Sunday, April 19, 2020

North Bank Habitat - Thistle Ridge/North Gate Loop

I'm actually OK with this socially distant hiking, it melds well with my personality. Or maybe I'm confusing "socially distant" with "socially awkward". At any rate, I spend enough time walking in the woods by myself that I really don't have to make any major adjustments to my hiking style other than frantically bailing off the trail in terror when another hiker appears on the trail, accidentally getting within my social nearness boundary. Come to think of it, that's not all that abnormal a hiking behavior for me, either.

Wild iris purpled up the hike
Staying at home these days has been fairly easy as I'm retired and there's always yard work or no work to entertain me. Besides which, Mrs. O'Neill is working from home so there's always company even though that requires me to mimic socially acceptable behavior. But it's a different story for my friend Jay, however. He too is working from home and he's a programmer so it's just him and the computer screen all day long. Apparently, he's getting cabin fever, for he asked if I could take him hiking, socially-distant style. So off to the North Bank Habitat we went (in separate vehicles) and when I picked up a gopher snake slithering across the trail, we became extremely socially distant when he fled screaming for the next time zone to the east.

Panoramal activity
The original plan percolating in my brain was a loop involving the Middle Ridge Road from the western trailhead. However, the trailhead parking lot was full of vehicles so I made a spur of the moment decision to continue to the eastern trailhead. The Habitat's gate was locked of course, and we added our vehicles to the cars parked outside the gate. The developed trailheads are closed these days to prevent cars and people from congregating in the parking lots but all that happens is people congregate at the point of closure anyway, but there we are.

It it's in the North Bank, it goes uphill
Anyway, to avoid coming into contact with would-be virus spreading people-type persons, we grabbed the Thistle Ridge Road instead of taking the well-used gravel road to the Comstock Day Use Area. Immediately, the trail angled uphill and that was Jay's first exposure (from a socially distant distance of ten to fifteen feet behind me) to what is typical hiking in the North Bank. Initially, the scenery wasn't particularly awesome as we hiked under some buzzing power lines but once we left those behind us, it was all good for the rest of the day.

Blazing star blazes away

After a short and rather utilitarian climb away from the power lines, the junction with the Deer Hollow Tie Trail was reached and I was back on familiar territory, seeing as how I had hiked this same trail just several weeks ago. But what a difference a few weeks can make! On this day, the grass was green and lush instead of just sprouting like a couple of weeks ago, and wildflowers were blooming in rampant profusion.

The prettiest evilest leaf ever
Also growing rampantly but not green, were thick patches of poison oak bushes. I tested Jay quickly, because he is a both a hiking and Oregon neophyte, and I'm proud to say my student passed the exam each and every time by correctly pointing out the poison oak when asked. In the sunny patches of trail, which was about 90% of the hike, the leaves were coming out in shades of dark red, burgundy, and sometimes nearly black in color. I generally try to stay away from Satan's favorite shrub but in this case, I made an exception as I was quite struck by the beauty of the oily itch-spreading leaves. Anyway, I got within the plant's personal space to take some photos of the colorful foliage. Normally, I try to stay at least two miles away from the accursed itch disseminating bushes.

Parallel lines
The trail headed uphill across grassy slopes before ducking into a forest on a relatively level trail. Where I had struggled with the muddy track several weeks ago, the trail was now dry and hard-packed, just like me! And after walking out of the forest, it was time to soak in the totally awesome view down to Whistlers Bend.

The view to Whistlers Bend never gets old
Rain and clouds had been an issue on my prior hike but not today. The sky was a deep blue and there were just a handful of small clouds floating in the sky. While the sun was out, the breeze upwelling from the creek valleys kept us cool and the air had that clarity and crispness normally reserved for a clear day in winter. And below the aforementioned deep blue sky, the North Umpqua River idly circled the peninsula of Whistlers Bend. Surrounding farms greened up the valley with pastures, and the terrain was dotted with farm ponds. Just a magnificent scene and we took a short break just to take it all in for a few minutes.

The Thistle Ridge trail goes through a thicket of oak trees
The kind and gentle grade at the overlook soon became just a distant memory, driven out of our thoughts by burning quad muscles as we continually headed uphill on Thistle Ridge first, then Middle Ridge next, both bereft of shade of any sort. Our leg pain was assuaged somewhat by fantastic views of the North Umpqua River and windblown Middle Ridge looming in front of us. The terrain was all covered in grass, which was well-populated with flowering blue-eyed grass which is in fact, yellow-eyed and not actually a grass. Who names these things, anyway?

At the intersection with the North Gate Road, we availed ourselves of the facilities which consisted of just a picnic table and an awesome view. We spent a little bit of time there to eat lunch, rest, and relax. I had a notion of continuing up to the North Boundary Ridge but once we started up yet another steep section of trail, the whining started and not necessarily from Jay, either! No problem, it was still a beautiful day and hike, so we backtracked and headed down the steep North Gate Road.

A gopher snake on the trail and Jay was nowhere to be seen
Wild iris was in bloom all around the trail and as I was photographing several, I noticed a large gopher snake basking in the warm sunlight. Seconds later, the snake was in my hands hissing and showing its teeth and that's how I found out that not only does Jay really not like snakes, he doesn't even like people picking them up either. I also found out his voice could squeal high enough to drop stunned squirrels out of trees. We were able to resume both hiking and our friendship once the snake was returned to its grassy habitat.  

Blue-eyed grass is yellow-eyed and not really a grass
By this time, we were down in Soggy Bottom, which was no longer soggy, and a short walk on the gravel road returned us to our vehicles. Most of the vehicles were gone and despite all the cars parked there in the morning, we only saw only one other hiker all day, a woman out hiking with her children (candidate for Mom of the Year, in my opinion) on Middle Ridge. Generally, most people probably avoid the steep trails and do the easier hikes to either Soggy Bottom or Blacktail Basin. Me, I'll probably keep going on the steeper routes to maintain that social distancing protocol and avoid people like the socially awkward hiker person that I am.

Just a gorgeous day in the North Bank
For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album

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