Posted tagged ‘White River’

Warren Falls: A Postscript (Part 1 of 2)

November 27, 2016
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Warren Falls lives! Well, on a few days each year, after heavy rainfall…

The campaign to restore Warren Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is over, at least for now.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is putting the final touches on the latest section of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, from Starvation Creek to Lindsey Creek (more on that in part two of this article), and undoing their diversion tunnel at Warren Falls was not part of the deal.

While Warren Creek now has an especially handsome bridge on the new state trail, the dry cliffs of beautiful Warren Falls (below) will continue to be a ghostly testament to the arrogance and carelessness of our modern age – except on those rare stormy days each winter when the falls briefly reappears (above).

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Warren Falls as it exists most of the time… for now…

Restoring the falls would have been the perfect companion to the HCRH State Trail project, itself an epic restoration project. Samuel Lancaster would surely have approved, too. It was a once in a century opportunity to do the work while heavy equipment was right in front of the falls. But if fighting City Hall is an uphill battle, then the castle walls at ODOT are still more foreboding.

The agency isn’t a monolith. There was encouragement and support from sympathetic professionals at ODOT along the way, albeit plenty of opposition from others. In the end, the agency formerly known only as the Oregon Highway Department revealed its roots, reluctant to step beyond its narrow right-of-way.

And yet the Historic Highway State Trail project, itself, is a bold step forward from simply building highways, and one the agency has been truly committed to. Thus, I’m hopeful about ODOT’s future, and the new state trail has much for us to be proud of.

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So very close… but not this time…

[click here for a larger view]

Perhaps most disappointing is ODOT’s lack of ownership and sense of responsibility for a stream diversion project that today would be considered a crime against nature. Even when Warren Creek was diverted and the falls destroyed in 1939, it was jarringly at odds with the vision and reverence for the landscape of Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway, and should have sent up red flags for the Highway Department.

Still more astonishing was learning during the course of this project that none other than Conde McCullough – engineering deity to many as the designer of Oregon’s most treasured highway bridges of the 1920s and 30s – signed off on the diversion project while serving as chief engineer!

Worse, we also learned along the way that it was completely illegal to destroy the falls, even back in 1939, as revealed in this article on the blog.  Oregon wasn’t a very big place back then, so it’s hard to believe the law protecting the falls went unnoticed at the time… but the truth on that point will likely never be known.

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Warren Falls flows briefly in 2015

Perhaps the greatest irony in the Warren Falls saga is that the original diversion project was designed to protect one the bridges on Sam Lancaster’s famous new road – by destroying one of the more spectacular waterfalls along the route. Lancaster died in March 1941, so it’s doubtful that he was even aware of the project as it moved forward in 1939. Let’s hope so, anyway.

Today, the crumbling diversion dam and tunnel are still listed as “assets” by ODOT, but are really just orphans, and now all but forgotten by the agency for the foreseeable future. Short of Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD) taking on the decommissioning as part of some sort of larger Warren Creek restoration project, the most likely outcome is continued deterioration of the diversion structure until nature finally reclaims it.

So, the campaign to restore Warren Falls is over… or is it?

Postscript… and premonition?

After years of attending meetings, writing letters, giving tours to all manner of advocates and officials and even a segment on OPB’s “Oregon Field Guide”, there weren’t many stones left to turn in coaxing ODOT to bring Warren Falls back to its original glory. On the surface, there’s very little to show for the effort.

But is that really true? It depends on how you define victory.

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OPB crew at Warren Falls in 2012

Yes, in the immediate future ODOT will continue to treat Warren Creek like a glorified storm culvert, and the former Warren Falls will continue to be a depository for “trash” (what the original engineers called the rock and woody debris we now know are essential to a stream health) separated from the creek’s flow. That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity for the agency to show that it has evolved from its “Highway Department” past.

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OPB crew above Warren Falls in 2012

But over the past five years, tens of thousands of people have learned the story of Warren Falls thanks to the OPB coverage, thousands more have viewed the WyEast Blog stories here and on the Restore Warren Falls Facebook page, and hundreds have visited the falls site, with more making the side trip each year to pay homage to what once was – and will be, again.

Until they see the silent cliffs where Warren Falls once flowed, most of these visitors have no idea that today’s Hole-in-the-Wall Falls is simply a man-made attraction that came at the cost of destroying Warren Falls. Armed with the history of Warren Falls, few who visit can view it as anything less than an environmental tragedy.

So, despite losing this round, Warren Falls has a lot of new friends, and a lot of people who love the Gorge have gained a better understanding of the lasting cost of “progress” and the chore of undoing our handiwork, even in places we seek to protect most.

Which brings me to…

(Not so) Secrets of the Monkey Wrench Gang…

Oh, how I wish I could share all of the schemes for liberating Warren Falls that have come my way over the past five years! They range from temporary performance art to more permanent alterations that would probably be illegal… if any governing entities were actually concerned about the fate of Warren Falls.

Still more surprising is the range of Monkey-Wrench-Gang-wannabes who proposed taking the restoration of Warren Falls into their own hands: you’ll just have to use your imagination, but some were rather prominent folks who left me speechless with their audacious plans.

So, I’ll share a few highlights, with the strict caveat from the WyEast Blog Legal Department:

NONE OF THESE ACTIVITIES APPEARS TO BE LEGAL, at least not without prior permission from the OPRD or ODOT (and good luck with that, by the way), and therefore the following DOES NOT CONDONE OR ENDORSE these ideas in any way!

Whew. Okay, well one of the most popular schemes is to roll plastic tarps over the giant “trash rack” that forms the screen over the Warren diversion tunnel. This would allow the pristine waters of Warren Creek to ride a plastic liner above the tunnel and over the natural falls. Sort of a giant slippery-slide, but with a real surprise at the end!

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The massive “trash rack” that turned Warren Falls dry in 1939

Someday (on my deathbed, or possibly at the dedication of a restored Warren Falls?) I may reveal an especially prominent individual who personally pitched a version of the slippery slide to me – truly, one of the more unexpected twists in this five-year saga!

Most versions of the slippery slide focused on getting a really good look at what an unaltered Warren Falls looked like via a temporary restoration. But Warren Creek gets pretty wild and wooly in winter, so this would likely be a very brief restoration.

There’s also the question of what would happen to the tarps, once swept away, as there is a lot of potential for adding more man-made junk to an already defaced stream (assuming the tarps didn’t get hung up on the cliffs or left hanging form the outflow to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls).

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OPB’s Michael Bendixen filming the “trash rack” above the brink of Warren Falls in 2012

Others suggested (WyEast Blog Legal Department repeat notice: not condoning this!) speeding up the “weathering” process that has already begun to expose and compromise the steel beams that form the “trash rack” at the top of the falls.

It turns out that in just the ten years since I’ve been advocating to restore the falls, this part of the diversion has shown noticeable deterioration, and seems to be speeding up. It turns out the top of the “trash rack” is the weakest point in the design, and is steadily unraveling. So, I’m not sure Mother Nature needs much help at this point, despite the enthusiastic volunteers out there.

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OPB’s Michael Bendixen on top of the “trash rack” that rests on a cobble dam that is gradually eroding away

These photos show the vulnerability of the steel “trash rack” beams where the mortar that once fully embedded them above the diversion tunnel has been significantly compromised since 1939 by the relentless flow Warren Creek:

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A closer look at the lip of the “trash rack” showing the masonry cap on the cobble dam

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The masonry cap has worn thin where it anchors the top of the “trash rack” and a small garden flourishes where debris has clogged the giant grate

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Creative types see an opportunity to speed up the demise of the “trash rack” where these steel beams are almost freed from the concrete cap by weathering

The motive for speeding up the release of the beams varies among schemes and schemers.

One version is to allow enough stream material to pass under the protective “trash rack” to plug up the surprisingly narrow diversion tunnel leading to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls. Which is just 60” in diameter. This is probably what Mother Nature has in mind, though it may take awhile.

Another angle on speeding up the weathering at the top of the steel beams is to allow larger debris (logs, large rocks) to wedge between the beams, thus acting as levers to literally tear it apart with hydraulic pressure during high stream flow. To a large extent, this is already happening, as at least half the rack is plugged with smaller cobbles that are twisting and bending the steel beams with the effects of freeze and thaw during the winter months.

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Vince Patton from Oregon Field Guide inspecting the access vault on the west end of the “trash rack”

At least one Warren Falls fan spotted the open vault above the west end of the diversion structure and suggested diverting the creek into this hole (WyEast Blog Legal Department reprise: this is not an endorsement! Plus, you might fall into a tunnel that spit out as a man-made waterfall!), where it could move debris large enough to plug the bypass tunnel. I’m not positive, but I think solid basalt prevents this from happening – either through creative monkey-wrenching or courtesy Mother Nature. But I was impressed at the attention to detail from those who love Warren Falls!

As much as I enjoyed hearing these inspired pitches for a DIY restoration of Warren Falls, one of the reasons I advocated for removing the “trash rack” structure and filling the bypass tunnel in an orderly way was to avoid having a bunch of steel debris entombed at the lip of this beautiful falls. I’d still much prefer a thoughtful decommissioning of the diversion over a disorganized mess – whether triggered by humans or nature.

We owe it to future generations to do this right. And who knows, we may still get the chance!

What the Future Holds: Warren’s Cousins

Short of an unforeseen intervention, the restoration of Warren Falls by forces of nature will take awhile. But it turns out that Warren Falls has some similarly trod-upon cousins in the area who have suffered flagrant abuse, then been abandoned to recover on their own.

The good news: in all cases, nature is winning… albeit, very slowly.

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White River Falls needlessly goes dry each summer, thanks to a derelict Pacific Power diversion that sends the river around the falls (visible dropping in on the right).

A spectacular example is White River Falls, located in a state park by that name on the east side of Mount Hood. The falls is just upstream from the confluence of the White River with the Deschutes River.

More than a century ago, the Wasco Milling Company diverted much of the falls to a giant pipeline that fed a powerhouse downstream. Energy from the powerhouse was transmitted to The Dalles. Wasco Milling later sold the plant to Pacific Power, and it was finally shut down in 1960, when the land was transferred to the state of Oregon.

Pacific Power left quite a mess behind. The abandoned power plant, numerous pipelines and the diversion dam all still survive on state park land today. During high runoff in winter and spring the diversion channel is overwhelmed, and the former glory of White River Falls is on display. But by late summer, the entire flow is still diverted into the bypass channel, tumbling around the falls where the diversion pipe once existed.

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The derelict diversion channel at White River Falls

In this way, the situation at White River is not unlike present-day Hole-in-the-Wall Falls burping out of the Warren Falls bypass tunnel where it once connected to a flume that carried the creek over the old highway and to the Columbia River.

And like Warren Falls, the bypass channel “falls” at White River is a sad, ugly duckling compared to the magnificent original falls. But while there is no plan to formally decommission the diversion at White River Falls, the approach to the diversion dam is increasingly clogged with silt and debris, and should eventually fail, finally closing the chapter on the Wasco Milling Company era.

A few years ago, I reported on a now-scrapped scheme by Wasco County officials to reboot the White River generating plant, proving once again the wise words of John Muir: “Nothing dollarable is safe.” Even in an Oregon state park, it turns out.

A closer cousin to Warren Falls is popular Bridal Veil Falls, located at the far west end of the Columbia Gorge. Though few of the thousands of visitors who hike to the base of Bridal Veil Falls each year can even imagine what this spot looked like just a few decades ago, it was one of the most heavily degraded areas in the Gorge.

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The lower tier of famous Bridal Veil Falls was altered for mill operations! Who knew?

The mill town of Bridal Veil was once located just 100 yards below the falls, though the town is now nothing more than concrete foundations and rusted cables covered in moss and undergrowth. In this eastward view (below) from the early 1900s, today’s Bridal Veil exit from I-84 to Multnomah Falls would be located near the buildings at the far end of the mill town.

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The mill town of Bridal Veil in the early 1900s

The pile of rough-cut timber in the foreground marks the terminus of log flumes that fed the Bridal Veil mill. At least three timber flumes carried logs and rough lumber to the mill from the slopes of Larch Mountain. One flume closely followed Bridal Veil Creek with the kind of roller coaster ride theme park “log rides” have tried to replicate ever since.

In the scene below (from about 1900) the audacious scale of the flume is evident as it courses down the canyon, about a mile above Bridal Veil Falls, and just below Middle Bridal Veil Falls. The area had already been heavily logged by this time and the stream was viewed as nothing more than a steady water source and convenient path for moving old-growth timber to the mill.

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The main flume followed a ravaged Bridal Veil canyon to the mill

This view (below) of the converging flumes coming into the mill site conceals Bridal Veil Falls, which is located directly beneath the flumes. Today’s trail to the falls would have travelled under all three flumes where they converge in this scene.

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Flumes over Bridal Veil Falls (the falls is located directly below the flumes)

Bridal Veil Falls not only had a trio of log flumes passing overhead, the falls itself was also modified by the mill, presumably to carry water to the mill (though this is just my own speculation – I’d love to hear from mill historians who know more about this!)

The photo below shows the falls in the late 1800s, just before the lower tier had been raised about 15 feet, creating a pool below the upper tier and allowing for a diversion structure (?) to presumably carry a piped portion of the creek to the nearby mill.

During periods of low water today, you can still see parts of the diversion structure at Bridal Veil Falls poking from the water (below).

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Lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls as it exists today

Here are detailed views of the diversion structure that raised the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls to what we see today:

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A closer look at what seems to be a cobble dam that raised the height of the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls…

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…and a still closer look…

This rare view from the early 1900s shows the diversion structure already in ruins or perhaps under construction? In either case, its purpose only lasted a short period, and in this way the falls is a kindred spirit to Warren Falls, where the short-lived diversion functioned for barely a decade before becoming obsolete and abandoned.

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The cobble dam shortly after construction… or perhaps after it was abandoned?

Today, there are still a lot of concrete and steel reminders of the mill town, though they’re often hidden in plain sight, under layers of rust, moss and ferns. For example, this view (below) of the stream below Bridal Veil Falls reveals a “boulder” that is actually a concrete footing and an intake pipe for one of the mill ponds.

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Mill relics hiding under moss at Bridal Veil Falls

Other large waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were impacted by the mill operation, but have recovered dramatically in the decades since the mill finally closed in the 1960s. Here are then-and-now photos of Middle and Upper Bridal Veil Falls:

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[click here for a larger version]

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[click here for a larger version]

In more recent years, stolen automobiles have periodically been pushed from the cliffs along historic Palmer Mill Road into Bridal Veil canyon. Some of these dumped vehicles have been pulled from the canyon, but others are too difficult to reach, and are slowly fading into the forest.

While they have undoubtedly released engine fluids into the creek and have plastic parts that will last for decades, nature and Bridal Veil Creek are nonetheless making short work of the rest of these vehicles.

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Moss and ferns consuming a dumped Hyundai Santa Fe just above Upper Bridal Veil Falls (photo courtesy Jamen Lee)

Unlike Warren Falls, the waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were never completely diverted from their natural streambed, yet the overall impact of logging and milling at Bridal Veil had a much larger impact on the larger watershed than anything Warren Creek endured. The fact that Mother Nature has consumed most of what wasn’t salvaged when the flumes were pulled from Bridal Veil canyon in the mid-1900s is an inspiration for the ongoing recovery of Warren Falls.

In time, all traces of our impact on the environment really can heal – provided we allow it to happen. Responsibly cleaning up after ourselves would be a more noble path, of course, but at least nature seems to forgive us in time… so far.

Warren Falls Lives!

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False alarm! Horsetail does look a lot like Warren Falls, though…

A few weeks ago, the local waterfall hunting community had a brief moment of excitement when a vintage 1918 film seemed to include a rare view of Warren Falls! But after looking more closely at the images, it turned out to be Horsetail Falls in very low flow. So, the hunt for a photograph of Warren Falls before the 1939 diversion project continues.

But the similarity was real, so the following is a rough guess of what we might see – and perhaps, sooner than we think: Warren Falls flowing again, returning its amazing amphitheater to mossy green, as the diversion structure continues to crumble into history.

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For waterfall devotees, this is Horsetail Falls superimposed on Warren’s dry cliff with the reversed base of Dry Creek Falls providing the foreground.

[click here for a large version]

Of course, we already know what a small amount of flow over Warren Falls looks like during high runoff events, as shown in previous photos in this article. What we don’t know is what the full force of Warren Creek might look like coming over this 120-foot escarpment, and especially what it might do with 77 years of accumulated stream debris piled at the base of the natural falls.

We have a pretty good idea, though, based on recent dam removals around the Pacific Northwest. It turns out that streams are surprisingly quick to redistribute accumulated debris and restore themselves to their natural stream state, as we’ve seen with dam removals on the Hood, Little Sandy and White Salmon rivers.

Today, Warren Creek below falls has been reduced to ditch, radically moved by ODOT from its former channel in the 1950s and devoid of the rocks and woody debris essential to a healthy stream since 1939, thanks to the “trash rack”.

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Add some rocks and logs to lower Warren Creek and it might look like this someday

[click here for a large version]

When Warren Falls returns, the huge pile of stream debris will begin to move downstream, and the debris-starved lower section of Warren Creek will develop the pools and eddies necessary for salmon and steelhead to spawn, as imagined above.

The good news is that the new HCRH State Trail passes high and wide over Warren Creek, ensuring that the creek can evolve back to a natural state in the future without a redux of the 1930s highway impacts that led to the diversion of Warren Falls.

When will Warren Falls return? Not just now… but perhaps sooner than we think.

Meanwhile, we wait… and watch.

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(Part two of this article will focus on a review of the newly completed Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail segment from Starvation Creek to Wonder Creek, and passing Warren Falls)

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 To revisit the complete history of the Restore Warren Falls project, here are earlier WyEast blog articles on the subject:

 An Overdue Warren Falls Update (and a bombshell!)

“Warren Falls Lives… Again?”

Warren Falls Solutions

“Warren Falls, we’re ready for your closeup…”

 Warren Falls Mystery… Solved!

Restoring Warren Creek Falls

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Warren Falls on Oregon Field Guide

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Restore Warren Falls on Facebook!

 

 

 

2015 Calendar… and looking back on 2014!

December 30, 2014
The view from Owl Point is the cover image for 2015

The view from Owl Point is the cover image for 2015

Each year since 2004 I’ve published a wall calendar dedicated to the special places that make Mount Hood and the Gorge a national treasure — and of national park caliber! You can pick one up for $30 at the Mount Hood National Park Campaign store at CafePress, and you’ll also be supporting the campaign website and this blog when you do!

The following is a preview of the calendar images I picked for the 2015 edition, along with some backstory behind the photos. All of the photos were taken from November 2013 through October 2014. Part of the challenge each year is to come up with 13 new calendar-worthy images, which in turn ensures that I get out on the trail and poke around my favorite haunts, plus a few new spots whenever I can!

For January, I picked a close-up view of the upper Sandy Glacier and the towering cliffs of the Sandy Headwall. This view came from an early snowfall last winter, one of several trips I made to the Bald Mountain and McGee Ridge:

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

On one of those trips to the McGee Ridge viewpoint, I had just set up my camera and tripod along the Timberline Trail when a pair of climbers came down from the mountain. They were obviously not typical hikers, and soon I realized that they were the explorers I had just written a blog article about! “Sandy Glacier Caves: Realm of the Snow Dragon!” was written partly in anticipation of the Oregon Field Guide 2013 premiere episode that featured the glacier Caves… and my new trail acquaintances, Brent McGregor and Eric Guth.

Look closely, and you can see Eric and Brent's boot prints in the snow near the Snow Dragon cave

Look closely, and you can see Eric and Brent’s boot prints in the snow near the Snow Dragon cave

Brent and Eric pointed out several features around the glacier caves from our vantage point. I was later able to add a postscript to the original article to elaborate on some of the new details about their discovery that I learned that day on the trail.

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

I’ve also been able to help Brent with his historic research on the formation of the glacier caves with a series of images I’d taken of the Sandy Glacier since the early 2000s. I’ve photographed the glacier in detail pretty much every year for more than a decade, mostly because of it’s scenic beauty, so it was great to discover a more practical use for all those photos!

For February, I picked a photo from a memorable winter day on Mount Defiance (below) after a bank of freezing fog had settled in on the mountain for several days. Nearly every surface was covered with long, beautifully developed ice crystals that had grown undisturbed in the almost still air of the freezing fog layer.

February features a frosty forest on the slopes of Mt. Defiance

February features a frosty forest on the slopes of Mt. Defiance

On that frosty day, I also stopped to photograph the sign shown below on the way up to Mount Defiance, as it showed amazing insight and precision by the Hood River County road department in deciding where to stop plowing!

Winter wonderland ahead!

Winter wonderland ahead!

For March, I picked a scene from the Pacific Crest Trail where it climbs along the west rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail is also part of the Timberline Trail, and is surprisingly overlooked, given the views and close proximity to Timberline Lodge.

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

I posted an article in 2011 on the buried forests that can be seen here. The deeply carved maze of ravines that make up the White River canyon are cut into volcanic debris from the Old Maid eruptions that occurred from 1760 to 1810, and subsequent erosion has revealed some of the well-preserved trees that were buried in these eruptions. The 2011 article describes how to view these old specimens.

I also enjoyed watching a lenticular cloud form over the mountain in the hour or two that I sat on the canyon rim that evening last winter — one of my favorite mountain phenomena. You can see just the beginning of the cloud over the summit in the calendar view, and the tiny sliver later blossomed into the classic lenticular cloud shown in the view below, as I was packing up for the day:

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

Lenticular clouds typically form when moist air from approaching weather fronts is compressed as it passes over the big volcanoes in the Cascade Range. They often form as much as a day before the cloud bands of a Pacific front actually arrive, so are a useful barometer of changing conditions.

For April, I picked something a little different: a desert scene just a few miles east of the mountain, where the same White River that originates from its namesake glacier in the previous scene flows east into the rugged rimrock country of Oregon’s High Desert, shown below:

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

Over the millennia, the White River has carved through many layers of Columbia River basalt to form its desert canyon, but as it approaches the confluence with the Deschutes, the river encounters an especially tough series of basalt layers. The result is the spectacular White River Falls, a misty green emerald in the desert, protected in a small state park.

The lower falls pictured in the April image is about one-half mile downstream from the main falls, and well off the popular trail in the area. The calendar image is actually just a cropped portion of a very wide panorama (below) that captures more of the rugged scene at the lower falls.

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

The scoured bedrock in the foreground of this view is testament to volatile nature of the White River: seasonal floods regularly surge to this depth, engulfing the floor of the canyon.

In another 2011 article titled “Close Call at White River Falls”, I described the threats to this magnificent area, and why it deserved better protection — perhaps someday a unit of Mount Hood National Park?

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

In addition to the natural scenery, the canyon is home to the fascinating ruins of an early 1900s hydroelectric plant. Desert weather has helped preserve the many relics in the area, but arid conditions haven’t prevented vandals from taking an increasing toll on priceless historic resources.

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

Hopefully, we can someday stabilize the White River Falls site and preserve the remaining traces of history for future generations to explore.

For May, I chose another unusual image for a Mount Hood National Park calendar: Middle North Falls on Silver Creek. Why? Mostly because what we now know as Silver Falls State Park was once proposed to become a national park in the 1920s! It would have been a terrific addition. The scenery, alone blows away many of the existing national parks monuments in our park system!

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

Alas, the national park proposal failed after a National Park Service study deemed the logged-over landscape of the 1920s too ravaged to be worthy of park status. Thankfully, that didn’t stop the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s from building the elaborate, magnificent trail system and beautiful South Falls Lodge (listed on the National Historic Register in 1983) that we still enjoy today.

The national park idea for Silver Falls resurfaced again in 2008, when Oregon State Senator (then Representative) Fred Girod proposed it during a special session. Notably, Dr. Girod is a Republican from Stayton, representing the Senate district that encompasses Silver Falls State Park, so maybe we’ll see the idea resurrected in the future? I like that maverick thinking, Senator!

Trail ranger leading a kids hike at Silver Creek -- how very cool!

Trail ranger leading a kids hike at Silver Creek — how very cool!

On the visit last spring when I photographed Middle North Falls, I was reminded that Oregon’s state parks do a pretty good job of embracing the national park tradition at Silver Creek when a young ranger appeared, leading a group of youngsters on a day hike. Kudos to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department for providing programs like these!

Could Silver Falls State Park become a unit of a future Mount Hood National Park? Why not! One tangible benefit would be the opportunity to expand the footprint from the current park boundaries to include the rest of the upper watershed of Silver Creek. The park more than doubled in size in 1958, when a federally funded expansion added in a portion of the headwaters, bringing the park to the present size of just over 90,000 areas.

The amazing, national-park-quality amphitheater behind North Falls

The amazing, national-park-quality amphitheater behind North Falls

Yet, heavy logging and large private inholdings upstream continue to impact Silver Creek stream with silt and algae blooms. These impacts could easily be reversed if the upper watershed were managed for conservation and recreation, instead — especially if the park were expanded to include the upper watershed and its associated habitat.

For June, I picked an image of Butte Creek Falls, a nearby cousin to Silver Creek located even closer to Mount Hood, within the Santiam State Forest. Like Silver Creek, the upper watershed of Butte Creek is heavily logged, with some obvious sediment and algae in the stream as a result.

June features Butte Creek Falls

June features Butte Creek Falls

Also like Silver Creek, the health of Butte Creek could be turned around with a shift to managing for conservation and recreation. Unlike Silver Creek, most of the lands in the upstream watershed are already held in the public trust by the State of Oregon.

Unfortunately, our state forests are held captive by a legislature determined to log them to feed the state general fund — and to ensure that rural counties that already pay only a fraction of the property taxes levied in other parts of Oregon aren’t inconvenienced with paying for their own schools.

Therefore, the best way to restore Butte Creek would be to transfer it to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department as a very large state park… or incorporate it into a future Mount Hood National Park! At a minimum, it’s time for the Santiam State forest to focus on restoring forests and protecting watersheds, not just future timber sales.

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

The behind-the-scenes, somewhat embarrassing story that goes with the Butte Creek Falls image is one of my hiking buddy Jamie Chabot helping change a flat tire after our trip to Butte Creek and nearby Abiqua Falls. We managed to take a couple of wrong turns in the maze of logging roads and clearcuts that surround the small preserve containing Butte Creek: at some point, I jumped out to survey the canyon below to figure out where we went wrong… only to hear a HISSSSSSS coming from one of the rear tires!

There was no room to pull off to the side, so we were in the awkward predicament of having the car up on a jack in the middle of an active logging road. Fortunately, we were able to install the spare before a loaded log truck came barreling our way! My belated apologies to Jamie for doing the heavy work while I took pictures… but somebody had to document the episode for posterity!

Jamie was also my hiking companion on a couple of trips to Owl Point last summer. This has been an annual favorite of mine since a group of volunteers from the Portland Hikers forum rescued the Old Vista Ridge from being lost to official Forest Service neglect in 2007.

Each year, the trail seems to get better, thanks to a lot of unofficial TLC from anonymous trail tenders. Today, the Old Vista Ridge trail is in great shape and now forms the boundary of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness, so in that sense has been etched into legal permanence. Hopefully, it will eventually make it back onto the Forest Service inventory of officially maintained trails, a status it clearly deserves.

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

There are now several geocaches and a trail log tucked along the historic old trail, and it’s amazing to see how busy the area has become now that it has been featured in several popular hiking guides (including Williams Sullivan’s “100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon” and Paul Gerald’s “60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Portland”).

One trail log had more than 60 entries for just 2014, including this wonderful entry from a young family introducing their kids to the adventures of hiking and exploring the Mount Hood backcountry at a very young age:

My favorite Old Vista Ridge trail log entry… ever..!

My favorite Old Vista Ridge trail log entry… ever..!

One of my favorite experiences on the trail is seeing young families introducing their junior hikers to our public lands, battered field guides in hand. Just like my own formative experiences just a few decades ago.

For August, I picked an image from another of my favorite spots, just off the Cooper Spur trail, above the lower extent of the Eliot Glacier. This image was taken on one of those days when clouds were wrapped around the mountain for much of the day, but suddenly cleared for a few minutes — just long enough to capture a few photos before the mountain disappeared, once again:

August features the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood's north flank

August features the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood’s north flank

I certainly do not mind sitting on the shoulder of the mountain waiting out the clouds (there’s no such thing as a bad day on the mountain, after all!), but a bonus during this wait was learning a new bird species (to me), as a pair of these small birds (below) stopped by to check me out:

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

This is a horned lark, a wintertime migrant to our area, and the pair I saw had likely arrived recently when I spotted them last August. The Portland area actually has a year-round resident population of streaked horned larks, which look similar to horned larks and are a threatened species. These are details I learned after the trip from the helpful folks at the Portland Audubon Society.

According to Audubon staff, horned Larks are widespread songbirds of fields, deserts, and tundra, where they forage for seeds and insects, and sing a high, tinkling song — and thus were quite at home in the tundra conditions of Mount Hood’s high east side. Though they are considered common, they have undergone a sharp decline in the last half-century. Their very generalized range map shows them wintering from the Cascades west and breeding in summer in Canada tundra/steppe terrain.

For September I picked an image from Wyeast Basin, taken toward the end of a lovely early autumn day as a family and their dog ambled across the sprawling meadow. Wyeast Basin is remarkable for the surprising number of springs bubbling up from the mountain slopes and racing one another downhill, often just a few feet apart.

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

While this view (above) from the calendar is the familiar scene at WyEast Basin, I also turned my tripod around to capture the web of springs and streamlets flowing north toward the big Washington volcanoes, on the distant horizon. The talus slopes of Owl Point can also be seen in the distance from here, just above the tree line.

The view north to Owl Point and the Washington Cascades from WyEast Basin

The view north to Owl Point and the Washington Cascades from WyEast Basin

For October, the scene is from Elk Meadows, perhaps the most photogenic of the string of alpine meadows on Mount Hood’s rugged north side. In this view, the Coe Glacier tumbles below the summit, and 7,853-foot Barrett Spur looms darkly on the left. Avalanches roll off Barrett Spur in winter, sometimes with devastating effect on the alpine forests below, as the many bleached snags and stumps in Elk Cove suggest.

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

My companions for the Elk Cove hike this fall were Jamie Chabot and Jeff Statt. I met both when Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was founded in 2007: Jeff was the founding president of the new non-profit, and Jamie the original creative force behind the TKO logo, Portland Hikers calendars and the TKO web identity.

Tom, Jamie & Jeff enjoying a little slice of paradise at Elk Cove

Tom, Jamie & Jeff enjoying a little slice of paradise at Elk Cove

Both Jeff and Jamie continue to support TKO after all these years as the organization continues to grow, and we still meet up for periodic trail stewardship projects together. I’m honored to have them as trail friends, and having them along on this hike made it extra-special!

For November, I picked a familiar view of Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek, taken during an especially wet week in the Gorge. Normally, the somewhat muddy runoff in this scene would be a deal-killer for photos, but I came around to the idea that in this case, it told the story of swollen Cascade streams during the stormy months of late autumn rather nicely, so added it to the mix.

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

I was memorably soaked on the hike to Triple Falls, not because rain is particularly unique in the Gorge, but because I had just re-ducked my trusty canvas hat (for waterproofing)… but had left it drying in the oven, at home! I discovered this fact at the Oneonta trailhead, so circled back to the Multhnomah Falls lodge to see what sort of hats were in stock.

It turns out that baseball caps are the ONLY option at the Multnomah Falls lodge — and I HATE baseball caps! (primarily because they don’t fit all that well on my basketball-sized head..!) Well, at least I could support my alma mater, and I hit the trail $20 poorer with a ridiculous, ill-fitting beanie that (sort of) kept my large, bald head dry…

You would hate baseball caps, too, if you had a basketball-sized head like mine…

You would hate baseball caps, too, if you had a basketball-sized head like mine…

Once on the trail, I also ran across one of the most extensive landslides to form in recent years, cutting away a 100-foot swath of the Oneonta Trail along a steep canyon section. Trail crews had constructed a temporary crossing of the slide, but just a few days after that trip in November, the slide claimed more ground, erasing the temporary trail. Such is the ongoing challenge of keeping trails open in the very active landscapes of the Gorge and Mount Hood!

A rip-roaring Oneonta Creek after the first big autumn storms

A rip-roaring Oneonta Creek after the first big autumn storms

For December, I picked a late fall image of Elowah Falls, taken from one of the long-bypassed viewpoints along the original Civilian Conservation Corps route described in this recent article on McCord Creek.

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

Photographing a 213′ waterfall at close range means a wide-angle lens and blending some images. In this case, I merged three vertical images taken with my 11mm lens to create the panoramic view. This is my first time photographing from this spot, and I will definitely return!

By now you’ve been introduced to my trail buddy Jamie, and on the way out from Elowah Falls that day I ran into Jamie and his two boys! They were headed toward the upper falls on McCord Creek on that very busy hiking day in the Gorge. It was great to see Jamie passing on the hiking tradition to boys!

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

That’s it for the 2015 Mount Hood National Park Campaign calendar highlights, and now for a few thoughts on the blog…

Thanks for another year!

I launched the WyEast Blog in 2008 as a simpler way to promote Mount Hood and the Gorge as “national park-worthy” than updates to the project website would allow. And though I didn’t post quite as often this year for a whole variety of reasons (mostly, real life getting in the way), I was amazed to see the readership for the WyEast Blog continue to grow in 2014.

Yours truly taking in the first big snowfall on Mount Hood in early November

Yours truly taking in the first big snowfall on Mount Hood in early November

In early 2014, the monthly page views edged above the 5,000 mark for the first time, and jumped well above that mark during the peak hiking months of spring and summer. More importantly, the list of official blog followers has grown steadily to 141 this year. These are the true Mount Hood and Gorge junkies that I have in mind when I post to the blog, and these are also the folks who send me both nice notes and periodic corrections — both are greatly appreciated!

I posted a total of 14 articles this year, down a bit from previous years, but bringing the six-year total to 136 articles. I’ve also got a bunch of new articles in the oven, ready to post when time allows. So, the WyEast Blog will be around for awhile!

The two most popular articles continue to be:

10 Common Poison Oak Myths (2012)

Ticks! Ticks! (10 common myths) (2013)

The “ticks” article has been viewed 38,147 times since I posted it in 2013, and the poison oak piece 21,545 times — sort of amazing! But these numbers have validated my obsession with providing thorough, detailed, geek-worthy articles that are more in the magazine format than typical blog fare.

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

So, enough facts, figures and anecdotes: if you’ve read this far in my annual, somewhat (ahem!) self-indulgent post, THANK YOU for being a reader… and most importantly, thanks for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Gorge!

See you on the trail in 2015!

Tom Kloster
WyEast Blog

Sandy Glacier Caves: Realm of the Snow Dragon

September 29, 2013
The Sandy Glacier is front and center in the classic view of Mount Hood from Lolo Pass

The Sandy Glacier is front and center in the classic view of Mount Hood from Lolo Pass

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s venerable Oregon Field Guide series kicks off it’s 25th season in October with a remarkable story on the hidden network of glacier caves that have formed under the Sandy Glacier, high on Mount Hood’s west flank.

In the video preview (below), Oregon Field Guide executive producer Steve Amen says that “in the 25 years we’ve been doing Oregon Field Guide, this is the biggest geologic story that we have ever done”. This is bold statement from a program that has confronted all manner of danger in documenting Oregon’s secret places!

Glacier caves are formed by melt water seeping through glaciers and flowing along the bedrock beneath glaciers. Over time, intricate networks of braided tunnels can form. Because a glacier is, by definition, a river of moving ice, exploring a glacier cave is inherently dangerous — and this is what makes the upcoming Oregon Field Guide special so ambitious.

Otherworldly scene from Oregon Field Guide's upcoming "Glacier Caves" special (Brent McGregor/OPB)

Otherworldly scene from Oregon Field Guide’s upcoming “Glacier Caves” special (Brent McGregor/OPB)

Cave explorers have been actively exploring and mapping the extent of the Sandy Glacier caves for the past three years. This previously unknown network of caves has been dubbed the Snow Dragon Glacier Cave System by cavers Eduardo Cartaya, Scott Linn and Brent McGregor in July 2011. Cavers have since surveyed (to date) well over a mile of caves in the network, with parts of the cave system nearly 1,000 feet deep.

Ice Cave or Glacier Cave? Here in volcano country, it’s worth noting that a glacier cave is different than an ice cave. Where a glacier cave has roof of glacial ice, an ice cave occurs where persistent ice forms inside an underground, rock cave. In the Pacific Northwest, we have several examples where ice has accumulated inside lava tubes to form true ice caves, such as the Guler Ice Cave near Mount Adams and Sawyer’s Ice Cave in Central Oregon.

To date, the Snow Dragon cave network consists of three caves that intersect, dubbed the Snow Dragon, Frozen Minotaur, and Pure Imagination caves. Within these caves explorers have discovered a fantastic landscape of streams and waterfalls flowing under a massive, sculpted ceiling of ice.

The caves are punctuated by moulins (pronounced “MOO-lawn”), or vertical shafts in the ice formed by meltwater. Some of these moulins are dry, some are still flowing, and a few have have grown to become skylights large enough serve as entry points into the cave system for daring explorers.

Caving expeditions to the Sandy Glacier caves by the National Speleological Society (NSS) in 2011 and 2012 were featured in the February 2013 NSS News, with a dramatic photo of colossal moulin on its cover. These volunteer expeditions included NSS geologists, glaciologists, spelunkers, scuba divers and mountain climbers who spent eight days documenting the cave system from a base camp high atop the Sandy Glacier.

Sandy Glacier caves on the cover of the National Speleological Society News earlier this year

Sandy Glacier caves on the cover of the National Speleological Society News earlier this year

According to the NSS explorers, the Snow Dragon cave complex is the largest ice cave complex in the lower forty-eight states, and one of the largest in the world. To date, these explorers have found icy passages ranging from huge, ballroom-sized open spaces with 40-foot ceilings to narrow, flooded crawl sapces only a few feet high, and passable only with diving gear.

The Oregon High Desert Grotto, an affiliate of the NSS, has posted a series of fascinating maps documenting their explorations on their website.

The Story Behind the Sandy Glacier Caves?

Glacier caves typically form near the snout of a glacier, and explorers simply follow the outflow stream into the cave system. Such was the case with Paradise Ice Caves at Mount Rainier (now disappeared) at the terminus of the Paradise Glacier. More recently, hikers have explored the outflow opening at the Sandy Glacier, as well.

Topographic map of Mount Hood's west flank and the Sandy Glacier

Topographic map of Mount Hood’s west flank and the Sandy Glacier

[click for a larger map]

The Snow Dragon caves under the Sandy Glacier are different, however. While the glacier does have an outflow opening to the cave system, the cave network extends far beyond the terminus of the glacier, apparently reaching almost to the headwall, nearly a mile away and almost 2,500 feet above the terminus in elevation. The scale and scope of these caves seems to be partly the result of the glacier shrinking, and not just the effects of melting near the terminus of the glacier.

This broader phenomenon first became apparent when a huge moulin — known informally to many hikers as the “glory hole” and formally named the Cerberus Moulin by cavers — appeared in the glacier a few years ago. The Cerberus Moulin is plainly visible to hikers from nearby McNeil Point, which also serves as the jump-off point for explorers.

The Cerberus Moulin is located along the lower, receding edge of the Sandy Glacier

The Cerberus Moulin is located along the lower, receding edge of the Sandy Glacier

A closer view of the Cerberus Moulin in the Sandy Glacier

A closer view of the Cerberus Moulin in the Sandy Glacier

The following photos of the Sandy Glacier were taken nine years apart, in 2003 and 2012, and show the startling retreat of the glacier over just the past decade. The Cerberus Moulin had not yet formed in the 2003 photo, but is plainly visible in the 2012 image. For reference, the broad moraine to the left of the Cerberus Moulin is labeled as (A) in the photos:

Sandy Glacier in 2003

Sandy Glacier in 2003

Sandy Glacier in 2012

Sandy Glacier in 2012

The photo comparison shows big changes in the activity of the glacier, too. What was once an icefall near the terminus of the glacier (B) in 2003 has since receded to the point that the rock outcrop that was beneath (and formed) the icefall is now exposed in the 2012 image. Likewise, the lower third of the glacier (C) was clearly crevassed and actively moving in the 2003 image compared to the 2012 image, where an absence of crevasses shows little glacial movement occurring today in this section of the glacier.

The rapidly shrinking glacier could be an explanation for the relative stability and remarkable extent of the caves underneath the ice. The increased melting is sending more runoff through and under the glacier, helping to form new moulins feeding into the ice caves.

The slowing movement of the lower portion of the glacier could also help explain why the cave network has become so extensive, as more actively flowing ice would be more likely to destroy fragile ice caves before they could become so extensive and interconnected.

Part of a Larger Story

The Sandy Glacier Caves discovery is really part of the much larger story of Mount Hood’s rapidly shrinking glaciers. After millennia of relative stability, we are witnessing broader changes to the landscape surrounding in response to the retreat of the glacial ice.

The downstream effects in recent years from Mount Hood’s melting glaciers have been startling, and the Sandy Glacier is no exception. Sometime during the winter of 2002-03, a massive debris flow was unleashed from just below the terminus of the Sandy Glacier, and roared down the Muddy Fork canyon. The wall of mud and rock swept away whole forests in its wake, burying a quarter mile-wide swath in as much as fifty feet of debris.

Looking across the 2002-03 Muddy Fork debris flow

Looking across the 2002-03 Muddy Fork debris flow

The view (above) looking across the 2002-03 Muddy Fork debris flow shows toppled trees at the margins, while the forests in the main path of the flow were simply carried away.

The view downstream (below) from the center of the debris flow shows the scope of the destruction, with the debris at least 50 feet deep in this spot where the Timberline Trail crosses the Muddy Fork.

Looking downstream from the middle of the 2002-03 Muddy Fork debris flow

Looking downstream from the middle of the 2002-03 Muddy Fork debris flow

The Muddy Fork has only recently carved its way down through the 2002-03 debris to the original valley floor, revealing mummified stumps from the old forest and visible giving scale to the scope of the event (below).

Seven years after the 2002-03 flow, the Muddy Fork had cut a channel down to its original elevation, revealing the full depth of the flow.

Seven years after the 2002-03 flow, the Muddy Fork had cut a channel down to its original elevation, revealing the full depth of the flow.

These stumps of trees snapped off by the 2002-03 debris flow have reappeared where the Muddy Fork has carved down to the original river level.

These stumps of trees snapped off by the 2002-03 debris flow have reappeared where the Muddy Fork has carved down to the original river level.

With no way to know how long Mount Hood’s glaciers will continue to retreat, catastrophic events of this kind will recur in the coming decades. Runoff from the retreating glaciers will continue to carve away at newly exposed terrain once covered by ice, with periodic debris flows occurring as routine events.

In November 2006, another major flood event in the Sandy River canyon caused damage even further downstream, in the Brightwood area, where private homes line the Sandy River:

Damage from the 2006 flood was still being repaired when yet another major storm burst stormed down the valley in January 2011. During this event, a large section of Lolo Pass road briefly becoming part of the Sandy River, and scores of homes were cut off from emergency responders:

The 2011 event washed out the south approach to the Old Maid Flat Bridge over the Sandy River, forcing the Forest Service to jury-rig a temporary ramp to the bridge. The entire crossing has since been replaced, but like all repairs to streamside roads around the mountain, there is no reason to assume that another event won’t eventually destroy the new bridge, too.

The Old Maid Flat Bridge over the Sandy River was repaired with a temporary approach ramp (on the right in this photo) where the bridge approach had washed out by raging water

The Old Maid Flat Bridge over the Sandy River was repaired with a temporary approach ramp (on the right in this photo) where the bridge approach had washed out by raging water

The two homes in the distance barely survived the 2011 flood event on the Sandy River

The two homes in the distance barely survived the 2011 flood event on the Sandy River

This wider view shows the rebuilt section of Lolo Pass Road that was briefly a channel of the Sandy River during the January 2011 flood

This wider view shows the rebuilt section of Lolo Pass Road that was briefly a channel of the Sandy River during the January 2011 flood

Similar events have occurred over the past several years on the White River, Ladd Creek, East Fork Hood River and the Middle Fork Hood River. The predicted climate changes driving these events give every indication that we will continue to watch similar dramatic changes unfold around Mount Hood in decades to come.

The November 2006 debris flows in the White River canyon buried Highway 35 in boulders (ODOT)

The November 2006 debris flows in the White River canyon buried Highway 35 in boulders (ODOT)

During the 2006 debris flows, the old White River Bridge was completely inundated, leaving an eight-foot layer of boulders on the bridge (ODOT)

During the 2006 debris flows, the old White River Bridge was completely inundated, leaving an eight-foot layer of boulders on the bridge (ODOT)

By late 2012, the Federal Highway Administration had built a new, much larger bridge over the White River designed to survive future debris flows

By late 2012, the Federal Highway Administration had built a new, much larger bridge over the White River designed to survive future debris flows

Just as the wildfires that burned through forests on the eastern and northern flanks of Mount Hood over the past few years have given us new insights into the cycle of forest renewal, the unfolding geological events linked to changing glaciers provide a similar opportunity to better understand these natural processes, too.

While these destructive events are tragic to our sentimental eyes, the rebirth of a forest ecosystem is truly remarkable to witness — as is the discovery of the Sandy Glacier ice caves in the midst of the larger decline of Mount Hood’s glaciers. All of these sweeping events are reminders that we’re just temporary spectators to ancient natural forces forever at work in shaping “our” mountain and its astoundingly complex ecosystems.

So, stay tuned and enjoy, this show is to be continued!
_________________________

OPB Airing Dates

Here are the broadcast dates for the Oregon Field Guide premiere:

• Thursday, October 10 at 8:30 p.m. on OPB TV
• Sunday, October 13 at 1:30 a.m. on OPB TV
• Sunday, October 13 at 6:30 p.m. on OPB TV

For fans of the show, a 25th Anniversary retrospective will also be airing on Thursday, October 3rd. You can learn more about OFG and view their video archive on their website.
_________________________

October 4th Postscript

Author with Brent McGregor on October 4

Author with Brent McGregor on October 4

In the small world department, I had the honor of meeting epic caver, climber and photographer extraordinaire Brent McGregor on the Timberline Trail this afternoon. He and caving partner Eric Guth had spent the night near the entrance to the Snow Dragon Glacier Cave!

After learning a LOT more about the Snow Dragon cave complex from Brent today (and having my jaw drop repeatedly as I heard about their exploits under the glacier!), I’ve updated the above article — including the more accurate use of the name Cerberus Moulin in lieu of the generic “glory hole” nickname that some hikers have been using.

Brent also pointed me to a couple fascinating new videos from OPB that just add to the anticipation of the Glacier Caves premiere on OPB:

Behind the Scenes of Glacier Caves: Mt. Hood’s Secret World

Special Glacier Caves website from OPB

And finally, one more link: the Glacier Caves OPB documentary will be screened in a free, special preview on October 9th at the Hollywood Theater. Here’s the link to the event Facebook page:

Glacier Caves Special Preview

Thanks for the terrific conversation, Brent – great meeting you and Eric!

Close Call at White River Falls

March 29, 2011

The magnificent desert falls on the White River survived a close brush with disaster this month, when a throwback proposal by Wasco County to divert the river as part of a new hydropower project was scrapped.

Like so many hydro projects of decades passed, this one would have had “little impact”, according to proponents. Yet, as we take in the summertime view of the 90-foot plunge pictured above, it’s obvious that diverting the river would have an immediate impact on the natural beauty of the area. Would half the falls be diverted? Two-thirds? All of it?

(click here for a PDF of Dalles Chronicle article)

Though the Wasco County proposal was ultimately dropped because of concerns voiced by the Oregon State Parks Commission, it wasn’t for lack of “goodies” offered up in exchange for the diversion. The County promised trail improvements for recreation, and interpretive facilities for the structures left behind from the last hydro project here.

White River Falls with the rocky gulch of Devils Halfacre in the background

The old plant was shut down in 1960, and the land subsequently transferred to the state, first as the “Tygh Valley State Wayside”, then today’s “White River Falls State Park.”

The falls and adjacent White River Gorge are truly a forgotten gem in Oregon, save for a few fishermen in spring and fall, and a lot of teenagers in summer, seeking out the swimming holes below the falls. Yet, the area is only two hours from Portland, and offers some of the most accessible desert scenery in the state.

In recent years, hikers have begun to explore the area, following boot paths and game trails downstream toward the confluence with the Deschutes River, just over two miles below the falls.

White River Gorge from the falls overlook

What most visitors don’t know is that much of the rugged backdrop for the falls is private land. Most surprisingly, these private holdings include the most of the White River gorge, all the way to the Deschutes confluence, and this beautiful area has somehow escaped development over the years.

Concept: White River Gorge Recreation Area

With Wasco County politicians dreaming up hydro projects for the White River, this article is intended as a more forward-looking counterpoint that actually embraces the scenic and recreational values in the area.

As a starting point, the National Recreation Lands boundary that encompasses the larger Deschutes Canyon could be expanded to include White River Falls, White River Gorge and the adjacent Winter Ridge and Devils Halfacre areas. This could provide the direction needed for state and federal land agencies to begin acquiring private land and planning for recreation.

It’s unclear what the “National Recreation Lands” boundary actually means, however. It seems to mirror the Wild and Scenic River designation for the Deschutes Canyon on USGS maps, but may be an orphan from old federal plans and policies no longer in force. Current federal planning documents for the lower Deschutes Canyon are also badly out of date, so a better legal mechanism likely exists for recognizing the potential for recreation in the White River Gorge area. In the end, some sort of designation is needed to identify the extent of the new recreation area.

The following map outlines the concept, with the proposed new White River Gorge recreation area bounded in dashed red, existing White River Falls State park in green and federal land holdings (BLM) in yellow:

(Click here for a much larger, more readable map)

The proposal: a network of new desert trails

The main focus of the concept is to build new trails in the White River Gorge, proper, and on the adjacent highlands that I’ve called Winter Ridge for the purpose of this article. The gorge is mostly private land outside the present state park boundaries, so like all of the trail proposals called for in this article, a new White River Gorge trail implies public ownership or easement.

The dashed red lines on the map show the new trail extending through the canyon from the falls to the confluence with the Deschutes, along with a short viewpoint loop within the current state park boundaries. This would become a premier hiking trail in the region, providing a unique riverside hiking experience in a roadless desert canyon.

The first portion of this new trail would simply follow the existing route down to the old power plant, with a new loop climbing back to the trailhead, via a canyon viewpoint above the falls. This part of the proposal could be built now, as it falls entirely within the current state park boundary.

Remains from the former power station in White River Gorge

The canyon trail would offer a unique interpretive opportunity where relics of the old power plant still exist. The Wasco County hydro proposal recognized the historic importance of these structures, and called for interpretive improvements along this existing trail, at the penstock and in the old power plant. These historic structures have been badly vandalized over time, and could greatly benefit from some modest renovation and protection.

In addition to the White River Gorge trail, the proposal calls for a network of hike and bike trails over the broad slopes of Winter Ridge. This area rises steeply above the confluence of the Deschutes and White rivers, with views nearly 800 feet down into the gorge from the open crest. The west slopes drop gently to the trailhead at White River Falls, with sweeping views of Devils Halfacre, Tygh Ridge, Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson.

The proposed trails shown on Winter Ridge (in green on the map) are almost entirely along existing paths and roads, and would require little beyond signage to improve them for hikers and mountain bikers.

Desert mounds along Winter Ridge (the black dot is a juniper tree, for scale)

Though a portion of Winter Ridge is farmed with winter wheat, much of the terrain is in a native state. The upper slopes of the ridge feature an odd landform unique to the Lower Deschutes River country: countless mounds of soil and rock, often organized in rows. They span 10-20 feet in width, and stand a few feet in height.

These odd “desert mounds” appear on shallow slopes and hilltops throughout the Tygh Ridge area, and this would be one of the few areas where visitors could examine these mysterious formations, up close, and learn some of the many theories about their origin.

Thinking Big: an expansive trail network at Devils Halfacre

It is impossible to stand at White River Falls and not notice the rugged, picturesque rim rock cliffs and massive bluffs that rise to the south of the White River Gorge. This rocky maze is the Devils Halfacre, and though in private holdings now, it offers an especially interesting potential for recreation.

Black basalt cliffs and talus slopes of Tuskan Ridge rise above the White River Gorge

The area falls into two general units: the rocky gulch of Devils Halfacre, proper, and the huge mesa forming the east wall of the gulch, which I’ve called Tuskan Ridge for the purpose of this proposal (see map). A network of trails and dirt tracks already exists here, and could easily be adapted to become an exceptional hike and bike trail network. These trails would lead hikers, bikers or possibly equestrians past rugged rock formations to spectacular, cliff-top viewpoints.

The Devils Halfacre area has excellent potential for trailhead access from both Highway 216 and Oak Springs Road. The terrain here rivals popular destinations in the eastern Columbia River Gorge, and would offer a unique chance to bring sustainable recreation tourism to the local economy.

Looking Forward

The concept presented here is just one way in which recreation and landscape restoration could be combined to preserve the White River Gorge area.

The intense demand for mountain biking opportunities also offers the potential to transform the local economy, especially since the area is just far enough from the Portland metropolitan area to draw overnight and weekend visitors who could support local businesses.

Mount Hood, rising across Tygh Valley from Winter Ridge

At a minimum, now is the time for Wasco County to aim for a more sustainable vision for White River Falls and its surroundings, instead of rehashing old, exploitive ideas that would degrade the area, and that have already failed here, before.

The Oregon State Parks Commission was right to challenge the County’s attempt to turn back the clock at White River Falls. Now would be the perfect time for the County to partner with the Parks Commission and federal agencies to forge a new vision that does justice to the remarkable landscape that exists here.