It’s easy to assume that Oregon just always looked like it does today. The beautiful forests that drape our hillsides and foothills and creep up the flanks of our volcanoes must have been like this forever, right? But this assumption is incorrect. My pioneer relatives did a rather breathtaking job of completely transforming this land from an area of massive, prehistoric forests with wide open floors and meadows, into a largely second- and third-growth “working forests,” as we like to call them, cut and planted strategically for future profits, choosing the most lucrative species to propagate, the recut again as soon as the trees reached a size large enough for harvesting.
In fact, inhabitants like my great grandfather, a lumberman who traveled to deep forest camps around the Pacific Northwest to cut and clear, did such an efficient job that there is next to nothing left of the old forests. And being a couple generations removed from their existence, we hardly even remember what they were like.
This past Thanksgiving I took a few extra days off, thanks to a move at my office, decided I would treat myself to an adventure each day of the break. The first place I decided to visit was the Opal Creek Wilderness Area, the last bastion of low-elevation old growth in this state. The subject of a decade long fight between conservationists and logging interests, Opal Creek was finally won by our great former senator, Mark Hatfield. It would become the last victory in his career before retiring to Beaverton, just a mile or so from where I live today.
Opal Creek is a 34,000 acre complex, preserved for all time, for all Americans to enjoy. Its namesake is the northern-most branch of the North Fork of the Santiam River system, and is famous for it’s clear blue and green waters. The hike in starts at a gate, roughly 100 miles from downtown PDX. A traveler to the area follows the old road into Jawbone Flats, an old mining town which has been converted into the Ancient Forest Center. One can rent cabins here (if one is quick with the mouse, as these fill up incredibly fast in the Summer), or use it as a jumping off point for longer backcountry adventures. The Opal Creek system connects easily to the Bull of the Woods Wilderness, giving a backpacker with lots of time a huge amount of territory to explore. And of course, there are the pools. I’m sure they would be incredible on a warm summer day, but as this was two days prior to Thanksgiving, I enjoyed more of a mix of rain and snow drizzling constantly on my head while I hiked.
The first thing I noticed upon starting down the trail was the size of the trees. There are monsters here, 500 to 1000 years old, never touched with a saw, spread far apart. Blanketed with moss (apparently this area is studied as the home of several endemic moss and lichen species), the floor is open and inviting. I spotted campsites along the way at regular intervals, perfect spots tucked just off the trail, looking soft and comfy, but far too close to the parking lot. The road follows Battle Axe Creek for a few easy miles before ending in the village of Jawbone Flats. At that point, the hiker crosses the creek and immediately is transported somehow deeper into the forest.
As I had to drive back home at some point (and get out of there before dark), I had to complete my loop and miss out on whatever lay to the left at the fork in the trail. Passing Opal Pool and the Sawmill Falls swimming hole, the color of the water was striking. By that point, goopy snow was falling fairly heavily on me. If it hadn’t been so spectacular in there I might have been a bit miserable in the weather. But as it was, the pure delight of giant trees, soothing green moss carpets, and the silence of deep woods made the whole walk a meditative joy.
Considering that just 125 years ago, huge portions of the state resembled this watershed, there is an air of tragedy to this place. While we can be confident that this will be preserved for us, hundred of thousands of acres have already been lost forever. I am buoyed, however, by the thought that Oregonians came together here to show that we value the existence of wild places for more than their monetary value in the short term. The short-sightedness of our ancestors proved a lesson, at least for some of us.
Visit Opal Creek by driving east from Salem on hwy 22 for 25 miles. Make the turn toward North Fork road and Elkhart, and go another 21 miles, until you find yourself at a locked gate. Come in the Autumn for turning vine maples, in the winter for solitude, and the summer for heat relief and popular swimming holes. It’s worth a day (or 3 or 5) in any season.