Posted tagged ‘Oneonta Creek’

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

January 31, 2018
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Burned sign along Gorge Trail 400 in January (Tom Kloster)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepperd’s Dell to Multnomah Creek

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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Historic Shepperd’s Dell bridge (State of Oregon)

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

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Aerial view of Angels Rest (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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Aerial view of Angels Rest (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Detailed view of Angels Rest Trail (State of Oregon)

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

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Aerial view of Wahkeena Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Detailed view of Wahkeena Falls (State of Oregon)

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

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

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Aerial view of Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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Aerial view of Multnomah Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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Stately Weisdanger Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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Beautiful Ecola Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

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

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

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

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

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

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Aerial view of upper Multnomah Basin (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Close-up of the Larch Mountain Trail and Multnomah Basin

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

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

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Upper Multnomah Creek before the fire (Tom Kloster)

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

Oneonta Creek to Ainsworth State Park

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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Close-up of Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aerial view of Oneonta Bluff (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Middle Oneonta Falls (State of Oregon)

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

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

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Beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________

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

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

________________

 

2015 Calendar… and looking back on 2014!

December 30, 2014
The view from Owl Point is the cover image for 2015

The view from Owl Point is the cover image for 2015

Each year since 2004 I’ve published a wall calendar dedicated to the special places that make Mount Hood and the Gorge a national treasure — and of national park caliber! You can pick one up for $30 at the Mount Hood National Park Campaign store at CafePress, and you’ll also be supporting the campaign website and this blog when you do!

The following is a preview of the calendar images I picked for the 2015 edition, along with some backstory behind the photos. All of the photos were taken from November 2013 through October 2014. Part of the challenge each year is to come up with 13 new calendar-worthy images, which in turn ensures that I get out on the trail and poke around my favorite haunts, plus a few new spots whenever I can!

For January, I picked a close-up view of the upper Sandy Glacier and the towering cliffs of the Sandy Headwall. This view came from an early snowfall last winter, one of several trips I made to the Bald Mountain and McGee Ridge:

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

On one of those trips to the McGee Ridge viewpoint, I had just set up my camera and tripod along the Timberline Trail when a pair of climbers came down from the mountain. They were obviously not typical hikers, and soon I realized that they were the explorers I had just written a blog article about! “Sandy Glacier Caves: Realm of the Snow Dragon!” was written partly in anticipation of the Oregon Field Guide 2013 premiere episode that featured the glacier Caves… and my new trail acquaintances, Brent McGregor and Eric Guth.

Look closely, and you can see Eric and Brent's boot prints in the snow near the Snow Dragon cave

Look closely, and you can see Eric and Brent’s boot prints in the snow near the Snow Dragon cave

Brent and Eric pointed out several features around the glacier caves from our vantage point. I was later able to add a postscript to the original article to elaborate on some of the new details about their discovery that I learned that day on the trail.

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

I’ve also been able to help Brent with his historic research on the formation of the glacier caves with a series of images I’d taken of the Sandy Glacier since the early 2000s. I’ve photographed the glacier in detail pretty much every year for more than a decade, mostly because of it’s scenic beauty, so it was great to discover a more practical use for all those photos!

For February, I picked a photo from a memorable winter day on Mount Defiance (below) after a bank of freezing fog had settled in on the mountain for several days. Nearly every surface was covered with long, beautifully developed ice crystals that had grown undisturbed in the almost still air of the freezing fog layer.

February features a frosty forest on the slopes of Mt. Defiance

February features a frosty forest on the slopes of Mt. Defiance

On that frosty day, I also stopped to photograph the sign shown below on the way up to Mount Defiance, as it showed amazing insight and precision by the Hood River County road department in deciding where to stop plowing!

Winter wonderland ahead!

Winter wonderland ahead!

For March, I picked a scene from the Pacific Crest Trail where it climbs along the west rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail is also part of the Timberline Trail, and is surprisingly overlooked, given the views and close proximity to Timberline Lodge.

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

I posted an article in 2011 on the buried forests that can be seen here. The deeply carved maze of ravines that make up the White River canyon are cut into volcanic debris from the Old Maid eruptions that occurred from 1760 to 1810, and subsequent erosion has revealed some of the well-preserved trees that were buried in these eruptions. The 2011 article describes how to view these old specimens.

I also enjoyed watching a lenticular cloud form over the mountain in the hour or two that I sat on the canyon rim that evening last winter — one of my favorite mountain phenomena. You can see just the beginning of the cloud over the summit in the calendar view, and the tiny sliver later blossomed into the classic lenticular cloud shown in the view below, as I was packing up for the day:

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

Lenticular clouds typically form when moist air from approaching weather fronts is compressed as it passes over the big volcanoes in the Cascade Range. They often form as much as a day before the cloud bands of a Pacific front actually arrive, so are a useful barometer of changing conditions.

For April, I picked something a little different: a desert scene just a few miles east of the mountain, where the same White River that originates from its namesake glacier in the previous scene flows east into the rugged rimrock country of Oregon’s High Desert, shown below:

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

Over the millennia, the White River has carved through many layers of Columbia River basalt to form its desert canyon, but as it approaches the confluence with the Deschutes, the river encounters an especially tough series of basalt layers. The result is the spectacular White River Falls, a misty green emerald in the desert, protected in a small state park.

The lower falls pictured in the April image is about one-half mile downstream from the main falls, and well off the popular trail in the area. The calendar image is actually just a cropped portion of a very wide panorama (below) that captures more of the rugged scene at the lower falls.

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

The scoured bedrock in the foreground of this view is testament to volatile nature of the White River: seasonal floods regularly surge to this depth, engulfing the floor of the canyon.

In another 2011 article titled “Close Call at White River Falls”, I described the threats to this magnificent area, and why it deserved better protection — perhaps someday a unit of Mount Hood National Park?

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

In addition to the natural scenery, the canyon is home to the fascinating ruins of an early 1900s hydroelectric plant. Desert weather has helped preserve the many relics in the area, but arid conditions haven’t prevented vandals from taking an increasing toll on priceless historic resources.

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

Hopefully, we can someday stabilize the White River Falls site and preserve the remaining traces of history for future generations to explore.

For May, I chose another unusual image for a Mount Hood National Park calendar: Middle North Falls on Silver Creek. Why? Mostly because what we now know as Silver Falls State Park was once proposed to become a national park in the 1920s! It would have been a terrific addition. The scenery, alone blows away many of the existing national parks monuments in our park system!

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

Alas, the national park proposal failed after a National Park Service study deemed the logged-over landscape of the 1920s too ravaged to be worthy of park status. Thankfully, that didn’t stop the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s from building the elaborate, magnificent trail system and beautiful South Falls Lodge (listed on the National Historic Register in 1983) that we still enjoy today.

The national park idea for Silver Falls resurfaced again in 2008, when Oregon State Senator (then Representative) Fred Girod proposed it during a special session. Notably, Dr. Girod is a Republican from Stayton, representing the Senate district that encompasses Silver Falls State Park, so maybe we’ll see the idea resurrected in the future? I like that maverick thinking, Senator!

Trail ranger leading a kids hike at Silver Creek -- how very cool!

Trail ranger leading a kids hike at Silver Creek — how very cool!

On the visit last spring when I photographed Middle North Falls, I was reminded that Oregon’s state parks do a pretty good job of embracing the national park tradition at Silver Creek when a young ranger appeared, leading a group of youngsters on a day hike. Kudos to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department for providing programs like these!

Could Silver Falls State Park become a unit of a future Mount Hood National Park? Why not! One tangible benefit would be the opportunity to expand the footprint from the current park boundaries to include the rest of the upper watershed of Silver Creek. The park more than doubled in size in 1958, when a federally funded expansion added in a portion of the headwaters, bringing the park to the present size of just over 90,000 areas.

The amazing, national-park-quality amphitheater behind North Falls

The amazing, national-park-quality amphitheater behind North Falls

Yet, heavy logging and large private inholdings upstream continue to impact Silver Creek stream with silt and algae blooms. These impacts could easily be reversed if the upper watershed were managed for conservation and recreation, instead — especially if the park were expanded to include the upper watershed and its associated habitat.

For June, I picked an image of Butte Creek Falls, a nearby cousin to Silver Creek located even closer to Mount Hood, within the Santiam State Forest. Like Silver Creek, the upper watershed of Butte Creek is heavily logged, with some obvious sediment and algae in the stream as a result.

June features Butte Creek Falls

June features Butte Creek Falls

Also like Silver Creek, the health of Butte Creek could be turned around with a shift to managing for conservation and recreation. Unlike Silver Creek, most of the lands in the upstream watershed are already held in the public trust by the State of Oregon.

Unfortunately, our state forests are held captive by a legislature determined to log them to feed the state general fund — and to ensure that rural counties that already pay only a fraction of the property taxes levied in other parts of Oregon aren’t inconvenienced with paying for their own schools.

Therefore, the best way to restore Butte Creek would be to transfer it to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department as a very large state park… or incorporate it into a future Mount Hood National Park! At a minimum, it’s time for the Santiam State forest to focus on restoring forests and protecting watersheds, not just future timber sales.

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

The behind-the-scenes, somewhat embarrassing story that goes with the Butte Creek Falls image is one of my hiking buddy Jamie Chabot helping change a flat tire after our trip to Butte Creek and nearby Abiqua Falls. We managed to take a couple of wrong turns in the maze of logging roads and clearcuts that surround the small preserve containing Butte Creek: at some point, I jumped out to survey the canyon below to figure out where we went wrong… only to hear a HISSSSSSS coming from one of the rear tires!

There was no room to pull off to the side, so we were in the awkward predicament of having the car up on a jack in the middle of an active logging road. Fortunately, we were able to install the spare before a loaded log truck came barreling our way! My belated apologies to Jamie for doing the heavy work while I took pictures… but somebody had to document the episode for posterity!

Jamie was also my hiking companion on a couple of trips to Owl Point last summer. This has been an annual favorite of mine since a group of volunteers from the Portland Hikers forum rescued the Old Vista Ridge from being lost to official Forest Service neglect in 2007.

Each year, the trail seems to get better, thanks to a lot of unofficial TLC from anonymous trail tenders. Today, the Old Vista Ridge trail is in great shape and now forms the boundary of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness, so in that sense has been etched into legal permanence. Hopefully, it will eventually make it back onto the Forest Service inventory of officially maintained trails, a status it clearly deserves.

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

There are now several geocaches and a trail log tucked along the historic old trail, and it’s amazing to see how busy the area has become now that it has been featured in several popular hiking guides (including Williams Sullivan’s “100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon” and Paul Gerald’s “60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Portland”).

One trail log had more than 60 entries for just 2014, including this wonderful entry from a young family introducing their kids to the adventures of hiking and exploring the Mount Hood backcountry at a very young age:

My favorite Old Vista Ridge trail log entry… ever..!

My favorite Old Vista Ridge trail log entry… ever..!

One of my favorite experiences on the trail is seeing young families introducing their junior hikers to our public lands, battered field guides in hand. Just like my own formative experiences just a few decades ago.

For August, I picked an image from another of my favorite spots, just off the Cooper Spur trail, above the lower extent of the Eliot Glacier. This image was taken on one of those days when clouds were wrapped around the mountain for much of the day, but suddenly cleared for a few minutes — just long enough to capture a few photos before the mountain disappeared, once again:

August features the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood's north flank

August features the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood’s north flank

I certainly do not mind sitting on the shoulder of the mountain waiting out the clouds (there’s no such thing as a bad day on the mountain, after all!), but a bonus during this wait was learning a new bird species (to me), as a pair of these small birds (below) stopped by to check me out:

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

This is a horned lark, a wintertime migrant to our area, and the pair I saw had likely arrived recently when I spotted them last August. The Portland area actually has a year-round resident population of streaked horned larks, which look similar to horned larks and are a threatened species. These are details I learned after the trip from the helpful folks at the Portland Audubon Society.

According to Audubon staff, horned Larks are widespread songbirds of fields, deserts, and tundra, where they forage for seeds and insects, and sing a high, tinkling song — and thus were quite at home in the tundra conditions of Mount Hood’s high east side. Though they are considered common, they have undergone a sharp decline in the last half-century. Their very generalized range map shows them wintering from the Cascades west and breeding in summer in Canada tundra/steppe terrain.

For September I picked an image from Wyeast Basin, taken toward the end of a lovely early autumn day as a family and their dog ambled across the sprawling meadow. Wyeast Basin is remarkable for the surprising number of springs bubbling up from the mountain slopes and racing one another downhill, often just a few feet apart.

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

While this view (above) from the calendar is the familiar scene at WyEast Basin, I also turned my tripod around to capture the web of springs and streamlets flowing north toward the big Washington volcanoes, on the distant horizon. The talus slopes of Owl Point can also be seen in the distance from here, just above the tree line.

The view north to Owl Point and the Washington Cascades from WyEast Basin

The view north to Owl Point and the Washington Cascades from WyEast Basin

For October, the scene is from Elk Meadows, perhaps the most photogenic of the string of alpine meadows on Mount Hood’s rugged north side. In this view, the Coe Glacier tumbles below the summit, and 7,853-foot Barrett Spur looms darkly on the left. Avalanches roll off Barrett Spur in winter, sometimes with devastating effect on the alpine forests below, as the many bleached snags and stumps in Elk Cove suggest.

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

My companions for the Elk Cove hike this fall were Jamie Chabot and Jeff Statt. I met both when Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was founded in 2007: Jeff was the founding president of the new non-profit, and Jamie the original creative force behind the TKO logo, Portland Hikers calendars and the TKO web identity.

Tom, Jamie & Jeff enjoying a little slice of paradise at Elk Cove

Tom, Jamie & Jeff enjoying a little slice of paradise at Elk Cove

Both Jeff and Jamie continue to support TKO after all these years as the organization continues to grow, and we still meet up for periodic trail stewardship projects together. I’m honored to have them as trail friends, and having them along on this hike made it extra-special!

For November, I picked a familiar view of Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek, taken during an especially wet week in the Gorge. Normally, the somewhat muddy runoff in this scene would be a deal-killer for photos, but I came around to the idea that in this case, it told the story of swollen Cascade streams during the stormy months of late autumn rather nicely, so added it to the mix.

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

I was memorably soaked on the hike to Triple Falls, not because rain is particularly unique in the Gorge, but because I had just re-ducked my trusty canvas hat (for waterproofing)… but had left it drying in the oven, at home! I discovered this fact at the Oneonta trailhead, so circled back to the Multhnomah Falls lodge to see what sort of hats were in stock.

It turns out that baseball caps are the ONLY option at the Multnomah Falls lodge — and I HATE baseball caps! (primarily because they don’t fit all that well on my basketball-sized head..!) Well, at least I could support my alma mater, and I hit the trail $20 poorer with a ridiculous, ill-fitting beanie that (sort of) kept my large, bald head dry…

You would hate baseball caps, too, if you had a basketball-sized head like mine…

You would hate baseball caps, too, if you had a basketball-sized head like mine…

Once on the trail, I also ran across one of the most extensive landslides to form in recent years, cutting away a 100-foot swath of the Oneonta Trail along a steep canyon section. Trail crews had constructed a temporary crossing of the slide, but just a few days after that trip in November, the slide claimed more ground, erasing the temporary trail. Such is the ongoing challenge of keeping trails open in the very active landscapes of the Gorge and Mount Hood!

A rip-roaring Oneonta Creek after the first big autumn storms

A rip-roaring Oneonta Creek after the first big autumn storms

For December, I picked a late fall image of Elowah Falls, taken from one of the long-bypassed viewpoints along the original Civilian Conservation Corps route described in this recent article on McCord Creek.

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

Photographing a 213′ waterfall at close range means a wide-angle lens and blending some images. In this case, I merged three vertical images taken with my 11mm lens to create the panoramic view. This is my first time photographing from this spot, and I will definitely return!

By now you’ve been introduced to my trail buddy Jamie, and on the way out from Elowah Falls that day I ran into Jamie and his two boys! They were headed toward the upper falls on McCord Creek on that very busy hiking day in the Gorge. It was great to see Jamie passing on the hiking tradition to boys!

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

That’s it for the 2015 Mount Hood National Park Campaign calendar highlights, and now for a few thoughts on the blog…

Thanks for another year!

I launched the WyEast Blog in 2008 as a simpler way to promote Mount Hood and the Gorge as “national park-worthy” than updates to the project website would allow. And though I didn’t post quite as often this year for a whole variety of reasons (mostly, real life getting in the way), I was amazed to see the readership for the WyEast Blog continue to grow in 2014.

Yours truly taking in the first big snowfall on Mount Hood in early November

Yours truly taking in the first big snowfall on Mount Hood in early November

In early 2014, the monthly page views edged above the 5,000 mark for the first time, and jumped well above that mark during the peak hiking months of spring and summer. More importantly, the list of official blog followers has grown steadily to 141 this year. These are the true Mount Hood and Gorge junkies that I have in mind when I post to the blog, and these are also the folks who send me both nice notes and periodic corrections — both are greatly appreciated!

I posted a total of 14 articles this year, down a bit from previous years, but bringing the six-year total to 136 articles. I’ve also got a bunch of new articles in the oven, ready to post when time allows. So, the WyEast Blog will be around for awhile!

The two most popular articles continue to be:

10 Common Poison Oak Myths (2012)

Ticks! Ticks! (10 common myths) (2013)

The “ticks” article has been viewed 38,147 times since I posted it in 2013, and the poison oak piece 21,545 times — sort of amazing! But these numbers have validated my obsession with providing thorough, detailed, geek-worthy articles that are more in the magazine format than typical blog fare.

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

So, enough facts, figures and anecdotes: if you’ve read this far in my annual, somewhat (ahem!) self-indulgent post, THANK YOU for being a reader… and most importantly, thanks for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Gorge!

See you on the trail in 2015!

Tom Kloster
WyEast Blog

Let’s clear the logjam at Oneonta Gorge

May 30, 2011

The logjam at Oneonta Gorge in May 2011

Over nearly a century, a summer rite of passage for thousands of Oregonians has been wading through the vertical-walled Oneonta Gorge to the beautiful falls hidden at the head of this slot-canyon. Since 1914, the old Columbia River Highway has brought a steady stream of visitors to the tempting view into the gorge from atop a graceful bridge.

More recently, this tradition has been tarnished by a series of natural events that have made the trip up Oneonta Gorge downright dangerous. First, a rockfall near the entrance to the Gorge in the late 1990s that left three pickup-sized boulders in the stream. Then a logjam formed behind the boulders, creating a slippery maze that hundreds of visitors each summer now struggle to navigate. Sadly, the danger prevents many families with children from even attempting the trip.

Two weeks ago, Portlanders were reminded of the dangers of the logjam when 22-year old hiker Hassan Roussi tragically — and needlessly — drowned after slipping on the logjam. In the spirit of preventing another tragedy at Oneonta Gorge, this article proposes a few solutions that address both the safety and quality of experience for visitors to this uniquely beautiful place.

Phase 1: Log the Logjam

The logjam must go. Immediately. Just saw it out, with chainsaws. The log pile took one life this month, and that’s one too many. Add the many unreported accidents that have likely occurred here, and it’s long overdue to simply remove the hazard.

The logjam and boulders that created it are a recent change at Oneonta

(click here for a larger version of this comparison)

Forget any excuses about ecological concerns, the stream playing out its natural processes or budget constraints. The arguments in favor of removing the logjam are simple:

Environmental Impacts: hundreds of visitors hike through Oneonta Gorge every summer, so the stream is only as pristine as a few hundred pairs of feet allow. Running chainsaws during an “in water” window, when salmon and steelhead are not spawning, would be no more disruptive than any of the in-stream activities that occur across the Mount Hood National Forest every year — from road projects and culvert repairs to timber harvesting.

Natural Systems: it’s true that Oneonta Creek has flushed logs from the drainage for millennia, so why one just let the natural order play out? One simple reason is public safety, of course. Unless the Forest Service is willing to close the gorge to visitors, then clearing the logjam is the only responsible option.

But there is also an economic argument against allowing the logjam to grow: eventually, it could burst during a flood event, pushing a wall of rock, logs and water against the pair of highway bridges and railroad bridge, 100 yards downstream. The result could be disastrous for these historic structures. Removing the logjam just makes sense for ODOT.

Budget Constraints: this is the standard argument for doing nothing in our national forests, but at some point, the agency will be held legally accountable for allowing recreation hazards like the logjam to persist. It might take that kind of shock to the system for the Forest Service to put recreation — and especially safety needs — ahead of other forest projects. Given the logjam has been accumulating since the 1990s, there has been plenty of opportunity for the agency to remedy this problem.

Signs like this mark the bootpaths to Oneonta Gorge

Though these signs are mostly intended to absolve the USFS from legal action, they don’t excuse the agency for allowing this hazard to accumulate

Since the boulders that created the logjam will likely take decades (or centuries) to move downstream from Oneonta Gorge, periodic logging out of accumulated debris is the obvious and appropriate action. It should happen this summer — with the recent tragedy as the impetus for fast-tracking this project. There really is no excuse for waiting.

This is completely within the scope and funding capability of the Forest Service, but could also be a joint responsibility shared with ODOT, given the risk the logjam represents for the highway bridges. It’s also a moral imperative for public agency stewards, given the risk to visitors, and the fatal outcome last week.

After the present logjam is cleared, it should be logged out regularly, perhaps every year or two. Just as other trails in the forest are cleared of winter downfall, Oneonta Gorge should be regularly cleared of dangerous logs.

Phase 2: Embrace the Bootpaths

The safety concerns at Oneonta Gorge aren’t limited to the logjam. Visitors to the area are naturally tempted by the view into the gorge from the historic Columbia River Highway bridge over Oneonta Creek, and an inviting stairway leads down from the bridge to the west bank of the stream.

Oneonta Creek from the historic highway bridge

Once at the bottom of the stairs, visitors usually follow a braided system of unofficial boot paths that climb along the west wall of the canyon, formed by thousands of feet that have tramped this way for decades.

Much of this path is a watery slog in the rainy months, ending in a slippery scramble over rock outcrops, but all of it is completely salvageable as a trail, with careful design and some tread work.

The swampy boot path along the west approach to Oneonta Gorge

On the east side of the bridge, the Forest Service and ODOT have done their best to deny access to the stream, but with little success. Hikers have pushed beyond the piled logs and root wads at the “trailhead”, keeping the long-established route to the creek obvious and well-used.

Like the boot path along the west side of the creek, the east approach would be easily upgraded to a formal trail with a bit of design and tread work.

Nice try, but no dice: intrepid creek explorers aren’t stopped by this Forest Service blockade at the east approach to Oneonta Gorge

Together, the pair of boot paths flanking Oneonta Creek offer an excellent trail opportunity. Instead of trying to keep visitors out, a formal loop trail could safely bring less hardy hikers right to the mouth of Oneonta Gorge, while better managing some of the streamside impacts that the current maze of informal routes create.

The Proposal

Over the past decade, ODOT has spent a considerable amount restoring a section of the Historic Columbia River Highway at Oneonta Creek. The project included repaving the old highway and converting it to a hike/bike trail, with new parking for visitors and, most notably, restoring the old highway tunnel through Oneonta Bluff.

The beautifully restored Oneonta Tunnel

The highway restoration project was done beautifully, but many in the recreation community questioned the expense, given the many other unmet recreation needs in the area — the Oneonta logjam among them. Now is the time to backfill this project with trail improvements that connect the restored highway to the Oneonta Gorge — the main attraction in this area.

This proposal is simple: build on the beautiful restoration of the old highway and tunnel with a simple loop trail that follows the existing boot paths to the mouth of Oneonta Gorge. Coupled with removal of the logjam, these paths would lessen the impact of the many visitors who head up the gorge each summer. But the loop would also provide an excellent opportunity for less able hikers and families with children to take a short hike and see Oneonta Gorge, up close.

The following map shows the proposed loop trail:

[click here for a larger version of the map]

The loop would expand on several existing elements. First, it would take advantage of the historic stairway at the west end of the old highway bridge as the starting point for the loop, since most visitors already approach from this side of Oneonta Creek.

The stairway sets a wonderful rustic tone for the trail, more like a narrow footpath than a modern trail. This scale should be reflected in how the rest of the loop is designed, as it is perfectly scaled (and completely irresistible) to small children.

The wonderful old stairway at the west end of the Oneonta Bridge

The stairway is in amazingly good repair, given the neglect it has suffered for nearly a century. Though at least one of the railing posts needs to be restored, the stairway is completely serviceable in its present condition.

The bench at the top of the stairs is another important design element, and would be repeated at three new locations along the proposed loop. If the tiny stairway is a perfect magnet for children, the bench is ideal for less able visitors who might walk a portion of the loop, or perhaps just the first few feet of the trail.

The historic bench at the top of the old stairway

Using these basic design cues, the loop would formalize the boot paths on both sides of Oneonta Creek, with the new trail specifically designed for periodic flooding. This is because the entire riparian area between the walls of the gorge is subject to being submerged by high water, so trail elements would have to be designed accordingly.

An excellent design prototype already exists on another Columbia Gorge trail for accomplishing this all-weather design. The newly reconstructed trail at nearby Bridal Veil Falls provides an excellent blueprint for constructing a gravel-surfaced, flood-resistant trail. In the Bridal Veil design, the gravel trail is contained by a low border of basalt rocks (below).

The newly reconstructed Bridal Veil Falls trail

The proposal also calls for steps at a couple of rock outcrops along the west side of Oneonta Creek, and where the loop connects to the old highway on the east side of the creek. These would be mortared steps, in the “CCC” style seen throughout the Columbia River Gorge.

The most unusual element of this trail proposal is the means of crossing Oneonta Creek, at the mouth of Oneonta Gorge. In low water months, this is a slippery rock hop for visitors, but with some careful design and periodic maintenance, it could be designed as a more formalized series of steppingstones, providing a safe crossing over a much longer season.

The steppingstone design would be a durable alternative to a conventional footbridge (which would not be appropriate in this location, given the visual impact), and would also be in tune with the rustic nature of the trail, itself. Depending on water levels and ability, hikers could opt to stop at the crossing, or venture across to complete the loop.

Steppingstone crossing near Pup Creek Falls on the Clackamas River Trail

The Forest Service has also provided an excellent prototype for the steppingstone crossing, though not in the Columbia Gorge. Instead, the stream crossing pictured above, on the Clackamas River Trail, serves as an excellent blueprint. The stream flow in the scene is pictured in mid-winter, and similar to the summer flows on Oneonta Creek. A design like this is clearly feasible at Oneonta, though it would take periodic maintenance to ensure that steppingstones are adjusted or replaced, as needed, to maintain a safe crossing.

Finding a Creative Path Forward

Many of the ideas in these proposals require a break from conventional Forest Service practices, but “no action” at Oneonta Gorge isn’t a serious option. The Forest Service must address the logjam hazard, at a minimum.

Hiker visiting Oneonta Gorge in 1923

The loop trail proposal would move the Oneonta area from a band-aid, substandard level of recreation support to an experience that could be a memorable highlight for many Columbia River Gorge visitors. The public should expect no less from our agency stewards.

How to get there? Clearly, the Forest Service must re-allocate funding to address the safety issue at the logjam, and soon. ODOT could be a partner in this effort, given their interest in protecting the highway bridges downstream.

But it’s also possible that ODOT or the Oregon State Parks could partner with the Forest Service in developing the loop trail. The work could also be underwritten by a corporate sponsor, given the high profile of Oneonta Gorge as a destination along the old highway.

The only limit at Oneonta Gorge is our imagination — and the willingness of our public land stewards to step up to the challenge. Now is the time.