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, *****@pdx.edu (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.

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