Posted tagged ‘vision quest’

Where the heck is Tamarack Rock?

July 30, 2009


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

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

Mount Hood at dusk from Tamarack Rock

Mount Hood at dusk from Tamarack Rock

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

A birds-eye view of Tamarack Rock

A birds-eye view of Tamarack Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we’re up to that challenge.

Vision Quest Sites

December 6, 2008
The Lookout Mountain vision quest site is perched high on rocky cliff

The Lookout Mountain vision quest site is perched high on rocky cliff

One of the great thrills of exploring remote mountain tops and rocky outcrops in the Mount Hood backcountry is stumbling upon a long-forgotten vision quest site. These are typically rock pits, large enough for a person — though modern visitors should never enter them, out of respect for both their spiritual and scientific significance.

Archaeologists are still debating the purpose of these pits. The most accepted theory is that these pits were built by Native Americans seeking a vision of their guardian spirit through a combination of physical exertion, deprivation and isolation. Under this theory, Native Americans would have spent several days building these pits, then meditating in them without food or human interaction in order to achieve a spiritual experience.

Other researchers argue that the pits were used as hunting blinds or to store food. But these alternative theories are hard to accept for locations like those around Mount Hood and in the Gorge. Most of this sites are on huge talus slopes or mountain tops, which would have been inconvenient as a food cache or for retrieving killed game.

The Lookout Mountain vision quest pit pictured here has still more mystery surrounding it. While the location of the pit is typical – high on a rocky knoll, overlooking the East Fork valley and Mount Hood – the walls of the pit are stacked higher and narrower than most, possibly due to the steepness of the site.

Looking down the steep slopes of Lookout Mountain from the vision quest pit

Looking down the steep slopes of Lookout Mountain from the vision quest pit

But even more perplexing are the worn traces of mortar between some of the stones (seen in the wall of the pit, toward the bottom of the second image). One possibility is that the mortar was an early attempt to preserve the site, given it’s fragile and exposed state. But who would have hauled both mortar and water to this site?

Perhaps early forest rangers who once manned a Forest Service guard station at High Prairie, a short distance away. The guard station was abandoned half a century ago, so this timing would be consistent with other, early 20th Century effort to “restore” Native American structures. This was famously done at several spots in Pueblo country, but might have happened here, too.

Whatever the answer, the Lookout Mountain vision quest site is among the most inspiring in the area, and it’s easy to imagine Native Americans seeking out spots like this for a spiritual journey. But it’s also easy to imagine sites like this being lost forever, for lack of a management imperative by the U.S. Forest Service to actively protect these places.

This kind of fragile resource is also among the best arguments for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, since the Park Service has a long and proven track record of this sort of resource protection. In contrast, the Forest Service has aggressively logged much of the terrain around this site, oblivious to special places like this. So for now, obscurity is the best friend of these resources, until better stewardship finally comes to Mount Hood.