Posted tagged ‘Tanner Creek’

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

February 27, 2018
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January sunset in the Eagle Creek burn, near Elowah Falls

This is the second article in a two-part series that explores a remarkable set of stunning, often startling aerial photos captured by the State of Oregon in early December. Their purpose was to assess the risks for landslides and flooding from the bare, burned Columbia River Gorge slopes following the September 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. But these amazing photos also provide the first detailed look at the impact of the fire, and for those who love the Gorge, a visual sense of how our most treasured places fared.

The first article covered the west end of the burn, from Shepperd’s Dell to Ainsworth State Park. This article covers the eastern part of the burn, from Yeon State Park to Shellrock Mountain. More information on the photos follows the article.

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Ainsworth State Park and McCord Creek

This first image in this second part of the series looks east from above Ainsworth State Park, toward Bonnevillle Dam. The Gorge was heavily burned along this stretch, from the banks of the Columbia River at the community of Warrendale to the tall crests of Wauneka Point and Nesmith Ridge.

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Looking east from above Ainsworth State Park toward Bonneville Dam (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The huge amphitheater along the Nesmith Point trail is on the right in the above view, and appears to be heavily burned. Little-known Wauneka Point is in the upper left corner of the photo, and also appears to be badly burned, as shown in a close-up view (below):

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Scorched Wauneka Point after the fire (State of Oregon)

Wauneka Point is notable for its remoteness. Some reach this spot by scaling the ridge from nearly 3,000 feet below, at Elowah Falls, while others follow the faint Wauneka Point Trail from the headwaters of Moffett Creek. This is fortunate, as the rocky outcrop of Wauneka Point also has one of the most elaborate and unusual Indian pit complexes found in the Gorge.

Fires here are a regular occurrence, too — photos from the early 1900s show a recovering forest and hundreds of bleached snags along Wauneka Ridge, much as the ridge now appears after the Eagle Creek Fire. It’s likely that Native Americans living along the lower Columbia River periodically burned these ridge tops to promote huckleberry, beargrass and other sun-loving foods and materials that were gathered in the higher elevations of the Gorge.

Another detailed look at this photo helps explain why parts of the Upper McCord Creek Trail were so heavily impacted by debris after the fire. This close-up view (below) shows extensive landslides on the slopes above the trail that have released tons of loose rock and debris onto the section of trail that switchbacks up the slope beneath the cliff band. While slides like these will eventually be stabilized by recovering forests, more debris is certain in the near-term, as the forest understory begins to take hold.

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Landslides on the slopes above the Upper McCord Creek Trail (State of Oregon)

Another detail that emerges from this photo is the widely varied pattern of a “mosaic” fire, from blackened, completely burned forests to green, intact conifer stands that have survived the initial heat and stress of the fire. A closer look (below) at a section of forest that straddles the Nesmith Point Trail shows a heavily burned area in the center, surrounded by surviving forest.

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Mosaic burn patterns straddling the Nesmith Point Trail (State of Oregon)

This mosaic burn pattern is beneficial for the forest ecology, as it rejuvenates the understory where the canopy has survived, while creating forest openings that will eventually create a more diverse forest where the burn destroyed old canopy:

This close-up view (below) shows the McCord Creek delta, where it enters the Columbia River:

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McCord Creek Delta (State of Oregon)

Tributary deltas like these are likely to grow significantly throughout the Eagle Creek Burn area in coming years as erosion from burned slopes loads up the creeks with extra rock and gravel. This is another beneficial aspect from the fire cycle, with gravel deltas and debris in streams providing some of the best fish and riparian habitat in the Gorge.

This spectacular image (below) from the State of Oregon series captures the massive amphitheater that holds Elowah Falls, on McCord Creek. The twin cascade of Upper McCord Creek Falls is also visible, just above Elowah Falls, as well as the bridges of I-84, the Union Pacific Railroad and the recently built Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail:

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Elowah Falls and McCord Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Though much of the McCord Creek drainage was badly burned in the fire, some of the tree canopy survived, especially the tall conifers that grow along the creek below Elowah Falls (below).

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Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

We won’t know the fate of the beautiful Bigleaf maple groves that line the creek in the lower McCord Creek canyon until later this spring, but it’s unlikely their crowns have survived. Unlike Douglas fir and other conifers, maples lack thick, insulating bark needed to survive the heat of the fire, nor the height to protect their upper branches from the flames. Instead, maples have evolved to simply regrow from their surviving roots after fire, often forming multi-trunked trees with a circle of shoots that emerge from around the skeleton of the parent tree.

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Elowah’s graceful Bigleaf maple groves in autumn, lighting up the forest in 2014

While many riparian strips within the Eagle Creek Burn resisted the fire, some of the steepest slopes along McCord Creek below Elowah Falls (below) were badly burned. The geology of this section of the canyon doesn’t help the cause, as it consists of loose, slide-prone Eagle Creek Formation clays and gravels. This notoriously unstable formation is responsible for most of the ongoing slides and collapses that occur in the Gorge, including the epic Table Mountain landslide that briefly created the fabled Bridge of the Gods in 1450 A.D., near today’s Cascade Locks.

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Slide-prone McCord Creek below Elowah Falls (State of Oregon)

On a recent tour of this section of the McCord Creek Trail with State Park officials, it was clear (below) that a complete re-route of this iconic trail may be needed over the long term if this already slide-prone section of the trail further deteriorates as a result of the fire:

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Post-fire landslide damage below Elowah Falls

As difficult as it is to absorb these images of devastation from the Eagle Creek Fire in places like this, it’s also an opportunity to watch and learn from the forest recovery that is already underway. While I won’t see tall groves of mossy Bigleaf maples arching over McCord Creek again in my lifetime, many of today’s Millennials will live to see a substantial return of forests across much of the Eagle Creek Burn.

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Beautiful McCord Creek canyon before the fire; today’s Millennials will live to see young forests like this return to the Gorge in their lifetime

This photo provides a even closer view of the Elowah Falls amphitheater and Upper McCord Creek Falls:

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Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The fire was more intense in the McCord Creek canyon, above Elowah Falls, including these slopes (below) above Upper McCord Creek Falls, as this close-up view shows. Here, the trail can be seen on the bare slope adjacent to the falls:

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Upper McCord Creek Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Here is a closer look at Upper McCord Creek Falls from a January visit with State Park officials that confirms the devastating impact of the fire here:

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Upper McCord Creek Falls in January

Few trees survived in this area, and erosion is severe in several of the small streams that flow into McCord Creek from Nesmith Ridge. Yet, even with the devastation from the fire, signs of the recovery were already apparent in January, just four months after the fire, with new vegetation emerging in the middle of winter.

The burned riparian forest along the upper section of McCord Creek included 50-60 year old stands of Bigleaf maple and Red alder, and both species appear to have been killed by the fire. Unlike maple, the alder stands are less likely to regrow from surviving roots, and instead mostly rely on new seedlings. Red alder are uniquely adapted and prolific at this, and are among the first trees to colonize burned or disturbed areas.

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Upper McCord Creek Falls framed by Red alder before the fire

Still considered a “weed tree” by a timber industry more interested in lumber than healthy forests, these trees (and other pioneering, soil-stabilizing broadleaf species) are still sprayed with herbicides in recovering clearcuts to allow rows of hand-planted Douglas fir seedlings to grow, instead. Yet, Red alder are an essential species in the process of natural forest recovery in the Pacific Northwest. While the big conifers will take many decades to once again tower above McCord Creek, a scene with Red alder framing the creek, like the one shown above, may be just 20-25 years in the future if they are allowed to grow.

As an early colonizer, Red alder not only help to quickly stabilize exposed soils, they also serve as a nitrogen fixer, restoring 80-200 pounds of nitrogen per acre through their roots when pioneering a disturbed site. As the forest recovery unfolds in the Eagle Creek burn, these humble trees will stabilize some of the toughest terrain and help other species that follow become established in the rich soil they create. This process may not be the fasted way to grow lumber, but it’s the most sustainable way to ensure the long-term health of our forests.

This photo from the State of Oregon series shows a mostly scorched forest in the upper McCord Creek canyon, with only a few surviving trees:

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Upper McCord Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at the photo shows a few surviving bands of forest that will help begin the recovery. This section of surviving trees will also help shade a section of McCord Creek as other, more heavily burned parts of the watershed recover:

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Patches of surviving forest along upper McCord Creek (State of Oregon)

This photo also provides another peek at Wauneka Point, mostly burned but with a few surviving tree stands that will help restore the forest on this ridge:

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A few surviving trees at Wauneka Point after the fire (State of Oregon)

The faint, historic trail to Wauneka Point from the Moffett Creek trail was already in jeopardy of being lost to lack maintenance and use, and sadly, the fire may seal its fate in becoming another “lost trail”. Debris from burned trees will quickly overwhelm the path without some periodic maintenance, something that has not occurred here for many years.

The burn provides an opportunity to rethink trails like the one on Wauneka Point, including making new connections to allow hikers to more easily use them from more accessible trailheads along the highway corridor.

Moffett Creek, Munra Point and Tanner Creek

Moving east of Wauneka Point, the next photo of the Eagle Creek Burn provides a glimpse into remote Moffett Creek canyon, one of the wildest, most untouched places in the Columbia River Gorge:

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Moffett Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

At about the time the original Columbia River Highway was built in the early 1900s, a group of Portlanders proposed a daring trail into Moffett Creek canyon, much like what was built along Eagle Creek at the time, but the project stalled. Today there are no trails into Moffett Creek canyon, though a few visit Moffett Falls each year by following the creek a mile upstream from where the stream flows into the Columbia River. A few more explorers climb farther, to beautiful Wahe Falls, but only the most intrepid explorers have rappelled down the string of 11 spectacular waterfalls hidden in the depths of Moffett Creek canyon.

Some of the big conifers in the lower canyon appear to have survived the fire, but this close-up view (below) of Moffett Falls shows that the forest around the falls was less fortunate:

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Moffett Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Last April, I visited Moffett Falls with a friend, and was surprised by the number of fallen trees and debris in the lower canyon from the rough winter of 2016-17, but I never imagined that the entire forest would soon burn. This is Moffett Falls as it looked last spring, before the fire:

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Moffett Falls in April 2017

This photo from the State of Oregon series shows the lesser-known mid-section of Moffett Creek canyon, with Wahe Falls at the bottom of the photo:

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Moffett Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This section of Moffett Creek canyon was heavily impacted by the fire, and most of the forest killed by the flames. The recovery here will go unnoticed by most, though the few who explored this beautiful canyon before the fire will find these images difficult to absorb.

Here’s a close-up view of Wahe Falls from the previous photo, showing that all the big conifers around the falls were killed by the fire:

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Wahe Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Moving upstream, the burn was less devastating in the next section of Moffett Creek canyon, where towering Kwaneesum Falls is located:

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Upper Moffett Creek canyon and Kwaneesum Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Kwaneesum is the tallest of Moffett’s eleven waterfalls, named by local waterfall explorer Zach Forsyth with the Chinook word meaning “forever, eternity or always.” This closer look at Kwanesum Falls shows many of the big conifers below the falls surviving the fire:

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Kwaneesum Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

An even closer look (below) at the forest below the falls reveals the complex burn patterns that result from the unusually steep topography of the Columbia River Gorge. Here, some trees were killed by the fire, while others survived. The Western red cedar on the left was singed on just one side, and may have enough green foliage to survive:

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Complex burn patterns along Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

Few have ever seen Moffett Creek and few of us were ever destined to because of its remoteness. The canyon will also recover beyond the reach of humans, as it has many times before over the centuries. For a wonderful glimpse into some of the secrets this canyon holds, and a look at the lush beauty before the fire, you can pick up Zach Forsyth’s excellent Moffett Creek book in his “Hidden Treasures” series over here.

The next photo in the series (below) shows the lower canyon of Moffett Creek and the eastern flank of popular Munra Point, a rocky spine that towers above the Bonneville area, and forms the divide between Moffett and Tanner creeks:

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Munra Point and Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Munra Point is perhaps the most popular “unofficial” trail in the Gorge — or Oregon, for that matter. While it was once a lightly visited secret, the growing Portland region and advent of social media has turned this steep goat path into an actual zoo on summer weekends. The Forest Service has made no attempt to manage the user trail to Munra Point, as it’s “off the system” and in recent years it has suffered serious damage and erosion as the web of steep user paths has grown here.

This closer view (below) of the trail corridor suggests that the Eagle Creek F Fire had it out for the Munra Point trail, as the worst of the burn managed to focus on the route of this unofficial trail:

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The user trail to Munra Point follows the burned ridge at center-left in this view (State of Oregon)

The burned forest and subsequent erosion on these steep slopes will make it dangerous and unsustainable for hikers to continue to flock to this trail. It’s time for the Forest Service to officially close the unofficial Munra Point trail. The slopes will take decades to recover from the fire, and maybe someday a better-designed trail could be reopened, once the forest has recovered. For now, Munra Point deserves a long rest from our collective hiking boots.

Moving east, the next photo in the series (below) shows the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, the bridges of I-84, the Union Pacific Railroad bridge and (if you look closely) the old Tanner Creek Bridge on the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. Just beyond is the lower section of the Tanner Creek canyon, one of the most beloved places in the Gorge:

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Bonneville hatchery and Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Despite being just one ridge away from the origin of the Eagle Creek Fire, the lower Tanner Creek canyon seems to have fared surprisingly well, as shown by this close-up view (below). Some of the largest, oldest trees in the Columbia River Gorge make their home here, and many seem to have survived the fire intact.

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Lower Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

This photo in the series is taken from high above the lower Tanner Creek canyon, looking into the amphitheater that holds Wahclella Falls, one of the most visited and loved places in the Gorge:

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Tanner Creek and Wahclella Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This view also shows the narrow gorge above Wahclella Falls, where little-known Swawaa and Sundance falls are located just upstream along Tanner Creek. The wide view also shows how much more severely the upper canyon burned, above the waterfalls.

In past articles, I’ve proposed extending the Tanner Creek trail to this string of upstream waterfalls, but it’s unclear if the fire will open new opportunities for trails or slow down efforts to build them. There will be pressures in both directions within our public land agencies and among Gorge advocates. My hope is that we can build new trails while the terrain is relatively open and it’s relatively easy to survey, plan and build new routes.

While the fire clearly swept through the understory of this part of Tanner Creek canyon, much of the conifer forest immediately around iconic Wahclella Falls seems to have survived the fire, as seen in this close-up from the photo above:

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Wahclella Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This will come as relief to many, though we’ll only know the long-term fate of these survivors after they have endured a couple of summer drought cycles.

The fate of the groves of Bigleaf maple and Oregon white oak (below) that also thrived here is less certain. We’ll know in spring when deciduous trees begin leafing out.

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Bigleaf maples lighting up Wahclella Falls in autumn 2012, before the fire

The next photo in the series (below) shows upper Tanner Creek canyon, with an extensive mosaic burn pattern, and many trees along the canyon floor and west canyon wall surviving. The east slope of the canyon, below Tanner Ridge and Tanner Butte, appears to have burned more severely:

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Upper Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This close-up (below) of an unnamed rock outcrop and talus slope on the west wall of the canyon shows another potential benefit of the fire. Among the signature habitats in the Columbia River Gorge are the many remote talus slopes that support unique species, and in particular, the Pika. These tiny relatives of rabbits live exclusively in talus, and the Gorge is home to the only known low-elevation population in the world, as Pika typically live in subalpine talus.

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Cleared talus slopes above Tanner Creek (State of Oregon)

Assuming low-elevation Columbia Gorge pika living in talus slopes like these survived the fire, itself, the effect of burning off encroaching forest is a long-term benefit for these animals by preserving the open talus and promoting growth of sun-loving grasses, wildflowers and huckleberries that Pika depend on.

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Pika gathering huckleberry leaves (ODFW)

Another larger species that might benefit from cleared talus and ridge tops is the mountain goat — if it is reintroduced here, or migrates from where it has been re-introduced elsewhere. A 1970s effort to bring them back to the Columbia Gorge was not successful, but perhaps now is the time to try again?

This close-up view (below) of upper Tanner Creek shows the high degree of mosaic burn on the canyon floor that will not only help the forest recover, but also allow for a healthier forest of mixed, multi-aged stands to develop over coming decades:

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Mosaic burn pattern along upper Tanner Creek (State of Oregon)

The next photo in the State of Oregon series shows the impact of the Eagle Creek Fire on Tooth Rock, the legendary pinch-point for travel through the Columbia Gorge, from early railroads to modern freeways:

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Tooth Rock after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Tooth Rock is just a couple of miles from where the fire started, and one of the first places to burn, closing the highway and railroad for days. This close-up view (below) from the above photo shows a section of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail at Tooth Rock where erosion and landslides unleashed from the burn will be an ongoing concern until the understory recovers:

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Historic Highway viaduct at Tooth Rock (State of Oregon)

If you’ve traveled through the Columbia Gorge since the fire, you have probably noticed the protective fencing above the Tooth Rock Tunnel and fresh stumps where burned trees were cut by the highway department to prevent them from falling onto the highway.

This close-up view (below) shows the larger concern, where active slides threaten the historic highway, as well as the portal to the Tooth Rock Tunnel and Union Pacific tunnels, located below the westbound I-84 viaduct:

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Stacked transportation routes threatened by slides at Tooth Rock (State of Oregon)

And so the ongoing struggle to find passage around Tooth Rock continues, as the successive roads, rails, tunnels and viaducts making their way around and through the rock over the past 150 years may all share a common fate if these landslides continue to grow.

Eagle Creek: at the Heart of the Inferno

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Eagle Creek forest burning as the fire began to unfold last September (US Forest Service)

The intensity of the fire damage to the forests in Oneonta, McCord and Tanner creek canyons might lead you to think the Eagle Creek canyon would have fared worse, since the fire was started here. But the State of Oregon aerial photo series shows the forest canopy in many of the most treasured spots along Eagle Creek surviving the fire, with many areas having a beneficial, mosaic burn pattern.

The mosaic pattern is immediately apparent in this opening view, looking into the canyon from above the Eagle Creek fish hatchery and I-84:

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Looking into the Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this view shows that much of the forest along the lower canyon near the Eagle Creek trailhead survived. The historic Eagle Creek Campground is also located in this area:

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Lower Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

A still closer look (below) shows that the understory on the west (right) side of Eagle Creek in area stretch burned, while much of the conifer overstory has survived, so far:

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West side of lower Eagle Creek (State of Oregon)

The next photo in the series jumps two miles upstream along Eagle Creek to Metlako Gorge, so the extent of the burn in the intervening section of the Eagle Creek Trail is still only known to Forest Service rangers who have been busy assessing trail conditions in the burn area.

This photo (below) looking south into Metlako Gorge shows more mosaic burn pattern, with an intact forest canopy in some areas and dying trees in others. Sorenson Creek Falls (on the left) and Metlako Falls spill into the gorge at the far end:

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Metlako Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo shows that the understory was cleared by the fire on the slopes below the Eagle Creek Trail, located directly above the falls. The two familiar Douglas fir trees that lean over the gorge just below Metlako Falls also seem to have been killed by the fire:

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Sorenson Creek Falls and Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This fascinating (below) photo from the series shows the former Metlako Falls viewpoint, once located on a short spur trail through a wooded ravine that led to a dizzying perch along the gorge rim. In late December 2016, a massive section of the basalt cliff fell away here, taking the viewpoint (and its cable railings!) with it and filling the gorge below with 30 feet of debris:

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The 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

In this earlier blog article, I covered the landslide event in detail, but the new aerial views provide a much more complete understanding of the full scope and scale of the collapse.

This closer look at the photo (below) shows the scale of the collapse, including a barn-sized chunk of solid basalt that managed to land in Eagle Creek intact. The giant, intact boulder gives a good sense of just how much of the original cliff broke away:

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Close-up view of the 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide (State of Oregon)

A still closer look (below) shows the impact of the collapse on Eagle Creek, with a deep bank of rock and soil debris banked against the east wall of the gorge, and huge pile of boulders in the creek trapping a log jam of whole trees behind it:

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Logjam created by the 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide (State of Oregon)

This photo from the series (below) of the newly formed Metlako Gorge cliff face helps explain why the cliff collapse happened. The waterfall cascading down the newly exposed scarp is located just upstream from where the overlook was located, and emerges from the small ravine the spur trail followed to the old overlook:

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Metlako Gorge landslide scarp after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this new waterfall (below) shows that the entire stream actually emerges at the brink of the falls, where groundwater flowing beneath the forest surface has reached the solid basalt layer and is forced toward the cliff.

Constant hydraulic pressure and occasional freezing where this underground water source seeped into cracks in the basalt layer and the sheer weight of the vertical cliff pulling outward created the conditions for what is a fairly regular event in the Columbia River Gorge: outer layers of exposed basalt cliffs calving off as the elements pry them loose.

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A new waterfall where the Metlako Falls viewpoint once was (State of Oregon)

What did Metlako Gorge look like before the landslide? It was an idyllic, widely photographed scene of exceptional beauty. This image (below) is no longer possible after the cliff collapse, but the 2017 Eagle Creek fire also destroyed some of the big trees that framed the falls. This view will only live in our photos and memories:

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Metlako Falls before the viewpoint collapse — and the Eagle Creek fire

This aerial view from the series provides a more detailed look at Metlako Falls, including a rarely seen section of Eagle Creek just above the falls and the surrounding forest:

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Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this photo shows that the fire completely burned away the understory around the falls, and many of the trees here are clearly struggling to survive. Soils in the rocky Columbia Gorge canyons are thin and competition is fierce among big trees during summer droughts, so we won’t really know how trees with this degree of fire damage will fare for another year or two.

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Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

As I worked my way through the hundreds of photos in the State of Oregon series, I expected to find a shot of Punch Bowl Falls similar to the previous view of Metlako Falls. After all, Punch Bowl is easily among most photographed spots in the Columbia Gorge (and Oregon), second only to Multnomah Falls. But after my first pass through the set, I was disappointed not to find a good view of the Punch Bowl, of all places!

However, I later came across the following image in a group of several that were more difficult to identify, and noticed the undercut cliff wall tucked among the trees in the lower left edge of the photo:

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Is that Punch Bowl Falls down there..? (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Looking more closely (below) at this part of the photo reveals it to be the “weeping wall” that towers above the lower Punch Bowl amphitheater, across from the cobble beach that fills with hundreds of hikers and swimmers on summer weekends. Then I noticed a bare spot that marks the “jumping” spot on the high cliff that hangs above the east side of Punch Bowl Falls — and the trail overlook, in the trees high above the falls:

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…that’s a downstream view of Punch Bowl Falls! (State of Oregon)

The good news from this photo is that several stands of big conifers immediately around Punch Bowl Falls not only survived the fire, but look to have completely dodged the flames. That would be good news, as these trees may now live to grow for another century or two, helping the surrounding burn recover and passing along their survivor genes in the process.

Many of the big trees around Punch Bowl Falls have survived at least one other major fire, as much of the Eagle Creek canyon burned in a fire around the turn of the 20th Century. This early 1900s view (below) shows the aftermath of that fire, with large gravel bars filling the Punch Bowl, itself. This material was released by erosion that resulted from that earlier fire, and in coming decades, we are likely to see new gravel bars like this appear in Eagle Creek, once again:

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Early 1900s view of Punch Bowl Falls

Most hikers on the Eagle Creek Trail know Tish Creek from its tall — and recently replaced — footbridge. But a few intrepid hikers know that a beautiful waterfall on Tish Creek is located upstream from the trail, reachable by a rough off-trail bushwhack. This little-known spot also seems to have dodged the worst of the fire, as seen in this view aerial view from the series:

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Tish Creek Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Moving upstream from Punch Bowl Falls, the photo from the series shows Loowit Gorge, just downstream from Loowit Falls and High Bridge:

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Loowit Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Eagle Creek was clearly a barrier for the fire in this area, with the west (right) slopes near Loowit Creek completely burned, while the forest canopy on the east slope (where the Eagle Creek Trail is located) seems to have mostly survived, but with burned trunks to show for it.

This aerial view from the series shows Loowit Falls (at the bottom, where it joins Eagle Creek) and little-known Upper Loowit Falls in the distance:

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Loowit and Upper Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this view of Loowit Falls shows a forest that was largely killed by the fire, as even the trees with a few surviving limbs in their crowns are unlikely to survive the stress of losing so much of their canopy:

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Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

What did Loowit Falls look like before the fire? It was among the most graceful and photographed in the Columbia Gorge, drifting down a moss-covered basalt wall into a perfect bowl carved into solid rock over the millennia:

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Loowit Falls before the burn, surrounded by big conifers (State of Oregon)

Upper Loowit Falls fared worse (below), with the entire forest killed by the fire. In recent years, the word has gotten out on the relatively easy off-trail route to this falls, so like Middle Oneonta Falls, this might be a good candidate for formalizing a spur trail. This could be done as part of restoring the overall trail system at Eagle Creek, when trail planners can see the terrain as never before, and have the opportunity to provide more hiking options in this popular area.

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Upper Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This photo from the series looks downstream along a section of Eagle Creek above High Bridge:

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Eagle Creek above High Bridge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The burn is extensive here, though a few stands of forest canopy seem to have survived. A close look at the tributary falls in the upper left corner of this view shows Benson Falls, another beautiful, lesser-known waterfall that only a few have visited:

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Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Graceful Benson Falls can be reached by scrambling up a side canyon from near High Bridge. This similar view from another photo in the series shows the falls more clearly, and while the burn cleared much of the understory here, many of the big conifers near the falls appear to have survived:

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Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Benson Falls could be another candidate for a short spur trail as part of restoring the Eagle Creek Trail in the burn area and providing new trail opportunities.

Moving upstream, the next photo in the State of Oregon series shows a section of Eagle Creek located below Skoonichuk Falls, the next in the chain of waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail:

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Eagle Creek and Skoonichuk Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Much of the forest in this section of Eagle Creek canyon was completely killed by the fire, though a few conifers survived immediately around Skoonichuk Falls, as seen in this close-up view:

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Skoonichuk Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Unfortunately, the aerial photo series does not include a view of Grand Union Falls and Tunnel Falls (on the East Fork), the next two major waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail, so only the Forest Service rangers know the extent of the fire impact there. But the photo series does include this view of Twister Falls, located on the main fork of Eagle Creek, just up the trail from Tunnel Falls:

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Twister Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Eagle Creek formed another firebreak here, though in the opposite direction from what previous photos showed at Loowit Gorge. Here, the forest canopy on the west (right) side of the canyon appears to have mostly survived, while the east side canopy was mostly killed by the fire.

This close-up view (below) of the photo shows the infamous “Vertigo Mile” section of the Eagle Creek Trail, where the exposed route curves around a dizzying cliff above Twister Falls. The fire damage here is readily apparent on the slopes above the trail, with only a few conifers hanging on to some of their foliage:

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Twister Falls and the Vertigo Mile after the fire (State of Oregon)

These trees are unlikely to weather summer drought stress in coming years as they attempt to survive with only portion of their crowns intact. As will be the case throughout the burn, debris from heavily burned slopes like this will continue to slide onto adjacent trails until the forest understory has returned to stabilize the soil. This will likely play out for several years.

The groves of big conifers at the base of Twister Falls (below) seem to have fared much better, possibly untouched by the fire:

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These big trees below Twister Falls survived the fire (State of Oregon)

Like the big trees that survived by Punch Bowl Falls, these giants will help the surrounding burn recover by helping to reseed burned slopes and providing shade to help keep Eagle Creek cool in summer and early fall.

This view from the brink of Twister Falls (below) from before the fire shows the narrow slot that holds this tall waterfall. In coming years, watch for logjams to form in narrow spots like this along Eagle Creek:

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Twister Falls before the fire

This photo in the series shows Sevenmile Falls, the last in the string of major waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail:

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Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The understory burned off in this section of forest, but the conifer overstory seems to have survived, mostly intact. This close-up view from the photo shows a more impacted section of forest where the Eagle Creek Trail passes Sevenmile Falls:

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Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This photo from the series provides a view from high above the upper Eagle Creek canyon, looking downstream (north) toward the Columbia River, and gives a sense of how the forests in the upper canyon fared:

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Upper Eagle Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

While forests along many of the ridge tops were completely killed by the fire, many of the lower slopes in this photo (below) show a beneficial mosaic burn, with wide bands of surviving forest canopy:

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Mosaic burn pattern in the upper Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

The condition of trails in this part of the Eagle Creek network is unknown, as the Eagle Creek fire merged with the earlier Indian Creek fire in this area. The Indian Creek fire started weeks before the Eagle Creek fire, but spread less aggressively, mostly burning in relatively high elevation areas above the canyon floor.

Herman Creek and Shellrock Mountain

The State of Oregon photo series doesn’t provide much detail on the Herman Creek canyon, though the fire clearly burned significant portions of Nick Eaton Ridge (seen below, forming the east side of the canyon on the left in the photo). This photo was taken from directly above the Port of Cascade Locks, looking south:

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Herman Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

From this limited view, the pattern seems similar to Eagle Creek: killed forests along ridge tops, mosaic burn patterns closer to the canyon floor and some of the largest conifers surviving along Herman Creek (below).

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Mosaic burn pattern at Herman Creek (State of Oregon)

The final image in this set focuses on Shellrock Mountain, the eastern extent of the State of Oregon photo survey (below):

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Summit Creek and Shellrock Mountain after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at the lower left corner of the photo (below) shows little-known Camp Benson Falls, the lower of two significant waterfalls on Summit Creek, and the ongoing construction of the latest phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail:

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Summit Creek and Camp Benson Falls (State of Oregon)

Most of the burn here is also in a mosaic pattern, including along the steep talus slopes of Shellrock Mountain (below). Switchbacks from an old trail leading to the summit show in this view, as well:

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Shellrock Mountain forests after the fire (State of Oregon)

The amazing photo survey ends here, roughly coinciding with the eastern extent of the Eagle Creek Fire. Though the photos were focused on assessing potential impacts of burned slopes on highways and other infrastructure in the Gorge, they also serve as an invaluable snapshot of conditions as they existed immediately after the fire. These images will give future land managers and researchers a highly detailed benchmark for tracking the recovery of the Gorge ecosystem over coming decades.

While simply restoring the historic trail network will be a big job, the reality of growing demand in our region for new trails and experiences in the Gorge didn’t go away with the fire. These photos also provide a unique opportunity for today’s State Parks and Forest Service planners to consider new trails and trail realignments while the terrain is easy to survey and trail construction more straightforward than when the understory is intact.

The fire has created a once in a century opportunity to rethink the trails in the Gorge with our rapidly growing population in mind, and is an opportunity that should not be missed. It also provides an opportunity to link the responsible expansion of recreation opportunities to the forest recovery, itself, allowing hikers to watch and learn as a new forest grows here.

After the Fire: the Verdict

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Smoky skies in the Gorge during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire

Those who love the Gorge already know this unfortunately sequence of events: the Eagle Creek Fire began on September 2, 2017, when a Vancouver teenager tossed illegal fireworks into the canyon from cliffs along the Eagle Creek trail. The fire quickly exploded into an inferno, burning more than 48,000 acres along the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, and briefly igniting a small fire on the Washington side when embers floated over to the slopes of Aldrich Mountain.

This month, a Hood River County judge sentenced the teen to five years of probation and 1,920 hours (48 weeks) of community service with the U.S. Forest Service. That’s more volunteer time that many Americans contribute over a lifetime. Much of that work will be in the form of restoring and rebuilding trails damaged by the fire, no doubt, and hopefully this mandated service will inspire the unnamed teen to dedicate his life to protecting our public lands after this tragedy.

The public reaction to the sentence was swift: many felt it was too lenient, given the scope and devastation of the fire. Others felt it fair and forgiving, as it gives the teen a chance to potentially direct his life toward stewardship and protecting the Gorge. Here is the statement the young man made to the court as part of sentencing:

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Letter of apology from the teen who started the Eagle Creek Fire

[click here for a more readable version]

I fall into the second category in my own reaction, and don’t see a reason to destroy a young life because of a mistake that went horribly wrong. Most of us made similarly stupid decisions in our teens, and were simply fortunate enough not to have had consequences of this scale to answer to.

I also see this sequence of events as a metaphor that all who love the Gorge can learn from: today’s kids are increasingly isolated from nature and spending time on our public lands. Learning to understand, appreciate and respect nature is something that all kids should experience, and might have prevented the Eagle Creek Fire, too.

The teen who started the Eagle Creek Fire will spend nearly a year in his young life working to help with the recovery effort as part of his sentence and will surely learn these lessons. But what if all kids in our growing region simply spent a few hours working on a trail or helping to restore the burn in some other way? How would that change the way in which future generations care for the Gorge? How could we all help to bring out youth closer to nature as we work to restore the Gorge?

Epilogue: Learning to Embrace the Burn

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Bleached snags from the 1991 Multnomah Falls fire rising from a sea of young conifers in 2004

Reactions to the first in this two-part article ranged from sadness and anger over places lost to the fire to a degree of hope and guarded optimism about the opportunity to rethink how we manage the Gorge in the future.

While the full impact of the Eagle Creek Fire is still being assessed, the best option moving forward is to embrace the reality of the burn as an opportunity to learn, grow and pitch in. That’s something we can all do, including supporting organizations like Friends of the Gorge and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) who will be at the forefront of bringing volunteers to the major job of restoration.

So far, the public response has been overwhelming, with several TKO trail events filling up almost immediately this year, and long waiting lists forming for future events. That’s encouraging! Let’s hope it continues, as the recovery will take many years.

Many will continue to grieve the magnificent forests and idyllic landscapes lost to the fire, too. That’s a very human response to losing a place that is home to so many of us. But it’s also true that the recovery has already begun, and that each year in the recovery process will bring new opportunities to learn and appreciate how the Gorge ecosystem has recovered countless times from fire over the millennia.

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Young conifers growing among the snags from the 1991 Multnomah Falls fire in 2004

For those of us at (or past) the middle of our lives, our memories of what was will have to fill some of the void we feel. But younger visitors to the Gorge will see whole new forests grow among the bleached snags that will soon mark much of the burn area, and the very youngest visitors will live to see tall forests grow here, again.

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2004 view of young trees rapidly filling in the 1991 burn area above Angels Rest

What will the recovery look like? The 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire gives us the best glimpse into what to expect as the Eagle Creek recovery unfolds. For those who were around in 1991, the Multnomah Falls Fire swept from the falls west to Angels Rest, scorching much of the Gorge wall along the way. I’ve included a few photos of the burn area taken in 2004, just 13 years after the fire.

At that point in the recovery, trees killed by the 1991 fire still dominated the landscape, but a young forest seemed to be exploding from the burn area, with conifers already 10-15 feet tall and growing quickly. Today, some of these trees are twice that tall, and on the way to becoming a mature forest canopy.

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2004 view of the 1991 Multnomah Falls burn, with young trees rapidly overtaking the ghost forest of burned trees

It shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that the Gorge ecosystem can recover quickly and without our help. But with thousands of people living in the Gorge and millions visiting each year, we will also need to learn how to accept fire as part of the forest cycle if we hope to avoid catastrophic burns like the Eagle Creek Fire in the future.

What will that take? One essential tool will be prescribed burns. These are purposely set fires designed to burn a relatively small, controlled area with a relatively cool fire that most of the forest canopy can survive. The goal of a prescribed burn is a mosaic pattern like those found in parts of the Eagle Creek Burn where the fire intensity was less and allowed most trees to survive.

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2015 prescribed burn in Yosemite National Park (National Park Service)

Prescribed burns are typically set in late fall, when humidity is high and the rainy season is near and can be counted on to completely extinguish the fire. The Eagle Creek burn occurred in late summer when humidity was low, the forests very dry after two months of drought and the first substantial fall rains were weeks away. The famous Gorge winds only added to the volatility. These conditions combined to allow the fire to burn hot and spread for weeks.

Prescribed burns are now an accepted forest practice, and increasingly used by the Forest Service and National Park Service to reverse the harm done by a century of fire suppression. But preventing future fires on the scale of the Eagle Creek Fire will also require all of us to accept limits on how we use the Gorge. This may be more difficult to accept than prescribed burning, especially given the patchwork of public agencies responsible for managing the Gorge.

What sorts of limits are needed? Restored trails in the burn area will be vulnerable for years to come, and subject to more damage if the same level of foot traffic experienced before the fire is allowed to return. The public agencies that manage the Gorge will need to define and identify reasonable carrying capacities for the most popular trails, and enforce access limits with trail-specific permits, parking management and by offering new trail options for a growing region.

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Our children’s grandchildren will experience the Eagle Creek burn like this: scattered ghost stumps from today’s burned trees among a green rainforest of 100-year old trees

Seasonal limits may be required, too. The Gorge was a tinderbox waiting to burn last September when the Vancouver teen tossed fireworks into the Eagle Creek canyon, starting the fire. But it could have easily started from an untended campfire or careless smoker, too.

In the future, seasonal trail limits and temporary closures should also be considered when fire conditions in the Gorge are especially dangerous. This could not only help prevent overly destructive burns in the forests that still remain, but also acknowledges that thousands of Gorge residents and their homes were also threatened by the fire. Their safety should be a core consideration in deciding when to close Gorge trails because of fire risk.

Changes to current management practices will be hard to bring about with a reluctant public, but the Eagle Creek Fire might have given us the perfect moment to educate ourselves on the need to change our ways and think about how our impact on the Gorge will play out for future generations. While much was lost in the fire, we’ve also been given a unique opportunity to change course for the better. I’m optimistic that we will!

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Back to the future: the Gorge was recovering from an earlier fire in this 1903 view (WyEast Blog)

[click here for a large image]

I chose the above, hand-colored photo to close this two-part article, as it provides needed perspective of our place in the broader cycle of life in the Columbia Gorge. This Kiser Brothers image was taken in 1903 from a spot just downstream from Beacon Rock, on the Washington side of the river. Across the still, reflective Columbia, the cliffs marking McCord Creek canyon can be seen, with the snow-covered slopes of Nesmith Ridge and Wauneka Point rising above.

In 1903, the Oregon side of the Gorge was just beginning to recover from an extensive fire that swept a good portion of what we now know as the Eagle Creek Burn. Past is prologue, and this is what the Gorge will look like in our immediate future, as another burn cycle unfolds.

While it’s very different scene than the green forests we have enjoyed, it’s also undeniably beautiful in a rugged, wild way. The fire is part of an essential cycle, and more importantly, an opportunity for all of us to rethink how we care for our Gorge.

I’ve also included a link to a large version of the Kiser Brothers photo, and encourage you to print a copy to hang on a bulletin board or your refrigerator as part of learning to embrace the Eagle Creek burn. This snapshot from the distant past has helped me begin to embrace the new reality of the Gorge, and I hope will help you, too.

Thanks for reading!

________________

Author’s note about the photos: a friend of the blog pointed me to the amazing cache of photos featured in this two-part 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 links to 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.

________________

2018 Mount Hood National Park Calendar!

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

[click here for a large image]

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

2018 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar

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

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

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

The WyEast Year in Images

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

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

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

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Cold Spring Creek in Winter

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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Hmm…

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

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

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Upper White River Canyon

[click here for a large image]

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

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White River and Mount Hood

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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

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

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Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek

[click here for a large image]

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Waterfall enthusiasts visiting the altar at Wahclella Falls last spring

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

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

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Wahclella Falls after the fire

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

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

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Moffett Falls

 [click here for a large image]

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

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

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Snowdrifts on Moffett Creek in mid-April!

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

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

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

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Excerpt from The Oregonian (January 30, 1916)

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

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

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

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

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North Fork Silver Creek

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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Misty Silver Creek Forest

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

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

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

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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

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Growing OHV damage to Bald Butte

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

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

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Dirt bike tracks don’t lie…

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

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

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

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Mount Hood’s Muddy Fork canyon

[click here for a large image]

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

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Old friends and The Mountain

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

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

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

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Finally!

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

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

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Lupine fields on the White River Rim

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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

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Sentinel Whitepark Pine on the White River Rim

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moonrise over Illumination Saddle

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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

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Winter sunset in the Noble forest

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

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

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Butte Creek in autumn

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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Butte Creek Falls

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Upper Hood River Valley in autumn

[click here for a large image]

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

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Hood River Valley scene in mid-October…

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…and two weeks later!

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

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

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Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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Sunshine above, icebox below…

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

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

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

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Winter gear, somewhat intact…

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

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

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

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[click here for a large image]

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

One that didn’t make it…

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Elk Cove on Mount Hood’s north side

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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

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

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

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Ridiculous… but functional!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The scene of the crash…

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…and my poor tripod!

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

…an epic eclipse fiasco!

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Recon data for the eclipse!

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

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

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Dual camera setup, weird light underway

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

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

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

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

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Just short of totality… note the blue dots!

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

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

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The view from Owl Point just before totality… weird!

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The view from Owl Point at totality… kinda creepy!

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

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

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Tasty consolation prize!

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

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

Looking ahead to 2018

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

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

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The author at Abiqua Falls a week or so ago…

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

See you on the trail in 2018!

Tom Kloster

WyEast Blog

The Wahclella Maple

July 27, 2012

Autumn sunburst lights up the Wahclella maple in late 2011

Sometime last winter a picturesque bigleaf maple framing Wahclella Falls tumbled into Tanner Creek, likely under the stress of heavy snow or ice. In any other spot, this event might have gone unnoticed, but the Wahclella maple had the distinction of a front row seat at one of the most visited and photographed waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge.

“Change is the only constant. Hanging on is the only sin.”
-Denise McCluggage

Tanner Creek gorge is no stranger to change. In the spring of 1973, a massive collapse of the west wall, just below Wahclella Falls, sent a huge landslide into the creek, temporarily forming a 30-foot deep lake behind the jumble of house-size boulders. Today, the popular Wahclella Falls trail crosses the landslide, providing a close-up view of the natural forces that have created this magnificent place.

By contrast, the demise of the Wahclella maple is a very small change, indeed. But a closer look provides a glimpse into some of the more subtle changes that are part of the perpetually unfolding evolution this beautiful landscape. The following are nearly identical photos captured six years apart, in 2006 and 2012, and the changes over that short span are surprising:

[Click here for a larger view]

Comparing these images, one obvious change is in the stream, itself where (1) an enormous log has been pushed downstream by the force of Tanner Creek, testament to the power of high water. In the center of the scene (2) a young bigleaf maple has doubled in height, obscuring the huge boulder that once sheltered the tree, and on course to obscure the footbridge, as well. New growth is also filling in (3) along the new section of raised trail built on gabions in the 1990s (gabions are wire mesh baskets filled with rock, and were used to build up the trail along the edge of Tanner Creek)

The main change to this scene is the Wahclella maple (4), itself. Because the tree fell into a brushy riparian thicket, the fallen trunk and limbs have already been largely overtaken by lush spring growth of the understory. In a few short years, the fallen tree will disappear under a thick layer of moss and ferns, completing the forest cycle.

[Click here for a larger view]

But the story of the fallen Wahclella maple doesn’t end there, thanks to the unique adaptive abilities of bigleaf maple. Unlike most of our large tree species, bigleaf maple is prolific in sprouting new stems from stumps or upturned root balls. The massive, multi-trunked giants that appear in our forests are the result of this form of regeneration.

The Wahclella maple is already re-growing from its shattered trunk

[Click here for a larger view]

In this way, the Wahclella maple already seems to be making a comeback. With its former trunk still lying nearby, the shattered base of the tree has sprouted several new shoots this spring. In time, there’s a good chance that some of these shoots will grow to form a new, multi-trunked tree, perhaps one that is even more magnificent for future generations of photographers.

In the meantime, the old maple tree is a reminder that the beauty of the area is forever a work in progress, and how fortunate we are to watch the each stroke of nature unfold.

“The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.”
-Dean Acheson

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How to visit Wahclella Falls

Though hardly a secret anymore , the hike to Wahclella Falls remains a less traveled alternative to other short waterfall hikes in the Gorge. The trail is generally open year-round, though the best times for photography are in May/June, when spring greenery is at its peak, and in late October, when the bigleaf maples light up the forest with bright yellow and orange hues.

[Click here for a larger, printable version of this map]

This is a terrific family trail, thanks to several dramatic footbridges, two waterfalls, a staircase, caves (!) and several streamside spots safe for wading or skipping stones. Young kids should be kept close, however, since there are also some steep drop offs along sections of the trail. For kids, midweek in midsummer is a perfect time to visit.

Another fascinating time to visit with kids is during the fall spawning season, when the stream below the hatchery diversion dam is filled with returning salmon and steelhead within easy view of the trail.

Wahclella Falls is a family favorite

The trailhead for Wahclella Falls is easy to find. Follow I-84 east from Portland to Bonneville Dam (Exit 40), turning right at the first stop sign then immediately right into the trailhead parking area along Tanner Creek, where a Northwest Forest Pass is required. Portable toilets are provided at the trailhead from spring through early fall.

The trail begins at a gate at the south end of the parking area, and initially follows a rustic gavel road to a small diversion dam that provides water for the Bonneville Fish Hatchery. From here, the route crosses a footbridge in front of Munra Falls, and becomes a proper hiking path. Head right (downhill) at a fork in the trail 0.7 miles from the trailhead to begin the loop through the towering amphitheater surrounding Wahclella Falls, then retrace your steps 0.7 miles to the trailhead after completing the 0.6 mile loop portion of the trail. Enjoy!