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

Friday, April 17, 2020

Riverview Trail

The North Umpqua Trail is to the Riverview Trail what the cruel stepsisters were to Cinderella. While the North Umpqua Trail gets the all the recognition, glory, and a prince's love on the south side of the North Umpqua River, the Riverview languishes on the north side, as forlorn and unappreciated as a sooty scullery maid taking out the kitchen swill. Nonetheless, there are several compelling reasons for hiking on the Riverview and I can't think of a single one. And yes, I'm joking, there really are some good reasons to hike on the Riverview, just give me minute to come up with one.

Dogwood lights up the forest
When the weather is sunny but cold, like in winter, then the Riverview is on the sunny side of the river I'm always so envious about when hiking on the North Umpqua Trail. And while the North Umpqua Trail tends to be closer to the river than the Riverview, the Riverview Trail actually does live up to its name, providing much better vistas of both canyon and river from several hundred feet above.

The Riverview Trail, in all its well-shaded glory
I've generally hiked on the Riverview Trail in winter only, and my general impression was that the trail's only purpose in life was to provide year-round hikers a rather utilitarian hike along the North Umpqua River in winter, when snow debars hiking in the higher elevations. There's not as much wow in the views and the trail when compared to other epic hikes, or at least enough to zazz up jaded hikers like myself. On a positive note though, the trail is relatively flat and the hiking easy, what with the level grade and wide trail tread. And I must say that, after hiking this trail in the middle of spring, well I'll just have to concede the trail itself can be exceedingly beautiful given the right time of the year. 

Maple trees conduct a floral symphony
I got off to a late start just because I'm retired and I can. The day had already warmed up to the 80's by the time I began my hike, the trail stair-stepping past a series of rocky cliffs looming over the trail like some unassailable castle redoubt. Big leaf maple was in full flowering song, its dangling clusters of yellow-green flowers contrasting quite nicely against the deep blue sky above. Blue-belly lizards skittered in the dead leaves underneath the trees, the sound of which never fails to startle me in what is a vestigial response from all my rattlesnake encounters over the years.

The walls of the castle
The initial climb was brisk but short before the path ducked into the forest proper. The Riverview Trail in its former incarnation, was the old highway to Diamond Lake, and accordingly remains a wide double-track path through the trees above the river. Because it was spring, everything was green and I did not tire of seeing grass growing on the old roadbed.  While birds twittered and flittered in the forest undergrowth, and brooks (and me) babbled across the trail, the green and shady trail was the real star of the show on this day.

All hail our state flower!
Once the trail crested at the high point attained within the first half-mile of hiking, it gradually descended down to Bogus Creek. Periodically, the trail would break out into the open, contouring through arid patches of scratchy ceanothus perfuming the air under a baking hot sun. Sun loving plant species such as deep purple-blue larkspur, white coastal manroot, and wee-sized pink baby star, were all happily flowering in the open sunlight while bees buzzed from from flower to flower. It was warm out in the open sunlight and a ground beetle trudged wearily in the heat and I knew just how that beetle felt. 

The ever so smooth Mr. Madrone

Good thing for me then, that the trail was mostly shaded. The majority of the hike was done in mottled light and shade, thanks to all the surrounding conifer, big-leaf maple, and smooth-trunked madrone trees. The jungly vegetation was an indicator that things can get fairly moist here and several creeks crossed the trail with Alder Creek being the most picturesque, as the stream seeped down the face of a mossy rock before tumbling into a small pool.

Shadow play upon Williams Creek
Williams Creek was the largest creek of the bunch, requiring a stout footbridge to get across. Just after Williams Creek, the Williams Creek Trail made an appearance, commencing its mad charge straight uphill for virtually all of its four miles of existence. I've hiked that trail just once and once was enough as it was steep with thick stands of poison oak encroaching over the trail. It provided no views of any creeks or any Williams and has no reason to exist at all. If I ever say something like "Hey, I want to hike the Williams Creek Trail!", a sharp rap right on the forehead with a stout hiking pole should do the trick.

Fire is very much a part of this area
Anyway, I hiked past the trail junction on a rare uphill section of trail. This area of the Riverview has seen plenty of forest fires in the recent past and there was plenty of evidence of wildfire damage, both old and recent. Many of the trees were charred but still well alive, while in other places, thick brush grew at the feet of ghostly snags completely devoid of any life whatsoever. 

A river view from the Riverview
After about four and a half miles of hiking, it was beginning to feel like it was getting on to late afternoon, so I turned around just about a half mile short of Bogus Creek. It was the same old attractive forest on the way back but the walk was generally level with the odd uphill part every now and then. Periodic openings in the forest on the trail's downhill side provided great views of the North Umpqua River coursing at the bottom of its well-forested canyon. A roar louder than the usual river noise reaching my ears up on high advertised the presence of Steamboat Falls, although I couldn't ever get a real good look at the noisy cascade.

Left over from a cougar's dinner
Near the end of the hike, I spotted a deer skull lying next to the rest of its skeleton at what had been the obvious site of a cougar kill. As I walked just a little bit faster past the grisly scene of that crime, I still couldn't help but feel that it had been a great hike on what really was a beautiful trail. The near constant greenery, forest, flowers, and shade made the Riverview Trail a most gracious host. The deer probably would disagree with me on that, though.

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Knob Falls

Talk about sending mixed signals! Right there on their Facebook page, the Umpqua National Forest clarified their position on the pandemic related trail closures, clearly stating that the trails are open, you can hike on them, it's just the trailhead parking lots that are off limits. Sounded good to me, so I drove up the North Umpqua Highway in search of a secluded trailhead on the North Umpqua Trail. However, the reality on the ground was that every trail had crowd control tape stretched across it with signs stating in no uncertain terms that this area was closed. WTF?

No habrĂ¡ caminata hoy!
Well, what's a confused and uncertain hiker to do? I had talked to the Rogue River - Siskiyou National Forest office when the pandemic closure order first came about and was told it was OK to hike on the trails but they had closed and gated all the trailheads. In fact, I was advised just to park my vehicle on the road, hop over the gate, and walk to the trailhead. Since that particular office was so clear over the phone, I just continued driving up the North Umpqua Highway to the Upper Rogue River area and found the developed sites closed but trails open, no mixed signals at all.

Every hike should start like this
I parked the car at Woodruff Bridge, exchanged socially distant waves with a fisherman standing on the rocky banks, and commenced hiking. When I last hiked a couple of weeks ago at the North Bank, spring had been well under way but not so much here. This area had just, and only just, freed itself from winter's wintry embrace and there still was a noticeable chill on this on again, off again sunny or cloudy day, depending on the weather mood of the moment. Small patches of snow lay across the trail in shady places but were only an inch or so thick, so trail navigation was never at issue.

Flies squabble over a trillium

I've previously hiked here in spring and the lush greenery was amazing. However, being just this closely removed from winter, the vine maple, alder, and dogwood trees had not yet leafed out, although all sported leaf and flower buds except for the alder, which sends out dangling blossoms well ahead of its leaves. On the forest floor, trillium was just starting to bloom in a harbinger of that rampant spring greenery I just mentioned earlier.

Rock garden, Rogue River style
The upper Rogue River was a constant companion on this hike as the trail followed the river banks which in many cases, was comprised of hardened lava flows. Where the river was beachy, the sand was not true sand at all but volcanic ash, a legacy inherited from a Mount Mazama eruption an epoch or two ago. At any rate, the river immediately upstream of Woodruff Bridge was a noisy place as it roared, whether diving into rocky chutes or tumbling over a series of stair-step cascades. Small social trails braided off the main trail to service the photography crowd, and I partook thereof on many occasions.

What the world looks like without my glasses
At about the mile mark, the river calmed down where it flowed in languid pools with mirrorlike surfaces. Reflections were a thing and I partook some more of those social trails to admire the various impressionistic artwork of upside-down forests and trees painted upon the river.

Trail through a sparsely vegetated forest
After the calm river portion of this hike, the trail peeled away from the river a bit and headed uphill through a forest that was "going commando", seeing how it was clad with plenty of trees but little or no undergrowth. The reward for the uphill hiking was a rickety trail heading downhill on a narrow ridge for a front row seat of all the action at Knob Falls.

Knob Falls from my rocky perch

Knob Falls isn't very easy to see in its entirety but the sub-woofer basso profundo, whose basso and profundo reverberated through the forest like the bass solo reverberating through an adoring crowd at an AC/DC concert, advertised the presence of the thundering cascade tucked into a narrow chasm. The path lets you get as close as you dare to the falls and I did not dare as much as I could, because a misstep here would be fatal as the falls would chew you up into little pieces.

The river takes the Knob Falls plunge
Knob Falls is not one cascade, per se, but a series of booming cascades tumbling from pool to pool, The river has only one color and that is white as the driven snow, which makes sense, because the high volume of water this time of year is a direct result of snow melt in the higher elevations. After a lengthy but appreciative contemplation of the unbridled power and rage of a river seething in a slot canyon, I picked my way up the rickety path and continued my hike on the Upper Rogue River Trail.

Some of that Upper Rogue scenery
Fallen trees began to appear on the trail with ever increasing frequency and while tedious and annoying, getting around the trees remained doable. At this point, the trail was unwilling to give up its hard won elevation gain, so the path would stay up high above the river. On the opposite side of the river was an imposing cliff with a lava dike extruding from the middle of it, and the river tumbled noisily over the rocks deposited there over the ages. Here, it was hard to imagine the the river ever pacifying itself long enough to allow for artistic reflections on the surface.

Thundering waters at Natural Bridge
The scenic area at Natural Bridge was one of those developed sites that had been gated shut at the highway and it was eerie to have the entire place to myself, something that never happens at this popular place always overrun with tourists. At least I didn't have to jostle anybody to get a camera-worthy spot along the fence railings keeping said tourists out of the angry river. 

The Rogue pours over a cascade
The actual bridge of Natural Bridge is a lava tube where the Rogue River disappears from sight when it flows through the underground conduit. When the river is running full, like on this day, the bridge is underwater and not at all visible. To be honest, I prefer the river in its raging glory instead of seeing the river disappear completely from sight. I was rewarded today as the river thundered through a narrow channel created when a lava tube collapsed. Natural Bridge made for a logical turnaround point, so it was back the way I had come after an appreciative lollygag at the combination of geologic and hydrologic wonders.

Mixed signals of a different sort

When I got home, I sent a message to the Forest Service, asking for clarification about the trail closures noted on the North Umpqua Trail. They did respond with apologies, stating that the trails had been closed in error and they would be removing the barriers within the next few days. Glad to have those mixed signals get unmixed!

Peace like a river
For more photos of this socially distant hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

North Bank Habitat

It's a surreal experience, this living life during a pandemic, isn't it? The other day I was watching the news, something I do a lot more of these days, and in between reporting the gloomy state of the world, the channel took a commercial break and an advertisement for Febreze air freshener came on, complete with perky jingle, like there was nothing at all unusual about the situation we all find ourselves in. Thousands are dying but hey, you do want some air freshener to remove that annoying pandemic stink, don't you?

Bird's eye view of the picnic area lawn
Now I don't really blame Febreze, after all they need people to buy their product or else they go out of business. It is fighting for its survival just as we are fighting for ours. But that sort of illustrates the situation we find ourselves in, living in fear that has so many aspects of normality, the normality thereof being jarringly abnormal during these dire times. For instance, here in Douglas County, while people are staying at home more than usual, nobody I know here has yet contracted the virus. So, I'm gardening, cooking dinner, mowing the lawn, picking my nose, etc; engaged in all these routine activities with a sense of dread as I wait for the plague to travel down I-5 to devastate and ravish our little corner of of the Oregon sandbox. It's like the slowest moving disaster ever. And speaking of slow moving disasters, I recently busted out of quarantine and went hiking at the North Bank Habitat.

The National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had recently closed down all "developed" trailheads and campgrounds in Oregon and Washington so as to comply with the stay-at-home order issued by each state. It's kind of ironic because hiking is the ultimate in social distancing and is healthy both on a physical and mental basis. But having seen the goobers congregating en masse at trailheads, I absolutely comprehend why they felt the need to shut everything down. I made a round of phone calls asking about the possibility of hiking in "undeveloped" areas and was told absolutely no way but was also told they were not going to stop people from hiking, just from congregating. Well, that provided a legal loophole wide enough to stride completely through with trekking poles in hand, so off to the nearby North Bank Habitat Management Area I went to hike or get into trouble, or all of the above.

The world within
There were only one or two cars parked along North Bank Road outside the Habitat's locked gate and I added my vehicle to the impromptu parking lot. After getting geared up, I walked around the gate and headed up a gravel road to the actual trailhead, halfway expecting the SDP (Social Distance Police) to arrest me. As I started walking, it was a mostly sunny day with plenty of clouds puffing along in the blue sky above. The temperature was chilly though, and I began to doubt the wisdom of hiking in shorts and a sleeveless vest, but was too lazy to stop for a wardrobe change.

An Oregon wasp harvests an English daisy
Spring was beginning here at the Habitat, and I spent more than one occasion lying prone in the wet grass to take photos of buttercup, English daisy, red-stemmed storksbill, saxifrage, popcorn flower, dandelion, and Oregon grape, just to namedrop a few. I also saw my first stinky Bob of the year, a small member of the geranium family that has nothing to do with my friend Bob who may also stink, but nobody that I know of refers to him as stinky Bob except maybe his wife. Also of photographic interest was a varied population of winged bees, flies, and wasps visiting the aforementioned flowers. Obviously, this was going to be a slow hike!

For me, this path had that alluring new trail smell
From the East Pavilion, there are a myriad of trail options to choose from, radiating from the picnic area like spidery spokes on a wheel. Today's trail of choice was the Deer Hollow Tie Trail, simply because I'd never been on it. Maybe if I was lucky, the trail wouldn't be steep. Ha, like that would ever happen in the North Bank!

View to the Soggy Bottom drainage

After a short and relatively level walk to a muddy and grassy swale, the Deer Hollow Tie Trail immediately inclined upward in keeping with that quaint North Bank tradition of punishing all who dare to hike there. My leg muscles were not appreciative of that at all! But as the trail gained elevation, the view peering up the Jackson Creek drainage improved and there were lots of contemplative view soaks that were more than adequate compensation for the sweet misery of walking uphill.

Was this a great cloud day or what?

Simply said, this was a great cloud day. Above the rolling hills and creek valleys, small puffy white clouds scudded against a deep blue sky. Because the clouds formed and reformed constantly, the view changed every few minutes as sunlit patches and cloud shadows moved across the hilly landscape. Over the higher ridges of the Habitat, darker and more ominous clouds hovered, causing me to believe rain just might be in my future. 

Two steps forward, one slippery step back
What was in my more immediate future, though, was mud. The trail was damp and the resulting mud was slippery slick, making the labor of walking uphill that more taxing as I constantly fought for traction on the wet soil. I'm glad to report I remained upright for the entire walk up to Middle Ridge, despite a close call or two.

Hey hiker dude, you look like our next meal!
The trail alternated between open grassy slopes and shady woods. In the forest, I spied a couple of turkeys frantically running to get away from the scary hiker. Buzzards floated overhead on upwelling wind currents to check on whether I was going to keep on hiking or succumb to the rigors thereof. I'm also very glad to report I disappointed the gracefully soaring vultures.

The river perambulates around Whistlers Bend
After a couple of miles of this, the trail leveled out and spit me out onto a grassy ridge with a stunning view of local landmark Whistlers Bend, a prominent horseshoe-shaped oxbow in the North Umpqua River. Beyond Whistlers Bend and flanking the river, a scenic jumble of wetlands, pastures, and farms sprawled across the landscape. Of course, all of this lay under a constantly shifting tapestry of clouds as resultant sunbeams and shadows danced and flitted over the terrain. The view was awesome and this new previously unhiked (by me) trail might just become a favorite of mine.

I hate hiking!
I was somewhat disappointed to reach the intersection with the West Barn Road because from prior experience, I knew what trail travail awaited me. After a totally misleading pleasant meander through a copse of still leafless oak trees, a steep hill loomed straight ahead, looking like an attractive grassy wall, but a wall nonetheless no matter how pretty it might appear. And unfortunately, the trail went straight up it, with nary a pretense of a switchback. Sigh, sometimes I really think I should get an easier hobby. Steeling myself with resolve, I plodded wearily up the trail where I was rewarded with another view of Whistlers Bend.

Roseburg and Sutherlin were getting rained on
To the west, the clouds were portentuous, ominous, and dark with tendrils of rain clearly visible underneath the cloud cover. If any of that were to drift my way, I'd most assuredly be in for a wet time. Additionally, I'd be much colder than I already was, because a chill wind washed up from the valleys below, sweeping over the bare ridge (Middle Ridge) I was hiking on. I was still too lazy to stop for a wardrobe change, though. In their own menacing way, the moody clouds were absolutely spectacular as they gloomed over the scenery, and much photography ensued. A bit of rain ensued as well, but the shower only lasted a minute or two and would wind up being the only rain that fell on my little parade.

The North Gate Road took me down into the valley
At about the five-mile mark, all the bad uphill stopped when Middle Ridge Road intersected with North Gate Road. I grabbed North Gate Road for my egress off of exposed and breezy Middle Ridge, and that's when all the bad downhill started. My usual North Bank routes generally have me hiking up North Gate Road and that is one nasty steep trail that has had me muttering, on more than one occasion, about why on earth did I ever decide hiking was a worthy way to spend my time. Based on today's experience, it's not much better going downhill as knees and leg muscles both get taxed by the constant braking on the descent. 

Yup, I hit the ground on this stretch of muddy trail
The route down to Soggy Bottom was unsurprisingly muddy and I had three mud-ski experiences and one pratfall on the descent. I was somewhat amused by the pratfall because on my way down to the ground, I involuntarily uttered something that sounded a lot like a Klingon mating call "Qopbogh meQ jImuSHa'mo' tuj chenmoH mud!" I wonder why those tortured larynx-spraining vowels even came out of my mouth because it wasn't like anybody was going to hear me and if they did, it wasn't really any sound that could translate into anything intelligible or meaningful, unless that anybody happened to be Klingon. At any rate, me and the muddy trail were not very socially distant at that particular point in time.


Once down to Soggy Bottom, I hiked past a woman riding a horse while her two dogs walked behind the end of the horse that should always be more socially distant. At that point, I put the camera away and focused on hiking quickly to stay ahead of the horseback party. Just call me socially distant, much to the chagrin of the two dogs.

Red currant pinked up the trail
For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.