Saturday, October 30, 2021

Perdition Falls

Apparently for Halloween 2021 I'm rummaging through draft posts and trying to finish ones that seem vaguely spooky. Like the previous post about the Gorge's Old Boneyard Road, the place we're visiting this time has a semi-spooky name, but beyond that any Halloween connection is a real stretch. This post is also part of our extremely slow virtual hike around the Multnomah-Wahkeena loop, while doing a separate blog post about each individual waterfall on the way. I probably ought to have done this one first, or at least second after Little Multnomah Falls.

Anyway, if you visit Multnomah Falls during the wet season, or any time of the year when it's rained recently, you'll immediately see that the famous waterfall has a less-powerful twin to its right, plummeting over the same cliff into the same pool. I had always sort of figured this twin was a side branch of Multnomah Creek that branched off somewhere above the falls, but it turns out that's not what's going on here at all. It's a whole separate creek with its own little watershed, draining a small area wedged in between Shady Creek and Multnomah Creek proper. This creek burbles along minding its own business until suddenly it falls over a cliff created by its famous and powerful next door neighbor. The two creeks merge in the pool between the two tiers of Multnomah Falls, and it's all downhill from there. The resulting waterfall occasionally goes by the name "Perdition Falls", on the very rare occasions that someone needs to refer to it specifically.

The deal with the spooky-sounding name is actually more straightforward than some of the places we've visited already: It's named (unoffically) after the creek, which in turn is named (unofficially) after the Perdition Trail, a famous cliff's-edge trail connecting the top of Multnomah Falls with the top of Wahkeena Falls and forming a shorter and easier (but very scenic) loop trail as compared to the full Multnomah-Wahkeena one. Unfortunately this trail has been closed to the public since 1996 when it was damaged by one of that year's winter storms. Searching on the name of the trail leads us back to the first time it appeared in print, a July 13th 1919 Oregonian article titled "Zestful Pleasures Afforded by Week-End Hiking Trip". The list of zestful weekend suggestions is a bit on the ambitious side, leading off with climbing Mt. Hood. Which, back then, you could try on a whim, without a permit, and aided only by circa-1919 climbing gear. Or, more reasonably, you could have a go at a long hike to the Gorge's Wahtum Lake and back, starting from either Herman Creek or Eagle Creek.

For people looking to do a bit of serious climbing, the article recommends St. Peter's Dome, east of Multnomah Falls, noting however that (as of 1919) it had never actually been scaled successfully and might never be, though a recent Trails Club expedition had made it as far as the narrow saddle leading out to the mostly-freestanding rock. In fact, as far as anyone knows it was first climbed in 1940, and only occasionally after that; a detailed 2008 account of climbing it notes they were just the twenty-first party to have climbed it and added themselves to the logbook at the summit.

As a less extreme alternative, the article suggests doing the traditional night hike up the Larch Mountain Trail (more about which later), and if you didn't feel like doing the full Larch Mountain trip, there was always the Multnomah-Wahkeena loop, which was laid out essentially identically to the present-day trail; it seems that the high point along this trail used to be called "Looksee Point" back then, and had quite a view, which I imagine is completely obscured by trees now. And if you weren't up for this 5 mile loop, or were just short on time, perhaps the shiny new recently-built Perdition Trail would hit the spot for you. Of it, the article says:

The new trail, inaugurated by the Trails Club, and built ty the city park department, from the head of Multnomah Falls to Wahkeena, is called, for some unknown reason, the Perdition Trail. It is to be avoided in winter, but makes a very pleasant short trip, and affords at the side trail at View Point the most wonderful aspect of Multnomah Falls.

So there you have it: The people who built the trail a century ago gave it a spooky name and never told anyone why, and now they're all dead and we can't badger them about it. It's not a very satisfying answer, but at least now you know as much about the name as anyone alive does, except maybe for a few Trails Club oldtimers, and they aren't talking. But of course we can try to guess what they might have meant by it. The word "perdition" isn't common anymore, and is generally used to mean "hell" or "damnation" or something along those lines, as in the famous rant uttered first by Captain Ahab and again several centuries later by everyone's favorite Star Trek villain:

But it's also an archaic word, and already was in 1919, and it specifically comes across as a bit of corny Old West lingo, like something grizzled mountain men and old-timey prospectors would say. And for them it was more of a general purpose "holy shit", a couple of steps up from plain old "tarnation". So the trail name may come from someone imagining what an early pioneer might have said, hypothetically, on first seeing the view from along the trail. That's my guess, anyway. Speaking as a Generation X person, "tarnation" is an ordinary "whoa", while "perdition" is Keanu saying "whoa".

It was a useful word in the Old West, in that it sounds awfully blasphemous, but saying it wouldn't necessarily get you banned from the local saloon, depending largely on what sort of saloon, and what sort of town, you happen to have moseyed into. You can be certain the word isn't actually blasphemous because it was used in print in a 1995 Deseret News travel article about visiting the Gorge, way back in the olden days when the trail was open, newspapers had travel sections, and travel didn't involve dodging deadly viruses. It's possible there may have been an editorial meeting or two about it first, as the word does have a very specific (and negative) meaning in LDS theology. (See also the 2010 documentary Sons of Perdition, following several teens exiled from the polygamous FLDS communities of southern Utah and northern Arizona. The 2002 film Road to Perdition is unrelated, and stars Tom Hanks as a Depression-era Mob enforcer.)

In truth there are almost no examples on the interwebs of people using the name "Perdition Falls" for the waterfall here, or really of calling it by any specific name at all; there's a caption in someone's Smugmug gallery concerning an illicit hike along the closed trail, and it gets a quick mention in Zach Forsyth's book Waterfalls of the Columbia Gorge, and I could swear I've seen at least one other reference to the name somewhere that I can't find now. So part of the point of the post you're reading now is to create one more search result for people to stumble across, and learn about the long-closed trail, and call their member of Congress about it, and then maybe the necessary repair and redesign work will finally get funded if enough people do that. I figure this is at least worth a try, as the trail has been closed for 25 years now and so far nothing else has worked.

The trail used to have an OregonHikers page, as did the infamous stairwaythat led to the long-term closure. Those links go to Wayback Machine versions of those pages from a few years ago. And just to be really clear, I'm linking to that and other trail info purely for historical reasons, not to encourage people to go give it a try despite the closure. As I understand it, they do actually enforce the closure, and given the trail's location there are decent odds of being noticed from down below if anyone's watching. I guess my standpoint here is that I'm pretty curious about the trail and the area it goes through, but not enough to risk getting tasered over it. Needless to say, I didn't attempt the trail for this post, and if at any point I sound like I know the area, remember I'm going purely on vague childhood memories of hiking it with my parents a few times in the late 1970s or early 80s. So I may have some of the details wrong.

There's still an OregonHikers page for one of the viewpoints, plus a "FAQ" thread and a few other forum threads about the old trail, because I'm by no means the only person who's curious about it. (In one of those threads, a poster refers to Perdition Falls as "Second Multnomah Falls", and includes a photo of a small upper waterfall along the same creek.) And a page at Trailkeepers of Oregon (the parent org behind OregonHikers) explains the group does want to restore the trail someday, albeit as one of several competing priorities. From all of this, I gather there are several problems that would need to be resolved in order to reopen the trail. First would be solving the stairs problem. The original wood stairs burned in the 1991 forest fire, while the heavy concrete replacement stairs sheared off and slid downhill during the 1996 floods, and they either need to find a different way to build stairs here that's more robust, or a way to do it cheaply that can be replaced easily, or maybe a way to reroute the trail so as not require stairs.

The second problem is that people are now worried about debris falling onto the old highway, which runs right along the base of the cliff directly below the trail, either from construction or hikers kicking rocks loose or maybe taking a tumble off the cliff. Although I think this is just a small addition to the inherent, natural rockfall hazard that comes with building a road along the base of a cliff. So maybe the answer is to fix the road, not the trail. I know the highway is historic and people don't want to change anything about it, so this probably won't happen, but it's always easier to find road money than it is to find trail money. And as for altering the nature of the road, it's often said the Columbia River Highway was inspired by the Axenstrasse, an old scenic road in the Swiss Alps, which also gets its share of rockfall issues. The usual solution used there -- and elsewhere across the Alps -- is to build a concrete avalanche gallery above the road to catch falling rocks (see two examples, and an engineering paper about a third one and how well it holds up under boulder impacts.) So building one here could maybe be justified that way. Granted these are rather expensive to build, which somehow means that countries of the Alps can afford to build them, and we can't, so as a practical matter this would likely only get funded after a boulder squashes a celebrity. Not that I am seriously proposing this, or have any particular celebrity in mind.

Since I'm talking about the trail in a historical capacity, it did at least show up in local newspapers with regularity. The 1919 article I mentioned above was the first example I found, and it just mentioned the trail in passing. A May 1921 article about the still-new trail goes on and on about it, and gets a bit melodramatic about the three designated viewpoints along the new trail:

Three outstanding vista points have been designated as Flat Fir Point, the Altar of the Gods, and Lonesome Corner. Flat Fir Point is a moss-covered rock with a wind-blown fir flattened against the stone just below it. From here a splendid view may be had up river. The most unique place on the trail is the Altar of the Gods, a great pile of rocks, resembling an ancient place of worship. The altar tops a sheer cliff of several hundred feet. A panorama of the Columbia Gorge is possible from this point. Lonesome Corner is off by the main trail and is reached by a short side path. The corner is a tiny shelf of rock from which the Multnomah falls may be viewed from the west side. A cable has been anchored in the rocks and placed around a huge fir tree so that visitors may enjoy this hazardous spot with some degree of comfort.

The trail is also mentioned in a somewhat terse 1932 article cataloging interesting hikes around the region. Most items on the list explain how to get to the trailhead by bus or train, which in a lot of cases is no longer possible in 2021. In some cases the route isn't even possible anymore, like a route following Latourell Creek all the way to its source on Pepper Mountain, or the destination has been lost or forgotten, such as a hike along the Sandy River to a "Broughton cairn" somewhere nearby. Broughton being the British naval lieutenant who ventured this far up the Columbia as part of the George Vancouver expedition. This cairn seems to have been sufficiently well-known at the time that the article doesn't explain whether Broughton built it, or if it was just a historical marker indicating about how far upstream he'd gotten to, or what, but I've never heard of it before, and I think I would have if it was a.) authentic and b.) still existed.

A 1946 article about driving up Larch Mountain Road mentions the trail briefly as something else to do while you're in the general vicinity. The article notes that the road was built in 1938 as a WPA project, and was the first road suitable for the general public (as opposed to just log trucks) up there, and explains the once-popular night hike up the Larch Mountain Trail.

The traditional way to do the trail, during its early years, was to start off in the late afternoon or early evening, possibly after a nice dinner at the Multnomah Falls lodge. If you were fast enough you might reach the summit by sunset, but either way you could take in the night sky and Portland city lights in the distance before sleeping under the stars for a few hours. Before you knew it, it would be time for the main event, watching the sunrise from the summit, ideally from the Sherrard Point viewpoint. A photo of the viewpoint at the top shows none of today's safety improvements, by which I mean the concrete slab viewpoint at the top and the safety railing around it. Back then it was just a big rock hanging out into empty space, encircled by distant volcanoes in all (ok, most) directions. I gather watching a sunrise from there would've been the local equivalent of the Haleakala sunrise thing that's still incredibly popular on Maui.

Please note that this adventure is no longer possible as described; there's no view to the west any longer, due to the forest slowly growing back over the past century, and camping at the top is no longer allowed, though you may be able to just get up and drive to the top before the sun comes up. Which is just not the same, somehow. The developed day use area at the top sure looks like a campground, but (like a number of locations around the Gorge, and others west of Mt. Hood) it hasn't been one since sometime in the 70s or 80s. Authorities at the time blamed this on drunk and disorderly campers ruining it for everybody forever, with a side of Reagan-era budget cuts.

The 1946 article mentions that the Larch Mountainn Trail might not be suitable for the elderly, and mentions the Perdition Trail as an alternative for people who aren't up for tackling the main trail. The article shows a photo of the author in knee-deep snow somewhere near the mountaintop, having (I think) gotten there by car, but doesn't explain how he managed that. Maybe the county used to try to keep the road plowed and open all year, though that practice can't have lasted for long before they realized it was futile and expensive. Now they just close the snow gate just past Palmer Mill Road, usually sometime in mid-December, and then it typically stays closed until May.

A 1970 article by the Oregonian's regular hiking columnist said it was a great trail for the whole family, though you might want to consider keeping an eye on the kids at the various sheer clifftop viewpoints, in case you ever wondered what GenX childhoods were like. The article mentions a few long-ago events, like a couple of recent rockfalls at Wahkeena Falls in 1966 and 1969, one of which damaged the bridge at the falls and another took out part of the trail for a while. Also mentions a little-used possibly lost side trail that I'd never heard of before at the last switchback on the way down to Multnomah Falls Lodge, which led to a viewpoint with what was supposed to be the best view of the falls. If you can find that old trail somehow in 2021, an can make it to the viewpoint, we're told that the light is just right for a great photo right around 11am.

The trail is mentioned in a 1983 Oregonian article as an alternate route for through-hiking the gorge, on the parts of the Gorge Trail that had been completed at the time. It mentions the long-stalled initiative to have the trail start in Troutdale and continue to Hood River and points east from there. As of 2021 the only concrete product of this initiative is the obscure dead-end trail that heads a couple of miles east from Lewis & Clark State Park before just sort of petering out mid-forest.

The old trail is mentioned as a great place to view fall foliage, in 1985 Oregonian article by Don & Roberta Lowe, authors of the definitive Northwest trail guidebooks from that era. The fall foliage angle is also covered in a 1998 Kitsap Sun article, which mentions the trail along with a number of closer-to-home waterfalls in the North Cascades along Washington's US 2. The trail was already closed at that point, but at first everyone sort of assumed the closure was temporary and the trail would be repaired and back open before you knew it. You can see this in an account of hiking it in 1998. That link goes to someone's personal pages at the University of Hawaii, which I've linked to several times before for various hikes around Oʻahu like the Lanikai Pillboxes hike.

More recently, here's a trail report from 2011. Also people posted some old photos of it under the hashtag #gorgememory around the time of the Eagle Creek fire in 2017. I also ran across a photo of an old sign for the trail, over on the Wahkeena Falls side, on a site that's just about fonts used in (mostly US) park and trail signage. As far as I know the sign is still there despite the long closure, possibly because the sign itself is considered historic and can't legally be removed.

So that's a bit of background on the trail, but this post is about the falls, and sadly the name "Perdition Falls" has never appeared in local newspapers, and "Perdition Creek" appears precisely once, in an 1863 Oregonian editorial trying to persuade local farmers not to abandon their farms and run off to the latest gold rush. And the name is used not in connection with the creek here, but as a ridiculous gold rush place name along with other gems like "Satan's Ravine" and "the Devil's Diggings".

The fact that I've got basically no details about the falls or the creek, and limited info about the old trail, doesn't mean there aren't a ton of search hits on these names. Oh no, and these links go to all sorts of things. Here's a quick sampling of some other results that came back:

While trying to find interesting stuff about the falls and related topics, I figured at least a few people out there must have been curious about the waterfall right next to Multnomah Falls without knowing any of its unofficial names or nicknames, so I tried searching on phrases like "next to multnomah falls" and "right of multnomah falls", and found a few mostly unrelated results, given all the different meanings "next to" can have. The Multnomah Falls lodge, Benson Bridge, and Wahkeena Falls cover most of the top hits, while the long tail of search results includes all manner of things:

  • "Next to" as in immediately next to, and rappelling down a 600' rope. Normally this is Highly Frowned Upon, and more to the point, it would be impossible to do this quietly and get away with it without anyone noticing. But this was for an official search-and-rescue demonstration, so they had a special permit that mere mortals get laughed at for trying to request.
  • "Next to", as in the next interesting hike to the east of Multnomah Falls, namely the dreaded Elevator Shaft trail. I've never actually done this trail, but it's on my TODO-someday list, at whatever point I'm in about the same shape as 2019. This post originally said something about trying again once Trail 400 was open again after the long closure due to the Eagle Creek Fire, COVID, and then a bunch of winter landslides along the old highway. (This is the trail that branches off the Larch Mountain Trail not far after the Benson Bridge; an old sign at the junction calls it the "Ak-Wanee Trail" but that name never really caught on.) I tried to at least have a look at the base of the trail back in June but after a short distance Trail 400 became so overgrown that you couldn't see your own feet, and the mud bog of a trail beneath all the brush was very slippery, and a slip could mean a long tumble down a steep slope. So I immediately bailed on that idea for the time being.
  • The previous item reminded me of a proposal that was briefly considered in 1924 to build an actual elevator next to Multnomah Falls, for the convenience of visitors who didn't feel like walking to the top.
  • "Next to", as in old photos of the author and his parents next to the falls, from what looks like an interesting book about Northwest hydropower
  • "Next to", as in the ugly (but effective) cable fencing next to the initial bit of trail up to Benson Bridge, which had to be installed after the 1991 fire to prevent rockslides onto the trail. The phrase occurs in a 2019 paper presented at that year's meeting of the Association of Environmental & Engineering Geologists. That paper seems relevant to where things stand in the Gorge right now, and I think quoting the full abstract counts as fair use, so:
    Forest Fires and Slope Stability in a Rain Forest: Lessons Learned from the 1991 Forest Fire in the Columbia Gorge, Oregon, USA Burns, Scott, Portland State University, ***** (TS #13) In the late summer of 1991, there was an extensive forest fire in the Columbia Gorge, USA, on the Oregon side of the river that was started naturally by lightning. We learned from this fire that this steep terrain underwent three basic erosion/landslide processes in the next ten years as a result of the fire. After the fire was out in the autumn, the first rains brought abundant surface erosion of burnt soil and vegetation. A lot of this ended in the streams. Second, extensive enhanced rock fall occurred in the burned area. One classic area was next to Multnomah Falls where a Brugg cable fence had to be installed to protect the trail leading to Benson Bridge from rock fall onto hikers. Third, we learned that in a period of 5–10 years after the forest fire, areas of intensive burning of the forest would produce very large debris flows. It takes 5–10 years for the roots of the trees burned to disintegrate. Seven large debris flows in 1996 at Dodson and one large one near there in 2001 are examples of this delayed debris flow generation when a “Pineapple Express” would come into the area. This is a rain forest getting over 60 inches of precipitation per year. This differs from dry climate forest fires where debris flows are generated with the first major storm after the fire. After the 2017 Gorge fire—which also occurred on the Oregon side—was started by two teenagers, we noted the same things. First, there was extensive surface erosion for a week after the first rainfall. Also, all of the roads and trails were closed until checked for rock fall hazards. We now expect debris flows in the next 5–10 years to come down the following drainages that had extreme burning in the headwaters: Tanner Creek, Eagle Creek, Oneonta Creek, and Horsetail Creek.
  • "Next to", as in one of the top two tourist attraction in the Gorge next to Multnomah Falls. Which is what civic boosters in Cascade Locks are hoping the Bridge of the Gods might become, once they manage to add a pedestrian walkway to it. As of 2018, it was thought this could be ready by 2022-23 if the Port of Cascade Locks could find the money for it. But the project is stalled right now due to some sort of arcane federal rules about it being a toll bridge -- even though it doesn't charge tolls for pedestrians, bikes, or horses, who would be the only users of the pedestrian addition.
  • "Next to", as in the 2nd highest waterfall in Oregon next to Multnomah Falls. About which, opinions vary widely. The Bend Bulletin and various others say the silver medal goes to Salt Creek Falls , in the Cascades off OR-58 near Oakridge. But it turns out that Watson Falls, on a tributary of the North Umpqua, east of Roseburg, is juuust a few feet taller than Salt Creek Falls, per a 2009 remeasurement. Which ironically is mentioned on the Salt Creek wiki page but not its own.

    Waterfalls Northwest inevitably has a tallest waterfalls list for the state, which puts Watson at a distant 14th and Salt Creek at 15th. That list includes a few sorta-prominent seasonal waterfalls like Dalton Falls, but no mention of Perdition Falls. It drops from roughly the same height as the upper tier of Multnomah Falls, maybe even a few feet higher thanks to less erosion, and hits the pool between the upper & lower Multnomah tiers at essentially the same height. If we go with the standard height for the upper tier, 542' puts it a solid 4th after Linton Falls in Lane County and Alkali Falls in Douglas County near Crater Lake, and just ahead of Mist Falls, the second-to-next falls west of Multnomah. Although height numbers for Mist Falls vary by quite a bit, as discussed in my old post about the falls, with one outlier crediting it as a full 1200' feet high.

    A Salem Statesman-Journal article argues Multnomah Falls may not actually be the tallest in the state, listing Linton Falls, Ice Falls in the Wallowas, and the Breitenbush Cascades as potential challengers.

    On the other hand, Salt Creek Falls is just down the trail from Too Much Bear Lake, and the other candidates aren't, which really ought to count for something.
  • Meanwhile the only result I found for "right of multnomah falls" actually refers to the correct place, and it's someone in an ice climbing forum gazing sort of wistfully at it; from what I know about the sport, this would be an ideal climbing spot -- a nice clean 500+' stretch of ice, with just the right winter volume that it might actually freeze all the way top to bottom, and without any weird dangers or obstacles. The only problem is that (like I noted above) climbing here is highly illegal thanks to the famous waterfall next door, and access to the top of the falls is illegal due to the Perdition Trail situation, and access to the base is also illegal due to the big Multnomah Falls rockslide in the 90s, and furthermore you'd be climbing in an extremely public fishbowl and somebody would notice you and call 911 because reasons, and you'd end up getting droned over it or something, which is absolutely not the kind of danger you had in mind going in.

I do have an alternate theory about the trail closure, and why the feds apparently have zero interest in ever fixing the trail. And before you go "oh great, this is another sasquatch story, isn't it?", let me stop you right there and confirm your suspicions. We've already established that Ecola Falls -- less than a mile upstream on Multnomah Creek -- was once the center of the Sasquatch whaling industry, which is how the odd name of the place came about. This time we have a much more recent story, as the closure is the result of a unique partnership between the US Forest Service and the NHL Players Association, specifically their pension & retirement office. It's a widely-known open secret that sasquatches have always been present in the top tiers of professional hockey, and at times have dominated the sport, as with the Philadelphia Flyers teams of the 1970s, and the Portland Rosebuds of the early 20th Century, who owned the Stanley Cup for about a month in 1916. This is actually the main reason the NHL won't give us an expansion team to replace the Rosebuds, because we would instantly have an unfair avantage thanks to recruiting the local wildlife. (You might wonder why Seattle now has an NHL expansion team given that rule; the answer of course is that Seattle has tons of billionaires and when one of them wants something, it generally can't be stopped.)

Back in the 1980s and 1990s you started to see awkward media stories about how various retired NHL stars were faring after retirement, featuring disheveled ex-defensemen wandering around half-wrecked LA mansions in a state of bewilderment. What the stories didn't tell you was that in addition to the usual wear and tear after long NHL careers, many of these guys were feeling the call of the wild, and could not experience inner peace without returning to the forest. Early experiments went badly as they were shunned by the Sasquatch society they'd rejected decades earlier, lured away by the lights of the big city and dreams of fame and fortune. Also they'd become acclimated to human food, specifically 1970s hockey arena food, and the traditional fare of roots and berries and grubs wasn't really cutting it. So they set up a retirement zone a short stroll from the Multnomah Falls lodge, so every evening around twilight a few small groups of hairy elderly dudes emerge from the forest and shamble down to the lodge to pick up their usual take-out orders. Barrel of chili cheese fries (vegetarian), crate of onion rings, crate of nachos, frosty keg of Michelob, etc., So the ongoing trail closure is just so they can have a little peace and quiet, and the government coverup is mostly to keep autograph seekers away. Incidentally, pro hockey isn't the only sasquatch-dominated sport out there, for example many of the most famous pro wrestlers of the 80s were at least part sasquatch. The difference is that the hockey 'squatches have a strong union that looks out for their interests in their later years, while the wrestlers never did and still don't.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Old Boneyard Road

Our next Columbia Gorge adventure takes us back to the former mill town of Bridal Veil, or what's left of it. This time around we aren't visiting the falls, or the bridge above the falls, or the Angels Rest Trail, or Dalton Point, or any of the other usual sights; this time we're wandering down an old gravel Forest Service road at the edge of town, a place the agency calls "Old Boneyard Road". Who am I kidding, I saw the name and had to check it out. Knowing, as I do, how this always turns out in the movies -- "Blair witch, you say? Let's make a documentary!" -- I still had to check it out. So I did, and was underwhelmed, and I also couldn't find any interesting stuff to share about the place, so once again I'm resorting to the usual mix of guesswork, wild tangents, and unbelievable stories I just made up, and hopefully readers can tell which is which. I figured the name might work as a little clickbait, at least; I even held off finishing this post until late October, on the theory it might drive more clicks now than it would if posted in April, say. To be honest I mostly stopped caring about metrics years ago and will probably forget to ever check whether this theory of mine panned out. But never mind all that; we're here now, and I'll see if I can make the place seem at least a little spooky while I'm at it.

Old Boneyard Rd. - USFS road map

The usual embedded Google map up top isn't very helpful this time around, and on Street View it looks like the first couple of photos in my photoset but even less artsy, so here's a US Forest Service road map to give a better idea of where the road is at and where it goes. (That link goes to an interactive version of the USFS map, since I can't seem to embed the real thing here.)

Finding the road in real life takes a keen eye. The spot where it branches off the historic highway is marked only by an easy-to-miss Forest Service road sign noting this is road number 3000-297, and an unusually wide bit of shoulder on the other side of the highway. Surprisingly the road's not actually gated off, so in theory you could drive down it and maybe get past the muddy parts that way, but I wouldn't recommend it; your best bet is to just park in that shoulder area and walk the rest of the way, and turn around if it's too muddy since you aren't really missing anything. Past the sign, the road heads downhill into a narrow, triangular bit of land wedged between the old highway and the Union Pacific railroad, fording Dalton Creek on the way. As it nears the railroad, the road splits: A bit heading east peters out into a small meadow almost immediately, with impassable brush east of there. (A 1927 Metsker map showed the road continuing east from there and rejoining the old highway, but it was gone as of the 1944 edition of the same map.) The main road does a hairpin bend and heads west, but soon turns into impassable mud where it recrosses Dalton Creek. Maps show the road continuing west for a bit after that before dead-ending near the property line with the ODOT's rock quarry next door. Overall it gives the impression it was once an access road for something that used to be here, but gives no hints about what that was, unless maybe the name is a hint.

I first saw the name in a pair of Forest Service road studies, the 2003 original and its 2015 update. They're large (since they cover all USFS roads within the National Scenic Area) and quite dry to read, so let me summarize briefly. The 2003 report said the road was "needed by state government", while posing a "high" risk to aquatic life. The 2015 update said the need for the road was now "low" (and was merely a "low" risk to aquatic life), and proposed downgrading it from maintenance level 2 (suitable for high clearance vehicles) down to level 1 (gated off, with minimal maintenance), commenting "Consider decommissioning. This road has two stream crossings and flooding is occurring on the lower section of the road." So, reading between the lines here, whatever the state was doing here back in 2003 was causing the water quality trouble, and things got better after they stopped, but now the road's redundant. Maybe it used to be a backup quarry entrance, and dump trucks used to roll through the mud here, I dunno. Meanwhile a map titled 'Road Risk/Benefit Assessment', also from September 2015, labeled the road in green as 'Likely Needed for Future Use', so I gather the report's proposal was not a unanimous opinion. In any case the agency defaulted to not changing anything back then, and it still hasn't.

None of which explains the spooky name, which is annoying since the spooky name is the one and only reason we're here. And maybe it's not even a spooky name at all. I'm reasonably sure -- like 75% positive, ok, 51% -- that it's not actually about skeletons, at least not of the Halloween persuasion. Or at least the official old Bridal Veil town cemetery is elsewhere, due west of here over near the Bridal Veil freeway exit. The convent near Coopey Falls has its own cemetery on the convent grounds, so it's not that either; interestingly it -- according to the county surveyor's office -- is legally a "subdivision" named "Transitus". As in "sic transit gloria mundi", I suppose, which in a way follows the long tradition of naming subdivisions after things they replaced. It's said -- and never ask me how I heard about this -- that many Transitus residents return from the Other Side on the last night of each waning crescent moon for the monthly HOA meeting, which -- I'm told -- is conducted entirely in Latin and can get surprisingly heated at times, especially if they think the new groundskeeper has been edging their plots all wrong, or showing favoritism in who gets the most graveside flowers. Some propose a resolution to haunt the new guy until he quits, others remind the residents they've now done this to the last three groundskeepers, and word is starting to get out in the regional groundskeeping community that this is a bad gig, and it's lowering their property values somehow, and the phantasmagorical bickering continues for hours. But after the meeting finally wraps up, the ghostly nuns relax and play bridge til daybreak and then dematerialize back to... wherever they spend the rest of their time. Nobody really knows for sure where they go or how they get there, and it remains a deep mystery of nature (or supernature), along the lines of Atlantic eel migration. But I digress.

Anyway, my guess is that this was some sort of machine boneyard at one point, packed with mechanical bits located somewhere along the "useless junk" <==> "critical spare parts" continuum, like a larger version of my dad's garage. But what kind of machines? There's essentially nothing left now that might give us any clues about that, but I think parts for the old sawmill would be the obvious (albeit evidence-free) guess. So I can't prove it, but searching the interwebs for various logging keywords plus the word "boneyard" led me off on an interesting tangent, so I'll explain that instead for a bit. So if you don't like interesting tangents, just scroll down until you see a paragraph starting with the word "Anyway", and resume reading at that point. Which means there's only one paragraph starting with "Anyway" in the remainder of this post, believe it or not. (And yes, I added an "anyway" to this paragraph later, for ironic effect or whatever. Don't count it while scrolling down, otherwise you're liable to be here for a long while.)

This tangent takes us to a different sawmill down in the mid-Willamette Valley. The Hull-Oakes Lumber Co. operates a very traditional-minded mill near the tiny town of Bellfountain, a few miles west of the small town of Monroe. The mill ran entirely on steam power as recently as 2013, and still uses a lot of early and mid-20th century machinery, on the theory of not fixing it if it ain't broke. They even have an intact old wigwam burner, though it's strictly decorative now since Oregon banned them decades ago. Articles I've seen about the mill include a recent piece in Popular Mechanics, and an older one at OPB, plus others in trade publications like Timber West Magazine, Sawmill Magazine, and This Is Carpentry. One of the articles mentions that finding spare parts can be a big problem, so they watch auctions around the region for gear they might need someday, and sometimes end up bidding against museums. When they win an auction, the parts go to the mill's boneyard until they're needed, which is the reason I bumped into articles about the place.

At one point a few decades ago the mill helped create a unique picnic table for the nearby Bellfountain County Park, 85 feet long and cut from a single piece of wood. Some (including the county parks website) suggest it's the world's longest picnic table, or at least the longest in the "cut from a single piece of wood" category. A state historical record merely claims it "has been referred to as" the longest in that category within the US. (By contrast, the old Bridal Veil mill was best known for manufacturing the little wood boxes that Kraft Cheese used to come in.) Benton County also claims Bellfountain Park is the county's oldest park, founded way back in 1851. Although the county's only run it since 1965, and before that it was a privately-run religious campground used for revival meetings, which is not really a park in the ordinary sense.

Bellfountain's other claim to fame (besides the mill, and the park and its various amenities) is having won the overall state high school basketball championship back in 1937. If you're familiar with the movie Hoosiers or the 1954 true story it was based on, that's essentially what happened here, once upon a time. Like most states, Oregon puts schools in multiple 'divisions', organized more or less by school size and program budget, with a separate championship for each division. There were five divisions when I was in high school, and a sixth was added sometime since then, but back in 1937 there were just two. Class A for big schools, and class B for small schools. But, uniquely, if you won the class B championship in a sport, you had the right to challenge the class A champion for their trophy. Which is how a tiny K-12 school with 27 students once came to play -- and defeat -- Portland's Lincoln High School.

While we're briefly on the subject of high school sports -- briefly, I promise -- in 2020 the town of Monroe had a small cameo role in the state's endless culure wars over high school team names. It seems that they're one of several schools around the state that go by "the Dragons", including the much larger high school in the city of Dallas, OR, and in many cases the name dates back to the early 20th Century. The problematic part here is that there's a longstanding story/legend/rumor that "Dragons" is a sly reference to dragons of the "Grand Dragon" variety, and to Oregon's long history as a Ku Klux Klan hotbed, which peaked back in the 1920s (though I'm cynical enough about this state to consider adding a "so far" here). That suspicion is not helped by both Dallas and Monroe having long reputations as sundown towns. A local website in Dallas insists the stories about the name are untrue, at least in their particular case, and "Dragons" was chosen for a.) alliteration, and b.) because nobody's scared of playing a team that calls itself the "Prune Pickers", the school's previous mascot. Which, maybe. Though I'll just point out that Bellfountain proudly played as the Bells the whole time, and let the name of the town do all the intimidating.

(deep breath)

Anyway, back at Bridal Veil, the place we're actually visiting right now could've been a railroad boneyard instead, since it's right along a major (and very old) Union Pacific rail line, right where the line goes to double track through the old townsite. And I think it's also close to where the mill's old logging railroad once connected to the main line. So this place could've been for old trains and train parts, albeit on a fairly small scale. A quick search came up with examples in remote corners of Maine, New Jersey, Bolivia, and even Ukraine's Chernobyl exclusion zone, all of which are much larger than whatever could have fit here. For the same reason, I think we can rule out "aircraft boneyard" as a possibility since that requires even more space, ideally a large chunk of empty desert like the famous ones in California and Arizona.

Old Boneyard Rd. - LIDAR map

Or maybe this area used to be parts storage for ODOT's remarkably well-disguised Coopey Quarry next door. This is the source of at least some of the gravel used to constanly patch up I-84 and the old highway, and an endless need for gravel kind of implies an endless need for spare parts, especially given the agency's legendary reckless enthusiasm for dynamite. In fact the state's 2014 LIDAR map of the area (the source of the graphic above) shows some near-vertical slopes next to the highway that to me don't look entirely natural, but do look a lot like the quarry next door. So maybe some quarrying happened here at one point too. But (as with most of this post) I have zero documentation to prove that; it's just me looking at a map and guessing wildly.

PortlandMaps says the bulk of the area was last sold in 1989, so the feds haven't actually owned the place all that long. I don't know if the deals were connected at all, but 1989 was the same year that the Trust for Public Land bought the ramshackle sawmill and what was left of its company town, and after a long nature vs. historic preservation battle all remaining structures were demolished and erased. Except for the local post office, which continues to do a brisk business in novelty wedding announcement postmarks. Before the 1989 sale, much of the town (and possibly the boneyard site here) had been owned since 1964 by an eccentric ">local NASCAR driver, who (I gather) just sort of liked the idea of owning his own town. But that's a whole separate blog post I'll get around to sooner or later.

I was really hoping there would be something left over from the place's working days, I dunno, rusty old boxcar wheels or steam engine bits or something, giant sawmill blades, sized for trees it isn't legal to cut anymore, etc, but no luck. Or at least I had no luck; maybe if you're a metal detecting expert (and have the appropriate special permit), or you just have better powers of observation than I do, you might be in for a treat. I mean, I think I would have noticed if there'd been, I dunno, an intact vintage locomotive there, hidden under a big blue tarp but fully fueled and ready to joyride, and with the model number visible so you can find the right "How To Drive This Thing" video on Youtube. I didn't see anything like that, so don't get your hopes up too much. In fact the only remaining maybe-artifacts I noticed were a couple of large concrete boxes that I couldn't identify. Maybe they were the only objects that were too heavy to remove, I dunno. I took a few photos (see photoset above) in case they ring a bell for anyone.

Or maybe I've gotten it all wrong. Suppose these concrete mystery boxes are the reason for the "Old Boneyard" name, and it's all about creepy skeletons after all. Suppose a couple of late 19th century vampires were making their way west by train to Portland, nomming on unaware locals as they went, having heard the stories of other vampires living the high life in Portland's North End (present-day Old Town). A place where people constantly vanished, never to be seen or heard from again, generally without anyone noticing or caring. And on the off chance a missing person was actually missed and questions were raised, it could always be explained away as yet another Shanghai-ing, which the public just sort of accepted as a fact of life. But what if a few people here knew the awful truth of the matter; what if the vamps were ambushed when they hopped off the train for a quick midnight snack, just before they could escape into the city and the unmapped tunnels beneath it. Perhaps the townsfolk here got a hot tip about the unwanted visitors via the newfangled telegraph; it might have even been from from a rival vampire in Portland who didn't want the competition, or had a centuries-old score to settle. Bridal Veil lacked many of the traditional anti-vamp tools (garlic, rice, Catholic priests, etc. -- the nearby convent has only been here since the 1980s), but there were plenty of wooden stakes to be had, or at least cheese boxes that could be quickly broken up into stakes. But these were vampires of the type that are merely immobilized when staked, not the exploding Buffy variety, so a little quick thinking led to entombing them in concrete -- made with 0% Transylvanian soil -- while still staked, and that's where they've stayed ever since, the name being a clue to locals to leave those boxes the hell alone. But then the mill and its town went away, and the residents dispersed to all points of the compass, and certain key details about this place were lost to current generations, and sooner or later someone's going to jackhammer the things open in the interest of making the area more natural. Whoever does this will be in for a big (but brief) surprise, and yet another ancient horror will be unleashed on the world. In fact, this will most likely occur within the next few years, because that's just how the 2020s have been going so far.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Forest Road NF-1509, Larch Mountain

[View Larger Map]

I need to set the stage for this post a bit, since we're visiting an area that's likely unfamiliar to most people in the Portland area, despite being fairly close to the city and very close to major tourist spots in and around the Columbia Gorge. Larch Mountain, 30 or so miles due east of Portland, is one of these tourist spots: A huge and (hopefully) extinct shield volcano that includes the highest point of the western Gorge (4062'), with a famous view from the top, reachable by Larch Mountain Road whenever the road isn't closed by snow. It gets a lot of snow, and a lot of rain when it isn't snowing, and many of the Gorge's famous waterfalls (Multnomah, Wahkeena, Oneonta, etc.) are on creeks that flow north off the mountain or out of its eroded crater. A raindrop that falls on the north side of Larch Mountain likely ends up on Instagram on its way back to the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile creeks that flow south off the mountain flow into the forbidden Bull Run Watershed and become part of the Portland city water supply, so a raindrop that falls there could flow out of somebody's showerhead, drop some minerals on their shower door, and then flow through some pipes to the Willamette, and eventually back to the Pacific that way. Or maybe it'll end up inside a beer bottle and eventually wind up on the far side of the planet, who knows. There's also a third possibile destination: Several large creeks with unfamiliar names -- Gordon Creek, Buck Creek, Trout Creek, and a few others -- flow due west off Larch Mountain toward the Sandy River, and a raindrop that falls somewhere on this western slope will likely get to the Sandy completely unseen by anyone. This watershed area is roughly south of Larch Mountain Road, and north of the Bull Run boundary and the invisible force field barrier that probably keeps eviloers out of our water supply, and also keeps the watershed's resident Sasquatch population from sneaking out for midnight junk food. I mean, as far as I know.

Anyway, the uppermost part of this area, the first couple of miles west of the summit, largely belongs to the Mt. Hood National Forest, but is outside the national scenic area boundary except for the very top of the mountain. West of there it becomes a checkerboard of BLM and private timberland, and then more private timberland mixed with scattered farms and rural homes, and then some undeveloped Metro greenspace along the Sandy River. So there's actually a lot of public land around here, but as far as I can determine exactly one hiking trail in the entire area south of Larch Mountain Road; it's obscure, less than a mile long, and not the thing we're visiting today. What the area does have is a web of little-known and rarely-used forest roads, all gated and closed to motor vehicles, so they function as really wide trails. They don't always go anywhere interesting or offer dramatic scenery along the way, but if you just want to go walk in a forest for a few hours without meeting a single other human being -- or any coronaviruses said human being might be superspreading -- these roads do fit the bill for that.

So with that long prelude out of the way, let's get to the destination for this post. A bit over 8.5 miles from the start of Larch Mtn. Road, you're greeted by a very weatherbeaten sign welcoming you to the Mt. Hood National Forest. On your right, immediately past this sign, is the... trailhead? Intersection? I'm not sure which word applies here, but it's a spot where you can pull off the main road and park, and there's a gate, and a road behind the gate that continues south. If you know where to look, signs tell you this is the Lower Larch Mountain Gate, and the road behind it is Forest Service road NF-1509. (Depending on which map you look at you may see it labeled as 1509-000, with or without the hyphen, which is its full 7-digit road number.) This road is flat, and level, and the first ~2 miles of it are even paved. Which is really unusual if you know anything about Forest Service roads, especially gated ones.

The deal here is that this road doubles as a service road into Bull Run for the Portland Water Bureau, and triples as a service road for the Bonneville Power Administration, which has a major powerline corridor south of here. One of the Forest Service road inventory reports that I've been linking to a lot lately (specifically a huge spreadsheet inside this report) has a semi-cryptic description for this road: "Under SUP w/COPWB for Road Maintenance, OF=BPA Accesses BPA Transmission Towers". I'm reasonably sure COPWB stands for "City of Portland Water Bureau", and the "OF" refers to another column indicating who the primary maintainer or maybe user of the road is. Or something along those lines. I don't know the exact arrangements, but someone who uses the road and is paying for its upkeep thinks the first 2.3 miles ought to be paved, so it is.

I couldn't find a lot of other info about the road besides that official road list. Basically just was a lost dog notice from several years ago, and a 2018 sighting of Anchusa officinalis right at the gate/trailhead. Apparently this is a non-native/invasive plant that's taken up residence here and there around the region, but it's not considered that bad as far as nonnative plants go as it's known for producing lots of nectar for pollinators. So watch out for bees, I guess.

In any case, before you start hiking, you'll want to look around for a blue arc painted on the street in front of the gate. Don't park past it; the gate opens outward, and there's a small but nonzero chance it might need to while you're there. One that's all sorted, the road heads south-southeast from the gate, meandering side to side a bit, crossing several forks and branches of Gordon Creek in the process. These streams rush downhill into deep forested canyons to the west, and you'll catch occasional glimpses through the trees suggesting there'd be a really nice view in that direction if only there wasn't a forest in the way, but at no point does it actually open up and let you see more than that, which is too bad.

At least the near-solitude is nice. I encountered one other person near the start of the trail with two large and very good dogs, and later was passed twice by an official Portland Water Bureau truck. First as he was heading out to the gate and again on his way back back. At first I thought maybe the driver was off shift and going home, then the second time I figured maybe he popped out to grab a late lunch down in Corbett or Springdale, though he must've driven extremely fast once he hit a main road to be back so soon. Or maybe he was going home but forgot his hat or something. Later I figured out (via a recent "Interim Measures Watershed Report") that the water bureau employs a number of "watershed rangers" here, and one of their duties is making the rounds checking the various gates into the area, and generally sort of securing the perimeter.

At one point along the road, just before it meets an old decommissioned side road (no. 1509-041, if you're keeping track at home), a small creek passes under the road in a culvert and then disappears over the edge of a cliff just steps from the road. A little map-based guessing suggests this miiight be the top of a waterfall, possibly up to 70' high, though I've never read anything about one being here. And just below that, it looks like the stream tumbles down a steep slope maybe another 150' to where it joins Gordon Creek, kind of like the stretch of creek below Wahkeena Falls. I'm not a big fan of sheer cliffs and didn't peek over the side of this one, so I'm not positive about any of this, mind you. I tried to check it out from below a couple of weeks later via an old BLM road, but I couldn't find it from there, so either it's not visible from below due to trees, or possibly I was just looking up the wrong creek, as there are several others that join Gordon Creek at around the same spot. At this point I'm about two-thirds convinced there isn't a safe or practical way to settle the question, at least for a risk-averse person like yours truly. This might be a perfect use case for a drone, actually, but I'm still trying to figure out whether drones are legal here, plus I don't actually own any drones.

So after that unsolved mystery, the next point of interest is the spot where the road turns to gravel, right after the four-way intersection with a pair of decommissioned, dead-end roads (1509-180 and 1509-190). As far as I can figure out, those were purely logging roads and they just end after a while without going anywhere interesting, and they're well on the way to being reclaimed by the forest, so exploring them further seems like a lot of effort for very little reward. I don't know why the paving ends where it does, and whether that's connected to the two side roads. I don't have any theories about that, unfortunately.

After a half-mile or so of gravel road, the forest abruptly opens up and you're in the powerline corridor. The buzzing wires overhead belong to the Bonneville Power Administration, and carry power to Portland from various dams along the Columbia as well as the one commercial nuclear plant at Hanford.

This spot is also home to another four-way intersection. You can turn around and go back at this point, which is what I did, but if you wanted to keep going you have a couple of options. To your left, a gravel road heads uphill under the powerlines. This is a continuation of NF-1509, so you can keep going that way if you feel like hiking under powerlines. Eventually it intersects with NF-20, another forest road that runs sort of parallel to NF-1509 but a bit further up the mountain. In fact you can form a loop route this way, heading south on either NF-1509 or NF-20 to the power corridor, connecting to the other road from there, and then heading back to Larch Mt. Rd. that way. The 2010 USFS study that resulted in decommissioning NF-20 and the side roads along 1509 mentioned this route as a known recreational use of the area, but since the area isn't managed for recreation they went ahead and tore up the road anyway. NF-20 is still passable on foot (and I'll finish that post eventually) but going by bike now is going to be a hassle unless maybe you've brought a BMX stunt bike and your advanced half pipe skills, or you're up for a bit of cyclocross. On the other hand, getting from the NF-20 trailhead to the NF-1509 one or vice versa involves a stretch of Larch Mountain Road, which would be fine -- even fun -- by bike, but sketchy if you're trying to walk it.

To your right from the crossroads is road 1509-016, which continues on west under the powerlines to the National Forest boundary and then beyond under various other names. This long stretch of road figures in several variants of the (highly unofficial) Dark Larch cycle route, eventually ending up somewhere vaguely near the eastern side of Oxbow Park. Looking that direction, in the distance I could see the same Water Bureau ranger truck that had passed me earlier, because there's plenty more perimeter that needs securing off in that direction.

It turns out the gate check thing is less about evildoers and more about germs, specifically Cryptosporidium, a waterborne intestinal parasite that causes diarrhea in people and animals, and can cause more serious disease in immunocompromised people. The microbe has an outer shell that largely protects it from chlorine in water, so if it exists in your watershed, just chlorinating your water supply isn't enough, and you also need an expensive filtration system to keep these little bastards out of the water supply. Portland doesn't currently have one of those systems, and didn't want to build one, and (uniquely) got away with a series of repeated waivers until a few years ago, arguing that its water supply is so remote and pure and natural and pristine thanks to the watershed closure plus chlorine that it would be a huge waste of time and money building a plant.

But the bug kept popping up sporadically in water quality tests, most likely because you can't close the entire watershed area to all animal life, and you may have heard about what bears famously do in the woods. So the city eventually stopped getting state waivers about this in 2017 and had to agree to build a filtration plant by 2027. In the meantime the city agreed to various mitigation measures so they could continue using the watershed until the new system was ready. Hence the "interim" in the "Interim Measures Watershed Report" I mentioned earlier. The confusing thing here is that the positive tests that caused all of this trouble are not thought to be from a human source, so I'm not clear on how doing more to keep motor vehicles out of the area helps with that. Unless maybe there have been recent hushed-up events involving bears driving trucks, in which case humanity has more to worry about than a little watershed mischief.

That same report notes that they've left out key details of the local security arrangements, because security. Which is why you don't want to take the remaining option at the intersection. Going straight ahead would put you on road 1509-510, which continues south and downhill into dense, dark, creepy Mirkwood-like forest, flanked by stern Bull Run Watershed signs strictly forbidding you from going any further in that direction. Assume you're on camera here, in other words, even if you don't see any obvious cameras. It's bound to happen eventually, at least. The fabled force field barrier I mentioned is probably around here somewhere too. It's quote-unquote probably just the kind you bounce off of, and not the kind that disintegrates you on contact, though it's hard to be sure since both are invisible. And more to the point, speaking as a Portland water customer, I am asking you nicely not to go that way.

Before we leave here, take a closer look at the trees on the Bull Run side. Notice how they're packed together and are all about the same size? A natural undisturbed forest wouldn't form a uniform wall of trees like that. What you're looking at was one of Portland's dirty little secrets for most of the second half of the 20th Century. People tend to think Bull Run is an oasis of pristine wilderness except for a couple of unavoidable dams and some water works infrastructure, but that's not really true. In 1958 the Forest Service concluded they could rake in an extra million dollars per year by allowing logging in Bull Run. Everyone had sort of assumed this was prohibited by the 1904 federal law governing the watershed -- signed by Teddy Roosevelt and everything -- but the agency decided it had found a loophole: The law limited access to authorized personnel only, but neglected to limit exactly who could be authorized and what they could be authorized to do, so they ran with it and started authorizing logging companies to clearcut Portland's city water supply. They suspected this would be a tad unpopular, so the plan was to do the logging semi-clandestinely and rely on the same 1904 law to keep the public from finding out. You might think city government would object to this. What possible inducement could there be for them to go along with this? Apparently the Forest Service brought in some tame industry-friendly scientists of theirs, who argued that old growth trees were "decadent" and prone to forest fires, and probably listened to beatnik jazz records and indulged in a bit of tree communism when nobody was looking, while freshly-planted trees were young, vigorous, non-combustible, upstanding citizens. I may have paraphrased that a bit. The fire argument was especially persuasive just then, as over 2000 acres of Forest Park had burned in 1951 (and in 2021 the city worries it's overdue for another fire now), and the same year saw the fourth and last (so far) Tillamook Burn, in the Coast Range due west of Portland. So the city went along, though perhaps wondering privately why it needed to stay on the down-low if it was such a good idea and based on settled science.

So this arrangement worked out as planned until July 1973, when a federal lawsuit ended up exposing what was really going on. (The suit was a front page Oregonian story that day, just below President Nixon refusing to comply with Watergate subpoenas.) Until then, the party line was that any logging that may or may not be happening was on a small scale, with a negligible impact. As one absurd example, here's an April 1973 Oregonian profile of a gentleman who, yes, was logging somewhere in Bull Run, rather close to one of the main reservoirs, but his was a rustic one-man operation and harvested almost no trees. And due to extremely strict watershed rules he was doing this with adorable draft horses -- Clydesdales and Percherons, just like in the beer commercials -- instead of modern machinery that would compact the soil and hurt trees (other than the ones he was there to hurt). And to protect the watershed from what horses do in the woods, the horses wore cute special diapers, and the guy even had a special shovel ready in case of diaper accidents. And he'd recently been on a national trivia game show about all this, and Hollywood was interested in his life story, and it was all very bemusing for a simple man of the forest. And in short, things were just peachy keen and bucolic on the Bull Run front, and please pay no attention to the chainsawing noises behind the curtain.

A 1973 City Club of Portland report on the watershed tried explaining the contradictory laws and rules and regulations applying to the area. Among other things, the Forest Service was insistent that per federal law, if the city didn't want clearcuts within its supposedly-reserved watershed, the city would have to write annual checks compensating the feds for lost revenue. Which the city wasn't keen to do.

After several years of legal wrangling, the sneaky feds lost the case in 1976, and if this was a Hollywood plotline the credits would've rolled at this point, and everyone lived happily ever after. That's not how things actually played out, though. A March 1976 Oregonian article described the timber sale situation as merely 'stalled' due to the lawsuit, and explained a major unintended consequence of the recent decision in the case. It seems the ruling was, specifically, that under the Bull Run Act the Forest Service did not have the discretionary authority to permit any commercial or recreational activity within the original 1892 boundaries of the reserve. This was a problem because the 1892 boundaries were based on a gross misunderstanding of the size and shape of the Bull Run River's actual watershed, and the original forbidden zone included over 40,000 acres that were physically outside of that watershed, but legally within it. The USFS had administratively shrunk the off-limits area in 1959 to roughly conform to the actual watershed, as -- law or no law -- keeping people out of the non-watershed area defied basic common sense, and enforcing that limitation cost money. Over the next nearly-two decades, a number of roads and trails extended into the formerly closed area, and people soon became very attached to them. But the judge concluded that this 1959 order was no more legal than the 1958 order allowing clearcuts.

An October 21st 1976 article told readers to "see it while you still can". Seems the judge had ruled that everything had to be gated off and secured by November 1st, and if anyone was caught violating the 1892 boundary both they and the Forest Service would be punished severely. The new off-limits zone included parts of the Oneonta, Eagle Creek, and Tanner Butte trails, along with the road to Ramona Falls, part of the Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood, and a third of Lost Lake, among other things. The one big exception to the closure was the Pacific Crest Trail, as was (and still is) governed by a separate act of Congress that superseded the old Bull Run law. So you could still hike that one trail, you just couldn't legally step off the trail even just little, at any time, for any reason, at any point between Paradise Park on Mt. Hood and a point near Cascade Locks.

The closure is mentioned in passing in a March 1977 Roberta Lowe article mostly about how the very dry winter of 1976-77 would likely affect the upcoming hiking season. She speculated that a "nasty" stream crossing on the upper reaches of Eagle Creek (on the Eagle-Tanner Trail #433) would in theory be less sketchy than usual in the coming year, if only it was legal.

Another Lowe article in May 1977 updating readers on the ongoing saga, the bureaucratic gears were still slowly grinding away when one of the state's congressmen and both senators introduced legislation to restore the old status quo and reopen the beloved closed areas. Not putting a whole lot of emphasis on the fact that they were also legalizing Bull Run clearcuts in the same law. Portland city government saw this in the fine print and made a fuss about it, but it was essentially a done deal at this point, the specific deal being that logging in Bull Run had to resume if the public ever wanted to see Ramona Falls or Wahtum Lake again.

In any event, the new law passed, and the clearcuts resumed, and this state of affairs continued for another 20 years, now protected by a special law and unaffected by all the spotted owl stuff going on in the outside world, right up until the 1996 floods, when the bill came due. Mud and silt from clearcuts poured into the Bull Run reservoirs, forcing the city's primary water supply offline. The city fortunately had (and has) a backup supply to switch to, but keeping the status quo was instantly a nonstarter, and Congress changed the law again, this time banning any further logging in the watershed. Sponsored by the same Senator Hatfield who pushed through the previous law, because legislating is like any other job: If you stay long enough, eventually you have to clean up messes you helped cause.

So that's where things stand now. As far as I know the feds haven't found a convenient loophole in the 1996 law yet, and if any top secret special ops logging was happening anyway it ought to show up on your favorite online map's airborne/satellite view. Of course the online photo is not the territory, and in theory the feds could lean on Google et. al. to conceal any new clearcuts, and make it more subtle than the obvious pixelation map services used to do in the mid-2000s. One of the key arguments in the 1973 suit was that if runoff from clearcuts damaged Bull Run's water quality, the city would be forced to build an expensive filtration plant much like the one it now has to build due to cryptosporidium. So when that plant comes online sometime around 2027, we may hear arguments about how the watershed closure is now obsolete and it's time to go in and clear out the trees before they catch fire due to climate change or something. And who knows, maybe the closure as it exists now would be overkill at that point; I know I'd be interested in visiting a few of the 20 or so waterfalls said to exist in the closed area, if that was legal. But I don't really see Portland going along with that sort of proposal anytime soon; as recently as 2019 the city passed a local ballot measure putting Bull Run protections into the city charter. There were already city ordinances to that effect, but the thought was that some future unsavory city council could simply repeal those ordinances and then do as it pleased with the city-owned parts of the watershed. So as of the 2019 measure, that can't happen without amending the city charter again, which would require another public vote.