Posted tagged ‘Tamarack Rock’

The Larch!

October 22, 2018
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Western larch light up Mount Hood’s eastern slopes each fall

The title of this post might take you back to “No. 1… THE LARCH” (followed by “No. 3… THE LARCH!” and “…now for something completely different…”).

This might have been the most obscure of Monty Python’s many recurring non-sequiturs, and it is indelibly imprinted in the minds of among those of us of a certain age… but the Pythons had it right: the larch isa remarkable tree, and it really can be “recognized from quite a long way away”.

At about this time each fall, Oregon’s only deciduous conifer explodes into shades of bright yellow, gold and orange before dropping its needles for the winter. Western larch (Larix occidentals) spends most of the spring and summer growing season blending in with other conifers in the forest, and are thus easily missed. But for the next few weeks, they will be flamboyantly on display, and are worth a visit to the east side forests they call home.

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Larch grove along the East Fork Hood River

Western larch is one of about a dozen larch found around the world, but it is the only larch found in Oregon. Its range extends north to British Columbia and east to Idaho, Montana and Alberta. It’s also among the largest of the larch species, capable of growing nearly 200 feet tall on massive trunks up to five feet across. Our Western larch is often called “tamarack” by locals, but that name actually belongs to a different, smaller species that grows in the eastern part of the continent.

Western larch has a distinctive shape compared to other forest conifers. Its crown is narrow and tapered, like a candle, and it often grows in groves were its shape allows closely spaced trees to thrive. Larch trees can survive extreme cold and thrive in subalpine forests with winters are frigid and summers are hot and dry — exactly the climate found on the east slopes of Mount Hood. Here, Western larch often dominates the forests and form the westernmost reach of the species.

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Larch seedling on Lookout Mountain

Western larch is also prolific in producing offspring, with thickets of young larch growing among the big trees, especially after fire or logging. Young trees are fast-growing, often adding a foot or more of new growth each year.

The branches of Western larch are unique and easy to spot, even during its “green” phase in spring and summer. New growth emerges bright yellow-green in spring from rows of knobs along its limbs, with clusters of needles held in tufts that emerge from each knob. This gives the foliage a delicate, lacy appearance during the growing season, when its foliage gradually deepens to dark green.

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Western larch are easy to spot by their tufted foliage

Their bare limbs have distinctive,  gnarled, picturesque shape in winter, when the needles have dropped. The cones of Western larch are small, and also arranged among the small knobs that dot its limbs.

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Western larch foliage

Mount Hood’s east side forests are also “fire forests”, ecosystems where frequent fires are essential to forest health. Like the neighboring Ponderosa pine that it typically associates with, Western larch has thick bark designed to protect mature trees from repeated fires. For added fire protection, larch drop their lower limbs at the tree mature, keeping the growing tree canopy high and out of reach of fires sweeping through the understory.

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The bark on Western Larch is thick and fire-resistant, similar to its Ponderosa pine neighbors

But in the recent catastrophic fires that have swept through the east and north slopes of Mount Hood, the flames were intense enough to reach larch canopies, killing thousands of these normally fire resistant trees. Despite this, young larch seedlings are among the most prominent trees leading the forest recovery in the aftermath of the Bluegrass Fire (2006), Gnarl Fire (2008) and Dollar Lake Fire (2011) that burned most of Mount Hood’s eastern and northern flanks.

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Western Larch shed their lower limbs, keeping their growing crowns out of reach of low-intensity fire that would likely burn the other, low-branched conifers in this forest near Hood River Meadows.

Western larch can live to be at least 1,000 years old — that’s the age of “Gus”, the largest and oldest larch of any species in the world. Gus is a Western larch [link=https://crownofthecontinent.natgeotourism.com/content/gus-worlds-largest-larch-tree/cot50caf093bd65f401b]growing in a grove of ancient larch survivors[/link]in Montana, and is at the heart of a magnificent larch grove that should be on every big tree hunter’s “bucket list”.

Mount Hood’s most venerable Western larch might be the stunted patriarch growing from a high rock outcrop along Surveyors Ridge (below) at a spot I call Tamarack Rock (an explanation for that improper name is found in this 2009 blog article), where it enjoys a magnificent view of Mount Hood, but also endures the brunt of Pacific storms sweeping across the Cascades in winter and intense heat and drought over the summer months. This old tree is likely centuries old, and has survived fires, logging and undoubtedly a few lightning strikes is this exposed location.

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Ancient larch on Tamarack Rock

Like most of our native species, the Western larch was used by Native Americans for food and materials. The resin under its bark was used for medicinal purposes and larch wood was used for poles and as firewood. Today, it is still prized as exceptional firewood.

Which brings us to perhaps the most unfortunate threat to Western larch in our increasingly busy forests: being cut down as “dead” during its dormant, leafless winter phase. Too many perfectly healthy larch trees meet this completely avoidable fate in our forests and cities each year.

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These oddly shaped larch near Brooks Meadow have been attacked by the Larch casebearer, an introduced European moth that can defoliate and even kill Western larch.

A more worrisome threat is the Larch casebearer, a European insect that can defoliate Western larch. The parasites that keep the casebearer in check in Europe has not been effective as an introduced counter measure in the Western larch range, and the long-term impact of this introduced bug on our larch stands is still unknown.

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Larch stand in mid-summer with browned foliage from a heavy attack by Larch casebearer

The photo above looks like it might be a larch grove in fall, but the photo was taken along the Lookout Mountain Road in mid-summer, showing the crowns of several Western larch under heavy attack by the Larch casebearer. The State of Oregon has published this fact sheet with more information on the casebearer.

Where to see Western Larch

From now through early November, Western larch will be putting on a show along the eastern leg of the Mount Hood Loop Highway, where OR 35 follows the East Fork of the Hood River to Bennett Pass. Bennett Pass roughly marks the dividing line for its range, with big stands of larch suddenly appearing east of the pass.

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Larch trees fading to orange and gold in November along the Gumjuwac Trail

If you have more time, the Dufur Mill Road (Forest Road 44) has still more Western larch on display, including along the unimproved road to High Prairie on Lookout Mountain. And if you simply travel Highway 26 across the Cascades, you’ll see Western larch from Blue Box Pass east to the edge of the forest.

If you’re looking for a trail to hike or ride a bike through larch stands, the Dog River Trail (No. 675) and Zigzag Trail (No. 678) are good choices. Both are quiet, though you’ll share the Dog River Trail with mountain bikers. Other trails along the East Fork also offer nice larch stands.

Where the heck is Tamarack Rock?

July 30, 2009

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You won’t find Tamarack Rock on any maps, though this rugged knoll is hidden in plain sight — just off the Surveyors Ridge Road (FR 17) on the east side of Mount Hood. The rock didn’t get much respect during the logging heyday of the late 1900s, with gravel spur roads wrapping almost entirely around the rock, and big ponderosa trees felled from its gentle southern flank.

But through all the destruction that reigned here, a lone Western larch tree survived in a most unlikely spot, among the huge boulders near the crest. The tree is among the most magnificent of its kind in the area, a massive, gnarled, determined old sentinel that has managed to dodge lightning strikes and fires, as well as chainsaws.

Mount Hood at dusk from Tamarack Rock

Mount Hood at dusk from Tamarack Rock

The view from the rock is glorious, with the broad northeastern face of Mount Hood towering over waves of forest ridges, and the tiny farms and orchards of the Upper Hood River Valley, spread far below. The forested Mill Creek Buttes complete the scene, to the east. The scenery is so sweeping that it’s easy to forget the maze of logging roads and clearcuts all around. In this way, Tamarack Rock survives, surprisingly intact.

A birds-eye view of Tamarack Rock

A birds-eye view of Tamarack Rock

I had passed the rock countless times over the years, always promising myself that I’d explore this postage-stamp wilderness someday. This spring, I finally made good on the promise, and explored the landmark from all sides. Trail riders and hikers are already familiar with the rugged west face of the rock, where it towers above the popular Surveyors Ridge Trail. From this angle, the rock has a “face”, which in turn led to a spirited discussion among the PortlandHikers.org community on just what to call the rock — if it didn’t already have a name.

The "face" of Tamarack Rock from the Surveyors Ridge Trail.

A quick survey of those familiar with the area didn’t reveal a local name for the rock, so I posted a survey on PortlandHikers.org to poll a few options. When the votes were counted, the uncanny resemblance of the “face” to a certain Hollywood film director won the day, and it appeared that this landmark might become “Hitchcock Rock” to recreationists. Fortunately, the story didn’t end there, though it led to some creative photo interpretations (see below).

The backup filming location for "North by Northwest", perhaps?

This is where the PortlandHikers.org discussion sent me back to the rock, because it was unclear from my early photos whether the ancient tree near the crest was living, dying or dead — or simply a larch in dormant winter phase, sans needles. My second visit a few weeks later revealed a fresh burst of new needles covering the old giant, and redirected the naming discussion to the tree in question.

Given the proximity of Larch Mountain (and other features) using the larch as namesake, the PortlandHikers.org consensus was to fudge a bit by using the “tamarack” name, instead. This is botanically incorrect, but as we learned in our debate on the subject, a good portion of the west actually uses the name “tamarack” to describe Western larch, and it had a nice ring to it, besides: Tamarack Rock!

I wasn't the first to the top, and surely won't be the last..!

I wasn't the first to the top, and surely won't be the last..!

On this follow-up visit to the rock, I also discovered a long history of visitors, beginning with a geocache box tucked into an inconspicuous hiding spot. The journal inside listed a visitor earlier the same day, remarking on a “large coyote” seen near the rock. Other visitors simply commented on the impressive views.

Not far from the geochache were a couple of homemade memorials, honoring Adam J. Dietz Sr. (1917-1997) and Alfred West (1910-1998). Clearly, these two gentlemen had some connection with the rock, but for now, I can only assume they worked or hunted in the forest, and might have been local to the area. But their presence further cemented the idea of a more respectful name for the rock, no matter the Hitchcockian resemblance.

The rustic Adam J. Dietz Sr. Memorial on Tamarack Rock

The rustic Adam J. Dietz Sr. Memorial on Tamarack Rock

Yet the human history of Tamarack Rock seems to go back even further, and perhaps by millennia: a few yards from the aluminum Alfred West memorial cross, there are at least two, and possibly three Native American ceremonial pits. One is quite obvious, a second somewhat compromised and a third barely visible. The pits are located in full view of the mountain, and mimic similar pits in the area, including this subject of an earlier post.

Finding all this human history in gathering twilight on that brisk spring evening was exhilarating, to say the least. It was yet another reminder that we are all just passing through, and how we treat this land will be our only real legacy. Tamarack Rock has clearly been admired and loved for generations, and how fortunate we are that the even the era of road building and forest destruction didn’t destroy this unique place.

In another century, there’s a good chance the old larch tree will still live, clinging to this rock, long after we’re gone. If the old tree does survive, it will be a pretty good measure of our collective will to leave the Mount Hood country in better shape than we found it. It will also reflect our human capacity to honor places like this simply because of their spiritual significance to those who came before us.

I think we’re up to that challenge.