The Joy of Backpacking

Hiking Oregon Old Growth

(Originally Published June 1999 by the Terre Haute Tribune Star)

May 9, 1999 – I now sit on the basalt bank of Opal Creek. Jim reclines beside his backpack and stares at the froth and opal green waters of the creek. I sit higher on a jut of rock cushioned with soft green moss, beside water that churns and falls 10 feet over a multi-tiered step. The water has only recently melted off from the snow that still falls intermittently up the Opal Creek watershed.

The sky is blue and white with clouds. The weather varies from rain to sunny and back to partly cloudy within a short matter of time. With my eyes on this page, the water rushing past in the foreground gives me the feeling that I am moving. Broad, white areas of snow punctuate the green of the forest, not yet melted in this cold wet environment. Angel hair waterfalls stair step down green ravines and finally fall into the creek beneath a network of tree trunks and root systems. Thigh-high twisted shrubs sprout new green and pink buds.

I cannot express the life that is represented here. Wonderful trees surround me that saw the Earth when Galileo argued the sun did not orbit the Earth. I sit on rock that felt the world tremble when Christ was crucified. I see a place where black bear and cougar can still exist, protected from the threat of mankind.

As we look at and touch these wonderful giant trees that tower 250 feet over our heads, we rejoice in their protection and wonder: how can anyone disregard such an incredible natural resource?

About Opal Creek

Opal Creek is 31,000-acre watershed that nestles against Bull-of-the-Woods Wilderness in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Opal Creek’s treasure is its trees. Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Mountain Hemlock and other trees, standing up to 250 feet high, date back some 1,000 years. Opal Creek Wilderness’ 21,000 acres and Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area’s 2,209 acres were established on Nov. 9, 1998 after much friction between concerned citizens and logging companies.

On the evening of Saturday, May 8, Jim Avelis and I were dropped with our packs at the edge of Opal Creek Wilderness Recreational Area. Both of us were anxious to see mountains and big trees. It was raining. It would continue to rain most of the evening and night. The information at the trailhead included a list of “must-bring” items and number one on the list was “rain gear.” In the parenthesis below it, the typist in (pardon the pun) dry humor had printed, “This is a temperate rain forest.”

We wrapped ourselves in our waterproof/breathable gear, shouldered our packs, and crossed the gate into the shadow of trees that were larger and older than any I had ever seen. Some were 800 years old. A mile and a half down the road and quickly dimming light forced us to make camp down hill from the roadside. We set up our tents in the rain, and by the time we were fixing our supper under a plastic tarp, we needed the aid of our flashlights.

I awoke Sunday morning and half-stretched, half-crawled out of my tent to find Jim already awake and grinning from ear to ear. We stood in the sanctuary of our morning worship service, the daylight giving the forest an ethereal Old World feel. Precipitation fell from the tops of the trees and took five seconds to hit the ground.

After a fast breakfast, we geared up and hit a mile of the road with Bull-of-the-Woods Wilderness on our left and Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area on our right. While we have said it in Indiana, in Oregon it is more accurate — if you do not like the weather, wait. It will change in five minutes. In a single mile, the weather changed from rain to sunshine and around again.

Behind an old shack now used as shelter for backpackers, we found a beautiful waterfall where the salmon and steelhead end their runs later in the fall. In front of this shack, on Monday, Jim and I would find in the mud the definite impression of a cougar paw. To our knowledge, this is as close to a cougar as we came on this trip. We would prefer not to know differently.

We hiked another mile and a half, passing the junction for the Opal Creek trail, and arrived in Jawbone Flats, a mining town hidden at the confluence of Battle-Ax and Opal Creek. For years, Jawbone Flats was the base of Shiny Rock Mining Company. These people cherished the surrounding environment demonstrated this by insuring their mining practices were environmentally sensitive and by fighting to protect the old trees of Opal Creek from clear-cut logging.

Mining was terminated in 1994, and The Friends of Opal Creek now manage this town as an educational center, sponsoring programs for groups that educate about old growth forest, ecology, and other environmental issues and sciences.

It was pouring rain, again, as we walked through town, admiring the old buildings, taking time to pay respect to the two houses that burned a couple years back. The Friends of Opal Creek workers and others managed to get the fires contained and extinguished before any forest was damaged. Just beyond Jawbone Flats, the sun came out in bright force and we came to Opal Pool, just down a small trail that branched off of Trail 3339. We stopped to eat lunch and admire this wonderful spot.

A Favorite Spot

Opal Pool was my favorite spot of the trip. I must first explain that the mountain waters cascading down the Opal Creek Watershed were crystal clear to the bottom and tinted a beautiful green. It was the same green tint as those old glass Coca-Cola bottles I used to buy for 35 cents at the Wilkinson’s Lumber Co. in my hometown. The green was barely noticeable in the fast-moving shallows, but was unmistakable where the water ran deep. The deeper the water flowed, the deeper the green.

I first saw Opal Pool from around 40 feet above on its lip. At the moment I saw it, my heart connected with it as though I had only just found a place longed for all my life. Just above us the waters of the creek churned in rapids dropping many feet until they compress into a narrow cataract and dropped in a loud rush down 40 feet in the length of a hundred yards. Where the tight cataract opened, the waters churned like a Jacuzzi and fell into the pool. For all of its 50-foot breadth and 200-foot length, you could see straight to the bottom of its 15-foot depth. In its clear depth, it held the most perfect emerald green.

Its beauty and solitude called for me like the sirens beckoning Odysseus’ crew. Had it not been for the early spring coolness and the frigidity of the water, I would have shucked my clothes and dove straight into its seduction. As it was, I made myself content to sit beside it and commune with its still beauty.

After lunch, we snooped around the old mining town during two waves of snow showers. I found a displayed article that discussed how long items of liter took to decompose in this environment: Cigarette Butts: 1 – 5 Years; Aluminum Cans: 80 – 100 Years; Orange Peels: 2 Years; Plastic Bags: 10 – 20 Years; Glass Bottles: 1 Million Years; Tin Cans: 50 Years; Wool Socks: 1 – 5 Years; Plastic Bottles: Indefinitely.

We backtracked to the Opal Creek Trail. This trail immediately passed through an ancient forest and followed the North Fork of the Santiam River to the opposite side of Opal Pool. From that point the trail wound up the Opal Creek drainage that descends down from Opal Lake 1,200 feet higher and more than four miles away. The trail took us past many beautiful waterfalls, including Flume Creek falls that splashed from step to step down a mossy 100 foot length. At around 2,400 feet, we began encountering snow patches. An unusual weather pattern had brought in a late snow that dumped snow levels 50 to 75 percent higher than normal on the west face of the Oregon Cascades. The Willamette National Forest officials reported on May 18 that these areas would probably be snow-covered until July.

We made our camp at a pre-established site now well into Opal Creek Wilderness. Unfortunately, the previous users had butchered the camp area. Bark had been scraped off several trees to be used for fire-starter, leaving awful scars. Litter and firewood were strewn around the area like a garbage dump. We took turns cursing the infidels who had no regard for the maturity and sanctity of the surrounding trees.

Stuck in the Snow

We spent the evening after supper watching a slate gray bird, called a Dipper, bathe, mate and feed on insects among the rocks of the creek shallows not far from our camp. That night was a clear sky, and Jim awoke in the middle of the night to view a million stars in canopy over the wilderness.

Monday morning we took just a few necessary items, cached the rest of our gear, and “slack-packed,” as Jim calls it, up the trail. We happened on more frequent and increasingly deeper patches of snow until we finally came to Cedar Flats. Here we passed through a grove of monstrous seven-foot-diameter trees that stood vigilant over the meeting of Opal Creek’s east and West Fork and the end of the Opal Creek Trail. You couldn’t really see the trail for the snow, but the information we were given and a yellow “end of survey” tape Jim found tied to a tree branch assured us it was the end.

Just to say we went further than the trail and for the problem-solving satisfaction, we found a fallen hemlock log poised 12 feet over the creek bed boulders and the rushing cold water between. I’m not trying to overstate the risk of the crossing; I was just personally compelled to hug the log with all four limbs as I crossed it.

Once across, we began crossing five to eight-foot drifts of snow, often post-holing abruptly into their depth where a fallen tree or limb had created an umbrella of air beneath it. We went as far as we could until I was having a particularly difficult time. Every step I took I sank up to my crotch in snow. (No, we didn’t have snowshoes). My faint-hearted companion shared that, any one of those times sinking suddenly into the snow, a hidden sharp branch could have jammed into my body. I dismissed his apathy and declared no matter what he said, we’re turning around now! And we did.

We went back and picked up the rest of our gear, ate lunch, and headed back down the trail. Along the way we stopped often to take pictures and to take one final long look at Opal Pool. By evening we had made camp on what we thought may be Whetstone Trail.

Our intention was to spend our final day climbing as far as we could up Whetstone Mountain in the Bull-of-the-Woods wilderness.

Owl or Sasquatch?

On Tuesday we once again cached our gear and took only food, water and necessities with us up the trail. Some things were never meant to be discovered by weekend warriors. Ascending Mount Whetstone in the Bull-of-the-Woods, Jim and I heard a deep hooting sound between the switchbacks of the trail. It was a repetitious four hoots and a hoowhip. A myriad of images crossed our novice minds: an elk in labor, a waking black bear, a small Sasquatch.

We finally decided on an owl of some sort. We could get on three sides of where it echoed from the dense undergrowth but try as we might – and we did – we could not get sight of it. We left our noise behind: birthing Sasquatch, 1; Backpackers, 0.

We struggled through the snow for three hours up 2,500 feet until we decided we had gone far enough to feel like we had done our best, but not far enough to be dangerous. The trail was indeed dangerous, however. In several places, the snow-covered ground sloped steeply away to the side so that we had to be cautious with every step. In one place it was steep enough and, we felt, avalanche-prone enough to cross one at time, with our pack belts unfastened. We stopped for less than an hour to melt some snow and cook a hot lunch before quickly heading back down the mountain.

We spent the last hour we had in heaven drying out our clothes and relaxing before meeting Jim’s wife at the trailhead.

My dad tells me that endangered and old growth trees will not be important to Americans until we see an economic advantage to them. I suppose clean drinking water has little or no economic advantage. Neither, I am sure, do the habitats of important and endangered fish and wildlife. Least important of all are the human spirit and any natural legacy that would be left to posterity. These hold no monetary value to our society.

I wonder: if we cast aside all those things that are economically worthless, will life be left with any value at all?

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