Thursday, July 12, 2007

Clackamas Headwaters Tour

This excursion is one I set up for The Clackamas River Basin Council, and lead for them the first time this year. In it participants visit a series of springs and lakes all of which are headwaters of one fork or tributary of the far-flung Clackamas River. Date was July 8th.

We visited in order deep bright blue Little Crater Lake, teal-colored Clackamas Lake and nearby Forest Service museum, Summit Lake, Lower Lake, and Head Lake. Finally we barely passed out of the Clackamas watershed to visit Olallie Lake, store and resort.

Butterfly in the Trail

Though our group saw no single wildflower display to match that in Pansy Basin, there were a variety of sometimes unusual plants present in bloom. The peak of the Cascade Mountain butterfly season was only a week off, and we saw hundreds of them from several species - orange, black, white, blue and yellow colors usually with two or more per kind. A large black and white one was seen once; a pale yellow, orange and black one was very common.

Our route passed through the Summit area on Mount Hood with the intent of entering the Clackamas watershed on its northeast side and ending up in the southeast corner. This allowed us to traverse mid-elevation areas only lightly eroded as well as higher areas with many lakes due to sheet glaciation during the last ice age. Elevations visited range from 3300 to 5000 feet (1000 to 1525 meters), so includes mid-elevation sites up to the watershed boundaries. Much of the route (up Forest Service Road 42 and then 4220) was through dry piney woods with much eastside influence. Firs were always present but the pines dominated much of the area. A beetle infestation has killed thousands of pines in this region. Its a borer whose larvae girdle the tree. This is heavily affecting this region, especially lodgepole pine but also the larger white pine.

Little Crater Lake

Little Crater Lake is an artesian spring which has carved out a 45 ft (14 m.) deep lake in the soft siltstone. The pure, cold water displays a striking deep yet bright blue. It was named by comparison to the much larger water-filled caldera in Crater Lake National Park. You can see whole trees at the bottom, preserved by the 34 degree (1 degree C) water. Elevation here is the lowest of our stops at 3250 ft (990 m.).

White Bog Orchid

In the wet meadows the white bog orchid was making a show. (Habenaria dilatata). These sturdy perennials are quite obvious and showy spread throughout the acres of damp meadow. Other common names include bog-candle and scent-bottle.

Saint John's Wort

Another perennial flowering in the meadow was a St. Johns Wort (Hypericum formosum scouleri). Though related to the European species which sees use as an herbal anti-depressant, this one sticks to wet meadows, rather than dry ground. Weather it has herbal uses is unknown.

Next we visited Clackamas Lake, which has cold springs both in and just above the lake. This lake is tinted a teal due to Mares Nest algae growing there. Its not fully understood why this lake has so much that it colors the water. Perhaps temperature, perhaps something else or some combination of factors. Elevation here is 3400 ft (1035 m.)

Clackamas Lake

The lake is surrounded by wetlands and meadows which host a number of unusual plants. Betula glandulosa is a small birch which is common in the wetlands. This is very shrubby, growing 5 to 10 feet high (1.5 to 3 m). It is small leafed and not particularly ornamental. The swamp cinquefoil (Potentilla palustris) shares the wetlands around the lake with the birch. Its flowers are a dull dark red-purple, much unlike its usually yellow relatives. Potentilla is a large genus of the rose family, and includes both perennials and shrubs, some useful as ornamentals and offered in the nursery trade.

Just downstream from the lake is a Forest Service museum, housed in a 1930's Civilian Conservation Corps-built guard station. The structure was crafted almost entirely of clear fir, then widely and cheaply available. Twenty-foot long knotfree tongue and groove paneling line the walls. Such lumber can scarcely be found today at any price.

This small museum contains examples of early 20th Century equipment 70 and more years old, along with period photographs. The volunteer staff is talkative and informative.

USFS Cabin for Rent

We were also treated to a tour of a nearby cabin also part of the 1930's CCC legacy. Its now rented out for only $80 a night ($100 weekends). The two story structure has beds for 9, includes a kitchen and woodstove and a wonderful view at the edge of Clackamas Meadows, with old growth out the back.

Further down the road we visited Summit Lake. A mile off the road down an upgraded gravel road, it features picnic tables but no other facilities. The maps show a creek entering and exiting this lake, but in reality none exists at any time of the year. Springs and underground drainage must exist to keep the water level even. It will drop less than two feet from its depth during our visit by the end of summer. A similar rise would overtop the road, which judging from the complete lack of erosion never happens. This lake is inhabited by very shy ducks who keep to the untracked east shore away from people. Colorful dragonflys abound, and huckleberries fill the forest floor. At 4200 feet, this lake has both low and high elevation trees.

Heading down the 42 Road keep an eye open for 4220 painted in green on the pavement - with frequently disappearing road markers this has proven to be successful in guiding travelers. The junction is easy to miss. The route changes to gravel or dirt, following the old Skyline Road. Along the route Lemiti Creek and wetlands prove to be attractive. Once away from the creek the junction with FS Road 4690 is reached, with a better gravel road ahead for the rest of the trip. 4690 is a good return route to return through Estacada. Pavement is reached soon and then a high speed road most of the way back.

Heading south past the junction Olallie Meadows and Campground is reached on the left after a little more than a mile. The meadow is bisected by the boundary with the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Nearly 3 miles past this we stopped at Lower Lake Campground to access the trail to Lower Lake. The longest hike we undertook, the stroll to the outlet of Lower Lake is less than a 1.5 mile (2.25 km) round trip. Elevation here is 4740 ft (1445 m.).

Lower Lake

Unlike most viewpoints, you hike down to this one. This unimpeded view of Olallie Butte and the length of the lake is the reward for this short jaunt. Olallie is a young volcano with its most recent red-tinted cone obvious and little eroded. The far eastern side shows signs of glaciation, perhaps late in the last ice age. Its height is 7215 feet (2200 m.) and it is only 2 miles (1.25 km) distant.

The stony forest floor offers a scattering of wildflowers and many huckleberry plants of several species. Along the lake we found a butterfly hangout - about 25 in a few square feet. A single osprey flew off towards Olallie Butte and disappeared.

Head Lake

Only a mile down the road we rolled out of the vehicles to view Head Lake at 4935 feet (1500 m.). The ridge in the background framing Mount Jefferson is the boundary between the Clackamas and Deschutes River drainages. The Pacific Crest Trail follows that ridge. Head Lake's outlet is dry at this time of year, but signs of flow earlier are obvious. It is the head of Squirrel Creek. The mainstem Clackamas originates on the north side of Olallie Butte perhaps a thousand feet (300 m.) below the summit. The steep trail to the top passes close by the source. The Clackamas watershed collects about a third of the Buttes runoff, the rest running to the Deschutes.

Our final stop was Olallie Lake, just over the divide from Head Lake to the southeast. This mile-long lake is the largest in this glaciated region. We parked at the store lot. Cabins are available at the resort as are non-motorized boats. Two pair of Ospreys soared over the lake.

Our return route took us down the mainstem Clackamas River. We quickly left the dryer woodlands for the rainforest dominated by Douglas fir typical of the Western Cascades. Occasional views of the river and patches of old growth are a feature of this route.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Pansy Basin

This high glacial valley is of note floristically, geologically and hydrologically. It is located in the Bull of the Woods Wilderness Area at over 4000 ft. elevation. Locals can identify the area as being the next valley east from Bagby Hot Springs. Access is via Forest Service Roads 6340 and 6341. Two trails lead up the valley - the trail most traveled is the one on the maps, with a fairly even grade up the east side, and the hard to find older horse trail that crosses the basin floor and climbs (twice) the west valley wall. Early trail builders did not bother much with planning even grades for easier hiking - horses did the work. Distances then from the nearest road were much greater - in 1940 the trail to Pansy Basin was 25 miles, not one.

The Clackamas River Basin Council sponsored this excursion. I've lead these outings for a few years now, adding commentary similar to that in this article as we hike along.

Much of the basin is floored by a large post-glacier landslide including many blocks the size of furniture, even as large as automobiles. A guesstimate is for an event date 11,000 years back, probably not long after the glacier melted out from the valley. A look up the landslide scar on the west valley wall shows how it occurred. An ancient pumice deposit still hangs in a cliff above the boulders remaining from the slide.

Upper Pansy Basin
From Edge of Avalanche

Originally the soft pumice was fronted with hard basaltic rock, and the two separated, resulting in the rockfall. Only a little of the pumice moved. The slide is hundreds of feet long and its momentum carried it a ways up the far ridge. During extreme weather conditions, two lakes form atop these boulder fields, whose size is evident from shoreline deposits of trees and twigs. How is this possible?

Evidently the same rare conditions that bring flooding in low elevations are needed to form these temporary lakes. Cold temperatures freeze the soil, copious snow follows, and then the 'Pineapple Express' comes along - very wet tropical rainstorms that melt snow to the highest elevations and add many inches of rain too. These conditions make mountain travel difficult - snow and ice at low levels make for many miles in the cold rain on foot or ski in less than enjoyable conditions. Snowmobiles are illegal in the Wilderness Area though they could be used on the approach road to within a mile or so of the basin.

As no one has witnessed these two lakes, we must make deductions about them from the evidence they leave behind. The linear shoreline deposits of woody debris, including both small wood and whole trees, could only have been left by ponded water. No erosion features exist, so the high water must be short lived. The two lake sites are very different. The lower is deep and broad and consists entirely of rock just as left by the slide. The upper lakebed is mostly covered by organic soil washed in by the stream that enters over a falls from the east. Most of the time this stream simply vanishes into the rocky substrate beneath the soil. The lake however leaves behind a more spectacular record of its departure. The dried rushes and grasses which occupy the lowest levels of the lakebed are laid down in a circular pattern as the lake water wheels around the rocky openings which act as drains, circling just like water rapidly exiting a bathtub. The lower lake has a more subtle clue - the lichens growing on the boulders change below the high water mark. Evidently a species very common elsewhere on the slide does not tolerate the rare submergence events and leaves the lake locale to another species that does.

The disappearing waters of both lakes and stream reappears a mile or more downhill just past the parking area at the trailhead. During wet seasons springs appear uphill and squirt through the culvert walls beneath the Forest Service road.

Pansy Basin Falls

The stream flowing off Dickey Ridge into the basin has a pretty nameless falls. It drops into a rocky slot at its base and then flows off to one side towards the slide area. Early in wet seasons it reaches the meadow before disappearing, but at dryer times it is lost in the slide alder thickets which border the forest. Such was the case during this visit.

Vegetation zoning in Pansy Basin;
in the background rocks are
logs left on the temporary lakeshore

The meadow makes quite a show at its peak in late June. There are other areas with more floristic variety than Pansy Basin, but few with a better show. The clear vegetive zoning has deep blue larkspurs dominating the wettest, richest soils near the stream and red to orange Indian paintbrush in the dryer and thinner soils. Larkspur is there too but far fewer. In the low areas near the drains only rushes and grasses grow. Otherwise the salmon Jacobs ladder is scattered throughout the area, with the native orange columbine present in often rocky areas with only a little soil. 

Western Columbine

Cats ears are unusually abundant on the dryer sections. The European dandelion is present, no doubt brought in via horses decades ago. A few other species make scattered variations to the show.

Along the forest trail some forest floor plants were flowering well. Oregon anemone (Anemone deltoidea) was abundant in spots, as was Coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana). This leafless, saprophytic orchid is normally deep reddish purple, but we found a single very unusual yellow plant.

Oregon Anemone

A small lake is hidden away above Pansy Lake on the old trail. On this visit it was half dried up in comparison to the picture below from 2004. We are not sure why - this has not been a dry year, and snowpack was ample.

Green Lake

Pansy Lake itself though shallow is much larger. It is impounded by a hillock of moraine left behind in the final retreat of the glacier from this high valley.

Up the remains of the old trail from Pansy Lake (damaged in the 1996 floods) is a relict stand of 5 and 6 foot thick Douglas firs, all with fire scars from an ancient fire. That fire eliminated all trees but these few for miles in all directions. The lake no doubt broke the intense fire allowing these trees to survive. The yard thick veterans which have grown up since the blaze seem little in comparison with these Methuselahs. At this elevation (4200-4300 ft, 1300 m.) their size is surprising, and certainly indicates great age.