Runnin’ WILD


News staff writer

February 25, 2006

The water is almost gone by now.

What’s left of it glides delicately around glazed boulders protruding from the bed of this high alpine stream.

That means the rapids are probably gone too. Their roar muffled like the hum of an automobile heading down a lonely highway.

Only a skeleton of the river remains.

If Brandon Backman, Heather Herbeck and I were here to paddle the whitewater, we’d be sorely disappointed.

But that’s not why we came.

We came to see what makes these 4.7 miles of the Upper Middle Fork of the Hood River so unique and so pristine; what makes them deserving of Wild and Scenic protection.

A Legacy for Mount Hood —

Two months ago, U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., unveiled their three-years-in-the-making, bipartisan plan to protect Mount Hood from development and exploitation.

The plan — “A Legacy for Mount Hood” — calls for adding 75,000 acres to Mount Hood’s 189,200 acres of wilderness.

It also proposes granting Wild and Scenic protection to short sections of three Mount Hood National Forest rivers.

These 20.9 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers would add to the 150.3 miles of Mount Hood rivers Congress permanently protected with the Omnibus Oregon Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1988.

That act guarded 211 river miles on 31 Oregon rivers and gave Mount Hood its first congressionally protected rivers: the Clackamas, Sandy, White, Salmon and Roaring.

Now, Oregon has the most Wild and Scenic Rivers in the nation — 47.

Hood River County has zero.

If the public, Congress and eventually the president approves the Walden-Blumenauer plan as is, this 4.7-mile section of the Middle Fork would be the only section of river in the county that would earn Wild and Scenic protection.

For local conservationists, this would be no small feat.

A Wild and Scenic designation on the Upper Middle Fork would forever protect it from the threats of logging and significant development.

Congress made sure of this decades earlier when it passed the Wild and Scenic Act of 1968, four years after it passed the Wilderness Act.

At the time, the only tool conservationists had to stave the rampant pollution of streams and rivers was the Clean Water Act. And the intent of that was narrow in scope: to stop the dumping of pollutants into navigable rivers.

The Wild and Scenic Act was the first legislation armed with the mission of preserving the unique qualities of individual rivers.

The only major requisites were that the river in question be free-flowing, largely free of development and to possess “outstandingly remarkable values.”

By 1968, however, some naturally remarkable rivers already had some artificially installed neighbors, such as roads or bridges.

These rivers received the weakest of Wild and Scenic protection: “Recreational.”

Congress reserved the “Wild” classification – the strongest form of protection – for rivers that were inaccessible to humans except by trail or by foot.

For rivers in between, like the Upper Middle Fork, which has a remote road near the top of the proposed section and one near the bottom, but none that parallel it, Congress created a medium-strength label: “Scenic.”

Brandon Backman pulls Heather Herbeck’s Pyranha creekboat up the slope en route to the portage that brought us to the lava beds

The exploration begins —

Silently, we slide from the snowy bank into the river and begin bouncing through the first of countless shallow rapids.

Within a few horizon lines, the snowy slope down which we tramped to reach this river has disappeared, replaced by a massive wall of brittle and gouged basalt.

The wall rises from the river, hanging over us like a guilty conscience.

And it follows us as the current lures us further from the road, eliminating the easy hike out should one of us lose a boat, a paddle or our nerve.

One of those three scenarios seem likely.

For a Class V kayaker, the Upper Middle Fork isn’t a challenging section of river. It has no waterfalls. No violent hydraulics. And few, if any complex rapids.

What it does have is logs. A bounty of them. Both the type that grows vertically from the gravel banks and the type that a recent windstorm can thrust across the river, imposing a life-or-death game of limbo on an unwitting and unwilling kayaker.

Of any hazard on a river – a rock sieve, an undercut rock or a log jam – logs are arguably the most dangerous. They can suck you down with their rootballs or snag you with their sprawling branches, pinning you under five inches of water.

They can grab your kayak and hold onto it while the current wraps the plastic boat around your legs.

And worst of all, they can appear at any time and any place on the river.

Almost every horizon line so far has threatened us with a dangerous log jam, another portage that could soak up valuable daylight while we scramble up the hillside to escape it.

As we commit to each rapid, however, a passage through the whitewater opens up – either by ducking under the log or by finding a slot around it.

This is not the safest strategy for exploring a river.

But it is a strategy that gives us a better chance of reaching the Subaru parked at the Red Hill Road bridge before nightfall traps us in this frigid forest.

It seems to be working. Within a few hours, we have dropped four to five hundred feet, drifted around countless blind corners and negotiated a dozen Class IV rapids.

In that span, the massive wall that was glaring over our right shoulders has crumbled into shards of jagged, pourous basalt.

The rocks line the river-right bank, like decorative rocks in an elaborate garden.

We’re making good time. Great time.

And then with one glimpse, all of our progress halts.

A massive pine tree has fallen across the river. All the way across. It’s sitting too low to limbo beneath it. And too high to ramp over it.

We’ll have to portage.

Brandon Backman sits amongst the millions of volcanic boulders in this 7,000-year-old lava bed. Geologists believe this lava flow resulted from a small fissure in the ground. They are the primary reason for the proposed Wild and Scenic designation on the Middle Fork of the Hood River, which they border.

Another world —

One by one, we slide into an eddy on the river-right bank and clamor out of our boats. The bank is almost vertical here so we’ll have to climb up the slope, traverse along a miniature ridge and descend back to the shoreline below the fallen pine.

Once we reach the traverse line, Backman plants his boat on the steep hillside and keeps climbing.

His feet dig in, slide out and climb. He hurdles a log. Dodges a prickly bush. Gains traction and disappears over the ridge.

Ten minutes later, he reappears, hovering over the ridge with his arms shrugged.

“Come on!” he says.

I follow his footpath through the sparse vegetation and up the steep slope.

I reach the top and in a heave, catch my first glimpse of what has been sitting up there for 7,000 thousand years.

Rocks. Sharded cinders. Millions of them. Billions of them. As far as I can see. They’re everywhere, like geologic casualties from an ancient firey battle. To the north. To the south. To the east. They must go on for miles.

These are the Parkdale Lava Beds.

On a map, they look like Lake Michigan, only shaded pink, sometimes yellow, depending on the map.

To stand on them, however, transports you to the imagined landscape of a different world. A hostile place of twisted ankles and scraped faces. Mars maybe. Or some place on the Sci-Fi channel.

Geologists believe the lava bed is 7,000 years old and that they spewed out of a small fissure in the ground as molten lava.

It’s beautiful, in a sinister way.

I’ve never seen anything like it.

This landscape, these shards of volcanic basalt is the reason we’re here.

Outstandingly remarkable —

In 1990, Mount Hood National Forest directed an interdisciplinary team to study 123.2 miles on 12 rivers within the forest to determine if any sections of them were eligible for Wild and Scenic protection.

The team identified 104.6 miles of river that it believed possessed the “outstandingly remarkable values” necessary for protection.

“If the river or river segment was found not to be free-flowing, it was determined ‘not eligible’ and was not considered further,” the National Forest’s Eligibility Study says. “If a river or river segment was found to be free flowing, it was then evaluated to determine if it did have outstandingly remarkable values. If any one value was found to be outstandingly remarkable, the river or river segment was then declared to be ‘eligible.’”

The West Fork of the Hood, for example, was not among the eligible rivers because the team decided its scenic value was low, its recreational value was moderate, its geologic/hydrologic value was moderate and its fisheries value was only substantial.

It had no “outstandingly remarkable values.”

But, the research team concluded, the Middle Fork of the Hood River does.

And right now, Backman and I are standing on them.

That’s right. The Lava beds. The Eligibility Study determined two values of the Upper Middle Fork were “outstandingly remarkable:” its scenic and geologic/hydrologic traits.

With this label, 104.6 miles of river and a quarter-mile corridor became protected, until Congress could decide which to nominate for the ultimate honor.

After gazing at the Ponderosas sprouting out of this geologic battle site, we slip down the bank, find a flat patch of gravel at river level and shove ourselves back into the water.

End of wilderness —

The whitewater continues for another mile or two. But very quickly, the wilderness experience has eroded.

Off to the left, a loud buzzing sound, maybe a chainsaw or perhaps a small airplane, has invaded this natural landscape.

It pulls my eyes to the left bank, where loggers have thinned the forest’s periphery, like an open blind, partially exposing the clearcut that hides within.

The buzzing soon fades again into the restlessness of whitewater. The river turns to the south. Bumbles along. And then, just up ahead, the bridge appears.

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