Sunday, September 16, 2018

North Umpqua Trail - Tioga Segment

The last couple of years, backpacking the 79-mile North Umpqua Trail (or NUT) had been on the calendar for a grand summer adventure. And in the last couple of years, forest fires have ensured that I hike somewhere else other than on the North Umpqua Trail. However, the 2017 North Umpqua Fire was a doozy, hanging around the North Umpqua River (and trail) for most of the summer, smothering Roseburg in thick choking smoke for the duration thereof. After that fire, the North Umpqua Trail was closed for quite some time while the Forest Service cleared the trail of downed trees, replaced bridges, and put new trail in over landslides. Just recently, the closed sections of the NUT had been reopened, giving us hikers an opportunity to assess the damage.

Now, I've always found burn areas to be beautiful in their own way. Acres and acres of silver snags point upward to a blue sky, pleasing both eye and camera; small songbirds twitter and flitter about; woodpeckers jackhammer the dead trees; and fireweed explodes in flowery exuberance on the forest floor. But, to be honest, I usually hike the burn zones long after the fires have subsided. This would be a rare opportunity to explore a fire-charred forest within a year of the last flames being extinguished.

In case I didn't know or notice
Luna (my dog) and I set out on the trail under gray and threatening sky. It had rained on the drive to the Wright Creek Trailhead but for the moment, the rain let up. What did not let up was Luna's compulsion to be be the one in front. I had to continually assert myself as the Alpha Dog, which I did by extending my hiking pole sideways, blocking her way to the front of the line, lightly rapping her on the nose and noggin should she not get the hint. Relentless, she started bushwhacking up and around the reach of those pesky and irritating titanium dog-smacking hiking poles. If this keeps up, electricity will soon be involved when we hike.

The undergrowth already is reclaiming the forest
But this is not a dog-training blog, and enough already about my canine-related travails. At the trailhead, a brand new sign warned of falling rocks and debris, due to the recent fire. And just in case all the dead trees weren't clue enough, the sign also advised we were about to enter a burned area. Undeterred by the warning, we headed up the trail and it was immediately apparent that death would be the theme of the day. Miles and miles of dead and scorched trees, not yet going photogenically skeletal white. You could almost still smell the smoke, and the ground was covered by a layer of dry pine needles dropped from dead or dying trees. The gray and overcast sky matched the mood perfectly.

Rain on oxalis
Despite the destruction wrought by the fire, there was still plenty of life to be found. The undergrowth was vigorous and robust, consisting of fireweed, wild rose, candy flower, vanilla leaf, and wild ginger, just to namedrop a few. Dense carpets of oxalis covered the damper segments of trail, with water drops beading on the clover-like leaves in camera-pleasing fashion. Unfortunately, the increased sunlight due to the lack of trees led to a robust outburst of poison oak but at least the leaves were turning red, imparting a hint of autumn to the trail. Nothing kills poison oak, not even an immolating forest fire.

How madrone survives fire
Fire is a part of the cycle of life of a forest and it was interesting to see how the trees handled the fire. Madrone sends up new growth from its roots and it was quite common to see green shoots circling the base of a dead or dying tree. The thick bark of the Douglas fir is the first line of defense from the heat of a fire and larger trees had blackened trunks but green tops, while younger trees did not survive the fire at all.

What was this guy doing in a burn zone?
There wasn't much in the way of wildlife in the unusually quiet forest, apart from a few twittering birds. Didn't see any sign of elk, deer, bear, or scat thereof on the trail. I have no doubt though, that come next spring, the forest will nevertheless be populated by an overwhelming population of mosquitoes and poison oak bushes. Hmm, maybe things that make you itch are resistant to all potential mechanisms of extinction, including a searing forest fire. That therory would also bode well for ticks, regrettably. However, most surprisingly, I did encounter a forest snail slithering on the trail. How on earth did that snail survive the fire?

Thunder Creek, on its way to the North Umpqua River
At about the two mile mark, Thunder Creek came into view, waterfalling down the steep slope as the creek tumbled toward the mostly hidden North Umpqua River.  Amazingly, the wooden bridge spanning Thunder Creek had survived the fire intact and untouched. No doubt, humidity from the creek played a significant part in the preservation of the rustic footbridge. The creek was not thundering much, as it was running low this late into summer. From the creek crossing, the NUT then headed uphill to the first of two rocky points of interest.

View of the fire-damaged forest
The first point required a bushwhack over burned and fallen trees to a rocky overlook of the North Umpqua River canyon. The river was maybe a hundred feet below but just one step away, if one were so inclined or careless enough to do that. We weren't so inclined, so we stayed safely in the middle of the promontory, my hand firmly holding onto the dog leash. I am the Alpha Dog, remember? On the crown of the point, several madrones were severely singed yet their crowns still were a leafy green, with orange limbs and trunks interwoven into a dense tangle beneath the leaves. Looking down the canyon, the forest was a patchwork quilt of live and dead trees. That was kind of surprising, because from our firsthand experience, it seemed like it was all dead forest when hiking through it.

This bench survived while surrounding bushes did not
Continuing on further, we hiked to a more prominent point referred to as Elevation Rock by my hiking crowd, although it is nameless on the map. This overlook served up an epic view of the North Umpqua River curving around a bend, with the North Umpqua Highway following the river on the opposite side. No, this is not your remote and isolated wilderness hike. The forested hills surrounding the canyon all disappeared into the cloud cover as we sat on a bench and ate lunch. The aforementioned bench has always been one of my favorite benches and I was overjoyed to see that it too, had survived the fire.

Old wasp nest on the trail
By this time, I really had gotten tired and irritated at having to continually assert my dominance over one of the most bone-headed life forms on this planet. I would have let Luna loose, but she has no filters and is liable to disappear off trail in search of a squirrel or swim, or maybe a squirrel and a swim, or a swimming squirrel even. My option was to continue the fight for another 1.5 miles of trail down to Fox Creek, or give up the venture for now. Not sure what this says about my Alpha-Doggedness, but we cut the hike short and headed back to the car, happy with a short 6 mile hike.

Itchy, itchy!
So, back down the trail we went, this time stopping to photograph the red poison oak leaves. I felt sort of unclean and itchy doing that, but I'm glad to report that my camera did not develop a skin rash within a week of this hike. If there was any justice in  this world, mosquitoes would bite poison oak leaves and both life forms would then know of the itchy madness they spread. But alas, there is no justice in this world, and I'm sure they will both be waiting for me when I finally get to backpack the North Umpqua Trail.

Pine needles covered all
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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