Tuesday, October 6, 2020

North Umpqua Trail (Hot Springs Segment)

In many ways, this hike was all about the devastating Archie Creek Fire, even though the Hot Springs Segment of the North Umpqua Trail (NUT) emerged unscathed from that massive conflagration. The drive to the trailhead went through more than twenty-five miles (no exaggeration!) of carnage and charred detritus left behind when the flames receded. The lower segments of the NUT are just acres and acres of black trees and scorched earth with wisps of smoke still curling from live embers. The highway was littered with rocks, landslides, and fallen trees and you could smell the smoke in the air. Charred ruins were all that remained of homes and lives shattered by the roaring fire. Already well engaged in the business of cleaning up the mess, virtual armies of construction workers and government vehicles were as pervasive as a swarm of foraging yellowjackets. Given the end-of-the-world vibe of the burn area, it was nearly a religious experience when the fire zone was left behind and I was able to drive through green forest again, as if the fire had never happened.

Peace like a forest trail

I generally try to hike the Hot Springs Segment in mid-October when the fall colors are at their most colorful and bright. However, I was a bit ahead of the autumn curve and most of the vine maples and dogwoods were just light green or pastel yellow. That's OK though, because the stretch of trail next to the river is serene and peaceful, its calming vibe providing succor and nourishment to a troubled soul such as myself. Besides which, walking on any trail these days that is not black and ashy is a good hike.

The North Umpqua River, flowing next to its namesake trail

The first mile or so of hiking is a wander through a forest mostly comprised of Douglas fir with the odd big-leaf maple tree here and there. If you like Oregon grape, ferns, and tall trees, then this is your place. After a series of ups and downs high above the river mostly hidden by trees, the trail dropped down to the river's edge and commenced my favorite stretch of trail on the Hot Springs Segment. Here, the forest arcs over the trail like the nave of a Gothic cathedral. The path was covered with a layer of dead leaves and of course, my old friend the North Umpqua River provided companionship on the left side.

My hiking pole was sacrificed for this photo

However, my friendship with the river was sorely taxed by an acrimonious dispute over ownership of a hiking pole. The Hot Springs segment is halved where Forest Road 3401 crosses both trail and river. The trail also crosses from one side of the river to the other with a nice view of the flowing waters as you cross. Nice views means stopping for photographs and I was doing that very thing when suddenly I was distracted by a series of metallic pings. Looking down in the direction of the sound, I was horrified to see one of my hiking poles rattling through a gap in the bridge railings. "Nooooo..." I gasped as the pole slipped through and dropped into the river with an audible plop. Where it fell was fairly shallow so I figured I'd just wade out and retrieve the errant pole. But who knew those damn things float? At any rate I bid a tearful farewell to Lefty Pole (also known as $89) as he floated on out of sight in the river's current. Ah Lefty, you survived deer raids and many a rough trail, and this is how it ends.

Vine maple, hedging bets whether tis autumn or summer

After saying goodbye to my old friend, I headed back onto the trail. The path inclined and I did something I haven't done in decades: hike without my poles. It felt so weird. But the route was now on the sunny side of the river and in forest sunbeams, the vine maple leaves turned toward the yellow and orange end of the color spectrum. Living in the moment, I soon forgot about my painful loss. 

Forest untouched by fire, as it should be

Going past the stout bridge spanning Deer Creek, I continued on to the trail junction with the path leading to Umpqua Hot Springs, currently closed because of damage to the wooden shelter. An all-female crew was removing the destroyed shelter by toting the stout timbers thereof on their strong backs. When you factor in the back-and-forth hike from the trailhead to the hot springs and back with a load of wood on your back, that's some hard physical labor. On behalf of the naked people that frequent the springs, I offer up a tip of a hat to the hard work being done by the Forest Service crew. I'm sure the naked people will appreciate not getting slivers or rusty nails in inconvenient places.

The watery grave of my hiking pole

Call me irrational, but on the return leg, at every available opportunity, I made my way to the river in the vain hope that somehow I would find my hiking pole washed up onto the riverbank. Needless to say that did not happen but on the plus side, I now have a new pair of hiking poles.

The Golden Trail

For more photos from this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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