Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Humbug Mountain

I saw a meme recently that said "Sex is good, but have you ever tried fresh air after breathing wildfire smoke for a week?" That was a perfect way to describe the not so lovely experience of having your entire state go up in flames. Filled with choking and suffocating smoke, the acrid air turned us all into dedicated Air Quality Index (AQI) watchers. The AQI scale runs from 0 (best) to 500 (worst), and the very worst AQI category or rating is that of Hazardous, which requires an AQI reading of 301 or higher. Much to our horror, our AQI numbers climbed to a point completely off the scale, reaching a peak reading up into the mid-700s. The high numbers made for a macabre cause for celebration when the AQI numbers finally dipped below 300. "Yay, our air improved to Very Unhealthy!" is a so very 2020 thing to say.

Welcome to Mars, Oregon!

Now, we've experienced forest fires before but this was different. The fires not only immolated our favorite forests but also burned in towns and cities where amazingly, we could not put the flames out. The mountain towns of Blue River, Detroit, and Mill City were virtually wiped off the face of the earth. And in what to me was absolutely shocking, the Alameda Fire, driven by strong winds, roared up the urban setting of Bear Creek Valley and destroyed huge chunks of the cities of Phoenix and Talent, including the downtown areas. Unbelievable. At the time of this hike, large swaths of Forest Service lands (and trails contained within) had been declared off limits along with many state parks. Obviously, my humble little pastime of hiking went on hiatus for a couple of weeks.

A tree wants to give a Humbug hug

Fortunately, cool weather and some rain rolled in, which immensely aided the fire crews charged with tamping down the wildfires filling up the air with choking smoke. It was nice to have normal and natural gray-colored sky instead of one tinted that weird and ungodly Martian orange. Because of the aforementioned closures, the only go-to place really was somewhere out at the coast. Taking a longer drive than usual, I headed to a trail that I had only done once before: Humbug Mountain. 

Moss claims all that does not move

Lore has it that in the mid-1800s, Captain William Tichenor dispatched a scout party that went north in error instead of south. An irritated captain renamed the peak from Sugarloaf Mountain to Tichenor's Humbug to forever memorialize the directionally-challenged expedition. Over time, the name shortened to Humbug Mountain and that’s how the mountain got its name. In our present-day modern time, the mountain is now the centerpiece of Humbug Mountain State Park and a nice five-mile loop trail takes hikers up to the top of the forested peak. At a little over 1,760 feet tall, the peak is not the tallest mountain in the world but it is a 1,700 climb to get to the summit and you have just 2.5 miles to get there. In any part of the world, that is a steep trail.

Magical forest on Humbug Mountain

But while you are huffing and puffing your way up the path, you do get to immerse yourself in a gorgeous forest with some dense stands of myrtlewood trees perfuming the forest air with their fragrant leaves. Maples also populate the slopes and on the day that I went, they were beginning to blush yellow in advance of the coming fall season. At ground level, rampant greenery encroached the trail and the sweet caress of fern fronds on my legs were a constant as I hiked by.

Cape Blanco lies in the distance beyond Port Orford

I had been to the top of Humbug Mountain something like 15 years ago and decided, much like Captain Tichenor and his dispatchees, that the mountain was indeed full of humbug. At the top back then was a bench sited in a small meadow ringed by tall trees, a complete lack of view the bitter payoff for all that uphill slogging. However, sometime during the intervening years, the offending trees were cut down and now a vista of epic proportion is the appropriate reward for persevering hikers.

The reward for hiking to the top of Humbug Mountain

On the way up, a couple of breaks in the forest cover did offer tantalizing peeks at Battle Rock, Port Orford Head, and the small town of Port Orford itself. But at the summit, the view to south is unimpeded and the smooth curve of the coast arcing all the way to Otter Point is broken up only by the rocky point of Sisters Rocks. Beyond and inland of the coast, rise the formidable high peaks of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, although the cloud cover clinging to the mountains afforded me just fleeting glimpses thereof. Several rustic benches provided the means for appreciative hikers to rest, eat, and generally just sit and meditate upon the coastal splendor absent any trace of humbug.

My legs and ferns became well acquainted 

At the trailhead, there had been a sign warning hikers that a fallen tree was blocking the East Summit Trail and don't you know that a sign like that means I had to go hike the East Summit Trail on the way down? Yes, there was a large tree blocking the trail but really, it was like a million other trees I've had to clamber over. A little tedious to scramble off the trail on the downhill side to get past but really, it was not that big of a deal. I'm glad I did return by the East Summit Trail because the huge old growth giants in the forest were amazing. Huge and majestic Douglas fir trees were collectively battle scarred, all proudly bearing singe marks from some fire of yore. Per the state park website, a fire had burned on the north side of the mountain in 1958 so maybe the fire scars on the trees are that old. So am I, for that matter, but at least I don't have burn marks on my legs.

Photographic allegory of my hiking

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

Monday, September 7, 2020

Tahkenitch Dunes Loop

And then the trouble started. The weather forecast for late afternoon on September 7, 2020 contained two dire weather-related warnings: extreme warm temperatures combined with a 100 year windstorm. Sure, why not. Good old 2020 just has to be the year to have that happen along with all the other "delights" this year has brought us. At any rate, winds of up to 70 miles per hour were expected to blow into the Cascades in the evening. Hurricane force winds, hot weather, and dry forests, what could ever possibly go wrong?

Tahkenitch Creek reaches the end of its journey

But hey, Armageddon was at least 12 hours away so that left plenty of time to get a hike in before the world ended. Off I went to the coast, where the temperature was decidedly cooler and more pleasant than what could be found in the mountain ranges and valleys of southern Oregon. The Tahkenitch Dunes area is one of my favorite hiking haunts because of its relative proximity to Roseburg and because it serves up an all-you-can-eat buffet of coastal delights ranging from lush forest to sand dunes, along with every other other ecology and biome ranging in between.

Rhododendrons all lit up by the sun

Beginning from  the trailhead at Tahkenitch Campground, the trail immediately tunneled uphill through dense vegetation comprising a typical coastal forest. Rhododendron leaves fanned out leafy fingers like a hand asking for charity, glowing green where illuminated by the sun. Coastal huckleberries were not yet quite ripe (yes, I sampled) but the thick bushes contributed to the vegetative vibe. Moss tendrils hung off of every available branch like so many beards at a 
ZZ Top concert while anything at ground level, including the ground, was covered with a cushiony layer of bright emerald green moss. You could almost imagine leprechauns and leaping gnomes (besides yours truly), cavorting through the woods in delight.

A dune swallows the forest, or vise versa

The trail is fairly steep for the first mile or two but to be honest, I was feeling pretty frisky and didn't really mind. At one point, a migrating sand dune had entered the forest and it was kind of odd to see tall trees standing in sand instead of on solid ground. At any rate, the path followed a densely forested ridge crest before beginning a protracted descent down to Threemile Lake.

Dog vomit smile mold, in all it's disgusting glory

It was a leisurely stroll down through the forest with me photographing woodland delights such as fungi of various ilk and at least one specimen of dog vomit slime mold, my most favorite name of anything. My child-rearing days are long behind me but if I were to have another child, his or her name would be Dog Vomit Slime Mold O'Neill, whether boy or girl. It's probably a good thing I'm done raising children. With that name, that poor child would have no other choice in life but to become a punk rocker.

Threemile Lake, cut into two lakes by low water levels

After several miles of hiking through a sublime forest, pleasantly losing elevation all the while, the trail temporarily bottomed out at the north end of Threemile Lake. The lake level was low and in the middle, an isthmus exposed by the shrinking lake divided Threemile Lake into two Onepointfivemile Lakes. A contemplative stop took place at the lake's overlook and as I ruminated upon the meaning of it all, wind zephyrs danced across the surface, reminding me that the Hundred Year Storm was probably at Year Twenty-Five this very moment. Yes, it was breezy and yes, it was the advance wave of the incoming storm system.

Blustery conditions prevailed on the beach

Needless to say, things got chillier once I was out of the forest and into the exposed dunes. A large fog bank loomed skyward but for the time being was hanging out over the ocean, coming no further inland than the beach strand, so things weren't as cold as they could have been. Of course, the wind was right in my face as I hiked north on the beach, making eyes water enough that it was hard to see where I was going. Fortunately, I avoided walking blindly into the ocean and made my dry-footed way to the edge of Tahkenitch Creek.

Lines, lines, everywhere a line
Lining up the scenery, breakin' my mind...

It was low tide and the ebbing waters had created a large artist's canvas of ripples and other abstract patterns on the beach. It almost seemed a shame to walk on the artwork but I did have to deface the sand painting to make the beach egress needed for continuation of my trek. Much of this area is off limits due to snowy plover protection efforts and at one point a sign said "Sensitive Wildlife Area" which struck my funny bone. What's next? Signs that say "Do Not Harshly Criticize the Animals" or "Wildlife Have Feelings, Too"? 

Pathway through the dunes

At any rate, I left the animal snowflakes behind and continued on to Tahkenitch Dunes proper. I had earlier been passed by younger (and faster, naturally) hikers but overtook them in the dunes when they stopped to catch their breath. Eat my tortoise dust, hares! After leaving the dunes and reentering the forest, it was a short walk down to the trailhead and a speedy drive home to beat the wind's arrival.

Still life with thimbleberry leaves and sunlight

That night, the winds did arrive and basically set the entire Cascades on fire. Thick, acrid, ashy smoke choked us for nearly a week and the whole vibe was end-of-the-worldish. Large swaths of the National Forests were closed and I think we can forget about hiking on the lower segments of North Umpqua Trail for a long time. The wind and fire combined to create a genuine catastrophe and I vote we should promote that wind event to at least a Hundred Thousand Year Storm.

The end of the world begins

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

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Boundary Springs

The Great Oregon Burn Zone Tour of 2020 continued on a bright summer day in early September with this hike to Boundary Springs. The lodgepole forest surrounding Boundary Springs had perished in the same fire that had immolated the Red Cone area, the locale of my prior hike. But hey, I often say there is great beauty in a burn zone so apparently this has been one especially beautiful summer!

A new forest sprouts under the bones of the old one

The thin lodgepole forest surrounding the Boundary Springs Trail was absolutely decimated in 2015's Crescent Fire. No tree survived, the destruction was utter and complete and all that remains of the forest are countless acres of ghostly white snags standing upright, resembling on a larger basis so many porcupine quills in a dog's snout. I still can't fathom how fire can irrevocably and completely destroy an entire forest, yet spare all the mosquitoes.
The adult trees were left lifeless as a statue but life always finds a way and hundreds of little lodgepole seedlings were already taking root at the feet of their deceased parents. 

A mid-hike regroup at a trail junction

Life also abounds in the form of a hiking club and eleven of us set foot on the Boundary Springs Trail, mouths collectively agape at the terrible yet 
awesome sight of a totally destroyed forest. Also in keeping with this summer's theme of hiking in lodgepole forests (be they dead or alive) in volcanic soils, those of us at the tail end of the hiking line ate everybody else's dust kicked up by scuffing boots.

We cross a creek flowing on the bottom of a ravine

It didn't take long for a ravine to appear on the left side of the trail with a small creek coursing at the bottom. Soft soils are no match for moving water and this small creek was eagerly engaged on its short journey to join up with the nearby Rogue River. Be it small, nonetheless the creek had cut a sizeable canyon in all the soft pumice and volcanic ash that surrounds nearby Crater Lake.

Boundary marker as we entered the National Park

Without preamble or ceremony,  the trail dove down into yet another canyon, crossed the adolescent Rogue River, and then climbed up to the opposite side of the canyon. Boundary Springs is so named for its proximity to the north boundary of Crater Lake National Park and before long, we passed a sign commemorating entry into the park, but we had no issues getting past customs.

Lush pastures thrived next to the Rogue River

Because the moist air next to the river offered some protection from the wildfire, there is ample greenery flourishing right next to the Rogue. Small 
grassy meadows were interspersed between tall healthy trees sporting green leaves and needles, the vegetation being most alluring to hikers slogging away in the hot and dusty environs above the canyon. Good thing then, that the trail began a steady descent down to river level and subsequently, to Boundary Springs itself. 

This waterfall is hard to get close to

The river was shallow and a multitude of fallen trees and logs clogged the flowing water, creating a series of natural fish weirs. I'd be tempted to say the logs fell into the river because of the fire, but the river channel has been log-littered since long before my first pre-fire hike here, so maybe it's just a Rogue River thing that occurs naturally. Despite the relative shallowness of the river, there are a few places where the river had to funnel into a narrow chute, giving rise to several photogenic cascades and waterfalls. As a precursor to Boundary Springs, all manner of seeps and springs began to gush forth next to the trail with ever increasing frequency. Moss and other assorted greenery flourished next to all the seeps, taking full advantage of the free water available just for the taking.

Boundary Springs gushes forth

Boundary Springs is a special place because it's just not every day where a full flowing river emerges from the ground. You can stand on top of the springs, look downstream, and the Rogue River will look just like a genuine river should. Turn around and look u
pstream though, it's a different story: nothing but dry ground and burned forest with nary a drop of water to be seen. Apparently there's no stream in upstream! Because the water has been filtered clean during its long underground journey, there is nothing like a gulp of fresh Boundary Springs water. All life should be just like that drink of water.

The Rogue begins here

While the Boundary Springs Trail continues deeper into Crater Lake Park, becoming part of the Bald Crater Loop (described in the previous blog about Red Cone Spring), our business here was finished for the most part. Some of us went to visit West Lake while others just hiked straight back but all wound up eventually at the Boundary Springs Trailhead. The parking lot was full because apparently everybody wants to be outdoors during a pandemic and the trail had been noticeably busier than normal. Evidently we were not the only people out and about on a Great Oregon Burn Zone Tour.

First comes fire, then comes fireweed

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

Friday, September 4, 2020

Red Cone Spring

On my radar is an end-to-end hike from Boundary Springs to the Crater Lake Highway, the route being part and parcel of the 25'ish mile long Bald Crater Loop. I figure the hike would be about 12 miles with most of it passing through the remote backcountry of Crater Lake National Park. I have yet to persuade someone with a car (needed for the shuttle) to join me but I'll keep pestering my friends, someone will eventually crack. The cool part for me is that virtually all of the hike will be on trail that I've never been on, a rarity in southern Oregon. If I can't sweet talk anybody into coming with me, then I may just backpack the Bald Crater Loop as a solo venture.

The unassuming fount of Red Cone Spring

In 2015, the Crescent Fire burned up the north end of Crater Lake Park and pretty much the entire Bald Crater Loop lies within the burn zone. Because forest gets burned up in a wildfire, it stands to reason that much more sunlight reaches what was once the shady forest floor. Accordingly, sun-loving life bursts at the seams and vegetation quickly gets to work on claiming trails as their own. Over the years following a fire, dead standing trees become dead fallen trees that hikers have to clamber over. All of this plays havoc with trails, of course. With finances and resources being what they are, trails are often abandoned to the elements until such time as a trail crew can be mustered up to repair the damage. So, while I definitely would like to hike or backpack the Bald Crater Loop, the point is that I had no idea if the the trails were in hikeable shape or not. Clearly, a scouting trip was called for.

Life is tough for trees here

The damage from the Crescent Fire was readily apparent during the drive through the north entrance of Crater Lake National Park, mostly in the form of several miles of blackened forest. Next to the roadway, no trees that I could see survived the conflagration but at the Pacific Crest Trail, the trailhead was surrounded by a patchwork of both living and dead trees. The dead trees here were not deceased from the fire but from a lodgepole beetle infestation. Whether dead by fire or by beetle, either way the forests here are highly stressed by the effects of climate change.

Red Cone dominated the scenery near the trailhead

The Pacific Crest Trail was dry and dusty as a witch's cackle as it headed directly towards Red Cone. The ground was mostly bereft of  ground cover which would explain the dust being kicked up by my feet as I scuffed along. Next to the trail, a few specimens of low growing buckwheat bushes were already going autumnal red while rabbitbrush was reaching the end of its yellow-flowered blooming season. The top of Red Cone was mostly visible above the trees and yes, it was indeed colored a dark red. 

Trees with anatomical appendages

For the first mile or so I was visually entertained by dead lodgepole trees sporting burls and tumors resembling so many butt cheeks or other body parts of unknown purpose. I'm not entirely sure what causes burls to form and after doing some research it seems like nobody else does either. Take your pick, burls either form because of genetic predisposition, viruses, bacteria, beetle infestation, or all-around general forest stress. Whatever the cause, I found myself hiking in a forest full of misshapen trees that surely had to have originated from some other planet.

Window on a burn zone

Just as the route buttonhooked around the north side of Red Cone, a patch of forest flanked either side of the trail in a poignant reminder of what forests around here used to look like. The trees were uniformly well-foliaged and green, and the shade was cool, all of which had been up until now, in very short supply. But it was too good to last and after an enjoyable half-mile, the Pacific Crest Trail entered the burn zone.


The conflagration of 2015 must have been hotter than my homemade salsa (and that's hot!) for virtually all trees here had perished. The remainder of this hike would pass through several miles of stand after stand of dead trees. Skeletal snags stood straight and tall in the spot where they stoically met their demise. The younger trees that succumbed in the fire were all bent over in nearly the same direction, giving the appearance of a frantic and futile crawl to flee their impending death by fire. There were a few young seedlings sprouting here and there, but only just a few. This forest will be a long time in recovering to its once and former glory. 

Deer and/or elk left scuff marks all over bare ground

Life won't be denied though, and apparently the first order of business was for grasses to form a wide-ranging ground cover underneath the tree graveyard. Birds twittered and flittered while jackhammering woodpeckers were heard but not seen. Apparently elk and deer congregate here too. Although I did not see any, nor did I see any fresh scat thereof, the soil on and around the trail were full of scuff marks and hoof prints. It looked like a somnivalent army of zombie deer had marched through here, dragging their feet as they wearily trudged to battle. 

Beautiful meadows surround Red Cone Spring

Red Cone Spring is an important water stop for Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers, since there is little water available in the dry volcanic soils that so populate this section of the Cascades. The spring also made for a logical turnaround point so I left the PCT and ambled through some large, gorgeous, and grassy  meadows as I made my way to the spring. The trailside oasis was barely trickling but water is life and the weak current is more than enough to sustain both hikers and local wildlife. Lunch and relaxation at this peaceful spot in the middle of a tree graveyard was had before turning around and heading back.

This way to Boundary Springs!

At a trail junction on the way back, I went up the Boundary Springs Trail for a bit just to explore. The trail is somewhat on the sketchy side but if it doesn't get any worse, it will be followable which is my main concern. On the return leg, I did run into two backpacking parties who were doing the full 25'ish mile long Bald Crater Loop so people are hiking it, which gives me further hope for doing the same. But for now, it had been a pleasant day hike in the Crater Lake backcountry and that was enough.

Commemorative lichen bouquet on a dead tree

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