Sunday, February 18, 2024

Mead Creek Falls

Ok, next up we're taking a peek at another very, very obscure Columbia Gorge waterfall. Mead Creek Falls is nearly 200' high, and it's a short stroll from one of the busiest trailheads in the Gorge and maybe the entire Northwest, but nobody's seen or heard of it, and we're going to go see why.

If you're on the old Columbia River Highway, heading east from Bridal Veil Falls, it's about half a mile to the intesection with Palmer Mill Road, a lightly-used, steep, narrow, sketchy gravel road that follows Bridal Veil Creek up into the hills. The intersection is paved, though, and officially doubles as overflow parking for the incredibly popular Angels Rest Trail. Shortly before you get to the intersection, looking to your right, you might notice a small stream that's flowing partly in an ugly semi-corroded steel pipe. To your left, the creek continues downhill a bit and then vanishes underground. From there it flows in a pipe under the old Bridal Veil sawmill site and then I-84, and joins the Columbia in that undignified state. Seems pretty unpromising at first glance, but I was looking at a couple of state GIS maps recently (as one does) and noticed a couple of things. First, the state LIDAR map (which I reference a lot here) showed the creek going over a 180'-200' sheer cliff a short distance upstream of Palmer Mill Road. And second, the state map of fish migration barriers had an entry for the ODOT-owned culvert carrying the creek under the old highway, and that map item said the creek was called "Mead Creek". It's not a USGS-approved official name, but at least one state agency has a name for the thing, and that's official-ish enough as far as I'm concerned. So with those two bits of information in hand, it was time to go look for the mysterious Mead Creek Falls and take a picture or two to prove it exists.

So I hit the road on New Years Day. It was a surprisingly slow day at Angels Rest, so I was able to find a parking space in the overflow lot. From there, I walked up Palmer Mill Road for maybe 100' or so to the creek. I only saw the one creek, so it wasn't hard to find. Turning and facing upstream, there's a short side street or former driveway branching off just to the left (east) of the creek. (I think this was actually for the old mill town's primitive and disgusting drinking water system.) I started walking that direction and soon noticed a boot path to the right, heading uphill and back toward the creek. So I followed that, but it sort of peters out before long when the route gets steeper, and after that it's just bushwhacking uphill folowing the creek, and hopping across it as needed, and trying to avoid blundering into thickets of devil's club if you can help it. After maybe 1000' of this (and 300 vertical feet, much of it on loosely-piled river rocks) I eventually came across an RV-sized boulder a short distance from the base of the falls, and didn't see an obvious way to get around it while staying safe and dry, and I figured the boulder was close enough for now, so I took another batch of photos and turned around.

I'd love to say the falls are a hidden gem, but I was frankly a bit underwhelmed. They're as tall as I expected, and the setting feels like a near-twin of Lautourell Falls, lichen-covered cliffs and all, and it would be a spectacular crown jewel of the Gorge, if only there was more water going over the falls. But as it is, it looks a bit dwarfed by its surroundings. The asterisk here is that I've only been there once so far, and I have no idea whether this is a typical rate of flow or not. The winter of 2023-24 had been unusually warm and dry up to that point, and maybe potential visitors just need to wait for the next big winter storm, or hold off and wait to visit in a non-El Niño winter. Or maybe invent a time machine and travel back a few centuries to when the upper creek was fed by dense old growth forests and global CO2 levels were more reasonable.

Or who knows -- I haven't really explored the sorta-plateau above the falls at all, but it's said to be a confusing labyrinth of old logging roads and unofficial trails, full of random items that random people have lost or dumped or built up there over the last century or two. (See for example a 2013 OregonHikers thread, "More Lost Trails in the Gorge".) As I understand it, presently there are abandoned cabins in varying states of collapse; a bullet-riddled 1941 Chrysler and parts of other discarded vehicles; a few surviving train parts from the logging railroad era; at least one vintage Jet Ski, supposedly; remains of abandoned pre-legalization weed farms, and it's anybody's guess what else. There's probably one of everything up there. Every last lost sock, an entire Sasquatch subdivision (complete with HOA), Jimmy Hoffa's discreet-but-luxurious witness protection villa, it's anyone's guess really. Maybe a cleverly concealed dam is still diverting most of the creek over to the Hoffa compound's vast Jacuzzi complex. Maybe all it would take to fix the falls would be an earnest Eagle Scout and a few helpers with big cans of WD-40. I mean, after the 111-year-old Hoffa finally kicks the bucket, obviously. I would personally not bet money in favor of this explanation, seeing as I just dreamed it up for this blog post, but stranger things have happened.


1. fish barrier map

At some point the state transportation department either named the creek or recorded a name that locals were using, back when there was a company town built right around here. I don't know why, or when, or who it's named after, but I was poking around looking at the state's official Oregon Fish Habitat Distribution and Barriers map when I ran across it, and I'm pretty sure that's official enough for my purposes.

That map draws from a variety of sources and tries to catalog anything and everything that might impede, discourage, disempower, confound, bewilder, or annoy a migrating salmon on its way to or from the Pacific Ocean. Hydroelectric dams are on this list, obviously, plus things like waterfalls that are too tall for a salmon to leap over (which is about 5-6 feet), down to really mundane things like storm drains and culverts under streets, since it turns out salmon don't really like swimming through underground pipes. So the waterfall we're visiting is not on that map, but the creek passes under the old scenic highway in a long corrugated steel pipe that probably dates back to the old sawmill days, located here, and that's where I noticed the name. (I suppose the falls aren't on the map on the idea that any salmon foolish enough to try running the series of tubes is not going to make it far enough for the falls to matter.)

That data probably originated with the Oregon Department of Transportation since they're in charge of things like culverts under state highways, and sure enough, the name appears in ODOT's TransGIS system, and specifically in the department's "DFMS Culverts (Advanced Inspection)" map layer in ArcGIS.

There's also a pipe under Palmer Mill Road, but it's a county road and for the equivalent info for it you'll need the county's ArcGIS and select the "Culverts_Transportation_View" layer. It doesn't list the creek name or tell us anything new, but since I went to all the trouble of finding the map I figured I'd include a link to it anyway.

2. LIDAR stuff

I quickly realized Mead Creek corresponded to a place I'd noticed before here on the state LIDAR map: An obvious streambed intersecting a nearly 200', near-vertical rock wall, in the classic curved amphitheater shape that often indicates a major waterfall. And I have sort of a rule of thumb that if there's a creek or river or what have you named X, and there's one waterfall on it, and it doesn't already have a name, and you need to call it something, you don't need anyone's permission to call it X Falls. Two waterfalls? Upper X and Lower X Falls. Three? Upper, Middle, and Lower. And so far I haven't needed a default naming scheme for four or more. So at this point all that was left to do was to go test the "Mead Creek Falls" hypothesis and take a few photos to prove it's real. Same basic idea as Sasquatch hunting, really.

3. Bridal Veil Water Works

While researching this post, I did learn one more fun fact about the little creek here. From the beginning of the mill and town in 1886 right up until April 1982, Mead Creek was the Bridal Veil area's sorry excuse for a drinking water supply. In April 1982 the US EPA finally got around to testing all of the local water systems across Portland-area counties, and immediately issued a boil water notice for the Bridal Veil system, to remain in effect until the company got its act together and complied with federal clean water standards. That Oregonian article primly blamed this on "elevated bacterial levels", while the Oregon Journal story about the situation explained matters without the Oregonian's squeamish tiptoeing around:

Bridal Veil takes its water from a surface water source and normally does not treat the water in any way...

EPA environmental engineer Jean Knight said evidence of fecal material was found in the water supply at Bridal Veil, which only has a “pipe coming out of a stream” for its water supply, to which chlorine is occasionally added.

“Some people said they’d been ill, but most hadn’t gone to a physician to have it confirmed,” she said.

The Journal piece didn't quite connect all the dots either, namely that the town's raw sewage went back into the same creek the water was drawn from, and they figured this was fine because the water intake was uphill from all the sewage stuff.

Recall that this came about midway through Ronald Reagan's first term, during the height of deregulation mania. Reagan wanted to abolish the whole agency and repeal the laws it enforced, and he packed it with ideologues who did everything they could to sabotage the agency's work. Their refusal to enforce rules and regulations and basic laws of the land led to repeated national scandals. So the fact that they had their hair on fire about the Bridal Veil water system really ought to tell you something.

There had been a few clues that the system was not exactly a paragon of modern 20th century sanitation. Way back in June 1960, the Multnomah County health department issued a temporary no-swimming order for the lagoon at Rooster Rock due to high levels of sewage germs detected there. One sample tested at nearly three times the level considered dangerous. Multnomah County's Health Officer offered a shifting set of explanations for this situation; first he claimed it was just natural seasonal variation in the river's normal bacteria levels, nothing to see here, folks. The Oregon Journal noted, however, that water samples taken further upstream at Bonneville Dam did not show the same elevated levels.

Investigators had even observed untreated raw sewage flowing into the Columbia a mile and a half upstream and already knew its origin, and they suggested that it might be part of the problem. But no, the county health guy now insisted the Vista House restrooms were the real source. Asked to explain the elevated microbe counts found at the river beaches at Rooster Rock, he explained that he didn't put a lot of stock in microbe counts and preferred to rely on his own personal intuition as to what the real problem was, thank you very much. It was pretty obvious at that point that he was never going to point any fingers at Bridal Veil, no matter what. Oddly enough, this episode happened just a couple of weeks after the Kraft corporation announced the impending closure of the mill. A health officer with better political instincts would have just said he's studying the problem, and then taken credit for the drop in bacteria after the mill closed.

4. 1990 study

Jumping forward to the post-sawmill era, the creek and the water supply problem came up briefly in a couple of studies. First up is an April 1990 "preliminary" study on the current state of the mill site, due to the impending sale to the Trust for Public Land. The Mead Creek cameo is on page 9 of the study:

At the time of the Site Examination no olfactory evidence was observed which indicated that the woodlands are currently contaminated with hazardous materials. A visual inspection revealed fifteen to twenty empty one gallon bleach containers near an empty water tank (refer to Figure 1 for location). According to Pat McEllreath, current mill site manager, prior to the installation of a water well in 1982 the town water supply required treatment. It is likely that these bleach containers are left over from the water treatment process.

Figure 1 is on page 14 of the linked doc, and shows little squares labeled "water tank" and "well and pumphouse" along Palmer Mill Road. I assume these were removed during the 90s sometime along with the old mill and associated mill houses. Most likely the well site was chosen so they could plug it into the existing water system with the least effort. The pile of discarded bleach bottles tells me the local public works guy was all about least-effort approaches.

An obscure Forest Service map that covers a lot of land ownership details has a bit more info on the old mill site. If I'm reading things right, the Trust continues to hang onto a pre-existing easement for the water system dating back to April 1937 (the year the mill was sold and reopened to make Kraft cheese boxes). The description of it makes it sound very elaborate, though a lot of it probably never made it past the wishful thinking phase.

Easement for the use of a water system in favor of adjacent property owners. Consists of flumes, tanks and pipelines for domestic water use, a dam and diversion point for water power, and flumes, tanks and pipelines for fire protection.

The 1990 study was labeled preliminary because nobody had looked around yet for contaminated soil, and there was no way to estimate even a rough ballpark figure for any future plans without first knowing what shape the local dirt was in. So they recommended doing that as the next logical step. As far as I know this still hasn't happened, because looking for problems you can't afford to fix is always a tough sell, in any kind of organization.

5. 1992 historic structure inventory

After the sale, it became clear there was an imminent nature vs historic preservation fight. The new owners commissioned a study involving several local architects and historians, basically explaining that the surviving buildings in town were not significant individually, and as a group they weren't a good example of a company mill town, and either way just about everything was in extremely poor condition and there was literally nothing worth saving about the place. A map of the town on page 16 shows all the structures in town, including the water tower and well pumphouse, but the study didn't discuss them any further. The most interesting part is that the study includes photos of the exteriors and in many cases interiors of these buildings, and a lot of these houses were kind of cute. And I know you can't judge the condition of an old building just from photos, but a lot of them looked fixable. This study came just a few years before everybody decided Craftsman bungalows were cool again, and who knows, maybe the preservation battle would have played out differently if that had happened a little sooner. However this was also happening right in the middle of the spotted owl wars, and removing all traces of the timber industry may have felt like a moral imperative at that point.

Around the same time, another consultant produced a 287-page report concerning the history of the mill and the town. I've only skimmed it so far but it seems a bit more evenhanded than that architecture study.

Also in 1992, management of the still-brand-new National Scenic Area issued the unit's first Management Plan, and at that point the vision for the Bridal Veil area was meant to be about historic preservation, which obviously is not how it turned out in the end.

6. 2002 study

In 2002 a group was paid to do another round of quick preliminary work, this time they had a couple of months to dream up a preliminary restoration plan for the site. In it, we learn that the proposed followup work in the 1990 doc had not yet happened, and future planning of the kind they were tasked with was fairly stymied due to still not knowing basic stuff like how much topsoil you might need to dispose of as part of any cleanup effort. And this isn't even considered a high risk site for toxic chemicals, seeing as cutting a large tree up into 2x4s does not actually involve a lot of chemicals. (Unless you're making the pressure-treated stuff, obviously.) The Mead Creek cameo doesn't mention the creek by name:

The natural course of the small stream on the east end of the property appears to have been altered. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) topographic contour maps indicate a westerly course for the stream. This is supported by the site analysis. The stream above Palmer Mill Road south of the site appears to follow a historic bed, but below the road it is channeled in a metal trough. At the point where the stream crosses the Historic Columbia River Highway, it enters an enclosed culvert. It reemerges on the north side of this road where it drops several feet to a stream bed that does not follow the natural topographic contours. Evidence of activities to control and maintain this bed can be found along an unpaved road, in the southern slopes of the site.

Maybe this diversion is why the ugly pipe was left in place, to make sure the creek doesn't revert to its original course without permission. Later on, the study suggests daylighting the creek through the old mill site, if it turns out to be feasible, so imagine they'd get rid of the remaining piping at that point too. That was one of the study's few concrete suggestions, along with putting in an official trail or two connecting the Angels Rest and Bridal Veil trailheads, and adding ADA-compliant access to Bridal Veil Falls. The study didn't propose doing anything with Mead Creek Falls; it's quite possible the authors didn't realize it existed.

7. 2015 master plan for state parks in the Gorge.

Part 1 is mostly an inventory of the current park portfolio and the highlights and ongoing maintenance needs of each, and results from a public opinion survey. Eventually they get around to summarizing the suggestions they got from the general public. Including some variants on finally building out Trail 400 from Troutdale out to the current "mile 0" where the Angels Rest trail starts. Some oldtimer or amateur historian suggested "George Joseph and Larch Mountain", which was a doable hike a century ago. You would start by doing the trail to Upper Latourell Falls, then taking a now-lost route that went to the top of those falls and then continued upstream beside Latourell Creek. Eventually you'd exit the state park and follow the creek through farm country for a couple of miles and then end up on Pepper Mountain. You could turn around there, which was the usual practice, or go down the other side of Pepper Mountain and find County Roads 458 and 550, which would get you within bushwhacking distance of the summit of Larch Mountain. And from there, the Larch Mountain Trail would get you back downhill to Multnomah Falls, or you could just go back the way you came. I just sort of assume that any hike that involves traipsing across private farm or timberland is a nonstarter in 2024. I have not actually gone around ringing doorbells and asking residents if it's ok, but I suspect even that wouldn't go over very well these days.

Part 2 discusses some proposals for the future. One, on page 182, is a new twist on the long-proposed trail between Angels Rest & Bridal Veil Falls, which ought to be a no-brainer but somehow nobody can figure out how to make it happen. Instead of taking a direct, short, level route from one to the other, and maybe reusing one of the old roadbeds in the area, it would follow Bridal Veil Creek upstream a bit and then head uphill, apparently crossing Mead Creek somewhere upstream of the falls, and joining the Angels Rest Trail partway up. Looking more closely, I think the main driving factor of that particular route is that it stays on Oregon State Parks land the whole way, even though one of the main bullet points on the idea was "Requires partnership with USFS" (which kind of reads like they weren't looking forward to that part, for whatever reason. Or maybe I'm reading too much into that.) This reads like a scaled-back version of the 2012 proposal for a Bridal Veil Canyon Trail, which would create public access to rarely-seen Middle and Upper Bridal Veil Falls and cut over Angels Rest after that, making for a longer route.

8. Mead who? Mead what?

Other than the ODOT connection I mentioned earlier, there are exactly zero search engine or Oregonian database results for the creek name. Closest possibility (but still a real stretch) that I ran across dates to September 1985 and the filming of Short Circuit. Apparently the stretch of HCRH between Bridal Veil and Crown Point was a filming location, and the robot star of the film was designed by the legendary Syd Mead. He's probably best known for his work on Blade Runner, and for designing V'Ger for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It's a fun theory but I wouldn't bet any money on it. Another possibility is that it's not a surname at all; maybe someone was trying to explain what color the creek was, downstream of the gentle townsfolk of Bridal Veil back in the day. And if so: Ewwwwww!!!