Rockslide at Phantom Bridge!

07e6d26337903ba3277db2ddf017607fWhen I called the Detroit ranger station of the Willamette National Forest to inquire about snow levels at Phantom Bridge, the Lead Information Specialist there told me I’d never make it: There was a massive rock slide, the road was gone. That sort of news has the opposite effect on me than the one usually intended. She probably thought she was warning a hapless hiker but in truth, telling me about the remnants of a natural disaster, especially a geologic one, is like holding a steak in front of a Doberman. My truck couldn’t get there fast enough and Andy, my adrenaline junkie partner in crime, was game.

Like this was gonna stop us. It just helped build the anticipation.

Exactly two miles up 2207 from the French Creek Road junction (2223), practically to the foot, was this nondescript white marker that reminded you to apply the brakes before you hit the berm they bulldozed to discourage four wheeling. In the distance, you can see the snow level less than a hundred feet above.

The only things capable of exploring the following scene were us and deer and I’m not sure deer are that crazy.

We climbed about halfway up the quarter mile of rock and rubble, keenly aware that the whole show could suddenly slip into an encore performance. It was remarkably stable for an event only weeks old, the rains had settled everything pretty well. Andy scales a sizable stick and surveys the riot scene. Apparently, the upper part of a hairpin turn in the road slid down into the lower part. That’s what I call cutting a switchback!

His view lookin’ up…

…and lookin’ down. The snow beyond the trees at the bottom decorates the banks of the upper fork of French Creek.

We poked around in the detritus for a while, investigating rocks large and small. I found a few quartz crystals at the center of a tiny chalcedony geode and pocketed them but some of these larger stones just wouldn’t fit into my pack.

Amazing to think that these hunks of minerals hadn’t seen the light of day in a millennia, maybe never. Considering the density of basalt, that big one eight feet across probably weighs as much as a semi-tractor trailer or a railroad boxcar full of freight. Even the smaller ones languished like sleeping elephants, nearly impossible to move. Of course, such theories must be tested. And boys will be boys….

Look at him grin. He’s knows he’s being naughty.

It took both of us just to overturn one twice this size down at the bottom. That really put it all into a sobering perspective for us. The raw power of this mind-blowing volume of rock and gravel all moving down the mountain en masse must have really been Rock slide & Niagra 5-23-10.13something.

When the slide fell, it apparently sent whole fir trees skidding along like chopsticks. Their limbs were stripped off in the cement grinder of moving earth and rock with a precision that would make the strongest bucker jealous. By the time they hit the bottom, they were smooth as soda straws.

Andy, a solid 6 feet of former fullback, is reduced to a mere chipmunk atop this beast.

We were both impressed with how the smaller trees could halt such Goliaths. The big chunks must have been running out of momentum by the time they got this far. All standing firs that performed such acts of heroism were ruthlessly barked for their efforts.

Even so, the whole thing didn’t look complete, it looked more like a stop-action shot of an ongoing slide. Logs were captured mid-fall at crazy angles, cairns of debris were only paused in tentative repose. It carried a lingering energy, like the aftershock of an earthquake or the left-over tremblings you feel in your gut as you walk out of a horror movie.

But not all large scale change is devastation. While some plants were tested, others managed to make the best of it: Bracken ferns rule!

Gooseberry and other brambles seemed to just pick up where they left off. Infant Douglas Firs were born among pebbles. Salal simply readjusted itself further down the hill.

The impressive volume of water from the near constant rains that unleashed and then settled this whole thing ultimately had to go somewhere. We found its escape route near the bottom. Talk about your downspouts! You can see what I mean about the “barking” on the tree in the foreground.The slide sprinted all the way across French Creek, mowing down the willows and dogwood quite thoroughly.Yet, the creek side-stepped the intrusion without comment and kept right on flowin’. Andy stands at the terminus of all the action on the far shore.At water’s edge were these little guys, Golden Jelly Cone (Guepiniopsis alpinus), glowing like neon fungus lights under the bright overcast sky.Rock slide & Niagra 5-23-10.04The photographer in us wanted views from above, too, so we dragged our dripping bodies back into the truck and sought out an alternate route to the top. Unfortunately, winter prevailed. We parked and gave it our best shot but after about twenty minutes of sliding around in slush, we took one look at each other, grinned, and simultaneously turned around.

We spotted an interesting set of hieroglyphics on an alder on the way back, made by a feasting sapsucker.

We were serenaded by an over-sexed Ruffed Grouse doing his bizarre thumping routine to incite the ladies. He must have had an interested hen waiting in the wings because he was relentless in his ardor, ignoring us completely.

Funny-BearOur third brush with nature was the biggest one of all, literally. Maybe you can explain to me why bears sometimes act like addled deer. All he had to do was sit in the thick undergrowth at the side of the road, totally invisible, until our vehicle passed by but, No, he decided to burst from the foliage into the truck’s path, dart back and forth a couple times indiscriminately, and then plunge into the brush about a hundred yards down the road on the opposite side. It left both and Andy I scratching our heads. Mr. Bear seemed kinda young–maybe this was his first truck? Or maybe he said to his buddy just before running, “Hey, Frank, watch me freak the hell out of them!”

Our next attempt up the mountain was 2207 on the back way from North Fork Road (2209). Sullivan Falls had a magnetic quality, however, that sidetracked us for an hour.Rock slide & Niagra 5-23-10.19It sports an upper tier that looks deceptively close and climbable. “Close” turned out to be ten minutes of wet scrambling and “climbable” was more like “Man, I hope this root holds.” What seemed like a trail was more like a weak spot in the tensile strength of a woven wall of fir, fern, and salal. We made it to the top, snapped victory shots, and edged downwards, reciting sincere rounds of “Good branch, strong branch…” to offset the fear of becoming a reddish glob of human Jell-O at the bottom.

Sullivan Creek, by the way, was what is technically known as fucking cold.

On the way back, there was still daylight and that cannot be wasted on a serious road trip. The parking lot at Niagra was sodden and pocked with puddles that could swallow a Prius. If you translate the sign at left into Andy’s and my language, it reads: “Attention! Awesome photo op ahead, proceed with all due haste until you hear the roar of the river.”

The rest of the tourists trickled away near the ledge. It was just us and one very unflappable fisherman who was navigating the danger in hip waders. Locals, ya gotta love ’em.

The falls of Niagra were many and varied and they nestled just out of reach of all good wide angle lenses. No matter how hard you leaned and craned, you couldn’t quite capture the enormity of the place in one shot. Perhaps a paddle and a kayak could do it from below but the king-sized spin cycle going on down there sort of ruled that out, too.

The confluence of the Santiam River and either Green or Sevenmile Creek was one of half a dozen neat little chutes:Rock slide & Niagra 5-23-10.24A footpath followed the Santiam past several ancient stone stairs heading down. The worn steps seemed buried in the undergrowth and almost unused. The brief trail map in the parking area showed a trail loop but why loop when you can follow mysterious stairs into the unknown?

Trees here were saturated with moss and dotted with massive snails of the gorgeous variety. Trilliums were performing brilliantly. Ant hills vaulted up from the forest floor three feet high. And there was fungus among us.

Curiosity paid off at a water-carved promontory lavishly furnished with sedge and Camassia. Andy braved some slick green slime to get closer to the fast-moving water. I watched his feet slide back and forth and almost out from under him a few times and decided that where I stood was just fine.

I spotted two unbearably cute baby Water Ouzels on the far shore. They sat there like salt and pepper shakers, waiting for an adult to flutter over periodically and feed them something wiggly from the river.

By now the light really was fading. We pointed the truck back towards civilization and began fantasizing about hot showers and warm, dry clothes. Andy also had dinner waiting for him thanks to his friends. I need to make some chef friends.

May 23, 2010