Learning to say no… to ourselves?

The Riverside Fire shortly after it exploded into a major conflagration in September 2021 (USFS)

In the aftermath of the 49,000-acre Eagle Creek Fire in 2017, we learned the following essential facts:

  • The fire was human-caused by a careless teenager throwing fireworks over a cliff along the Eagle Creek Trail on a crowded Labor Day weekend with extreme fire conditions. 176 hikers had to be rescued after the fire exploded. The teenager was later sentenced to extensive community service working with forest crews
  • No human life and minimal loss of structures occurred, despite the close proximity to the town of Cascade Locks and hundreds of homes built in the forest fringes adjacent to the national forest
  • Though human-caused, the scale and timing of the fire was completely in line with historic large fires in the Gorge, occurring roughly every century. The last major fire on the Oregon side was also centered on the Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek areas, in the late 1800s. The massive Yacolt Burn on the Washington side occurred in 1902
  • The forest recovery following the fire was immediate, reassuring, and continues without human intervention (in the form of replanting)
  • The extreme weather conditions and risk for fire was forecast in advance by the National Weather Service, yet this information was not enough to persuade the U.S. Forest Service or the Oregon Parks and Recreation Division to reconsider public access to the Gorge that fateful Labor Day weekend.

Powerful easterly winds drove the massive Riverside Fire west, toward the Willamette Valley (USFS)

Flash forward to 2020, and we have a repeat of the Eagle Creek Fire in the form of the 138,000-acre Riverside Fire, which burned much of the Clackamas and Molalla River watersheds after it started the day after Labor Day:

  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside Fire was human-caused, as was the 36 Pit Fire that had previously burned 5,500 acres in the lower Clackamas River canyon in September 2014
  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge, the extreme weather conditions that made the Riverside Fire so explosive were well-predicted and nearly certain to unfold as forecast. We were warned that high winds would blow hot desert air over the Cascade passes in Oregon and Washington, turning mountain canyons into wind tunnels of hot, exceptionally dry air all the way to the Willamette Valley
  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside burned an area that was probably overdue for fire, as measured by the approximately 100-200 year intervals between large fires on the west slopes of the Cascades. Unlike the Gorge, the Clackamas and Molalla basins had been heavily logged by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the private timber corporations for 70 years, so much of the burn consisted of crowded clear-cut plantations that turned out to be especially vulnerable to fire
  • Unlike the Eagle Creek Fire, thousands of acres of private, previously logged-over plantations burned, and the timber corporations have been aggressively “salvaging” burned trees in the months since the fire occurred – a practice that has been shown to be especially damaging to forest recovery
  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire, towns like Estacada and Molalla were spared, though the fire burned frighteningly close to Estacada. But unlike the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside fire destroyed 139 homes and outbuildings and injured four people in its path along the west slope of the Cascades.
  • Like the Eagle Creek Fire, the Riverside turned skies in the Portland metropolitan area orange for days, raining ash on some of the suburbs, and awakening the urban population to the health and economic impacts that large fires have always had on rural communities.

Memaloose Road after the Riverside Fire (USFS)

When it was over, the Riverside fire had burned nearly three times the area of Eagle Creek Fire. The scale of the fire is still sinking in, since the burn area is largely closed to the public, indefinitely. But the few photos the Forest Service has provided show scenes similar to the Eagle Creek Fire, from severely burned areas where the forest canopy was completely killed to areas of “mosaic” burns, a beneficial fire pattern where intensely burned areas are intermixed with less burned forest, where the tree canopy is likely to survive the fire. Early analysis of the first suggests that it was generally more severe than the Eagle Creek fire, with large areas of the Clackamas River watershed severely burned.

The lower Clackamas River canyon has now burned three times in the past 20 years, first with the Bowl Fire in 2002 that burned 339 acres, then the 36 Pit Fire in 2014, and now the massive Riverside Fire. In this recent article [https://wyeastblog.org/tag/clackamas-river/] I described a forest recovery that was already underway when the Riverside Fire swept the through the lower Clackamas River canyon last fall, and we don’t yet know how much of this recovering forest was burned.

Adjusting to our new reality…

While the Eagle Creek and Riverside fires have much in common, and the fires aren’t necessarily outliers compared to historic fires in the area, there are some important takeaways from both fires that are concerning. They underscore the reality that climate change and increased human presence in our forests are accelerating the pace of major forest fires in the Pacific Northwest.

Fire-scorched Fish Creek Campground (USFS)

First, the recent sequence of fires in the lower Clackamas River Canyon is troubling, as we are now seeing fires burn through the same forests in rapid succession. This means that surviving forest patches from the 2002 Bowl Fire also had to contend with the 2014 16 PIt Fire, and later, the 2020 Riverside Fire to continue the benefits of a “mosaic” burn to the lower canyon. While we don’t yet know, we almost certainly lost some (or perhaps all) of these surviving forests from earlier fires. These are the beneficial mosaic survivors that ensure a rapid forest recovery. Without them, we can expect a much slower forest recovery, and more erosion and earth movement will result.

Second, the Forest Service has shown an inability (or unwillingness) to simply close down recreation areas when extreme fire conditions are forecast. Their position is understandable: closing down the Gorge after the Eagle Creek Fire caused much controversy, so we can only imagine the outrage had that been done before that Labor Day in 2017, though we would almost certainly have prevented the catastrophic fire that resulted. Conversely, prevention is rarely credited in our society, so the likely public relations firestorm of closing the forest on Labor Day weekend to avoid a real firestorm in the forest would have been a truly thankless decision for the Forest Service.

Fish Creek drainage after the fire showing a mosaic burn pattern (USFS)

The same holds for the 2020 Riverside Fire. Closing down the Clackamas River recreation corridor to campers, boaters and hikers on Labor Day weekend would surely have set off a major controversy for the Forest Service, and only in hindsight can we know that it would have prevented a catastrophic fire needlessly caused by humans.

I visited the corridor on a busy weekend just before Labor Day, and I was saddened to see “dispersed” campsites all along the Clackamas with campfires burning, despite a ban on fires at the time. These unofficial campsites have a long history and tradition in our national forests, and they have been mushrooming in new places all around WyEast Country in recent years as campers seek to avoid the fees (and rules) of developed campgrounds. As a result, they are increasingly becoming havens for lawless activity, including tree cutting, dumping and illegal fires.

Mobbed “dispersed” campsite in the Clackamas corridor with multiple campfires burning a few days before the Riverside Fire

The Forest Service simply doesn’t have the capacity to meaningfully enforce fire restrictions in the growing number of dispersed sites, and it’s time we view them as the hazard to our forests that they have become. The agency has begun to close some of these sites, but if we learn that the Riverside Fire was ignited by an illegal campfire in a dispersed campsite, then we’ll have a strong case for completely banning them – everywhere.

Would that cause an outcry? Absolutely. But many tough decisions lie ahead if we hope to save our forests from our own bad behavior during a time of unprecedented environmental change.

Forest Service fire patrol attempting to monitor dispersed campers

Parking overload at a dispersed campsite in the Clackamas Corridor a few days before the Riverside Fire

Private utilities saw the fire situation differently last September. Portland General Electric (PGE) opted to shut down its powerlines in the heavily populated Mount Hood corridor and its three powerhouses and adjoining powerlines in the Clackamas River canyon in anticipation of the wind event, for fear of their power system igniting the forest.

Looking back, there’s no way to know if that would have happened, but the recent fires caused by powerlines in California (and resulting lawsuits against the utilities) surely weighed on PGE’s decision. In that light, the frustration of several thousand customers seemed a fair tradeoff to PGE, especially when you consider that the nearby Beachie Creek Fire and other fires that burned throughout Oregon during that weather event were caused by downed powerlines from the extreme wind.

Crowded clear-cut plantations like this fared poorly in the Riverside Fire (USFS)

Another important take-way is that our forests are becoming increasingly stressed by climate change. Our summers are hotter and longer, our snowpack is retreating to higher elevations and is less abundant. This makes our forests much more vulnerable to fire, especially at the end of our summer drought season in late August and into September. Little is known about how global climate change will ultimately affect our forests, but it’s becoming clear that the fire risk is only increasing and scale and frequency, and our forests on the west slope of the Cascades didn’t evolve for that.

As we move forward into this unsettling future, the real question isn’t whether we can make sound judgments about fire danger based on science and observation. We know we can, and the science is getting better and more reliable all the time. Instead, the question is whether we are willing to follow science to make the tough calls?

For this, we need only look to the global COVID-19 pandemic that we are riding out right now. The science behind basic, simple steps to prevent the transmission of the virus is solid and tested. In many societies, science alone has been persuasive enough to encourage mass compliance with prevention efforts. Not so in our country, of course, where putting on a simple face mask devolved into a debate about individual liberties, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from the coronavirus.

This appears to be “safety” logging by ODOT, not post-fire salvage logging — an increasingly discredited practice (USFS)

However, elected leaders in our corner of the country have been willing to follow the science (and face the angry wrath of a vocal few), and the public has overwhelmingly followed orders to keep our distance, shut down places where people gather and hunker down in our homes during this crisis. As loud as the dissenters are, the vast majority of Oregonians (and Washingtonians) have accepted that there are no good options in this crisis, only “least worst” options. Have we now reached a point with human-caused forest fires in our region that the public is similarly ready (or at least resigned) to accept restrictions based on our collective memory of recent, catastrophic fires?

This brings me back to the notorious month of September in WyEast, the time of year when some of our worst human-caused fires have occurred. It’s pretty clear now that the Forest Service isn’t able (or willing) to pre-emptively shut down forest access during the kind of extreme weather conditions to prevent human-caused fires that allowed the Eagle Creek and Riverside fires to explode. We saw yet another reminder of that fact a few weeks ago, when the Forest Service abruptly and unceremoniously re-opened the Eagle Creek Trail and other areas closed by the Eagle Creek Fire in the middle of the holiday vacation, and social media quickly responded, sending a crush of hikers to the trail.

Whale Creek near Indian Henry Campground after the fire (USFS)

Whale Creek before the fire

With this move, the Forest Service squandered a “reset” on access and crowd management the agency had long promised about since the closure began. Worse, the reopening of the Eagle Creek and other Gorge trails was completely at odds with warnings of COVID-19 spreading rampantly over the holidays. The risk of spreading the virus was exponentially higher in December than it had been in March 2020, when the Forest Service DID shut down trails in the Gorge. After a month of hikers crowding the reopened trail — where it is impossible to observe basic COVID precautions — Mother Nature unleashed a “Pineapple Express” deluge of rain in late January that washed out several sections of trail, closing it once again, though only “temporarily”, according to the Forest Service.

Somebody call the Governor..?

Given what we’ve learned about the inability of the Forest Service bureaucracy to act on solid science from these recent events, and especially given that climate change and our own behavior is only ramping up the fire risk, what if our state and local elected leaders were to step in? Could they make these decisions for the Forest Service in the name of public health and safety? Should they?

Mosaic burn along a section of the Clackamas showing some big trees that survived the fire while the clear-cut plantation in the distance was decimated (USFS)

The answer to the first question is yes, they probably could – especially the Governor. Last spring, the Forest Service closed most of the national forests in the Pacific Northwest in response to the broader COVID-19 shutdowns, and in their official words, did so “in consultation with state and local governments and tribes”. This probably means the national forest shutdown in Oregon and Washington occurred because the two governors had ordered a broader shutdown, as opposed to a president who was denying the pandemic at the time. So, while the governors may not have direct authority over federal lands, they appear to have functional authority (and if there are legal experts out there reading this who can answer this question more definitively, I welcome your thoughts!)

But should our elected leaders step up and make this call? The answer to this question is easy. Yes, of course they should. The pandemic has redefined the boundaries for elected leadership, at least for now. And besides, for most of us, it would be an inconvenience to stay home on Labor Day weekend out of an abundance of caution. For those who lost their homes (or the lives of loved ones) in the Oregon fires last September, it’s an especially easy call. If the pandemic has taught Americans anything, we’ve learned that much of what we do in our daily lives can be adjusted to meet needs greater than our own. As Americans, we reserve the right to complain, of course!

Aerial view of the Oak Grove area of the Clackamas basin showing a mosaic burn pattern and the untouched Roaring River Wilderness and Mount Hood, beyond (USFS)

Finally, how urgent is the need to assert some authority over the Forest Service in making the call for public closures during extreme fire conditions? It’s tempting to think the Gorge is immune from big fires for another century, now that much of the Oregon side was burned in the 2017 fire. But three fires in less than 20 years in the lower Clackamas River corridor tells us otherwise. We’re in a new fire reality, now, and the renewal of our forest depends on our ability to prevent further escalation of the fire cycle due to our own behavior.

Next time… Mount Hood?

And then there’s Mount Hood. The north and east sides burned in a series of three fires from 2005 to 2011, but much of the forest on these flanks of the mountain remains unburned, and is ripe for human caused fire by the throngs of hikers and backpackers who visit the mountain in the summer months.

1933 view of Mount Hood and burned-over Zigzag Mountain from burned-over Devils Peak. Everything in this view except for Mount Hood is now reforested. While large fires are not new to the western Cascades, they are becoming more frequent

More ominously, the south and west sides of the mountain haven’t seen major fires in more than a century. The extensive Kinzel and Sherar fires completely burned off several square miles of the forest, from near Timothy Lake all the way north to Lolo Pass, and from the community of Zigzag east to Bennett Pass. Few people lived near the mountain when these fires burned.

Today’s Mount Hood corridor travels through the middle of this largely recovered burn, and the highway is now lined with thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses and resorts. While PGE’s decision to shut down their powerlines in the Mount Hood corridor last September may well have prevented a fire being ignited from electrical lines, but it’s sheer luck that a human-caused fire didn’t occur.

The escalation of west-side fires calls to question the wisdom of continuing to build homes on the forest fringes, too. While most of these are on private land, they drive public policy, with developers and the real estate industry pushing the idea that forest fires can somehow be prevented in perpetuity. Elected officials have been wary to disagree, despite the science being on their side.

Early 1900s view of Government Camp when the south slopes of Mount Hood were still recovering from the last major fire to sweep through the area

In this emerging era of extreme weather and forests stressed by climate change, catastrophic, human-caused fires are quickly becoming an annual concern, even along the temperate west slope of the Cascades. When extreme fire conditions emerge again next summer, and with the Gorge and Riverside fires in our recent memory, are we finally ready and willing to say “no” to ourselves?

Before the COVID pandemic descended upon us last year, I would have been tempted to say “no” to that question, simply because American culture has struggled in recent years with the idea of the collective interest outweighing the individual. But the pandemic has renewed my optimism that we’re turning a page toward an era more like the 1930s and 40s, when a collective consensus emerged toward facing the dual challenges of economic despair and world war.

Despite our divisive domestic politics of the past few years, a working majority in this country has nevertheless emerged on the side of finally addressing climate change. That’s encouraging! After all, climate change is singularly a global threat that demands our collective effort. With restoring forests as one of the most important tools in combatting climate change, this could be the key to rethinking how we can prevent human-caused fires.


…and to end this article on an even more optimistic note, watch this blog for big news on the future of WyEast Country in the coming days! That’s a teaser, by the way…

As always, thanks for stopping by!

_______________

Tom Kloster • February 2021

2021 Campaign Calendar!

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

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

2021 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Scenic Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2021 Calendar Images

Salmon River in late Autumn

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

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

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

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

Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek

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

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

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

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

Lower White River Falls in spring

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

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

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

Lower White River Falls

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

Wildflower meadows on the east slope of the Cascades near Friend

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

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

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

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

Lower South Falls on Silver Creek

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

Pandemic-compliant blogger at Silver Creek State Park

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

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

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

Summer Lupine meadows along the rim of White River canyon

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

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

Cooper Spur Shelter in summer

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

Icefall collapse on the Eliot Glacier!

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

The wide-open scenery of the Muddy Fork canyon

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

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

Remains of the historic Nansene Community Hall on Tygh Ridge

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

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

Grain elevator on Fifteenmile Creek at Boyd

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

Center Ridge Schoolhouse and Mount Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The popular photographers’ tableau at Vista Ridge

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

Aargh!

Sacrilegious!

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

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

Tygh Ridge Locust trees frame Mount Adams

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

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

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

North Fork Silver Creek in winter

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

Remembering 2020..?

Riverside Fire exploding into a conflagration in September

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

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

The Molalla Eye… before the fire

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

Upper Butte Creek Falls… spared by the fire

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

Fishing at Butte Creek

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

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

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

Tribal fishing platforms at Cliffs Park

Cliffs Park

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

The Rise and Fall of Kah-Nee-Ta

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

The White River strikes back… again!

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

The White River finding its new path

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

And, on a personal note…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to 2021!

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

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

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


Tom Kloster | December 2020