Saturday, August 22, 2020

Waikiki Sunsets, March 2020

Here's a photoset from six months ago, just before the Plague Year(s) began. It was just a quick, pre-planned break between work projects, but now it feels like it happened a billion years ago, on the far side of the galaxy. Posting the photos now as a little memory of what the world used to be like.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Pup Creek Falls

Next up, here are some recent (for once) photos from Pup Creek Falls and the Clackamas River Trail #715, about 16 miles east of Estacada. I had never been here before, or really anywhere along the Clackamas past Estacada. I'd heard there were trails and waterfalls in the area -- there's an entire website devoted just to waterfalls in the Clackamas watershed, with pages about Pup Creek Falls & the trail -- but I'd never gotten around to checking it out myself. But I wanted to get outside, and -- the key part -- do it safely during the ongoing pandemic, and the Columbia Gorge is still largely closed to the public, so I figured it was it was a good time for a visit.

If you squint at the first photo in the photoset, you can see a pair of tiny people just atop the lowest tier of the falls, for scale. One of them later made it up to the upper bench where the upper tier hits the rock face and flexed his biceps for anyone watching, while his lady friend stayed put and tried out a couple of yoga poses right at the edge of the cliff; I didn't get a photo of that part because I was too busy leaving so I wouldn't have to watch, just in case that played out the way I thought it might. Anyway, the Pup Creek Falls page at Waterfalls Northwest compares it to Winter Falls at Silver Falls State Park and has it as 237 feet high. So this is often said to be the tallest waterfall along the Clackamas River, though the Clackamas River Waterfalls site says Whale Creek Falls is taller at 261 feet. I'm just going to take his word for it, since getting to Whale Creek Falls is said to be highly technical and dangerous, per two threads at Oregon Hikers, while pages at Canyoneering Northwest and Ropewiki indicate it's also really hard if you start at the top (via rugged Forest Service roads) and rappel down and head downstream from there. So I think it's fair to say Pup Creek is the tallest waterfall in the area accessible to mere mortals like me.

Anyway, our trail runs for 8 miles along the south bank of the river between the Fish Creek and Indian Henry campgrounds. Pup Creek Falls is nearly halfway between the two trailheads and up an easy 0.2 mile side trail, so that an out-and-back trip from the Fish Creek trailhead (which is what I did) comes to 7.8 miles. The Oregon Hikers page linked above rates it as "moderate", I think because of both the total distance and the fact that the trail isn't flat. You're at river level at a few points along the trail, and at others you're a few hundred feet above the river, and fun part is that the grades are moderate enough that you don't always realize you're going from one to the other. You come around a corner and the river is right there next to you, and you could swear that just 5-10 minutes ago you just looking straight down at it from a sheer cliff. On the outbound (and upstream) leg of the hike I figured that it was partly due to the river dropping in elevation, since you'll see a lot of rapids on the river over the course of the hike. But it was like that on the way back too, so I concluded it was either weird forest magic, or (more likely) good trail design.

Actually I'm positive it's the trail design. A June 27th 1982 Oregonian article "A Treasure of a Trail" described the then-new trail, which had opened the previous spring, and interviewed one of the designers. Seems the design goals were to stay low enough that the trail could be open 95% of the year, outside of major winter storms, and provide river access for fishing, while hitting as many scenic highlights as they could squeeze in along the way, and also avoiding any grades they thought would be too steep. This involved several years of repeatedly hiking the 8 mile stretch, trying out different alternatives until they had a route they were happy with. The trail was their baby, they were proud of it, and wanted the world (or at least the greater Portland metro area) to come check it out. I dunno, I always love to see stuff like this. Incidentally, the US Forest Service job title for someone who does this is "recreation technician"; the Glassdoor reviews seem generally positive: Great location, great benefits, usually great coworkers, upper management not so much, and more cleaning toilets than they had expected. Some occasional fighting of forest fires.

All of that said, I'm currently a bit out of shape due to all the sheltering in place because of the stupid coronavirus. So the last 1.5 miles or so of the return trip were... not my favorite, and I was sore for a couple of days afterward, and happy that I hadn't tried doing the whole trail as a ~16 mile out-and-back. My thoughts inevitably turned to ways of shaving off part or all of the return trip. The 1982 article suggests a car shuttle, which works great if you're a party of at least two people, which I typically am not. The Oregon Hikers page also suggests taking a bike with you -- I imagine one of those folding travel bikes -- and riding back to the Fish Creek trailhead on OR 224. Which is downhill the whole way, but 224 is a moderately busy state highway with the occasional semi or log truck, so I don't know how fun or relaxing that would actually be.

So then I wondered about the river. The lower Clackamas river is famous as a place to bring an inner tube and have a lazy float down the river for a few hours, and it's infamous as a place to do this while polishing off a six pack or a couple of edibles and occasionally drowning. Turns out the upper Clackamas is a whole other story, as I should have guessed from all the whitewater and several kayakers I noticed along the way. Pages at American Whitewater, Whitewater Guidebook, & Oregon Kayaking explain that there are multiple Class III ("Intermediate") rapids along this stretch of the river, and overall it's supposed to be really fun if you know what you're doing, which I unfortunately don't. Show up with an inner tube and no prior experience, with or without a six pack, and your mileage is going to vary. I didn't see any specific discussion about anyone doing the trail + river combo here; I imagine you'd need a packraft or maybe a foldable kayak or something for this, small and light enough for the hiking leg, but sturdy enough for the the downriver part. A forum thread speculated that the combo trip would be doable here, but I didn't come across anyone saying they'd actually done it. One annoying detail -- if you're mostly interested in the water half of the trip -- is that the stretch of river that's said to be the best part, whitewaterwise, is just downstream of the Fish Creek trailhead. Annoying because there's no connector trail along that stretch of river, so if you can't bear to skip that section, I guess you'd have to walk along the highway shoulder or something.

Now, if there was a trail along the lower Clackamas river (which there isn't, as far as I know), you could actually use a Portland city bus for your return leg, believe it or not. TriMet's bus 31 goes as far as Estacada, and as of last year even runs on weekends, so you could potentially do the whole trip without getting in a car. Some people tubing the river do exactly this for the upstream part of the trip, which isn't just convenient, it also keeps a few DUI drivers off the road, if they've cracked open a few cold ones during the float back. So it's a shame that TriMet's longest bus line is juuust not quite long enough to give you a lift to either of the Clackamas River Trail trailheads.

You might be wondering why TriMet goes to Estacada in the first place, given that it's a conservative small town way out past the edge of suburbia. There may be just enough commuters who rely on the bus now that they can't discontinue it, but how did it get started? The surprising answer is that it goes all the way back to the founding of the town in the early 1900s. The TL;DR version goes something like this: Streetcar company needs electricity & can't get it; builds dams along Clackamas River. Needs transporation for building dams; extends rail lines out to the dams. Needs to pay for those rail lines; builds a park behind one of the dams, invites tourists to visit by streetcar. A few towns grow up in the area including Estacada, the one town that has a nice modern hotel. Eventually, streetcar lines become bus lines, and then the bus company becomes TriMet, and here we are. Meanwhile the electricity part of the business evolves into today's PGE, the local electric company. I'm not sure whether there's been uninterrupted transit service to Estacada since the first interurban in 1906, and I'm not sure where one would check to figure that out. But at the very least, today's bus 31 has an absurdly long family tree, whatever the intermediate branches look like.

So I had to wonder whether there was ever a time -- even briefly -- when you could've hopped on a streetcar in Portland and ridden all the way to Pup Creek Falls. And... it's hard to say. The old rail line carried passengers to the park at Cazadero, upriver from Estacada, and old rail maps show at least two more passenger stops past that, one at something called "Clackamas Lodge" that I can't find much info about, and ending at the headworks for another of the hydro projects along the river, still a bit short of the Fish Creek area. Streetcars ended there, but the rail line itself continued on after that, carrying cargo & employees for the Oak Grove hydro project even further upriver, and I saw at least one link (which I can't find now) indicating that seemed to indicate passenger service had extended further east for a while, though it's possible they confused rail service with fare-paying passenger service. An old circa-1930 photo shows a rail line next to the tiny burg of Three Lynx, which even now is still a PGE company town, & is just downstream (and across the river) from the present-day Indian Henry campground. Meanwhile an Oregon Encyclopedia article indicates the old rail line was turned into present-day highway 224 sometime in the 1920s, which conflicts with the date on the photo, so who knows. So regarding my original question, I think the answer is 'no' in general, but 'maybe' for a while in the 1920s or 1930s if you had a friend at the railroad/electric company, and you were rugged and outdoorsy enough to get across the river without a bridge and then to the falls without a trail, since that was 50 years before today's trail came into being. Maybe there's a parallel timeline out there that's just like ours, except that the trail was built as a Depression-era CCC project, with cool 1930s CCC stonework but otherwise identical to 'our' trail, and they extended the interurban so you could ride out that far for a while, until it eventually faded away in the late 1940s. Or a timeline where the entire hydro project never happened, somehow, and the whole area has been a roadless protected wilderness since 1964.

Anyway, to sum up: Nice hike, interesting area I wasn't familiar with, a bit of fun local history, and it's been two weeks so I probably didn't catch the 'rona while passing people on the trail. Incidentally, trail etiquette has changed in the COVID-19 era. Instead of the cheerful hello and petting friendly dogs when passing people, masks go on the moment you see someone coming the other way, and you sort of mumble a "thank you" while facing sorta-away from each other. Overall it's weird and not something I want to keep post-pandemic, but I do really like the the mutual "thank you" part, like it's a little acknowledgement that we're all observing a shared social contract. But then, I haven't been around other human beings in person a lot over the last six months, so maybe I'm reading way too much into that. Dunno. Mostly I just want the pandemic to be over, and I'll work out whether August 2020 me was overreacting a while after that.