Posted tagged ‘Mount Hood’

The Larch!

October 22, 2018
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 [link=https://crownofthecontinent.natgeotourism.com/content/gus-worlds-largest-larch-tree/cot50caf093bd65f401b]growing in a grove of ancient larch survivors[/link]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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Arrah Wanna Time Travel

July 4, 2018
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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The panoramic masterpiece in the main lodge dining room

[click here for a large view]

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

Camp Arrah Wanna

24075 E. Arrah Wanna Boulevard

Welches, Oregon  97067 

I’m also able to share even higher resolution images of the painting than what I posted for this article. Please reach out to me if you’re interested.

Horkelia Meadow… or is it Hackelia?

June 26, 2018
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Mount Hood from Horkelia Meadow

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.

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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.

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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.

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Blue Stickseed

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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?

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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.

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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.

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[Click here for large view]

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.

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Larkspur in early June at Horkelia Meadow

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Lupine just beginning to bloom in early June at Horkelia Meadow

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Exploring Horkelia Meadow

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[Click here for a handy, large map to print for your tour!]

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.

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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.

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“Patriarch Tree” at the center of the meadow, a huge, double-trunked Ponderosa pine that has toppled within the last decade or so

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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.

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“The Flyswatter” skeleton tree and the lower part of Horkelia Meadow

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“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).

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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.

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The heart of Horkelia Meadow, with the “Odd Couple” to the left of center

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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).

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Scarred trunk of the southernmost “Odd Couple” pair

Lightning may have taken out the nearby Patriarch Tree, too — seen here from the Odd Couple:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[Click here for a large view]

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…?

2018 Mount Hood National Park Calendar!

December 24, 2017
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Mount Hood’s imposing west face is featured on the cover

[click here for a large image]

Each year since the Mount Hood National Park Campaign began in 2004, I’ve published a wall calendar to celebrate the many reasons why Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge should be our next national park. You can pick up this year’s calendar here:

2018 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar

The monthly layout remains the same as last year, with a classic “grid” design that serves nicely as a working calendar for kitchens or offices. The finished calendar hangs 14 inches wide by 22 inches tall, with a white wire binding, and the print quality of the photos is excellent!

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In the past I’ve used calendar sales help cover some of the modest costs of keeping the campaign website and WyEast blog up and running, but beginning this year I will shift to sending all proceeds to Trailkeepers of Oregon, and in turn, TKO’s coming efforts to help recover our Columbia River Gorge trails from the impacts of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.

The great thing about putting these calendars together is that it ensures I continue exploring new places in the gorge and on the mountain, as each calendar consists exclusively of photos I’ve taken over the previous year. In this year’s calendar article, I’ll provide some of the stories behind the photos in the new Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar — sort of a visual year-in-review!

The WyEast Year in Images

The following is a rundown of the 12 images inside the calendar by month, with a link to a large version of each image, too (you can see them by clicking the link beneath each preview image).

The 2018 calendar begins with the cover image (at the top of the article), featuring the steep Sandy Headwall on Mount Hood’s imposing west face. This is the view Portlanders have of their mountain from afar, but a close-up look from along the Timberline Trail reveals the crevassed Sandy and Reid glaciers tumbling down the slopes and the deep Muddy Fork canyon, almost directly below. This is Mount Hood’s “tallest” side, with a vertical rise of more than 7,000 feet from the Muddy Fork valley floor to the 11,250-foot summit.

The January image in the new calendar features a chilly Cold Spring Creek on Mount Hood’s east slope:

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Cold Spring Creek in Winter

[click here for a large image]

Only a few years ago, the snowshoe hike along Cold Spring Creek to Tamanawas Falls was completely off the radar for most, but in recent years its popularity has soared, and the trailhead is now packed on winter weekends.

One twist this year was a Forest Service noticed tacked up at the trailhead:

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Hmm…

As it turned out, what apparently was a difficult rock fall to negotiate over the summer was much easier to travel with a couple feet of snow covering the debris. The rocks fell in a section of canyon just below the falls that experienced an enormous cliff collapse in the early 2000s, and continues to be active.

For February, I selected a photo from a near-perfect winter day in the upper White River Canyon, along the popular Boy Scout Ridge snowshoe route:

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Upper White River Canyon

[click here for a large image]

The day began with clear blue skies, which is glorious, of course, but not so great for photography. After reaching a favorite viewpoint in the upper canyon, though, bands of clouds began floating in, making for some memorable scenes of a cloud-framed mountain. The photo below was taken on the way out that day, as evening shadows began to stretch across the lower canyon.

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White River and Mount Hood

[click here for a large image]

As covered in previous articles, fire in the Columbia River Gorge is as much a part of the ecology as the trees, themselves. But if you had told me the extent of the Eagle Creek Fire last spring, I wouldn’t have believed you.

For hikers, it’s almost like the Eagle Creek Fire was connecting dots among favorite Columbia River Gorge beauty spots, with only a few of the iconic waterfalls that make the Oregon side of the Gorge famous escaping the flames. So, even knowing and accepting that fire is a necessary and beneficial part of the ecosystem still doesn’t blunt the harsh reality that this fire felt personal. And it’s going to take awhile to heal.

As the fire raged west toward Portland last September, my immediate thought was Tanner Creek, the next drainage to the west of Eagle Creek and directly in the path of the inferno. If I had to pick a spot that embodies almost everything that defines the Columbia River Gorge, Tanner Creek’s lower canyon is it, culminating with spectacular Wahclella Falls.

This canyon is as fine a temple as nature can create, and it’s a sanctuary I visit many times each year. This is my most treasured place in the Gorge… and now I wondered “Would it burn?”

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Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek

[click here for a large image]

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Waterfall enthusiasts visiting the altar at Wahclella Falls last spring

I didn’t know the answer to that question until a week or two ago, when I came upon some aerial photos of the Gorge taken sometime this fall. My scientific acceptance — embrace, in fact — of fire in our forests aside, I was selfishly relieved to see that the deep gorge surrounding Wahclella Falls had somehow been missed by the fire. Or had simply resisted it.

This photo shows Wahclella Falls and its iconic grove of Western Red Cedar mostly intact, though much of the surrounding Tanner Creek canyon was severely burned:

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Wahclella Falls after the fire

Wahclella Falls is at the bottom of the photo, and Tanner Creek’s lesser-known upper gorge and the string of waterfalls that continue above Wahclella Falls can also be seen in this view. This is a place where I hope to see a trail, someday. Maybe in the destruction of the forest we’ll see new trails to places like this, where we take in new sights while also watching our Gorge recover?

For the March image, I selected another Gorge waterfall. This is the last in a string of waterfalls on Moffett Creek, located immediately to the west of Tanner, Creek. This falls is generally known as Moffett Creek Falls or simply Moffett Falls:

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Moffett Falls

 [click here for a large image]

This waterfall is off-trail, and requires walking a mile or so up the streambed of Moffett Creek to reach it. I first visited this falls in the early 1980s, and have returned several times over the years. Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a massive rock fall occurred here, and completely changed the landscape below the falls and the canyon slopes to the west.

Before the fire, the scene was already one of recovering forests, with young groves of Red Alder flanking the falls and lining the rearranged creek for 100 yards downstream. The Eagle Creek fire was just the most recent calamity to sweep through this spot, and such is the dynamic, often cataclysmic nature of the Columbia River Gorge.

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Snowdrifts on Moffett Creek in mid-April!

Our trip last April was complicated by an extremely late snowpack, following a very wet and snowy winter in the Gorge. The canyon, itself, was a tangle of downfall from the harsh winter, making it a rough trip compared to previous years.

How did the fire affect Moffett Falls? Much more significantly than Wahclella Falls, on nearby Tanner Creek. Like Tanner Creek, Moffett Creek is located just west of Eagle Creek and was in the direct path of the fire during its most explosive, early phase. As this aerial photo taken sometime this fall shows, the entire forest around Moffett Falls appears to have been killed by the flames:

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Someday, I hope to see a trail to Moffett Creek’s waterfalls, too. Who knows, maybe the changes wrought by the fire will allow the Forest Service to consider that possibility? It turns out this idea isn’t new, at all. In fact, it was proposed in January 1916, when the brand new (now historic) Columbia River Highway was about to open:

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Excerpt from The Oregonian (January 30, 1916)

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Map excerpt from The Oregonian showing the proposed Moffett Creek Trail (January 30, 1916)

More about that trail concept, and the need for a long-term trail plan for the Gorge in a future article…!

Did you know that today’s Silver Creek State Park has been proposed to become a national monument or park at least a couple of times in the past? It makes sense, given the spectacular concentration of waterfalls within this beautiful preserve, and especially with the legacy of trails and lodges left by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during their 1930s heyday. Many believe it to be a national park or monument today!

With this in mind, I selected a scene from a May visit to Silver Creek’s North Fork as a reminder that there are more than simply the show-stopper waterfalls to this amazing place:

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North Fork Silver Creek

[click here for a large image]

While our current regime in Washington D.C. is more focused on tearing away protections from our public in order to sell our resources off to corporate interests at bargain prices, it’s also true that the exploitation/conservation pendulum in our country swings both ways.

In some ways, the outrageous anti-environment, anti-science and anti-public lands extremism we’re seeing with the Trump administration has already kicked off a counter-movement. It can’t come soon enough, and hopefully you’ve joined in the opposition, too.

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Misty Silver Creek Forest

Someday, when the pendulum does swing, Silver Creek would make an excellent unit of a future Mount Hood National Park. Why? Because the current park contains just a small slice of Silver Creek’s larger ecosystem, and today’s beautiful scenes of waterfalls and mossy glades are increasingly threatened by upstream development and industrial-scale logging. Watch for a future article on this topic, too!

While on the subject of threatened places, the June image in the 2018 calendar captures another such spot on the other side of Mount Hood: Bald Butte, located along the east wall of the Hood River Valley:

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Mount Hood in late May from Bald Butte’s sprawling meadows

[click here for a large image]

This lovely butte rises directly above the Hood River Ranger Station, so close that Forest Service workers can enjoy the expansive wildflower spectacle from their offices, about a mile-and-a-half away as the crow flies, and some 2,200 vertical feet below.

You’d think being at the Forest Service’s front door would give pause to those who view our public lands as their personal playground to destroy. But Hood River County has a lot of off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts, and some in that community make a point of illegally driving their jeeps, quads and dirt bikes up the fragile slopes of Bald Butte — despite prominent signage prohibiting their use and periodic efforts to block them.

This is an ongoing battle with rogues that will someday be won, but it will take the OHV community policing itself to make the change happen. There will never be enough Forest Service crews to fill that void.

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Growing OHV damage to Bald Butte

How bad it is? Well, the old lookout track that serves as the hikers trail to the summit has become deeply rutted by illegal jeep and motorcycle users, which in turn, has inspired them to form parallel tracks on the open wildflower slopes (above). It will take decades for the damage to recover, even if the law breakers were stopped today.

Meanwhile, dirt bikers have hauled in chainsaws in order to carve new trails through the forests on the east slopes of Bald Butte. It’s not a pretty picture, and so far, nobody in the OHV community seems to be stepping up to confront the lawlessness.

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Dirt bike tracks don’t lie…

The Forest Service has indicated an interest to work with trail organizations (like TKO) to step up the efforts to keep OHV vandals out of Bald Butte, but in the meantime, they’re doing a lot of damage — which, in turn, is a black eye for anyone who enjoys using OHVs responsibly. Let’s hope they will join in the effort to protect Bald Butte, too.

For more about Bald Butte, and comparison photos that show the rapid progression of the OHV damage there, please see this earlier article on the blog – you can read it here.

For the July calendar image, I picked this 3-part composite of the Muddy Fork and Mount Hood. Look closely and you can see the series of towering waterfalls that drop from the hanging valleys on Yocum Ridge, in upper right. This is one of Mount Hood’s most rugged and untamed spots:

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Mount Hood’s Muddy Fork canyon

[click here for a large image]

Though we had a decent snowpack in the Cascades in 2017, it melted fast when summer arrived, and many trails on Mount Hood’s west slopes were opening by late June. So, when college friends David and Robin, from Colorado, called to say they would be in Portland and wanted to spend a day on the mountain, the hike to the Muddy Fork Crossing was the perfect choice!

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Old friends and The Mountain

It turned out to be a bluebird day, but what I found most interesting as we caught up on our parallel lives was their reaction to being in Pacific Northwest alpine country, again. Though David grew up here, he still marveled at the magnificence of our forests, especially the huge Noble fir groves we passed through, and Robin was especially taken with the amount of water, everywhere!

It was a timely reminder for me to never take our unique ecosystems for granted. Colorado has more big peaks than most any state of the country, but we are unique in our abundance or water and the verdant landscape it brings, from our rainforests, streams and lakes to the glaciers that hang from our peaks.

As we head into the uncertainty of climate change in coming decades, we’ll need to learn to view these seemingly abundant resources as precious and threatened, and no longer something to take for granted.

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Finally!

Another surprise along the hike was a new sign — finally! — marking the well-trod “cut off” that shortcuts the Timberline Trail where Bald Mountain (not to be confused with Bald Butte) meets McGee Ridge. I’m sure there was some official slight-of-hand required for the Forest Service to post this junction, as it is simply a user trail, and thus unsanctioned. But it’s a good call that will help hikers better negotiate the maze of trails in this area.

For August, I selected a photo from a favorite meadow perched along a ridge I call the White River Rim. A fragile island of Whitebark Pine, Mountain Hemlock and Subalpine Fir groves grow here, hemmed in on both sides by deep, perpetually eroding canyons of loose sand and boulder.

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Lupine fields on the White River Rim

[click here for a large image]

To the east of the rim is a maze of deep ravines that make up the White River Canyon. As the White River continues to cut into the loose volcanic slopes, here, whole sections of the ridge-top forests and wildflower meadows perched on the rim slide into the canyon.

The Salmon River is gradually eroding the rim from the west, as well, though less voraciously than the White River. In some spots, the flat ridge top is just a few feet wide, and losing ground fast. This is one of the most dynamic areas on the mountain.

The image below is also from along the rim above the White River, looking south and away from the mountain. This view captures the skeleton of a magnificent Mountain Hemlock and its still-surviving grove companions:

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Sentinel Whitepark Pine on the White River Rim

[click here for a large image]

Mountain Hemlock often growth in tight, circular groves, and I suspect botanists will someday discover that these groves communicate in some way as part of their collective strategy for survival, just as Douglas Fir are now known to communicate. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard summed it us this way:

“I wondered, could Douglas fir recognize its own kin, like mama grizzly and her cub? So we set about an experiment, and we grew mother trees with kin and stranger’s seedlings. And it turns out they do recognize their kin. 

“Mother trees colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings.

“So we’ve used isotope tracing to trace carbon moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network and into her neighboring seedlings, not only carbon but also defense signals. And these two compounds have increased the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. So trees talk.”

Botanists once viewed a dying or dead tree in a grove like this as one whose biomass had grown too large to support in drought periods, but could another explanation be that the larger tree simply opted to turn over the future of the grove to its younger siblings? We still have so much to learn from our forests…

The September image in the new calendar captures an intersection of three threads of good fortune: an afternoon away form work to visit the mountain, clear weather after an early autumn snowstorm and moonrise over Illumination Saddle, the narrow ridge that connect Illumination Rock to the main summit ridges of Mount Hood.

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Moonrise over Illumination Saddle

[click here for a large image]

Time off from work on a clear autumn day was by design, but the moonrise was pure luck. While there are web tools for figuring out celestial paths from any point on the ground, I do confess that I’m not likely to use them. I simply sat at a favorite spot on the summit of Bald Mountain (not Bald Butte!) for an hour or so, waiting for the sunset, and was suddenly treated to the moon emerging over the saddle as an unexpected surprise!

So, why not use the modern tools? Partly, it just seems like a chore in what should be an enjoyable hobby. But I’d also be turning what was a wonderful surprise into one more thing to worry about — and that’s not why I head into the woods, after all. There’s something to be said for turning over the keys to Mother Nature, right?

And on that point, perhaps the best memory from that cold evening on Bald Mountain last fall was watching the sun set through the trees on the hike back down through the ancient Noble Fir forest.

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Winter sunset in the Noble forest

This grove of 300-year old giants somehow escaped the chainsaws when the Clear Fork valley, below, was logged in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It remains as a rare reminder of what used to be — and what will be again, if we allow it.

For the October image, fall colors were in order, and with the Gorge trails mostly closed by the Eagle Creek Fire, I headed south to Butte Creek, located just north of Silver Falls State Park in the Santiam State Forest. I picked a serene scene along the creek…

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Butte Creek in autumn

[click here for a large image]

…though this peaceful spot is just 100 yards or so above Butte Creek Falls, which was raging that day, after a series of Pacific fronts had rolled through.

Butte Creek Falls is among my favorites, anywhere, and I’ve included it in past calendars. So, thus the quieter stream scene for 2018, but here’s a look at the high water at the falls that day:

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Butte Creek Falls

[click here for a large image]

Even more than nearby Silver Falls State Park, the Butte Creek canyon (and its twin, Abiqua Creek, just over the ridge) is in desperate need of a better management vision, and would make for an excellent extension of a future Mount Hood National Park. More about that in a future article, as well..!

Though I’ve hiked the short loop trail at Butte Creek many times, the fire in the Gorge had forest ecology and the role of fire in my mind on this visit, and noticed a small army of “legacy trees” throughout the rainforest here.

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The skeletons of Butte Creek’s “legacy trees” are hiding in plain sight

These ancient stumps and snags are from the last big fire to come through the area are called “legacy trees” for the benefits they bring from the old forest to the new. This area likely burned more than a century ago, yet the skeletons of the old forest still serve a crucial role in the health of the new forest.

As they slowly decay, old snags and stumps provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, and once fallen, they become “nurse logs”, upon which new trees grow. They also provide nutrients to the precious mountain soil as they decay — something a log hauled off to become lumber or cardboard can never do.

For November in the new calendar, I selected an image from the upper Hood River Valley, with Mount Hood rising above fields owned by a family that has continuously farmed the valley since the 1800s. On this day in late October, the Cottonwood grove at the center of the photo was in peak form, and the fresh coat of snow on the mountain was softened by a light haze in the air from farmers burning orchard trimmings.

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Upper Hood River Valley in autumn

[click here for a large image]

But this wasn’t my first attempt at the photo! As shown below, I’d stopped here a couple of weeks earlier, after another early snowfall had blanketed the mountain. At that point, the Cottonwoods were still in their summer green, but what a different two weeks makes! I’ve cropped images from both visits identically for comparison:

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Hood River Valley scene in mid-October…

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…and two weeks later!

Notice how much sharper the mountain was on the earlier visit? It could have been wind conditions sweeping away smoke from orchard fires that day, or perhaps the burning season hadn’t begun, yet? Nonetheless, I liked the depth created by the haze in the second view, too.

For the December image, I picked this view of Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek, captured the same day as the opening photo of the creek in the January image. This is always a magical spot, but I’ll share a couple of details about the trip that made the day memorable.

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Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek

[click here for a large image]

First, it’s always an icebox in Cold Spring Canyon in winter. Why? Because the low sun angle in winter months can’t reach the canyon floor due to the steep terrain in all directions. So, while the above image looks like it was taken on an overcast day, the view straight up was of a bright blue sky.

The image below shows the cliff section where the recent rock fall occurred, and you can see that the trees on the canyon rim are basking in sun and have shed much of their snow.

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Sunshine above, icebox below…

For slow shutter speed waterfall photographers (like me), this icebox canyon effect means a perpetually cold canyon in winter, but also very good photo conditions. There is one exception to the shady icebox, and that’s when the sun very briefly finds its way through the upper canyon of Cold Spring Creek and lights up the top of the falls for a few minutes. Here’s what that looked like on a trip in 2015:

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Patience pays if you want to catch the winter sunburst at Tamanawas Falls!

The other story behind this photo is found in the following image. The black metal wand is actually part of a tripod leg (and possibly a piece of my pride, too) that snapped off when I took a fairly long, unscheduled slide down the ice-covered slopes near the falls that day.

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Winter gear, somewhat intact…

My mistake was trying to get a little too close for a different angle on the falls, and my humility was only magnified by the fact that a young snowshoeing family watched the whole thing unfold in front of them. As I pretended to calmly fold up my mangled tripod as if it were all a planned event, I overheard their young son say to his parents “Woah! Did you see that man crash and burn??” Yes, I’m afraid everyone did..!

The Zazzle calendar format I’ve been using for the past couple of years also offer a back page, so I’ve continued to use that for wildflower photos that otherwise wouldn’t make it into the calendar.

From the top left for the 2018 calendar, reading right, they are Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Mariposa Lily, Oregon Sunshine, Bicolor Triteleia, Paintbrush, Lupine, Tiger Lily, Larkspur and Bleeding Heart:

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[click here for a large image]

That’s it for the 2018 calendar, but what about the photos I couldn’t fit in..?

One that didn’t make it…

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Elk Cove on Mount Hood’s north side

[click here for a large image]

I’ve made at least one trip to Elk Cove every summer for as long as I can remember, and have a particular spot that I always shoot from (though I also try new spots each year, too!). It’s a favorite scene, but has also been in many calendars in past years, so Elk Cove is taking the year off from the 2018 calendar.

But worse, it seemed like bad luck to use this photo, given the somewhat scary tumble I took on the way back to the trailhead later that day.

It began with staying too late on the mountain for that gorgeous early evening light, then getting waylaid on the way down the Vista Ridge Trail trail by (more!) plump huckleberries. I filled another water bottle, then hoofed it at high speed in the growing darkness, hoping to avoid digging that annoying headlamp out of my pack.

That was my final error. Just 3/4 mile from the trailhead, where the Vista Ridge Trail crosses a rocky, dusty section in the Dollar Lake Burn, I tripped on a particularly sneaky rock and went airborne, crashing into the base of a bleached snag. Fortunately for my head, I had put my arm out ahead of me in the fall. Unfortunately for my arm, it took the brunt of the blow.

It hurt a LOT, and I just laid there for a moment, trying to figure out if I was seriously hurt. Nope, all parts seemed to be functioning… except better my better judgment, of course!

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Ridiculous… but functional!

What followed was a frantic search, first for my tripod (which I had hurled into the ravine below the trail during the fall), then in my pack for my headlamp (where WAS it?) as my right forearm ballooned up to alarming dimensions. Then came a very long 3/4 mile down the trail to the car.

Once there, I was further chagrined to see that I was, in fact, the last person on the trail that day… more humble pie on the menu! Fortunately, I wasn’t more seriously injured in the fall, or worse, knocked unconscious. Gulp. I ran through a list of the emergency supplies I keep in my pack in my mind…

Meanwhile, my bloated arm was now turning purple, so I turned an extra boot sock into a makeshift wrap and packed a couple of ice bricks from the cooler. I feared a broken arm — after all, I’d broken this arm twice as a kid (don’t ask). The long drive down the mountain was “interesting” without the benefit of an opposing thumb on my sore arm, and I let out a big sigh of relief when I finally arrived at home later that night.

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The radiologist remarked on my unusually curvy bones, courtesy a pair of childhood breaks… but no break this time!

X-rays a few days later confirmed that I just had a very deep bruise (to both forearm AND pride, it turns out), and several weeks of alternating hot and cold packs followed as things gradually got back to normal.

But MORE importantly, I was able to return to the scene of the crash a couple weeks after the event and recover my tripod — yes, the tripod I purchased to replace the one I smashed at Tamanawas Falls!

Here are a couple of schematics that tell the embarrassing story:

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The scene of the crash…

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…and my poor tripod!

The Elk Cove trip was my most painful fiasco of 2017, but not the only one over the past summer. The other would belong to…

…an epic eclipse fiasco!

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Recon data for the eclipse!

You may have heard: we experience a total eclipse in WyEast Country last August! I thought long and hard about setting up camp somewhere south of Mount Hood, in the path of totality, but having taken just one day off work, decided to avoid the predicted crowds and traffic jams (which did happen!)

Instead, I set up at my beloved Owl Point, on the north edge of the Mount Hood wilderness, and just outside the path of totality (as shown in the map, above). I’m not sure what I expected, but I came prepared with two cameras and two tripods (below) to document the scene at five-minute intervals. I left home at 5 AM and was on the trail by 7:30, anticipating great things!

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Dual camera setup, weird light underway

It did turn out to be a memorable experience, but certainly not the beautiful spectacle I had imagined.

First, the strange light during the eclipse was not really pleasant — more just weird and eerie. It made sense to me later, that simply blocking out the sun mid-day would create a cast more like what we see when there’s heavy forest fire smoke in the atmosphere — harsh reddish-yellow — as opposed to the soft colors we see at sunset, when the sun’s rays are filtered through a lot more atmosphere.

I also learned what the scientists had been telling us: that even with near totality, the sun is blindingly powerful, so from this point just outside the path of totality, it was more “dimmed” than “dark” outside. That said, the birds did go quiet, as advertised. That part was surprisingly creepy.

While I plunked away at intervals with my big cameras, I also captured a few with my phone — including this panorama as totality approached. An eerie scene, yes, but what really jumped out is that I also captured the image of the sun in the lens reflections. I’ve enlarged a section, below:

15cEclipe

Just short of totality… note the blue dots!

15dEclipe

Close-up of blue dots reveals the to be reflections of the eclipse in the camera lens!

The following views capture the scene just before and during totality from Owl Point:

15eEclipe

The view from Owl Point just before totality… weird!

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The view from Owl Point at totality… kinda creepy!

What I found most interesting (beyond the weird colors) is that I could see the far side of the path of totality over the west shoulder of the mountain during totality. That gave me the best sense of what the event was all about, and I was glad to have experienced it, though it was definitely not what I was expecting. Just a very interesting experience.

On the way out that day in August, I took the opportunity to pick a water bottle full of plump huckleberries, and also some time to reflect on my place in the universe. I had lost a close family member in July, and a day alone on the mountain was just what I needed to sort out my feelings and replay some good memories in my mind.

15gEclipe

Tasty consolation prize!

The mountains are great for that sort of thing, and we’re so lucky to live in a place where we have that luxury right in our backyard.

And the huckleberries? They were converted into tasty muffins the next day!

Looking ahead to 2018

I’m looking forward to posting a few more articles in the coming year than has been my recent pace. There’s a lot to cover on the WyEast beat, and I’ll be refocusing my volunteer efforts a bit more on advocacy this year, including this blog.

The Eagle Creek recovery effort will be a recurring theme, of course. There is so much to learn from the fire, and there are many crucial choices ahead for land management, too. In particular, I’ll be weighing in on a few topics that I think our non-profit advocates have a blind spot for, or perhaps are shying away from.

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The author at Abiqua Falls a week or so ago…

Most importantly, I’ll spend as much time as I can out in WyEast Country, exploring, documenting and celebrating our precious public lands. As always, thanks for reading the blog, and I hope to see you out there, too!

See you on the trail in 2018!

Tom Kloster

WyEast Blog

Fire in WyEast Country

October 31, 2017
01MirrorLakeHood1920s

Scorched Mirror Lake just beginning to recover from the Sherar Burn in early 1900s

Oh, if only our lives spanned 800 years instead of 80! No doubt we would see (and zealously protect) our world differently with the benefit of that long perspective. And it turns out that Bowhead whales, Greenland sharks and even pond Koi can live well beyond two centuries. Heck, the lowly Icelandic clam can live up to 500 years! The advantage these creatures have over humanity is the ability to see the cycles of life as a perpetual rhythm, not simply discrete events.

Which brings us to the deep sadness that so many of us are experiencing with Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 in the Columbia River Gorge. To so many of us, losing the lush green forests that framed the waterfalls and cliff-top vistas in the Gorge is like losing an old friend.

Yet, with a bit more longevity, we’d be able to see the cycles of fire and recovery repeat in succession, and we could even look forward to walking again among 200 year old forest giants along today’s scorched trails in the Gorge. Oh, to be an Icelandic clam…

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Yocum Falls and Tom Dick and Harry Mountain as they appeared after the Sherar Burn in the early 1900s

[click here for a larger view]

For many of us, the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 feels like a redux of 2008 and 2011, when the Gnarl Ridge and Dollar Lake fires burned off forests on the east and north sides of Mount Hood, respectively. Just as fire crews worked this month to protect Multnomah Falls Lodge and the Vista House at Crown Point from fire in the Gorge, crews in 2008 and 2011 scrambled to protect iconic Cloud Cap Inn, the nearby Snowshoe Lodge and the many historic CCC structures at Tilly Jane from the fires.

For those of a certain age, the hike to Mirror Lake on Mount Hood once involved walking beneath hundreds of bleached snags reaching to the sky. These were the remnants of the Sherar Burn that scorched the entirety of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, along with the upper Still Creek valley and points south in the early 1900s. The visible traces of this fire lasted prominently well into the 1980s, though the forest has largely recovered today.

03PunchbowlFalls1920s

The prominent gravel bar at the base of Punch Bowl Falls on Eagle Creek in the early 1900s resulted from erosion from a nineteenth century fire.

The Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 in the Columbia Gorge will also follow this timeless sequence of destruction and renewal. There’s also some comfort to be gained from knowing that we’ve had a steady stream of fires in the Gorge, even in the very short timeframe of white settlement:

1902 – Yacolt Fire (238,000 acres)

1910 – Carson Fire (2,716 acres)

1917 – Stevenson Fire (7,606 acres)

1927 – Rock Creek Fire (52,500 acres)

1929 – Dole Valley Fire (202,500 acres)

1936 – Born Fire (7,897 acres)

1949 – Beacon Rock Fire (3,658 acres)

1952 – Skamania Fire (1,057 acres)

1991 – Wauna Point (375 acres)

1991 – Multnomah Falls Fire (1,200 acres)

1997 – Eagle Creek Fire (7 acres)

2000 – Oneonta Fire (5 acres)

2003 – Herman Creek Fire (375 acres)

2017 – Eagle Creek Fire (33,000+ acres)

The Forest Service reports that nearly all of the reported Gorge fires in recent decades (98%) have been human caused, but that certainly doesn’t mean the Gorge wouldn’t have burned without human behavior. The Forest Service describes the uniquely explosive fire conditions in the Gorge as follows:

“From early September through mid-October the west end of the gorge offers the best of all worlds from a fire’s perspective. The tremendous fuel loading of a west side forest coupled with hot and dry wind and incredibly steep terrain make for some of the most spectacular burning conditions the Pacific Northwest has to offer.”

Early white settlers to the Gorge called this “the Devil Wind” after the inferno that was the Yacolt Fire burned a quarter million acres on the north side of the river in less than 36 hours.

1991 Gorge Fires

04WaunaFire1991

Wauna Fire burning above Eagle Creek in 1991

Few remember it today, but in 1991 a pair of fires burned a sizeable stretch of the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. The Multnomah Falls fire was a spectacular event, burning 1,200 acres along the Gorge wall from Multnomah Falls to Angels Rest, and nearly burning the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge. Sound familiar?

05MultnomahFallsFire1991

Multnomah Falls fire in 1991

The Multnomah Falls burn of 1991 has recovered quickly, and few hikers realize that the young forests along the popular Angels Rest trail were the direct result of the burn, though bleached snags still stand to tell the story. Visitors to Multnomah Falls still walk along the jumbo-size debris nets installed below the Benson Bridge to catch debris from the burned slopes of the 1991 fire, above. A major casualty of the 1991 fire was the beloved Perdition Trail that once connected Multnomah Falls to Wahkeena Falls on a route etched into the Gorge cliffs.

In 1991, the smaller Wauna Fire also burned 375 acres on the slopes directly above the west bank of Eagle Creek, below Wauna Point. This area has also largely recovered in the years since.

Early Fires in the Gorge

06TripleFallsOneonta1890s

This unusual photo of Triple Falls from the 1890s shows snags from an earlier fire in Oneonta canyon in the background.

Early photos show that fire has been a routine part of the Columbia River Gorge ecology. That pattern changed with fire suppression efforts in the 20th century, which in turn, set the conditions for the catastrophic Eagle Creek Fire of 2017. Photos from Oneonta canyon (above) in the 1890s show slopes covered in bleached snags, suggesting a major fire sometime in the 1800s.

07ShellrockMountain1950s

Shellrock Mountain’s east and south slopes were still recovering from fire in this 1940s view from the old Columbia River Highway.

Further east, places like the east slopes of Shellrock Mountain (above) were much less forested than today, thanks to repeated fires in the Gorge.

08BridgeOfGodsWaunekaPoint1930s

Snow covers the burned east slopes of Wauneka Point, the ridge that divides McCord and Moffett Creeks, in this 1930s view from Bridge of the Gods. This ridge burned again in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.

[click here for a larger view]

The above photo of the (then) new Bridge of the Gods in the early 1930s also shows large open slopes on Wauneka Point in the background, marked by winter snow. These slopes had largely reforested in subsequent years, but burned again in the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, repeating a timeless cycle.

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Burned over Aldrich Mountain and Hamilton Mountain in 1936.

[click here for a larger view]

Construction-era photos of Bonneville Dam in the late 1930s also provide detail on the state of the forests in Gorge at that time. The view north (above) shows burned-over Aldrich and Hamilton Mountains, both completely burned in the catastrophic Yacolt Burn.

10BonnevilleConstruction1935

Burned over Ruckel Ridge and Benson Plateau in 1937.

[click here for a larger view]

Looking to the southwest from the dam site, Ruckel Ridge and Benson Plateau (above) were also largely burned over in the late 1930s. These areas burned again in the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017.

1931-34 Lookout Survey: A History of Fires

Given that we’re stuck with relatively short stints on this planet, we humans do have the unique ability to record history for the benefit of our descendants. And it turns out that in the 1930s and early 1940s, early forest rangers in WyEast country did just that with a series of lookout tower panoramas.

This rich photographic resource was mostly forgotten until just a few years ago, when caches of these images archived in university photo collections were scanned and uploaded to the web in high resolution. They provide an astonishing, invaluable amount of detail, most from the years 1930-36.

Ironically, these panoramic images were captured as part of the massive U.S. Forest Service effort to prevent fires, with each set providing a 360-degree survey from the hundreds of lookout sites that were developed on public lands across the country.

In the Pacific Northwest, the panoramic photos provide an excellent glimpse into the way our forests had evolved for millennia, and before fire suppression took hold. The following are a few clips from this archive for places through the Mount Hood country and in the Columbia River Gorge.

Basin Point (1933)

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Mount Hood from obscure Basin Point, now overgrown with trees.

[click here for a larger view]

Basin Point is largely forgotten today, but at one time this high spot north of today’s Timothy Lake provided a lookout location for the upper Oak Grove Fork basin. This lookout site probably wouldn’t have been used had it not been for a fire that had fairly recently swept over the butte, burning away a young forest that was still getting established here. The view is from the south edge of the Sherar Burn, a fire that swept across a large area south of Government Camp sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

Buck Peak (1933)

12BuckPeakNorth1933

This view is from Buck Peak toward the burned-over Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek Valleys.

[click here for a larger view]

Today, Buck Peak is known for its sweeping views of Mount Hood and Lost Lake, but view (above) to the north from the former lookout site also shows the burned over Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek Valleys, with burned Tanner Butte as the prominent peak left of center. The upper slopes of the mostly unburned Lake Branch valley, to the right, also show signs of fire.

Bull of the Woods (1934)

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The view looking southeast to Mount Jefferson from Bull of the Woods lookout shows a healthy mosaic of recent burns and recovering forest in the 1930s.

[click here for a larger view]

Fires have returned in recent years to Bull of the Woods, thanks in part to its wilderness protection that puts the land off-limits to timber harvesting (and thus “okay to burn” from a fire suppression perspective). This view looking toward Mount Jefferson shows a mosaic of recent burns and recovering forest, a healthy pattern that is returning with new fires in recent years.

Chinidere Mountain – North (1934)

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This view looking north from Chinidere Mountain into the Herman Creek valley shows much of the drainage burned in the 1930s.

[click here for a larger view]

Today, the view to the north from popular Chinidere Mountain is gradually being obscured by recovering forests. This 1934 view shows the large burn that extended across the Herman Creek drainage at the time, from Benson Plateau (left of center) over Tomlike Mountain (right of center) toward Green Point Mountain (left edge of this photo). Though the forest here had almost completely recovered, much of the area in this view was burned again in the Eagle Creek fire of 2017.

Chinidere Mountain – West (1934)

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This view west from Chinidere Mountain shows recovering forests in the Eagle Creek drainage.

[click here for a larger view]

This view looking west from Chinidere Mountain into the Eagle Creek drainage shows a recovering forest in the upper valley and on the adjacent slopes of Indian Mountain (to the left) and Tanner Butte (right of center).

This area was at the heart of the Eagle Creek and Indian fires in 2017, and much of the area shown in this view burned.

Devils Peak (1933)

16DevilsPeakNorth1933

This 1930s view from Devils Peak shows an extensive burn on Zigzag Mountain and lower slopes of Devils Peak.

[click here for a larger view]

The old lookout tower still survives on Devils Peak, located within the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, but the view of Mount Hood has nearly disappeared behind the recovering forest. This 1930s view shows the extensive burn that encompassed the long ridge of Zigzag Mountain (center, in the distance) and lower slopes of Devils peak, in the foreground. Both areas have since mostly reforested in the era of fire suppression.

The west end of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain is the burned-over ridge extending below Mount Hood in this photo, part of the late 1800s Sherar Burn. The burned lower slopes of Devils Peak and upper Still Creek valley were also burned in this historic fire.

Green Point Mountain (1934)

17GreenPointWest1934

This view from Green Point Mountain shows an extensive pattern of fires in the upper Herman Creek Valley.

[click here for a larger view]

In this view from Green Point Mountain, evidence of a mosaic burn stands out, with completely burned forest near the summit and surviving forest just below. The heavily burned slopes of Tomlike Mountain (center) and Chinidere Mountain (left of center) are in the distance are part of a wide mosaic of burns in the upper Herman Creek valley.

Old growth trees along Herman Creek today are proof that even large fires here didn’t completely burn the drainage. The Eagle Creek fire of 2017 burned a significant part of the Herman Creek drainage, and it is unknown how the old growth stands fared in the face of this recent fire.

High Rock (1933)

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The Abbott Burn encompassed the area surrounding High Rock, including the upper Roaring River drainage.

[click here for a larger view]

The view from High Rock looking north to Mount Hood was once surrounded by the extensive Abbott Burn, which engulfed much of the Roaring River watershed and part of the Salmon River backcountry sometime in the 1800s or early 20th century.

In the 1930s, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was established on the shoulder of High Rock, and a small army of CCC workers planted thousands of trees across the Abbott Burn. Many survived, and much of the reforestation in the Roaring River valley resulted from this forest intervention effort. But the rocky high country of Signal Buttes and other nearby ridges are still largely open and covered in fields of huckleberries, with the forest recovery advancing much more slowly.

This pattern of open, regularly burned peaks and ridge alternating with lush canyon floors is the natural state of our forests. Lightning-caused fires regularly burn away forests surviving on the thin, dry soils found higher slopes and ridges, and larger trees in moist soils on lower slopes and canyon bottoms are better able to survive natural fires.

Lost Lake Butte (1933)

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The burned upper slopes of Lost Lake Butte as they appeared in the 1930s, with Lost Lake in shimmering the distance.

[click here for a larger view]

Though the old-growth giants on the shores of Lost Lake have dodged or resisted fire for centuries, the forests on the dry, upper slopes of Lost Lake Butte were burned sometime in the late 1800s in a classic mosaic pattern that can be seen in the 1930s panoramic photos.

In the photo above, strips of larger, surviving trees can be seen within the burn, and a distinct line between the young,recovering forest in the burn area and larger trees that survived the fire is clearly visible along the near shore of Lost Lake. Raker Point (featured in the next photo) is visible as the open spur at the far right edge of the Lost Lake Butte panorama.

Raker Point (1933)

20RakerPointWest1933

Hundreds of snags along the crest of Sawtooth Ridge and Raker Point (in the distance) show the extent of fire on the north side of Lost Lake, sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

[click here for a larger view]

Raker Point is a little known peak located just north of Lost Lake, on the west end of Sawtooth Ridge (Raker Point is the distant open spur right of center in this photo). The ridge and Raker Point were burned sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s, possibly in the same fire that scorched Lost Lake Butte. The recovery on Raker Point was well under way in the 1930s photos, with 10-20 year old seedlings rising up among the hundreds of bleached snags left from the fire.

Lost Lake was one of the earliest recreation destinations in WyEast country, with hardy visitors from the Hood River Valley making their way to campsites along the lake shore as early as the 1890s. In the 1920s, a “modern” dirt road was finally completed to Lost Lake, roughly along the same route as today’s paved highway.

Signal Buttes (1933)

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Located west of High Rock, the Signal Buttes were completely burned in the Abbott fire of the early 1900s, and are still recovering today.

[click here for a larger view]

Today, the Signal Buttes are at the heart of the Roaring River Wilderness, and as described above, are still slowly recovering from the Abbott Burn fire that swept the area, despite efforts by the CCC in the 1930s to replant the forest here. The patch of unburned forest on the floor of the Roaring River valley (in the low area of the photo, below Mount Hood) are old growth Douglas fir and Western red cedar that survived the Abbot Burn — and likely many fires before that, as trees more than 1,000 years old are found here.

It’s also likely that the Signal Buttes will continue to be an open expanse of Beargrass meadows and Huckleberry fields if fires are allowed to burn here, once again. In this way, the Roaring River Wilderness is well on its way to a more natural condition of open ridges and a mosaic of old and recovering forests on the canyon floor and walls. Because the area was permanently protected as wilderness in 2009, future generations will have an opportunity to watch the forest here continue to evolve with fire, once again.

The rugged ridges and peaks just beyond Signal Buttes in this panorama are the high country of today’s Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. In contrast to the Signal Buttes, this northern extent of the Abbott Burn has largely recovered, with just a few peaks and ridgetops remaining as open Beargrass and Huckleberry fields.

Tumala Mountain (1933)

22SquawMtnEast1933

This view looking east from Tumala Mountain shows the burned ridges of the Salmon River and Roaring River high country in the 1930s. Mount Hood is on the extreme left.

[click here for a larger view]

This remarkable panorama from Tumala Mountain shows a burned-over landscape in much of what are today’s Salmon-Huckleberry (areas to the left) and Roaring River (areas to the right) wilderness areas. Most of this landscape is now heavily forested, with the exception of a few ridge tops and the crest of the Signal Buttes, described earlier and visible as the completely burned ridges in the upper right of this photo.

This photo also shows a healthy mosaic burn pattern on the nearby mountains immediate slopes, with bands of trees surviving between burned strips. This more natural fire pattern creates a rich habitat that, in combination with the series of lakes in the glacial valley at the foot of the peak, makes for an ideal landscape for wildlife.

You may notice that the photo markings on the left identify this as “Squaw Mountain”. In 2007, the Oregon Geographic Names Board renamed this peak out of respect for indigenous peoples, as the term “squaw” is considered derogatory. This change is part of a larger effort to rename other landmarks using “squaw” across the state. The word Tumala means “tomorrow” or “afterlife” in Chinook jargon, and is an apt name for this idyllic spot in WyEast country.

Summit Meadows (1930)

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This 1930 view of Summit Meadows shows signs of an extensive fire along the south slopes of Mount Hood in the vicinity of Government Camp.

[click here for a larger view]

Early photos of Government Camp and Summit Meadows on Mount Hood’s south side show thousands of bleached snags marking a fairly recent fire in the area. These could mark a series of discrete fires or could be related to the larger Sherar Burn or the fires that swept Zigzag Mountain in roughly the late 1800s.

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Extensive burns on Mount Hood above Government Camp in 1915 (Courtesy: History Museum of Hood River County)

The extent of the historic fires on Mount Hood’s south side is especially interesting given the degree of resort development here in the century since fire suppression began. The volcanic soils on Mount Hood’s south shoulder are among the youngest on the mountain, as much of the area was buried in fresh volcanic debris from eruptions that occurred in the late 1700s.

This makes the forests here especially vulnerable to fire because of the poorly developed soils, southern exposure and late summer stress from seasonal drought. Yet, the degree of development on this side of Mount Hood also makes it unlikely that forest fires will ever be allowed to burn naturally. Instead, these forests are good candidates for prescribed, controlled burns that could restore the forests to a more natural state while also protecting the hundreds of structures located here.

Tanner Butte (1930)

24TannerButteWest1930

This 1930 view from massive Tanner Butte looks west through charred forests toward Tanner Creek canyon, the Bull Run Watershed (on the left) and Larch Mountain (on the right horizon).

[click here for a larger view]

Tanner Butte and its long northern ridge is a prominent landmark in the backcountry of the Columbia River Gorge, dividing the Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek drainages. The panoramic photos from 1930 show a heavily burned landscape in this area, and longtime hikers can still remember when the ridges around Tanner Butte were still covered with open meadows, as recently as the 1970s.

More recently, the forests had recovered across almost all of the burned areas shown in this panorama, but the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 appears to have hit the Tanner Creek basin especially hard. This could be a result of the relatively young, even-aged forest here, but fire suppression almost certainly played a role in this fire becoming catastrophic.

Much of the area visible here is within the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness, and will provide yet another laboratory for future generations to watch and learn from as the forest recovers.

Wildcat Mountain (1933)

25WildcatMtnNorth1933

The view from Wildcat Mountain toward McIntyre Ridge and Portland in the far distance.

[click here for a larger view]

Wildcat Mountain lies at the western edge of the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, and Portland’s downtown high-rises are visible from its summit. Or, at least they were a couple of decades ago, before the recovering forests here enveloped the summit with a stand of Noble fir and Mountain hemlock.

Broad McIntyre Ridge (pictured in the distance in this photo) still has a few open Beargrass meadows with sweeping views of Mount Hood, but even here the forest is advancing rapidly.

The 1930s panoramic view shows a completely different landscape, with mixed stands of forests in the valleys below the Wildcat Mountain and its ridges that suggest a long history of mosaic burns. Without fire suppression, McIntyre Ridge and Wildcat Mountain would likely have burned again since the 1930s.

Since 1984, this area has been protected as wilderness, so future fires will likely be allowed to burn. If the recent Eagle Creek fire in the Gorge is any indication, the young forests that have grown since this panorama was taken are likely to be the first to burn, as we saw in the Tanner Creek and Eagle Creek areas.

Wolf Camp Butte (1933)

26WolfCampButteEast

This view doesn’t exist anymore, thanks to a completely recovered forest on Wolf Camp Butte.

[click here for a larger view]

Wolf Camp Butte is another lookout site made obscure by the recovering forest that has completely covered the summit. More of a high spot than a peak, this 1933 view from the former lookout site provides us with an excellent look at the extent of the Sherar Burn. The canyon in on the right holds the Salmon River, descending from the Palmer Glacier on Mount Hood (just out of view to the left).

This fire burned north to present-day Government Camp and south to at least the Salmon River, encompassing a very large area. Parts of the Sherar Burn may have been replanted by the CCC in the 1930s, and the area is almost completely reforested today.

Wauna Point (1936)

27WaunaPointNorth1936

This view is from Wauna Point on the Oregon side of the Gorge, looking toward Table Mountain on the Washington side.

[click here for a larger view]

This view from Wauna Point, directly above Eagle Creek, shows a long history of fire in the Gorge, with a mosaic forest pattern on the slopes of Table Mountain on the far side of the river that extends eastward toward Wind Mountain. The big trees on the Oregon side mark the Eagle Creek campground, a section of forest that also survived the recent catastrophic fire. The spot where this panorama was taken burned in the small 1991 Wauna Fire, and has since largely recovered.

1940s Gorge Lookout Surveys

In the years following completion of Bonneville Dam in 1937, a series of panoramic lookout photos were made from spots around the dam. Like the earlier 1930s panoramas, these photos provide a valuable snapshot of the state of forests in the Gorge at a time when fire suppression had just begun. They’re also nicely annotated with major landmarks identified!

Aldrich Butte – North (1941)

28AldrichButteNorth1941

[click here for a larger view]

Like the view from Wauna Point on the Oregon side, this view toward Table Mountain shows a healthy blend of big trees that have survived periodic fires and more recently burned slopes covered on meadows and recovering forest.

Aldrich Butte nearly burned again in 2017, when embers from the Eagle Creek Fire floated more than a mile across the Columbia River and ignited a small fire here.

Aldrich Butte – South (1941)

29AldrichButteSouth1941

The view south from Aldrich Butte toward Bonneville Dam and Oregon side of the Gorge.

[click here for a larger view]

This expansive view from Aldrich Butte shows the complex mosaic forest patterns created by repeated fires on Benson Plateau and “County Line Ridge”, which is now more commonly known as Wauna Ridge or Tanner Ridge.

This amazing photo not only shows how fire has shaped the forests on the upper slopes and ridges of the Gorge, but also how big trees in the canyons and at river level have often dodged or resisted fire.

Aldrich Butte – West (1941)

30AldrichButteWest1941

The view west from Aldrich Butte shows Hamilton Mountain (in Washington) and the steep wall of the Oregon side of the Gorge in the distance.

[click here for a larger view]

Like the view of Benson Plateau on the Oregon side, this view of Hamilton Mountain from Aldrich Butte shows a complex mosaic of forest types and ages that resulted from fire. On the far side of the river, the burned slopes of Wauneka Point can also be seen on the far left. Wauneka Point and the steep face of the Oregon side of the Gorge was heavily burned in the Eagle Creek fire of 2017.

Our Next Century with Fire?

There are so many variables at work in how we move from a century of forest fire suppression to — hopefully — an era where we learn to live with and appreciate the role of fire.

Will the public accept the inevitability of forest fires, and the implicit need to rethink building vacation homes and resorts in our forests? Will a return to sustainable, beneficial fires resume quickly, or will the catastrophic fires that suppression has set the stage for continue for decades or even centuries?

An even larger question is whether climate change will significantly accelerate the number of catastrophic fires? And how will climate change affect the ability for forests to regenerate in burned areas?

These are the difficult questions that future generations will be grappling with for decades to come.

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Parts of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire in the Mount Hood Wilderness burned in a beneficial mosaic pattern, as seen here at Eden Park. This is the goal of restoring the role of fire in our forests.

But signs of a shift in thinking are encouraging, starting with a broad consensus among forest scientists that fire suppression has been disastrous over the long term. Good public lands policy is always rooted in good science, and some of our scientists have also emerged to become influential leaders of agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, too. Let’s hope that continues.

Events like the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 are also important learning opportunities for the general public. Over the next several decades, the millions who treasure the Columbia Gorge as their own “backyard” will have an unprecedented opportunity to better understand the role of fire in the Gorge ecosystem. Gorge land managers and advocates are already telling this story, as are local media outlets. That’s encouraging.

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New mapping tools allowed land managers to document the daily progression of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire with unprecedented detail. This information will be a gift to future generations of scientists and land managers.

New mapping tools that allow us to document fires in astonishing detail are also helping scientists better understand the dynamics of fires and forest recovery. This new level of documentation will help us move back to a sustainable relationship.

Even better, the flood of new fire mapping and data will be our gift to the future, helping future generations continue to better understand our forests, just as the lookout panoramas from the 1930s are helping us today. Hopefully, our actions now will ensure that future generations inherit forests that look more like those 1930s panoramas, as well.

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From death comes renewal: huckleberry seedling growing from the bark of a tree in the burn area of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire.

There’s good news on that front, too. Our youngest generations who had their first outdoor experiences on Mount Hood and in the Gorge will also be the scientists and policy makers of the future, and will steer public lands policy.

Their close-up experiences with fire in their formative years will surely drive their passion to move our forests back toward a health relationship with fire, so long as we all continue to learn and appreciate the essential role of fire in WyEast country.

TKO’s 10th Anniversary at Owl Point

August 31, 2017
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Mount Hood from Owl Point

Ten years ago, on September 22, 2007, Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was borne out of an ad-hoc effort by a group of volunteers to save what is now known as the Old Vista Ridge Trail. On September 10 of this year, TKO will be celebrating our anniversary with (naturally!) a day of trailkeeping on the Old Vista Ridge Trail.

But this day will be a first for TKO, as we will have U.S. Forest Service officials on hand to formally re-dedicate the trail, bringing it out of the shadows and officially recognized are more than half a century. Of course, there will be some celebrating at Owl Point to wrap up the festivities, too!

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(Click here for a larger map)

The Old Vista Ridge Trail is a true gem. It winds through subalpine forests past a string of dramatic views, sprawling talus slopes and tiny meadows before arriving at Owl Point, the star attraction along the old route. Owl Point offers an exquisite view of our favorite mountain, and from a unique perspective that is surprisingly uncommon, even to longtime Mount Hood lovers.

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This sign once marked the start of the Old Vista Ridge Trail

Under a new agreement with the Forest Service, TKO will maintain the Old Vista Ridge Trail in perpetuity as part of bringing it back into the official USFS trail system. The first phase of this adoption agreement extends to Alki Point, one stop beyond Owl Point, where the big Washington volcanoes spread out on the northern horizon. In the future, TKO has plans to adopt the rest of the old trail to tiny Perry Lake, and also to build a new connector trail that will eventually make Owl Point a destination that can be reached from Laurance Lake, just a few miles from Parkdale.

Here’s a look back to how the Old Vista Ridge Trail came on to TKO’s radar, or more accurately, how this old trail inspired the volunteers who would come to form TKO.

Following a Faint Path in 2006

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The author visiting with the incomparable Roberta Lowe!

The Old Vista Ridge story starts with epic field guide authors Don and Roberta Lowe. I can’t begin to describe the impact their classic books had on my life growing up in Oregon, and I was stunned when they answered a letter I wrote to them as a student way back in the 1980s, ans was working on a field guide project of my own.

Today, I’m happy to report that I meet with Roberta Lowe periodically for lunch, and I continue to embarrass her by bringing along stacks of their books for autographs every time we get together (I have dozens… sorry, Roberta!). One of their books holds the key to Old Vista Ridge. It’s this one:

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This is the most collected of the Lowe’s many books

The Lowes published the now-coveted “50 Hikes” guide in the mid-1980s, and it was unique in that it contained several “lost trails” in Mount Hood country — old routes that hadn’t been maintained in years and were on the brink of becoming forever lost to neglect.

One of these lost gems was the Old Vista Ridge Trail. Don Lowe’s photo of Mount Hood from Red Hill, the off-trail cinder cone that was the main destination in their description of Old Vista Ridge stuck in my mind for two decades before I finally made the effort to explore this old route in 2006.

Red Hill can be seen from the Timberline Trail, and as I planned the hike from this high perspective in the summer of 2006, I also noticed a series of rocky outcrops and meadows near Red Hill, along the Old Vista Ridge Trail. Where these viewpoint accessible from the old trail, too?

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Looking toward Red Hill and Owl Point from the Timberline Trail (Mt. St. Helens on the horizon)

On October 6, 2006, hiking partner and fellow photographer Greg Lief joined me for a first trip along the Old Vista Ridge Trail. At first, the faint trail was encouraging: lots of downfall, but also sections that were completely intact after more than 40 years of neglect.

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Greg Lief on the Old Vista Ridge Trail in 2006

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Hundreds of logs blocked the trail in 2006

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A few signs of maintenance, long ago – note the cut ends on the logs in the foreground

But as we pressed further from that “Trail Not Maintained” sign at the trailhead, conditions deteriorated rapidly. By the time the old trail crested the ridge top, we were wading through waist-deep thickets of huckleberries and mountain ash, and barely able to find the old tread.

We weren’t the only people visiting Old Vista Ridge, though. Plastic flagging periodically marked the route, especially where the going was most rough. Clearly, other folks cared about this old trail.

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Yikes… rough going, here!

The string of viewpoints I had seen from above on the Timberline Trail, proved illusive once we were down in the forest. Eventually, we followed a game trail through a beautiful subalpine meadow and came to what I thought might be the main viewpoint — and a stunning view of Mount Hood emerging from autumn clouds in the late afternoon sun. After capturing this beautiful scene, we declared victory, and trudged back through two miles of brush and fallen trees to the trailhead.

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Our first look at the view from The Rockpile in October 2016

Once back at home, I realized that the viewpoint we had reached was not the one we were aiming for — the prominent outcrop I had seen from up on the Timberline Trail. Instead, it was a talus dome now known as The Rockpile, just a quarter mile or so from the main viewpoint. Time to return!

So, two weeks later, on October 22, Greg and I returned to fight our way back up the Old Vista Ridge Trail, this time certain we would find that most prominent viewpoint. But first, we pressed on to find the end of the Old Vista Ridge Trail, at tiny Perry Lake. It was more of a pond, but lovely, nonetheless. We also explored the remains of the old Red Hill Guard Station and fire lookout, near the lake.

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Tiny Perry Lake in October 2016

Next, we traced our steps back up the Old Vista Ridge Trail to another viewpoint we had passed along the way, a spot we now know as Alki Point that features a view looking north toward the Columbia River Gorge and the big Washington volcanoes.

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The panoramic view from Alki Point in October 2016

As we stood admiring Alki Point and taking a few photos, we had an amazing stroke of luck: steam suddenly began billowing from Mount St. Helens! We stayed and watched the minor eruption, capturing these rare photos of the event:

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Mount St. Helens erupting on October 22, 2006

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(Click here for a larger view)

The last order of business on that memorable October 22 trip was to find the main viewpoint that had stood out so prominently from the Timberline Trail.

We soon discovered that it was just off the main trail, and could be found by skirting above a series of talus slopes adjacent to the trail. As we approached the rugged, windswept viewpoint, a Great Horned Owl floated close overhead — and now Owl Point had a name!

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Our stunning first look at Mount Hood from Owl Point in October 2006

Our first look at Owl Point was simply stunning, and far beyond what I had imagined when looking down on the area during that summer of 2006. The viewpoint was just far enough from the mountain to give remarkable perspective, but close enough that we felt we could reach out and touch it. It is simply one of the finest views of the mountain, anywhere.

Bringing Old Vista Ridge back in 2007

The beauty of Owl Point (and later, threats of a proposed dirt bike play park that would destroy the trail) stuck in my mind after those first trips in the fall of 2006, and by the summer of 2007 several folks on the fledgling Portland Hikers online forum (now OregonHikers.org) conspired to simply go and maintain this beautiful old trail. We really had no idea what we were doing, nor that we would be creating some hard feelings with the USFS that we would eventually have to reconcile in order to formally adopt the trail.

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September 22, 2007 founding trip to Old Vista Ridge

The 2007 volunteer work included several ad hoc “clipper trips” by Portland Hikers forum members to clear brush, and dozens of logs were cleared by experienced chainsaw volunteers among our web community. Our most notable of these informal events came on September 22, 2007, when a group of volunteers met to take on the most unruly sections of brush along the old trail.

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Volunteers made a big impact that day!

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Sawing logs in 2007

The impact we made on that day particular inspired everyone, and on way down the mountain that evening, we talked about creating a service arm of the old Portland Hikers community. A few weeks later, we had formed what was originally known as the “Trails Association of Oregon”, though by early 2008 we had switched to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO). Soon, we had non-profit status, and the rest if history, as the saying goes!

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Celebrating at Owl Point on September 22, 2007

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’ve been involved with TKO and its Oregon Hikers Forum and Field Guide from the beginning, so the grand re-opening of Old Vista Ridge is a pretty big thrill for me. In 2012, we posted a summit log at Owl Point, and there is nothing more rewarding than reading the inspired comments from hikers reconnecting with nature as they take in the view. Here are some samples from the past couple years:

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As we move forward under the new agreement, TKO will continue to care for this trail in partnership with the Forest Service. We have lots of work planned to improve the trail and make the experience even better, and I’ll periodically showcase that work here.

How to Join TKO at the September 10th Event

If you have never been part of a trail stewardship project, TKO’s September 10 event at Old Vista Ridge is a wonderful way to start. For the adventurous, we’ll have a couple crews using crosscut saws to clear logs — a very cool experience, if you’ve never done that before.

For the less adventurous, we’ll also have crews doing what we did way back in 2007: taking loppers to huckleberries and mountain ash along the trail. If you’ve pruned a hedge, then you can do this!

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TKO volunteers in a recent project at Punchbowl Park, near Hood River

One of the best things about being part of a TKO crew is knowing that you’ve helped keep our trails around for future generations to enjoy. It’s a VERY satisfying feeling! It’s easy to RSVP for the event, but space is limited. Just go to this link and sign up online on the TKO website:

September 10 • Old Vista Ridge 10th Anniversary Project

We’ll have other fun events as part of this special stewardship project, including the trail dedication and a 10th Anniversary celebration at the end of the day.

As always, thanks for reading the WyEast Blog, and I hope you’ll consider joining us on September 10, too!


Addendum

Over the past week, TKO has been working closely with the U.S. Forest Service to monitor the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge and the potential of the fire to move south. Based on an abundance of caution for the health and safety of the many volunteers who had registered for this event, TKO and the Forest Service have decided to postpone the September 10 Old Vista Ridge event until a later date. I’ll provide updates here on the blog, when available.

To respond to Buck’s comment (below), TKO will be also working with the Forest Service to assess the trail damage in the Gorge after the smoke clears, and will be working (likely for years) to restore the trails there. In the meantime, TKO has set up a dedicated e-mail list that you can join to receive periodic updates on that effort and opportunities to help:

TKO Response to the Eagle Creek Fire & Special E-mail List

Thanks for asking, Buck!

Owl Point Sentinel Tree

July 31, 2017
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Mount Hood from Owl Point in October 2006

Just over a decade has passed since I first visited Owl Point, a spectacular rocky viewpoint along the Old Vista Ridge Trail, on Mount Hood’s north side. At the time, the trail had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect, but it has since rebounded thanks to volunteers pitching in.

Since that first visit, I’ve been to Owl Point every year to admire and photograph the dramatic view of Mount Hood and enjoy the relative solitude, compared to many other places on the mountain. I’ve watched the landscape change, sometimes dramatically, as was the case with the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire that swept the north side of Mount Hood. But I’ve also watched more subtle changes as the details of this beautiful spot become ever more familiar.

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The author at Owl Point in 2008 (Photo: Andy Prahl)

One of those more subtle features is a craggy Noble Fir perched among the boulders on the exposed south flank of Owl Point. This old survivor can be seen in the far left of one of the first photos I shot in 2006 (at the top of the article) and in the photo, above, taken in 2008 by trail volunteer Andy Prahl.

If you’ve followed this blog over the years, you’ve seen earlier articles about “sentinel trees”. These are trees that seem to defy the odds and elements in their size, grandeur or simple tenacity in finding a way to survive. This tree certainly qualifies.

From an aesthetic perspective, the old Noble Fir at Owl Point is a gift for photographers, adding testimony to the rugged, often harsh conditions found there. The old tree also adds a nice visual balance and interest to the scene. So, in this way the Owl Point sentinel tree has become an old friend to this photographer.

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Owl Point in July 2011, with the old Noble Fir on the left – just days before the Dollar Lake Fire

In 2011, I visited Owl Point just a few days before the catastrophic Dollar Lake Fire swept across the north slopes of Mount Hood, burning 6,300 acres of subalpine wilderness. The photo above is among the last that I captured of the once-green forests on the mountain before the fire changed the landscape.

Though the fire burned for more than two months that summer, Owl Point and the Old Vista Ridge Trail were somehow spared and the craggy old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Old Point lived on.

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The Dollar Lake Fire in 2011

After the fire, Owl Point served as one of the best places to absorb the full scope of the Dollar Lake Fire, with nearly the entire extent of the burn visible from there. While the brown swath of scorched trees was jarring to look at, it was also a reminder that fire is a regular and necessary visitor to our forests.

The forests we lost to the fire have since given us a new window into how new forests emerge from the ashes, a process as old as the forests, themselves.

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Browned slopes of Mount Hood one year after the fire in 2012

The old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Owl Point had witnessed fire before the Dollar Lake Fire, and from a much closer vantage point. Sometime in the early 1900s, a similarly large fire swept across the high country north of Mount Hood, scorching Owl Point and thousands of acres in the surrounding area.

This 1952 photo (below) shows the forest recovery from this earlier fire at Owl Point just getting underway, decades after the burn. In fact, the area is still in recovery today, a century after the fire.

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Early 1900s burn that swept across Owl Point (Courtesy: Hood River History Museum)

The view from 1952 is an inverse scene from what we see today, with a scorched foreground and lush, green slopes on Mount Hood. These contrasting images over time area a reminder of the fire cycles that are as natural to the area as rain and wind.

A closer look at the 1952 photo reveals several trees that survived the older fire, thanks to their isolation in the open talus fields below Owl Point:

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These trees on the talus slopes of Owl Point survived the earlier fire

One of these fortunate survivors is the sentinel tree at Owl Point that we know today. Though only 30-40 feet tall, it could easily be a century or more old, stunted by the harsh conditions on the talus slope.

While the old Noble Fir at Owl Point appears to have dodged a couple of forest fires in its lifetime, the tree began to show signs of stress in 2012, the year after the Dollar Lake Fire. Foliage (below) from some of its lower limbs began to drop, suggesting the beginning of its decline.

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Owl Point sentinel tree in 2012, one year after the Dollar Lake Fire

By 2014 (below), the signs of stress were more ominous, and it was clear that the old sentinel tree was losing its battle to survive the elements at Owl Point.

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Owl Point sentinel tree in 2014

After the snowpack melted off in 2016, the situation for the old tree had become dire as it struggled to maintain the remaining foliage in its crown (below), a sign that the tree might not survive the season.

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Stress claims the crown of the Owl Point sentinel tree in 2016

But a closer look (below) this summer at the dying tree tells a different story. While the exposed upper portion of the tree has clearly lost its battle, a fringe of healthy new foliage is thriving around the base of the tree. It turns out that while the Owl Point Noble Fir has lost its main trunk, it is still very much alive.

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Owl Point sentinel tree finally succumbs to the elements in 2017

An even closer look at the base of the old tree (below) shows the secret of “krummholz”, the name for stunted trees that survive in harsh alpine environments. Trees like this Noble Fir adapt to their conditions by producing new leaders from their lowest branches to replace dying or broken tops.

These new leaders on Noble Fir growing as krummholz often form dense mats of foliage at the base of a tree, low enough to be protected by winter snowpack from the harshest weather conditions. This is clearly the case for the Owl Point sentinel tree.

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A new beginning for the Owl Point Noble Fir…

The classic example of a krummholz in Mount Hood country is the Whitebark Pine, a tree that thrives above 5,000 feet, often gnarled beyond imagination by the elements. The example below shows the skeleton of an ancient Whitebark Pine (on Lookout Mountain), surrounded by new leaders that have merged from limbs flattened to the ground by winter snowpack.

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Ancient Whitebark Pine krummholz on Lookout Mountain

While winter conditions regularly shear off new growth that pokes above the snowpack on a krummholz, a rapidly growing new trunk like the one emerging at the base of the Owl Point sentinel tree can eventually survive and grow to replace the older tree. This is clearly a slow process, and one that I won’t likely be around to witness!

But in the near-term, photographers like me will be able to watch the dying trunk of the Owl Point sentinel tree gradually weathering to become a dramatic sun-bleached snag that will be photogenic in its own right. And, as the new leader continues to rise from the base of the old trunk, this striking old tree will continue tell a powerful story of survival.

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You can visit Owl Point and see its sentinel Noble Fir by following the 4-mile round trip Old Vista Ridge hike from the Vista Ridge Trailhead. The hike is described here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.