Sunday, October 2, 2022

Clear Lake


3000 years ago, a cinder cone near the Sisters Mountains erupted and spewed lava down into the McKenzie River valley. The flow was partially stopped by the cold river water, but the downslope part of the hot lava managed to flow all the way to the far side of the valley, damming the McKenzie to a depth of over 200 feet. A deep narrow cold lake quickly formed and then off down the mountain went the now free McKenzie river. This new lake, now called Clear Lake, swallowed the mature tall Douglas Firs that grew in the bottom of the valley along the old river and completely covered them up to a height of 170 feet. The waters of the lake are so cold and pure, coming from glacial melt and filtering through miles of lava rock, that the big trees were preserved and their branchless trunks can still be seen rising out of the depths of the frigid clear waters. Think about that. You can row a boat out into this little lake and look down and see tree stumps that are 3000 years old. We may just have to do that.

But today, we wake up in the little rustic cabin where we are staying at Clear Lake Resort to find that the rain of the previous day has moved on and is replaced by glorious sunny blue sky. We really wanted to do a hike around the lake before we head home and this is our chance. We pack up our car and check out of our rustic cabin and get ready for a hike.

I believe I should say something about the use of the word ‘rustic’ in describing the cabin. ‘Rustic’ is the resort’s description of the cabin and my experience says that it is common usage in the cabin biz. When I think of ‘Rustic’ I think of a log cabin with a fireplace and perhaps bunk beds with a curtain door. Perhaps a hand pump for water in a basin. Maybe cooking over a wood-fired stove. Nope. Rustic means ‘no running water or bathroom’. The cabin we were in was a perfectly fine building with electricity and a gas stovetop and heater. Just no water or sink or bathroom or shower. There was a water spout and a place to dump dishwater out front. There was a shower and bathroom a 50 foot hike up the hill. Rustic.

Anyway, as I was driving our car to park in the regular parking lot (as opposed to in front of the cabin we were checking out of) I saw a little sign on the round-the- lake trail. It said ‘Bridge Out’. I had seen a similar sign yesterday down at the other end of the lake and so now I was wondering which bridge was out and how  Out was Out? We asked the Ranger over at the lodge by the lake. She told us that she had not seen the bridge in a while, that it had always been a bit challenging, and that some people had recently told her it was 1) Impassible 2) Easy 3) Hard but doable. We could take our pick. She recommended that we go around the lake clockwise so that we would run into the bridge early in the hike and not have so far to retrace our steps if we should decide that it was too dangerous to cross. OK.

We started out. We had to hike back past our cabin and also some of the other cabins at this cute little Resort. Some of the other cabins are larger and have running water. They are also more expensive and harder to book. They were all full of families. They also had nicer views of the lake.  

The trail starts out going North along the lake. The lake color is really nice up at this end, a bright blue-green. We are hiking up hill and quickly get to  one of the creeks that feed into the lake. The creeks are NOT the McKenzie. The outflow of Clear Lake is where the McKenzie now starts. We crossed over a little bridge, evidently not the Bridge Out bridge. Even if this one was out, we could have hopped the stream. Perhaps the Bridge Out bridge is like that and we will be able to continue.  We are now in an old growth forest area and the trees are huge and gorgeous. I really enjoy walking through a mature forest. Everything looks so natural and healthy. Even the fallen dead trees look healthy and are adding to the development of the forest by becoming nurse logs for the next generation. 

We walk along the North shore of the lake. The lake is in two big open areas with a constricted area between them where the Lodge and boat rental is. No power boats on Clear Lake. Just human powered boats.

The vine maple down near the waters edge have started to turn to fall colors and some yellows and reds are making stark reflections in the blue lake below.  The color of the lake is very suprising. In some places the blue-green is so vivid that it seems unnatural. 

This bridge is really out

We turn a corner and are now walking up the sides of the second lake tributary. This one is evidently a larger stream and has steep sides. Not a good sign. We come around a corner, duck under some safety tape, and there is the bridge. It is a big one over a gorge. It had been a single tree log but that must have rotted and was in danger of complete failure. A team has been working to replace the bridge, however. There are pulleys and ropes in place and a cement foundation has been laid and a large iron I-beam now extends over the gorge 50 feet along side of the old log. There is a lot more tape and wooden barriers. Crossing does not seem like a good idea. Perhaps if I was 20 and stupid.  We are 1.7 miles from the resort, and we turn back. We are on the McKenzie river trail, we could have not crossed the bridge, but instead continued on the McKenzie river trail up the side creek to the trail head, but we really want to explore the lake. If we can’t do it by land, then we will do it by sea.

Back at the Lodge, we arrange to rent a rowboat. There are a lot more people at the lodge today than the other days we have been here (the lack of rain and addition of sunshine may account for this, or perhaps it is just that it is a Friday). We rent one of the ‘large and more stable but harder to row’ boats. Why? Because I haven’t rowed a boat in half a century, that’s why.  Turns out I still got it. That summer spent teaching Rowing Merit badge when I was 14 did not go to waste.  I even remember how to feather! Such Finesse!

We paddle south into the large part of the lake and go over and look at the lava flows on that side. You can certainly see where the lava comes in. Paige says that the trail goes right through the lava and that part is much harder to hike than the part we did. I hear that. We did not see any huge perserved underwater trees, however. I think this was partially due to the fact that there was a bit of a breeze blowing through and creating ripples on the lake and so obscuring our view. We switched rowers and Paige took us back through the narrows over to the part of the lake that we had partially hiked around earlier. The water was calmer over there. Paige was looking to get some pictures of falls colors reflected in the water. 

So that was nice. And then she said, “Hey, there is a tree”. Sure enough, coming up from the depths to about 1 foot below the water level was a dark pinnacle form. A tree. She rowed us over to it and then from that change in angle we could see lots of trees coming up in the water. Think about this. There is no way for these trees to have grown in the lake. They were there when the lake formed. The lake formed 3000 years ago. Those trunks have been sticking up like that for 3000 years. Oh My. It is a little hard for me to believe that some jerk hasn’t come out during those 3000 years and torn these things down. Just for fun. Or profit. ‘Hey, Vern, I bet those old trees out by that old lake could be worth some money. Lets go pull them out Of there with a chain and your old pickup truck. I bet we could get enough money to catch the new John Wayne movie at the Bijou”.

The most vivid picture I got of these trees was actually from the dock where you rent a boat. So you can always see that one, it isn’t going anywhere. Oh, the boats. They are rented out by Linn County parks and are very reasonably priced and perfectly fine boats. I recommend them. Just go out for an hour unless you are going fishing. A hour of rowing is plenty for any two people. The ranger at the lodge told us if we were staying in the cabins, we could rent for a day, and then come out at night and see the stars from the middle of the lake.  Wouldn’t that have been something? 

That is a 3000 year old tree stump.

Ok. Time to head home. I want to sleep in a room where I don’t have to walk 50 yards with a flashlight in the middle of the night to use a bathroom.

McKenzie River Waterfall Loop


In recent geologic times, the upper McKenzie river was savaged by three separate lava flows that entered the McKenzie river valley and changed the course of the river. The first of these flows dammed the river creating a deep blue lake that is now called Clear Lake. At the bottom of clear lake, 100 feet down, dead trees can still be seen preserved throughout time by the extremely cold water. This same flow made the first of the waterfalls we will hike past today. The volcanic flow deposited a layer of basalt rock hundreds of feet thick and the river, when it finally won its way clear again, must flow off of that ledge to make its way to the Willamette valley.  The second flow did a similar thing up higher on the river and made the second of the falls we will see today.  The third flow created the lava that we hiked through yesterday and was so broken that the river, when not running at flood, flows through the broken rock underground to emerge once more at the Blue Pool, a sort of second start to the McKenzie river. 

The loop we are going to do today can be joined at either of the viewpoints for the two big waterfalls. The East side of the river has a trail that has a lot casual observers walking a short ways from their cars. The West side of the river has a more difficult trail that is also the trail that is shared with the many bikers that ride down the McKensize River Trail. I am pretty sure that the bikers only ride down the trail…. Not back up. 

Today we are starting at the top fall (called  Sahalie) and hiking down past the second (Koosah). There is a bridge at the top and bottom of this stretch of river that allows for the loop around the area. This allows for good views of the falls, the many big cascades, and rapids from different points of view. 

If you do a lot of hiking, or even walking around, in Oregon, sooner or later you are going to have to decide if you are a fair weather hiker. Not just the ‘oh, it may rain today, I had better stay in’. If you do that you probably don’t even go outside except in the summer. The kind that says “Well, it is going to be raining pretty much all day and I had planned this hike, am I going?”. Today was sort of that second kind of persons day. Normally I would get around this by planning my activities a few days in advance and trying to steer around the weather. But today, we are in a quaint little cabin on the banks of Clear Lake and the rain is coming down in a constant drizzle so our choices are brave the rain or sit in the one room no WIFI, no TV, no Radio, No Telephone, no Water, cabin. Yes, that is what I meant by ‘quaint’. So we are going hiking. Good thing we have good rain gear. This means rain pants, a Gortex-like jacket, and water proof hiking boots. Also, it helps to have some warm half gloves or something like that. Rain in the fall can be cold. 

You know what the problem with hiking in Rain gear is? Heat. If you are going uphill or doing some semi difficult walking (like we are today) you generate some heat. On a cold day (like below 45) you may be able to stay at a reasonable temperature, but today is more like 55 and our rain gear makes for great insulation. You stand the risk of getting more water inside the gear from sweat and condensation than outside from the drizzle. Oh well. Dress in layers. Take time to remove inner layers when you get hot. Abandon the rain coat if the rain lets up for a while. Have dry clothes and a towel in the car. Have a blast. 

Have I got us out of the parking lot yet? No?

This is that natural canal thing.

The river here is wild and cold. The lava rocks that the river is flowing over are still relatively young and sharp and there are a lot of strange formations that the river has to negotiate. For instance: At one point there is what appears to be a wall going out into the river. It makes a partial canal that cuts across the river and makes a nice little side flow. This is not man made, it is a lava edge sticking up into the river.  I took a lot of pictures which I include here but they really can’t do much justice to the majesty of this wild stretch of river. 

I would like to call attention to a couple aspects of the vegetation. The East side of the river is very wet. It was raining on us today, but it also seems like the spray generated by the falls and the many rapids make for a lusher and mossier than usual terrain here close to the river.  Then there are the plants growing in the river and on the rocks on the sides of the river. A short green moss or perhaps algae is on the banks, on the rocks, and growing deep into the river even under the fast moving water.  I will try and look up this plant name. Maybe I can find a Ranger that knows that it is.

We are hiking down the East side first and it ends at a road and a bridge across the river right at the first reservoir on the river. We are now hiking back up the river on the west side. The trail is much more challenging on this side. I know we are walking uphill, but there are also a lot more rocks and twists and turns and such.  We have to quickly go back up the cliff to the top of the fall and that accounts for some of it. I can’t imagine someone riding a bicycle down this stretch of trail, but I guess it is a pretty common thing to do. I am guessing that bicycles have changed somewhat since I was 12.  I do have a bike that I ride. But in the city or on easy flat paths. Nothing like this. 

This West side of the river is up on a higher cliff than the East side. This is the reverse of the situation of the section of the river further down near Blue Pool that we hiked yesterday. In many places the trail wanders close enough to the edge that side trails and impromptu viewing platforms have been made on the cliff edge. There are a number of great views of the river, rapids, and falls from up there. It is worth the little extra effort to walk off the trail a few feet for the sights. You are right on the cliffs though, so watch your step. If you were making a list of great places to commit suicide by jumping to your death, I would add this one. Not that I am making such a list, mind you. That would be crazy. Even to talk about it in a blog would be sort of strange. The sort of ramblings you might expect from a person that had spent a couple of nights in a quaint cabin in the woods with no running water or WIFI.  But I digress.

We hike up past the first fall and then to the up-river bridge. This is a new and strong foot bridge over the start of the wild part of the river. From there it is a right turn and a not to difficult return to the parking lot via the last viewing platform for Sahalie falls. I might add that at this point you will be offered a choice of hiking on the rock strewn trail along the top of the river gorge or a wide old dirt road that runs along parallel. Such an inviting pleasant wide flat path. Don’t fall for it. It runs out into the woods, makes you negotiate several old tree falls and then just ends at an old campsite. Dammit.

We did a little exploring of the area before we did the hike and I wanted to mention our side trip to a place called Fish Lake. There is a historic site there where there has been a stage coach station. A place to change horses on your wagon when making the run between the central valley and the Willamette valley. It is now a interpretive site and a NPS ranger base. 

Sahalie Falls from platform

Looking down river from Shale. Note the green

Fish Lake, at this time of year, is a big green meadow. It is in the middle of a big jumble of lava flow. In the winter and early Spring, when the local creek is flowing hard, the water can’t escape through the rock fast enough and a lake forms. The trout in the creek move into the lake. I assume there is good fishing there at that time and thus the name, though I can’t imagine  enough trout live in the creek to make it worthwhile for fishermen. As the rains stop and the creek flow slows, the water quickly drains out of the lake and the grass that was dormant underwater reasserts itself as  a meadow. The fish swim back to the mouth of the creek and stay up the creek for the summer.  This is not a unique situation, I know of at least one other lake, up in Washington, that has a similar life cycle. 

I really enjoy hiking through the lava country. Many unexpected and thought evoking sites to see. Might I suggest a few other stories about Lava areas: 

Lava Days

Hiking a Lava Tube

Mt. St. Helens Eruption Hike

Hike around a big Volcano Crater in the Galapagos

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Blue Pool

The Cascade Mountains of Oregon hide many a natural wonder. Our hike along the McKenzie river to the Blue Pool let us encounter three of the grander ones. We are traveling up into the mountains during the shoulder season between Summer and Winter. The weather has been pretty warm and dry but that is due to change at any minute and this area always gets lots of snow. The Ranger we talked to said that the main highway here, 126, is kept officially open by ODOT but once a good ice and snow storm hits the road is often closed due to drivers that don’t know how to drive in the snow. He said “those drivers from Georgia” but I suspect he may have also meant “Those drivers from the city”. 

This is also one of the river valleys that was closed 2 years ago by the big wind storm that triggered the huge fires that burned down from the mountains for days and days and encased the entire state in a thick blanket of brown smoke. In Portland, we were pretty far North from the worst of it and we still had to close up our home and run the filters continuously to make the air inside the house healthy. Outside the smoke was so thick we could barely see the house across the street. Of course, in the Fire Valleys, the impact on the residents was much greater than a little smoke. 

Driving up the McKenzie River valley now the natural and human toll of those fires is still apparent these 2 years later. Up on the hills across the river are entire mountains full of dead and burned trees. Acre upon Acre. Down along the river on the 126, the fire scorched through the many little fishing shacks and country homes that had been built along the river.  Here much of the burned down houses have been removed and either rebuilt or are in the later stages of being rebuilt. Home after home of brand new, and usually large, dwellings. Mixed in there are the occasional lonely stone chimney, testament to the lost homes that could not be rebuilt, whether from lack of treasure of lack of will. Imagine how this must have looked a month after the fire. Just miles of burned-out homes.

When driving through this place and you have a very good view of the surrounding terrain because all of the small understory has yet to recover. Many of the biggest tallest trees are still alive in some places, though their bases will be black for another century. Then, suddenly, you lose your view and everythng is green. The winds had pushed the fires steadily West, so once you get East of the fire starting point, you are out of the burn. Or at least out of this burn. When you walk through the forests of Oregon you always see big old trees that are burned on the base. Burned from fires that may have occurred a hundred years or more ago. 

The green also marks a change in the land as the mountains get steeper and the road heads up the river gorge that has been carved by volcano and river. Volcano and River, 2 of the 3 wonders that I promised you we would have on this hike.

The McKenzie is a working river. It supplies much of the water and electricity for the city of Eugene and the surrounding towns. This means there are many dams, reservoirs, diversion reservoirs, and generation plants along the way. Just at the top of one of these reservoirs is the well marked turn off the lower trailhead to Blue Pool.  The parking is along the dirt road by the Trailhead, only a few hundred yards off of 126. This is a well hiked trail. We are here on a Wednesday in September and there were still 15 or 20 cards parked along the road by the seemingly new pit toilet at the trailhead.  Hiking Hint: Even if you know there are toilets at the trailhead, bring your own Toilet Paper. 

At the trailhead there is a sign that says that this part of the trail is for hikers (pedestrians) only. Trail Bikes are directed to a different nearby parallel trail. This is presumably because this section of the trail is so popular.  There is a short descent from the road to the river and then you are hiking a wonderful wide stone bordered trail through some lovely old growth forest. This is some of the little unsullied forest that I have seen in Oregon. There are no old tree stumps left over from a previous lumber operation a hundred years ago. It must have been too hard to drag these trees out back then and they managed to survive until someone had decided that they were worth saving. Now there are all of these magnificent old Douglas Firs and Cedars growing huge and gnarled and beautiful. There are still many stumps and falls, but these are all natural and the trees are still there, just laying on their sides and providing a natural growth medium for the next generation, that have started growing on top of them. There were many of these ‘Nurse Logs’ just off the path. A couple of these were going across a creek and one was across a trough in the earth and was making a sort of nurse log bridge with trees growing on top of the bridge. I wonder how those trees will finally end up. Will they extend roots into the earth, or will they collapse and die when their nurse finally decays to nothing? I must come back in a few hundred years and check up on them. I will make sure and update this blog with a picture from then.

This is a Nurse Log Bridge !

that log is only cut because it was blocking the trail

a walk in the woods

Some of these rocks were human placed

After a mile or so and a wide bridge made from a 5 foot diameter tree across a little creek we come to a change in the terrain. Things get rockier, the going gets more complex, and we are starting up an incline that is leading us quickly away from the level of the river. We are still beside the river, mind you, but it is now down in an ever deepening gorge. We have reached the start of an ancient lava flow and are now hiking through wonder #2 on this 3 wonder hike. 

flow rippled lava

Lava. This lava flow, though old enough to have 200 year old trees growing out of it, is young enough that the forms and movement of the molten rock are still very evident as you walk over it. This section of rock is raised above the rest and flat with wavy little patterns in it. It is easy to imagine this as molten and moving and then freezing into place. That section over there was probably the top of a Lava Tube. A hollow tube of lava that extended down the valley with a river of lava hot and flowing down the center while the top and sides cooled and hardened. When the lava river stopped, the molten lava flowed out leaving the tube standing and intact. For a while. But sometime over the centuries the ceiling of the tube collapsed into a jumble of rocks and that is what we are seeing now. Trees and bushes are trying desperately to grow in the jumble but the ancient pattern is still easy to discern. 

The trail winding its way through this is pretty unique also. It seems like the trail has been carved right through this mass of lava flow, but I could not find any obvious signs of the carving. No sharp edges or things like that, and there are mature tree roots along the trail suggesting that only thing that may have been doing any carving is Nature and the many boots of tourists and hikers. My partner and I discussed it and we agreed that we couldn’t figure it out. It is clear that the trails had been cleared of easy to move debris, like bowling ball sized rocks, but unclear if anything more dramatic (like dynamite blasting) was done. Certainly the use of dynamite was common in carving some of the trails that go up the river valleys of the Gorge, so it isn’t a completely silly thing to suggest.  Anyway, very nice trail, slightly more challenging than the Old Growth forest part. A good pair of boots is suggested. 

Was this trail dug? Natural? Worn by feet only?

If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one around, does it make a sound? The answer is Yes, it makes a hell of a loud sound. We had a tree go down across the river as we walked by. No rain. No wind. It just spontaneously fell. We heard a CRACK and looked over and saw it break off and go down. And it fell down the gorge into the river. KABOOM. A much louder sound that I was expecting.  How often does something like this occur? I mean, where people are around to here it? This is the second time in a couple of years that my partner has seen/heard a big tree fall. I have only had evidence of them. Like the tree wasn't blocking the trail on the way out and now it is...

This time of year there is also some fall color in the Vine Maples that congregate along the edge of the river cliff in the ample sunlight. We might be a week early for really good color, but we did see the occasional bright orange Tree. That also led us to see the towering cliff, going up a shear 100 feet on the other side of the river. Where did that come from?

Our trail curves around a rock outcropping and then leads up back to the edge of the cliff overlooks the river and suddenly we are at our destination. Wonder #3. The Blue Pool. This is one of those things that if very aptly named. There spread out below us is what appears to be the magical beginning of the McKenzie river. A 100 foot diameter, 20 foot deep, bright blue pool of still water, surrounded on  3 sides by 50 foot high dry rock cliffs. The river exits full and lusty on one side but no water enters the pool from any obvious direction. Wow. What is happening here is that someplace upriver a bit the McKenzie enters into one of those Lava Tubes I told you about. It goes underground and even has an underground water fall. It then comes up from the bottom of the pool. There must be a pretty good current down there but it is not apparent from up here on the cliffs. You can see what appears to be a sort of dry waterfall cliff area. This turns out to be where the river comes tumbling over the cliffs when the river re-asserts its rights during times of heavy rain. 
The Dry Falls are Top Left

I wouldn't sit there....

We hiked around this area a bit, just doing some exploring. Of to the side is the place where the trail splits into Bike and Pedestrian Trails. Above the pool the trail is mixed use. By the way, this is just a 2.25 mile stretch of the McKenzie River trail. The entire thing is around 26 miles long and stretches from Clear Lake on down the river to McKenzie Bridge.

A really beautiful hike. I am so glad my Partner took me on this hike.