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home : columns : columns June 28, 2016


6/11/2013 1:27:00 PM
Pole Creek Trail is a new adventure
The Pole Creek Fire left this part of the forest along the Pole Creek Trail completely burned. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
+ click to enlarge
The Pole Creek Fire left this part of the forest along the Pole Creek Trail completely burned. photo by Craig Eisenbeis


Until last summer's big fire, the Pole Creek Trail was a special place to go because it was one of a dwindling number of local wilderness trails that was still green. Obviously, that distinction is a thing of the past.

However, for the hiker who is anxious to witness first-hand what a wildfire does to a forest, this is a good place to visit. A few small trees survived in the vicinity of the open space surrounding the trailhead parking lot. Everything else is pretty much gone. In fact, in the first mile we hiked south, we scarcely saw a single living thing.

The ground here is completely bare, with a uniform color of flat, lifeless brown, punctuated by naked tree trunks standing as so many monuments to the dead forest. The fire in this area burned so hot that even the rocks were affected. We observed several places where rocks had cracked from the fire. In some cases, we saw rock surfaces that had shattered and peeled off in shards, leaving thin puzzle pieces of rock scattered about, littering what had once been a forest floor.

Truth be told, the forest nearest to the trailhead was hardly a postcard setting before the fire. The area was thick with thousands of beetle-killed lodgepole pines, resulting in a tangle of dead, dry wood that was clearly the tinder-box it would prove to be. Still, the moonscape that resulted is rather jarring.

The lower portion of this trail has many fallen trees because the long-dead lodgepoles burned hot at their bases, and many toppled. The completely barren ground has also suffered significant erosion in spots. It's not a pretty picture. Surprisingly, by the end of May, a Forest Service trail crew had made good progress in clearing the trail through this part of the burn.

As the trail approaches the 1.4-mile mark and the fork leading northwest toward McKenzie Pass, we began to see a few scattered live trees. Before the fire, this is where the lodgepoles began to give way to an increasing number of the fir and hemlock trees that prefer higher elevations. The fire, however, was less discriminating than the insects; and the flames took them all.

From the trail junction atop that ridge crest, it's another half-mile south to Soap Creek. I remember watching the fire's progress last summer and had hopes that the fire might stall at that point, but it advanced to burn thousands more acres.

The excellent flat-sawn log bridge that graced Soap Creek for many years was swept aside by the unbridled runoff. We were still able to use a portion of it to step across amidst a tangle of fallen trees. On the south side of the creek, the trail splits, with the right fork leading to Demaris Lake, Camp Lake, and the Chambers Lakes. The left fork leads south, all the way to Park Meadow, Green Lakes and Century Drive. Even the trail signs here were burnt to a crisp.

On our first trip up the trail this year, during May, it began to rain; and my friend joked that there were no trees under which to take shelter. On last week's sortie, the running joke was that there was no shade. After Soap Creek, however, we began to encounter some living trees along the trail, although the trail continued to run in and out of burned areas. In some of these spots, the fire burned with less intensity than other areas.

These more lightly burned spots begin to transition to unburned areas about three miles in, as the elevation approaches 6,000 feet. Here, the wetter, less dense hemlock and fir forest fared better.

At present, trail use is limited to a corridor of 50 feet on either side of the trail in burned areas. Once into the higher elevation unburned forest, however, we took advantage of the opportunity to leave the trail and explore a bit. We hoofed it up a little ridge to the south and lunched on a rock outcropping overlooking the North Fork of Whychus Creek. Here there is still plenty of healthy, green forest.

The spot we picked had sweeping, close-up views of all the mountains, and was a good vantage point from which to see large portions of the swath cut by the fire. While enjoying the view, we heard a noise in the canyon below. To our surprise, it was a wilderness trekker singing. Carrying a large backpack and skis, he quickly hiked up the slopes of the canyon to where we were seated.

He identified himself as a graduate student from Corvallis, who had been on an overnight trip to climb and ski the Middle Sister. He was not the only backcountry traveler we encountered. Earlier, at the Soap Creek crossing, we chatted with two backpackers from Washington who had spent multiple days transiting the area.

What we learned from these encounters is that, regardless of the fire and destruction, regardless of closed roads and limited access, regardless of lingering snow and harsh conditions, people will continue to seek out the wilderness.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service is moving quickly to restore the area. Last week, Forest Service crews cleared fallen logs from the Green Lakes, Pole Creek, Camp Lake, and Park Meadow Trails in preparation for heavy trail drainage repair and restoration. Using Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) funds, a work crew from the Northwest Youth Corps (NYC) has been contracted to work this week and next week on this major restoration project.

The NYC is modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps and hires energetic young people looking for hard work and job and life experience. The NYC workers are camped about three miles inside the wilderness, near the 6,000-foot level, while working on the project this week.

To access the Pole Creek trail system, head west on Highway 242 and turn left onto Forest Road 15 not far after the High School. At present, the road is closed a little over five miles in, and it is necessary to walk the next five miles to reach the Pole Creek Trailhead, which was very close to ground zero of the fire. The trails are open, even if the roads

are not.

For current information on forest and road closures, contact the Sisters Ranger District at 541-549-7700.









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