Our destination today is Eagle Creek. This is, with good reason, the most popular
hiking trail in the Columbia River Gorge. On nice spring and summer weekends it is
teeming with hikers vying for space, but on a mid-week, chilly, winter day we have
the trail almost to ourselves. Eagle Creek runs through a deep canyon. At the trail
head it is an easy stroll to the creek, quite wide here, as it is nearing the Columbia
River and has been fed by numerous smaller streams along the way.
It is not a difficult hike. The trail climbs steadily but very gradually, and you
really are not aware of high you have climbed until you realize how far down the
creek is, as you look through the treetops to see it meandering its way through the
canyon, and as you try not to fall off the sheer drop-off at the edge of the narrow
There is a surprising amount of snow at the trailhead and still hanging on in patches
in the woods along the trail, and in a few spots, where direct sun never reaches,
ON the trail, making for precarious going, especially where the trail is narrow and
the drop-offs steep.
The Eagle Creek hike can be as long or short as one chooses, as it eventually continues
on beyond the boundary of the designated wilderness. Many hikers use it as a starting
point for backpacking trips. But we only have time for the short version today, about
2 miles in, to Punchbowl Falls, the most popular turn-around destination. It’s not
that we are slow walkers, but we are careful slow observers of detail. It takes
a long time for us to get from rock to rock, from tree to tree, when every surface
holds something of beauty and interest, especially when we can’t help but wanting
to share our discoveries with each other.
Look at this! Look at this! Look at this moss with these bright green-yellow star
patterns tight on this rock; look at this cool contorted branch covered with this
fluffy white lichen and little green moss patches. Look at how clean and blue the
water is, the rocks are so clear at the bottom, I bet it’s deeper than it looks!
Look at how the light catches the edges of those pillows of moss on that high branch.
Look at that bright chartreuse lichen encrusted on the cliff across the canyon, like
someone threw paint on it, such an unnatural color in this earth toned landscape.
Look at the this tree stump – it looks like a face of an old man, with eyes, nose,
chin - if you turn your head just a little this way it looks more like, like a horse!
Look at that long thin stream of water meandering its way down the cliff through
the trees across the way, a secret waterfall only observable when the leaves are
off the trees; the sinuous shapes of the exposed roots that have aged to a point
where the bark of the roots are indistinguishable from the bark of the trunk and
branches; the detail in a patch of lichen encrusted on a rock face.
The moss – the moss – I can’t get enough of it. I know more of their names now. I
know that lanky Isothesium and plushy Metanekera (the tiny leaves of Metaneckera
are translucent and wavy and quite beautiful when seen under a dissecting microscope)
are the 2 most common mosses found on the Big Leaf Maples here, making up the bulk
of what we see when we look up. Making their home there also, are numerous others,
like the small but plushy pads of Dicranum with all of its tiny narrow leaves curved
to one side, and Porella, a liverwort masquerading as a moss. Big Leaf Maples (Acer
macrophyllum) are almost completely covered with moss in these misty, moist environments.
There is so much moss that the air itself seems to be infused with green. Cool green
mist hangs everywhere, or so it seems to us, touching our skin, enclosing us, keeping
We are at an even level with the tree tops of those that rise from deeper in the
canyon, but we are dwarfed by the trees along our path that rise so much higher still.
We can see the many layers of basalt flows that created this landscape over the last
40 million years, revealed in the cliffs across the chasm.
We are engulfed, puny, yet we are a part of it, and it, of us. It feels enchanted,
somewhat mystical, or should I say, mistical? There are old growth Douglas Fir trees
here (Pseudotsuga menzeisii), towering and massive, with deeply, deeply, furrowed
bark. It feels very powerful. We have had some wild storms and an uncharacteristic
amount of snow this year, and there are lots of new branches down, large and small.
We see the occasional tree that has been uprooted, heading downward on a steep slope,
root ball pointed to the sky. Subject to weather extremes, steep slopes, and saturated
soil, winter sees its share of downed trees each year.
The decaying logs and old tree stumps become worlds of their own. There is so much
life in a decaying stump, more life forms then when the tree was thriving, really,
living organisms doing their job, breaking it down. It is just a different stage
of life, with bacteria gone wild, microscopic and macroscopic insects, lots of mosses,
lichen, fungi, home perhaps to rodents, maybe a bird. Shrubs and herbaceous plants
take root and grow. Maybe a snake or salamander will find a home beneath a piece
of wood. I read once that it takes about as long for a tree to decay as it did to
grow. I can’t find this reference now, and it may not be true for all trees, but
it makes sense. And as the wood decays and softens, as the moss grows and humus builds,
it becomes a perfect bed for seedlings, and often a tree seed will take root then,
sending its roots down the sides of the stump and the stump becomes a nurse log,
feeding its progeny with its slowly released nutrients as it decays. An evenly spaced
row of trees at the same stage of growth are a sure sign that tree seedlings took
root along a fallen log at about the same time, spacing themselves naturally to take
advantage of available food, light, and water. Usually those trees will be raised
up somewhat, as they grew above ground level on the back of a log.
Years of observation have taught me something about reading the landscape, but it’s
a long story, with much to learn. The natural world only gets more complex the closer
we look. The trees, the rocks, the moss, the lichen, the understory plants, the insects
- they all have something to say. Find a boulder field and look up and around and
you can usually see where the rock face had given way in some long ago landslide.
Or a single giant boulder along the path can often be traced back to its original
spot on a rock wall.
Hiking the Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge February 5, 2009