Posted tagged ‘USGS’

White River Buried Forest

September 18, 2011

The summer of 2011 will be remembered as the year of the Dollar Lake Fire in the Mount Hood area, as much of the north side is still smoldering from a lightning-caused wildfire that ignited on August 26. Though a calamity to those who loved the verdant forests on Mount Hood’s northern slopes, the fire is a blip on the screen when compared to the many explosive events that have rearranged the mountain’s forests and topography over the millennia.

Among the most recent and fascinating of these events are the Old Maid eruptions. These explosions knocked over entire forests on the mountain’s south side like matchsticks, burying them under a deep layer of ash and volcanic debris. This article describes the Old Maid events, and how to see traces of their aftermath today.

The Old Maid Eruptions

While most tourists at Timberline Lodge on a given day are blissfully unaware that Mount Hood is living volcano, the occasional, heady odor of sulfur fumes blowing down from the crater are a reminder the “quiet” spell we are enjoying is only temporary.

[click here for a larger version]

In geologic terms, the Old Maid eruptions are incredibly recent, finally winding down in our recorded history of the early 1800s. The events are named for Old Maid Flats, the debris plain created by the eruptions in the Sandy River canyon, though the impact on the mountain was much broader.

Scientists have determined the Old Maid eruptive period to have occurred within from about 1760 to 1810 A.D. In fact, when Lewis & Clark described the shallow “quicksand” delta of the Sandy River in 1804-05, they were looking at volcanic sediments that had only recently flooded down the river from the active slopes Mount Hood.

The former floor of the White River canyon is visible as a thin layer of oxidized soil, dotted with mummified trees.

The scientific accuracy of these dates is made possible by thousands of mummified trees swept over by the Old Maid debris flows, and later exposed by streams cutting into the sediments. The White River buried forest is one of the more prominent locations where these flattened forests and the former valley floor can plainly be seen.

The Old Maid eruptions originated in the modern crater of Mount Hood, where sulfur fumes still rise from the vents known as the Devils Kitchen. The massive, 800-foot volcanic dome of Crater Rock, itself, is just 200 years old and formed during these eruptions. The heat of rising magma in the crater eventually sent pyroclastic flows down the Sandy and White River canyons — rolling clouds of super-heated ash and debris that buried the entire landscape.

A closer look at the buried valley floor reveals mummified trees.

The Old Maid eruptions deposited about one hundred feet of debris throughout the upper White River canyon, filling the formerly U-shaped glacial valley with a flat fan of volcanic boulders, cobbles and fine ash. The outflow from the White River Glacier has since carved deeply into the debris flow, revealing the old valley floor and some of the thousands of mummified trees knocked over by the Old Maid event.

A flat-topped ridge in the middle of the White River canyon known as Mesa Terrace (see earlier schematic) is a remnant of the debris flow that shows the original depth of the debris above the valley floor.

Close-up of an entire tree, tipped over and buried where it fell on the former valley floor.

Two types of debris flow swept down the southern slopes of Mount Hood during the Old Maid eruptions. The most destructive were the pyroclastic flows, which many of us are familiar with from the colossal Mount St. Helens eruption of May 18, 1980.

In addition to the hot pyroclastic flows, cooler mudflows from flash-melted glaciers and snowfields also swept down Mount Hood’s south slopes during the Old Maid events. We know the buried forests at the bottom of White River Canyon fell victim to these mudflows, as pyroclastic flows would have instantly incinerated the standing timber. Instead, the cooler debris flows simply knocked the forests over, and buried them under layers of mud and debris.

Scientists believe these trees were partially buried, then broken off by subsequent flows.

Scientists believe the old valley floor now being revealed by erosion was of glacial origin, dating back to the last major glacial advance of the White River Glacier some 10,000 years ago. Thus, forests grew undisturbed along the former valley floor of the White River for a very long time.

Hiking to the Overlook

Hiking to the White River buried forest overlook is easy and scenic, as well as historic and iconic: it follows Mount Hood’s famous Timberline Trail for 0.7 miles to the impressive rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail also serves as the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,000-mile epic trek from Mexico to Canada.

To find the trailhead, park in the lower, overflow lot located to the east of Timberline Lodge. Park near a gated dirt on the west side of the parking area. Follow this old road steeply uphill for about 200 yards to an obvious junction with the Timberline Trail, and turn right (or, if you’re coming from the lodge, follow any of the trails beyond the lodge uphill to the Timberline Trail and turn right). The Timberline Trail quickly traverses into a side-canyon, crossing the headwaters of the Salmon River.

Next, the Timberline Trail rambles across pumice-covered slopes and soon reaches a sign marking the Richard L. Kohnstamm Wilderness, created in 2009 as an addition to the wilderness complex that encircles Mount Hood. Kohnstamm was the resort operator responsible for resurrecting a struggling Timberline Lodge in the 1950s, and setting the resort on the successful path that it continues to enjoy today.

[click here for a larger, printable map]

Beyond the wilderness boundary, the trail descends across another pumice slope, then drops more steeply on a surface of loose glacial till as it traces the west moraine of the White River canyon. Soon, you will reach the overlook where the Timberline Trail follows the moraine crest, and arrives at a stand of trees. This is a good spot to stop and take in the scenery, and especially to pick out the signs of the buried forest, at the bottom of the canyon, below.

The south-facing slopes and open terrain can make this a hot, dusty hike in late summer, so be sure to carry water. You will also want a pair of binoculars to view the buried forest details more closely. If you have the time and energy after visiting the buried forest overlook, you can retrace your step to the dirt access road, then turn right and follow it to Silcox Hut, about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. The hut was the original upper terminal for the first Magic Mile ski lift in the late 1930s, and today is maintained as an historic structure.

SOLVED: North Side Waterfall Mystery

August 28, 2011

Fans of the classic 1975 edition of Jack Grauer’s “Mount Hood: A Complete History” have memorized the many rare photos and stories found only in this unique book. For waterfall hunters, the photo on page 226 (shown above) is particularly compelling. The 1890s image is titled “Wallalute Falls on Compass Creek”, and shows the tiny figure of a man at the base of a dramatic falls.

The mystery in this caption stems from the fact that USGS maps have long shown Wallalute Falls to be the prominent cascade on the Eliot Branch, just below Cloud Cap. This huge falls is visible from Inspiration Point on the Cloud Cap Road, and is clearly not the same as the cascade shown in the Grauer book.

This article attempts to untangle the story of these waterfalls, and the confusion surrounding the names of the remarkable, mysterious group of waterfalls spread across the Eliot, Compass and Coe drainages.

The story begins in June 2010, when I posted a report at PortlandHikers.org on my first good view of the two mapped waterfalls on the Coe Branch. I had spotted them from an off-trail outcrop on the east rim of the Hood River Valley, and captured this grainy view from a very long telephoto image:

My excitement over this sighting began with the first good look at the very tall, powerful Coe Falls. Though I had explored the brink of the falls from the Timberline Trail, I had never made the rugged descent to the base of the falls. Thus, finally seeing this magnificent waterfall in its entirety was a thrill.

I watched Coe Falls for a moment through the lens, and then to my astonishment, I realized that the adjacent falls (on an unnamed tributary to the Coe Branch) was also in plain view! While Coe Falls was towering and stately, this neighboring cascade was a sprawling, graceful veil. I gave the unnamed falls the working title of “Kalakwhahtie Falls”, which is Chinook jargon for “petticoat”, and quite descriptive of the falls (and I couldn’t bring myself to add another “Bridal Veil” falls to the long list with that name!)

Wayne Harvey’s Adventures

Based on my PortlandHikers.org report and the photo schematic I provided, local waterfall adventurer Wayne Harvey was intrigued, and in July 2010 made an epic solo trip into the Coe Branch canyon to explore and document this impressive pair of waterfalls. His trip produced the first known contemporary image of Coe Falls, thundering into its huge amphitheater:

Coe Falls in 2010

Wayne also captured the first known photo of Kalakwhahtie Falls, cascading over the east wall of the Coe Falls amphitheater. Though the mid-summer stream levels in Wayne’s photo (below) were notably lower than in my grainy images from across the valley, his images captured a uniquely beautiful waterfall:

Kalakwhahtie Falls in 2010

Wayne’s photos of Coe Falls immediately raised questions about the Wallalute Falls image in the Grauer book. The resemblance was striking, and without definitive modern images of the waterfalls on Compass Creek to compare to, another possibility arose: was the falls in Jack Grauer’s book actually Coe Falls?

Further intrigued by the unfolding mystery, Wayne made a second, even more rugged solo trip into the Coe Branch canyon in July 2011, this time to explore Compass Creek and document the remaining waterfalls of Mount Hood’s north slope.

Wayne’s 2011 return trip took him across the boulder-filled floor of the Coe Branch valley, then into the dense underbrush of the remote Compass Creek canyon. His first discovery was the lower of the two mapped falls on Compass Creek to be much larger than anyone had imagined, dropping roughly 100 feet into a picturesque bowl (below).

Lower Compass Falls in 2011

The larger-than-expected lower falls also presented an obstacle for Wayne as he searched for a route upstream to the main falls. He later described a scramble up a steep chute that was “all fours in places”, and the only passable route. Beyond the scramble past the lower falls, Wayne continued upstream to an impressive view of Compass Creek Falls, dropping nearly 200 feet into a sheer amphitheater (below).

The real Wallalute Falls on Compass Creek in 2011

With this image, Wayne had solved the Wallalute Falls mystery: the falls pictured in the Grauer book is clearly the same as the falls he documented on Compass Creek. Wallalute Falls is indeed on Compass Creek, not the Eliot Branch.

Unraveling the Mapping Mystery

With Wayne Harvey’s trip report from Compass Creek in hand, it was now possible to unravel another waterfall mystery. This time, the confusion involves another historic photo from the area dating from the 1890s, and titled “Strawnahan’s Falls” (below):

1890s Stranahan Falls - known for decades as “Wallalute”

For years, waterfall hunters have recognized this falls to be the large, prominent falls on the Eliot Branch identified on maps as Wallalute Falls (shown below in its modern form). The reference to “Strawnahan” (which is clearly a misspelling of “Stranahan”, the name given to a nearby ridge in honor of area pioneers) was assumed to be either an informal name that was later replaced by “Wallalute” or simply an error on the historic photo, itself.

Stranahan Falls as it appears today, after years of recent flooding have scoured the Eliot Branch canyon

Wayne Harvey’s field documentation of the real Wallalute Falls now seems to provide definitive evidence that a map error occurred, transferring the “Wallalute” name from Compass Creek to the Eliot Branch, with the “Stranahan” name simply getting lost in the shuffle.

The following map provides the context for the USGS map error by showing the close, and potentially confusing proximity of (1) Stranahan Falls (labeled as Wallalute on USGS maps), (2) the true Wallalute Falls on Compass Creek, and (3) the lower falls on Compass Creek.

Still another twist in this saga comes from a later, more obscure edition of the Grauer book, published in 2006. In this edition, Grauer describes the work of Mount Hood pioneer Mark Weygandt building the earliest trails in the vicinity of Cloud Cap Inn:

“It was probably in this year (1900) that he built trails. One trail led from the low end of Ghost Ridge to a view of Stranahan Falls. He then extended it across Eliot Creek to Stranahan Ridge and to Wallalute Falls and Canon Balls Falls on Compass Creek, at the bottom of Adams’ Hole. Parts of this route later became part of [the] Timberline Trail. He also made a trail down Sand Creek Ridge to a viewpoint of the falls on Sand Creek, later named Polallie Creek.”

These accounts are the gold standard for Mount Hood history, partly because Grauer lived a good portion of it himself, but also because of the extensive spoken history he has documented through interviews of the historic figures, themselves.

Grauer’s description gives a name to the lower Compass Creek falls for the first time in recent memory — “Canon Ball Falls” — as well as the canyon section that encompasses both Wallalute and Canon Ball falls on Compass Creek — “Adams’ Hole”. Grauer is also definitive on the Stranahan and Wallalute names, correctly tying them to the Eliot Branch and Compass Creek, respectively.

Mapping the North Side Waterfalls

The USGS map error that created the confusion may go back more than a century, as it appears to be reflected on all USGS maps known to carry the name “Wallalute”. The follow map excerpt (below) is from 1924, and shows how the error could have occurred: note that early topographic maps didn’t always show the crosshatch used to denote waterfalls on more contemporary maps. With this omission, and the close proximity of Compass Creek and the Eliot Branch on earlier, small-scale maps, it’s easy to see how later cartographers might have been confused as to which stream Wallalute Falls was really on.

1924 USGS Map

The following USGS map excerpt (below) was published in 1962, and is the first to attach Wallalute Falls specifically to the Eliot Branch. This map appeared when the 1:24,000 topographic series was being published, and the larger scale allowed features like Wallalute Falls to be more definitively identified — or, in this case — misidentified. Though the location of Wallalute was in error on the 1962 sheets, these large-scale maps did show the the waterfalls on Compass Creek and the Coe Branch accurately for the first time.

1962 USGS Map

Pulling all of this together, the following is an oblique view of the north side region showing all of the waterfalls in context: Stranahan Falls on the Eliot Branch, Wallalute and Canon Ball falls on Compass Creek, and Kalakwhahtie and Coe falls on the Coe Branch.

(Click here for a larger map)

Also shown are a couple of unnamed tributary waterfalls in the Coe Branch canyon, and there are surely other waterfalls yet to be discovered in this seldom-visited area.

In an effort to close the chapter on this naming saga, I plan to provide the documentation from this article to the Oregon Board of Geographic Names (OBGN), in hopes that they can eventually look into the matter and perhaps correct the map error of more than a century ago.

Visiting the Waterfalls

The series of waterfalls described in this article are remote and difficult to reach. Visiting these waterfalls is only for expert explorers.

Wayne Harvey approached the Coe and Compass Creek falls from the Elk Cove Trail, dropping into the canyon just beyond the prominent Coe Canyon overlook. This required a rugged descent of nearly a thousand vertical feet, followed by challenging bushwhacks at stream level to the waterfalls.

1920s Visitors to Cloud Cap taking in the view of Stranahan Falls (just to the right of the small tree in front of the car) and Mount Hood from Inspiration Point

Stranahan Falls can be seen from Inspiration Point, but represents a potentially dangerous descent into a canyon that has been destabilized by recent floods. However, there are good views of the falls from a boot path that descends to a rocky overlook, just below Inspiration Point on the Cloud Cap Road.

One of the trail concepts in the Mount Hood National Park Campaign calls for a “low trail” paralleling the Timberline Trail. On the north side of Mount Hood, this new route would connect the dots among the string of waterfalls described in this article. Wayne Harvey’s remarkable images of the waterfalls only underscore the case for providing access to these beautiful places, hiding in plain sight.

Acknowledgements: special thanks to Wayne Harvey for the use of his images and field reports, and to both Wayne Harvey and Bryan Swan of the Northwest Waterfall Survey for their help in untangling the history of geographic names in the Eliot, Compass and Coe drainages.