Friday, September 21, 2018

Union Creek

Regular readers of my blog will note that this year there have been a few hiking fails, notably on my Sherwood Meadows and Roughrider Fall hikes. Well, we can add Union Creek to the thankfully short list, due to a badly overgrown trail that at times, resembled my back yard before its annual mowing. Obviously, I'd rather be out hiking than doing yard work.

Not much sunlight makes it to the forest floor
I had hiked Union Creek many years ago, but in that was in early spring. The creek was hard to see then as it was surrounded by a heavy and leafy growth of vine maple. My thinking was that here in September, the vine maples might be beginning their annual autumn fireworks so Luna and I headed to Union Creek, expecting this to be our first autumn hike of 2018. Well, to be clear, I was expecting autumn finery while Luna was simply happy to go out for a hike in the woods.

Decidedly un-yellow leaves
Even though peak season for the fall colors were just a few weeks away, the forest was disappointingly green. Disappointment is a matter of perspective because in spring and summer, I find the same green forest to be absolutely delightful. At any rate, apart from a few vine maples and dogwood trees just starting to blush yellow or pink in the sun, there wasn't much in the way of fall colors.

Always happy to get wet

What there was a lot of though, was dense tangles of vine maple and other assorted vegetation encroaching the trail. But at least the path was visible at the start. We could always hear nearby Union Creek but could not see it much due to the wall of green leaves between us and the creek. Occasionally, the path did get close enough to make visual contact with the creek, the tranquil pools not being so tranquil when an excited dog jumps in for a quick dip.

A rare clear section of trail

About a mile into the hike, we really began to fight the vegetation and I have the scratches on my arms and legs to prove it. Didn't seem to bother Luna much, but she remained firmly leashed to her less graceful yet incredibly handsome owner. If she were to take off in the brush, I'd lose sight of her within five feet. Anyway, we beat through intermittent patches of heavy brush and then the trail would be as easy to follow as a charismatic sect leader.

Sadly and truly, this is the trail
The intermittent quality of the overgrowth was lost right after we crossed a gravel road. From there it was continuous wading through chest high vegetation, the route visible only as a slightly less dense corridor of greenery. Soon, even that disappeared and the hike quickly degenerated into a bushwhack. It was all veritable jungle humidity and I was a drippy sweaty mess before long. Luna, cloaked in her sleek black fur, didn't seem to mind although her tongue was practically dragging on the ground as she panted. I called it good at the two mile mark, not wanting to continue doing this for another two miles to Union Creek Falls.

Dogwood, providing a hint of things to come
So back we went, fighting the same old brush on the way back. But when life gives you an overgrown trail for a hike, you turn it into a photo shoot. The dense tangle of trees and brush were photogenic, delighting dog, hiker, and camera alike. Periodically we'd bushwhack to the bubbling creek for either a photograph or an exuberant swim or wade, depending on whether you were human or dog. At least fighting the brush became easier the closer we got to the small hamlet of Union Creek.

Small cascade on Union Creek
When I got home, I found a friend of mine had sent me an email invitation to go hiking with her on the Union Creek Trail. Hmm, I wonder if she avoids yard work too. At any rate, I was able to warn her about the poor trail conditions. But while my hike was an epic fail in terms of getting an eight mile hike in, it still was a lot more fun than mowing the back yard!

Sketchy path through the woods
For more pictures of this short hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Lemolo Lake Loop

Last year, the Forest Service installed a brand new trail around Lemolo Lake and I wasted no time hiking on the trail to see what it was like. On that August day, there were two fires burning nearby: the Spruce Lake and Red Blanket Fires. Smoke from the two conflagrations hazed up what could have been a magnificent day for hiking. This year, I led a group on this same hike and of course, there was a fire burning nearby: the Miles Fire. Smoke from that fire hazed up what could have been a magnificent day for hiking. See a trend? Sheesh, finding a clear day is beginning to be like finding a snipe on a snipe hunt. If this keeps up, when I'm older I'll be telling my awestruck great-grandchildren "When I was a boy, the sky was blue..." However, in both renditions of the Lemolo hikes, my complaining about the haze is somewhat tempered by the fact it was nowhere as bad as it had been before and after each hike.

At the start of the hike

Eight of us saddled up, so to speak, at the Lemolo Lake Dam and we headed off on a dusty but well-defined trail that perfunctorily wandered through the lodgepole pines before spitting us onto the asphalt parking lot at the boat ramp. A brief walk on the resumption of the trail took us past busy Poole Creek Campground and up the campground roadway, where a trailhead marked the commencement of the "real' hike. 

Nobody fell, darn it
The trail gets a fair amount of use from the mountain biking crowd and to a lesser extent, a smaller number of hikers. But the path had that real trail feel as it meandered through the forests surrounding the lake. There were several intersections with trails that bypassed the numerous arms of Lemolo Lake, making for a shorter and more concise route around the scenic body of water. It also made for a less scenic route around the lake, too. Accordingly, every time we hit an intersection (which were all unsigned, seeing as how this is a new trail) we took the left turn that kept us closest to the lake but also made our hike longer.

The narrow Lake Creek arm of Lemolo Lake

Lemolo Lake has more arms than North Korea and we hiked around the Poole Creek arm and two lesser arms, proving hiking distance is always more than the proverbial straight line between two points. The Lake Creek arm is what makes the loop a long hike, adding about three miles to the total distance. Although the arm is fairly narrow, there is no way to shortcut across without a boat, airplane, rocket launcher, or catapult. 

...and the crowd went wild!
The arm is probably the most remote section of trail on this hike and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. There was a couple fishing from a boat in the middle of the bay, happily plying their avocation, totally unaware they were being watched by hikers hidden in the forest. The lady hooked a fish and we observed the epic contest between fisherwoman and fish. The fish put up a valiant but losing fight and the triumphant fisherwoman was startled when a round of applause emanated from deep within the forest! She was a good sport though, and proudly posed with her catch; the fish did not share equally in the joy of the moment.

Julie and Chelsea pick their way carefully past a landslide
The trail crossed over Lake Creek right next to paved Forest Road 2614 before ducking back into the forest and following the creek's marshes back to Lemolo Lake. In a couple of places, the lapping waters of the lake had eaten into the soft volcanic soils surrounding the blue body of water, and our trail was either completely eroded or one more storm away from permanently disappearing into the lake. But hey, what's a hike without a scramble or bushwhack or two or three? Despite the precarious position we were in, perched high above the lake on loose and shifting earth, nobody made a gravitational detour down to the lake.

Why we hike
The south side of Lemolo Lake sports some awesome campsites and beaches for backpacking and we visited several before stopping for a lunch and view-soak. Across the lake, forested Bunker Hill reposed under a blue sky and yes, the smoke was clearing up a little bit.

The club hikes through a dead forest
Continuing on, we entered a "forest" comprised of dead lodgepole trees that had met their collective demise in a forest fire from several years ago. No doubt, the East Lemolo Campground had been empty when that fire was ongoing but on this day, it was fairly busy with campers enjoying the lake in spite of the haze. A short section of trail took us from the campground to paved Forest Road 2614 again. 

The clear waters of the North Umpqua River
A road bridge took us over and across the North Umpqua River, which feeds Lemolo Lake, and we stopped to gawk and take photos of the peaceful and photogenic river. From there, it was an uphill walk on a tie-in trail which connected to the venerable North Umpqua Trail and the final leg of our loop hike. 

Why you should always use sunscreen
This section of the North Umpqua Trail is not really my favorite section of the NUT as the road circumnavigating the lake is nearby and you never really get away from the sight and sound of of cars whizzing by below the trail. However, on this day, the road was fairly quiet and as we walked through shady forest, it was easy to pretend we were far away from the uncivilized world. 

Fireweed, going all fiery on us

Shadows lengthened in the afternoon sunlight as we walked through the trees, and as the miles continued to add up, it seemed like there was less and less happy chatter between us. There were a few hints of autumn here and there in the form of bright red fireweed leaves and other small plants going red and yellow. Near the end of the hike, Edwin and his group left the trail and bushwhacked down to the road leading to the dam. Judy, Chelsea, and I continued on the trail because we are good hikers that follow the rules about shortcutting and we wound up right behind the slackers anyway.  

Hazy view of Lemolo Lake
At the dam, we could barely see Mount Thielsen in the haze. I'm going to have to snowshoe around the lake to catch Lemolo Lake on a clear day, apparently. For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

It's just not a hike if no one bleeds