Opal Creek Wilderness

Still river It's tacitly agreed among us hikers that you always *wink* stick to the trail when you hike because, you know, the signs say so. Not to mention the numerous perils that may befall the hiker who strays: catastrophic injury, wild animals, catastrophic injury by wild animals, and impossibly lost pair of Ray-Bans. Nevertheless, the allure of something truly wild the fiction so easily found of being lost where no one's tread before, the bewildering phenomenon that occurs when a traveller and an environment merge into a transcendental whole make a compelling case for leaving the beaten, paved, enclosed path behind. Other times, a bulldozer blocks the right-of-way.

Such was the case at Opal Creek in early June. Maintenance on Forest Road 2209, the main thoroughfare to Jawbone Flats and Opal Pool, closed passage to hikers for all but brief periods during the day, and this wasn't one of them. The bridge was blocked from rail to rail by a backhoe in full operation. There was truly no way to pass discreetly, without interruption. About 200 feet below the bridge's platform burbled one of the many creeks that feed the Little North Santiam River. Steep forested banks on either side of the bridge made a descent to its waters beyond peril, just as they made it impossible to detonate explosive charges in outrage. The return from an unfulfilled hike was full of curses and resentment, but the shame might might've been harder to bear. Shame at the lack of foresight to check trail conditions. Shame at the lack of courage to ask the construction crew for an exception to their rule.


At the Opal Creek trailhead, a map shows in very stark detail the path of Forest Road 2209 and the course of the Little North Santiam in parallel, just south of the road. Unnoted on the map, of course, are tens of improvised trails that connect the river to the forest road. On the southern side of FR2209, the map reads, is a Scenic Recreation Area. On the northern side is Opal Creek Wilderness. The difference? The Scenic Recreation Area permits mineral collection. Where minerals can be collected, rivers can be forded.

In other words, the rules don't apply to the creative adventurer.

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To tide you over

An homage to my sister's homage of a better photographer's good idea. I went to Columbia Hills State Park a couple weeks ago, and I'm still editing photos. I took about one million of them. I'm also adding audio and video to these posts, which adds an extra dimension of complexity—I haven't spent a lot of time editing either, but I want to progress continually toward realism with the scenes I recreate here. Alas, this requires time.

The morning light served our photographic purposes well. Low-angled light illuminated the mist plumes that rose from the waterfall's point of impact.

In the interim, I went to Abiqua Falls yesterday, a far shorter and less photo-intense adventure. Information is widely available on the web, so I won't spend a lot of time huffing about it here. The falls and the "basaltic amphitheater" it created are spectacular—just go already.

At a measured height of 92 feet, those who kayaked over Abiqua's precipice were thought to be world record holders. At 92 feet, no one cares because that's a *#$%ing long way to fall.

Word to the wise: Plan on parking at the top of the 2.25-mile spur to the "trailhead." This is immediately after turning off of Crooked Finger Road onto a road marked only with an "off-road vehicle staging area" sign.* The parking is extremely limited at the bottom, and you may get blocked in by other vehicles. In addition, the road down is as choppy and undermaintained as it's reputed to be. If you don't have a high-clearance vehicle, definitely park higher up.

The aforementioned basalt. Here it is fractured in a beautiful honeycomb pattern.

This photo is interactive. Click on them and drag your cursor to pan left, right, up or down. On a Mac, iPhone or iPad, standard gestures will also zoom in or out. For a bigger viewer, click View on Google Maps in the upper left corner. If you think you’re nuts, get some of these.

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*Alternatively, you could park on one of the spurs along the way down, just don't park at the bottom. There's a huge quarry-ish area where we found a VW Bug, for example.

Park here. If memory serves me, it's about 1.5 to 2 miles away from the Abiqua trail, as it were, but you'll avoid complications on the way out.

Hills like down pillows

Suspended above Drift Creek, the North Fork drops 66 feet, creating this stunner. Drift Creek doesn't impress as the kind of place to produce spectacle. About two hours outside of downtown Portland, the drive feels at times more rewarding than the hike itself, despite enduring about an hour of suburban traffic between Portland and Newberg. (A commuter corridor where, it should be noted, there seems to be an abundance of Stetsons, a detail that pleases me so much that I refrain from absolutely unloading on the uncoordinated traffic interchanges at regular intervals of 300 yards and the mile upon mile of low density commercial and the peripatetic packs of 30 year-old men on scooters and the—I hate the area. But I love the hats.)

Without a macro lens, many of these intimate shots are less detailed than they could've been. Nevertheless, forests are full of life that's easy to miss.

Thereafter, the country crumples like an unmade bed, and I found myself in the heart of wine country, the Yamhill Valley. I've been here many times—to Dayton, Amity, Willamina, St. Paul—but the idyllic beauty of this bucolic landscape strikes me only now. The hills roll like down pillows, the vines fall like hair. I counted about a thousand sheep before Route 18 slipped deep into Siuslaw National Forest. There the familiar weight of temperate rainforest returns, the bite of cold air, the musk of decay. The ferns and the firs and the clover and the hollowed out stumps that crumble to the touch. (I found Spirit Mountain Casino there. Who knew?)

Twenty or thirty miles of highway and backroads later, I arrived at the Drift Creek Trailhead. There were many cars, more people, a shed with bathrooms and a trail. If this sounds underwhelming, it's because it was.

Wahh, waaaah.

OK, I should probably back this up a bit. I have a preexisting relationship with the Coast Range, and there's a certain protocol I follow when going there. The drives are longer, so I handpick the music, which if habit is any indication tends to be a combination of Pink Floyd and Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Imagine, if you will, the sinusoidal ups and downs of hills and valleys to Dark Side of the Moon against the high-pitched ambient buzz of a four-cylinder engine. The conspiracy of forces has a sort of somnolent effect on me, I am neither asleep nor awake, and the first time I experienced this odd transformation, I explored an abandoned railroad line along the Salmonberry River on a Tuesday, not a soul in sight, just me and the coyote who wanted to eat my lunch. I can't think of anything to say except... I think it's marvelous.

A carpet of clover.

TL;DR: I was really disappointed when a crowded parking lot opened upon scrub alder and the clusterfuck of tangled undergrowth that typifies forest 50 years young amid the lingering putrefaction of trailhead bathrooms.

I was wrong.

It took a quarter-mile to let go of my hate, and once I did the forest sprang to life. I take no pleasure in photographing forest undergrowth—I just can't do it right—so I went small instead, sticking my nose in the little places that get lost in the big picture. Even the people brightened up. There's a weird unspoken hiker's code that dictates greetings for each and every hiker passed, and it was in full effect at Drift Creek; no economical "hello!" for entire groups here.

Green, green, green. It's still early in spring, so the full spectrum of color has yet to arrive in the forest.

The trail descends 500 feet in ambling switchbacks, then flattens as it follows the contours of the land for a solid mile. Deeper into the forest, much of the disheartening roadside scrub fades away and the land acquires more character. Evidence of old growth can be found in places: a carpet of clover surrounding the disemboweled remains of a Doug fir that must've been hundreds of years old when it fell; further on, across footbridges caked in mud, the trees rose like flying buttresses under a stained glass canopy.

These photos are interactive. Click on them and drag your cursor to pan left, right, up or down. On a Mac, iPhone or iPad, standard gestures will also zoom in or out. For a bigger viewer, click View on Google Maps in the upper left corner. If you think you’re nuts, get some of these. (This photo demonstrates the limit of what Google's app can do.)

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But none of these sights compared to what waited at the end. Drift Creek Falls isn't terribly tall, but you get every inch of its 66 feet. Before I was even aware of the creek's plunge, I encountered a 200-foot suspension bridge crossing the Drift Creek canyon floor 100 feet below. No big deal.

In August of 2010, the massive slab of rock at center broke from the main precipice and dramatically changed the appearance of the falls. Check out the difference.

The view of the falls is magnificent from every angle. I spent about an hour here to shoot photos and eat dinner. After an hour back up the trail, I headed home.

Small rapids near the base of Drift Creek Falls.

Photospheres from Silver Falls State Park

One of my five-year plans is to get into 360-degree photography. These days, this is incredibly easy to do–pick up your smart phone, download a Google app called Photo Sphere Camera, and start snapping pics. I'd actually recommend that you download the app for viewing as well, especially if you have an iPad. In addition to photography, it allows you to use the tablet as a viewer, and you can look around a photosphere by moving the iPad around. Photos take a while, and it'll make you look a little bit like a goofball as you stand in one spot and take about 30 consecutive photos—at least one guy glared at me—but the result is worth it. I've taken a couple trips to do this in the past month, one a teaser for a much longer journey that's part of a mapping project I want to put together. The more recent, a trip to Silver Falls State Park, was much more spectacular. I've never been to Silver Falls, and I shy from heavily trafficked natural areas for reasons I have trouble defending, but I'm telling you, this is one of the most amazing places in Oregon. On a good day, after we've had a lot of rain, the falls are roaring. We were lucky enough to visit on a day when the park was relatively deserted. Aside from a time commitment that forced us to speed up a leisurely pace, it was one of the best hiking days I've had in a long time.

Anyway, I took a lot of photospheres, found out that "photosphere" is a cumbersome word that sounds really nerdy when you say you're about to take them, and emasculated myself on a huge log that blocked the trail. Be forewarned that the photos aren't perfect, so any floating heads, arms, or other human appendages (which you'll find) are merely technological defects and not the evidence of gratuitous violence. In time, the technology will improve and the task will become less demanding. In the meantime, here are some of my favorites. There are around 15 of these. You can look a few here, but for best viewing, check out my profile on Google Views.

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Double Falls
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Middle North Falls
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Middle North Falls from inside
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North Falls

I shot a video, too:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tu8vkGWtJ8E]

And how about a few more photos for posterity:

In what felt like old growth, Doug Firs like this had to be 150-200 feet tall. Some of them were double trees with trunks that split a quarter of the way up.

Panorama taken at the entrance to the park, facing west toward Silverton and I-5. The valley is shrouded in fog.