Sunday, August 25, 2019

Pacific Crest Trail (from Santiam Pass)

I like hiking in burn zones. It may be an acquired taste, but I find it fascinating to observe the process of a forest reestablishing itself after a fire. And, despite the tree carnage and scorched earth policy, there is also great beauty to be found in an old burn zone. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can also be bad and if recent fire seasons are any kind of indicator, we all will have more than ample opportunity to learn to love burn zones in the near future. At any rate, the site of the B&B Fire at Santiam Pass still remains one of my favorite places to hike.

Beauty in a burn zone

At Santiam Pass, the fire began life as the Booth Fire in mid-August of 2003 while further to the north in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, the Bear Butte Fire birthed into fiery existence. Eventually, the two fires joined forces as one and the two fire names melded together to become the B&B Fire. Even though the fire burned virtually in uninhabited wilderness, over $38 million dollars were spent to combat the fire. I'm not sure if the expenditure was worth the investment for when it was all over, the fire had consumed over 90,000 acres. Unfortunately, in our current era of megafires and gigafires, a 90,000 acre fire is just another small kilofire. 

Through-hikers hike through a new forest

The Pacific Crest Trail, at Santiam Pass, goes right through the old fire zone and while temperatures were hot down in our valleys, a chill wind up here kept things cool as I set foot on the famed PCT. Although the story of this hike was walking 10 miles through a forest of ghostly white snags, there is a veritable young forest forming on the ground and it won’t be long before the epic views encountered on this day will once again be blocked by flourishing trees.

The PCT angled up through a burned forest for mile after mile

The Pacific Crest Trail headed steadily uphill in the open sunlight and incessantly switched back and forth across an open slope as it worked its way up to the craggy slopes of Three-Fingered Jack. In places, beargrass covered virtually every square inch of available soil below the forest of dead trees, imbuing the rough terrain with a parklike vibe. Beargrass blooms every other year and when it’s beargrass time on this section of the PCT, the results must truly be spectacular.

Huckleberry bushes decided summer is over and done with

A few of the usual late-summer flowering suspects were putting on a subdued show, those suspects being most notably light purple daisy-like aster and fleabane, bright red skyrocket, and occasional yellow rabbitbrush flowers. We are getting close to autumn’s song and accordingly huckleberry bushes were blazing red in vegetative mimicry of the B&B Fire.

Sun-bleached snags against a cobalt sky

There are a couple of side trails leading down to the Berley Lakes or Square Lake but my order of business was the Pacific Crest Trail and I stayed on track when I arrived at those enticing trail junctions. The trail climbed at a consistent rate of ascent and a steady stream of PCT through-hikers passed me by. Ninety-six year old great-grandmothers may have also passed me by, because my pace was as slow as a lethargic turtle going up all those miles of inclined trail, but I'm blaming the views and camera.

What a view!

The views became more and more astounding as the trail gained elevation, thanks in part to the B&B Fire clearing out the view-blocking forest. Directly south of the trail was the pointy spire of rugged Mount Washington with the Three Sisters looming further beyond. Periodically, Three-Fingered Jack waved hello with one of its non-middle fingers showing above the ridge crest directly in front. To the east was the symmetrical cone of Black Butte with the vast central Oregon outback stretching out into the summer haze. The surrounding geology and geography were spread out like a large-scale three-dimensional atlas diorama, all covered with a fuzzy white layer of ghostly white snags, left courtesy of the B&B Fire.

Some of those surrounding lakes and scenery

There were plenty of lakes scattered in all the topology cited above and to the east, lakes Booth, Martin, and Square reposed in the basin sprawling west of Black Butte. There is supposed to be a cross-country way to leave the PCT and hike down to Martin Lake and return by way of the Square Lake Trail but the jump-off point was not obvious, so I stayed on the PCT like a good boy.

A rare section of green forest

At about the four-mile mark, the trail left the burn zone for a real honest-to-goodness green forest. Good thing too, for the chill breeze had long since failed to be and the day was getting to be quite warm out in the exposed and treeless fire zone. I ate lunch at a rocky viewpoint overlooking an expansive vista of Maxwell Butte and surrounding terrain extending into the McKenzie River drainage.

View to the Mount Washington and the Three Sisters 

After lunch, it was back the way I had come but the major difference was that I was walking downhill (and there was much rejoicing) instead of slogging up to some higher unseen place in my life. Also, instead of staring at the grassy parklike slopes inclining upward in front of me, I very much enjoyed a wide and expansive five-mile view of Mount Washington, the Three Sisters, and an entire county of dead trees under a blue sky. Simply beautiful, and the entire day confirmed my feelings about hiking in an old burn zone.

Path through spent beargrass and dead trees

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

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