A new forest that’s as natural as the old one

By Jayson Jacoby October 19, 2012 10:42 am

We hiked up to the Elkhorn Crest Trail on one of those early autumn days when both the nostalgia of summer, and the treachery of the coming winter, are palpable.

It was, to be specific, the final day of September.

Which is about as early as you can get in autumn.

Although quite late, obviously, for September.

Our route was the Cunningham Cove trail. 

This path starts next to the North Fork of the John Day River, within sight of the Forest Service’s historic (and rentable, July 1-Oct. 31) Peavy Cabin, and climbs 2,000 feet to the Crest Trail.

And by “climb” I don’t mean the gentle ascent of the quadriceps-friendly, switchbacking trails common to the Wallowas.

The grade of the Cunningham Cove trail alternates between merely grueling and borderline ridiculous.

At least it felt so to me, bearing as my burden 26 pounds of warm toddler who twists in his carrier every 11 seconds to make sure his mom is still back there.

Lisa had to haul the water, cheese sticks, granola bars and Goldfish crackers that the toddler requires.

Which larder probably weighed about as much as the kid does.

Although granola bars, generally speaking, don’t pull your neck hair.

Anyway it was a fine day to be in the high mountains.

There were only wispy cirrus clouds, and the sun, combined with the exertion, rapidly doused the back of my shirt with sweat.

Yet this summery sensation was exposed as an illusion whenever the trail cleaved a patch of shade. There among the trees the temperature instantly shed 10 degrees and the sweat seemed almost to freeze on my skin.

But in a pleasant, not-quite-yet-winter way.

Although I hike in the Elkhorns pretty often, I hadn’t stepped onto the Cunningham Cove trail for what I figured was several years.

Except then I realized, as we trudged past dozens of bleached gray snags that line the tread, that in fact the interval was far longer.

Those dead trees were burned by the Sloans Ridge fire in July and August of 1996.

And I knew that the last time I hiked the trail the forest was unburned.

For the first mile and a half, then, I felt none of the familiarity that I have cultivated with most paths in the Elkhorns.

Which is no surprise, considering how drastic the makeover was that the Sloans Ridge fire wrought 16 years ago.

What I remembered from this lower section of the trail was a mature and quite shady forest of tamarack, lodgepole pine and, near the streams, Engelmann spruce.

Today’s forest resembles that scene only in the sense that a baby’s face sometimes favors either his mother’s or his father’s.

The same three conifers still predominate. But these trees are mere striplings, most of them, less than 10 feet tall and with trunks no thicker than my ankles.

The flames killed most of the mature trees. The exceptions are a relative handful of tamaracks, trees well-equipped to withstand fire with their thick bark and lack of low-hanging limbs that flames can climb to reach the vulnerable crowns. 

There’s scarcely any canopy, then, to keep out the sunlight, which warms the soil and nurtures dense mats of snowbrush, a shrub which thrives after such upheaval.

This adolescent forest reminded me that fires, despite the nasty reputation they’ve accrued thanks in no small part to the media’s overreliance on describing blazes that “destroy” and “blacken” every acre they touch, usually sow the seeds of a new forest even as they’re turning the old one into ash.

Lodgepole in particular depends on fire — the heat of flames provokes its seeds to germinate.

The Sloans Ridge fire was a controversial event when it happened. 

Still is, I suppose.

Officials from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest chose to let the fire burn after it was sparked by lightning.

Their decision was due in part to the fire starting in a wilderness area, where natural processes, including fire, are supposed to proceed with little, if any, interference from humans and, in particular, our technology.

Nourished by a mid-summer gale, the fire spread over about 10,000 acres, including most of the upper basin of the North Fork of the John Day.

In the span of a couple days the fire transformed a familiar forest — the forest I recalled from my jaunts up the Cunningham Cove trail — into, well, someplace else altogether.

Back in 1996 I drove along the North Fork to Peavy Cabin a couple months after the fire, and the situation, to my untrained eyes, seemed pretty dire.

The dead trees had yet to shed their scorched bark. The normally crystalline North Fork, birthplace of steelhead and salmon and reliable filler of canteens, resembled a chocolate malted as runoff from the first major fall rainstorm ferried the ashy soil from denuded slopes into the river.

Except chocolate malteds are tasty.

Yet these sights, so unusual from my perspective and thus so troubling, were, historically speaking, commonplace for the forest.

I came to understand, thanks largely to my conversations with the late forest ecologist Charlie Johnson, that lightning fires have leveled the forests of the Elkhorns — indeed, of all of Oregon’s woodlands — many times over the millennia, and each time the woods returned.

The youthful forest Lisa and I hiked through, the tamaracks shading to yellow on the cusp of October, is just as natural, then, as the old forest I remembered.

And in a wilderness area, where our handiwork is limited generally to narrow trails and an occasional weatherbeaten wooden sign, natural seems to me how things ought to be.

Although I wouldn’t complain if a crew hacked out a few more switchbacks on the way to the Crest Trail.

My lungs would be grateful too.