May 27, 2013

Opal Creek old growth hike a reminder of past, changing times


Opal Creek

It was the epicenter of the spotted owl debate in the early 1980’s, drawing attention from around the country, as the timber industry, so entrenched in the lives of those inhabiting the Pacific Northwest, battled conservationists for the future of forestlands surrounding Opal Creek.
Old Growth Forest along the Little North Fork Santiam River

It was a gorgeous yet somewhat breezy weekend in late April when I drove to the gate across the road (2209) accessing Opal Creek and Jawbone Flats. My intention was to backpack into the area and set up a camp somewhere near Opal Pool, where rushing waters flow through a small gorge and drop into slower moving, deeper  and aptly named waters.
Road leading to Jawbone Flats

The gravel road soon crossed a bridge over picturesque Gold Creek. From there, large trees appeared in greater numbers, until the towering behemoths and regenerating undergrowth indicated I was standing in an ancient forest.

Gold Creek from bridge
Looking out into the forest from the road, immense tree trunks stood high above forests lush understory. It all looked so alive. However, a lift of the chin and look to the sky gives hikers an entirely different perspective. Many of those massive tree trunks are topped with few branches, if any. Many are nothing more than a snag. In fact, many of the largest trees in any old growth forest are dead.

Dead old growth waiting to fall
After about one mile, the road, carved out of an extremely steep slope, is so narrow that bridge-like beams support its outer edge, making the road wide enough for vehicle travel. The road is used by folks living in Jawbone Flats needing to access the outside world by vehicle.

Narrow road widened by beams and planks
After two miles, machinery and parts left behind from the old Merten Sawmill begin to appear. Built in 1943, the steam powered mill utilized timber in the immediate area until it closed not long after opening. Apparently, the company’s log trucks were falling off the narrow and steep section of the road, making it too dangerous to log the area. One building at the site still stands.

Machinery left from Merten Sawmill
Behind the mill from the road, the Little North Santiam River flows over a basalt ledge to form Sawmill Falls. A short side trail delivers explorers to a view of the tumbling waters.

Sawmill Falls
Why I had yet to venture into the Opal Creek area, dismissing it throughout the many years of hiking through the Cascades, was no mystery. For me, the battle for these forests had left a foul impression. It was my opinion that folks were robbed of their livelihood by a movement that enlisted folks who cared more about trees and owls than people. On the other hand, I had witnessed how clear-cutting a forest could virtually destroy it. I understood why those folks would want to conserve a place like this. In a way, the old remains of the sawmill represents what the area was, could have been and is today.

Clear waters above Sawmill Falls
A short distance after the old sawmill site a trail to the right takes hikers to a bridge crossing of the Little North Santiam River. From there, the trail parallels the south side of the river for roughly another 1.5 miles to Opal Pool.

Bridge leading from road to trail
Along this trail are several spots to set up a tent and spend the night. After crossing Opal Creek over a bridge at Opal Pool to the east of Jawbone Flats, I backtracked west through a meadow and sat down inside a small shelter. After eating some lunch, I headed back to the trail, found a camp spot and set up my tent.

Along the trail
t is here where I want to talk about choosing a spot to set up camp. I assume most backpackers know not to establish their camp too close to a body of water or trail. What folks might not realize is to also look at their immediate surroundings when putting up a tent.

Bridge above Opal Creek gorge
On this trip, I debated on two spots as possibilities to establish my tent site. With all the trees in the area and the windy conditions, I searched for those trees appearing most likely to blow over in the wind, which are usually the dead ones. The spot I was convinced had the most stable trees surrounding it was the one I chose to set up my tent. It wasn’t five minutes later when a gust of wind blew over a tree that landed no more than 10 feet from my tent. Had it landed on my tent and I had been in it, the tree would have injured me seriously, if not killed me. The morals of this anecdote are, don’t set up a tent within reach of a tree that could fall on you, and, even when you think you haven’t, anything can happen.

Opal Pool
Then it was time to explore. Again, I hiked back over the bridge near Opal Creek and made my way through the meadow and into the heart of Jawbone Flats. But, before reaching the small community from the East, I stopped to look at the old mining equipment along the side of the road, left over from the days when miners frequented these mountains.

Meadow at Jawbone Flats
Jawbone Flats consists of several buildings, some cabins available for the public, a store, educational buildings and homes for residents. One even houses a turbine used to power the community.

Jawbone Flats
Back across the bridge and onto the trail, I hiked south along Opal Creek. Unfortunately, a bridge once crossing the creek only a short distance from Opal Pool was gone. With the creek flowing too high to wade through and continue down this trail, I turned around and made my way back to camp.

Old mining tools and machinery at Jawbone Flats
I save the term “spectacular” for few areas, and this is not one of them. It is, however, a beautiful area and well worth the visit. I was both glad I finally waIked into it and disappointed it took me all those years to get there.
Camp was set up at the confluence of Battle Axe Creek and Opal Creek

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