Sometime in the winter of 2005, I found myself standing near the summit of Buck Mountain, watching the clouds sweep up the Columbia River. I had just finished writing Portland Forest Hikes, my guide to a series of trails that stretched from Portland through Forest Park all the way to Rocky Point, just to the south of where I was standing.
There was something very satisfying about having literally tramped up and down the entire length of the Tualatin Mountain Range, from Portland’s “West Hills” to where these hills rose up to become the eastern outliers of Oregon’s North Coast Range. My purpose in doing this had been to discover exactly how Portland’s Forest Park was linked through the so-called “wildlife corridor” to the Coast Range. The unintended benefit was the discovery of a series of fabulous trails that extended out from the Northwest corner of Portland along highway 30 and up into the rugged highlands above Scappoose and St. Helens.
This effort soon morphed into an extensive website with trail descriptions and maps to help others follow my rambling progress northwards. From the very beginning of this project I had always been more intent on understanding the landscape through which I was travelling than I was on getting to the destination. I tried to convey this fascination with what lay hidden in these forests, by including copious descriptions of the flora, fauna and history of the areas through which I was traipsing. Eventually, I decided that this information would make a good trail guide, especially since it introduced a whole new constellation of trails into public awareness that had heretofore rarely been explored by hikers. Timber Press was patient enough to work with me and turn this into a trail guide for those adventurous souls that wanted their trail mix to contain a bit more of a wilderness flavor.
Standing out on this rainy, fog wreathed ridge I realized that I had accomplished what I set out to do – to reach the North Coast Mountains. And just as importantly I had used up my excuse for spending at least one day a week exploring the woods until either my dog or I dropped from exhaustion. And of course, by now I was hooked on exploring these vast forests and I wanted to follow them to wherever they led.
I needed a new excuse for my ramblings…
That’s when I recalled the “Pacific Greenway” project that Keith Hay had proposed to the Friends of Forest Park. Sometime in the late 1980’s Keith had proposed emulating the “Mountains to Sound” project that had succeeded in linking Seattle’s hinterlands to the coast. This gigantic effort had involved the establishment of a corridor of donated lands, easements and trails linking the slopes of the Cascades to the pristine beauty of Puget Sound. Keith had even secured funding from the Nature Conservancy to scope the magnitude of a proposed network of trails linking Portland and the Oregon Coast. The Pacific Greenway organization is still listed in the National Environmental Directory as being headed up by Keith Hay. It is described as,
“a far-sighted effort to create and preserve one or more important natural and recreational corridors between the Pacific Coast and the Portland Metropolitan region. Only motorized routes to the coast presently exist. The extension of Portland’s present open-space system to the Pacific, east to Mount Hood and the Pacific Crest Trail, and south along the Willamette Greenway, is a goal of the Greenway project”.
What resulted from Keith’s original scoping study was a plan for three to five trails to connect Portland to the coast, much like the trails linking Seattle’s hinterlands to the coast. The scoping project produced a map showing three possible routes to the coast. The first “Pacific Greenway” trail linked the Portland area to the Coast via the aquatic route along the Lower Columbia – the route that Lewis and Clark took. Keith eventually described this route in his book “Columbia River Water Trail”, also published by Timber Press.
The two further routes were shown as heading westward from the northern end of Forest Park, along the hills flanking the northern boundary of Washington County. The northern route was depicted as heading north from Forest Park. The southern route was indicated as crossing US 26 west of Banks and heading towards either the Wilson River, or Salmonberry corridors. These two putative routes were adopted by Metro, the regional planning agency.
Standing on that foggy ridge in 2005, I adopted an ambitious new goal: to survey the two proposed overland routes that could connect Forest Park with Seaside and Tillamook on the North Coast of Oregon. And I decided to devote the next 5-7 years to exploring these mountains walking through them watershed by watershed until I emerged on the coast.
By the end of 2011 I had walked and surveyed the entire length of these two land routes to the coast. I started with the northern route that curves around the top of Washington County, then parallels US 26, passing near Saddle Mountain and descends north of Seaside. But on the southern route, I decided to use the now abandoned Tillamook Railroad line that parallels the beautiful Salmonberry River. This route crosses US 26 and cuts through the hills to Cochran Pond, which marks the headwaters of the Salmonberry River. It follows the treacherous route of the old railroad over the next 21 miles to where the Salmonberry joins the lower Nehalem River to flow the final 17 miles down into Nehalem Bay, near the town of Wheeler. Except along the Salmonberry, I sought the routes that went along the height of land, and wherever possible I choose roads that had little or no traffic, only using paved roads when passing through populated areas like Vinemaple and Seaside itself.
As I proceeded along with this project I published my progress, as a series of day hikes. These hikes were organized into distinct geographic sections and published on my website, www.foresthiker.com. Taken in their totality, the day hikes trails on the website comprise two publicly accessible routes to the coast using logging roads and walking trails that traverse the hills and mountains of Columbia, Washington, Tillamook and Clatsop Counties between Portland and the Pacific Ocean.
This book, “ The Last 100 miles – A walker’s guide to Northwestern Oregon” includes the trail descriptions for 50 hikes between Portland and the North Coast of Oregon, organized into four geographic sections:
- Wapato Valley – the Lower Columbia River
- Big Horseshoe – the Nehalem River
- Salmonberry River – the Southern Route
- Saddle Mountain – the Northern Route
Unlike the website which is focused on the trail logistics, this book primarily focuses on presenting a deeper look at Northwestern Oregon. The purpose of “The Last 100-Miles” is to look into the landscape and show the rich detail of how our use of the environment has shaped our present forest ecosystem.
I should acknowledge here that my multi-tiered approach to understanding the landscape through which I am walking is based on a European upbringing in the German Alps, where my family maintained extensive hunting preserves. Over many summers of accompanying my father and our gamekeeper into the forest I learned to understand what was occurring in the forest. It helped me appreciate the diverse forest uses, the effect of market pressures, the volatility of weather and the health of the environment – each affected the forest ecosystem in different ways. Talking with the farmers, the mushroom gatherers and our local foresters, I came to understand the interconnectedness of all these perspectives in predicting the physical well being of our hunting reserves.
Later in life, I found confirmation of these views in the luminous writings of Aldo Leopold. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo expressed the multiplicity of connections eloquently when he wrote that,
“ It is fortunate perhaps that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows once can never learn all the salient facts about any one of them”.
Tom Wessels, in his seminal book Reading the Forested Landscape, provides an insightful guide to what might be called “forensic forestry”, or the reconstruction of the gradual changes that have produced today’s forest landscape. Tom gives much credit to Dr. John W. Marr at the University of Colorado who was a pioneer in introducing this new way of seeing and understanding landscapes – one that focused on the history of the land. Aldo Leopold, Dr. John Marr and his pupil Tom Wessels were the first of a new breed of foresters that looked at the forest not just with an analytical eye, but also with a strong emotional connection to the landscape.
I cannot resist quoting Aldo Leopold’s invocation of this deeper appreciation of the landscape in his almost supernatural description of the Sierra Madre,
“The song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means audible to all. To hear even a few notes of it, you must live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of the hills and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low…sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it – a vast pulsing harmony – its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning seconds and centuries”.
Another important contributor to the environmental perspective that this book attempts to portray, is the environmental historian, William G. Robbins, whose two volume history of Oregon recounts how our state landscapes were affected by the interplay of macro-economic forces, global resource market influences, industry patterns, local politics, regulatory shifts and technological changes. In both Landscapes of Promise and Landscapes of Conflict, Robbins details the shifting external forces that ultimately translated into dramatic on-the–ground consequences that affected all the ecosystems through which this book travels.
In this book I hope to describe Northwestern Oregon through a series of four historical portraits – occurring every 90 years from 1750 to 2020. In each of these four historical profiles I hope to convey the contemporary perspective – the lens through which men perceived the landscape they occupied at that time. I will show how these differing perspectives influenced how the land was used and abused.
The two trails that I surveyed through the Coastal Range will serve as a connecting thread with which to move the focus of historical reconstructions from the Tualatin Hills overlooking the Columbia – all the way to the Pacific Beaches in Nehalem Bay and Seaside. I will also use the previously discussed trails through the Coast range as the lens through which to reveal the underlying history and natural processes that sustain the flora, fauna, forests and human communities in the Northwest corner of Oregon. This environmental history tries to present impartial insights into how man’s use of the land has been instrumental in shaping its physical dimensions, from the ubiquitous skidder tracks, to the open meadows of Washington County.
I conclude the book by considering the last time period: 2020. In that portrait I will consider the development of sustainable practices in silviculture, transportation, energy and regional collaboration to show how these more sustainable practices might affect the forest, fish and game populations, and finally achieve a sustainable balance with nature could lead to a healthier environment and more resilient forests in 2020.
June 9, 2012