A trek through destruction, and rebirth

Exactly a year ago Sunday, on Aug. 26, 2011, a lightning storm passing over Mount Hood ignited the Dollar Lake Fire.

An eerie but beautiful glow lit up the north side of the mountain for the first couple of nights; but at the end of the second full day the fire had exploded to more than 500 acres, a thick plume of dark smoke rose into the atmosphere and crews from across the west were being dispatched to what would become one of the highest-priority wildfires in the northwest.

The flames lasted through October, consuming about 7,000 acres of Mount Hood Wilderness as it traversed across the upper flanks of the mountain.

This installment of “Get Out” takes you into the other-worldly landscape left behind by the Dollar Lake Fire, in one of the most intensely burned zones a couple of miles from Laurance Lake.

From Laurance Lake Campground, Forest Service Road 2840 leads to Elk Cove and Pinnacle Ridge trailheads, the latter being a couple miles farther on the gravel road. Both trails provide access to the mountain’s relatively remote north side trails, meadows, coves, creeks and other hidden treasures. Sadly, both also pass through forest, valleys and ridgelines completely decimated by last year’s blaze.

From the base of the lesser-known Pinnacle Ridge trail, a dozer line gouges through the forest as a stark reminder of the steps crews took to stop the fire’s spread north toward Laurance Lake Campground. A few minutes into the hike and the former trail all but disappears; replaced by footsteps packed into ash, weaving through a forest of burnt matchsticks stuck into a dark chocolate cake.

Fire was so hot in this area that everything in the forest understory, including the soil itself, burned away; leaving behind a black mix of ash and earth underfoot. Overhead, trees torched from top to bottom and continued burning long enough to sear bark into a fried chicken consistency. The bark will continue to flake and peel away until nothing but bright red and white stubs of trees remain.

The path through the ashes is steep and slick in places and can be easy to lose if you don’t know the area well. An occasional florescent ribbon provides a rough guide to follow. If you can make it that far, Pinnacle Ridge Trail intersects with the Timberline Trail in about three miles. Elk Cove or Vista Ridge trails will be more traveled and better marked.

It’s truly breathtaking to walk in such recent remnants of one of nature’s most powerful and destructive forces; to sit quietly and imagine the sights, sounds and smells of trees exploding in flames as the inferno swept through the area.

Along with the obvious sense of destruction, heartening signs of renewal are also present. Hearty and deep-bulbed plants like beargrass and avalanche lilies are already rising out of the ashes. Bright green ferns and white mushrooms are pushing up from the dark black soil. Birds are roosting in the ghostly remnants of trees. Even the bark itself will serve a regenerative purpose on the forest floor.

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