Sunday, December 04, 2022

Upper Perdition Falls

Back in October of last year (2021), I did a post about Perdition Falls, which is an unofficial name for the seasonal waterfall just to the right of Multnomah Falls. In that post I briefly mentioned something about there being another smaller waterfall on the same creek, just upstream and right next to the long-closed Perdition Trail. The trail closure means there's no legal way to visit the upper falls in person. It didn't occur to me that they might be visible from below, at least. But I happened to be at Multnomah Falls last week for lunch and as soon as I got out of my car some dusty weird corner of my brain went "Wait a minute, what's that?". There's really no mistaking it once you know it's there, and as a bonus that makes it easy to tell where the old trail was (and still is, unofficially).

The mildly weird part is that I don't recall ever seeing it before. This is only mildly weird, because my powers of observation are... a bit off. So it's entirely possible I've seen it regularly for years and it just sort of never registered somehow. But it also may have been completely hidden by trees before the 2017 fire, and it seems as though you can only see it from the I-84 parking lot and not from any closer, and I can probably come up with even more excuses if I have to.

In any case, I think I've located the falls on the state LIDAR map right around here, and I used the latitude & longitude from that placemark to create the embedded Google Map here, for anyone who has, I dunno, rocket boots and can get there without using the trail. The advanced technique of clicking around the area on the LIDAR map and guessing what spots might the top and bottom of the falls gives me height numbers in the 20-40 foot range most of the time, with the wide error bar completely due to the human in the loop.

The original dataset has latitude & longitude numbers out to a whopping eleven digits, which I actually had to trim down to six to make Google Maps happy. Which got me wondering just what these decimal places mean in terms of physical distance. One degree latitude comes to about 69 nautical miles, or 111.1 km, anywhere in the world, while the length of one degree longitude varies by latitude: It's the same 111.1 km at the equator, but around 79km at the 45th parallel, and a bit shorter than that in the gorge (the number eventually goes to zero at the poles). Going with the latitude number, one decimal place is 1/10 degree, or 11.1km, while a change in the sixth decimal place is 11.1cm. At eleven decimal places (or 10^-11 degrees), a change in the last digit is a distance of 1111 nanometers, which just so happens to be about one wavelength of near-infrared light of the type typically used in LIDAR. So while 11 digits looks impressive, I'm not sure how many of those are actual significant digits.

So I stumbled off a Google tangent at that point, as I tend to do, so here's a short list of links mostly about lasers that I'm not even going to try to relate back to the subject of this post.

  • Slides from a Portland State geography class explaining how airborne LIDAR works, aimed at people who might be using the data later in the term.
  • A 2018 paper calculates theoretical accuracy limits for LIDAR in self-driving cars, and comes up with something around 0.1mm.
  • A 2019 paper proposes that better resolution can be achieved by ditching the lasers in favor of spooky quantum magic with entangled photons.
  • Which in turn leads to Wikipedia articles about things like quantum metrology (which LIGO might use someday) and quantum lithography (which might be used in chipmaking someday)
  • A paper about a specialized Leica camera designed for LIDAR applications. This particular model was from way back in 2011, so it's useful information in case they start showing up at Goodwill or something.
  • There seems to be a lot of overlap between LIDAR vendors and major defense contractors, so you're always just a few clicks away from stuff like this article. One of the lesser-known Geneva conventions from the 1970s bans using lasers to blind people, and another bans any weapons that cause 'undue suffering'. The article argues that there's a way around these unfortunate legal obstacles, which is to use a laser powerful enough to instantly vaporize whoever it's used on, so they don't suffer first. And no suffering means there's no problem and you can go around lasering people to your heart's delight. Of course those lasers don't actually exist yet, not in airborne form at least, so (as usual) a massive federal research program is needed in order to bring this inspiring dream to life.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Rowena Plateau, June 2022 (II)

As promised in part I back in August, here are more photos from the Nature Conservancy preserve at Rowena, OR, taken back in June around the tail end of desert wildflower season. These were taken with an old Sony DSLR from Goodwill and a couple of equally old Sony/Minolta lenses, including a 50mm macro lens that I've decided I'm a huge fan of. If there's a trick to taking sorta-ok macro photos, without a tripod, on a windy day in the Gorge, I guess it would be to just take a ton of photos to boost the odds you'll get some decent ones between wind gusts. If I was actually trying to make money off this stuff it would probably help to find a really pretentious way to phrase that, maybe some mumbo-jumbo about the zen of inhabiting the still spaces inside the wind, and offer to teach people how to do that in expensive multi-day workshops. If only I could say all that with a straight face, and I was more of a people person, and also unscrupulous.

In any case, I unfortunately don't have an ID on the beetle in the first couple of photos. You can kind of make out that it has tiny hairs on its thorax that pick up pollen as it wanders around this arrowleaf balsamroot flower, sipping on nectar (or eating pollen, or whatever it's doing.) It seems reasonable to guess that some pollination happens while it goes about its business.

As the saying goes, the plural of "anecdote" is not "data", but a brief search came back with a few other photos on the internet of similar beetles on balsamroot flowers, so at minimum this is not a one-off occurrence: Someone's Flickr photo (taken further east on the Washington side of the Gorge), and stock photos on Getty Images and Alamy The Alamy one shows a pair of pollen-covered beetles mating on the side of a balsamroot flower, so it may not be safe for work if your boss is an especially prudish entomologist.

But I haven't seen anything in writing saying the plant is pollinated by such-and-such beetle. I did run across a 2005 study on the pollination needs of the plant. It notes that essentially no previous studies had been done on pollination for the whole balsamroot genus, but then zooms in on the habits of a couple of native bee species and never mentions beetles at all. The study was motivated by practical concerns, namely an interest in growing balsamroot seed commercially, as the plant seems to be good for habitat restoration, and both livestock and wildlife seem to think it's delicious. There are already other seed crops that rely on native bees, such as Eastern Washington's alfalfa seed industry and its dependence on alkali bees, so maybe it just seemed natural to focus on that and not the care and feeding of some weird desert beetle. And admittedly this beetle didn't seem to be in any great hurry to buzz away to the next flower, which helps if you want photos, not so much if you're an international seed conglomerate and your CEO needs a new yacht.

So we're at a dead end regarding beetles, but a Forest Service info page about the plant has a couple of other unrelated nuggets. First, it describes the flowers as "bigger than a silver dollar but smaller than a CD; about the size of a small floppy disk", which is overly wordy but gives you a strong clue as to the age of the author. Later, toward the end when it describes the plant's culinary and medicinal uses, it says cryptically that "The root could be used as a coffee substitute", without elaborating any further. A page at Eat The Planet repeats the claim, as do a lot of other search results, but nobody on the whole wide internet says whether the resulting beverage is regular or decaf. Which to me is the one key detail about anything described as a coffee substitute. No caffeine and it's just another way to make hot water taste bitter, which is not so interesting. Either way, the public deserves answers.

Saturday, September 24, 2022


Here are a few photos of Kerf, a pair of huge concrete rings at the SE Tacoma/Johnson Creek MAX station. It was (or they were?) created by artist Thomas Sayre for TriMet's Orange Line, and the Orange Line public art guide describes them briefly:

Two landmark sculptures, “earth-cast” on site, represent the influence of wheels on the area, from a 19th-century sawmill on Johnson Creek to the wheels of the MAX train.

By "earth-cast", they mean casting concrete onsite, in a Kerf-shaped hole in the ground, without the use of the usual wooden forms. This technique gives the concrete a sort of rough natural look, and it was the subject of Earthcaster, a 2016 documentary from North Carolina Public Broadcasting about Sayre and his work, including the creation of Kerf here.

But what if there's more to it than that? This spot is a major transit hub, with a lot of TriMet buses, the Springwater trail, US 99E (McLoughlin Blvd.), and even the Union Pacific line that Amtrak uses on its way to and from California. (It doesn't actually stop here, but in theory it could someday.) So it seems only logical to round things out with a couple of stargates, like in that one movie.

So in theory you could step through one of the Kerves here and pop out of Ring of Time or the Carwash Fountain, both along the downtown transit mall, or Big Pipe Portal on Swan Island, or possibly Arch with Oaks out in Beaverton. Sounds pretty amazing, if you ask me. The only problem being that this system isn't actually open to the general public right now, and TriMet officially denies all knowledge of any such thing being in the works. Maybe they're still quietly working out bugs in the system, or trying to bring down operating costs. Or maybe they're done with that part and are slogging thru federal bureaucracy now, trying to determine whether a stargate is considered an airport, a highway, or a railroad for regulatory purposes; whether each stargate needs a US Customs office, if there's no way to prevent international arrivals, that sort of thing.

International arrivals are certainly possible, by the way. A quick scan of the interwebs led me to a Chinese company in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province that offers to crank out any kind of oversized custom art you need on an industrial scale, including large stainless steel rings that look unmistakably stargate-like.

But I have no idea if those -- or the varied local examples I listed earlier, for that matter -- are even compatible with Kerf. I don't know much of anything about stargate networking, but if it's anything like train networking, it's bound to be a lot more complicated than any layperson would expect. So if it turns out the two here can only talk to other Sayre stargates, I don't think there are any other local ones in Portland , but the internet says there are others in Raleigh and Lenoir, NC (saving a 3 hour drive between the two cities), plus one in Aurora, CO. And the latter one could be a problem due to its altitude (~5400') and the resulting air pressure difference. If you punch in "send me to Colorado" and as soon as the portal opens you're sucked through like it's a broken airliner window, that's going to lead to some bad yelp reviews, at minimum.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Rowena Plateau, June 2022 (I)

And here are some photos from a visit to the Nature Conservancy's Tom McCall Preserve at Rowena, out in the eastern Columbia Gorge on the way to The Dalles. This is another place that has showed up here from time to time over the course of this humble blog, most recently in 2017.

The (I) in the title is there because this slideshow is just phone photos, and I also have a bunch of DSLR ones from the same trip that I still need to sort through and upload. Now, a bunch of those photos aren't keepers because that's just inevitable when you bring a macro lens here on a windy day, but IIRC there were still a decent number worth sharing. I know better than to promise an exact date on when they might go up, but I'll try not to drag it out unneccessarily, if possible.

Tanner Springs wildflowers, July 2022

A few recent photos from Portland's Tanner Springs Park, a sort of pseudo-natural nature park righ in the middle of the Pearl District. This place was a regular staple here for a number of years, starting in 2006 and tapering off in 2014 for no particular reason. I happened to be in the area last month and wasn't in a hurry so I stopped in and ended up with a few wildflower photos, so here they are.

(I think it's fine to call them wildflowers, even if someone technically planted them here as part of a planned garden. I'm using the term in the sense of "local native species of flowering plant" and not by how "wild" an individual plant appears to be. Just tossing that out there in case any angry internet flower pedants stumble across this post. I have never actually met an angry internet flower pedant, mind you, but generally speaking if a thing exists, someone is mad about it on the internet. So it just sort of stands to reason.)

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Fairy Falls

Ok, now we're paying a visit to the Columbia Gorge's Fairy Falls, a little 20' waterfall above Wahkeena Falls on a side branch of Wahkeena Creek. It isn't the tallest one, or the widest, or the loudest, or the most famous. It doesn't have the most water going over it; it doesn't have a weird name, or much in the way of historical anecdotes, or any of that. It's one of my favorites, though -- just look at it. Feel free to page through the photoset for a bit first and then come back to the post, if you want.

One of the many occasional projects I have going here is a very slow virtual trip around the Multnomah-Wahkeena Loop trail, with a post about each waterfall along the route in (roughly) clockwise order. So with this post we've finally made it up and across the top of the loop and down into the Wahkeena Creek watershed, and Fairy Falls is the first one we encounter on the way down. These posts have tended to run away from me, ending up full of all sorts of irrelevant tangents that I don't quite have the heart to delete. But Fairy Falls here is not really a complicated place and this post ought to be relatively short by my usual standards. I've combed the history books and the usual sources online and whatnot, and here's what I've got about today's destination...

  • Back in the Upper Multnomah Falls post from last year I mentioned that a lot of guides to the Gorge insist there are exactly eight kinds of waterfall in the world, and go on to say that you can see five of the eight kinds right here along the Multnomah-Wahkeena Loop, and you can complete the set with a couple of other quick stops in the vicinity. So under that scheme, Fairy Falls is the canonical "fan-type" waterfall. There actually aren't many "fan-type" ones in the Gorge besides this one. In the wider region, the best-known example is probably Ramona Falls up near Mt. Hood. Something to keep in mind if you ever find yourself in a high-stakes "match the name to the waterfall photo" contest and need some easy points.

  • I'm not sure who named Fairy Falls or when, since I couldn't find any mentions of it at all from before the Columbia River Highway and Wahkeena Trail opened. And afterward, any references to it just used the current name like it had always been called that. Given the steep terrain in the area, it probably didn't get a lot of foot traffic before the trail went in, so my guess would be that they stumbled across it while laying out the trail, decided to route the trail right past the base of it for dramatic effect, and figured it would need to be called something, as a highlight of the trail.

    Fairy Falls was first mentioned by The Oregonian as part of a 1921 article covering all the fun new hiking options that were now available out in the Gorge.

    Meanwhile the Oregon Journal first mentioned Fairy Falls in a similar 1919 hiking article, suggesting it as a refreshing pit stop on your way down after doing the overnight hike up Larch Mountain to watch the sunrise. (This used to be a very popular hike, right up until they built a road to the top of Larch Mountain in 1937.)

  • I did find exactly one one example of someone calling it something besides "Fairy Falls", an undated photo with a caption calling it "Ghost Falls". The photo -- or at least the caption -- can't be any earlier than right around 1916 as it mentions the brand-new Columbia River Highway by name, and uses the new name "Wahkeena Falls" instead of the previous "Gordon Falls". No other examples have turned up besides this one so I don't think the name ever really caught on. Though if you squint just right the falls do kind of look like a ghost, of the ectoplasmic bedsheet variety. Given the politics of 1910s & 1920s Oregon, it's probably pure luck that nobody tried naming it "Grand Wizard Falls" or something, for reminding them of the Klan robes in their closets at home.

    Searching on the name "Ghost Falls" did come up with a couple of results elsewhere. The 1940 Federal Writers Project guide to Oregon claimed there was a Ghost Falls somewhere along the Eagle Creek Trail. That name obviously didn't stick either, and it's not even clear which falls they were referring to to since the guide didn't include a photo or a map. The same book also listed Punchbowl Falls as "The Devil's Punchbowl", which also didn't quite stick, maybe due to the famous Devil's Punchbowl out on the coast.

    Further afield, the search also returned an AllTrails hike page titled "Ghost Falls Trails via Bonneville Shoreline Trail", which sounds like something that would be in the Gorge, but it turns out to be for a Ghost Falls in Utah, and the shoreline in question was the shore of a vast former lake that existed during the last Ice Age, not the reservoir behind Bonneville Dam.

  • Switching gears again, in several posts now I've mentioned a 2016 study on aquatic insects in the gorge. Wahkeena Creek has a special significance in that particular area, as it has several endemic species that exist nowhere else in the universe. However Fairy Falls (or "Fairy Falls of the East Fork" as the doc likes to call it) is on a side tributary and is apparently not interesting from a bug standpoint. The study just mentions the falls briefly: "trail goes through stream near base of falls; after multiple collections at this site since 1989, no sensitive species have been encountered.". So it might be that any weird caddisflies or stoneflies that may have once been here were wiped out at some point due to hikers tromping right thru their habitat. But the main stem of the creek is unique in flowing out of a nearby underground spring, with water several degrees colder than the other streams in the area, and the endemic species might require those specific conditions, which the East Fork has never had.
  • Since Fairy Falls is one of the more photogenic waterfalls, it makes sense (to me) that there's a bit of recent classical music written about it, a piano solo for advanced students, one of several named after Gorge waterfalls by composer Ian Evans Guthrie. (The 'piano tune for...' link above goes to a page with a recording of the song, which seems to play in Firefox but not Chrome for whatever reason). If I didn't know it was recent, I could almost see it being composed for the Wahkeena Trail opening circa 1916. I say almost because the ending is probably a bit avant-garde for the conventional tastes of 1910s Portland.
  • Oh, and one other thing from the Oregonian database: The May 9th 1937 Oregonian ran a page of photos from along the Multnomah-Wahkeena trail, with the reporter's wife and kids in most of them for scale. The Fairy Falls photo just showed the falls, though, so it looked just the same as it does now. Which should be normal and expected, but somehow it feels like photos and films from 1937 ought to contain a bit more 1937-ness somehow. And I'm not 100% sure what I mean by that. Maybe hardboiled Mafia goons at the top of the falls, dangling a rival gangster over the edge by his ankles. Maybe German or Japanese or Soviet spies, barely visible in the underbrush, casing the joint and taking detailed notes for future reference in a few years' time. And maybe then our hero & heroine (Fred Astaire as a tap-dancing G-man, and plucky reporter / aspiring swimsuit model Esther Williams) show up, and suddenly the falls transform into a water slide and pool and an all-singing, all-dancing, all-swimming, all-tapping musical extravaganza breaks out, and the various bad guys soon try to slink away into the shadows, twirling their mustaches, but then a big pie fight breaks out, and in the end they're defeated by the sheer power of Hollywood movie magic, and everyone lives happily ever after. The End.