessible places is the short trail to Sherrard Point, which is the rocky summit pinnacle of Larch Mountain. The road to the summit picnic area and Sherrard Point trail is gated in the winter, but usually opens by early June. An easy, paved trail and series of stairsteps leads to the viewpoint.
Noble fir giants at sunset in WyEast country
If you’d like a longer hike, the short, steep climb to the summit of Bald Mountain, near Lolo Pass, leads through some of the best old growth Noble fir in the Mount Hood area:
Perhaps the best Noble fir forests in the Cascades are at Goat Marsh, near Mt. St. Helens. A short trail takes you into this fascinating research area and some of the largest known Noble fir trees in the world:
Mid-June view of the Elk Cove avalanche scene (photo: Joshua Baker)
WyEast Blog reader Joshua Baker sent several images from a mid-June trip into Elk Cove this year in response to the recent avalanche article that featured images from early August, when much of the avalanche debris had melted free of snow. These images provide a different perspective of the incident, as the winter snowpack was still largely intact, and most of the trees caught up in the avalanche were still buried in snow.
This image shows the top of a still-green Mountain hemlock, snapped off by the avalanche and lying on top of the avalanche debris pile:
Mountain hemlock top snapped off by the avalanche (photo: Joshua Baker)
Another image shows a similarly snapped-off Noble fir lying on top of the avalanche debris:
Noble fir top snapped off by the avalanche (photo: Joshua Baker)
Both images show how trees in deep snowpack can be topped by avalanches, snapped off at the snow line. Not seen in these images are the many trees in the debris pile, below, still buried in snow from the avalanche. As the images in the main article show, whole trees brought down by the event were stacked up to 10 feet deep once the snow melted away over the summer.
This view from mid-June is especially informative, as it shows surviving groups of Mountain hemlock still standing, despite being directly in the path of the avalanche:
Several groups of Mountain hemlock were still standing where the avalanche swept across the floor of Elk Cove (photo: Joshua Baker)
The best explanation for their survival is that the avalanche had rapidly lost speed as it moved across the gently sloped floor of Elk Cove, and these trees were able to withstand the reduced force of the moving avalanche. Another factor is the depth of the avalanche when it reached these trees, as it likely spread out when it reached the floor of the cove, where it finally stopped.
In coming years, I’ll continue to document the debris pile and the recovery of the forest and meadows that were impacted by the avalanche. Just as we’re learning about fire recovery on Mount Hood, this event will provide a window into the resilience of our alpine landscape in the face of an event like this.
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:
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.
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.
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
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:
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!
Officially, Mount Hood has twelve glaciers, though two — the Langille on the north side and Palmer on the south side — seem to have slowed to permanent snowfield status. The distinction comes from downward movement, which typically results in cracks, or crevasses, in the moving ice. Crevasses are the telltale sign of a living glacier.
Living glaciers are conveyor belts for mountain ice, capturing and compacting snowfall into ice at the top of the glacier, which then begins to flow downhill from the sheer weight of the accumulation. This downward movement becomes river of ice that carries immense amounts of rock and debris captured in the ice, eventually carving U-shaped valleys in the mountain.
Mount Hood’s largest glaciers carved the huge canyons we see radiating in all directions from the mountain today. These canyons were made when the glaciers were much larger, during the Pleistocene ice age that ended several thousand years ago. The ice on Mount Hood has since retreated, though today’s much smaller glaciers continue their excavating high on the mountain.
The smallest glaciers on Mount Hood are the Coalman Glacier, located high in the volcano’s crater, and the Glisan Glacier, located on the northwest shoulder of the mountain. They are tiny compared to the impressive Eliot, Ladd, Coe and Sandy glaciers, but these tiny glaciers are still moving, have well-developed crevasses and both are clearly separate from the larger glaciers. Thus, they were recognized as living glaciers in their own right when Mount Hood was being mapped more than a century ago.
Another tiny glacier is without a formal name, and would have been Mount Hood’s thirteenth glacier had it been mapped with the others in the early 1900s. Known informally as the Little Sandy Glacier, this small body of ice is perched on the rocky shoulder of Cathedral Ridge, near the Glisan Glacier. The Little Sandy hangs on cliffs high above the sprawling Sandy Glacier, which it drains into.
The map below shows each of Mount Hood’s glaciers, from the tiny Glisan to the massive Eliot, largest on the mountain:
This article takes a closer look at these lesser-known, tiny glaciers. While small, all three have been surprisingly resilient in the era of climate change, when our glaciers are rapidly shrinking. Their tiny size and survival (so far) makes them helpful indicators of the long-term effects of global warming on Mount Hood, and a visual reminder of just how fragile our alpine ecosystems are as the planet continues to heat up.
The Coalman Glacier
This glacier is known to few, and yet is probably the most visited on Mount Hood. The Coalman Glacier fills the crater of Mount Hood, extending from below the summit to Crater Rock, and is crossed by thousands of climbers following the popular south side route to the summit each year. Along their climb, they follow a ridge of ice along the glacier called “The Hogsback” to the Coalman Glacier’s “bergschrund”, the name given to a crevasse that typically forms near the top of most glaciers, and a common feature to many glaciers on Mount Hood. For climbers on Mount Hood, the bergschrund on the Coalman Glacier is simply called “The Bergschrund”, and it is the main technical obstacle on the south side route to the summit.
The entire Coalman Glacier lies above 10,000 feet, and as a result, this tiny glacier is well-situated to survive a warming climate. Historic photos (shown later in this article) suggest the Coalman Glacier was once connected to the White River Glacier, located immediately below, as recently as the late 1800s.
The Coalman Glacier was named for Elijah “Lige” Coalman, the legendary mountain guide who manned the former fire lookout on the summit of Mount Hood from 1915 to 1933. Lige Coalman climbed Mount Hood nearly 600 times in his lifetime, sometimes making multiple climbs in one day to carry 100 pound loads of supplies to the summit lookout. In Jack Grauer’s classic Mount Hood: A Complete History, he describes Lige Coalman’s legendary stamina:
“…The great vitality of Coleman was demonstrated by one day he spent in 1910. He and a climbing client ate breakfast at the hotel in Government Camp. They then climbed to the summit of Mount Hood and down to Cloud Cap Inn where the client wanted to go. After lunch at Cloud Cap, Lige climbed back over the summit and arrived for dinner at Government Camp at 5:00 p.m.”
The Coalman Glacier was formally recognized as a separate body of ice from the nearby White River and Zigzag glaciers in the 1930s. However, this tiny glacier went unnamed until Lige Coalman died in 1970, and the Oregon Geographic Names Board named the small glacier he had navigated hundreds of times in his memory. Fittingly, Lige Coalman’s ashes were spread on Mount Hood’s summit.
Though the south side route is considered the easiest way to the summit of Mount Hood, every route on the mountain is dangerous. Many tragedies have unfolded over the decades on the Coalman Glacier, when climbers have fallen into The Bergschrund crevasse or slid into the steaming volcanic vents in the crater. Perhaps most notorious was the May 2002 climbing disaster, when three climbers were killed and four injured by a disastrous fall into The Bergschrund.
While the 2002 accident was tragic enough, it was the rescue operation that made the incident infamous when an Air Force helicopter suddenly crashed onto the Coalman Glacier, rolling several times before coming to a rest below the Hogsback. News cameras hovering above the scene broadcast the event in real-time, and the sensational footage was seen around the world. Though several Air Force crew were injured, nobody was killed in the helicopter crash.
The Glisan Glacier
The Glisan is Mount Hood’s smallest named glacier, tucked against Cathedral Ridge on the northwest side of the mountain. This tiny glacier is hidden in plain sight, located directly above popular Cairn Basin and McNeil Point, where thousands of hikers pass by on the Timberline Trail every year. It was named for Rodney Lawrence Glisan Jr. by the Oregon Geographic Names Board in 1938. The name was proposed by the Mazamas, Mount Hood’s iconic climbing club, following an expedition to the northwest side of the mountain in 1937.
Glisan was a prominent Portland lawyer and civic leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and son of one of the founding fathers of the city. He served on the Portland City Council and in the Oregon Legislature, as well as other civic roles. But his passion was for the outdoors, and as a Mazama, Rodney Glisan climbed most of the major Cascade and Sierra peaks during his eventful life.
The glacier that carries Rodney Glisan’s name was once much larger, and its outflow carved a steep canyon lined with vertical cliffs that now form the shoulder of the lower ramparts of Cathedral Ridge. Today, this rugged canyon is without trails and unknown to most who visit the mountain.
Most hikers visiting McNeil Ridge wouldn’t know they’re looking at the Glisan Glacier as they make the final climb above the tree line, but the glacier’s outflow is a popular stop along the way. This beautiful stream flows through some of the finest wildflower meadows on the mountain (pictured above).
Oddly enough, this glacial stream is unnamed, though it’s much larger than many named streams on the mountain. In fact, it’s the only glacial outflow on the mountain that is unnamed. Thus, on my growing list of planned submissions to the Oregon Geographic Names Board is to simply name this pretty stream “Glisan Creek”, since it’s a prominent and helpful landmark along the Timberline Trail. Naming the creek might bring a bit more awareness and appreciation for the tiny Glisan Glacier, too!
As Mount Hood’s glaciers go, the Glisan isn’t much to look at today. The glacier is much smaller than when it was named in the 1930s, judging by topographic maps (below) that show a lower portion of the glacier that has since become a series of permanent snowfields that are no longer part of the glacier.
The Glisan Glacier also has an odd shape, wider than it is long. Presumably, this is due to both shrinking over the past century and possibly winter wind patterns affecting snow accumulation on this little body of ice. But it is moving, with a prominent series of crevasses opening up every summer on its crest. It’s also surprisingly resilient in its modern, shortened state, bucking the trend (for now) of shrinking glaciers throughout the Cascades.
Topographic maps still show the former extent of the Glisan Glacier in the mid-1900s, when it extended to nearly 6,000 feet in elevation. Today, the glacier has retreated to about the 7,000-foot level.
The position of the Glisan Glacier on northwest side of the mountain could also be part of the explanation for its resilience. The glacier flows from the north side of Cathedral Ridge, where it is protected from the hottest late summer sun, and it also benefits from being in the direct path of winter storms that slam the west face of the mountain with heavy snowfall. Will the Glisan Glacier continue to survive? Possibly, thanks to its protected position and having already retreated to the 7,000-foot elevation. Time will tell.
The Little Sandy Glacier
This little glacier should have been Mount Hood’s thirteenth named glacier, but it has the misfortune of lying very close to the much larger Sandy Glacier and was passed over when the first topographic maps were created in the early 1900s. And yet, it was called out in Forest Conditions in the Cascade Range, the seminal 1902 original survey of the (then) “Cascade Forest Reserve”, the precursor to the national forests that now stretch the length of the Oregon Cascades:
It was tiny then, at just 80 acres. But at the time of the 1902 survey, the Reid, Langille, Palmer and Coalman glaciers had yet to be named, so this will be my argument in adding the Little Sandy Glacier to my (still!) growing list of name proposals for the Oregon Board of Geographic Names to consider.
Why is a name important for this tiny glacier? In part, because without names we tend to not pay attention to important features on our public lands, usually to their detriment. But in the case of the Little Sandy Glacier, there are some good public safety arguments, since the glacier is adjacent to a couple of the climbing routes used on the mountain. Formalizing its name could help search and rescue efforts compared to the informal use of the name today.
Like the nearby Glisan Glacier, the Little Sandy is oddly shaped. Wider than it is long, it hangs seemingly precariously on a massive cliff and is heavily fractured with crevasses. In summer, meltwater from the Little Sandy cascades over long cliff and down a talus slope where it then flows under the Sandy Glacier, joining other meltwater streams there.
What does the future hold for the Little Sandy Glacier? Like the Glisan Glacier, it benefits from heavy snow accumulation where winter storms pound the west face of the mountain. Yet, unlike the Glisan, the Little Sandy Glacier hangs on a southwest-facing wall and is exposed to direct afternoon sun in summer.
Surprisngly, this doesn’t seem to have dramatically affected the size of the glacier over the years, perhaps because it sits so high on the mountain. The base of the glacier is at an elevation of about 8,400 feet (higher than Mt. St. Helens) and the upper extent of the glacier begins just above 9,000 feet. This combination of high elevation and heavy winter snowpack suggest the Little Sandy Glacier will continue to survive for some time to come, even as global warming continues to shrink Mount Hood’s glaciers.
Tracking Mount Hood’s Changing Glaciers
Who is tracking the changes in Mount Hood’s glaciers? The answer is a collection of federal and state agencies, university researchers and non-profits concerned with the rapid changes unfolding on the mountain.
The U.S. Geological Survey has the most comprehensive monitoring program for Mount Hood, though it is mainly focused on volcanic hazards presented by the mountain. From this perspective, the glaciers and permanent snowfields on Mount Hood represent a disaster risk in the event of renewed volcanic activity, as past eruptions have triggered massive mudflows when snow and ice were abruptly melted by steam and hot ash.
The late 1700s eruptions that created today’s Crater Rock and the smooth south side that Timberline Lodge sits on also sent mudflows down the Sandy River to its confluence with the Columbia River. The delta of mud and volcanic ash at the confluence gave the river its name, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the scene just a few years after the event, calling it the “quick sand river”. The potential reach of future mudflows is why the USGS continues to monitor Mount Hood’s glaciers.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other water resource and fisheries agencies are also tracking the glaciers from the perspective of downstream water supplies and quality. Mount Hood’s glaciers not only provide critical irrigation and drinking water for those who live and farm around the mountain, they also ensure cool water temperatures in summer that are critical for endangered salmon and steelhead survival.
Dr. Fountain’s research features photo pairing where historic images of Mount Hood’s glaciers have been recreated to show a century of change on the mountain. These images (above and at the top of the article) of the White River and Eliot glaciers are examples, and show the power of these comparisons in understanding the scale and pace of change.
The following is a shorter-term comparison of my own images of the Eliot Glacier, taken in 2002 and 2019 at about the same time of year (in late summer). Look closely, and the changes are profound even in this 17-year timeframe. Geologists call the boundary on a glacier where melting exceeds accumulation the “firn line”. Typically, glaciers appear as mostly ice and snow above the firn line compared to much more rock and glacial till below the firn line, where the ice is melting away and leaving debris behind.
In 2002, the firn line on the Eliot Glacier had risen the lower icefall as the glacier receded, as shown in the image pair, above. The 2002 firn line is indicated by the white and blue ice still dominating the lower icefall. But by 2019, the firn line had moved partway up the lower icefall, as shown in the second image. Over time, scientists expect the glaciers on Mount continue to gradually retreat in this way as they increasingly losing more ice than they gain each year in our warming climate.
What Lies Ahead?
Will Mount Hood’s glaciers completely disappear? Perhaps, someday, if global warming goes unchecked. If climate change can be slowed, we may see the glaciers stabilize as smaller versions of what we see today. While the few remaining glaciers in the Rockies are already very small and on the brink of disappearing, glaciers on the big volcanoes of the Cascades of Oregon and Washington are still large and active. They have advantage of a very wet and cool winter climate that ensures heavy snowfall at the highest elevations, even as the climate warms.
One way to preview the future of Mount Hood’s glaciers is to look south to California’s Mount Shasta, at the lower end of the Cascade Range. At just over 14,000 feet, Shasta is tall enough to have seven named glaciers, even in a much warmer climate — though only four seem to still be active. Compare that to Mount Rainier, in Washington, which is also a 14,000-foot volcano, but has 26 glaciers, with several very large, active glaciers that dwarf anything found on Mount Shasta or Mount Hood.
The difference is latitude, of course. Climate change is having the effect if sliding us gradually toward the warmer climate we see to the south today, at Mount Shasta, where glaciers are smaller, but still survive above the 10,000-foot level. If Shasta is an indicator, then glaciers will continue to flow for some time at the upper elevations of Mount Hood and the other big volcanoes in northern Oregon and Washington for some time to come, perhaps even surviving if climate change remains unchecked.
In the meantime, the changes on Mount Hood are just one more reminder of how climate change is impacting almost every aspect of our lives and our natural legacy, and why changing the human behavior that is driving climate change is the existential challenge of our time. Though time is short, we can still ensure that future generations will see spectacular glaciers flowing down Mount Hood’s slopes in the next century.
The coming year marks the 16th annual scenic calendar that I’ve assembled for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, with each calendar drawing from photos from the previous year of Mount Hood country. In the beginning, the proceeds helped defray the costs of the campaign website and (beginning in 2008) the WyEast Blog. But for the past several years, all proceeds have gone to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), our premier trail stewards and advocates in Oregon (more on that toward the end of this article).
Looking back, the early calendars were more than a bit rough, especially given the clunky on-demand printing options in those early days of the internet and the emerging state of digital cameras, too! This is the “homey” inaugural cover that featured Elk Cove as it appeared way back in 2004:
Over the years, the calendar has evolved, and on-demand printing quality has become downright exceptional. Each year I set aside my favorite photos over the course of the year, typically a few dozen by the time calendar season rolls around. Then the hard part begins: picking just 13 images to tell the story of Mount Hood and the Gorge. And as in years passed, this blog article tells a bit of the backstory behind images in the new calendar and includes a few photos that didn’t make the calendar.
For 2020, the cover image is from a favorite spot on Middle Mountain, the rambling series of forested buttes that separate the upper and lower portions of the Hood River Valley. The sylvan view of Mount Hood from here is hard to match:
But the story of Middle Mountain is a bit less idyllic. Though most of the mountain is owned by Hood River County, the agency still hasn’t gotten the memo on modern, sustainable forestry and continues to aggressively log these public lands with old-school clearcuts.
This makes for low (or at least lower) taxes for Hood River County residents, but at the expense of future sustainability of the forest — which means future generations in Hood River are really paying the tab. This rather large clearcut (below) appeared this year, just east of the spot where the cover image for the calendar was captured, on a climate-vulnerable south-facing slope.
Will the forest recover here once again, as it always has before? Probably. But Pacific Northwest forest scientists are warning Oregonians not to take our low-elevation Douglas fir forests for granted, as they may not return, especially on hot south and west-facing slopes. Consider that just uphill from this spot some slopes on Middle Mountain are already too dry to support conifers, and are home to a few scattered Oregon white oak trees. Now would be a good time for Hood River County to adopt a longer view of its forests, and begin planning for more selective, sustainable harvests that don’t put the survival of their forests at risk.
For the January calendar image, I chose a close-up of the Sandy Headwall, which forms Mount Hood’s towering west face. This is a favorite spot for me after the first big snowfall of the year, when the mountain is suddenly transformed into a glowing white pyramid:
I have a little secret to share about this view, too. It turns out I’m not much of an “alpenglow” fan, which is downright sacrilegious for a photographer to admit! So, you’re unlikely to see one in the annual calendar. I just prefer the long shadows and shades of blue and ivory that light up in the hour beforesunset that are featured in the January image.
If you’re not familiar, alpenglow is that rosy cast that often appears at or just after sunset, and pictured on waytoo many postcards and calendars — at least for my taste! But my other little secret is that I still capture plenty of alpenglow photos, too. Who knows, maybe my tastes will change someday?
The following image didn’t make the calendar, but it shows the transformation from the above view that unfolded over the course of 30 minutes or as sun dropped over the horizon that cold, October evening:
February also features another snow scene, this time along the White River, when the stream nearly disappeared under ten feet of snow last winter:
But the White River photo came courtesy of an aborted snowshoe trip that day at nearby Pocket Creek. My plan was to hike up to a view of Mount Hood and Elk Mountain from the north slopes of Gunsight Ridge. I had made the trip about ten years ago and liked the sense of depth that having Elk Mountain in front of Mount Hood created from this angle. Instead, here’s what I found when I reached the viewpoint:
This isn’t the first viewpoint that has disappeared behind growing forests in my years of exploring Mount Hood, nor am I sad that the view went away. After all, this one came courtesy of a 1980s Forest Service clearcut, and while the view was nice, a recovered forest is even better. And besides, I still have this photo from 2009 to remind me of view that once existed here:
So, I returned to the trailhead that day and headed over to the White River for a short snowshoe trip in the evening light. While I picked a photo of the river and mountain for the calendar, there were some very pretty views unfolding behind me, too. These images capture the last rays of winter sun lighting up the crests of Bonney Butte and Barlow Butte. They may not be calendar-worthy, but are lovely scenes, nonetheless:
For the March calendar image, I picked a scene from Rowena Plateau, a spot famous for its spectacular displays of yellow Balsamroot and blue Lupine. The calendar view looks north across the Columbia River to the Washington community of Lyle, a town that nests seamlessly into the Gorge landscape, thanks in large part to the protections of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area:
But the view behind me that day was pretty nice, too, though it didn’t make it into the calendar. This image (below) looks south toward McCall Point from the same vantage point, with still more drifts of wildflowers spreading across the terraced slopes:
For April, I chose a popular scene along the Old Salmon River Trail on Mount Hood’s southwest side just as the bright greens of spring were exploding in this rainforest. Here, a grove of 600-year old Western red cedar and Douglas fir somehow avoided several cycles of logging in the 1800s and 1900s to survive as the closest ancient forest to Portland:
How big is that Western red cedar on left? I’ve been asked that question a few times, and short of actually measuring it, I stepped in front of the camera to serve as a human yardstick (well, two yards, as I’m exactly six feet tall). Subtract a few inches for my hat, and I’d estimate the trunk to be about 15 feet across at the base and about 10 feet thick a bit further up.
What do you think?
One thing is for sure, we’re so fortunate that these old sentinels have survived to give us a glimpse into what many of our rainforest valleys used to look like.
Further down the trail, I also captured this scene (below) of a pair of leaning giants that mark the spot of an ancient nurse log, long since rotted away and revealing the roots that once anchored these trees to the nurse log when they were youngsters. Someday, they will fall and become nurse logs, too, repeating the rainforest cycle.
This unique pair of trees is easy to find if you’re exploring the Old Salmon River Trail. They’re located right along the river (below), at a scenic spot just off the trail where there are plenty of boulders for picnics and even a tiny beach in summer. It’s just beyond one of the rustic footbridges along the trail, and downstream from the ancient tree grove.
For May, I chose another photo from the Rowena Plateau, partly because it was such a good bloom this year, but also for the gnarled Oregon white oak that grows on this little knoll (below).
After exploring Rowena that day, I crossed the river and spent the evening over at Columbia Hills State Park, in Washington. While this sprawling preserve is certainly no secret these days, you can still count on it being pretty lonely once you hike into the vast meadows along the park’s trails.
This is the scene looking back toward The Dalles and Mount Hood as the sun dropped over the horizon on that lovely spring day:
For June, I selected an old standby, the understated but elegant Upper Butte Creek Falls (below), located in the Santiam State Forest. I visit Butte Creek at least twice each year, just because the area is so delightful, and also because it’s a showcase of what Oregon’s state forests could be.
The Oregon Department of Forestry has gradually expanded recreation opportunities throughout the state forest system over the past couple of decades, in recognition of growing demand for trails in our state. It’s an uphill battle, as state forests have generally been viewed by our state and local governments as a cash register, thanks to 1930s era laws that have traditionally been interpreted as promoting logging above all else.
Today, a group of Oregon counties are actually suing the state for “retroactive” payments based on this interpretation, though it’s an absurd and misguided case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. If successful, the “state” (that’s you and me) could pay over $1 billion to a handful of counties (possibly you, possibly me) to right this purported wrong. This power play further underscores the need to radically rethink how we manage our state forests in an era of climate change and changing values among the public.
While the area along the Butte Creek trail remains a verdant rainforest, it’s really just an island, with much of the surrounding public forest logged in the past, and planned for more logging. Adjacent private timberlands are faring even worse, with companies like Weyerhaeuser liquidating their holdings with massive clear cuts in the lower Butte Creek canyon.
The changing climate is starting to take its toll here, too. This view of Butte Creek Falls was taken on the same visit as the June calendar image, but as the photo shows, the creek is running at perhaps a third of its “normal” June flow after dry spring this year, with much of the falls already running dry. We’re learning that “normal” is no longer as drought years continue to become the new normal.
The warning signs of the changing climate are already showing up on the rocky viewpoint above Butte Creek Falls, where several Douglas fir (below) finally succumbed to the stress of summer droughts this year on the thin, exposed soils of this outcropping.
This is how climate change is beginning to make its mark throughout our forests, with trees growing in poor or thin soils lacking the groundwater moisture to make it through summer droughts. These trees are often further weakened and eventually killed by insects and diseases that attack drought-stressed forests.
The good news is that a new generation of forest scientists is sounding the alarm and as we’ve seen, a new generation of young people are made climate change their rallying cry. So, while we’re very late in taking action, I’m optimistic that Oregon will emerge as a leader in tackling climate change, starting with our magnificent forests.
For July, I chose another waterfall scene, this time in the sagebrush deserts east of Mount Hood, where the White River crashes over a string of three waterfalls on its way into the Deschutes River canyon (below).
Most people hike the paved trail into the rugged canyon, which begins an impressive, but partly obscured view of the dramatic upper falls. But few follow the fenced canyon rim upstream to this nice profile (below), just a short distance off the paved route. From here, the basalt buttes and mesas of Tygh Valley fill the horizon and remnants from the early 1900s power plant that once hummed here are visible on a side channel, below.
In 2011, I posted this article with a proposal for expanding tiny White River Falls State Park to save it from the kind of development it had just dodged at the time. Hopefully, we’ll eventually see White River Falls better protected and some of its history restored and preserved!
The August image in the new calendar is from my beloved Owl Point, a spot on the north side of Mount Hood that I visit several times each year as a volunteer for Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO). In this view (below), evening shadows were starting to reach across the talus slopes below Owl Point, where low mats of purple Davidson’s penstemon painted the summer scene.
I was alone that day, scouting the trail for an upcoming TKO volunteer work party, so I had the luxury of spending a lot of time just watching the evening unfold through my camera. For photographers, clouds are always the unpredictable frosting that can make (or break) a photo, and the lovely wisps in the calendar image floated in from nowhere to frame the mountain while I sat soaking in the view.
I joined a TKO trail crew the next weekend for our second year of “officially” caring for the Old Vista Ridge Trail to Owl Point since TKO formally adopted the trail from the Forest Service in 2018. We had a great turnout, with crews clearing several logs with crosscut saws and doing some major rock work (below) where TKO will be realigning a confusing switchback along the trail.
For September, something a little different for the calendar: Sawmill Falls on the Little North Fork of the Santiam River (below). This is a well-known spot on the Opal Creek trail, but the surprise is that I’d somehow never hiked this trail, despite growing up in Portland and having spent a lot of time exploring nearby Henline Creek over the past several years. But my explanation is fairly simple: this has been among the most notoriously crowded trails in Oregon for many years, and I’ve always just shied away.
Then my friend Jeff e-mailed to remind me that we were way overdue for a hike, and so we picked Opal Creek as one that neither of us had checked the box on before. It turned out to be a lovely day on a very pretty trail, and because we had picked a weekday, it was surprisingly quiet, too.
The photo of Sawmill Falls gives a better sense of the weather that day — lots of sun, and so this image is among a very few long-exposure waterfall scenes I’ve attempted in full sun. It’s also a blended image from three separate exposures, which is a lot of work to capture an scene! One benefit of shooting in the sun was the opportunity to include some puffy clouds and blue sky as a backdrop, making this a very “summery” image.
The conditions were more forgiving that day when we reached the bridge above Opal Pool, as a nice bank of clouds floated over and provided the kind of overcast that I’m normally looking for with long-exposure waterfall photos. Here’s a view (below) of Opal Creek taken from the footbridge that didn’t make the calendar:
The October image in the new calendar is from a roadside pullout that nobody seems to stop at, and yet it provides a very nice view of Mount Hood and the East Fork Hood River (below). This spot is on a rise along Highway 35, just south of the Highway Department maintenance yard.
If you stop here in mid-October, you’ll enjoy quite a show, with brilliant Cottonwood lighting up the valley floor in shades of bright yellow and gold and Oregon white oak in the foreground providing orange and red accents. And if you pick a clear day after the first snowfall, Mount Hood will light up the horizon with a bright new jacket of white.
How bright are the fall colors? Here’s the exact scene a few months earlier, for comparison:
Like the earlier scene near Bennett Pass, this viewpoint is gradually becoming obscured, too. You can see the difference in the two Ponderosa pines on the left side of the photo. The larger, more distant tree (at the edge of the photo) hasn’t changed as visibly, but the younger Ponderosa (second from left) is quickly blocking the view of the river.
For comparison, here’s a photo from 2008 showing just how much the younger pine has grown, along with the Oregon white oak in the right foreground:
In this case, however, the East Fork Hood River is on the side of tourists and photographers. The river is famously volatile, thanks to its glacial origins on Mount Hood, and periodically undercuts the steep banks here, taking whole trees in the process. This is a scene of almost constant change, and I won’t be surprised if the younger Ponderosa nearest the river eventually becomes driftwood on its way downriver!
The October image is also from the Hood River Valley, and also a roadside view. This well-known scene is located on Laurance Lake Drive, just off Clear Creek Road, near Parkdale. Thanks in no small part to Oregon’s statewide planning laws, this remains an operating farm more than a 170 years after the area was first cleared by white settlers.
The patch of Cottonwoods at the center of the field that provide the fall color show have been growing there for some time, too — or at least they are descendants from an earlier grove. This view (below) from the 1940s shows how the area appeared when most of the roads were still gravel and twenty years before the reservoir we know as Laurance Lake was even constructed. This image is from the Oregon State Archives, and staged for tourism ads, as you might guess!
Here’s a tip if you’re exploring the Hood River Valley in October and the Cottonwoods have turned. At about the same time the Western larch along the upper stretches of the East Fork and east slopes of Mount Hood area also turning to their fall shades of yellow and gold.
In fact, the November calendar photo was just a stop on the way for me as I headed up to the mountain to take in the Western larch colors. These photos feature the east side of Mount Hood and its many groves of Larch as viewed from the slopes of Lookout Mountain, and are among those that didn’t make the calendar this year.
For December, I chose another scene along the East Fork Hood River, albeit lesser known. This spot (below) is near the confluence of the East Fork with Polallie Creek, and was captured after a couple days of freezing fog in the upper Hood River Valley:
This is one of my favorite times to be in the forest, though it can be a bit treacherous! The unmatched scenery makes the slippery trip worth it, as the frosted forests combine with the fog to create a truly magical scene.
Here are a couple more images from that day in the freezing fog that didn’t make the calendar:
Since switching to Zazzle to produce the annual calendars, I’ve had a back page to work with, and I have used this space to feature a few wildflower photos from the past year (below).
Each wildflower image has a story behind it, and among the most memorable is the Buckwheat in the lower right corner. This little plant was growing at the summit of Lookout Mountain (below), in the Badger Creek Wilderness, east of Mount Hood.
Buckwheat is a tough, low-growing, drought tolerant wildflower that thrives in the rocky soils there, but what made the spot memorable were the thousands (millions?) of Ladybugs swarming on the summit that day. Entomologists tell us that several inspect species migrate to ridges and mountains from adjacent valleys to mate, keeping their gene pool stable and healthy in the process, but I’m thinking they might just enjoy the mountain views, too?
The Wild rose in the top row is also in foreground of this image of Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge (below). I considered this image for the calendar, but skipped it until I can capture a more prolific flower display in the foreground… maybe next year!
Finally, the white Mockorange in the center of the bottom row was captured at this somewhat obscure spot along Butcher Knife Ridge (below), in the West Fork Hood Valley. This was another also-ran as a calendar image, but watch for some exciting news in a future blog story about this corner of Mount Hood country!
If you’d like a calendar, they’re easy to order online for $25 from Zazzle. Just follow this link:
They’re beautifully printed by Zazzle, ship quickly and make nice gifts! And I’ll also be donating all proceeds to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).
If you’ve followed the WyEast blog for a while, you probably noticed that things look a bit different around here, as of this month. It’s true, a mere eleven years after I made this first post…
…I’ve changed the WordPress theme for the blog. But I do admit that I didn’t have much choice. My most recent posts were having serious formatting problems, as in my last post (below) where the column text and photos were out of alignment. Other less obvious problems were popping up when publishing new posts, making what for a very cumbersome process.
In digging through pages of tedious WordPress documentation to figure out what was up, I finally came across this unwelcome message:
What? My theme is retired? Since when..? And who says!
Ah, the pace of progress. So, recognizing that things would only get worse, I’ve spent the past couple weeks customizing a “modern” theme called “Hemingway” to retain as much of the look and readability of the blog as I can. I’ll probably need to continue tweaking the settings, so thanks in advance for your patience!
If you’re wondering about the new banner, the backstory is that I originally created banner below. However, it didn’t work well with the new theme, which resizes the banner for whatever device the user is viewing, and decapitated Mount Hood in the process! Aargh!
So, I opted to continue the “misty forest” look from the original banner, which was from a scene captured in 2008 near Horsetail Creek in the Gorge. The new banner draws from image captured of Horsetail Creek, Katanai Rock, located in Ainsworth State Park.
The original Katanai Rock image was taken several years ago, on a spring day as storm clouds were just clearing from the walls of the Gorge, creating a mystical scene that Tolkien might have dreamed up:
To create the banner, I converted the original image to sepia and did some toning to soften the shadows a bit:
Look closely at the large view and there’s a wispy waterfall floating down the west side of Katanai Rock and lots of massive old trees wrapped in mist… it’s Rivendell!
Finally, the new banner incorporates just the top of Katanai Rock in a crop that allows it to adjust to anything from an iPhone to a 27″ monitor like the one I’m working on, right now:
So, that’s how the new look came about! And as with each of the previous 11 years on the blog, I’m looking forward to another year of articles. I’ve got lots of topics in the hopper, and hopefully some that you will enjoy and find worth reading.
Thank you for stopping by over the past year, and thank you for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge!
“Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe Help to make the season bright…”
Did you know that we have an unlikely cousin to the holiday mistletoe growing prolifically across Mount Hood country? Unlike the species you’re likely to find hanging over a doorway (known as Leafy mistletoe of the genus Phoradendron) or even from our Willamette Valley white oak stands, this cousin is the lesser known Dwarf mistletoe, of the genus Arceuthobium. And unlike the holiday version, this humble Mistletoe is hard to spot, though signs of its presence in our forests are very obvious.
Like their holiday cousins, Dwarf mistletoe are parasitic plants that require a living host to survive, and in our corner of the world their hosts are mostly the big conifers. Dwarf mistletoe grow by extending root-like structures known as “haustoria” into the growing tissue of their host, and producing shoots outside the bark of their host where flowers and fruit form, and where their seeds spread to other hosts.
Sound a little creepy? Perhaps, given how we humans tend to view parasites. But these plants are also quite fascinating, and historically they have had a bad reputation, thanks to the timber industry and its enduring reluctance to see the forest for more than the saw logs they might produce.
So, here are some things to know (and maybe even love?) about Dwarf mistletoe next time you venture out among these humble parasites:
1. They are commonly called Witches Broom.This is self-explanatory, as an infected tree (especially Douglas fir) tends to grow dense masses of branches in response to an infection that can hang down like brooms. This is the easiest way to spot Dwarf mistletoe in the forest.
2. They are gendered.Mistletoes occur in male and female forms, with the male plants producing pollen and the family plants producing fruits and seed. Both the male and female forms can reside in the same host — and a single host can have multiple active Mistletoe infections.
3. Their berries pack some heat!Ripe Mistletoe berries are designed to explode in late summer, shooting seeds as much as 50 feet in the air (!) to land on nearby, potential host trees. Their seeds are sticky and adhere to whatever they land on, and this feature also means that birds and small animals help disperse the seed when they visit host trees with ripe Mistletoe fruit and carry the seeds to other trees on their fur or feathers. While this firepower allows Mistletoe to spread to nearby hosts and to the understory below, it also allows the plant to move upward in its host tree, as much as one foot per year.
4. They like their hosts on the softer side. With seeds shooting in all directions at high velocity, Dwarf mistletoe might seem somewhat indiscriminate in their reproduction. But it turns out they are playing the odds, as sprouting seeds usually invade host tissue that is less than five years old. This is why young trees in the understory beneath a large, infected tree are so vulnerable. However, Mistletoe typically does not infect trees younger than 10 years, for reasons yet unknown.
5. They’re early — and prolific — bloomers.For the first couple of years after a Dwarf mistletoe seedling has attached to a new host, the young plant quietly sends its haustoria into the tree’s living tissues, feeding on water and nutrients from the host as the Mistletoe grows. After a couple years, the site of the infection swells and over the next few years the new Mistletoe begins producing aerial shoots, flowering and eventually producing fruit. Within five years, a new Mistletoe plant has gone from seed to what can be many successive cycles of fruiting from a single infected site on a tree.
6. They like the East side.Dwarf mistletoe species grow throughout Oregon, but in Mount Hood country they are most prolific on the dry east side of the mountain. This isn’t because they have an aversion to wet weather, but instead, because…
7. ….they are host-species specific!There are many species of Dwarf mistletoe, and most specific to just one or two host species, Many of these preferred host species also happen to grow on the east slope of the Cascades. Here are the most common Dwarf mistletoes in Mount Hood Country, most named for their hosts:
• Douglas-fir dwarf mistletoe
• Western larch dwarf mistletoe
• Western dwarf mistletoe (host is Ponderosa pine)
• Lodgepole pine dwarf mistletoe
• Western white pine dwarf mistletoe
• True fir dwarf mistletoe (hosts are White fir and Grand fir)
• Western hemlock dwarf mistletoe (also infects some true firs)
• Mountain hemlock dwarf mistletoe
The effects of these Dwarf mistletoe species on their hosts vary widely. Douglas fir is most affected by its species of Dwarf mistletoe, often producing very large brooms. Western larch can also be heavily affected when their brittle limbs give way to the weight of brooms. By comparison, Hemlocks less than 120 years in age are typically not affected by the infestations and other hosts show very little effect from infections. This is why we’re unlikely to even notice many of the Mistletoe-hosting trees in our forests.
8. They can eventually kill their hosts.Heavily infected trees can eventually lose so much foliage from having their living tissue invaded by multiple Dwarf mistletoe infections that they can no longer survive. This is common among Douglas firs, where its accompanying Mistletoe species significantly disrupts growth and produces very large brooms. But the Mistletoe infestation is often simply the gateway to other invaders that are often more fatal to the host tree. These include bark beetles, rusts and other fungi that invade trees affected by Mistletoe. Heavily affected trees typically die 10-15 years from their first Dwarf mistletoe infection.
9. They favor stressed trees.Trees growing in poor soils or affected by drought are more susceptible to infestations. This could be why Douglas fir on the dry east side of the Cascades are more likely to host Dwarf Mistletoe. But this is also an example of the role that this parasite plays in forest succession and, over millennia, the evolution of its host species. By preying on the weakest among their hosts, Mistletoe mimic so many examples in nature where predation on sick or frail helps improve the gene pool of the prey species.
10. They love fire suppression. We have been learning our lesson from a century of forest fire prevention the hard way in recent years with the string of long-overdue, catastrophic fires that have swept through Mount Hood country. This is especially true on the east side forests, where regular, low intensity fires are an important part of forest healthy. Fire suppression since the 1920s has left us with stressed, unhealthy forests with enormous fuel buildups that will take decades to restore to health. But this is good news if you’re Dwarf mistletoe, as the parasite thrives in these forests, spreading quickly among the stressed hosts.
11. They love forest plantations. There are so many reasons why mono-culture tree plantations in logged areas of our forests are a bad idea, and susceptibility to Mistletoe infestations is just one more, since these parasites are host-species parasites. This is especially true for Douglas fir plantations, the timber industry favorite, and also a species that is more significantly affected by Mistletoe infections than most other conifers. Dwarf mistletoe can spread especially quickly in these overgrown, same-species plantations.
12. They create valuable habitat! Yes, they are parasites that can kill their host, but Dwarf mistletoe have been part of our forest ecosystem for millennia and are just as natural as the forest itself. The brooms they create high in the crowns of conifers might be unsightly to us, but they provide habitat for birds and small mammals for nesting and feeding, and chipmunks feed on their stems and seeds. Large brooms also provide protected resting sites under infected trees for deer and elk.
Killed treetops of infected trees also provide perches and nesting sites for raptors and owls. Decayed areas in standing trees resulting from fungi invading Mistletoe-infected sites can serve as essential habitat for cavity-nesting birds and small mammals, too.
13. They are good for forests!Really? Yes, because in a healthy, balanced ecosystem, the effect of Dwarf mistletoe in selectively killing trees is beneficial to the forest by creating canopy gaps and standing snags that are known to increase plant and animal diversity. Likewise, healthy, multi-story forests are also less vulnerable to severe Dwarf mistletoe infections, which (of course!) is how this ecological balance has evolved in our forests.
That last point underscores that the “solution” to the widespread Mistletoe infections we see in many of today’s east side forests is really to recognize the abundance of Mistletoe as a symptom, not the problem. Restoring today’s stressed, logged-over forests and clear-cut plantations to the mixed conifer stands that once thrived across Mount Hood country is the simplest answer. It’s also the only sustainable answer.
The good news is that the Forest Service is gradually moving in this direction with gradual plantation thinning starting to take hold in the Mount Hood area and even the occasional use of fire as a management tool in other parts of Oregon. Not everyone agrees with plantation thinning, but so far, the results appear to support continuing this practice, at least until the most overgrown plantations have been thinned to a semblance of a natural forest.
Unfortunately, the current Forest Plan guiding these decisions for Mount Hood is nearly 30 years old, and the plantation thinning being done under this plan is not being done with a vision or bringing natural forests back, but rather, to simply prepare the remaining forest for more timber harvests.
This is yet another reason why a new plan and long-term vision of forest health is desperately needed for Mount Hood, one that centers on sustainable uses like recreation, native fish recovery and clean drinking water for our growing region, not just meeting timber harvest quotas. I’m confident that we’re gradually moving in that direction, if very slowly.
In the meantime, take a second look next time you’re out in the forest to appreciate this lesser-known parasite… when you find yourself standing under the Mistletoe!
When President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 into law on March 30, 2009, more than a dozen new pocket wilderness areas and additions to existing wilderness were created around Mount Hood and in the Clackamas watershed.
Among these, the Richard L. Kohnstamm Memorial Area expanded the Mount Hood Wilderness to the east of Timberline Lodge to encompass the White River canyon, extending from Mount Hood’s crater to about the 5,000 foot level, including a segment of the Timberline Trail and Pacific Crest Trail that traverses the canyon. This wilderness addition was created to “recognize the balance between wild and developed areas in the national public lands system and to create a tribute to the man who saved Timberline Lodge.”
Richard Kohnstamm was the longtime force behind the RLK Company, operators of the Timberline Resort, which has a permit to operate the historic Timberline Lodge, which in turn is owned by the American public.
After his duty as a gunner during World War II, Kohnstamm returned home to earn his masters degree in social work from Columbia University. After college, he moved to Portland to take a job at a local social services non-profit. Soon after arriving here, he made a visit to Timberline Lodge, where he was immediately taken with the beauty of the massive building.
But Kohnstamm saw a tarnished jewel, as the lodge had quickly fallen into disrepair following its construction by the Works Progress Administration in 1937. The Forest Service had revoked the operating permit for the lodge and was looking for a new operator, and so began the Kohnstamm era at Timberline. By all accounts, he did, indeed, save the lodge.
Kohnstamm soon teamed with John Mills to found the Friends of Timberline, a non-profit dedicated to preservation of the history, art and architecture of the remarkable building. The unique partnership between the Forest Service, Friends of Timberline and the RLK Company to preserve the lodge in perpetuity continues to this day, and is known as the Timberline Triumvirate.
Today, the lodge continues to thrive, and summer resort operations have now expanded to include a controversial bike park centered on the Jeff Flood chairlift. After years of legal challenges, the RLK Company build miles of bicycle trails descending from main lodge to the base of the lift, where cyclists can load themselves and their bikes for a quick ride back to the top.
It’s a high-adrenaline activity made easy, with no hills to climb. But the development of this new attraction underscored the fact that the Timberline resort operators and Forest Service have done little over the decades to enhance the hiking experience around the lodge, despite plenty of demand.
The reason is pretty obvious: hikers don’t buy lift tickets. Yes, some hikers help fill the hotel rooms in summer, and still more stop by to support the restaurants in the lodge, but filling ski lifts continues to the focus at Timberline.
Today, hikers at Timberline are limited to walking along the Timberline Trail or hiking the Mountaineer Trail, a semi-loop that climbs to a lift terminal, where it dead-ends at a dirt service road. Hikers usually follow the steep, dusty road back to lodge to complete a loop.
But perhaps the Richard L Kohnstamm Memorial Area could be inspiration for the Forest Service and RLK Company to bring new trails to the area, and a create a more welcoming trailhead for visitors who aren’t staying at the lodging or paying to ride the resort lifts? In that spirit, the following is a concept for a new trail that would be an instant classic on the mountain, rivaled only by the popular Cooper Spur Trail on Mount Hood’s north side for elevation and close-up looks into an active glacier.
Proposal: Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail
The proposed Glacier View Trail would climb the broad ridge that separates the White River and Salmon River canyons, just east of Timberline Lodge. The new trail would begin just across the Salmon River from the lodge, at a junction along the Timberline Trail, and end at Glacier View, a scenic high point on the ridge between the Palmer and White River glaciers.
This viewpoint is already visited by a few intrepid explorers each year for its spectacular views into Mount Hood’s crater and the rugged crevasses of the White River Glacier. The schematic below shows how the new route would appear from Timberline Lodge:
Another perspective (below) of the proposed trail shows the route as it would appear from further east along the Timberline Trail, where it travels along the rim of White River canyon. This angle also shows the tumbling descent of the White River Glacier and the steep west wall of the canyon that would provide several overlooks from the new trail:
Thanks to the gentle, open terrain, the new trail would climb in broad, graded switchbacks, eventually reaching an elevation of 8,200 feet. This is just shy of the elevation of Cooper Spur, and would make the Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail the second-highest trail on the mountain.
The viewpoint at Glacier View (below) is already marked by a stone windbreak built by hikers that complements several handy boulders (below) to make this a fine spot for relaxing and taking in the view.
From the Glacier View viewpoint, Mount Hood’s crater and the upper reaches of the White River Glacier (below) are surprisingly rugged and impressive, given the generally gentle terrain of Mount Hood’s south side. From this perspective, the Steel Cliffs and Crater Rock dominate the view as they tower over the glacier.
But the scene-stealer is the White River Glacier, which stair-steps down a series of icefalls directly in front of Glacier View (below), providing a close-up look into the workings of an active glacier. Lucky hikers might even hear the glacier occasionally moving from this close-up perspective as it grinds its way down the mountain.
The view to the south from Glacier View (below) features the long, crevasse-fractured lower reaches of the White River Glacier, and below, the maze of sandy ravines which make up the sprawling White River Canyon. The deserts of Eastern Oregon are on the east (left) horizon from this perspective, and the Oregon Cascades spread out to the south.
The hike to Glacier View from Timberilne Lodge on the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be about 2.5 miles long, climbing about 2,300 feet along the way, and would undoubtedly become a marquee hike on the mountain, if similar trails like Cooper Spur and McNeil Point are any gauge. But the backlog of trail needs at Timberline extend beyond having a marquee viewpoint hike like this.
The Kohnstamm trail concept therefore includes other trail improvements in the Timberline area that would round out the trail system here. The following schematic (below) include building a new 1.4 mile trail from the upper stub of the Mountaineer Trail to Timberline Lodge, allowing hikers to complete the popular loop without walking the dusty, somewhat miserable service road below Silcox hut, often dodging resort vehicles along the way.
The broader Kohnstamm trail concept also calls for using the east parking area as a day-hiking hub in the summer months, with clearly marked trailheads that would consolidate the maze of confusing user trails that are increasingly carving up the wildflower meadows here. The new hub would also include restrooms, interpretive displays, picnic tables and other hiker amenities that would make for a better hiking experience.
A more ambitious element of the concept is to convert the neglected bones of an abandoned lodge structure (above) at the east parking area to become a hiker’s hut where visitors could relax after a hike, fill water bottles or learn about hiking options from Mount Hood’s volunteer trail ambassadors.
This element might even tempt the Timberline resort operators to help make these trail concepts a reality if it offered an opportunity to provide concessions to hikers. After all, hiking is the fastest growing activity on the mountain (and on public lands), not skiing (or even mountain biking). Creating a hiking hub could be an opportunity for the Timberline operators to evolve their future vision for the resort to better match what people are coming to the mountain for.
What would it take?
Trail building is typically heavy work that involves clearing vegetation and building a smooth tread where rocks and roots are the rule. But the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be very different, as the entire route is above the tree line and would be on the loose volcanic debris that makes up the smooth south side of Mount Hood. Trail building here would be much simpler, from the ease of surveying without trees and vegetation to get in the way, to actual trail construction in the soft soil surface. For these reasons, much of this work would be ideal for volunteers to help with.
In reality, the greatest obstacles to realizing this concept would likely be regulatory. Convincing the Forest Service to permit a new trail would be a tall hurdle, in itself. But if the Timberline resort operators were behind the idea, it would almost certainly be approved, especially if the resort embraced building and maintaining the trail hub improvements. Who knows, maybe they will even spot this article..?
As a postscript, I thought I’d post a few confessions from days of yore. I grew up in Portland and began skiing at Timberline Lodge as a tiny tot. I continued to avidly ski at the Mount Hood resorts for many years until giving up alpine skiing in the early 90s, largely in response to the expansion of the Meadows resort into lovely Heather Canyon, a deal-breaker for me. I loved the sport, but saw the beauty of the mountain under continual threat from the resort operations — and still do. Today, I make due with snow shoes and occasional trips on Nordic skis, though I do miss the thrill of alpine skiing!
An earlier awakening for me came in 1978, with the construction of the Palmer Lift at Timberline. This lift completed Richard Kohnstamm’s vision for year-round skiing on the mountain. But it was the first lift on Mount Hood to climb that far above the tree line, and was an immediate eyesore. Sadly, the conversion of the Palmer Glacier to become plowed rectangle of salted snow (see “Stop Salting the Palmer Glacier!”) that can be seen for miles completed the travesty.
That Palmer Lift debacle was soon followed by an even more egregious lift at Mount Bachelor, one that I wrote about 37 years ago in this (ahem!) riveting bit of self-righteous student journalism! (below)
When I stumbled across this old clipping from my days as a columnist at the Oregon State University student newspaper, I initially winced at the creative flourishes (…hey, I was 20 years old!). But my sentiments about these lifts — and the Heather Canyon lift at Meadows — remain unchanged. They were a step too far, and represented a real failure of the Forest Service to protect the mountain from over-development.
That said, I do believe the ski resorts can be managed in a more sustainable way that doesn’t harm the mountain. We’re certainly not there yet, and because all three of the major resorts (Timberline, Ski Bowl and Meadows) all sit on public land, I believe we all have a right to help determine that more sustainable future.
In this article, I’ve made a case for accommodating more than just lift ticket purchasers in the recreation vision at Timberline Lodge. In future articles I’ll make the case for rounding out the mission for the other resorts in a way that meets the broader interests of those of us who own the land.
Moonrise from the Gorge Webcam on September 26, 2014 (USFS)
For the past many years, one of my morning rituals has been to check on the Forest Service air quality cameras located above Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and in the eastern Columbia River Gorge, near Wishram, Washington. The Hood came was pointed south, toward Mount Jefferson and the Gorge cam was pointed west, toward Mount Hood.
I use past tense to describe these cameras because they were abruptly turned off toward the end of the latest shutdown of the federal government. This article focuses on why these cameras were important, why they might have been shut down and why they should be brought back on line.
Hazy sunset behind Mount Hood from the Gorge Webcam on November 11, 2014 (USFS)
Wilderness Webcam Program
Like many federal agencies, the Forest Service has maintained an air quality monitoring program for decades in response to the Clean Air Act. Most famously, this includes measuring the acid rain falling on public forests as a result of urban air pollution, a phenomenon that was first documented in eastern forests in the 1970s and 80s. In Oregon, the Forest Service air quality program came to the forefront more recently, when their monitoring of lichens for trace pollutants helped alert state authorities to toxic levels of emissions coming from a glass factory in Portland.
The wilderness webcams help the Forest Service measure air pollution in places like Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge that are in close proximity to major urban areas and vulnerable to growing air toxics and particulate pollution.
Sunrise from the Gorge Webcam on October 16, 2015 (USFS)
Under this program, not all Forest Service lands are created equal. Areas defined as “Class I” by the agency are of critical concern and the Forest Service has been tasked with establishing targets to help monitor and potentially regulate pollution “loads” for these areas. The targets are based on levels of pollution that measurably impact wilderness ecosystems. The Mount Hood Wilderness and Mount Jefferson Wilderness are among the Class I areas in Oregon, as is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Given the unprecedented hostility toward environmental protections (and science, itself) by the Trump administration, the Forest Service air quality program seems a likely target by the industry-friendly political appointees who now lead our public land agencies. This was certainly my suspicion when the following message popped up in place of the wilderness webcam page in early February:
The end of the Forest Service Wilderness Webcams..?
The webcams went offline toward the end of the most recent federal government shutdown, when a deal to reopen the government was in sight, which didn’t make sense from a funding or resource argument. This took me back to a more nefarious objective: perhaps the shutdown was a simply a convenient time to kill off the air quality program, when few would notice?
There’s reason for alarm, too. While the webcams are a handy (and often inspiring!) resource for the general public, they also represent a threat to the polluters who are now in league with the Trump administration in their assault on environmental protections. They provide ongoing, measurable documentation on the state of the environment, without which protections can’t really be enacted or enforced.
The webcams are also increasingly important to the Portland region, as we learned during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. While scientists are still debating the potential ecological value of forest fire smoke in late summer (some believe it provides an important cooling effect during the last weeks of our annual drought), the public health effects on humans are decidedly hazardous.
Mount Jefferson floating above the cloud deck from the Hood Webcam on November 24, 2018 (USFS)
Most forest ecologists believe we have entered a new era of catastrophic fires that will make heavy smoke the norm in Oregon and across the west for decades to come. The webcams not only provide ongoing monitoring of these effects for scientists, they also help the public see (and avoid) the forests when smoke has reached unhealthy levels.
So, why now?
I reached out to the Forest Service with these questions and received a prompt response and a few answers. The agency position is that a tight Forest Service budget is forcing tough decisions, especially for programs involving field equipment that require ongoing operations and maintenance. This explanation aligns with the well-documented reality that a larger and growing share of the USFS budget is channeled into forest fire response each summer, draining other programs of funds.
More concerning in the response is that the decision to shut down the wilderness webcams was apparently made at Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., where a single government contractor had maintained the national network of cameras.
Late snowstorm captured by the Hood Webcam on June 10, 2018 (USFS)
Putting nefarious influences aside (including the dubious motives of former Georgia Governor Sunny Perdue, who unfortunately serves as Secretary of Agriculture and thus is also overseeing the Forest Service), it’s also true that the entire agency has experienced declining funding for basic programs over the past several years because of ballooning forest fire costs and the ongoing dysfunction of Congress and its inability to actually pass a budget.
On a more encouraging note, the Forest Service response did suggest that local forests may adopt the wilderness webcams and operate them on a regional level, noting that the agency was “well aware of the importance of the cameras.” That’s good news, and hopefully, this will come to pass.
Sunset from the Gorge Webcam on November 30, 2012 (USFS)
While this blog exists to challenge the historic mission of extraction and exploitation by the USFS, the scientists within the organization have long been the conscience of the agency. They have helped gradually steer the agency toward a more sustainable mission, albeit confounded by ongoing Congressional and White House mandates for more logging and less environmental protection.
Cutbacks to tiny programs like air quality monitoring are just another reminder of the conflicted and unsustainable mission the Forest Service has been tasked with, and where science ranks in the political pecking order.
In the meantime, more Gorge Cam memories… and action?
While we wait to learn the fate of the wilderness webcams, here are some images to enjoy from the Gorge webcam that I downloaded in September 2016. Perhaps my favorite in this series is this remarkably peaceful twilight scene that includes an unusually calm Columbia River reflecting the sky. The linked larger version (below) gives a sense of the quality of images that have been gathered from the wilderness cams over the years — large version of all images have been archived in high definition for scientists to use in research… until now, that is.
Twilight reflecting on a calm Columbia River from the Gorge Webcam on September 26, 2016 (USFS)
This September 7, 2016 evening view from the Gorge webcam shows a series of lenticular clouds forming over Mount Hood on a late summer evening, a surprisingly common phenomenon when Pacific storms are approaching that is often masked by clouds (visible low on the horizon) for Portlanders on the west side of the mountain.
A view of lenticular clouds forming over Mount Hood from the Gorge Webcam on September 7, 2016 (USFS)
The Gorge webcam also captured dozens of stunning sunsets over the years, like this beautiful display from September 29, 2016 that could easily be mistaken for a watercolor painting:
Watercolor sunset captured by the Gorge Webcam on September 29, 2016 (USFS)
This subtle scene (below) not only captures the late evening mood of the Gorge as high clouds from a new storm are approaching, it also captures distant lights in The Dalles and beyond that help scientists monitor particulate pollution.
Last rays of daylight captured by the Gorge Webcam on September 16, 2016 (USFS)
Hopefully, we’ll have more scenes like these to follow in the future. But in the meantime, what can we do to bring back the wilderness webcams and defend the Forest Service air quality program? It’s always worth calling our U.S. Senators and congressional delegation, especially if you’re concerned about the broader hostility the Trump administration shown toward public lands and environmental protection. With the U.S. House back in an oversight role this year, the Democrats in the Oregon delegation are once again powerful allies in pushing back on the Trump agenda.
However, the decision might come down to our regional Forest Service administrators, and it’s easy to comment as a supporter of the Wilderness Webcams and the air quality program. You can find a feedback form over here on the Pacific Northwest Region website:
First snow of autumn 2018 on Mount Hood as seen from Dufur Mill Road
Last November marked 10 years since I started the WyEast Blog, way back in 2008. It was a pretty hopeful year, as you may recall, followed by some very progressive reforms for how our public lands are managed. And my, how things can change — elections do have consequences! So, as always, the work continues as we weather another round of political attacks on our hard-fought protections for public lands.
Much has changed in WyEast country over the past 10 years, too, but certainly not my commitment to a better future for Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. I’m frequently asked “do you reallythink Mount Hood will become a national park?” and my response is always the same, “a little more every day!”Why? Because despite the currently bleak situation in Washington D.C., we’re (finally) witnessing the start to a changing of the guard in generational leadership at all levels of our society. The Millennials are here!
Author on my last visit to Eagle Creek, about a year before the September 2017 fire
What will history say about the Baby Boomers as they (reluctantly) hand over the reins to a younger generation? For all they have given us in their epic contributions to art and culture, they have also been surprisingly awful when it comes to conservation, woefully lacking in both courage and imagination. It’s true the Millennials are overdue in taking the reins, but since twice delivering the first African American to the U.S. presidency (a man who the Boomers voted overwhelmingly against, history shall note), they have steadily expanded their presence on the local, state and national political scenes. The 2016 elections represented the beginning of what will become a tidal wave in coming years, too.
By wide margins, Millennials are genuinely committed to conservation and sustainability, more balanced in their personal lives in how they manage ambition and status, and much less materialistic and consumptive than their elders. The numbers prove this. And thus my confidence that the Millennials’ turn at governance can (and will) return us to the bold conservation legacy of past eras and previous generations of leadership. The pendulum will swing, once again, and I believe that expanding our national park system will be part of that renaissance.
In the beginning…
Ten years ago, I started this blog with a rather obscure look at a couple of dead treesat a favorite roadside viewpoint of mine, along Dufur Mill Road. Here’s what that spot used to look like:
The two snags featured in the very first article on this blog… but what about the big fir on the right?
Sometime that year, both snags on the left side of the photo were felled, possibly for firewood, a common activity in that area. At the time I was dismayed at the senseless loss of a couple of valauble and (to me) beautiful snags. Mount Hood’s old ghost trees are essential for wildlife and forest health, after all! And thus, my first article began what would become many looks at the lesser-known and under-appreciated corners of WyEast country, all in celebration of our magical mountain and gorge!
Today, the view from this spot on Dufur Mill Road is still much the same, minus the old snags. Here’s what it looked like a couple of weeks ago (below), where you can pick out individual trees in the background that appear much the same. The large Douglas fir on the right side of the original photo still stands, too, but what about the apparent change in height of this tree between the above and below photos?
Today the two snags are long gone, but the big Douglas fir is still standing
Yes, the old fir did grow, but not by that much. It turns out that in the 10 years since the original photo was taken, a young Douglas fir has grown from just a few feet tall to nearly 20 feet — blocking the original view! Here’s what today’s scene looks like as viewed from the exact spot as the 2008 photo:
The only true constant in the forest… is change!
The changes in this favorite spot of mine are a good metaphor for so many places on Mount Hood and in the Gorge over the past ten years, where the only constant is change. This article explores some of the changes, plus a rundown of the most read and least read articles on the blog. Hope you enjoy the look back!
Including this retrospective, I’ve posted 184 articles on the blog since November 2008, ranging from the incredibly obscure (my favorite!) to the surprisingly popular.
In the first five years, visitors grew gradually to a couple thousand annually, then abruptly jumped to 30,000 in 2013 and 60,000 in 2014! Since then, visitors have hovered between 70,000 and 90,000 annually. A decent share also click through to the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website, and who knows? One of those visitors might be the future congresswoman or senator who introduces a bill to make Mount Hood and the Gorge a national park! That’s the goal of an “idea campaign”, after all — and why I started the blog.
But blog metrics don’t really tell the full story, as a select few posts have been the major drivers in visits over the years. These posts continue to pop up each week in the blog stats, years after they were first published.
At the top of that list is an article debunking the many persistent myths about ticks that continue to circulate among the hiking community. I published “Ticks! Ticks! (10 Common Myths”in April 2013, and it’s the main reason for the big jump in traffic that year that has since continued. The article now has 173,000 views and counting — and that’s great news, as ticks present a growing health risk in the Gorge now that Lyme disease has spread to our region.
Nobody likes ticks… but people do like this article!
Right behind ticks in our apparent collective anxiety is poison oak, and a companion piece called “10 Common Poison Oak Myths”is thus the second most read article on the blog. A lot of bad information circulates online among hikers on both the risks and treatment for poison oak exposure. This article was posted in 2012, before the tick article, but caught fire after the piece on ticks began to drive search engines toward the blog. Today, the poison oak article has had 78,000 visitors and shows up every week in blog stats.
I’d been itching to write the sequel to this one…
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire kicked off a series of articles covering the aftermath of the fire. The first article featured some of the earliest viewsinto the burn as seen from the Washington side of the Gorge, just after the smoke had cleared. This article was widely shared in social media, with 23,000 views and counting.
The first look into the smoky aftermath…
Later articles spotlighting the burn were based on State of Oregon aerial reconnaissance photos that provided exceptional detail of the devastation at iconic places in the Gorge and the nearly immediate signs of recovery that was already underway. One of these revealed a massive cliff collapse at Punch Bowl Falls in early 2018, just a few months after the fire.
Perhaps more shocking than the Eagle Creek Fire, itself, were the dual cliff collapses at Metlako Falls and Punchbowl Falls on Eagle Creek.
We will never know if the cliff collapse resulted from the effects of the fire, but when the State of Oregon aerial surveys revealed the collapse, it came as a shock to anyone who knew this spot. More than 25,000 readers have viewed the article and it continues to be visited regularly.
While it’s great to see a big response to an article, truth be told, my favorite posts are among the least read. This describes mostof the posts on the blog, of course!
One of these lesser-read pieces was in 2010, when I posted a proposal to restore Warren Falls, a virtually unknown spot near Starvation Creek that had been brutally altered by Highway Department engineers in the 1930s. I had long been saddened to see how this beautiful spot had been manhandled by the same Highway Department that had gracefully navigated other waterfalls in the Gorge with beautiful bridges, viaducts and overlooks, and hoped that ODOT might incorporate restoration of the falls into a major effort to reconnect the original Historic Columbia River Highway.
This became a bit of a crusade for a few years, including a featured spot on OPB’s Oregon Field Guide, but in the end, ODOT wasn’t interested in owning up to their crime against nature (and as I pointed out in one of the follow-up articles, the diversion was a clear violation of state statute, too!). Score another one for the highway builders, but I remain hopeful that someday we will undo this travesty.
Warren Falls comes (briefly) alive in 2014!
In the meantime, a vestige of the original falls appears a few times each winter when ODOT’s diversion dam and bypass tunnel are overwhelmed by high runoff, bringing Warren Falls back to life, if only briefly.
And while ODOT once again turned its back on Warren Creek, Mother Nature may bring her wrath upon the diversion structures in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire. Ironically, the original project was in response to Warren Creek carrying heavy rock and wood debris onto the old highway following an early 1900s burn in the upper canyon Eighty years later, the upper canyon has burned again, and another cycle of heavy debris flows is likely in coming years. She does bat last, after all…
In happier ODOT news, an August 2012 article proposing a “Boot Loop” transit servicearound the mountain and through the gorge seemed far-fetched at the time, but ODOT has since operated transit in the west end of the Gorge and helped fund transit to Timberline Lodge. Currently, a “round the mountain” transit study is underway to explore the potential for completing the loop. That’s great news!
Not such a goofy idea after all..?
The Gorge Express and Mount Hood Express bus lines are general purpose, too, whereas the “Boot Loop” idea was more narrowly aimed at recreation. The broader transit service we’re now seeing on the ground is far better, providing essential service to places where basic transit connections were long overdue. Kudos to ODOT for moving beyond their highway roots and bringing much-needed transportation alternatives to the mountain and gorge!
10 years of Big Changes
Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge have seen some epic changes over the past 10 years, perhaps most notably the Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood’s north slope in 2012 and the Eagle Creek Fire that burned much of the Oregon side of the Gorge in 2017. But there were many other significant changes, too, albeit somewhat overshadowed by the big fire events. The following are a few “then and now” highlights of these notable changes in WyEast country over the past ten years.
Global warming? Absolutely. Despite the frustrating, science-defying (and completely cynical) state of denial coming from the White House and Republican Party, bright red warning flags are showing up all around us, including on Mount Hood. As the photo pair below shows, the Eliot Glacier continues to recede at an alarming rate, as do the rest of Mount Hood’s twelve glaciers. I’ve marked a couple of prominent rock outcrops adjacent to the lower Eliot Galcier icefall to show how the “firn” line has retreated. The firn line is the point in a moving glacier that marks equilibrium, with the glacier is accumulating ice above the line and losing ice (melting) where it flows below the firn line.
Blue ice still spilled over the lower Eliot Glacier icefall in 2008
As the photos show, the lower icefall (just above and left of the outcrop marked “A”) is notably smaller and darker, with debris carried within the glacier now exposed by melting at this level due to the rising firn line. Both photos were taken in late summer, when summer melting was at its peak.
Global warming is rapidly changing the once-mighty Eliot Glacier
The once-permanent snowfields on the margins of the glacier are also noticeably smaller and seem doomed in the near future. Permanent snowfields are the most vulnerable ice features on the mountain and a good visual indicator of the speed in which global warming is melting our glaciers.
While future generations may forgive us for failing to actually slow or stop global warming, they surely will never forgive us for willful denial of its existence as a human-caused crisis of our own making. Let’s hope we can make up some lost ground in the near future, with the Millennial generation finally taking charge.
The changes to the Eliot Glacier are also being felt downstream, no more so than in the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch canyon, where a more volatile glacial outflow is rapidly carving into the once glacier-covered valley floor, constantly changing the landscape. In 2006, the stream flooded once again, greatly deepening the canyon and making it unsafe to cross for hikers on the Timberline Trail. This situation languished for nine years, with many hikers choosing to scale the crumbling canyon wall (shown below) with the aid of a worn rope anchored to a boulder!
The ever-deepening canyon on the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch
This blog played a small part in helping the Forest Service move forward with a new crossing of the Eliot Branch when a ranger from the Hood River District read this 2014 article and reached out to discuss options for a new, downstream crossing. Along the way, I updated the map from the blog article to align with Forest Service and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) plans for the restored crossing, and it even made the cover of a local newspaper in Hood River! (…okay, so it’s an advertising tabloid…!)
Not exactly the New York Times, but I’ll take it!
The newly reconnected trail drops steadily from Cloud Cap Inn to a section of the raging Eliot Branch that has (somewhat) stabilized, and can be reasonably crossed in the summer months. Though there are no immediate plans for a trail bridge here, the Forest Service moved large boulders in the stream to serve as stepping stones, hopefully making the crossing a bit safer for hikers. The restored trail opened in 2017.
The newly constructed Timberline Trail just above the Eliot Crossing (photo: USFS)
Moving down to the Hood River Valley, the iconic view of Mount Hood from this field along Laurance Lake Road (below) looks much the same today as it did in 2008, albeit with some logging on private land in the distance. What you can’t see in the 2008 view is that it was captured just a year after voters approved Measure 49, which reversed 2004’s deceptive Measure 37. This earlier measure would have almost certainly brought resort development and luxury McMansions to the Hood River Valley.
The timeless view of Mount Hood from Laurance Lake Road
…still pretty much the same ten years later!
Even better, this farm has since come under the ownership of a member of the Parkdale Valley Land Trust, and is now even more likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Which, in turn, means that a spot that hasn’t change since the 1950s (below) might look much the same in the 2050s. That’s a great legacy being carried forward to future generations.
Maybe past really can be prologue..? (photo: State Archives)
Here’s another view of the Parkdale area in the Upper Hood River Valley from Middle Mountain, a mostly county-owned forested ridge that separates the upper and lower valleys. From this spot, the most notable change is a silver band of ghost trees marking the 2012 Dollar Lake burn, clearly visible along the northern shoulders of the mountain.
The upper Hood River Valley ten years ago…
…and earlier last year…
The Dollar Lake Fire was the third in rapid succession (following the Bluegrass Fire in 2006 and Gnarl Ridge Fire in 2008) to burn the slopes of Mount Hood. As jarring as the changes may be, these new burns provide a front-row seat to the rapidly recovering forest, a timeless and essential cycle that has been disrupted by the Forest Service policy of aggressive fire suppression over the past century. State and federal land agencies have only just begun to rethink their approach to fire moving forward, a change in culture that will take many years to fully achieve, especially in the era of climate change.
Huckleberries sprouting from the base of a burned snag in the Dollar Lake Burn
One unexpected benefit of the fires on Mount Hood was preparing those (like me) who love the mountain and gorge for the devastating Eagle Creek Fire that raged through the western Columbia River Gorge in September 2017. The Mount Hood fires helped many who understood the abstract benefit of forest fires come to grips with the emotional reality of seeing a favorite place changed, and begin to appreciate the stark beauty in the burned landscape and witness the unfolding forest rebirth.
For the past year, thousands of volunteers with organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) have been working with the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks to begin digging out miles of burned trails in the gorge. Last November, the Forest Service officially opened the first of these cleared trails, including the iconic Larch Mountain Trail that follows Multnomah Creek, giving hikers their first look at the changed landscape, and a chance to expand their own understanding and acceptance of fire in our forests.
Earlier last year, I joined TKO crews to work on the trail and capture photos of familiar scenes as they now appear, after the fire. This set shows Weisendanger Falls from the same spot before and after the fire:
Weisendanger Falls on Multnomah Creek ten years ago…
…and in spring 2018, after the Eagle Creek Fire swept through
While the area below Weisendanger Falls shows signs of the fire — notably , more logs in the creek — this photo pair shows the extent of the burn above the falls, where the forest was more substantially impacted:
Weisendanger Falls before…
…and after the fire, in spring 2018
Similar scenes can be found throughout the Eagle Creek Burn, where the fire generally left a beneficial “mosaic” pattern, with heavily burned areas mixed with largely intact forest. These areas are expected to recover quickly, with healthy patches of surviving forest helping adjacent burned areas recover by reseeding, providing cover for wildlife and creating shade. But there are exceptions, especially Oneonta canyon, where the burn was especially catastrophic. The recovery in these places will span decades.
* * * * *
Thus far in this 10-year retrospective article, the focus has been on big changes brought by nature (albeit with an assist from man), but there have been plenty of changes brought by humans over the past ten years, too — both good and bad.
Let’s start with the bad (and ugly). Tragically, corporate timber behemoth Weyerhaeuser became the major private land owner in the West Fork Hood River valley over the past decade, taking ownership of private forests that had long been held by Longview Fibre (and then briefly by a Canadian equity trader). Though Longview Fibre had greatly accelerated logging in the 2000s, Weyerhauser has ramped up the destruction and embarked on a complete liquidation of the forests along a West Fork. Their purported “sustainability” mission is laughable in the modern area of chasing stock prices with massive, unsustainable clear cutting.
This scene is along the spectacular West Fork canyon, just above the Lake Branch confluence. It’s a crime against nature that any private entity should own land of this scenic and ecologic value, and Weyerhauser’s recent “stewardship” is proof:
Weyerhauser didn’t own it yet, but the assault had begun…
…but Weyerhauser greatly accelerated the deforestation of the West Fork
Not seen in these photos are the miles of shoddy logging roads cut into steep slopes in order to haul out the logs and the millions of gallons of liquid herbicide sprayed on the slopes of the West Fork canyon to kill whatever vegetation managed to survive the logging show. Modern corporate logging is about exterminating native forests and replacing them with hybridized tree farms, make no mistake about it.
Some of the more appalling Weyerhaeuser logging practices are on display along the canyon section of the West Fork, where the river cascades beneath towering basalt cliffs where the scenery would merit park status anywhere else in the country. In this spot, a healthy forest directly adjacent to the canyon wall was cut in 2016 and sprayed with herbicides in 2017, with no regard to the river corridor, directly below:
A forested bluff above the West Fork canyon ten years ago…
…and in 2018 after Weyerhaeuser had “sustainably managed” it…
While it’s tough to see healthy forests cut on such a reckless scale, it’s also possible that Weyerhaeuser’s new lust for quick profits over sustainability could tempt the company to sell their cut over lands to the public in the interest of protecting the West Fork valley over the long term. After all, it will take decades for these forests to recover, and Weyerhaeuser seems to have lost patience with timelines on that scale. The sooner we can reclaim these precious lands for the public, the better.Watch for a future blog proposal on that subject!
On to more positive developments! 2018 also marked the grand re-opening of the Old Vista Ridge Trail, a wonderful “lost” trail that winds north from the Vista Ridge Trailhead to a dramatic view of Mount Hood’s north side from a rocky spur known as Owl Point. The trail was unofficially reopened in 2007 by volunteers from the Oregon Hiker’s forum and maintained ever since, a project that led to the formation of Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).
User-made trail signs ten years ago…
Over that time, it became clear that the trail needed to be officially recognized by the Forest Service in order to be properly maintained over the long haul. After much discussion, the agency signed an agreement with TKO in 2017 to adopt the trail, caring for it in perpetuity.
The grand re-opening was originally planned for the fall of 2017, but the Eagle Creek Fire intervened, with much of the north side of Mount Hood closed to the public for fear of the fire moving south into the West Fork valley and toward the mountain.
…replaced with official Forest Service signs last summer!
In July of last year, the rescheduled re-opening finally happened, with an official “cutting of the survey tape” with loppers and a log saw by TKO’s executive director Steve Kruger and Hood River District Ranger Janeen Tervo. A celebratory stewardship day followed on the trail, and so began a new era for this wonderful trail. TKO and the Forest Service are planning other new trails in the area, so hopefully Old Vista Ridge marks the beginning of a trail renaissance on Mount Hood.
Making it official!
TKO volunteers celebrate at Owl Point on dedication day
The Old Vista Ridge Trail is snowed in for the winter, now, but you can visit most years from mid-June through October to admire the view and the new, official trail signs! Read more about the trail in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.
Not far from Old Vista Ridge, another “lost” spot was saved in 2015 when the Western Rivers Conservancy rescued it from Weyerhauser through a direct land purchase. Western Rivers later sold the land to Hood River County at a deep discount, thanks to a Oregon Parks and Recreation Grant, which in turn was submitted on behalf of the county by another non-profit, Thrive Hood River(then called the Hood River Valley Residents Committee). Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was in the mix, too, offering to build a trail system in the new county park as part of matching contribution toward the state grant.
This sign marks a new era for Punchbowl Falls
Sound complicated? It was! But the good news today is that most of the trails envisioned in the original park concept are now complete, and can be explored today. There are still a few finishing touches (notably, trail signs, which are currently in progress thanks to a Hood River scout troop — this is very much a DIY park!), but the main pieces to this new nature park are in place for all to enjoy.
The main focus of the new park is dramatic Punchbowl Falls, a powerful waterfall on the West Fork of the Hood River that has carved an enormous amphitheater from solid basalt. The area just below the falls is also reserved for tribal fishing, a native tradition here that spans millennia and continues to plays a central cultural and economic role for local tribes.
The massive basalt amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls
When the new trail network at Punchbowl Falls Park was first scouted in 2016, great care was taken to respect fishing paths used by the tribes to access the falls, while also providing a way for park visitors to enjoy the many views in this beautiful canyon. Another goal was to consolidate the confusing maze of user trails in the area. All of the work was completed by volunteers from 2016 through last fall.
Volunteers scouting the proposed trail network
Building the Dogwood Trail in 2017
Building the lower Yew Trail last year
The newest trail was completed last November, and follows the West Fork to the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Hood River, another popular feature in the park. Though the trails won’t be signed until early next year, they’re easy to follow and explore, and the park is especially peaceful in winter if you’re looking for a quiet walk in the forest. You can read about the hike here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.
The completed Yew Trail along the West Fork this fall
The new Punchbowl Falls Park spans roughly two miles of river, forever protecting land that had been left to the mercy of private timber corporations for more than a century. As if to underscore this point, Weyerhauser promptly logged off an entire hillside that rises directly above the new park before the site had even been transferred to county ownership. Thankfully, they spared the Punchbowl property from a similar fate before selling it to Western Rivers.
Thanks for the new view from Punchbowl Bridge, Weyerhauser…
Another big change over the past decade came to perhaps the most popular trail on Mount Hood, the venerable Mirror Lake trail, located near Government Camp. For nearly a century, this beloved trail to a small mountain lake was a “first hike” to thousands visiting the mountain for the first time, including me!
One last snowshoe trip to Mirror Lake before ODOT closed winter access
A series of early articles in this blog focused on an ill-conceived ODOT project to widen Highway 26 in the Laurel Hill section, just west of Government Camp. The original Mirror Lake trailhead was part of the collateral damage of this now-completed road widening project. Even before the widening project, ODOT began closing the old trailhead during the winter months, cutting off access to legions of snowshoers and skiers who had used it for years. Later, the widening project finished the job permanently, and the old trailhead is now closed – including removal of the old footbridge over Camp Creek.
Dogged snowshoers were not easily deterred by the winter closure in 2010
While ODOT focused on highway widening, a little known federal highway agency known as the Federal Lands Division worked with the Forest Service to design and build a new Mirror Lake trailhead at the west end of the Mount Hood Ski Bowl parking lot. This arm of the Federal Highway Administration also oversaw the recent replacement of the White River Bridge and restoration of the Historic Sahalie Falls Bridge, near Hood River Meadows. The new Mirror Lake Trailhead opened just a few weeks ago, and was immediately filled to overflowing with visitors.
The new Mirror Lake Trailhead
The new trailhead features toilets and handsome stone work
I’ll post a proper review of the new trailhead and trail once the snow melts this year, but perhaps the best outcome is restored winter access to the Mirror Lake area. Another important element of the project is a barrier-free design from the trailhead to a new footbridge over Camp Creek, a much-needed addition to the very limited number of accessible trails in the Mount Hood area.
Paved, barrier-free section of the new Mirror Lake Trail
One of the more profound changes of the past ten years came when President Obama signed a major wilderness bill into law in 2009 that greatly expanded wilderness protection in the Gorge and around Mount Hood. That law protected several small areas on the margins of existing wilderness that had been left out of earlier legislation. One such area is along the western margins of the lightly visited Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, which ironically is the closest designated wilderness to the Portland metropolitan area. The expanded boundary incorporates forested slopes of Wildcat Mountain and McIntyre Ridge that had long been tempting targets for Forest Service timber sales.
At about that time in the late 2000s, the Bureau of Land Management abruptly closed a northern access point to the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, where an old logging spur provided access to the McIntyre Ridge Trail. Hikers soon discovered a new way to access McIntyre Ridge from another logging spur located on Forest Service land, which in turn led to an ancient roadbed from a long-ago era when a forest lookout tower stood on Wildcat Mountain.
This section of the McIntyre Ridge Trail follows a former lookout access road
The Forest Service still has not embraced the “New McIntyre Trailhead”, as it is known to hikers, but this unofficial trailhead has restored public access to this newly protected corner of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness. More importantly, this is an area where “eyes on the forest” are especially important, as the Wildcat Mountain area has a long history of lawlessness and abuse from shooters, dumpers and 4-wheelers.
Blaze along the McIntyre Ridge Trail
Shooters can’t seem to resist destroying public property… and anything else they can shoot
The good news is that hikers have continued to use the McIntyre Ridge trail over the ensuing years, though there are still too many reports of illegal activity. Just last summer, a local hiker came across a pair of pickups that had driven at least a mile into the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness along McIntyre Ridge and set up a camp in the middle of the trail! Worse, off-roaders have cut completely new roads into the wilderness on the margins of the Salmon Huckleberry, especially in this area. These are federal crimes, of course, though Forest Service resources for enforcing the law are minimal.
Rogue off-roaders well inside the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness earlier this year (photo: Walrus)
Fortunately, public land law-breakers are well aware of their illegal behavior and tend to shy away from busy recreation areas. Therefore, my hope is that the Forest Service will eventually recognize and champion the New McIntyre trailhead as for protecting the wilderness through “eyes on the forest”. More to come in future articles on this little corner of Mount Hood country..
And the next 10 years..?
Looking at the many profound changes in the Gorge and around Mount Hood over the past ten years, it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed and discouraged by the pace and scale of change. The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire was especially traumatic for so many who love the Gorge. But the changes are also a reminder of the ongoing need for vigilance in protecting these special places and the role we all have to continue moving Mount Hood and the Gorge toward a new vision of restoration and renewal and away from our exploitive, often destructive past.
I’m optimistic that we’ll continue making progress in coming years, just as we have over the past decade that I’ve documented with this blog. I plan to continue posting articles here to track the changes and make regular deep dives into the lesser known corners of the Gorge and Mount Hood. And I’ll also dream a bit about how we might better care for these places that we all love while making our public lands more accessible to everyone.
Hiking with Mom on Park Ridge in my formative years!
Over the course of the past ten years, I’ve tried to post at least once per month, but you might have noticed that I haven’t quite kept that pace over the past year or two. That’s largely due to the fact that my elderly folks have suddenly needed more help as they both struggled with failing health. In September, my mom passed away after a long and cruel struggle with memory disease, so we’ve now shifted to supporting my 89-year old dad as he adjusts to suddenly living alone after 68 years of marriage.
While sorting through family memories of Mom, I came across a photo (above) from a family backpack through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, way back in 1974 when I was 12 years old. I was already an experienced hiker and backpacker at that point in my life, thanks to the love of the outdoors my Iowan parents shared in their beloved, adopted Pacific Northwest.
Me (standing on the rock, of course!) with my mom and sister on a Timberline Trail backpack in 1976
That’s a precious gift my folks gave to me and I’m thankful every day for my good fortune to have been raised with boots on my feet and a pack on my back! Too many in our spectacular corner of the world take our public lands for granted, and barely make the time or effort to explore them, often because they don’t really know how to. That’s another motivation for the blog and the Mount Hood National Park “idea campaign”. Our public lands are a gift for all of us, and I’ll also continue to post articles that celebrate this legacy and provide tips for how to explore the lesser-known corners of WyEast country.
Older, grayer but ready for another 10 years of celebrating WyEast!
Well, that’s probably more than enough for this retrospective article. But if you’re read this far, thank you for taking the time to visit the blog and especially those who’ve reached out with a comment or e-mail over the years. Much appreciated! I’ve got a bunch of articles and a few surprises in the works heading into 2019, and I’m looking forward to another 10 years!
I hope to see you here along the way — and on the trail, too!
‘Tis the season for top ten lists and year-end retrospectives, so in that spirit my annual Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar is pretty good snapshot of 12 favorite spots of mine across WyEast country this year. Since 2004, I’ve created an annual calendar dedicated to the campaign, each with a fresh set of photos. If you’d like a 2019 calendar, there’s info at the bottom of the article and ALL proceeds will once again go to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).
The annual campaign calendar has been a great motivator for exploring new terrain and improving my photography skills over the years. Each year the calendar project also renews my conviction that Mount Hood and the Gorge are uniquely special places, and deserve better care.
This article is a short tour of the 12 spots that made it into the 2019 calendar, with a few stories behind the photos and reflection on these increasingly fragile landscapes.
Starting with the cover image (at the top of the article), the calendar begins at lovely Whale Creek, a tributary of the Clackamas River that is also featured in the March image, so more about that spot in a moment.
Next up, the January image (below) captures the awesome west face of Mount Hood, where the Sandy Headwall towers 3,000 feet above the Sandy Glacier. This snowy view was captured from near Lolo Pass last winter.
Not included in the close-up view are the bare slopes of Barrett Spur (below) and other alpine ramparts of Mount Hood that still didn’t have their winter snowpack in early February, when these photos were taken. While it’s not uncommon to have a late snowpack in the Cascades, these events are becoming more common as global warming unfolds in our own backyard.
Low snow on Barrett Spur in February tells the story of our changing climate
For February, I chose a close-up perspective of the ice “pillows” that form at the base of Tamanawas Falls (below) in winter. This has become a very popular winter destination in recent years, thanks in large part to social media! (…ahem…)
Tamanawas is Chinook jargon for “guiding spirit”, and is one version among a couple variations in spelling. More challenging is the pronunciation, and with the advent of social media, all manner of spoken variations are being used. For some reason, an especially popular spoken version that doesn’t even correlate to the actual spelling is “tah-ma-WAHN-us”.
It turns out the most accepted pronunciation is “ta-MAH-na-wahs”. I’ve been saying a slight variation of “ta-MAN-a-wahs” for most of my life, so I’ll need to work on that!
Cold Spring Creek and Tamanawas Falls in winter
As mentioned earlier, the March calendar image is from Whale Creek (below), located in the heart of the Clackamas River canyon. The creek is hidden in plain sight, flowing through the Indian Henry Campground and next to the east trailhead of the Clackamas River Trail. This area features some of the finest rainforest in WyEast country.
March features a rainforest scene along Whale Creek
Whale Creek was just one of many places in the Clackamas and Molalla River watersheds that I found myself exploring this year while much of the Oregon portion of the Columbia River Gorge was closed by the Eagle Creek fire. I visited the lower reaches of Whale Creek after seeing stunning photos of a string of waterfalls on the upper reaches of the creek, and quickly fell in love with this pretty stream. Watch for a future article on a trail concept I’ve been working on for Whale Creek with TKO and some area waterfall explorers.
Whale Creek in the Clackamas River canyon
Sadly, the Clackamas River corridor has a bad reputation, thanks to a history of lawless behavior (the recent Pit Fire was started by illegal target shooting, for example) and a long history of Forest Service management that viewed the area more like a tree farm than a forest — and the two go hand in hand, by the way.
Yet, hidden in the now-recovering rainforests of the Clackamas are dozens of spectacular waterfalls, towering basalt walls and rugged vistas that rival the Columbia River Gorge in beauty. There are also a lot of big trees that somehow dodged the logging heyday of past decades.
Whale Creek in winter
The Clackamas River corridor holds great promise for future recreation alternative to places like the Gorge, and the proven cure for lawless behavior is lawful recreation. I’m optimistic that we’ll make that transition here, and begin valuing places like Whale Creek for the intrinsic value of its forests, not just the saw logs it can produce.
For the April calendar image, I selected a photo of White River Falls, both for the contrast in WyEast country ecosystems it displays and because this little state park could use some love and expanded boundaries. I posted an article with just such a proposal a few years ago, you can find it over here.
White River Falls with unprotected desert country beyond
The May calendar image features a sweeping view of the Upper Hood River Valley (below) from little known, seldom-noticed Middle Mountain. Its name tells the story, as forested Middle Mountain divides the upper and lower portions of the Hood River Valley. I learned of this spot about ten years ago from a local photographer and have gone back pretty much every year since.
May features the Upper Hood River Valley as viewed from Middle Mountain
Zooming in a bit to this idyllic landscape reveals a seemingly timeless farm scene that is easy to take for granted. And yet, these farms were at great peril just a few years ago, when voters passed the deceptive Measure 37 in 2004. The law was pitched as a way for landowners to “seek compensation” for land use regulation, but in truth was just another end-run around Oregon’s protections for farm and forestlands.
Voters later passed Measure 49, in 2007, blunting the impact of the earlier measure, but only after hundreds of urban-scale developments were approved in rural areas across Oregon (including a pair of giant, illuminated billboards along the Mount Hood Highway that still remain today). It was a reminder that while our farms may look timeless, we can never take them for granted. They will always need our support and protection if we want places like this to exist for future generations.
Timeless farm scene below Middle Mountain
Much of Middle Mountain is owned by the public, where county-owned forest lands continue to be (mis)managed as a cash register by Hood River County (the county likes to refer to these land as their “tree farm”). Local residents no doubt enjoy their modest tax rates, as a result, but I’m hoping the rapidly changing demographics in Hood River will bring a different mindset to how the thousands of acres of county forests that ring the Hood River Valley are managed.
Logging is still king on Middle Mountain…
One immediate concern on Middle Mountain is the manner of logging. Large clear cuts, like those scarring the slopes of Middle Mountain, are an unsustainable practice, with proven harmful impacts to forest health, water quality and salmon and steelhead populations. Clear cuts are also the cheapest, easiest way to bring haul logs out of the forest. That bottom line might be unavoidable for private forests, but as a public agency, Hood River County should at least adopt a selective harvest policy that leaves standing trees in logged areas.
…keeping Hood River County coffers full…
The county should also reject the reckless use of herbicides sprayed on logged over lands. This is a practice the private industry uses to shortcut the natural forest recovery and speed up the next harvest. The idea is to destroy the recovering forest understory in a logged area so that plantation seedlings might grow a little faster.
The forest on the left is next to go…
I’m not certain the county uses this practice on public lands, but it seems to be the case. Consider this notice posted a few days ago on their website:
“Recreation trails are sometimes temporarily closed during additional forest management operations. Operations such as the burning of slash, herbicide application, and the planting of seedlings, will necessitate trail closures. Trails are re-opened once operations are complete.”
This certainly sounds like the private industry practice…
…might as well add “for now” to the last line on this boundary marker, unfortunately.
Of course, the county could show real leadership and simply ban this practice on private lands in Hood River County, as well. That is, if water quality, wildlife, salmon and steelhead habitat, long-term forest health and tourism are a county priority over the fastest route to clear cutting more logs. My sense is that voters in Hood River County are increasingly focused on these broader concerns, even if the county leadership isn’t there yet.
June features Shotgun Falls in the Molalla River canyon
For the June calendar image, I selected another lesser-known spot, graceful Shotgun Falls (above) in the Molalla River canyon. This pretty, off-trail waterfall has been on my list for some time, and the Gorge closure inspired me to finally make this trip last spring for a much-needed waterfall fix.
Shotgun Falls is a classic “Oregon” waterfall, cascading over a tall, mossy basalt cliff. The falls is a short creek walk from the Molalla River Road, but protected by a 20-foot barrier falls just downstream that requires a slippery scramble to navigate. It’s an increasingly popular off-trail trip, and the streambed is starting to show the wear and tear, making this a great candidate for a proper trail that families with young kids and hikers looking for an easy waterfall trip could enjoy. More to come on this idea..!
Time for a real trail, here…
Sometimes a random moment burns a place and time in the forest into your memory. One such moment occurred on my trip to Shotgun Falls when my pack suddenly tipped while shooting photos from high above the falls. To my horror, it went bounding into the canyon, finally stopping just short of Shotgun Creek, about 60 feet below. Thankfully, my camera gear was safely zipped inside and I didn’t even end up with a soggy pack — the difference between a fond memory and forgettable one!
Takes a licking, keeps on zipping!
The July calendar image features a picture-perfect wildflower scene along Cove Creek (below), located at the base of Barrett Spur in Elk Cove. This idyllic spot is kept open by a deep, lingering snowpack in spring and regular winter avalanches that shear off trees, allowing the alpine meadows to thrive.
Looking downstream along Cove Creek (below), 99 Ridge can be seen in the distance, covered with ghost trees killed by the 2012 Dollar Lake Fire. The fire reached the margins of Elk Cove, but passed over most of the forests here.
The Dollar Lake Burn swept over 99 Ridge, in the background in this view of Cove Creek
On this trip to Elk Cove, I met a pair of hikers carrying their exhausted pup down the trail. When I chatted briefly with them, I was reminded that hikers are really nice people: they didn’t even know each other. The man carrying the dog had run into the woman as she struggled to carry her dog back to the trailhead. He offered to carry the poor pup the rest of the way!
Hikers are nice people! (…see text…)
For the August calendar image, I selected a familiar view of Mount Hood from high on the shoulder of Cooper Spur (below). The Eliot Glacier dominates the view here, even as it recedes from global warming. As the glacier recedes, the exposed canyon floor once covered by ice has rapidly eroded, which in turn has begun to destabilize the moraines that flank the canyon.
I experienced the hazards of the destabilized moraines firsthand when I stopped along the South Eliot Moraine that day and set my pack on a 4-foot long boulder that seemed to be the perfect trailside bench. Before I could park myself on the “bench”, it suddenly gave way, careening end-over-end into the Eliot Branch canyon, kicking off dozens of other rocks and an impressive dust storm along the way!
The south Eliot Moraine continues to crumble…
Thankfully, there were no hikers below — and I was also relieved that I’d snapped up my pack before the boulder disappeared over the edge! Clearly, my pack has nine lives… though I’m not sure how many remain…
Seeing the boulder finally land among the jumbled rocks 300 feet below was powerful reminder of the scale of this place, as the 4-foot “bench” rock was dwarfed by dozens of larger boulders scattered below the moraine.
A 4-foot boulder becomes a pebble among the debris rolling into the Eliot Branch canyon
The September calendar image captures fall colors along Still Creek, on Mount Hood’s southwest side. This photo was taken on a visit to a recent Forest Service project designed to restore salmon and steelhead habitat on Still Creek.
September features a grove of Red Alder along Still Creek wrapped in brilliant Vine Maple foliage
The project site was a badly overused “dispersed” campsite that had become an eyesore over the years. To rehabilitate the site, the Forest Service excavated a large trench to block vehicle access to the streamside campsite, reinforced the barrier with a row of boulders. So far, these barriers seems to be working, as there were no signs of continued camping or off-road vehicle use in the area.
Forest Service stream restoration work on Still Creek
At the heart of the restoration project, several very large logs with root wads attached (below) were hauled into the stream to create the natural “woody debris” habitat that our native salmon and steelhead rely upon. The logs and roots create deep pools and places for small fish to hide from predation as they mature to adulthood.
Bringing back logs and root wads that create prime fish habitat
There’s something primeval about uprooted trees lying across the creek. This is what most of our streams looked like before the settlement era, when forests were logged, streams were tamed and few big trees were left to become “woody debris”. The panorama below shows the full extend of this Forest Service restoration project.
On a select few days each fall, the first high elevation snow of the season is followed by a few days of bright, clear weather — and with any luck, all of this coincides with fall colors. Such was the case in the calendar image I selected for October (below), with Mount Hood framed by flaming Vine Maple, as viewed from the Lolo Pass area.
October features an early snow on Mount Hood, framed by Vine Maples
Whenever I shoot this scene, an image of a scalloped-edge vintage postcard is in my mind. Thanks to many postcards from the 1940s, 50s and 60s that captured this side of the mountain in autumn, the scene is iconic. This card (below) from the 1950s is typical of the era, and was captured just around the corner from where I shot the 2019 calendar image.
Timeless inspiration, with fancy scalloped edges!
For the November calendar image, I selected a rainforest scene from along the Molalla River (below), where bare winter trees reveal the contorted, mossy limbs of Bigleaf and Vine Maple.
November features a pristine rainforest scene along the Molalla River
While the above certainly scene looks pristine, it’s really not. One of my favorite photographic themes is to capture “pristine” scenery in places that are not — but could be, if managed with an eye toward restoration. Such was the case with the previous photo from Lolo Pass, where transmission towers were literally buzzing overhead, and with the Molalla River, where a road culvert dumped the little stream in the photo from a 4-foot galvanized pipe.
…which turns out to not be all that pristine..!
Beauty can be found everywhere, and the path to restoration in even the most impacted areas in WyEast country begins when we see places not just for what they once were, but for what they could be, again.
The December calendar image is a freezing fog scene from the east slopes of Mount Defiance (below). This stunning phenomenon occurs a few times each winter when temperature inversions blanket the eastern Columbia River Gorge with dense fog and frigid temperatures. The effect is magical, though traveling the roads in these conditions can be treacherous!
December features a crystal wonderland from freezing fog on the slopes of Mount Defiance
The frosting of ice coating the forest in these scenes is called “soft rime”, and is made up of feathery, fragile crystals that can be brushed off like a fine powder. Soft rime forms when super-cooled vapor in fog accumulates directly on tree surfaces in delicate, elaborate crystals. Hard rime is defined as ice forming from freezing fog that first condenses to water droplets, then freezes on surfaces, creating a clear, hardened ice layer.
Freezing fog on Mount Defiance
Soft rime accumulations can be quite impressive in the Gorge, depending on how long the fog event lasts. These scenes were captured after five days of freezing fog and represent about the maximum amount of ice that can accumulate before crystals break off under their own weight.
Freezing fog on Mount Defiance
This photo (below) is a close-up of soft rime accumulations on a Golden Chinkapin growing on the slopes of Mount Defiance. These crystals as much as three inches long.
Soft rime ice crystals
The scene below shows an odd transition from bare road (and car) to frosted forest that looks like a photoshop creation. In this spot the rime had coated the trees and understory, but not the gravel road in the foreground, creating the strange two-tone scene. This photo is also a bit of a farewell, as my venerable trail car of the past many years years is featured. This old friend was retired to quiet a life in the city just a few months after this photo was taken, at the ripe old age of 13 years and 212,000 miles!
Farewell to an old friend…
The back page of the 2019 calendar features nine wildflower images from the past year. If you’ve followed articles on the blog, you’ll recognize a several photos featured in stories on Horkelia Meadow and Punchbowl Falls.
From top left and reading across, these flowers are Hackelia micrantha (Horkelia Meadow), Chocolate Lily (Punchbowl Falls Park), Oregon Iris (Shellburg Falls), Buckwheat (Horkelia Meadow), Calypso Orchid (Punchbowl Falls Park), Oregon Grape (Molalla River), Horkelia fusca (Horkelia Meadow), Collomia grandiflora (Clackamas River) and Skyrocket Gilia (Horkelia Meadow).
So, that’s it for the 2019 campaign calendar! I’ve already started colleting images for next year’s calendar and I’m looking forward to yet another year of exploring all corners of America’s next national park. Maybe I’ll even see you out on the trail!
Old goat that wandered up a creek…
In the meantime, you can order the 2019 calendar over at Zazzle. They’re beautifully printed, oversized designs with functional writing space — they’re working calendars and make great gifts! The calendars sell for $29.95, but Zazzle regularly offers deep discounts, so it’s worth watching for sales. This year, all proceeds from calendars will go to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).
Western larch light up Mount Hood’s eastern slopes each fall
The title of this post might take you back to “No. 1… THE LARCH” (followed by “No. 3… THE LARCH!” and “…now for something completely different…”).
This might have been the most obscure of Monty Python’s many recurring non-sequiturs, and it is indelibly imprinted in the minds of among those of us of a certain age… but the Pythons had it right: the larch isa remarkable tree, and it really can be “recognized from quite a long way away”.
At about this time each fall, Oregon’s only deciduous conifer explodes into shades of bright yellow, gold and orange before dropping its needles for the winter. Western larch (Larix occidentals) spends most of the spring and summer growing season blending in with other conifers in the forest, and are thus easily missed. But for the next few weeks, they will be flamboyantly on display, and are worth a visit to the east side forests they call home.
Larch grove along the East Fork Hood River
Western larch is one of about a dozen larch found around the world, but it is the only larch found in Oregon. Its range extends north to British Columbia and east to Idaho, Montana and Alberta. It’s also among the largest of the larch species, capable of growing nearly 200 feet tall on massive trunks up to five feet across. Our Western larch is often called “tamarack” by locals, but that name actually belongs to a different, smaller species that grows in the eastern part of the continent.
Western larch has a distinctive shape compared to other forest conifers. Its crown is narrow and tapered, like a candle, and it often grows in groves were its shape allows closely spaced trees to thrive. Larch trees can survive extreme cold and thrive in subalpine forests with winters are frigid and summers are hot and dry — exactly the climate found on the east slopes of Mount Hood. Here, Western larch often dominates the forests and form the westernmost reach of the species.
Larch seedling on Lookout Mountain
Western larch is also prolific in producing offspring, with thickets of young larch growing among the big trees, especially after fire or logging. Young trees are fast-growing, often adding a foot or more of new growth each year.
The branches of Western larch are unique and easy to spot, even during its “green” phase in spring and summer. New growth emerges bright yellow-green in spring from rows of knobs along its limbs, with clusters of needles held in tufts that emerge from each knob. This gives the foliage a delicate, lacy appearance during the growing season, when its foliage gradually deepens to dark green.
Western larch are easy to spot by their tufted foliage
Their bare limbs have distinctive, gnarled, picturesque shape in winter, when the needles have dropped. The cones of Western larch are small, and also arranged among the small knobs that dot its limbs.
Western larch foliage
Mount Hood’s east side forests are also “fire forests”, ecosystems where frequent fires are essential to forest health. Like the neighboring Ponderosa pine that it typically associates with, Western larch has thick bark designed to protect mature trees from repeated fires. For added fire protection, larch drop their lower limbs at the tree mature, keeping the growing tree canopy high and out of reach of fires sweeping through the understory.
The bark on Western Larch is thick and fire-resistant, similar to its Ponderosa pine neighbors
But in the recent catastrophic fires that have swept through the east and north slopes of Mount Hood, the flames were intense enough to reach larch canopies, killing thousands of these normally fire resistant trees. Despite this, young larch seedlings are among the most prominent trees leading the forest recovery in the aftermath of the Bluegrass Fire (2006), Gnarl Fire (2008) and Dollar Lake Fire (2011) that burned most of Mount Hood’s eastern and northern flanks.
Western Larch shed their lower limbs, keeping their growing crowns out of reach of low-intensity fire that would likely burn the other, low-branched conifers in this forest near Hood River Meadows.
Western larch can live to be at least 1,000 years old — that’s the age of “Gus”, the largest and oldest larch of any species in the world. Gus is a Western larch growing in a grove of ancient larch survivors in Montana, and is at the heart of a magnificent larch grove that should be on every big tree hunter’s “bucket list”.
Mount Hood’s most venerable Western larch might be the stunted patriarch growing from a high rock outcrop along Surveyors Ridge (below) at a spot I call Tamarack Rock (an explanation for that improper name is found in this 2009 blog article), where it enjoys a magnificent view of Mount Hood, but also endures the brunt of Pacific storms sweeping across the Cascades in winter and intense heat and drought over the summer months. This old tree is likely centuries old, and has survived fires, logging and undoubtedly a few lightning strikes is this exposed location.
Ancient larch on Tamarack Rock
Like most of our native species, the Western larch was used by Native Americans for food and materials. The resin under its bark was used for medicinal purposes and larch wood was used for poles and as firewood. Today, it is still prized as exceptional firewood.
Which brings us to perhaps the most unfortunate threat to Western larch in our increasingly busy forests: being cut down as “dead” during its dormant, leafless winter phase. Too many perfectly healthy larch trees meet this completely avoidable fate in our forests and cities each year.
These oddly shaped larch near Brooks Meadow have been attacked by the Larch casebearer, an introduced European moth that can defoliate and even kill Western larch.
A more worrisome threat is the Larch casebearer, a European insect that can defoliate Western larch. The parasites that keep the casebearer in check in Europe has not been effective as an introduced counter measure in the Western larch range, and the long-term impact of this introduced bug on our larch stands is still unknown.
Larch stand in mid-summer with browned foliage from a heavy attack by Larch casebearer
The photo above looks like it might be a larch grove in fall, but the photo was taken along the Lookout Mountain Road in mid-summer, showing the crowns of several Western larch under heavy attack by the Larch casebearer. The State of Oregon has published this fact sheet with more information on the casebearer.
Where to see Western Larch
From now through early November, Western larch will be putting on a show along the eastern leg of the Mount Hood Loop Highway, where OR 35 follows the East Fork of the Hood River to Bennett Pass. Bennett Pass roughly marks the dividing line for its range, with big stands of larch suddenly appearing east of the pass.
Larch trees fading to orange and gold in November along the Gumjuwac Trail
If you have more time, the Dufur Mill Road (Forest Road 44) has still more Western larch on display, including along the unimproved road to High Prairie on Lookout Mountain. And if you simply travel Highway 26 across the Cascades, you’ll see Western larch from Blue Box Pass east to the edge of the forest.
If you’re looking for a trail to hike or ride a bike through larch stands, the Dog River Trail (No. 675) and Zigzag Trail (No. 678) are good choices. Both are quiet, though you’ll share the Dog River Trail with mountain bikers. Other trails along the East Fork also offer nice larch stands.
The giant boulder at the camp entrance is hard to miss!
Earlier this year, I attended a Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) event at Camp Arrah Wanna, a venerable youth camp located in the deep forests along the Salmon River, west of Mount Hood. The camp’s origins are a bit hazy, but today’s youth camp emerged from the Arrah Wanna Inn, one of many roadside hotels and restaurants that lined the Mount Hood Loop Highway soon after it opened in the early 1920s.
The original Arrah Wanna Inn as it appeared in the 1920s
During the heyday of the Arrah Wanna Inn, travelers explored the area in a growing network of trails to nearby forest lookouts and along the Salmon River. Locals also served as fishing and horseback tour guides to the growing stream of auto tourists.
Early visitor to the Salmon River near Camp Arrah Wanna in 1915 (Wikimedia Commons)
Today, the camp hosts outdoor school each spring, faith-based youth camps in summer and winter and many other private retreats and events over the course of the year.
Today’s main lodge at the camp is housed in the historic Arrah Wanna Inn building. And though it has been decades since I spent my summers in high school and college working at camp, walking into the dining room in the main lodge brought back a flood of great memories.
The rustic dining hall in the main lodge
Walking through the old dining room, something hanging above the east fireplace caught my eye: a huge watercolor panorama of the surrounding Mount Hood country!
The panoramic masterpiece in the main lodge dining room
Panoramic, hand-tinted photos and paintings of Mount Hood were popular in the early 1900s, but this was different. This painting was intended so have some geographic accuracy, and is clearly a custom original. The frame and age of painting suggest that it was originally done for the Arrah Wanna Inn, and simply came with the building when Camp Arrah Wanna was established.
The artist behind this beautiful painting is unknown, though there may be a signature hidden inside the frame or on the back of the painting. The rest of this article is a tour of the details in this amazing, little known painting, section by section.
Taking a closer look…
Close-up of the Salmon and Sandy River valleys with Mount Adams on the horizon
Front and center in the painting is the Welches community, known today as the Resort at the Mountain. Mount Adams appears on the horizon in this view, which is geographically correct. The large butte in front of Mount Adams in a mystery, however. My guess is that it reflects Hickman Butte, locked away behind the gates that close the Bull Run watershed to the public today, but the site of a prominent forest lookout in the 1920s, when I think this painting was made.
Looking more closely at the details in the Welches area, you can clearly see the Arrah Wanna Inn, which is why I believe this was created for the Inn as a custom artwork.
Detail of the Arrah Wanna Inn in the 1920s or early 1930s
In the foreground of the painting, a horseback party has arrived at a viewpoint overlooking the Salmon and Sandy River valleys (below). The artist has used some license here to place both Mount Adams and Welches in view, but in reality Mount Adams can only be seen from the upper part of Huckleberry Mountain. The long-unmaintained Arrah Wanna Trail did climb directly to Huckleberry Mountain, and there were viewpoints of the the valleys from sections of this old trail, so I think the artist simply merged these perspectives.
Detail of horseback party arriving at a viewpoint on Huckleberry Mountain
It’s hard to see, but the image shows a man leading five women and two horses to this viewpoint, with a second man bringing up the rear. We can only guess on the significance of the group — is it a biographical detail of the artist, perhaps? We’ll probably never know.
Also visible in this close-up look at the painting (below) is the Samuel Welch homestead and pasture that gave the community its name. The pasture was once known as “Billy’s Goat Pasture”, after Samual Welch’s son William, and today has been converted to be part of the golf course at the Inn at the Mountain.
Detailed view of the Samuel Welch homestead that is today’s Welches community
Moving to the upper left corner of the painting (below), the artist included remarkable detail of Portland and the farm towns like Gresham, Powell Valley, Troutdale and Sandy that have since become suburbs.
Look closely, and you can see that the artist has carefully included Mount Scott, Kelley Butte, Mount Tabor and Rocky Butte in the painting details, as well as the Clackamas River, Cazadero interurban rail line, Columbia River and once-perfect cone of Mount St. Helens on the horizon.
Mount St. Helens rising above the Sandy River eastern edge of Portland
These details show the artist to be a person with excellent knowledge of the area, since several of these features are in gegrpahically correct, but not actually visible from Huckleberry Mountain without floating a couple thousand feet above the summit.
Moving to the right side of the painting, the artist has rendered a beautiful and very accurate portrait of Mount Hood (below). Zigzag Mountain — the long ridge in front of the mountain — is correctly shown as burned over. Lookout photos from the 1930s confirm that nearly all of this ridge burned in the early 1900s, though forests have largely returned today.
Beautifully rendered view of Mount Hood and the historic loop highway
A closer look (below) shows the confluence of the Zigzag and Sandy Rivers at today’s Zigzag community. The gray coloring along the Sandy River (approaching from the top) is also accurate to the period. In the early 1900s, the devastation from the Old Maid Flat eruptions of the late 1700s were still on display, as early photos show. Though mostly forested now, the valley floor was still a mostly open plain of cobbles and volcanic debris when the painting was created.
Detailed view of the Zigzag River confluence with the Sandy River
There’s another example of artistic license in this part of the painting, too. The large lake in the distance (below) appears to be Bull Run Lake, with Buck Peak rising behind it. The lake is completely hidden from the vantage point for the painting by intervening peaks and ridges.
Bull Run Lake is included in the details of this painting
I had to “fly” to over 18,000 feet — almost 3 vertical miles — above Huckleberry Mountain to actually see Bull Run Lake from this perspective. But the artist’s license in showing this detail is also another example of great knowledge of the area landscape, as the position of the lake is geographically correct. That’s a real feat in an era when only a few, small-scale topographic maps of the region existed!
Looking more closely at Mount Hood and the loop highway where it climbs through the Zigzag Valley and up Laurel Hill to Government Camp (below) shows more terrific details. On the mountain, major features like Steel Cliff, Illumination Rock, Reid Glacier and Yocum Ridge are all included and proportionally accurate, with a bit of artistic license. If you look very closely, you can even pick out Cathedral Ridge, McNeil Point and Barrett Spur, all of which are geographically accurate from the vantage point of Huckleberry Mountain.
Mount Hood and the Zigzag Valley
Looking very closely at Laurel Hill and the highway approach to Government Camp (below), the old loops on the historic highway are shown in great detail, along with the Little Zigzag River at the first highway switchback and Yocum Falls on Camp Creek to the right of the third switchback. The burn details are also correct, here, as most of the area around Government Camp had burned and was just beginning to recover in the early 1900s.
Detailed view of the historic loop highway where it climbs Laurel Hill to Government Camp
The kind staff at Camp Arrah Wanna allowed me to share these images, and hopefully they will satisfy your curiosity, as well. The camp is a non-profit operation, and not really equipped to handle tourists dropping by to admire old paintings! But if you or an organization you belong to is looking for a site for a retreat or gather, consider supporting Camp Arrah Wanna! It’s one of the real gems on the old highway circuit, and relies on event bookings to keep this beautiful slice of history alive.
The historic Arrah Wanna Inn is now the main lodge at Camp Arrah Wanna (photo: Camp Arrah Wanna)
You can learn more about Camp Arrah Wanna and find contact information here:
On the east side of Mount Hood lies a pretty mountain meadow that is visited by thousands each year, but known to very few. Right about now, this little meadow is in its peak summer bloom, thanks to a low snowpack this year. The place is Horkelia Meadow, a modest, subalpine gem in the Fire Forest country of the eastern Cascades.
If you’ve ever traveled Lookout Mountain Road to the High Prairie trailhead, you’ve passed right through Horkelia Meadow, though you can be forgiven for not being familiar with the name. Years ago, a Forest Service sign marked the spot, but only a discarded signpost remains today.
Horkelia Meadow straddles popular Lookout Mountain Road
Horkelia Meadow marks an area where a layer of underlying volcanic rock forces the water table to the surface at the top of the steep western scarp of Lookout Mountain. The geology creates a number of springs in the vicinity, and at rolling Horkelia Meadow, the soils are just moist enough to keep the surrounding conifer forests at bay.
The resulting meadow is the perfect habitat for an array of wildflowers and wildlife. You’re likely to see elk and deer sign here, as well as raptors in the big trees that edge the meadow, preying on mice, voles and even the snowshoe hare that live here.
Horkelia Meadow is located in the subalpine forests on the north slopes of Lookout Mountain
Among the earliest blooms of summer at Horkelia Meadow come from a wildflower commonly known as Jessica Sticktight, Blue Stickseedof simply Stickseed. These are showy flowers that line the borders of Horkelia meadow, along the forest margins.
Blue Stickseed flower detail
The common name “Stickseed” is self-explanatory when you look at the seed pods that form after the bloom, with each fruit covered in sticky spikes (below). When they dry out in late summer, they’re well designed to hitch a ride on passing wildlife — or your hiking socks!
But what caught my eye after a recent visit to the meadow was the botanical name for Blue Stickseed: Hackelia micrantha.Surely, there must be a connection to the naming of Horkelia Meadow?
Seed pod on Blue Stickseed (photo: California Native Plant Society)
After searching through a stack of wildflower guides and web resources, I learned that Horkelia fusca or Tawny Horkelia does, indeed, grow in the area. It has been spotted at nearby Bottle Prairie and Brooks Meadow, both located to the north of Horkelia Meadow and about 1,000 feet lower in elevation.
So, a return trip was in order to see if Horkelia fuscaactually grows at Horkelia Meadow. Sure enough, it’s scattered throughout the lower sections of the meadow, far from Lookoout Mountain Road. Where Blue Stickseed is abundant throughout the meadow, Tawny Horkelia is scattered about, sometimes in open forest along the meadow edges, sometimes in dry spots near the center of the lower meadow.
Tawny Horkelia at its namesake meadow
Compared to the showy Blue Stickseed, Tawny Horkelia is a humble bystander in the meadow. These are modest little plants, happy to fill a niche in the ecosystem, but mostly noticeable to wildflower fans.
Therefore, my hunch is that a case of mistaken identity made its way onto Forest Service maps, as Hackelia micrantha— the Blue Stickseed — is lush and very prominent in the meadow during its bloom, and worthy of being its namesake. It’s also dominates along the heavily traveled upper meadow, where Lookout Mountain Road passes through, and where Tawny Horkelia doesn’t seem to grow.
Meanwhile, it also seems that Horkelia Meadow was named fairly recently. The original primitive road was built through the meadow in the 1930s as part of the Bennett Pass Road (see this article on the blog), but Forest Service maps suggest that the Horkelia Meadow was named sometime in the early 1970s.
This is when industrial logging and associated road building went into high gear in the Lookout Mountain area (see below), and the old dirt road to Lookout Mountain was rebuilt and graveled to handle log trucks. During this period, named landmarks were helpful for logging crews navigating the tangle of new roads. I think Horkelia Meadow was (mis)named for that very purpose.
Horkelia Meadow has a bouquet of wildflower species and is a fine spot for a casual ramble to explore its secrets — hidden in plain sight! In early summer the Blue Stickseed are joined by Larkspur sprinkled throughout the meadow. Later, Scarlet Gilia, yellow Buckwheat and blue Lupine take over in a second wave of flowers.
Larkspur in early June at Horkelia Meadow
Lupine just beginning to bloom in early June at Horkelia Meadow
Scarlet Gilia in late June at Horkelia Meadow
In addition to the wildflowers, low thickets of Sticky Currant also grow on the meadow margins and along fallen trees that have dropped into the meadow (below). The summer berries on this species of currant are (as the name suggests) sticky and not edible, but the flowers put on an attractive show in early summer.
Sticky currant at Horkelia Meadow
The summer wildflower show also extends into the shade of the forests that surround Horkelia Meadow, with lush carpets of Vanilla Leaf (below), white Anemone and other wildflowers more commonly found in the wet forests along the Cascade crest.
Vanilla Leaf at Horkelia Meadow
Fire suppression in the 20th century combined with aggressive clear cutting by the Forest Service over the past four decades has disrupted much of the Fire Forest ecosystem on the east side of Mount Hood. In many areas, the result is a crowded thicket of true firs, replacing the fire-dependent species of Ponderosa pine, Western larch, Lodgepole pine and Douglas fir that used to dominate. This, in turn, has triggered a cycle of beetle infestations among the crowded, weakened fir forests across the mountains of Eastern Oregon, often followed by catastrophic fires that kill even the fire-dependent tree species.
The good news is that the Forest Service has begun thinning some of these unnatural forests in an effort to restore the Fire Forest structure, including the use of controlled burns in some areas (see “Fire Forests of the Cascades”) Over time, this could help restore the natural forest ecosystem.
A walk around Horkelia Meadow shows remnants of the old Fire Forest cycle that once dominated the area, creating open, park-like forests under towering trees. If you look closely, you can even find a few traces (above) of the last forest fire to sweep through the area, decades ago, when the forests were much different than today.
A trio of fire-dependent Western Larch along the east margins of Horkelia Meadow
Whether fire returns to the areas as a planned burn or natural event, the Fire Forest species are still here and ready to resume their role as the dominant trees of this ecosystem… if we will allow it.
The old Fire Forest remnants scattered around Horkelia Meadow, some living and some standing as skeleton trees, provide easy landmarks for a tour. The starting point for exploring the meadow is the high point at the east end of the meadow, just off the Lookout Mountain road (from the recommended parking spot described at the end of the article, follow the road uphill for 100 yards).
At this upper end of Horkelia Meadow stands a gnarled, burly skeleton of what I call the “Big Bear Tree” (below), as it looks like it might be lumbering off into the woods, having lost his top. The low, dense branching on this ancient skeleton suggests this was an enormous Englemann spruce, a species that thrives in forests along the Cascade crest, especially along meadow margins. A living Englemann spurce can be found at the lower edge of of the main meadow, below.
The “Big Bear” skeleton tree at the upper end of Horkelia Meadow
In early summer, the meadows around the “Big Bear Tree” are also filled with Blue Stickseed and Larkspur.
Heading downhill and across the road, pass a larch grove and head toward the bones of a very large, double-trunked Ponderosa pine (below). I call this old tree the “Patriarch” because it clearly ruled over Horkelia Meadow until fairly recently. Air photos show this giant still standing and alive in 2005, but toppled by 2010. The amount of bark left on the trunk is a good indicator of how recently this tree died.
“Patriarch Tree” at the center of the meadow, a huge, double-trunked Ponderosa pine that has toppled within the last decade or so
Newly toppled Patriarch Tree at Horkelia Meadow
Next, head downhill into the main meadow, located to the west and tucked away from the road, out of sight to passing travelers. Here, a large, multi-trunked Ponderosa Pine I call “The Flyswatter” towers over the scene at the north end of the meadow. This big snag is a favorite of raptors, especially owls, and is actually two snags, with the tall, single-trunked skeleton of what was likely a Grand fir wrapped in the bleached limbs of the old Ponderosa.
As you walk toward “The Flyswatter”, look for a couple of handsome Lodgepole pine growing along the east margin of the main meadow, another important species in Fire Forests.
“The Flyswatter” skeleton tree and the lower part of Horkelia Meadow
“The Flyswatter” tree skeleton
Just beyond “The Flyswatter” (and over a large, collapsed trunk you’ll need to navigate) is the mostly hidden northwest meadow. This pretty spot used to be guarded by another large Ponderosa pine that has long since become a skeleton, and now lies across the meadow. Based on air photos, it looks to have fallen sometime in the 1970s (below). I call this one the “Dragon Tail” tree (below).
The “Dragon Tail” tree in the hidden northwest meadow
Returning to the main meadow, a pair of big Ponderosa pine come into view (below) at the top of the slope. I call these the “Odd Couple”, as one is a nearly perfect Ponderosa specimen, while its twin is anything but, with a twisted, leaning top and huge, gnarled branches. Both were once in the shadow of the massive “Patriarch Tree”, whose skeleton lies just a few yards away.
The heart of Horkelia Meadow, with the “Odd Couple” to the left of center
The “Odd Couple” at the center of Horkelia Meadow
The grassy, shaded landing between this pair of Ponderosa makes a nice spot to relax and enjoy the surrounding meadow. From here, you can appreciate the tortured life of the southernmost tree of the pair. The deep scar running down the west side of its trunk and deep wound at the base of the trunk suggest a lightning strike — a common cause of demise for big trees that grow in exposed places like Horkelia Meadow (below).
Scarred trunk of the southernmost “Odd Couple” pair
Lightning may have taken out the nearby Patriarch Tree, too — seen here from the Odd Couple:
The “Patriarch Tree” skeleton lies just beyond the “Odd Couple”
Look up into the tortured twin and you can see (below) that the main trunk is really a surviving limb that took over to replace the main trunk after the original top was destroyed — whether by lighting or simply a windstorm.
The curvy, leaning top of the southern “Odd Couple” twin
The base of this old tree (below) shows another familiar trademark of big Ponderosa pine, a broad dome of “puzzle pieces” that have accumulated around the tree over the decades. These platforms of accumulated bark chips and pine needles give these handsome trees their park-like appearance, as if the meadow has been carefully trimmed around the tree.
Ponderosa bark piled up to form an apron around this giant at Horkelia Meadow
Ponderosa don’t choose to be multi-trunked, but they can adapt this way when topped by weather or lightening. The extra load of lateral limbs adapting to become a replacement trunk results in some very impressive trees, with upturned limbs 18″ or more across emerging from the trunk of the twisting “Odd Couple” twin (below). Over time, though, these trees are still more prone to collapse than single-trunked trees from heavy snow accumulation or wind on their bulky branch structure.
Heavy-duty limbs on the more gnarled of the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pair
The bark on Ponderosa pine is both fascinating and beautiful. The puzzle-like flakes (below) continually shed as the bark on the tree grows. The dark furrows in the bark form as the tree expands under its thick bark jacket, pulling it apart
Bark detail on the more gnarled of the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pine
Ponderosa pine bark on a mature tree can be several inches thick, and this is the main defense against fire, a needed and necessary part of the Fire Forest ecosystem. The combination of protective bark and high crown allows the biggest trees to survive multiple fires and thrive to produce offspring after each successive burn. In this way, the recently fallen “Patriarch Tree” could easily be the parent of the “Odd Couple” and other big Ponderosa pine around Horkelia Meadow.
Recent cones from the more gnarled twin of the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pine at Horkelia Meadow
The gnarled sibling in the “Odd Couple” has had a harder life that its twin, for sure, but it continues to generate cones and seeds (above). In the end, that’s all a Ponderosa Pine lives to do, no matter how funky its shape. Over time, the toughest, most resilient trees decide the future of the forest with their offspring.
Old fire rings between the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pine trees
If you do find yourself having a snack or picnic under the “Odd Couple”, you won’t be the first. Nearly lost in a thick carpet of Ponderosa needles is a pair of old fire rings (above). How long since these were uses? Decades, perhaps? They could even date back to a time when herders brought sheep up from the Dufur Valley to graze the slopes of Lookout Mountain in the early 1900s, and have since been forgotten in this little meadow (and just in case, please leave them be as remnants from an earlier time).
So, where’s the mountain?
Mount Hood from the lower south meadow
The upper and main meadows offer occasional peeks at the top of Mount Hood, but the best views are from the south meadows, located downslope from Lookout Mountain Road, beyond a curtain of trees. Here, the western scarp of Lookout Mountain begins to fall away quickly, with the south meadows perched above steep forested slopes, below.
To reach the hidden south meadows, head across the main meadow through a gap in the trees that is directly in line with the Odd Couple. Here, you’ll arrive at the top of the upper south meadow, and you can then meander downhill through another gap to the larger, lower south meadow. Mount Hood Views abound here, and the lower meadow is also a fine spot for a picnic.
Bluegrass Ridge from the lower south meadow
The view from the lower south meadow also includes Blue Grass Ridge, which forms the eastern edge of the Mount Hood Wilderness. From here, you can see the traces of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire that burned most of the crest of Bluegrass Ridge, and the 2008 Gnarl Fire that burned the eastern slopes of Mount Hood all the way to Cloud Cap Inn, on the northwest horizon.
These recent burns are recovering quickly, with a bright green understory of Western larch, Lodgepole pine and White pine emerging under a ghost forest of bleached snags. While these were the first fires to burn the east slope of the mountain in more than a century, the landscape they left behind is what the area looked like before fire suppression in the 20th Century — a diverse mosaic of mature and recovering Fire Forests.
Shark fishing in the south meadow… can you see “Jaws”?
There are a few more name-worthy skeleton trees along the way as you drop down to the lower south meadow. First, you’ll pass a bleached stump that I originally called “Jaws”, but then spotted a “fisherman” complete with a deep sea fishing rod just up the hill — and thus, “Shark Fishing” for this trio (above).
At the top of the lower meadow a pair of stout Ponderosa skeletons are the “Goal Posts” (perhaps because it’s World Cup season). The meadows just below the “Goal Posts” have an excellent mix of wildflowers right now, too, and are where the Scarlet Gilia were in bloom on my last visit.
The Goal Posts in the lower south meadow
I know it’s a little silly to name all of these ghost trees, but hopefully it will help navigate the meadows if you choose to visit. It’s also a way for me to stop and appreciate the story each of these silent old patriarchs has to tell… and it’s just fun, too!
Horkelia Meadow at Work
I used to worry that fallen trees would eventually consume precious meadows with the accumulating debris, but it turns out that the meadows do just fine in consuming the trees, instead. One phenomenon you might notice as you explore Horkelia Meadow is log traces. These look like very straight trails, at first, but are really just places where fallen trees have nearly been absorbed into the meadow, and the grasses and wildflowers have all but covered what’s left of the fallen log.
There’s a prominent log trace in the upper south meadow that tells the story nicely. Fuzzy air photos from the mid-1990s (below) show a pair of fallen, bleached skeleton trees lying intact across the meadow. These trees could easily have stood as snags for decades after they died, but once on the ground, trees begin to decompose much more quickly.
Fifteen years later, in 2010, air photos show that the smaller of the two skeleton trees had really begun to fall apart, while the larger tree was mostly intact and still many of it’s bleached limbs.
By last summer, however, air photos show the smaller tree had faded to a line of decaying wood in the meadow and the larger tree has lost most of its remaining limbs over the previous seven years. Today, the smaller tree has left just a trace in the meadow, and will soon completely disappear.
This cycle has played out countless times at Horkelia Meadow over the centuries, with many trees falling and fading into the meadow, each adding more valuable organic matter to the soil in the process. While new trees continue to emerge along the meadow margins, they’ll eventually suffer the same fate, too. The meadow is holding its own in this battle with the surrounding forest!
Young Grand Fir growing where an old giant once stood
As you explore the lower south meadow, you may notice a lot of blowdown along the lower margins of the meadow. These trees weren’t brought down by old age or meadow moisture, but instead were victims of a late 1980s clearcut. The extent of the clearcut is obvious on the map at the top of the article, and as you can see, it is littered with blowdown.
The fallen trees in the clearcut all point uphill. That’s because the prevailing winds coming from the west pushed them that way after the surrounding forests were logging, leaving the remaining trees suddenly exposed them to the full brunt of winter storms. Some of these could have simply been left behind by loggers — perhaps they too small to bother cutting — and larger trees might have been left to reseed the clearcut. Most have since toppled.
Heavy blowdown on the edges of the 1980s Horkelia clearcut
Other blowdown along the margins of the meadow occurred in areas where trees were clearly left standing as a failed “buffer” to protect the meadow — a common practice that has destroyed thousands of trees along similar clearcut margins throughout the Mount Hood area. And after thirty years, the clearcut is just beginning to recover from logging, yet another reminder that high elevation clearcuts in the Cascades were never a sustainable practice, and never should have happened. Let’s hope we’ve seen the end of it here.
If you walk through the old clearcut, you’ll also notice hundreds of what look like small, nylon mesh bags sprinkled about. These were used to protect new seedlings when the clearcut was stocked with a new “plantation” of trees. It’s another failed effort, as most of these seedlings did not survive the harsh winters and dry summers here.
Non-biodegradable seedling nets from the 1980s logging at Horkelia Meadow
Unfortunately, you will also notice these little mesh bags throughout the lower south meadow. Whether intentional or simply through sloppy incompetence, the Forest Service actually “replanted” a natural meadow when the adjacent clearcut was replanted. What were they thinking? Fortunately, all that survives are the dozens of nylon bags, and the meadow remains intact and thriving today.
If you’re looking for a community service, scout troop or other group project and want to help Horkelia Meadow out, I suspect the Forest Service would give you the okay to retrieve these bags from the meadow. Unfortunately, they are not biodegradable, so will be there until they are removed. They’re held down by metal stakes, but can be pulled out by hand if you wear a pair of heavy gloves. Give the Hood River Ranger District a call if you’re up for the task!
How to get there…
Horkelia Meadow is easy to visit, and makes for a nice add-on to your trip to Lookout Mountain or other hikes in the area. It’s best visited in morning or evening, as the southwest exposure is often hot during the summer. You can walk the margins of the meadow in under an hour and gain a nice appreciation of flora, large and small, of this lesser-known spot.
All that’s left of the old Horkelia Meadow sign is this old signpost
To find the meadow, follow paved Forest Road 44 about 3.5 miles from the Highway 35 junction, toward Dufur. Just beyond the busy Surveyors Ridge Trailhead (on the left), watch for the poorly signed Lookout Mountain (Road 4410), on the right. Horkelia Meadow straddles this dusty, sometimes bumpy gravel road 1.3 miles from the Forest Road 44 junction.
Park at the marked Forest Road 140 spur
I recommend parking at the junction with primitive road 140, on the left as just as you reach Horkelia Meadow. There’s room to park here without impacting the meadow wildflowers, but be sure you don’t blog the spur road.
To tour the meadow, walk up the road to the upper end, watching for the “Big Bear” skeleton on the left, then use the map at the top of this article to find your way.
Botany class exploring Horkelia Meadow
To help protect the area, please follow these basic rules of meadow etiquette when exploring, as there is no developed trail at Horkelia Meadow:
Hose or brush off boots before every hike to help slow the spread of invasive species, especially when hiking off-trail
Don’t gather flowers, seeds or anything else in the meadows — “take only memories (and photos) and leave only footprints”
Don’t step on flowering plants, step between them
Try not to follow faint paths you might encounter in the meadows — while they are likely deer or elk trails, repeated walking on them could make them permanent
No fires, dogs, loud voices or drones (aargh!) that might disturb the wildlife and other visitors when venturing off-trail, especially in meadows
You’ll undoubtedly have the place to yourself — but if you should see a car parked along the road, consider stopping another time for your visit.
Thanks, and enjoy Horkelia Meadow! Or is it Hackelia Meadow…?