Saturday, November 28, 2020

South Slough

South Slough has definitely grown on me. For years I'd turned up my nose at its little five(ish) mile loop but after enjoying the incredibly lush forests, well groomed trails, and awesome slough scenery it's safe to say I've been a convert for several years now. So, when the Friends of the Umpqua penciled the reserve (the wordy formal name is South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve) onto their calendar, I figured I'd join in, especially since a hike is so much more relaxing when one is not in charge of the outing.

A little worse for the wear but still green

It was late November, right in the middle of winter's icy commencement but you'd never know it by hiking on the South Slough trails. While thimbleberry and deer fern were well in the process of shutting down for the winter, most of the other predominant vegetation such as moss, ferns, salal, and rhododendron were very much from the green arc of the color wheel. Accordingly, green was still the dominant color along the trail and if you ignored the yellowing thimbleberry leaves, then it looked and felt a lot like spring, especially since the sun was out.

A log surrenders to the inevitable

The hike started pleasantly enough for it went downhill for the first couple of miles or so. Of course, we would pay for all that nice downhill goodness, but why worry about it now? Let's just live in the moment and enjoy the easy hiking while we can! As we angled down to the slough, directionally and relatively unimaginatively named North Creek birthed into existence when hundreds of rivulets and rills trickling down the slough's rim braided together into one stream. The babbling of creek and comrades both was a constant as we hiked down the gently sloping and heavily forested creek canyon.   

Unclear on the concept of camouflage 

The well-maintained trail was quite civilized, so much so that I began a desperate search for a fallen tree to climb over, a landslide to scramble across, or a bear to growl at; anything else to break up the overt niceness of the path. The only thing I could find that added an element of wildness to the hike was a faint side trail that led down to an overlook of the North Creek arm of South Slough (labeled as Sloughside Marsh on the printable trail map). The partial view was nice and the thick brush simultaneously scratched my arms, face, legs, and Richard-hike itch. Plus, there were some bright red coral fungi sprouting out of the damp earth, looking more at home in a Martian rock garden than on a Pacific Northwest forest floor.

Bridge crossing between marshes Sloughside and Rhodes 

Normally, the brackish waters of the slough just idly pool by with no discernible movement. However on this day, the tide was clearly and visibly waning as the slough slowly emptied its water into Coos Bay, unseen and several miles to the north. The dropping water level exposed mud flats myopically blinking their light-sensitive eyes in the bright morning sun. After crossing a gracefully arching bridge spanning the gap between marshes Sloughside and Rhodes, we reached a five-way trail junction which led to at least five choices of where to hike next.

Old pilings gradually disappear into the slough

We ended up hiking four out of the five trail offerings which is at least a B on a surprise quiz in calculus class. The Sloughside Trail, as its name suggests, follows the slough on a trail atop an old eroding and crumbling dike. Best to hike it while it still exists, kids! The view atop the old berm is epic though, as you stare downstream in the general direction of Coos Bay, which the slough empties into or fills from, depending on whether the tide is incoming or outgoing. 

It's called Tunnel Trail because...?

After eating lunch on some wooden viewing platforms on the nearby Marsh Edge Trail, we grabbed the Tunnel Trail to begin the work of closing off this loop hike. The path was a wide track flanked by thick shrubbery that arched overhead, mingling and then comingling with thick shrubbery doing the same thing from the other side. The colliding vegetation forms a tunnel for hikers to hike through (and a convenient people-trap for deer to waylay said hikers) which is why it's called the Tunnel Trail.

Welcome to the Kingdom of Sloo

Another lengthy gawk-stop took place at a two-tiered viewing platform whose decks and inter-tree walkways had me wanting to revisit my childhood and play Gobblers and Monkeys all over again. The trail exuded a fantasy novel vibe as we hiked out of a marshy arm of the slough on a mile-long zigzagging boardwalk bisecting the marsh at water level before continuing into the woods. I use the term "water level" loosely because all you could see next to the boardwalk was marsh grass, reeds, and skunk cabbage, all of which seriously encroached the wooden walkway. However, if you were to step off, you would find yourself waist deep in brackish water wondering why you ever did such a thing.

If I don't go in, the deer can't eat me

The hiking had been easy so far but our vehicles were still parked on the slough's rim and since we were at slough level, it was now time to do a little work in the form of hiking uphill. The path inclined through woods lush and green while Hidden Creek (which was not at all very well hidden) trickled musically right next to the trail. But going uphill allows hikers-cum-photographers to use photography of fungi, vegetation, and trail tunnels as the means of masking tiredness engendered by challenging gravity when walking uphill, not that I ever do any of that!

It's just a matter of perspective

For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Threemile Lake Loop

Slowly, I walked past every enclosure, peering analytically at each forlorn sad-eyed inhabitant residing within. The godlike power of my pending decision weighed upon me, as my choice would autocratically decree by capricious fiat who would be loved in a happy home and who would not. Desperate pleas emanated from each container: "Pick me, pick me! I'll fetch!" "I promise to scratch YOUR belly!" "Oh whatever, I'm housetrained!" So hard to pick just one, you just kind of want to take them all home with you. But a decision had to be made. "Hmm.." I mused "I'll take this one". And that is the story of how I bought a brand new pair of Keen hiking boots. Initially, the boots were deliriously happy to be going home with me but may have changed their minds when on their maiden outing, they had to endure a bushwhack venture around Threemile Lake.

Life is good (so far!) for new boots

At the outset, I took it easy on the boots with a nice and easy stroll on the beach. As we hiked on the seashore under a deep blue sky with nary a cloud in sight, the sun shone brightly yet the temperatures remained pleasantly mild. It was low tide and the surf roared some distance from the wet sand I was walking on. The retreating tide had left behind a smorgasbord of ocean souvenirs for our perusal, mostly in the form of sea shells, seaweed, and driftwood.

Reindeer lichen thrived on the forest floor

At Exit 115A, marked by an obvious sign colored florescent yellow, it was time to leave the beach and hike up through forest and dune to Threemile Lake. The lake was not all that full of water and an exposed isthmus divided the long and slender lake into two nearly equal-sized bodies of water. Upon the lake's waters, the ever-changing caprices of a light breeze set wind zephyrs to whirling and cavorting in joyful abandonment like so many attendees dancing at a reggae festival. 

The north end of Threemile Lake

After sliding and striding down a steep sandy chute plunging from the lake's overlook, my boots made some kind of complaint about being filled with both sand and stinky feet. I could empty out the sand but just like my poor wife, the boots would have to suck it up and endure my putrid feet for the remainder of their lives. After perfunctorily pouring out the sand accumulated in the shoes, it was time for the bushwhacking segment of this hike to commence. However, the bushwhacking initially consisted of a mere walk along bare shoreline and was not at all rigorous.

"Your mission, should you choose to accept..."

The easy hiking made fairly quick work of the first of the two lakes, my progress startling ducks who took flight and landed elsewhere on the lake where there was less likelihood of incredibly handsome hikers disturbing their peaceful quackery. Things changed though, as I neared the isthmus cleaving the lake in two. Water pooled behind the isthmus in a series of bays and coves and I walked across one such bay that had dried out, the formerly muddy soil now cracked and baked by the sun.

Trust me, that is not terra firma!

Yikes! The soil may have been cracked like a tiled floor but underneath, the ground was as soft and gooey as caramel. So, in order to get around this disguised quagmire, a scratchy detour through thick brush was performed out of necessity. The bushwhacking became a tedious mano a mano mortal combat, making the remaining two miles or so of remaining lakeshore seem like a near insurmountable obstacle in my way.

A mile or so of fallen trees made this hike even "better"!

Things got worse on the second lake, for not only was there soft mud to contend with, but fallen trees blocked the way and I spent an inordinate amount of time and effort slithering through the tangle like the most ungainly and clumsiest hog-nosed snake ever. Except snakes don't wear new boots and on more than one occurrence I thought I might irretrievably lose said boots in the sucking mud. The banks here sloped steeply into the lake and my ankles were feeling the strain of the constant sidehilling as I walked. Additionally, it was getting to be late afternoon and when the winter sun ducked behind the forested ridge above the lake, it started to get quite cold. Whose idea was this anyway?

An agaric stands straight and tall

Perseverance and effort won out in the end, and eventually there was no more lake to bushwhack past and it'd be time to walk on a real trail. Once on the path, I hiked as fast as I could to ward off the increasing chill. But really, the trail leaving the lake was pretty steep as it climbed through the forest, so I didn't just zip along either. Occasional pauses for rest were supplemented by photography of mushrooms sprouting in the forest duff and moss on the ground.

A fading sun lights up a fading thimbleberry leaf

A short walk on gravel Sparrow Park Road closed this surprisingly tough hike off. At the car, I dug through the mud glommed onto my boots and located the shoelaces hidden within. After I removed my boots, they informed me they wanted to return to the store and take their chances with all the other lost soles. 

Shadow Man says "Look at my muddy Shadow Boots!"

For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Tahkenitch Dunes Loop

I pretty much hike alone these days. There's a pandemic going on of course, so being in a crowd of people is more dangerous than juggling running chainsaws while wearing oven mitts. But besides the virus avoidance reasons, I also use the quiet trail time to converse with myself which kind of keeps me grounded mentally, because there's certainly been enough of life's adversities this year on top of the pandemic. Plus, if I talk to myself in the forest and there is no cat and dog to hear me (like they do at home), I don't have to pet or feed them to assuage their fuzzy-headed fears that their Lord and Master's rubber toy no longer squeaks, metaphorically speaking. But even though hiking alone has its benefits in terms of physical and mental health, you can only spend so much "me time" before you begin to desperately crave human company. That's why, even though I hiked at Tahkenitch Dunes just over a month ago, I accepted an invite to reprise this beautiful coastal hike with Penny, John, Jennifer, and Cleve, because every incredibly handsome lone wolf has to howl with the pack every now and then.

Sublimity on the coast

You couldn't pick a better day for hiking, it was absolutely gorgeous. Nothing but mostly blue sky above with bright sun casting a warm glow over the Oregon coast and into the hearts of hikers. There were some clouds scudding overhead like so many floating fluffy pillows, aesthetically pleasing to both human eye and camera, and blotting out just enough sun to keep temperatures cool and perfect for hiking in. All life should be like such a day on the beach, forest, and dunes!

Don't tread on me!

Before we could get to that sunny beach paradise though, we had to hike up and over a deeply shaded ridge crest. We ran into many other hikers, mostly in the form of rough-skinned newts crawling on the forest floor, each enjoying their own quiet trail time until we picked them up. Their brown coloring made them hard to see on the earthen trail so we stepped carefully and hand-carried amphibian captives off the trail for their own safety. We didn't lick or eat any (their skin is highly toxic), making both hikers and newts grateful. At any rate, I'm glad to report that I did not see any squished newts, which is always a disappointing sight. 

A salmonberry leaf basks in the morning sunlight
As stated, the first part of the hike was on a ridge covered by a forest lush and green. Sunbeams fought through a thick skein of tree branches to reach the forest floor. Where they beamed onto salmonberry and rhododendron bushes, the leaves glowed green, further adding to the emerald-colored ambience of the forest. Moss covered the forest floor and the whole vibe was so pleasant I barely noticed the steep climb up and over the forested ridge between the campground and coast. 

Do not stare directly without putting on dark eyewear first

It's not unusual to see fungus in a coastal forest, given all the decaying biomass on the ground, but what was unusual this day was a veritable Great Barrier Reef of coral fungus populating the forest floor. Most were of the usual coloration, ranging from light beige to a darker brown-orange. However, a significant percentage were colored a bright Chernobyl red, like something you would find in the core of a nuclear reactor in full meltdown. Much photography abounded and no radiation burns were suffered by any of the hikers in our group.

Some of that dense vegetation flanking the trail

The walk to a backpack campsite near Threemile Lake was pleasant, if only for the fact that most of it was downhill once the ridge was crested. At the lake, the forest transitioned to sandy dunes and encroaching deflation plain forest, which is a younger and smaller-treed version of the woods we had just hiked through. I left my little group behind to execute to a side-trip to Threemile Lake's worthy overlook while my companions hied it for the beach for rest and repast. After a look-see at the lake, I rejoined my peeps eating lunch on a large log on the beach.

The charge of the Barefoot Brigade

After a lunch and laze spent eating and watching white clouds birthing into and dying out of existence over a roaring surf, we divided into two groups. Jennifer, John, Penny, and Cleve all formed an impromptu Barefoot Brigade by removing shoes and walking in the cold surf. The rest of us, consisting of just me in lone wolf mode, kept boots on and made faster progress along the beach as a result, despite being slowed up somewhat by the camera.

Jellyfish on a "sand" wich!

After a mile or so of walking at the ocean's edge, kicking up seafoam before a brisk sea breeze carried it away, further progress north was blocked by Tahkenitch Creek running across the beach strand. The creek wasn't all that full, so I could have waded across but instead decided to rejoin the anti-shoers sitting on yet another large log putting on their boots. As a proud pro-booter, I waited patiently for them to shoe themselves. In return, they would soon leave me behind, eating their sandy trail dust.

Mother and child

After crossing tidal flats carved into abstract patterns by the retreating tide at Tahkenitch Creek's mouth, we grabbed the trail back toward the dunes. The deflation plain forest was carpeted with pine needles, the decomposition of which supported a contingent of flapjack sized and shaped mushrooms. The older forest at the end of the trail also supported a healthy population of fungi, moss, and lichen and before long, Penny and I assumed our customary place well at the end of the hiking queue. But hey, we did acquire what seemed like thousands more fungi photos for our respective collections. All in all, it was another fun hike at the coast with good friends. I'll be good for another round of solo hikes now.

Nothing but blue sky (and clouds!) from now on

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

Monday, November 9, 2020

North Bank Habitat (Soggy Bottom/Blacktail Basin Loop)

Because the North Bank Habitat is only about a half-hour drive from my home, it gets a lot of use by your merry blogster. My frequent hikes in this particular locale have allowed me to experience all sorts of different aspects of the Habitat, which apparently has more emotional states than a mood ring. I've hiked there in winter when the rolling hills were coated with snow, having to watch my step because of icy trails. Been there in several rain storms too, leaving me wondering why I was out there in the first place when I could have stayed warm and dry at home. I've also slogged up the steep trails in triple-digit heat like a bug slow-crawling up a rock wall, also wondering why I was out there, albeit for the opposite temperature-related reason. And from personal experience, if you can catch a fogbound morning along the North Umpqua River, then the fog-filled valley vistas are absolutely stunning and well worth the toil and labor to hike above the cottony-looking fog cover. But up until now, in all my visits to the Habitat, I'd yet to really appreciate the Habitat's autumn garb.

The brown and bare terrain of the North Bank Habitat

The Habitat's terrain falls generally under the term "oak savannah" due to the stately and regal oak trees dotting the grassy slopes and pastures. Oak, like maple, does shed its leaves in the fall season but they just sort of brown out and drop off the tree without any of that color folderol and hoo-hah so favored by their flashy maple cousins. As a result, autumn will generally find me hiking in more flamboyant maple environs instead of the comparitively dull North Bank Habitat, where even the green grasses fade into an unnoteworthy brown color. So, imagine my surprise when this early November hike marvelously turned out to be all about autumn.

Enjoy the blue sky while it lasts, maple trees!

The morning was cool but the sky was gloriously blue as I started. It had gotten cold enough to freeze the night before, so ice crunched under my boots in the shady parts of the trail. A small creek flowed on the left side of the gravel road (all the trails in the habitats are old ranch roads), with small icicles dangling off of branches and rocks in the stream. Encroaching blackberry brambles sported bright red leaves here and there and I seemingly attempted to photograph each and every one. The oak trees had already dropped their leaves, leaving naked trees with bare scraggly branches clawing at the sky above.

Return of the fuzzy white stuff

A short walk on Soggy Bottom Road delivered me to Soggy Bottom and while the bottom was not all that soggy, frost accrued on grass blades and fallen leaves like beard stubble on a certain old and grizzled hiker. The track was covered with an increasingly thick and frosted layer of oak and maple leaves. While oak trees rule the Habitat, interspersed bigleaf maple trees do make an obvious yellow-leaved appearance among the denuded oaks. 

The golden road

So, this hike became all about autumn, thanks mostly to the maple trees. The trees were still adorned with plenty of leaves glowing golden yellow like so many marshmallow peeps in a microwave (Mom is still mad about that, thirty years after the fact!). The maples had been busy dropping leaves too, and the dirt road was carpeted with a healthy layer of fallen leaves that pleasantly swished as I waded through. Just follow the Yellow Leaf Road! This section of trail was absolutely sublime and I quickly became a dedicated convert to the cause of hiking at the North Bank in autumn.

Rain cometh, it has been foretold

As I gained elevation on the leaf-littered trail, a looming storm scudded in overhead and there'd be no more blue sky on this day. The Habitat's mood ring changed from bright blue to dark gray as befitting its new "it will rain today" emotional state. Virtually all trails in the Habitat, a former cattle ranch, go uphill at some point. On the plus side though, the thinning forest gave way to open grassy slopes and stunning views as the trail gained elevation. The trail contouring the relatively bare slopes served up expansive vistas of the North Umpqua River valley below, with the river glistening under the ever darkening sky. Much resting (oops, I meant to say photography!), ensued while hiking out of Soggy Bottom up to North Boundary Ridge.

The meeting place

As the trail neared Grumpy's Pond (named after Mrs. O'Neill, unless she's within earshot), the maples gave way to a thick stand of oaks with a heavy layer of dead leaves hiding the normally visible grasses growing underneath. I could just picture deer gathering here on moonlit nights to plot the overthrow of mankind "Let's have a hunting season for humans and see how they like it!" It's probably a good thing deer don't have opposable thumbs.

Just one blackberry leaf in a universe full of them

On North Boundary Ridge the terrain is fairly treeless and cold air currents upwelling from  surrounding valleys vigorously swept cold air across the crest, the breeze cutting right through this hiker's clothing. Where things had previously been cool or chilly, it was now officially downright cold. Fortunately though, the trail dropped down into sheltered Blacktail Basin and out of the arctic air currents. Once on the bottom of the basin, my pace slowed as I stopped frequently to admire the trickling creeks, bright  ochre-colored madrone berries, and dried teasel heads rustling in the wind like so many witch giggles. Occasional maple trees among the plentiful oaks were nearly bare, but a circle of golden leaves lay underneath each tree like dandruff on the shoulders of a co-worker. Bringing things full circle, colored blackberry leaves became a photography subject again, as the hiking festivities came to a close. I probably took pictures of exactly the same old leaves, too.


Oaks just have the gall!

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

Monday, November 2, 2020

North Umpqua Trail (Marsters Segment)

Four years ago, I hiked on the Marsters Segment of the North Umpqua Trail (NUT). Back then, the forest was lush and mostly green (sporting a little bit of autumn yellow, too) while dense and vibrant undergrowth of fern and salal carpeted the forest floor. It was so peaceful and beautiful and so impressed was I by the rampant vegetation and forest that four years later, I was given to say at a planning meeting "Say, I have a great idea for a hike!" I really should know better.

The North Umpqua on a cold late autumn morn

Sometime during the intervening years after that 2016 hike, fire had come to visit, plunder, and pillage this once and former green section of the NUT. Seems like lately, the North Umpqua River area is ground central for summer lightning strikes and accordingly, fire has become a yearly thing on the NUT. This year, the massive and catastrophic Archie Creek Fire immolated over 100,000 acres of beautiful riverside forest and as a result, about half of the NUT was rendered unusable and officially declared off-limits. I'm not sure which of the many fires in the area was responsible for ravaging the Marsters but at least the segment was open for business when I went there for a scouting trip in preparation for the upcoming Friends of the Umpqua Hiking Club venture.

If you like fire damage, then you will absolutely love the Marsters

It was obvious that the green forest residing in my memory pixels had succumbed to the fire. Gone were the salal and ferns, now supplanted by a post-fire population of fireweed and dewberry vines. The lush forest had been converted into several miles of blackened and dead trees, all victims of the fire's rampage. However, life was returning anew and young hardwood trees like bigleaf maple and dogwood were already establishing themselves on the blackened slopes above the North Umpqua River. Since this was late autumn, the young trees were adding yellow, pink, and orange colors to the otherwise stark terrain.  

This landslide was treacherous, yet I
stopped halfway across to take this photo

The bucolic woodland path of yesteryear was likewise gone, now transformed into an uneven and sketchy track undulating up and down across steep slopes. Even though it was ostensibly the same pleasant path I had hiked on in 2016, somehow the fire had imparted a rough and rocky quality to the trail. After a wildfire, trails become damaged by landslides and fallen trees and both of those obstacles were present to be contended with. There was one small slide that was not too bad but a more daunting second landslide was perched high above the river, and was fairly slick too, thanks to a small water runoff trickling down the face of the muddy scar. One really had to be very carefully picking one's way across the shifting soils of the slide and this One made sure to do that very thing.

Got some practice hiking through trees today

The trail crossed Deception Creek and several other small gullies by means of wooden footbridges that did not look new, and I was grateful they had either survived the fire or had been replaced shortly afterward. Either way, it would have been a tedious scramble in and out of the gullies without the bridges, considering each gully was choked and cluttered with litter and debris from the fire. As mentioned, there were plenty of fallen trees that were a pain in the you-know-what to scramble over, under, or around with one notable pile of many trees blocking the way as I neared the trailhead at Calf Creek. My people are going to hate me when we do the actual hike which, in my twisted way of thinking, makes the hike an absolute success!

Bridge across Deception Creek, which was
not named after me (but could have been)

This side of the river was not bathed in warm sunlight and it was a pretty chill day, but several layers of clothing combined with some exertion kept me plenty warm. Because of the cold air and lack of sunlight, the river was running dark, there'd be none of that distinctive North Umpqua River turquoise color today. Across the river, rugged forested slopes were bathed in warm sunlight as if to taunt one certain lone hiker suffering from light and warmth deprivation on the shady side of the river canyon. Local landmark Rattlesnake Rock was eminently visible on the other side of the river, along with an unnamed massive cliff painted greenish-yellow by lichen splotching the cliff's craggy face. All this scenery was made visible courtesy of the fire clearing out the forest and vegetation which is just about the only good thing wildfire accomplishes, although a happy post-conflagration population of woodpeckers, fireweed, and tree-eating fungi might disagree with me.

My lunch time view of Calf Creek

After a rough clamber over the aforementioned pile of fallen trees, the trail then dropped steadily down to Calf Creek, which denotes the western terminus of the Marsters Segment. Calf Creek was a logical stopping point for rest and repast and I partook of both. The Calf Segment begins where the Marsters ends but was now officially closed because of the Archie Creek Fire. The Calf already had fire scars from 2002's Apple Fire so it would be interesting to see what the damage the Archie Creek Fire did. With fire being such a frequent visitor, you could say the Calf is well-done. From ground level however, the Calf did not look either closed or any more fire-damaged than usual. The road to the trailhead was closed though, and people stationed on the highway to prevent would-be hikers from getting to the trailhead would be the problem getting onto the Calf, unless one surreptitiously backpacked in from the Marsters. (Note: the Calf Segment has since been opened for hiking).

Watercolor painting upon the North Umpqua

After lunch, it was back the way I came and I enjoyed the same rough fire-scarred terrain all over again, including hair-raising traverses across landslides and tedious scrabbles over piles of fallen trees.  It would have been nice on the return leg if some more sunlight actually would have made it across to my side of the river, thereby illuminating the autumn leaves and warming the body and soul of this erstwhile cold-hearted hiker. But then again, it just wouldn't be the North Umpqua Trail in late autumn/early winter.

Fireweed, gone to seed

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